Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe

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by Charlotte Gill
     
 

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Winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction
• Nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the 2011 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Award.

During Charlotte Gill’s 20 years working as a tree planter she encountered hundreds of clear-cuts, each one a collision site between human civilization and the

Overview

Winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction
• Nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the 2011 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Award.

During Charlotte Gill’s 20 years working as a tree planter she encountered hundreds of clear-cuts, each one a collision site between human civilization and the natural world, a complicated landscape presenting geographic evidence of our appetites. Charged with sowing the new forest in these clear-cuts, tree planters are a tribe caught between the stumps and the virgin timber, between environmentalists and loggers.

In Eating Dirt, Gill offers up a slice of tree-planting life in all of its soggy, gritty exuberance while questioning the ability of conifer plantations to replace original forests, which evolved over millennia into intricate, complex ecosystems. Among other topics, she also touches on the boom-and-bust history of logging and the versatility of wood, from which we have devised countless creations as diverse as textiles and airplane parts. She also eloquently evokes the wonder of trees, our slowest-growing “renewable” resource and joyously celebrates the priceless value of forests and the ancient, ever-changing relationship between humans and trees.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Wherever men make it their business to cut down trees," Gill writes, "chances are you'll find people who make a job of putting them back." In this admirable and occasionally poetic account, the reforester recalls her years spent with "Johnny Appleseeds for hire." They are an itinerant group, they aren't unionized, and they have "no benefits, no holidays. When the work runs out we're laid off." She details their efforts in Canadian forests, planting in rough-and-rugged areas that had previously been clear-cut, and though Gill (author of the short story collection Ladykiller) admits the experience is grueling, she finds satisfaction in it. She likes the feel of the soil between her fingers, and she describes the "rituals and routines of planting" as being "as familiar to me as boiling water or brushing my teeth." Interestingly and refreshingly enough, Gill steers clear of politics for the most part. She makes little mention of environmental policy, for example, choosing instead to focus on the ordinary people whose actions speak volumes. The trees they plant each year "shimmy in the wind. There, we say. We did this with our hands. We didn't make millions, and we didn't cure AIDS. But at least a thousand new trees are breathing." For that, she can be proud-and it makes for a good story.
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From the Publisher

"Charlotte Gill cuts to the bone with words so taut and commanding they expose the toughness required to march through life in the forestry business."—ForeWord Magazine

"An arresting look into another world. …What sets “Eating Dirt” apart is the vividness of the writing. Gill’s prose puts the wasp in your shirt, the weariness in you at the cellular level, the grizzly too close for comfort."—Seattle Times

"[a] brilliant memoir …Gill’s stories are fascinating, but she is possessed of that rarest of attributes among memoirists: an understanding of her own story as only a part of a broader picture, a willingness to broaden the focus beyond the particulars of her personal experience. …This is a deeply researched, beautifully written book."
—Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions

"Never have I read such a beautiful book with such a dull premise: what it’s like to plant tree seedlings in the wake of logging companies’ destruction. ...Gill turns a subject that might seem narrow and confined into a lyrical essay about labor and rest, decay and growth" —Smithsonian Magazine

"Charlotte Gill gets my enthusiastic vote as the best nonfiction book of 2012. ...highly readable ...Gill’s narrative is by turns gripping, funny, informative but always tactile"
—John Sledge, Alabama Press Register

"The humility that lies in the title of Charlotte Gill's extraordinary Eating Dirt is more than borne out in this astonishing chronicle of work, the elements, and place. …Charlotte Gill writes with a dexterity and nobility that soars. This is the best book, on several fronts, that I've read in a long time."
-Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company

"The trees they plant each year “shimmy in the wind. There, we say. We did this with our hands. We didn’t make millions, and we didn’t cure AIDS. But at least a thousand new trees are breathing.” For that, she can be proud—and it makes for a good story."
Publishers Weekly

"An inspired narrative in a unique topic that is half memoir, half magic. ...A radiant piece of non-fiction by a talented writer, whose descriptions will make your back ache by the time you finish reading."
Sacramento Book Review, 5 stars

"In language as sharp as obsidian, as unsentimental as a clear-cut, Charlotte Gill tells the story of her tree-planting tribe, men and women who spend their lives atoning for the deeds of the rest of us who, to this day, continue to sacrifice the greatest temperate rainforest on earth on the altar of our prosperity."
—Wade Davis

"Charlotte Gill is everything you could want from a storyteller: honest and wise, leanly lyrical, tough and tender in equal measure. In this exquisite book about a gnarly occupation, we come to appreciate the resilience of nature and humans both."
—Philip Connors, author of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781553657934
Publisher:
Greystone Books
Publication date:
09/02/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
1,039,432
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt


We fall out of bed and into our rags, still crusted with the grime of yesterday. We’re earth-stained on the thighs, the shoulders, around the waists with muddy bands, like grunge rings on the sides of a bathtub. Permadirt, we call it. Disposable clothes, too dirty for the laundry.

