Vaillant, John, The Golden Spruce. W.W. Norton. 250 pages + bibliography. 18 photographs. $24.95.

The photograph on the cover tells all. The Golden Spruce was exactly that; not a yellow, but a glowing gold. It was the only one known in the world, and the Haidas of the Queen Charlotte Islands cherished it so much they decided it had once been human and added it to their roster of venerated objects. It was around 300 years old, 165-feet tall, and perfectly healthy until a white man cut it down.

The logger, a man named Grant Hadwin, was expert at his job. He had worked in the woods for many years and was highly regarded. However, when he decided the huge corporations were despoiling the wilderness for nothing but profit, rather than initiate or join a conservation society, he destroyed the unique tree.

Trying to make sense of Hadwin and his obsession was an enormous job, as was explaining what led to his action.

Vaillant leads up to this with a thorough exploration of woods in the Pacific Northwest, the logging industry, the fur trade, policies of the Canadian government, the roughness of Hecate Strait, and the near-demise of the Haidas. He also goes into Haida beliefs, and the anger of the communities, both Indian and White, over Hadwin’s deed.

By the time we get to Hadwin and the spruce, we are prepared. The man still remains an enigma. He disappeared and his kayak and camp gear were found on a remote beach in the Queen Charlottes. Drowned, we say, but then he had done that in 1993 on Kruzof Island. His overturned kayak was found adrift and his gear on the beach. Three weeks later he was found in excellent health, camping twenty miles away and not especially glad to be discovered.

So at the end we are left with two questions. Did Hadwin die in the sea, and can any of the sprouts of the Golden Spruce replicate its ancestor. We might finally know in the case of the tree.

Vaillant is a fine writer. Give him a few years, and John McPhee will have company.

D. L.