Building Forests

A memoir focuses on the people as much as the trees.

Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe runs against the grain of existing descriptions of Canada’s reforestation industry. Whereas many accounts of tree planting are romantic or overly sentimental, Gill’s narrative reads as a sincere treatment of everyday life in the industry. Partly autobiographical (she worked in the tree-planting industry from the early 1990s onward), the book is also an unwitting ethnography of the tree-planting community, which results in rich descriptions of the planting crews Gill worked with in Ontario and Alberta, but mainly in British Columbia’s coastal regions. Eating Dirt is the richest literary account of tree planting I have encountered.

Gill’s years of experience make her a veteran of the industry—what she describes as a “crusty.” For Gill, tree planting “is thankless and boring, which is to say it is plain and silent. It is also one of the dirtiest jobs left in the modern world.” Thus, she asks, “what could compel a person to make a career of such a thing?” The typical answers to this question are the love of adventure, the thrill of visiting remote spaces and the prospect of big money, lots of sex and great parties. These motivators are, in part, at play in Gill’s book. However, her answers to why people keep planting trees are simpler. First, people need to work to live. Gill introduces us to
a single mother, a planter who is fleeing addiction, a
crew boss and a supervisor supporting families, and two men still planting trees in their fifties. Second, the seasonal character of tree-planting work means that many planters work part of the year and draw on employment insurance benefits for the remainder. Paradoxically, tree planting is often about working extremely hard for part of the year in an effort not to work year around. Yet Gill’s contribution is to reveal the vulnerability of workers. As she says, “we have no unions, no benefits, no holidays. When the work runs out we’re laid off.”

Eating Dirt is not just about the daily rhythm of planting trees. Gill dedicates a fair amount of time to detailing the broader ecologies and geological cycles that constitute B.C.’s forested landscape. From descriptions of vast fungal networks that have co-evolved with the trees found in the temperate rainforest, to the advance and retreat of glaciers that have given form to the landscapes on which Gill works, the reader is introduced to the more-than-human forces that give rise to B.C.’s forests. In part, Gill’s book seeks to demonstrate the hubris of industrial logging and reforestation practices. The relentless search for wood fibre and the limited lifespan afforded to second-growth forests robs the landscapes of their nutrients, biodiversity and habit functions. Gill mobilizes countless examples of societies that have met their demise through exhausting timber supplies. The implication is that our own society is likely to suffer a similar fate without a serious change of course. Here Gill is at her boldest, but the strengths of her book lie in the subtler arguments.

Gill’s refusal to label old-growth forests as natural in contrast to supposed artificial plantations amounts to a sophisticated environmental philosophy. As Gill explains, the forests of British Columbia, and more broadly North America, have never been entirely natural. The forested landscapes are revealed to be intensely cultivated, shaped by the practices of First Nations groups and through the labour of planters that fabricate the emergent “forest.” As quixotic as this may sound, implicit throughout Eating Dirt is a sense that parts of nature are actually produced. In Chapter 4, she asks, “maybe our manipulation is an inherently human thing, for people have been shaping nature for all of recorded time.” In this remark, perhaps, we can find a measure of optimism or nascent possibility. If human hands shape nature, maybe we can build a more environmentally and socially just ecological future.

Gill offers a delicate account of some of the social issues animating the industry, alongside her indictment of the environmental legacy of industrial logging and reforestation. In the opening of the book, she suggests that both male and female planters are “unisex guys, the men of man-days.” While accurately describing the collapse of firm gender distinctions in tree-planting camps, she also subtly alludes to how women must “pass” as men to endure a season of planting. At one point Gill suggests that, “with the shortage of women, the lack of civilized company, there is no one to impress … The air is thick with male craving. It condenses and runs down the walls.” Throughout the book, there is a quiet and effective narrative detailing the difficulties women face in the industry.

However, if Gill deals with sexuality in a tree-planting context in an intriguing manner, her discussion of race is less focused. The reader is aware that she is writing from a European-Canadian perspective, yet she seldom remarks on the whiteness of her fellow planters and the sector more generally. Significantly, though, the book is dedicated to “members of the tribe,” meaning planters. Tree planting is depicted as a “tribal” phenomenon. At repeated points, planters are equated with cavemen and tribesmen, and Gill suggests that planters’ “sore muscles are merely the equipment dusting itself off, exerting itself as it has done since naked apes picked themselves up off their forelimbs and began walking on two legs.” Gill is reflecting on the occupational culture of planting, as many workers are quick to describe tree planting as tribal based on the remote spaces of work, the physicality of the labour and the sexualization of work camps.

Throughout the book, Gill focuses on the history of aboriginal peoples’ relationship to B.C.’s forestlands rather than on the small number of First Nations people currently working in the planting sector. However, the representation of this history, along with the framing of planting as tribal, has significant implications. Gill’s depiction of First Nations people oscillates between celebrating the abundance of nature at their disposal in the pre-contact years and lamenting the decline of aboriginal people thereafter. In her words, colonists discovered “uninhabited Native villages, as if everyone had picked up and fled. They found the overgrown remains of agricultural fields that still showed signs of furrowing.” We get a picture of First Nations people in physical and cultural decline.

What is at stake in equating planters and tree planting with tribalism, while at the same time relegating First Nations communities to the past? By exclusively seeing First Nations groups depicted through a historical lens of decline, the reader gets no sense of aboriginal people’s modernity and contemporary relation to the forestlands of the West Coast. In effect, describing tree planting as tribal and workers as members of the tribe represents the appropriation of a primitive way of life by white folks.

Gill is a clear critic of the effects of colonialism on indigenous populations. However, I would have liked to see her extend her critical faculties to her representations of tree planters and First Nations people. Such an analysis would have to take seriously how questions of whiteness operate in the reforestation industry. Nevertheless, and despite my reservations about this aspect of her book, Gill has produced a rich ethnography of tree planting that readers will surely find immensely rewarding.