The figurative language of John Vaillant…

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about some superb figurative language from John Vaillant….

Although I had worked in the forest industry — as a professional writer and editor — for a number of years, I had never managed to read The Golden Spruce a non-fiction book by John Valiant (pictured above).

John Valliant is an American-Canadian writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticNational Geographic, and Outside. He is  known for his focus on environmental issues.

The book, which reads as easily as a murder msytery, tells the real-life story of a Sitka spruce tree with a rare genetic mutation that caused its needles to be golden rather than green. The tree, which was located in British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii, was considered sacred by the First Nations Haida people, but was felled in January 1997 by Grant Hadwin, as a protest against logging.

The book is dense and erudite, but also gripping because tree-faller Hadwin has disappeared and is still unknown to be either dead or alive. The book also contains some extraordinarily fine and precise figurative language. Here are my favourite examples.

  • Down below, the undergrowth is thick, and between this and the trees, it is hard to see very far; the sound of moving water is constant, and the ground is as soft and spongy as a sofa with shot springs.
  • Meanwhile, the islands’ saw-toothed west coast produces mussels the size of dress shoes.
  • Shaped like a teardrop and about the size of a grain of sand, the seed would have appeared identical to all the others that had been peppering the forest floor for millennia.
  • Somehow this massive object [a tree] — half steamroller, half battering ram, and slippery as an eel — has to be moved out of the forest, which may be growing on a mountainside with a 45-degree slope.
  • Gray had a camper van and in it the two travelled as far as the Salmon Glacier, an enormous ice-blue tongue that laps the headwaters of Portland Canal, a 150-kilometre-long fjord on the BC-Alaskan border.
  • Like a machine gun or an electric guitar, a chainsaw is a will that is impossible to ignore.
  • Under ideal conditions, chainsaws function like noisy butter knives: one can buck up a large tree using only the weight of the saw and the pressure of one’s trigger finger.
  • Then Hadwin shut down the saw, packed up his gear, and floated it back across the Yakoun, leaving behind an audible silence and a tree so unstable that it would have shivered with every breath.
  • Because of the manic-depressive weather and the fact that this part of the coast remains as dark and featureless as it was when Perez came through, mariners must navigate these waters the same way a mouse negotiates a kitchen patrolled by cats: by darting furtively from one hiding place to the next.
  • Boyle’s biggest tugboat has 1,200 horsepower and weighs 100 tons; Hadwin’s kayak, in comparison, might as well have been a Popsicle stick powered by a goldfish.

Great thanks to my friend, Greg, who gave me this book as a gift.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 14/18.

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