Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

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Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe currently resides on the Globe 100 Best Book of the Year in 2011, was on the short list for the Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize and the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. On top of that well-earned acclaim, Eating Dirt (Douglas & McIntyre) is the Vancouver Book Club‘s winter selection! We are very excited to be hosting a discussion of the book with Charlotte Gill on January 28, 2012 at Project Space. RSVP to this FREE event.

“There was something alluring, addictive even, about the job. I liked the feel of loam between my fingers, loved the look of a freshly planted tree bristling up from tamped soil. Planting trees was a whole, complete task. You could finish what you started in just a few seconds. You could sow a field in a day. It meant being outside, unprotected from the elements, but at least weather affected everyone equally. Best of all, in a cut block you could erase your old self. You could disappear almost completely.”

Eating Dirt follows a tribe of tree planters through a season of planting in British Columbia. It incorporates Gill’s 17 years as a tree planter, as well as a look at the BC wilderness and its complex relationship to the forestry industry. Like tree planting itself, her prose is ever present, concerned with the current minute, the current tree, ache or pang of hunger; at the same time, it is expansive, mimicking the movement of the mind that occurs when the body is wholly engaged with the repetitive task at hand. It is also thoroughly absorbing and educational, provocative and delightful.

Gill allows the reader to enter the mind of the planter – you may actually feel the calluses thickening with each turn of the page. Her use of the second person “you” and the collective “we” welcomes the reader into a story seemingly not as much read as told over cold beer, hot carbohydrates and sore, creaking joints. Beyond the day’s tally of seedlings planted, Gill considers the nature of the human as a planting animal, and an animal with a age-long dependence on trees. She touches on environmentalism, economics and the ambivalent position of the planter in the gears of the forestry industry.

Once finished, the reader will feel as if they’ve had a whirlwind tour of BC’s backwoods. Bears, cougars, cliffs and inlets populate the space between the countless varieties of potential timber. Gill takes us across hemispheres, cultures and time to understand the similarities that tree planters the world over share. But each area is unique, with British Columbia home to some of the largest trees and least accessible “cut blocks” – areas where trees have been harvested – in the trade.

In between descriptions of landscapes, weather, sore joints, flora and fauna are the characters. There’s Aimee, the “alpha female” roommate who instigates Gill’s “addiction” to the work, and whose endurance convinces Gill that she “could stand to have [her] back broken if this was the way a spine could grow back”. There’s K.T., the boyfriend with whom Gill shares her ups and downs, equally attributable to work and sugar. There’s Adam, the high-impact team leader who drives and plants like it’s a drag race. There’s Rosie, who works the job as heartily as anyone and still finds the energy to bring her rubber case full of frilly underthings, perhaps as some sort of nod to the world outside planting. Other planters come and go – when they cannot work another day, they disappear and the work goes on.

Regardless of tree planting experience, Eating Dirt enchants. The enchantment of the unknown is Gill’s explanation for why so many go – or fall – into the trade in the first place. That, and the romance of working with your hands, the romance of dirt. This romance falls away quickly, almost immediately. Why do planters continue? Among other things, Gill calls it an addiction.  I know that recommending Eating Dirt has quickly become my addiction.

Pick up a copy and join us with Charlotte Gill on January 28, 2012 at Project Space. RSVP to this FREE event.