Travelling by camper van around New Zealand, a land where 70% of the endemic forests have disappeared over the last 180 years, there seemed no more suitable place to crack open Charlotte Gill’s riveting and disturbing account of 20 years as a tree-planter in the forests of Canada. Make that, a tree-planter where the forests used to be.
As a long-time tree hugger, I picked-up Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe armed with a starry-eyed notion that it would be a hymn to Canada’s vast woodlands. Not quite. It is a clear-eyed, even-handed exploration of the complicated relationship between the trees and us. Or as Gill so aptly puts it, “…as if people and forests were destined to exist in inverse proportion.”
In Eating Dirt, short-listed for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize in Literary Non-Fiction, Gill performs a fine balancing act, expertly making a case for both sides of the argument – the cutting down as well as the protection of forests. Literally working from the ground up, she takes the reader through the various stages of life as a tree-planter. She sums it up succinctly in these few words: “Bend. Plant. Stand up. Move along.”
The hardships, the uncertainty, the physical toll, the struggle against an inhospitable environment and inclement weather, these are all recounted without self-pity or boastfulness as she drags the reader along the rock-strewn path that she continually chose year after year.
Why would an award-winning writer – Gill’s short story collection Ladykiller was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for fiction and winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and BC Book Prize – choose such hard physical labour?
“There was something alluring, even addictive about the job,” Gill writes by way of explanation, “I liked the feel of loam between my fingers, loved the look of a freshly planted tree bristling up from a tamped soil. Planting trees was a whole complete task. You could finish what you started in just a few seconds. You could sow a field in a day.”
Not like writing at all – or is it? So many of Gill’s descriptions lend themselves to metaphor.
Canada, according to Global Forest Watch, is home to over a third of the world’s boreal forest and a tenth of total global forest cover, allowing us to maintain our lead as the world’s biggest timber exporter. We accomplish this through the logging of old-growth and primary forests, which account for 90 percent of the Canadian harvest.
And to ensure that logging industry will always have trees to cut down, there is silviculture, the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests. On the lowest rung of this industry is the tree-planter.
A fascinating storyteller, Eating Dirt is filled with luscious descriptions of the land and the characters that people the tree-planting tribe. There is something magical in how she brings natural elements – the soil in which she plants and the weather that must be endured – to life. Gill shares the vicissitudes of a life lived as a migrant worker, a single cog in the vast silviculture industry that has planted six billion trees in British Columbia alone. But what marks the enduring appeal of Eating Dirt is Gill’s ability to oscillate between the bone-numbing, back-breaking life of tree-planting and the bigger picture – the correlation between forests and nature and humans.
“…tree planting is a promissory note to the woods. Because we plant trees, logging companies can cut more today. And that is the irony of us.”
Gina Roitman continues to climb trees and will do so until she can’t.