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

By Charlotte Gill

Review By Howard Stewart

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 234-235


Charlotte Gill, as many have already observed, has written an extraordinary book that will likely be the definitive tome about tree planting for some time to come. She has a gift for making the reader really feel what it’s like to be a bone-weary member of her tree planting tribe. Eating Dirt sometimes reminded me of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. I could feel the weather and the fatigue and the smell of unwashed colleagues. Gill elegantly evokes the endless succession of frenetic days spent digging little holes then stuffing seedlings into them, the constant struggle with steep terrain strewn with logging slash, the backbreaking work, the primal delight at getting an unexpected break thanks to exceptionally inclement weather. Like A Day in the Life, Gill’s book exudes a physicality that compels the reader to suffer and celebrate alongside the protagonist.

The Russian comparison quickly reaches diminishing returns of course — Gill’s story concerns robust young people voluntarily pursuing a mostly noble and at least sporadically remunerative line of work. They labour in a kaleidoscope of remote settings, on erstwhile and future forest sites. Her rich depictions of the tree planters’ world unfold over a planter’s season, mostly spring planting on the wet coast, then up to the northern interior for high summer. By the end of the book, the chronology gets a bit muddled and one almost suspects the anomalous interlude in the flat far north might have been a figment of Gill’s imagination. They are working full out, dawn to dusk, day after day into the longest days of the year — the planters have earned a good hallucination by now.

While painting a subtle masterpiece of the tree planters’ life and work, Gill also tells us about some of the contradictions of the industry they work for, of the ambivalent synergy that links the planters with the loggers, of a steady stream of worksites that are by turns exquisitely beautiful and appallingly disfigured by industrial logging. She touches on one of the big lies at the heart of British Columbia’s “sustained yield forestry” — the idea that one can keep building rough roads over steep slopes exposed to torrential winter rains, shear them of their trees with steadily increasing frequency, and expect the biological productivity to be “sustained” at more or less the same rate over time. One wonders: Have these forestry experts ever caught a glimpse of that hilly, rainy, once rich and fertile jewel of the French colonial crown, then known as St.-Domingue and today as Haiti? Gill points out that the effects of clear cut industrial forestry might not be that different from the natural burning of stands, if we — like the big fires — opted to clear them only every few centuries. But when we roughly remove the tree crop every eighty or sixty or forty years, there’s a great deal more collateral damage to the already thin layer of forest soil anchoring our forests.

Not all of Gill’s asides are as cogent or as satisfying. Sometimes there is a strange disconnect between, on the one hand, her rich, intensely grounded, and deeply felt descriptions of the tree planting places and people, and her generic and impressionistic overviews of things like the history of North American forestry. That side story becomes a curiously US-centric affair in Gill’s telling — perhaps American sources were the only sources she could easily lay her hands on. Surely the Canadian history of forest harvesting could have figured a little more prominently in her tale about tree planting in Canada. But these are minor quibbles. The various bits of pop history and science that Gill interjects throughout the book mostly work as intended. They provide a bit of texture and context to the tree planters’ tale, a tale that is very well told indeed.

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe
Charlotte Gill 
Vancouver: Greystone, 2011. 244 pp. $19.95 paper.