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

Hardcover | September 2, 2011

byCharlotte Gill

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Winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction, and short-listed for both the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the 2011 Hilary Weston Writer''s Trust Award.

A tree planter''s vivid story of a unique subculture and the magical life of the forest.

Charlotte Gill spent twenty years working as a tree planter in the forests of Canada. During her million-tree career, she encountered hundreds of clearcuts, 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 clearcuts, 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 that evolved over millennia into complex ecosystems. She looks at logging''s environmental impact and its boom-and-bust history, and touches on the versatility of wood, from which we have devised countless creations as diverse as textiles and airplane parts.

Eating Dirt also eloquently evokes the wonder of trees, which grow from tiny seeds into one of the world''s largest organisms, our slowest-growing ""renewable"" resource. Most of all, the book joyously celebrates the priceless value of forests and the ancient, ever-changing relationship between humans and trees. Also available in hardcover.

Published in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation.

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Winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction, and short-listed for both the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the 2011 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Award.A tree planter's vivid story of a unique subculture and the magical life of the forest.Charlotte Gill spent twenty years working as a tree planter in the forests of Canada. During her million-tree career, she encountered hundre...

Charlotte Gill is the author of the story collection Ladykiller, a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award and winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and the B.C. Book Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in many Canadian magazines, 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 ...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:264 pages, 8.5 × 5.5 × 1 inPublished:September 2, 2011Publisher:Greystone Books Ltd.Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1553659775

