A Journalist's Archive

Eating Dirt
Charlotte Gills
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          “Bend. Plant. Stand up. Move on.” That’s the mantra of professional tree planters across North America. They gather together shortly after Valentine’s Day in what Charlotte Gills calls “tribes.” For the next eight months they will be engaged in one of the most labor intensive occupations on the continent. With two canvas bags stuffed full of seedlings slung over her shoulders, Gill trudged through numerous landscapes in the wilds of British Columbia, earning 25 cents for each tree planted.
          But you can’t place a dollar figure on the wealth of knowledge she acquired during her 20 year stint in the world of reforestation. “Eating Dirt” is a monumental achievement. Gill writes in blunt prose as she describes the physical hardships the tribe endures. Then, magically, her words captivate you as she shares her thoughts about wilderness areas most people only view through an airplane window or a National Geographic magazine. Both forms of writing leave little to be desired. You don’t just read this book, you experience it!
          In Canada, many tree planters are college students attempting to earn enough cash to make it through the next school year. After three months of excruciating labor, few return the following year, no doubt opting to flip hamburgers instead of being marooned in the outback without cell phone reception or internet service. Then there are others, such as Gill, who become so addicted to the task that each winter they find themselves “itching” for the weather to break so they can exchange the comforts of civilization for the beauty of their outdoor offices. They call themselves “lifers,” she said, and the bonds they form are often stronger than those they have with relatives who can’t understand the allure of the job.
          The planters move from site to site, living in old rundown hotels, cabins, tents, or on boats that take them to the most remote spots, where bears outnumber the human population. In the United States, the same job is performed by illegal immigrants, without any hue and cry from the populace, because no one else wants to do the back-breaking, knee- twisting, work.
          Fear not! This book is not a bunch of tree-hugging nonsense. Gill is extremely realistic. She gets it; mankind needs wood to survive, more than most of us realize. For example, wood fiber, cellulose, is not only used to make pizza boxes, it’s often an ingredient in the pizza too! Loggers harvest the wood, tree planters attempt to ensure forests for future generations.
          I used the word “attempt” because, as Gill points out, reforestation plans developed by bureaucrats are often hopelessly inadequate. There is only one rule. “For each tree logged, another one must be planted.” While she sees this as a good starting point, she points out a number of facts that appear to elude both Canadian and U.S. officials. The seedlings being planted may not be the same species as the trees that were logged. So survival rates are diminished when seedlings are planted in unsuitable climate and soil conditions.
          In a great balancing act, Gill alternates between the social interactions of her tribe, and some heavy duty science about soil and tree types. You get to know the people intimately, and she breaks the science down into simplistic bites. I found her take on what we call clear-cut parcels of land extremely interesting. Beneath piles of dead logs, tangled thorn bushes, and boot-clinging mud, is a world of living organisms. She writes, “Some people think a clear-cut is dead and ugly, but I don’t. To me it is heavy with history and ruination and decay, the way a crumbled Doric column tells of extinct civilizations.” Then she explains the interdependency between the biomass living in the soil and the forest.
          While the planters spend their off hours together, working hours are spent alone. Workers are dropped off at an assigned spot, where they will plant from dawn till dusk. Occasionally, a supervisor stops by to warn them about cougars or bears that may be lurking in their area. The years she spent alone with nature gave Gill endless hours to contemplate, and thankfully she put some of those thoughts in writing for all of us to consider.
           Step inside her boots, read her thoughts, study and view varying landscapes through her perspective. Sadly, she realizes, seedlings cannot provide the oxygen, sequester the carbon, or give off the moisture of the giants they replaced. But some of the two million trees she planted over the years are already doing that and more will do so in the future.
          Read “Eating Dirt” from the comfort of your living room. It is educational, entertaining, and mesmerizingly beautiful. Then this spring, go out and plant some trees. Just don’t forget the mantra. “Bend. Plant. Stand up. Move on.”

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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