This interview was conducted over the phone on Wednesday October 19th, 2016, shortly after Vancouver author John Vaillant (“The Golden Spruce”) and German author Peter Wohlleben (“The Hidden Life of Trees”) presented at the 2016 Vancouver Writers Festival.
John, thanks for taking the time to talk. I have a list of ten questions; the first half are about forests and our relationship to the natural world and the second half are more personal. If any question is too general or too personal, let me know and we’ll move on to the next.
Q: In your eyes, is the decline of old growth forests a widely understood issue?
A: No. Excessive clear-cut logging of old growth forests is under-publicized and the public is largely unaware of problems associated with it.
Q: Do you believe we can be re-awakened to the importance of our relationship to forests through their beauty or do there have to be more extreme measures in order for us to realize the consequences of deforestation?
A: I do not recommend extremist actions in this case because I don’t see them as effective. I do think the best way for us to be reminded of our connection to forests is through direct exposure, by experiencing a forest first hand and turning it into a personal investment.
Q: How bad does the situation need to get before the general public recognizes a need for change?
A: Hopefully not much worse. We are at a point now where the consequences of our choices will continue even after we make significant changes to the way we live. We have set something in motion that is beyond our ability to control, we have created a momentum of destruction, turning the world into a sort of battery that will continue to circulate excess heat long after we stop raising the temperature.
Q: How do we begin to harmonize with nature again?
A: Books like Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” are crucial contributions to public knowledge. His book re-affirms the link between humans and the systems that support them. Companies like the one that employs you run by business leaders who are conscious of environmental problems and enthusiastic about finding solutions to them are also key.
When we look at the lives of indigenous persons we see them live and die according to their ability to coexist with nature—modern society attempts to insulate us from that.
This sort of monster was released in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the rapid advance of sciences and technologies which attempted to control nature—something that is beyond our ability. I personally advocate for a “humbling”, a recognition of what is and is not within our control.
We have moved past the point where individual effort is a significant enough contribution. You can drive an electric car, consume environmentally friendly foods and have the most energy efficient house, but in comparison to the rate at which we as a species are degrading our environment the personal effort just isn’t enough. I would say that there is a need for a more unified approach. Also, an opportunity for great change lies in a transition to renewable energy.
Q: When did you start planning “The Golden Spruce”? Did you begin with a clear mental image of the finished product or did the idea develop as you worked on it?
A: I first heard about the golden spruce on a kayak trip around the southern end of Haida Gwaii in 2000. Someone told me the story of the tree, which had been cut down for 3 years by then, and it interested me. I started asking questions like “who would want to cut down a tree like that?” and “why?” and each question led to more questions. I collected my findings and composed an article which was published in the New Yorker in 2001, then expanded my findings into a book.
Q: Do you have any background working in the natural resources industry?
A: I was raised in New England, I’m comfortable running a chainsaw, but I was only awakened to the harsh reality of clear cutting when I moved to BC.
Q: Do you have any opinions on the upcoming U.S. election?
A: I think the chickens are coming home to roost for the Republicans. The party sowed their own destruction from the ‘60s into the ‘80s when they began targeting marginal white America. Treating the entire U.S. population as if they fit into this narrow category is unrealistic; similar to climate change, there were warning signs which the party chose to ignore. The resulting unrest has escalated into ugly conflicts across the country and the Republicans’ extremist policies have taken the form of Donald Trump. Things are coming to a head in the western political and ecological spheres and I hope there will be some soul searching done by natural resource executives and political leaders alike.