Grant Hadwin, celebrated logging engineer and all-around outdoorsman, shocked Canada when he single-handedly felled Kiidk’yaas, a towering spruce with a rare genetic mutation that caused its needles to glow gold. Hadwin’s protest against the logging industry sparked mourning throughout the Haida nation in British Columbia, who cherished the tree as a son.
Hadwin’s journey from logging extraordinaire to environmental extremist is the subject of Hadwin’s Judgment, a new documentary from director Sasha Snow (Conflict Tiger) and John Vaillant, author of The Golden Spruce. Framing Hadwin as a whistleblower for an industry that eradicates rare rainforests at stunning speed, the film attempts to elucidate how a privileged insider became the ultimate outsider; isolating himself from community, nation and society before eventually disappearing en route to trial almost 20 years ago.
We talked with Sasha and John about the legend of Grant Hadwin, the conflation of ecoterrorism and mental illness and how the average person can strengthen their connection with the natural world.
How did you both arrive at this project?
John: I made the connection through Sasha’s Conflict Tiger in Banff in 2006. I was doing a presentation on The Golden Spruce there. I had an opportunity to see the film, Sasha wasn’t there. There were Russians and tigers involved, so it sounded interesting. I recognized the sensibility that Sasha brought to that film, it felt so familiar. It was clear to me that this is was The Golden Spruce with stripes. I was blown away by the film. I mailed him a copy of The Golden Spruce, almost just as a way to justify myself. To say, “I’m a real writer, I have experience!”
Sasha: I never set out to be a filmmaker who studied the conflict between man and nature, it just happened to be that two stories came along that capture that conflict. Conflict Tiger came about because I had a Russian grandmother, and was interested in the region. I read a story about one of the biggest black markets in the world. When it was shut down by the police, it would just spring up somewhere else. Another film studio was already making that film. I thought, how can I possibly abandon this idea? Someone stopped me on the street, working for WWF. They said, “Do you know the work we’re doing with Siberian tigers?” And I thought, that’s the hook. So I used the idea of the Siberian tiger to illustrate what it’s been like in these small villages since communism collapsed. I started researching tigers and I came across the story of a man-eating tiger. Later on, I had finished the film and figured I was never going to get a story as good as that. One day, the phone rang and it was John.
In the film, you manage to make chopping down trees seem and sound like murder. It’s immediate, urgent and visceral.
Sasha: We had the advantage of technology on our side. If I had made this film in 2004, when we made Conflict Tiger, it would’ve been much harder. Cameras have come such a long way and have become so much smaller. There are many more options for point of views you want to create. I was interested in how machinery was designed to disconnect the operator from the environment, how they are often driven by people who are listening to loud music. It’s like they’re not there, they’re in a virtual world; almost like they’re in a cage, totally isolated. I wanted to see the world from the point of view of those machines.
This is in contrast to the era before mechanized logging, when people had to maintain close physical contact with their environment.
Sasha: Absolutely. Their lives depended on it. They had to understand how the trees worked; if they didn’t, they were going to get killed. In the film, a man talks about hearing the trees screaming. I think that a lot of loggers in the days of hand-falling were genuinely connected with the trees, and that’s what produced internal conflict for a lot of them. They were face to face with it, participating in the act of killing.
In the film, that detachment from the act of destruction via technology is almost like drone warfare.
John: Exactly. Or like a slaughterhouse: you get this numbing feeling that comes with repetition. You just shut down after a while. You see enough cow carcasses go by and you can’t take it in psychically anymore. That’s what it’s like driving those feller bunchers, clearing hectares in a day, as opposed to taking several days to do one of those big trees. That’s the real price; the psychic price of distancing. So many of our interactions with nature are through a screen; these amazing YouTube videos of animal life. They’re incredible, but it’s filtered and protected and nothing like actually being out there. It’s more expensive to be, psychically and emotionally. It asks more of you, it asks more of you physically. It’s like exercise, you have to make the effort. But if you give humans the choice of not having to make the effort, most of us won’t make it. And that’s a kind of insidious weakness.
