A TRB Q+A with Charlotte Gill, author of Eating Dirt

Charlotte Gill started tree planting as a summer job during university. That first summer turned into a 17-season career that saw Gill plant over 1 million trees all over Canada. When not on the cut blocks, Gill started writing. Her debut short story collection Ladykiller was shortlisted for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Awards and won the Danuta Gleed Award and a B.C. Book Prize in 2006. For her latest book, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, Gill turned to nonfiction and was rewarded with a spot on the shortlist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize. The Toronto Review of Books caught up with Gill via e-mail to talk tree planting and writing nonfiction.

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

TRB: Tree planting is kind of a weird contradiction, because although tree planters are sowing new forests, they’re also working for the very logging companies that cut down the old ones. Is that tension something you talk about in the camps?

CG: Nearly everything about tree planting is fraught with irony. We’re paid to do our work by the logging industry. Industrial reforestation is designed to replace a wood supply, not necessarily a forest. Does planting trees work? I wanted to investigate that question in a neutral, open way. The answer that I found was quite complex. But if I could boil it down to one response I’d have to say: it depends. Are we making tree farms to produce more timber for humans? Or are we hoping to rebuild ecosystems in all their lush complexity? The latter is a much more complicated affair. It takes hundreds of years to build a forest, which is much more than just trees. It’s all the organisms who live on, between, and underneath the trees as well. We don’t really know what half these creatures are, what they look like, how they live their lives.

TRB: Until now, tree planting had always remained outside your writing – certainly none of the characters in Ladykiller were tree planters. What made you decide it was time to write about that part of your life?

CG: I always knew I wanted to write a book about tree planting. It was a big part of my life for so long. It took me some time to contemplate how I would do it. There is so much to write about the planting life — it felt full to bursting with adventures, sensations, and people. Eventually I chose to write about one year in the lives of tree planters. The book is also a natural history of sorts. Our work is intimately tied to the seasons of the forest. It seemed natural to intertwine those two stories.

TRB: Why did you choose to write this as a memoir? Did you ever consider setting your experience to fiction?

CG: I did begin writing a novel since fiction is my primary genre. But this didn’t seem to fit, so I left it behind. Novels seem to require superlative events. This story kept tugging me in a different direction. Planting trees is a collective job, a communal existence. I felt it was less important to capture my own individual adventures (though certainly I write about those) than to celebrate the everyday trials and tribulations of the clan. Creative nonfiction is great for this. It can highlight the beauty and drama of unsung human experiences.

TRB: You were a tree planter for 17 years. Why did you decide to give it up?

CG: I gave it up, reluctantly, three years ago. In my wholly unscientific experience, the human body is perfectly adapted to outdoor physical labour — we did it for thousands of years before modern convenience came along. I could have done it for another 10 years, maybe another 20, if knee injuries hadn’t retired me.

TRB: It seems like a lot of people are drawn back to tree planting after their first season, but I’m sure many people get out there and can’t handle it. What was your first season like? Do you remember what hooked you?

CG: I wrote a whole chapter about my first year because it was so full of comedy. I hadn’t done a stitch of hard physical labour in my life. My outdoor experience was limited to midsummer camping. And besides that, I’d gotten the impression that tree planting was like light hiking in gentle foothills. You can imagine my dismay upon arriving in a muddy bush camp in northern Ontario. It snowed on my first day at work. I wouldn’t say the job hooked me right away, or for pleasurable reasons. But I had some kind of intuition that, for all the discomfort, I would grow into the kind of person who could hack it.

TRB: Obviously, you’re accomplished at planting trees, but what other skills did your seasons on the cut blocks teach you? Besides giving you material, has it influenced your writing or the way you write?

CG: It taught me how to be miserable on the outside, and yet quite happy on the inside. The job, in many ways, is extreme. But for every ache and pain, every bug bite and bout of workday frustration, there is something equally pleasurable and beautiful. I learned that these two things are really flip sides of the same coin. I learned how to work for long hours without complaint at small, humble tasks. That is a perfect skill for a writer.

TRB: You write about the tribe of the tree planter in Eating Dirt. Did you feel protective of that “tribe” while you were writing?

CG: I was writing from inside the experience — from that point of view, tree planters seem like the last people on earth who require protection. That said, planters are sometimes underestimated. Manual labour implies a kind of second-class citizenship. And yet, in my experience, the job is so full of simple wonder and satisfaction. I wanted to explain, perhaps especially to our families, why it is so appealing. Why thousands of Canadians keep coming back year after year. It teaches us to be tough, to live with less. The task is also timeless and complete. It fills the senses. At the end of a day, we get to look out at a field of 2,000 seedlings and say, “I did that with my bare hands.”

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe is available from Greystone Books ($29.95) and was co-published with the David Suzuki Foundation