ISBN - 13:9781553659778

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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. The ease of the easy chair, the depths of my own downy bed. Soon enough these cravings will evaporate. In eight hours I'll be too tired to care. To say planting trees is my day job is not quite right, because to do such work is to give one's whole life, albeit temporarily. There's no room for taking notes. So it goes with manual labor--both hands are entirely spoken for. When Adam hurtles us around the bends we slide into one another. On the floor, we bump our toes against a heavy-duty jack, coffee mugs with broken handles, a soggy wool sock, an empty sandwich bag smeared with mayonnaise. Our steam clouds the windshield. The blower can't keep up. Someone farts silently, and the smell creeps out among us. We veer down branches and forks. Fat drops tap the windshield, shed from the arms of the trees. We crash through puddles that look like chocolate milk. Nowhere beyond the village is there a single paved road. No signage, no radar enforcements, nothing to tell us to slow down for the children. There are no bed-and-breakfasts. No cell phone reception. Where are we going at such heedless velocity? We couldn't point to a map with any certainty and name the road, the creek, the bridge. Most of the time we have no idea where the hell we are. Vancouver Island, a 300-mile stretch of land hovering off the British Columbia coast. Locals call it merely "The Island," as if it is self-evident, as if everyone should already know its name. Its southernmost portion dips below the 49th parallel like a toe into American waters. Less than a million people live here, most of them clustered on the south end, which is pretty as a postcard--sunny, mild, and bustling with tourists. Shopping malls, hanging flower baskets, hippies in Birkenstocks and crocheted toques, alternative healing centers and covert marijuana farms. Marinas bristle with yacht masts Halfway up the island, the climate folds in on itself. The temperature drops, the clouds sock in, even at the height of summer. The North End, Up-Island. The kind of raw geography Hollywood seeks out for movies about warriors in furred robes who wield maces and battleaxes. Cold, pewter-toned lakes. Cedar trees with dead spires like sharpened joists rising from forest. Bald eagles fill the air by the dozens, circling on thermal currents. Vancouver Island lies in the middle of a region known, in theory anyway, as Cascadia. It's an area defined not by national borders but by a shared climate and a history of geographic isolation. Cascadia is a strip of westward-tilting land sandwiched between the sea to the west and the coastal ranges to the east. It begins at the 40th parallel at Cape Mendocino in California. It encompasses Oregon and Washington states, as well as portions of Montana and Idaho. It runs north along the coast of British Columbia all the way to the Gulf of Alaska. In popular imagination, this is the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, defined by ocean, mountains, and rain. Weather systems skid toward the coast in spiraling pinwheels, dredging moisture along the way. They make landfall, dumping up to 13 feet of rain a year. If you were born in the desert or raised in the heat, the monsoons are a form of water torture. The chill works its way under sweaters and scarves. It whistles under the doors. Winter here is a monotonous gloaming of cloud and puddles, a soul-craving for the sun. Mist-loving plants creep in around the edges. Rooftops, lawns, even cars grow moss. The air smells of mushrooms and compost. Rain seeps into every pore. Snow is seldom persistent. Fires rarely burn. The soil is unctuous, like brown shortening. The conditions are perfect for temperate plant life, and for several species of decadent tree. In the forests there is nowhere to look without a plant in the way, without ferns and moss and branchy lattices. Chlorophyll proliferates with a patient aggression. The canopy blots out the sky. Sometimes the only sound, besides the dripping, is the silent roar of matter breaking down and melting back into the soil. Amid the huge trunks and sunless rot, it's easy to believe that the forests are winning. Perhaps it's no surprise that the population of Cascadia is relatively light. It takes all three of the region's major urban centers--Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland--to make a population rivaling that of New York City. Until the mid-nineteenth century, this corner of the continent wasn't part of any territory or confederation. It had no laws or government. Cascadia was little more than an unexplored possibility, a mercantile interest shared between Britain, Russia, and the United States. No infrastructure existed except for the services provided by missionaries and the Hudson's Bay Company. The United States had been a free country for 65 years by the time the Oregon Territory had any official status. British Columbia joined Canada more than three hundred years after Jacques Cartier stuck a cross on the shores of the Gaspé Peninsula. European explorers once sailed the long way around to get here, an 11,000 mile voyage around Cape Horn. The trip was so long and stormy and bereft of provisioned harbors that many ships turned back, their crews plagued by scurvy, their rigging battered and in need of extensive repairs. The only other route to the west coast involved an overland journey through what are now eight provinces and ten states--by wagon, horse, canoe, and on foot. So arduous was this trip that a