The film speaks to the idea of myth-making, both around nature and around human beings. The film opens with an indigenous myth about the Golden Spruce, which gives structure and context for the conflict ahead. But it also frames Grant Hadwin as a mythic figure, someone who evaporates into legend by the end of the film. There is an insistent lack of biographical details or even a photo of him, at least until the final frame.
Sasha: The most fun thing about filmmaking is figuring out how you turn the story’s biggest weakness into its greatest strength. Suddenly what was perceived as a problem — Grant’s not available — becomes the thing that brings the film to life. I wanted to create a space for the audience to bring their own baggage around these issues. Everyone has a strong sense of these conflicts already. As consumers, we understand the costs. So I wanted to create a space where I gave them just enough to hang on to, to get a sense of who he was, but have that space be intangible enough to allow the viewer in. I wanted them to do the construction, not just who he was but what the Golden Spruce was.
Did you find it difficult not to alienate audiences that are inevitably implicated in this crime — meaning anyone that participates in modern capitalist society?
Sasha: Grant’s story unfolds as a narrative of his life. Grant’s world of logging and Haida Gwaii are very separate, and you feel they will come together, even if you don’t quite know how. That sense of unfolding of his life, someone who is very unique in their skills and passions, is what gets you hooked. It’s a human story. What happens to him? It’s only through finding out what happens do you even get the opportunity to ask yourself those bigger philosophical questions.
John: I believe Hadwin’s role is as an avatar for and a casualty of our collective dilemma. We see him paying the ultimate price for our appetites, he’s chewed up in that conundrum. By not giving those sharp biographical edges, he can play an avatar or mythical role. In the book, I talk about his family and where he grew up and schools he went to. So I think for people who want to get into that nitty-gritty about Hadwin can look to the book. But his usefulness, his most efficient value, comes through in the film. Sasha cuts to to the chase, giving us enough detail that allows us to the see the progression of motive, but not so much that we get encumbered by his biographical details. It’s a more distilled and essential rendering.
Sasha: I’m also not just hoping that the audience will identify with their part in the destruction. I also want them to identify with Grant’s resistance. I want them to recognize that maybe there’s a little bit of Grant in someone you know, or maybe in yourself. That desire to resist. It’s not just about blame, but also feeling the power or will or responsibility that he had.
John: Finding our own outrage and brand of opposition.
Sasha: And finding our own voice for it, whatever that means to you. Grant found an unfortunate means of expression, but we’ve got so many options. Ways of communicating and ways of consuming differently and ways of regaining contact with nature.
Grant’s story begins with him as a logger. He has an epiphany of sorts, and then works against the system that he helped strengthen.
Sasha: He’s a whistleblower.
John: He paid his dues enough to criticize the system. He was different than someone like me, someone from the east coast coming out to B.C. and joining Greenpeace and ragging on a bunch of loggers. Hadwin came up from the inside.
Sasha: He risked his whole livelihood.
John: And his social censure. He paid heavily for it. In the course of both of our research, we’ve identified other figures who came up from the inside and have paid enormous social costs to speak out about unsustainable logging practices. The notion of being a Judas in your own community is so costly: very few people have the moral spine to stand up to it. They’re all amazing people, as Hadwin was, except Hadwin had that extra twist of mental illness that sent him off the edge.
Hadwin’s physical strength seems pushed up against his psychological delicacy in this film. To what extent was this contrast deliberate?
Sasha: Personally, I felt that his physical self and his vision are quite closely aligned. It was his physical self that allows him to actualize his vision, it convinced him that he was indestructible and that one person can do something meaningful. For most of us, it’s a ridiculous concept, to complete such an enormous task alone.
John: Because so much of what he set out to do, he could just simply do it. I mean, he could build a house with his own hands. He could freeze himself in a river that would kill anyone else, and come back out of it alive. In a way, that could give you a distorted view of the world. It can distort the boundary between your interpretation of the situation and how desperately you want others to see it the exact same way. But it just isn’t like that. There’s much more diplomacy required, there is much more nuance.
Hadwin’s detractors, and those who oppose activists like him, lean heavily on his mental instability to discount his resistance.
