Eating Dirt: A tree-planting tale

Planting trees: A profession, an identity, a lifestyle and a responsibility

| March 1, 2012
Eating Dirt

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

by Charlotte Gill
(Greystone Books,

Tree planting is so much more than just a profession. It is an identity, a lifestyle and a responsibility. A select few people are built for tree planting life, which requires the physical and mental stamina to endure the elements, work long hours of monotonous labour, face insects and wildlife of all sizes and numbers, leave home for long periods of time and live with the bare necessities. Perceived as a bad dream to many, it is the unique and coveted life of tree planters, of which author Charlotte Gill is one.

Eating Dirt is the veteran tree planter's homage to not only planting life, but to the larger context in which deforestation and reforestation take place. It is also a journey through her planting career as it comes near to its bitter-sweet end.

Gill begins her book with the gritty reality of tree planting life -- dirty, exhausting, rugged, yet rewarding -- with a deep underlying affection. She then slips in and out of the interesting historical human and physical geographies of the areas that she has planted in. This foregrounding dimension to her writing adds depth to the scenes of her experiences, allowing readers a truly profound understanding of her reality.

tree slash pile

It is also evident in her writing how much she reveres the intricate natural world and its processes:

In our outdoor office there is no denying the merciless absurdities of the natural world. Plants grow, and small critters graze them, and other, bigger animals snap these victims in their jaws. It's a feudal arrangement, nature's energy chain, fraught with struggle and sacrifice. After the providers come the consumers, the emptiers, the raiders of seeds and roots and fruit. The stealers of honey, the grazers of the seas. And finally, the apex carnivores, the murderers, bloody in fang and claw. Topped by Homo sapiens, the only predator on the planet that straightens its teeth with brackets, wire and glue.

Passages like this also reveal her complex understanding of the symbiosis that occurs between humans, other animals and plants. It is a truly contradictory relationship, especially in terms of tree planting.

Gill also delineates the dynamics between her fellow planters, a crew of unlikely individuals who gel because companionship is limited and their surroundings are humbling. Living among trees and planting trees for months on end create space for a tree planting lexicon -- only understood by other planters.

Last tree

For instance, terms like permadirt -- grime from the earth that accumulates on planters' skin and never really seems to go away until the end of the season; cream -- land being planted with few obstacles such as stumps, rocks, steep inclines or trees and highballer -- a person who plants more trees than the other people on their crew or in their camp. This planter jargon helps solidify the group, create community and articulate the complex world of tree planting, which is unlike any other.

The book concludes with speculation about the unknowable future of all the trees that Gill has planted in her lifetime. Will they die naturally? Will they grow for hundreds of years? Will they be prematurely cut down? She will never know. But one thing is certain, being a tree planter has forever altered her perception of life on this planet.Noreen Mae Ritsema

Noreen Mae Ritsema is a former intern and tree planter.

Images by Noreen Mae Ritsema.



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