I have the best job in the world, and Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt made me want to drop everything, ditch NYC, and head out into the wilderness to plant trees — and I’m hardly the only selection committee reader who felt that way. Eating Dirt is more than a memoir about Gill’s 20-year stint planting trees in Canada; it’s also an exploration of the natural world, and our place in it, written with incredible verve and exuberance.
Charlotte discusses planting trees, writing about natural history, and wanting to be transported by fiction, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.
You were a professional tree planter for nearly 20 years. You grew up in New York State, thousands of miles from the wilderness you describe in Eating Dirt. How did you get involved in the business?
I moved to Canada to go to college. Tree planting was a very common summer job for undergraduates, but I had never heard of it before. My roommate was a tree planter. She would return from summers spent deep in the woods looking fit, bug-bitten and suntanned. She told me stories about her coworkers—they sounded to me like crazy woodland gypsies. She showed me photos of clearcuts that went on in all directions as far as the eye could see. To me, this strange occupation looked both totally fascinating and deeply intimidating. But I knew I just had to try it myself. Certainly there’d been nothing in my upbringing that had prepared me for hard physical labor. If I had known what I was getting into, I would never have gone in the first place.
Planting trees is hard physical labor. You say that it’s one of the dirtiest jobs left in the modern world. Why would anyone want to make a career of such a thing?
Planting trees is a sweaty, filthy job. It’s done by hand and on foot, often through very rough, steep terrain. There are heavy loads of seedlings to carry. There is bad weather and heat exhaustion. There are biting insects and sore backs, and all the other repetitive strain injuries that come with doing something a few thousand times a day. Most tree planters are in some kind of discomfort all the time. On the upside, tree planters go places most people would never get to see in the course of their entire lives. Some of these are stunning, wild geographies. We commute to work in boats and helicopters. We cross paths with exotic wildlife. And we make incredible friendships—a kind of soldier love. Writing the book, I wanted to explore what that attraction was all about. What makes anyone take on an adventure like this, even though they know they’ll get dirty, they’ll weep, they’ll wish they’d never said yes? Maybe we suspect we’ll get to the bottom of ourselves and discover some hidden well of courage and fortitude—often enough that’s exactly what happens.
There is also a love story inside the book. Can you say a little bit about that?
There is a character in the book named K.T. He was my boyfriend at the time. We shared our planting experience for several years, and the narrative follows our time together in the woods. I never intended to cover our relationship when I began Eating Dirt. I think it’s incredibly difficult to do justice to a workplace romance, especially when it’s going reasonably well. But as I wrote I discovered that our work and our companionship were intertwined. Together, we’d experienced exhaustion, stress, hunger, competition and danger. These are reasonably normal things to face on the job, but they’re also deeply revealing moments when you’re in a relationship. They distil one’s character traits. After planting trees, I knew he’d make a patient, caring, hardworking husband, which he is even now. We still talk about our old job. It’s a topic of fond nostalgia at our house.
You describe the biology and the planetary evolution of trees and forests in a way that’s easy to understand. Do you enjoy writing about natural history?
I’ve always loved reading natural history, and I find it a wonderful challenge to capture science in a way that’s engaging and easy to read. My research began with burning questions. Is planting trees a cure for climate change? Can it do all the things we hope it might ecologically, aesthetically and economically? I discovered that the answers were more nuanced and variable than I’d expected. Does planting trees work? It depends on what we want it to do. Do we want to renew a timber supply? Or are we attempting to recreate forest ecosystems in all their layered complexity? The answers lie embedded in the history of trees on this planet, which in itself is quite an elegant story.
You’ve planted over a million seedlings in your career. Have you ever revisited some of these places?
We don’t often go back. Ours is a forward-moving business, as is the logging industry. We plant the trees and move along to the next place. On the few occasions when I’ve gone back to see the trees that I’ve planted I’ve been astounded by their resilience as a species. It’s as if survival is part of their in-built design. You can plant a tree in a cupful of dry dirt sandwiched between two rocks and that tree will try to grow. That’s a forest’s only job—to build. The trees that I planted when I was a teenager are over twenty years old now. They’d be the size of exceptionally large Christmas trees. And they’ve still got a lot of growing to do.
Who have you discovered lately?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is just the kind of non-fiction I love—a book that begins with a deceptively tiny idea but explores themes as big as immortality. HeLa cells: they’re in practically every biology lab in the world. Their original donor, Henrietta Lacks, is brought back to life in vivid detail—her clothes, her children, even the color of her toenail polish.
In my other life I’m a fiction writer, and lately I’ve been indulging my abiding love of novels. Ever since reading Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief I’ve been taken with the geography of Florida swamps. I’ve never visited any of these places, but the heat and the humidity, the lush vegetation—well, it’s the perfect place to set a novel, which is why I knew I’d read Karen Russell’s Swamplandia. I’ve also got Heidi Julavits, The Vanishers on my bookshelf. Who wouldn’t want to read a story set in a school for psychics? When I read fiction, I love to be whisked off to other worlds where different laws of physics apply. I want to be transported.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.