Eating Dirt: On Charlotte Gill and the Life of the Treeplanter

September 6, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 2 4 min read

My father was a treeplanter. It isn’t a job that very many of my fellow New Yorkers seem to have heard of, but where I grew up, on the west coast of British Columbia, it was a common enough profession. My friends’ fathers did it too.

Vast tracts of forest in British Columbia are Crown land, meaning that they’re owned by the government. Crown land is leased to logging companies, and the percentage of land that they’re allowed to log is determined, in part, by how much replanting they’re willing to do. Logging companies subcontract this task out to treeplanting outfits, and every year in the early spring, crews and boxes of seedlings are sent out to some of the wildest corners of the province. These are the most long-range of crops: the trees they plant will be ready for harvest in 80 or 100 years.

Occasionally it’s possible for families to come along. Treeplanting families tend to generate strange baby pictures: babies in high chairs by the sides of logging roads, toddlers playing on massive off-road truck tires in camps. I remember a happy month in the interior of British Columbia when I was very small, living in a campground by a lake while my dad planted trees somewhere not too far away. I remember a harrowing drive through torrential rain up to the tiny northern Vancouver Island town of Port Alice, a birthday dinner in an unfurnished condo where a dozen treeplanters were camping out, birthday cake on the giant wooden rope spool that served as a table, the wonderful box of colored pencils that was my birthday gift. Another treeplanter hanging out quietly in the living room, giving us space to celebrate my nine-year-oldness in the kitchen. We brought him some cake.

But far more often my father and my friends’ fathers would disappear into remote places for weeks at a time, unreachable. We’d mope in their absence. They’d come back with stories from places like Port Alice, Holberg, Zeballos — these tiny, isolated places, far from anywhere — and spectacularly beautiful landscapes. Treeplanters go into the places where no one lives. They work sometimes in places so remote that the only way in is by air or by sea; my father described looking down from a float plane once and seeing the barge carrying his camping trailer moving slowly between the islands far below. There are wild animals. A friend of his took a photograph of a beautiful forest scene and didn’t realize until he got the film developed that a cougar had been lying on a high branch, watching him.

When we got older, a few of my friends treeplanted too. It’s hard labor, but hard labor holds its own appeal, and it wasn’t an unfamiliar profession; our fathers or occasionally our mothers had done it. We had the baby pictures from alongside the logging roads. It was a way of working outdoors in the wilderness that didn’t involve cutting down trees.

coverBut replanting rows of seedlings on a blasted tract of recently-logged land does not, of course, constitute the creation of a forest. In her brilliant memoir, Eating Dirt, Charlotte Gill doesn’t shy away from the half-truths of the profession:

We slide waxed boxes [of seedlings] 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.

Planting trees, in this context, comes with a certain ambivalence. The more trees are planted, the more logging companies can remove. Groves that resembled cathedrals are replaced by saplings planted in rows.

Industrial-scale logging in British Columbia involves a practice known as clearcutting, which, for the uninitiated, is exactly what it sounds like. Almost every single tree within a given area is felled. When I was a child, the sight of recent clearcuts always made me want to cry. The wanton destruction, a tangle of trees lying like pick-up sticks in the ruined landscape.

As time passes, clearcuts gain an unexpected beauty. In the first year, fireweed springs up, these bright flowers that always follow forest disasters, and then later huckleberry bushes, grasses, eventually delicate saplings. At some stage in this long transformation, either in the immediate aftermath or a year or two later, the treeplanters arrive. They are brought in by truck, by boat, by helicopter. They carry bags of saplings and pointed shovels. They bend and plant, bend and plant, bend and plant, for eight hours or longer at a time. They stay until the job’s done.

Gill started treeplanting because her roommate was doing it, and continued for the next 20 years. She lived with the treeplanting crew in motels in rough towns on the north end of Vancouver Island, in camps at the edges of massive clearcuts, in boats. Gill’s stories are fascinating, but she is possessed of that rarest of attributes among memoirists: an understanding of her own story as only a part of a broader picture, a willingness to broaden the focus beyond the particulars of her personal experience.

Eating Dirt excels as a memoir of Gill’s time as a treeplanter: the cameraderie and occasional danger and peculiarities of the work, the near-brushes with grizzly bears, what it’s like to live in the bush with one or two dozen men and no more than one or two other women at a time. But more than that, the book is a meditation on work, on forests, on the feeling of living at the edge of society, on the history of trees and of life on earth, the history of humanity’s dependence on wood from prehistory to the age of the Roman empire — entire forests sacrificed for warships — to the massive clearcuts that dot the province of British Columbia today. This is a deeply researched, beautifully written book.

The Toronto Star described this book as “a memoir of an awful job,” but if Gill thought the job were awful, presumably she wouldn’t have done it for 20 years. Gill presents treeplanting as a job with awful moments, but all jobs have awful moments, and this job holds its own strange allure: “We gave the trees some small purchase in the world,” she writes, “and they gave us the same in return.”

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.