I Can Smell the Sweat: Eating Dirt

dirtCharlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt is an excellent read. I spent several consecutive nights in bed polishing this book off while my wife slept. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that demanded I steal hours from the night to read it. So, thanks Charlotte. Eating Dirt is creative non-fiction at its best. Ostensibly it’s about Gill’s own experience tree-planting for a year (she has done it for many years), yet this does not do it justice either as it is also a reflection on our relationship to trees more generally. It follows her as she starts out on the northern coast of Vancouver Island, across the strait to the Sunshine Coast, and then eventually back down to the Vancouver region. Throughout, she goes off on short meditations on natural history, logging history, and her own first summer tree planting. It never gets dull, and I found it immensely rewarding.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, non-fiction can sometimes drag its feet and I struggle to get through it. However, this book was very well written and well paced. Anytime I felt like my momentum was flagging she returned to her personal narrative of tree-planting. This should come as no surprise as Gill’s previous book, Ladykiller, was a collection of short fiction that was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. She has an eye for narrative, pacing, and character that works really well. Although the cast of tree-planters changes a fair bit, I still finished feeling like I knew a handful of “real” tree-planters who made their living doing incredibly exhausting work. At one point over the past few days, I even suggested to my wife that we go tree-planting. She kindly reminded me that I’m getting my second knee reconstruction in a week and that I separated my should two years ago, hardly an ideal physique for this kind of work.

Perhaps what really piqued my interest was the fact that tree-planting is becoming a rite-of-passage among university aged students. Many of them leave their final winter exam and head north as fast as possible to make as much money as they can for a few months. There is something primal about this work that fascinates me. It’s outdoor work, cut down to a bare form of living, but it also can be extremely lucrative. A part of me is tempted to go tree-planting just to experience it. As Gill reflects late in the book, this job may not last forever as it is still unclear just how effective tree-planting is. It takes centuries for a forest to reach its climax stage, and we have not been planting trees on an industrial scale for long enough to see how, or even whether, it works.

This is a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining read.

Gill, Charlotte. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe. Toronto: Greystone Books, 2011. Print.

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