Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

June 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s a subject that comes around again and again: writing about planting, growing, harvesting, about withdrawing from the distractions of plugged-in consumer society, about living full lives whose rhythms are dictated by seasons and weather and hours of daylight. But Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill—a book in this fine tradition and recent fashion–is vastly superior to most of its peers, which, although interesting in content and entertainingly breezy in style, rely heavily on philosophical musings of a fairly unoriginal nature or lean on flimsy anecdotes of humorous incompetence.

The only treeplanters I’ve met were students, mostly, along with a few teenagers who’d graduated high school but wanted a handful of easy cash and some time to kick loose before signing up to the nine to five. I say “easy” cash because even minimum wage seems easy, almost miraculous, for a few brief moments when you’re that age and working your first job. It’s hard to believe that in return for a few hours of your time—and what were you going to do with that time anyway, except mooch around and find ways to fritter away money?—someone will give you a few notes and a pile of coins. Fifty dollars! And all I had to do was stand up for ten hours at the drive-through window/dress up in a clown suit and wear a sandwich board from six am to six pm/plant five thousand trees in a day.

But the tree planters in Gill’s book are not the footloose summer jobbers rocking up for a month or six weeks to make some quick money between other plans, other ambitions. These people are the tribe, the planters who spend February to October of every year chasing the right weather conditions for planting and doing stints in ever more primitive conditions around BC. Gill knows these people; she chops them down for us and rolls them over to explain what the pattern of rings inside means—usually, that tree planting has turned the person slightly insane, rendered them no longer capable of fully entering the “real” world, even when this comes at great personal cost (being away from partners and children in particular).

Eating Dirt is quite possibly the best non-fiction book on any subject I’ve read for years. It’s a personal account—although Gill is pretty stingy with the gossipy details, particularly for a readership used to reality TV and confessional journalism—of a writer’s nearly twenty years of tree planting, told as one season that presumably stands in for many. She doesn’t fall for the easy personal development narrative, nor does she belabour the exhilaration of exhausting physical work in a community of like-minded souls. There are riffs on the history and politics of tree planting, the development and life cycles of forests, the history and biology of the trees themselves. Every page contains information to educate and astound; every chapter inspires a curiously addictive blend of longing and revulsion that presumably is what keeps the planters themselves going back year after year to abuse their bodies, torment their minds and be eaten alive by insects.

Of course, the sap bringing the vital force to every branch of this book is Gill’s writing. Every sentence is graceful, elegant, managing to seem, like an old human-planted forest, perfectly natural, while bearing tiny traces–invisible to those who don’t know where to look—of the work that went into their creation. Gill is wry, suffering from no greenwashed delusions about her work, and yet finding the lyrical beauty in both it and the enforced community it creates. Eating Dirt is a book about us—as individuals and as a species—as much as it is about treeplanters and trees. We are the treeplanters and the loggers, the trees and the dirt. This book made me yearn to pack a rucksack and jump on a Greyhound heading west even as it made me middle-agedly glad for mosquito screens, soft mattresses and sedentary employment.


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