We stand around in huddles of three and four with toothpaste at the corners of our mouths, sleep still encrusted in our eyes. We stuff our hands down into our pockets and shrug our shoulders up around our ears. We wear polypropylene and fleece and old pants that flap apart at the seams. We sport the grown-out remains of our last haircuts. A rampant facial shagginess, since mostly we are men.

The sun comes up with the strength of a dingy light bulb, illuminating the landscape in a flat gray wash. The clouds are bruised and swollen. We stand in a gravel lot, a clearing hacked from the forest. Heavy logging machinery sits dormant all around, skidders and yarders like hulking metallic crabs. The rain sets in as it always does, as soon as we venture outdoors. Our coats are glossy with it. The air hisses. Already we feel the drips down the backs of our necks, the dribbles down the thighs of our pants. We’re professional tree-planters. It’s February, and our wheels have barely begun to grind.

We crack dark, miserable jokes.

Oh, run me over. Go get the truck. I’ll just lie down here in this puddle.

If I run over your legs, then who will run over mine?

We shuffle from foot to foot, feeding on breakfast buns wrapped in aluminum foil. We drink coffee from old spaghetti sauce jars. We breathe steam. Around here you can hang a towel over a clothesline in November, and it will drip until April.

Adam and Brian are our sergeants. They embroil themselves in what they call “a meeting of the minds,” turning topographical maps this way and that, testing the hand-held radios to ascertain which ones have run out of juice. We wait for their plan of attack as if it is an actual attack, a kind of green guerrilla warfare. They wear matching utility vests made of red canvas. They stand exactly the same height, heads bent together. Their lips barely move when they talk. Their shoulders collect the rain. At the stroke of seven, we climb up into big Ford pickup trucks with mud-chewing tires and long radio antennae. We slide across the bench seats, shoving ourselves in together. Five diesel engines roar to life.

Adam sits at the wheel. He has an angular face, hair and skin turned tawny by the outdoor life, eyes the arresting color of mint mouthwash. He pulls out at the head of our small convoy. His pupils zip back and forth over the road’s unpaved surface. He drives like a man on a suicide mission. No one complains. Speed is the jet fuel that runs our business.

While he drives, Adam wraps his lips around the unwashed lid of a commuter mug. He slides aluminum clipboards in and out of his bag and calls out our kilometers on the truck-to-truck radio. Logging trucks barrel down these roads, laden with bounty like land-borne super-tankers. Adam slides his maps into various forms of plastic weatherproofing. Multitasking is his only speed--as it is for all of us--too fast, too much, and all at once. We’re piece-workers, here to make money, a lot of it, in a hurry. It can feel like picking quarters off a sidewalk, and it can feel like an emergency.

Logging routes are like human arteries, mainlines branching out into fine traceries. We pass from civilization to wilderness on a road with muddy ruts. Old snow decomposes along the shoulder. The land around here is jaggedly three-dimensional, fissured with gullies and brush-choked ravines. Mountains bulge from the seashore. We zoom through stands of tall Douglas-firs, conifers bearded with lichen. A green blaze, we’re driving so fast, skimming along the surface of our known world.

Most of us are veterans. Crusty, we call each other, like those Special Ops who crawl from war-ravaged mountains with wild hair, matted beards and battle-mad glints in their eyes. Sean and Pierre were doing this job, they sometimes remind us, when the rest of us were in diapers. Pierre is 55. He tells us he has a resting pulse rate lower than Lance Armstrong’s. He tells us a hundred things, every day, in great detail. He shows us the display screen of his digital camera. He shows us photos of ravens and skunk cabbage. Snapshots from his civilian life--his faraway kids, his foxy lady friends.

Jake, at 21, is the youngest. Jake calls Pierre “Old Man.” He calls himself “Elfie” in the third person.

Elfie’s not digging this action, he says. Elfie thinks this is fucked up.

Oakley and Jake are best pals. Jake is short and muscular, and he talks in rowdy shouts. Oakley is tall and sturdy. We always know where he’s working, because his lunchbox is a plastic tub that once contained a body-building supplement. Find the Mega Milk on the side of the road and know Oakley’s beavering away behind the rise. Oakley and Jake play Hacky Sack for hours every evening, and Pierre documents this, too, with his digicam.