century passed before newcomers trickled west from Atlantic to Pacific. The same unremarkable journey one can make today in an airbus without even pausing to eat on the way. The Pacific Northwest was once the edge of the known world, shielded to the east by snowy ranges. By non-navigable rivers that plunged from dizzying heights into canyons and seething gorges. To the west lay unfathomable sheets of ocean. To get here, you had to be obsessed, greedy, insane, or perhaps a touch of all three--sentiments, you might say, that still linger in the air today. For most of its colonial history, Cascadia was a wet, woodsy hinterland. But behind the geographic challenges lay a gold mine in waiting, a superabundance of natural resources. The Pacific coast has a mild climate and, once upon a time, a teeming fishery. In pre-Columbian times, land and sea fed more people, in terms of population density, than anywhere else in North America. Since then, Cascadia has supplied the world with bulk ingredients. Furs, fish, metals, and not least of all, lumber. Euro-American emigrants didn't begin to arrive in any serious numbers until the 19th century. They came via the Oregon Trail, a grueling 2,000 mile trek from the Missouri River to Oregon City, now a town on the outskirts of Portland. The journey involved a months-long expedition by covered wagon along a wild, rutted, and frequently muddy track. In some spots, the route was so precariously steep, wagons had to be hauled up, tugged through, or lowered down with ropes. When wheeled conveyance--containing belongings and food rations--bogged down or broke apart it was left by the roadside to weather and disintegrate. For many, it was a one-way trip. The mountain grades were so intense they proved impossible to scale in the opposite direction. Departure did not guarantee arrival. Travelers faced snow storms, floods, wild animals and disease. Accidents and death due to primitive, trail-side medical care. They endured starvation and even cannibalism. And yet they came in droves, despite the risks. They'd succumbed to the allure of prosperity, a fresh start on the emerald coast. Perhaps nothing captures these uplifted aspirations more than the trees themselves, which grow so prodigiously it defies the imagination. Some of the tallest trees in the world can still be found here. The mighty redwoods of California. The cedars and Douglas-firs of British Columbia. The Sitka spruce, the state tree of Alaska. Some trees are as old as the Magna Carta. They look dead on their feet, rotten-hearted. Their growth rings tell of countless droughts and deluges. The coastal region supports more biomass per square foot than any of the planet's jungles. There is simply more living matter, breathing, dying and metamorphosing here than anywhere else. But these are fragmented glades, the remnants of a forest that once spanned, virtually uninterrupted, through 20 degrees of latitude, nearly half the length of the North American continent. Most of the original forests of California, Oregon, and Washington are now gone. The big tracts that remain grow north of the 50th parallel--the world's last great temperate rainforest by the sea. Our trucks climb the nameless mountains the way airplanes ascend, nosing up at the sky. We switch up and back along steep cobbled surfaces, flattened shards of white rock blasted from the mountain with road-builders' dynamite. We climb into the belly of a cloud. The light brightens, the view widens. Before long, we find ourselves in the middle of a clearing. It feels like relief, this release from the canopy's darkened tent. Big trees surround us at the edge of the clearing, what's left of an old, gnarled forest. Storm-battered firs with flattened bonsai crowns. Gnarled cedars with bleached wood tusks protrude from lofty, lime-green foliage. Trees with mileage, like big old whales with harpoons stuck in their flanks. Handkerchiefs of mist drift among them. We tumble out of our trucks like clothes from a dryer. Fog clings to the warp and weft of our tatters, the fine hairs on our cheekbones. Cigarettes are lit before feet hit the ground. Our smoke drifts up in a communal cloud. Most of us smoke. Brad has a way of making it look delicious, of holding a cigarette high in the crook of his fingers and putting his whole hand to his face. Those who don't wish they could, just for the portable comfort. We gear up for the daily battle, grope around in our vinyl backpacks for wetsuit shirts and watertight containers. Gear hijacked from other sports--shin pads, knee braces made of hinged aluminum and Neoprene. We slide our feet down into tall leather boots with spiked soles. Loggers' boots, made for walking on bark and slick logs, made to bite down and stick. We lace ourselves tight. We slip our hands into heavy-duty gloves. We tug it all out in preparation for battle. We're proud, and yet ashamed. There is something bovine about our crew. Brian threads his way around between us. He has a wavy thatch of side-parted hair, freckles, and a devious grin. Brian is a rapid-fire talker. He barks out a bunch of words so compressed and contracted they sound like a foreign language. We let ourselves be herded this way and that. At the same time we hate to be told what to do. We slide waxed boxes from the backs of the trucks and fling them down at the road. Handle With Care, the boxes read. Forests for the Future. Nothing about this phrase is a lie, but neither is it wholly true. We chortle darkly, rubbing our palms together. There is nowhere to hide from the cold. No inside to duck into for warmth. A buzz develops all