Imagine a life of dirty, tough work out in the backcountry. Imagine that the wilderness is home for eight months of the year and that you can’t have a proper shower or get any real privacy during this time. Then imagine that this is the life you choose for yourself.
This is Charlotte Gill’s reality and in Eating Dirt, she details the gritty life of the tree planter – a life she has led for 20 years. Although most tree planters only last a couple of seasons, Charlotte Gill and others return to tree planting for years on end.
Despite being Gill’s career, she questions the efficacy of planting trees to repopulate a thousand-year-old forest. Describing the intricacies of the old growth ecosystem, she is heartily aware that filling the space with saplings will not return the landscape to its former glory. Gill paints a vivid picture of the forest environment that begins in the bacterial life of the soil and spans to the top of the majestic canopy. Microscopic life, insects, rodents, birds, large mammals, predators and prey make the forest their home but also create the forest; their very existence carves the forest into the environment they require.
As such, we are but intruders in the forest. Humans have used wood to build our cities, castles, boats and furniture since time immemorial. We have used wood to keep warm and dry for millennia. But we have used it far beyond our means to maintain it. Gill describes how many parts of the world were cleared of forest hundreds of years ago, leaving the landscape inalterably changed.
The Middle East, for example, was once covered with forest. The cedar forests of Lebanon were essential to many civilizations, such as Babylon and Phoenicia. But once these forests were decimated, the soil eroded and created the desert that we know today.
Gill notes that North America is the final bastion of great forest which we cut down with impunity, all the while “hiding” the clear cuts away from major highways and tourist attractions. Many have protested, and many of us continue to visit old growth sites like Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island and the Redwoods in California, perhaps searching for a lost heritage.
Whatever we may think of logging practices, wood usage and the attempt to repopulate our forests, Eating Dirt is a fascinating read.