We spend a lot of time in trucks, and it’s here we get to know one another. The bench seats are our sofas, the crew cabs our living rooms. Nick is red-headed, like Richie Cunningham. He doesn’t drink. He says he used to. Some call him “Risky,” like the business. Carmen knits. She’s a single mom. Her boys are at home with her parents. On commutes she clicks away with her needles at socks the size of kiwi fruits.

Sean has more seniority than anyone, and he has an inexhaustible supply of jokes to prove it.

How many tree-planters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

One. But you’ll find five bulbs in the socket.

What do you call a tree-planter without a girlfriend?

Homeless.

No one is offended. We’re unisex guys, the men of man-days. The work wears us down and lift us up, everyone together, equally. Sometimes we glance sideways at the old-timers with their chapped lips and their titanium hips. We think: Take me out before I end up old and battered and stooped like Quasimodo. But in truth we’re halfway there already. It feels to us as if we’ve been doing this job for a thousand years, and our bodies are rusted with it.

I nestle in among my work comrades as I have done for nearly 20 years. The rituals and routines of planting trees are as familiar to me as boiling water or brushing my teeth. But February always shocks me. Usually, I’m unfit after a lazy, indoor winter. So is K.T. He’s my boyfriend and also my co-worker. We’ve made a life of it--city dwellers in the winter, tree-planters come spring. Now, after one week on the job, even my eyelids feel sore. My palms and heels are blistered. I still yearn for the comforts of home.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"An arresting look into another world. …What sets “Eating Dirt” apart is the vividness of the writing. Gill’s prose puts the wasp in your shirt, the weariness in you at the cellular level, the grizzly too close for comfort."—Seattle Times

"[a] brilliant memoir …Gill’s stories are fascinating, but she is possessed of that rarest of attributes among memoirists: an understanding of her own story as only a part of a broader picture, a willingness to broaden the focus beyond the particulars of her personal experience. …This is a deeply researched, beautifully written book."
—Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions

"Never have I read such a beautiful book with such a dull premise: what it’s like to plant tree seedlings in the wake of logging companies’ destruction. ...Gill turns a subject that might seem narrow and confined into a lyrical essay about labor and rest, decay and growth" —Smithsonian Magazine

"Charlotte Gill gets my enthusiastic vote as the best nonfiction book of 2012. ...highly readable ...Gill’s narrative is by turns gripping, funny, informative but always tactile"
—John Sledge, Alabama Press Register

"The humility that lies in the title of Charlotte Gill's extraordinary Eating Dirt is more than borne out in this astonishing chronicle of work, the elements, and place. …Charlotte Gill writes with a dexterity and nobility that soars. This is the best book, on several fronts, that I've read in a long time."
-Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company

"The trees they plant each year “shimmy in the wind. There, we say. We did this with our hands. We didn’t make millions, and we didn’t cure AIDS. But at least a thousand new trees are breathing.” For that, she can be proud—and it makes for a good story."
Publishers Weekly

"An inspired narrative in a unique topic that is half memoir, half magic. ...A radiant piece of non-fiction by a talented writer, whose descriptions will make your back ache by the time you finish reading."
Sacramento Book Review, 5 stars

"In language as sharp as obsidian, as unsentimental as a clear-cut, Charlotte Gill tells the story of her tree-planting tribe, men and women who spend their lives atoning for the deeds of the rest of us who, to this day, continue to sacrifice the greatest temperate rainforest on earth on the altar of our prosperity."
—Wade Davis

"Charlotte Gill is everything you could want from a storyteller: honest and wise, leanly lyrical, tough and tender in equal measure. In this exquisite book about a gnarly occupation, we come to appreciate the resilience of nature and humans both."
—Philip Connors, author of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

Meet the Author

Charlotte Gill is the author of the story collection Ladykiller, a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Stories, and has been broadcast on CBC Radio. Her narrative non-fiction has been nominated for Western and National Magazine Awards. She spent nearly two decades working in the forests of Canada and has planted more than a million trees.

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Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Helps them both up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Darted back. She grabbed the fawn by the throat and pulled. It was the heaviest thing she had ever dragged, but she managed to drag it a few fox-lengths before resting. Then she grabbed its throat and started pulling some more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Sit down by the lakes edge. Make sure your shadow is off the water, as not ti scare any fish."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Packs his stuff to attacker res2