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

eating dirtDoubly recommended by the authors of Fire Season and Dirt Work, this one moved to the top of the list.

Eating Dirt is the memoir of a tree planter. Charlotte Gill works seasonally planting trees in the Canadian west. She is employed by a company of tree planters, who contract in turn with big business – mostly logging – to replant sections of clear-cut land, usually. The daily job is to travel out to the plot in question (via beat-up truck, or boat, or by foot), load up one’s bags – a belted & suspendered piece involving two side saddle-bags and one at the rear, at hip height – with seedlings, stomp around on varying surfaces, and use a shovel and one’s hands to repeatedly insert seedlings in soil (clay, gravel, duff). It involves much bending, and the loss of fingernails. They encounter cougars, bears, muck, dirt, rain, bugs, rocks, and unspeakably sore muscles.

Gill has quite a bit in common with Christine Byl of Dirt Work: the dirty, male-dominated outdoor environment, the satisfaction of a job well done in a world populated by trees, twigs, green and brown and wild things. Not to overemphasize these two books’ similarities – because each is unique and lovely on its own and neither is derivative – but they both caused the same combined reaction in me, of yearning jealousy and thankfulness that I don’t do that for a living. What can I say. I love to be outside and wish I spent more days and nights there, but I also fret enough over my bad knees with my office job, and I like taking a shower and feeling clean after being dirty. In fact, the question at the front of my mind as I’ve finished this book is: what did clean mean in those years that make up the majority of human history, in which we didn’t have seemingly endless showers at our command?

Dirtiness aside, Gill writes with humor and wisdom and the kind of occasionally zoomed-out perspective that I like in a nature-based memoir. A little research into the history of earth, trees, and people – and the relationships between them – brings her perspective, that of just one person, into focus within a larger picture. And as a bonus, she’s based in the same general region that my parents recently moved to. We have all been learning about the Pacific Northwest – including the trees of the area – and this book offered some welcome insights to that end.

One of the more surprising subjects of Eating Dirt, for me, was the ambiguous or controversial nature of the work. I read “tree-planting tribe” and expected that it would be all green-ness and good; but as I said in my opening synopsis, Gill’s employers are most often logging companies, banking on the profitability of trees, not their inherent worth as trees themselves.

And we got paid… by the very same business that cut the trees down, which canceled the altruism right out of the equation.

Any good they provide, then, is already offset by those who paid for their planting. It’s not as simple as it seems at first glance, and Gill wastes no time in making that point.

Her voice is gritty, and her perspective not so much unapologetic in general as clear-eyed about its dual nature. She’s funny and clearly likeable – like Byl, someone I’d like to know, although I’d be intimidated by both women’s toughness. I enjoyed what I learned about the world from Gill, but also very much value what she’s encouraged me to think about.

Nature has done its big job. Like a ball thrown up in the air, all has risen, crested, and begun its arc back down into earth. After many years spent outside we come to see this – the parabola – as the contour of life itself. It’s the path the sun takes across the sky. The shape of a story. Ours included. Beginning, middle, and end.

Right up there with some of my favorites of the past few years. Recommended.

Rating: 7 red tree voles.

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