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Eating Dirt
Cover of Eating Dirt
Eating Dirt
Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe
Winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction• Nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the 2011 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Award.During Charlotte Gill's 20 years...
Winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction• Nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the 2011 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Award.During Charlotte Gill's 20 years...
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  • Winner of the BC National Award for Non-Fiction
    • Nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the 2011 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Award.
    During Charlotte Gill's 20 years working as a tree planter she encountered hundreds of clear-cuts, each one a collision site between human civilization and the natural world, a complicated landscape presenting geographic evidence of our appetites. Charged with sowing the new forest in these clear-cuts, tree planters are a tribe caught between the stumps and the virgin timber, between environmentalists and loggers.
    In Eating Dirt, Gill offers up a slice of tree-planting life in all of its soggy, gritty exuberance while questioning the ability of conifer plantations to replace original forests, which evolved over millennia into intricate, complex ecosystems. Among other topics, she also touches on the boom-and-bust history of logging and the versatility of wood, from which we have devised countless creations as diverse as textiles and airplane parts. She also eloquently evokes the wonder of trees, our slowest-growing “renewable" resource and joyously celebrates the priceless value of forests and the ancient, ever-changing relationship between humans and trees.


  • From the book

    We fall out of bed and into our rags, still crusted with the grime of yesterday. We're earth-stained on the thighs, the shoulders, around the waists with muddy bands, like grunge rings on the sides of a bathtub. Permadirt, we call it. Disposable clothes, too dirty for the laundry.

    We stand around in huddles of three and four with toothpaste at the corners of our mouths, sleep still encrusted in our eyes. We stuff our hands down into our pockets and shrug our shoulders up around our ears. We wear polypropylene and fleece and old pants that flap apart at the seams. We sport the grown-out remains of our last haircuts. A rampant facial shagginess, since mostly we are men.

    The sun comes up with the strength of a dingy light bulb, illuminating the landscape in a flat gray wash. The clouds are bruised and swollen. We stand in a gravel lot, a clearing hacked from the forest. Heavy logging machinery sits dormant all around, skidders and yarders like hulking metallic crabs. The rain sets in as it always does, as soon as we venture outdoors. Our coats are glossy with it. The air hisses. Already we feel the drips down the backs of our necks, the dribbles down the thighs of our pants. We're professional tree-planters. It's February, and our wheels have barely begun to grind.

    We crack dark, miserable jokes.

    Oh, run me over. Go get the truck. I'll just lie down here in this puddle.

    If I run over your legs, then who will run over mine?

    We shuffle from foot to foot, feeding on breakfast buns wrapped in aluminum foil. We drink coffee from old spaghetti sauce jars. We breathe steam. Around here you can hang a towel over a clothesline in November, and it will drip until April.

    Adam and Brian are our sergeants. They embroil themselves in what they call “a meeting of the minds," turning topographical maps this way and that, testing the hand-held radios to ascertain which ones have run out of juice. We wait for their plan of attack as if it is an actual attack, a kind of green guerrilla warfare. They wear matching utility vests made of red canvas. They stand exactly the same height, heads bent together. Their lips barely move when they talk. Their shoulders collect the rain. At the stroke of seven, we climb up into big Ford pickup trucks with mud-chewing tires and long radio antennae. We slide across the bench seats, shoving ourselves in together. Five diesel engines roar to life.

    Adam sits at the wheel. He has an angular face, hair and skin turned tawny by the outdoor life, eyes the arresting color of mint mouthwash. He pulls out at the head of our small convoy. His pupils zip back and forth over the road's unpaved surface. He drives like a man on a suicide mission. No one complains. Speed is the jet fuel that runs our business.

    While he drives, Adam wraps his lips around the unwashed lid of a commuter mug. He slides aluminum clipboards in and out of his bag and calls out our kilometers on the truck-to-truck radio. Logging trucks barrel down these roads, laden with bounty like land-borne super-tankers. Adam slides his maps into various forms of plastic weatherproofing. Multitasking is his only speed—as it is for all of us—too fast, too much, and all at once. We're piece-workers, here to make money, a lot of it, in a hurry. It can feel like picking quarters off a sidewalk, and it can feel like an emergency.

    Logging routes are like human arteries, mainlines branching out into fine traceries. We pass from civilization to wilderness on a road with muddy ruts. Old snow decomposes along the shoulder. The land around here is jaggedly three-dimensional, fissured with gullies and brush-choked ravines. Mountains bulge...

About the Author-

  • Charlotte Gill is the author of the story collection Ladykiller, a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Stories, and has been broadcast on CBC Radio. Her narrative non-fiction has been nominated for Western and National Magazine Awards. She spent nearly two decades working in the forests of Canada and has planted more than a million trees.

Table of Contents-

  • The Last Place on Earth
    A Kind of Tribe
    Green Fluorescent Protein
    Beautiful Losers
    A Furious Way of Being
    The Town That Logging Made
    At the End of the Reach
    Exit Lines


  • Publisher's Weekly

    September 3, 2012
    "Wherever men make it their business to cut down trees," Gill writes, "chances are you'll find people who make a job of putting them back." In this admirable and occasionally poetic account, the reforester recalls her years spent with "Johnny Appleseeds for hire." They are an itinerant group, they aren't unionized, and they have "no benefits, no holidays. When the work runs out we're laid off." She details their efforts in Canadian forests, planting in rough-and-rugged areas that had previously been clear-cut, and though Gill (author of the short story collection Ladykiller) admits the experience is grueling, she finds satisfaction in it. She likes the feel of the soil between her fingers, and she describes the "rituals and routines of planting" as being "as familiar to me as boiling water or brushing my teeth." Interestingly and refreshingly enough, Gill steers clear of politics for the most part. She makes little mention of environmental policy, for example, choosing instead to focus on the ordinary people whose actions speak volumes. The trees they plant each year "shimmy in the wind. There, we say. We did this with our hands. We didn't make millions, and we didn't cure AIDS. But at least a thousand new trees are breathing." For that, she can be proud—and it makes for a good story.

  • Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions

    ""[a] brilliant memoir ...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. ...This is a deeply researched, beautifully written book."

  • Smithsonian Magazine "Never have I read such a beautiful book with such a dull premise: what it's like to plant tree seedlings in the wake of logging companies' destruction. ...Gill turns a subject that might seem narrow and confined into a lyrical essay about labor and rest, decay and growth"
  • John Sledge, Alabama Press Register "Charlotte Gill gets my enthusiastic vote as the best nonfiction book of 2012. ...highly readable ...Gill's narrative is by turns gripping, funny, informative but always tactile"
  • Philip Connors, author of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout "Charlotte Gill is everything you could want from a storyteller: honest and wise, leanly lyrical, tough and tender in equal measure. In this exquisite book about a gnarly occupation, we come to appreciate the resilience of nature and humans both."
  • Toronto Star, Nov 25, 2011 "Gill's story of a life spent planting seedlings for pay, mandated in Canada's clear-cut forests, is entrancing if horrifying. The dirt, physical pain, loneliness, camaraderie and primordial awe are elbowing for space in Gill's remarkable memoir of an awful job."

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