Sharp prose illuminates tree-planting memoir

Ionce worked for a year in a lumber mill in Chemainus.

It was the hardest work I've ever done, before or since. The worst job was night shift on the green chain, pulling wood from a conveyor. If you were the new guy, as I was, you worked at the end of the chain, yanking the biggest, nastiest cuts of lumber with a metal pick. Some were tree stumps. After a few hours, the wood collected into a massive vibrating pile - a mini-mountain of raw wood.

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It was certainly hard, but it doesn't sound as gruelling as what Vancouver writer Charlotte Gill did, on and off, for almost 20 years. Gill was a tree-planter, working mostly in northern Ontario and in British Columbia.

She estimates she's planted about a million tree seedlings in her life.

Gill has written a wonderful new memoir about her experiences: Eating Dirt. She's giving a reading/talk on Tuesday in Victoria. I'm certain it's worth seeking out.

Eating Dirt, shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, is replete with the gritty, closely observed details only a true insider can provide. At the same time, Gill often steps back to provide an interesting and knowledgeable overview of deforestation.

I'd always assumed, naively, that tree-planting is an adequate replacement for a natural forest. A tree's a tree, right? Not so.

Gill told me this week tree-planting is indeed fine if all you require from a forest is a future timber supply.

"But if you want to rebuild a virgin, primeval forest with all its diversity, then it doesn't work," she said via mobile phone, as she strolled along Commercial Drive.

Some trees on Vancouver Island are 1,000 years old, she noted. "And it probably takes that long for a [replanted] forest to rebuild its biomass and its complexity."

Eating Dirt was published by Greystone Books in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation. Not surprisingly, the book advocates an environmentally thoughtful approach to logging. Yet what's most compelling about Eating Dirt is the way Gill writes about her first-hand experiences as a tree-planter. Here's the first paragraph:

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

Gill explains that while planting trees isn't difficult, the stuff that goes along with it is.

"It comes with snow pellets. Or clouds of biting insects so thick and furious it is possible to end a day with your eyelids swollen shut and blood trickling from your ears."

Other tree-planters, carefully described, are characters. For instance, Doug has a pensive brow, sloe eyes and a voice as "sweet and creosotey as sauce sizzled down the back of a barbecue."

Like any subculture, the planters have their own language. Fired workers are "axed," "chopped," "booted," or "s--tcanned."

They are their own tribe. Staying at Gill's house, they arrived with suitcases with braided rope handles.

"They carried brandy and brie. They smelled like smoke and sweat and sandalwood soap, the spice of the wild, wide open world in their hair."

One might understand the appeal and romance of entering this world. But despite paying fairly well (if you work very hard) tree-planting seems so physically demanding, you'd wonder why anyone would attempt it.

Gill says part of the appeal was pushing herself in a way she never had before. Raised in New York state, the daughter of two medical doctors, she started planting at age 19. Until then, she'd never camped or done hard manual labour.

"It's hard to explain," Gill said, when I asked what the attraction was.

"For every bit of discomfort, there's a kind of equal and opposite opportunity in incandescent experience. You see incredible things on the job, geographically, wildlife. And there's the friendships."

Gill lives in Vancouver and teaches creative writing for a graduate program at the University of British Columbia. The author of an acclaimed book of short stories, Ladykiller, she is now contemplating another book of fiction.

Today, she lives a more conventional life. Still, her former life as a tree-planter changed her. The tenacity she developed as a planter helps when it comes to writing books. And Gill believes in most situations - say a car breaking down in a blizzard - she could rely on her own devices.

"Tree-planters don't ever panic," she said. "They just deal with the situation at hand, as calmly as possible."

Gill will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Cabin 12, 607 Pandora Ave. Also reading is Barbara Stewart, author of Campie, a memoir about working in an Alberta oil rig camp.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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