Introduction for John Vaillant

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The highlight of the presentation ceremony is the introduction of the authors by distinguished individuals.

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Dr. Lynne Van Luven, acting Chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, editor and CBC cultural commentator introduced John Vaillant's book The Golden Spruce.

I'm here to introduce a man I met for the first time just a few minutes ago. And yet, fine writers are always preceded by their work, so somehow he didn't seem to be a stranger.

Despite its poise and power, The Golden Spruce is John Vaillant's first book. Before being seduced by spruce, he was known for articles in such magazines as The Atlantic, Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men's Journal. He first published an article on the golden spruce in 2002 - in The New Yorker. Who can forget the frisson of finding rugged arboreal passions amid the suave pages of the world's most cosmopolitan magazine?

John Vaillant is not the first New Yorker writer to prey to British Columbia's charms, and he probably won't be the last. Many of us will recall Edith Iglauer, who gave up Fifth Avenue for life on a fish boat, and wrote her wonderful classic, Fishing With John.

Anyone who read the original golden spruce article - including, obviously, those canny editors at Knopf - knew a darn fine story when they saw it. Certainly John Vaillant did, as he pursued the facts through shadowy forests and icy streams, through interviews with Haida elders and lumberjacks, through reams of books and research material.

And certainly all the literary juries hard at work in 2005 and 2006 did. The Golden Spruce has decorated its boughs with a number of prizes: the Roderick Haigh Brown Regional Prize, the 2006 Pearson Writers Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the 2005 Governor General's award for English Non-Fiction. Oh, and did I mention that it was also nominated for the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize?

But even before the judges made their decisions, readers already knew John Vaillant as a talented stylist. They were convinced by such lines as: "The atmosphere in an old-growth coastal rain forest borders on the amniotic: still and close, sound moves differently in here, and the air moves hardly at all." And when they read: John Meares may have had a vision, but he wasn't the first European to look at the New World and see a navy in the trees."

Readers knew they were also in the hands of a tireless reporter when they learned for the very first time that the Golden Spruce was suffering from Chlorosis, which is a tree's version of xoderma pigmentosum. And they knew they were in the hands of an author of principle when they read: "The fate of Haida Gwaii represents the fate of the Northwest Coast in microcosm."

One of the many strengths of The Golden Spruce is that within fewer than 300 pages, it evokes Haida mythology and wisdom, European explorers' history, geological and botanical facts, data about the logging industry - all spiced with the complexity of human behaviour.

He has written a book of creative non-fiction that stands as a vital cultural product set in a particular, beautiful yet ravaged place. John Vaillant did not invent the Queen Charlotte Islands or the Golden Spruce or Grant Hadwin. But he reanimated their existence for all of us - for urban couch rutabagas and for rugged outdoor folk alike.

Such books occur only when a writer fully inhabits a place - and when he works to understand where "THERE" is and what is vital about it. The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed is the product of such understanding.

When you are set the task of introducing a man you have never met, even his publicity photos fall under scrutiny. From them, I deduced that John Vaillant appears to have greenish blue eyes, the sort of eyes another writer might describe as "piercing," capable of "seeing straight through you." Appropriate kind of eyes for a writer to have, I'd say.
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