- Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill. Greystone Books, Sept. 2011, 264 pages.
CHARLOTTE Gill wants you to taste the dirt.
Her 2011 book, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, is a lyrical journey through the backwaters, bush and clear cuts of one tree planting season.
"I just wanted to describe what it was like from the inside," says Gill, speaking by phone from her home in Powell River. "So people could feel what it was like to put on a pair of caulk boots and walk around in a clear cut or be rained on all day."
In May, Gill was awarded a B.C. Book Prize for her non-fiction account of one of the province's dirtiest and hardest jobs. It's a subject she knows well: for 20 years, Gill planted trees in every nook and cranny of B.C. She began writing the book in 2006 at the beginning of her second-to-last year on the job.
"I knew that it was going to be a really incredible year," says Gill. "I knew that we would have all kinds of really wacky adventures. We were living on a barge (that) had berths for 14 people and there were 20 of us living on it, and we were going out to these really amazing, remote places. Almost every day there was something unexpected happening."
In the book, trucks flip over, break down in the middle of nowhere and are driven at high speed over logging roads. A too-close encounter with a mama grizzly bear necessitates a helicopter rescue. Love is lost and found; there are motel-room parties and bar fights.
Interspersed with these moments of high drama are vivid descriptions of the work itself: the tools, the history and the physical toll of planting tree after tree after tree in rough terrain. In Gill's telling, the job is both awful and wonderful.
"I felt that what was so great about the experience and what was so awful about the experience was this sensory overload, all day every day," says Gill.
"It was impossible to be bored or to feel nothing. I feel like those things are cumulative. It's really hard to show someone a photo and say this is why I love my job."
Gill started out writing the book as a novel, but quickly realized the book would be better suited to literary non-fiction.
"I had all these great stories catalogued from years and years of doing the job," says Gill. "I thought well, if it makes a really great true story, why not tell that true story?"
Writing a non-fiction account also allowed her to explore the biology of forests and trees, and delve into the question of whether all those little trees she planted actually made a difference.
"I knew from the outset I would have to address reforestation," says Gill "Does it work?"
While quick to qualify that she isn't a forester or a scientist, Gill did do a "whole bunch" of forestry research while writing the book. She isn't shy about giving her opinion when asked whether she thinks there can be such as thing as sustainable forestry.
"No," she says. "It's not so much that trees are not a renewable resource, but it's the rate at which we consume wood. It just happens a lot faster than the trees are able to regrow."
Gill has been on the road giving slide-show talks ever since the book came out in October 2011. She's just returned from a trip through northern B.C., visiting "every town between Prince Rupert and Prince George."
"It was the perfect time for me to go through because (the tree planters) were just starting their season," says Gill. "A lot of them were 19 or 20, huddled underneath the bus shelter and waiting for someone to take them out to camp. It was just like a trip down memory lane."
Eating Dirt often reads like a love letter to the job, the camaraderie of the tree planting crew, the forests and the impenetrable wilderness of British Columbia. As she toured through small-town B.C., Gill encountered many others who shared her passion for the woods.
"It's really amazing and humbling and wonderful when I meet people who come out when I give a talk or a slide show," says Gill. "A lot of them have a really strong connection to the forest in some way."
While the book has received nominations for other prestigious awards, including the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, winning the B.C. Book Prize has been a big deal for this B.C. transplant.
"I wasn't born in British Columbia, I wasn't raised here, but from the very day I arrived in British Columbia I knew that I would die and be buried here," said Gill. "When you get that recognition in the place you call home, it's extra special."