at once and out of nothing at all, the way bees begin to vibrate when they're about to flee a hive. Box upon box lined up on the side of the road, each one filled with 240 trees. Ready for us, by the hundreds and thousands, lined up together like bullets. A box of seedlings is ripped open. A paper bag torn. Bundles of plastic-wrapped seedlings jumble out. The stems are as long as a forearm, the roots grown in Styrofoam tubules to fit in the palms of our hands. We like this idea since it lends a kind of clout--trees grown to our ergonomic specifications. Tree-planters: little trees plus human beings, two nouns that don't seem to want to come apart. Boot spikes crunch around in the gravel. A runaway seedling rolls down the road. We jostle around one another, hungry for the day that awaits us. We throw down our tree-planting bags and kneel next to them and cram them with trees. We do it with practiced slapdash, as cashiers drop groceries into white plastic bags. We bump shoulders, quick-fingered and competitive, like grannies at a bargain bin. As if there weren't enough, thousands and thousands, to go around. Before long we abandon the scene, an explosion of litter, brown paper and Saran wrap snaking around on the road. We stomp out in every direction, right and left, up and down the mountain. We lean into the next minute and the next like runners in blocks. We don't know how to work without pitting ourselves against one another, without turning it into an amazing race. Otherwise piecework is grindingly relentless, tiny objects passing negligibly through human hands. An inaudible gun goes off over our heads and the day begins. Somewhere behind the clouds the sun is our pace clock in the sky. We came as one, and now the space between us stretches like the filaments of a web. Adam doles out my workspace, a hectare of clearcut hillside. As he points out the boundaries of my daily turf I watch our breath puff out in clouds. And then he launches into his fervent, head-down walk, leaving me to the twists of the day. At the lip of the road I peer out at the land. My tree-planting bags ride heavy on my thighs. Human saddlebags, one pouch in the back and one on each side. Every day, they turn gravity up a few notches. In my dreams they have sentient, subservient lives, like the magic broomsticks in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. They fill themselves up, I whistle them to life, and they trot out to do the job on their own. Until someone invents a tree-planting robot, a plane that shoots seedlings from the sky, it's just me and my speed spade--a gardening trowel with a long plastic neck and a D-handle, a stainless steel blade shaved down with a grinder to resemble a big spoon. It feels in my hand the way spears must to Masai tribesmen, not just a tool but an emblem, an extension of the hand and limb. I'm not too bad at planting trees, if only because of the practice. I have climbed the flanks of a hundred mountains and hoisted my limbs over countless logs and stumps. I've stuck a million seedlings in the ground. I've met quite a few people who've doubled and even tripled this number. Or so they claim, anyway. I don't mind reading bush maps or flying around in helicopters or driving big pickup trucks. I hardly ever get cold in the rain. But despite all of these things, I am not a natural tree-planter. I have the hands of a typist. Being filthy and clammy makes me hate myself. And most of all, I'd rather plant a pretty tree than a fast one. Which is one thing a tree-planter should never do if she intends to earn a living. My mornings are hours of reluctance and loathing. I size up the clouds and decide if it will rain or not, and if am wearing the right kind of clothes. I swallow one last cookie. I blow warm air into my fists and scope out the job that looms before me. I eye it up the way rock climbers stand at the bottom of cliff faces pondering spatial puzzles of slope and texture and rock. How many people are doing just this right now, somewhere in the world? Planning and plotting and procrastinating chores many times their size? A hundred boxes of file folders. A great wall of dirty dishes. A graduate thesis. A long row of toilets to attack with just a scrub brush and a can of cleanser. The body recoils. It feels wrong in my cells. My neck hair stands up on end. Planting trees isn't hard. As any veteran will tell you, it isn't the act of sowing itself, but the ambient complications. It comes with snow pellets. Or clouds of biting insects so thick and furious it is possible to end a day with your eyelids swollen shut and blood trickling from your ears. There are swaying fields of venomous plants like devil's club and stinging nettle. There are sunburns and hornets. There are swamps rimmed with algal sludge to fall into up to the armpits. There are leeches and ticks, bears and cougars. There are infections and chafe and boils and trench foot. It's possible to be so cold one feels dreamily warm, and so hot you fall into shivers. Over time the work has the bodily effect of a car crash in extreme slow motion. Sometimes our bosses make off to Mexico with all the money. Besides that, the task itself is thankless and boring, which is to say it is plain and silent. It is also one of the dirtiest jobs left in the modern world. What could compel a person to make a career of such a thing? I have always wanted to find out.

Table of Contents

The Last Place on Earth A Kind of Tribe Green Fluorescent Protein Beautiful Losers A Furious Way of Being The Town That Logging Made At the End of the Reach Extremophiles Sunset Exit Lines