Sasha: We’ve come across this idea many times. When you’re trying to tell a story within 90 minutes, you have to distill who you think a person is. You have to create a space for the audience to conjure him up in their own minds, but also I wanted to understand who he was for me, so I could build an initial skeleton for him. I had to decide who I wanted him to be, drawing from my imagination as well. That meant getting rid of the white noise, some of the circumstantial stuff around his mental illness. It’s implied in the film, there is reference to it. In terms of people dismissing his ideas because of his mental illness, I’d want to have that conversation with someone who has watched the film and read the book. I don’t see how you could dismiss it after that. Both the book and the film attempt to put him in his shoes to make you understand the sanity of what he believed. Even though his method was questionable and didn’t serve his cause and inflicted a lot of pain on a lot of people, his core idea was quite sensible. It made the rest of us look like the insane ones.
John: The passivity with which we accept the wholesale destruction of entire landscapes. Why are we so passive? It’s kind of terrifying.
Sasha: And that we can write someone off as insane for complaining about it.
John: It almost feels like something from biblical times. Crucify this visionary and we’ll go listen to what Caesar says. I think that’s what our current administration would prefer. But honestly, we haven’t encountered that many detractors. I’ve had many people coming up to me and empathizing with Grant. I’m sure there are many detractors, but they don’t generally talk to me about it. I think most detractors would be people who find the subject too challenging or too upsetting to look at honestly. They’re looking for an out. The issue is volatile enough for them to use some way to distance themselves from it. You see this in conservative politics all the time. Finding a small detail to force you away from the bigger picture, one that will impact you and your children’s future. It’s difficult to face that squarely and honestly, it’s just going to bring you more pain. But it’s the only way you grow.
Sasha: I think in every human being, we have the potential to empathize with the outsider. We’ve all been the outsider. From that basic starting point, anyone can identify with Grant. You can imagine how would you have acted if you had been in his shoes.
John: And even if they don’t identify on that empathic level, he’s such a specimen and he’s so charismatic and the landscape that he’s operating in is also so charismatic, that even on the spectacle level you can’t help but be impressed by it. A lot of people have gone and traveled to Haida Gwaii after reading the book. When you travel to a country, you develop a relationship to it. Documentary filmmaking can invest us in that way. Those incidental, oblique awakenings are so powerful. You never know how they’ll continue to resonate.
Sasha: That’s one of the great powers of documentary. People can walk off the street and find themselves identifying with people they feel they have nothing in common with. Suddenly, they find themselves in that person’s shoes. That helps to bond us, to realize that shared human and that shared dependence on our world.
Grant’s writings contained a lot of general diatribes about the wrongdoings of human beings in relation to nature. While they were poetic and stirring, they can be incredibly alienating. Did he recommend any concrete steps that the average person can take to reduce their negative impact on the natural world?
John: The locavore movement, raised consciousness around where our food comes from, the environmental costs of getting that food to us and alternatives to sourcing food, these ideas were all front and centre for Hadwin. That’s what he was focussing on when he talked about returning to small agrarian communities. He also believed that they should be run by women. And think about where this guy is coming from: he’s a man’s man, dominant and egocentric and opinionated, growing up in West Vancouver in the 60s. There was no feminism there, and there certainly wasn’t feminism in the forest. But he saw the decisions that men were making and the way men thought about landscapes. He saw the way they thought about commerce. He felt it was disconnected and destructive. He understood that we need something more intimate, holistic, connected and collectively empathic. It was so radical for his time. There is nothing in his outward demeanor that would give you that impression. In the midst of all the static and weird stuff that’s in his manifesto, he talked about abolishing governments and money and returning to the land and women’s leadership. He felt men had had 5000 years to run the show, and this is what has happened. He felt there was a change in leadership required.
Sasha: I think he stressed the necessity of differentiating between need and want. To start thinking about the things we do and buy. There is also the idea of understanding that what is good for us as individuals is also good for the planet. It’s not just, “Oh, I should do this, it’s green and good for the earth.” As if it’s some remote entity. It’s the task of realizing that going for a walk, taking your son fishing and enriching your connection to the natural world is, ultimately, incredibly good for you.
By Elizabeth Haq