Charles Taylor Prize: Charlotte Gill on becoming a tree-planter

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With past recipients including Richard Gwyn, Carol Shields, Ian Brown and Charles Foran, the annual Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction is one of the country's most prestigious awards. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on March 5. 

From February 27 to March 2, each of the five 2012 nominees are sharing part of their writing experience with CBC Books. We are publishing one essay each day. Today, we hear from Charlotte Gill, author of Eating Dirt.




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Charlotte Gill spent 17 years as a tree-planter, working in regions such as the Canadian Shield, the Alberta Rockies and in British Columbia. Her previous book, Ladykiller, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award and winner of the B.C. Book Prize for fiction. Eating Dirt was published by D&M Publishers in September 2011.






Lately I've been out on the road, talking about trees and about planting them. My favourite parts of these nights, when I read from Eating Dirt, are the Q&A sessions at the end. I get to meet the people who've carved out an hour of their busy lives to come see me. Sometimes they've already spent several hours of their sentient existence between the covers of my book. I find all of this deeply humbling.

Sometimes I am asked by the young people in the room if I think they should go tree planting, or what advice I can give them for their first time out in the cut blocks. I never really know what I should say. Planting trees is an infamous diversion from parental expectations and regular career paths. From normal life, period, if there is such a thing as normal.

I didn't really know, when I started writing Eating Dirt, why I hadn't quit after my very first day, which was spent in a blustery clearcut in Northern Ontario. I was still a teenager, and my hands had never known hard work. I earned something like $24. The next day was worse still, because now I was also sore and blistered. Maybe I kept planting trees because it was the opposite of what everyone expected. Probably it was because of the character traits I saw in the planters all around me.

For example: in one of my rookie weeks, I ran into one of my co-workers at the end of a particularly hideous day. We mustered on the roadside to wait for the truck that would eventually take us back to camp. I hadn't introduced myself, but he began to talk to me as if we were already friends, resuming a conversation we'd begun the year before. He was happy and uncomplaining. My eye travelled to his forearm, where a dark red patch seeped into his torn sleeve. I guessed he'd fallen on something jagged out there in the field, but he seemed not to notice what had happened to him. He stood there smoking a cigarette with blood dripping from his elbow.

Whatever that quality was, I thought it might prove essential in life. I thought I'd go find some for myself.

The physical inconveniences of planting trees are plentiful. There are swarms of carnivorous insects so thick and furious they can drive one to the brink of insanity. There's the weight of the seedlings tugging on our bones. Then there is the sharp and shattered terrain of the clearcuts, a geography for which human skin seems wholly unevolved. If you are a planter, there is always some part of you burning or itching, bleeding or singing out for relief. Some days the rain comes down so copiously it's like being sprayed with a garden hose for eight hours straight. Raincoats are futile. The only thing keeping you slightly warm is the heat of your own muscles, and if you pause, even for a moment, you can feel, quite literally, your heart grow cold.

I'm often asked why I did that job for so long -- 17 years -- if it was so unpleasant. I can't simply answer that question, either. But I'll try. Planting trees taught me how to be miserable on the outside and happy on the inside, instead of the other way around.

It's incredible to watch muscles form under your own skin, as if you were wearing someone else's astounding physique. When planting trees, you get to occupy, fully and completely, the miracle of evolutionary engineering that is the human body. A fleshly machine that can do four different things simultaneously, with each limb independently obeying the brain's will. It can accomplish incredible feats of endurance, pushing past the point of exhaustion. Then it heals itself, using fuel no more complicated than Gatorade, peanut butter sandwiches, and sleep. That is a remarkable thing to experience when you are 19 years old.

I meet a lot of tree planters when I'm out touring around. They say that our profession taught them how to be patient, since planting is a job of a hundred small frustrations. They learned how to be hungry, and how not be afraid of pain. Like them, I learned how to be alone. I came to appreciate the value of money, but also that a dollar means nothing next to a cookie when you are dizzy with fatigue. It can't replace friendship, or the gift of sleeping well.


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