Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life With the Tree-planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bought new at Chapters.
Read in July/August 2013.
I learned about Eating Dirt via Emily St. John Mandel’s review at The Millions (which, btw, is hands-down my favorite literary site / online magazine that is not TC). I was hooked by the opening paragraph: “My father was a treeplanter. It isn’t a job that very many of my fellow New Yorkers seem to have heard of—” Wait. There are people who haven’t heard of treeplanters?! Oh, but of course there are. Undoubtedly the same people who think “every” fledgling writer grew up with the ambition to be published in The Paris Review or The New Yorker. Meanwhile, many of the fledgling writers who grew up knowing all about treeplanters had never even heard of The Paris Review or The New Yorker. Perspective!
I never treeplanted, but it would be a lie to say I didn’t consider it. I certainly did. it was a good-paying job! But I’d spent plenty o’ time in the forest and I was terrified of the boredom that I knew awaited me. It practically drove me mad just thinking about it. (To be honest, just reading this revives that anxious feeling, even though I know I don’t feel the same way now about repetitive tasks without distractions (that’s writing-in-my-head time!). In fact, now I’d probably deal just fine with the monotony; I am the person who runs without music, after all. Back then, an iPod may have made all the difference. Too bad they didn’t exist when I was in university.)
Anyway, it’s a bit weird reading a book where you can picture everything so clearly. The landscape, the little towns, the shabby motels, all the forestry stuff. I always think it’s funny when someone says they’re from a “small town” (population 50k). Haha! 50k, small. Good one!
Aside: I’ve started wondering how many people have actually spent much time outside of cities. Like, even amongst people who have moved/traveled a lot, the impression I get is that it’s mostly jumping from one big city to another big city. Which… would give you a really different impression of the world than seeing the spaces in between.
Eating Dirt starts out in early spring (February) on northern Vancouver Island, in places like Holberg and Port McNeill, where the planters stay in cheap motels and rental houses. Scenes of the crew are interspersed with passages about forests and forestry.
Another aside: the area of Vancouver Island is 31,285 km2 / 12,079.2 sq mi. The area of Oahu is 1,545 km2 / 596.7 sq mi. That’s less than 5% of the size of VI. It’s so… little! Is it really as covered in freeways as Hollywood would have me believe? Where are they going?!
After early spring on Vancouver Island, the crew moves to the Sunshine Coast (which is the mainland, but inaccessible by land) to Jervis Inlet and Seymour Inlet where they stay at a logging camp and on a boat. This is middle-of-nowhere. There are bears. Naturally. Gill writes about cedar—natural history, early history.
She dips into summer planting in the interior and up north (Mr. PG!) and back to the coast in fall, but then returns to spring on the coast, her frame for the book. The foray into summer planting ties back to how her career as a treeplanter began—with the university students arriving for the summer.
She writes in plural first person. There are occasional “I” references, but it’s mostly “we.” It’s composed as if she’s describing a single season, one year, but likely it’s a compilation of all the years she spent planting. This is her goodbye to that part of her life.
From the descriptions I’d read, I expected more of a memoir. I’m not sure I’d describe this as a memoir. It is based on her personal experience and she’s writing from that perspective, but it’s not about her. It’s personal in a “this is important to me” kind of way, but it’s not personal as in “here are all the tmi details of my life” kind of way. Her partner is also a planter but we learn no more about him than any of the other characters. It’s about treeplanters (“we”) and treeplanting, not about Charlotte-the-Treeplanter. And also, as mentioned above, the crew parts of the book are only about half of the text. The other half is natural history, biology, ecology: all about trees and forests, which makes sense seeing as it was published by the David Suzuki Foundation.
I am realizing that I really like narrative—fiction and non—with nerdy biology stuff in it.
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