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Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe

by Charlotte Gill

Start with a winter in the mountains of temperate Vancouver Island, then add a troop of tree planters, about to begin their annual cycle once more. Then add Charlotte Gill. After 20 years on the circuit, and having planted her millionth tree, the author is well qualified to give us the inside scoop on the tree-planting subculture. Anyone familiar with her sharp collection of short fiction, Ladykiller, will expect this book to deliver much more than just a taste of dirt. It does.

Logging is a divisive topic, with environmentalists squaring off against industrial logging companies intent on clear-cutting our natural forests for profit. Gill, however, labours largely above the fray in this book. She busies herself with her shovel while inspecting the insects that prowl the land and wondering about the time it took for the soil to form. She swats mosquitoes and keeps a lookout for bears while pondering the cycle of life in the woods.

Gill combines details about her fellow “tribe members” with her own observations of the land and the job they’re tasked with, and blends descriptions of tree planters’ daily routines with anecdotes about unusual creatures and situations they encounter during their travails. In the hands of this wordsmith, the mundane becomes magical. A February morning dawns with a “sky like boiled newspaper,” and elsewhere a “sunrise chews at the sky’s murk.”

I especially savoured the nuggets of natural history tucked into some chapters. Complicated ecological processes are made engagingly lucid, and the author has a knack for telling comparisons (in discussing photosynthesis, for example, she compares a plant’s leaves to solar panels). The 10 pithy chapters also deliver interesting factual tidbits, like how, in 1987, B.C. supplied the world with enough logs to fill two million logging trucks. Or that the world record for planting trees is held by a Saskatchewan planter who pounded in 15,170 red pine seedlings in a single day.

With Eating Dirt, Gill has produced a winner. Not all of the million seedlings she planted during her two decades in the wild will have thrived, but this book will.