The similarities between John Vaillant’s two books, the 2005 best-seller The Golden Spruce and his just-released The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Knopf Canada, $34.95), are obvious. Both fall into that loose category known as creative nonfiction but read, at times, like gripping mystery novels. Both are set in a dense northern forest: the first on Haida Gwaii’s Graham Island, the second in the temperate jungles of the Russian Far East’s Primorsky Krai, just across the border from China. And while one is the story of a man maddened by an almost pathological identification with the natural world, the other is about an animal driven to murderous extremes by human incursion into its ancestral terrain.
In the Vancouver-based Vaillant’s new volume, a rare Siberian tiger carefully tracks down and kills the poacher who’d earlier wounded him with a shotgun. This, in turn, attracts the attention of Russian game warden Yuri Trush, whose pathetically underfunded patrol has to eliminate the pain-crazed feline before the locals start an all-out war against tigers in general. As with The Golden Spruce, in which logger-turned environmentalist Grant Hadwin fells a freakish, iconic tree, the story incorporates a philosophical clash between settlers and indigenous residents. This, in turn, relates to a larger investigation of the industrialized world’s increasingly fractured relationship with the wild.
“A theme that runs through both of them is betrayal and greed, for sure,” says the author, reached by telephone in a Toronto hotel room. “And then there’s this notion of people or animals being forced into corners, either of their own making or of circumstance’s making, in which almost in order to get out of it, they destroy themselves in the process.
“I’m sure a psychologist could have a really interesting time with that if they wanted to,” he adds.
Vaillant goes on to explain that The Tiger’s theme leaped out at him in 2006, when he was at the Banff Mountain Film Festival to promote his earlier volume. Taking advantage of his guest pass, he wandered into a screening of British filmmaker Sasha Snow’s Conflict Tiger, about apex predators, poachers, game wardens, and the illegal traffic in endangered species in Russia’s wild, wild east.
He was, he reports, stunned.
“What came into my mind, completely spontaneously, was ”˜My God, this is The Golden Spruce with stripes.’ It grapples with a lot of the same issues; this kind of interface between the myth world, the natural world, and human forces—whether they’re political, in the case of the Soviets and the collapse of Communism, or industrial, as in the case of logging in British Columbia.
“But I think that’s where reality is: it’s a combination of all those different facets, all those different levels,” he continues. “The spiritual, the natural, the industrial, the social, the economic: all those things play in.”
Vaillant and Snow ended up swapping stories. The director is planning a documentary of The Golden Spruce, while the author spent two years, including a pair of month-long trips to Primorsky Krai, building a greatly expanded version of Snow’s film.
In the rush of creation, though, he overlooked another curious parallel between his two books. The Golden Spruce’s antihero adores the shining conifer with passionate intensity, but murders it with a chain saw. In The Tiger, conservationist Trush has to destroy one beautiful cat so that others might live. Both men kill the thing they love.
“Exactly,” says Vaillant, with genuine surprise. “Yeah! Here I’ve been living with these stories for seven years and haven’t put that together.”
Armchair psychologists might also be interested to know that, as of our interview, Vaillant is thinking of killing the thing he loves. He’s got at least one more book in him, he says: a novel, which he started while living in Oaxaca, Mexico, last winter. Beyond that, he wants to find a more concrete and less incremental way to work for a healthy environment.
“I’m feeling increasingly conflicted about writing, as opposed to acting, and I don’t know if I’m really satisfied with writing any more,” he admits. “Ultimately, it may be the most effective action I could do, personally, but it feels very safe and remote and almost self-indulgent—and I’m speaking solely for myself. I’m not commenting on writers; I’m commenting on the role that writing plays in my life.”
There’s always a need for journalism, as Vaillant himself notes. “If you don’t tell people something’s happening, they’re not going to know—and then nothing will change.” But it seems that he’s more likely to pursue the activist’s path, working to raise public awareness of what’s going on in the forests of Primorsky Krai while it’s still possible for conservation agencies to save its dwindling population of tigers.
“My hope is to get a segment of the population cognizant of the tiger”¦.and then try to guide that interest, energy, and empathy towards useful action in that region,” he says. “The trouble is that so many regions need it. But at least the problem of maintaining habitat and maintaining keystone species is more easily solved in Russia for less money than just about anywhere else. So if this segues into me becoming an activist, fundraiser, and spokesperson for the wildlife of the Russian Far East, I could live with that.”
Nonfiction’s loss would be the world’s gain—and we could live with that, too.