Out in a clear-cut, in a soggy graveyard of massacred giants, Charlotte Gill learned everything she needed to know about perseverance, about herself and about the man she would eventually marry.
“You’re so tired, you can’t think anything. You can’t pretend to be nice, if you’re not feeling nice. You can’t pretend to be generous. You’re just nakedly the human being you are,” says the author of the award-winning memoir Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe. “I have seen people fall in love in three hours. I’ve sat in crew trucks and watched two people get in together and talk for two hours on the way home and you can see that they’re having this meaning-of-life conversation, and by the time they get out, something is happening. Tree-planting makes you very open, very porous.”
She is tall and lean and presents an inscrutable calm, watching, listening as a silent witness, and then offering up her story with a gentle generosity. It’s as though she has absorbed the wisdom and demeanour of trees. Self-containment might be one way to describe it. She exudes a graceful patience and a sense of where she is most comfortable, where she belongs and can put down roots. She and her husband Kevin, who now works as a physiotherapist, recently moved to Powell River, 200 kilometres north of their long-time home in Vancouver. “We had lost our connection to being outside,” she says to explain the move. “We had no outlet for the thing that we loved so much.”
They both stopped planting trees for a living in 2008. She had done it for 17 years, starting at 19, when she took a summer job in reforestation while studying English Literature at the University of Toronto. Her love affair with the grimy, back-breaking job of planting seedlings by hand began immediately. “I just had this fever for it, which is totally odd because I’m the most unlikely tree planter in the world. I mean, I’m a total princess,” she says, laughing easily over her dependence on hot showers and blow-dryers for her long, dark hair. Born in London, England, to a mother and father who were doctors, she moved with the family to Canada when she was 4, and then to the U.S. when she was 8. “My father is Indian,” she says, “and when immigrants come from that part of the world, there is a lot of pressure to be a doctor or a lawyer.” A love of the arts and tree-planting weren’t the expected route for her.
Starting each year in February and working until October, she planted more than a million trees on the Canadian Shield, in the foothills of the Albertan Rockies and in many parts of British Columbia, including the primeval enchantment of the Great Bear Rainforest. “It wasn’t about the money. There are a lot better ways to do that.” She pauses, before offering a more lengthy explanation. “It’s because it was such a challenge for me … It took me almost 20 years to finally get to the place where I felt at home out there.” She loved the isolation and the fact that the landscape was “never just wholly beautiful. It was always ruined a bit.” It provided a meditative calm. “I don’t know how to describe it other than to say the brain is like a washing machine, and when you spend that much time by yourself – your hands are busy so it’s not like you’re bored – it’s like all this stuff, the tensions that people collect, all the things they haven’t dealt with or thought about, all that just comes to the surface and travels out the top of your head, and it’s gone.”
A “closet writer” for years, she earned her masters degree in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program in 2000. It was there that she first imagined “this amazing and rich, dense world” of tree-planting as a work of fiction, but her attempt “failed miserably,” she says, so after a year of working on it, she abandoned the idea and wrote Ladykiller, her debut collection of short fiction, published in 2005. It won the B.C. Book Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award.
And then she turned back to the book that haunted her. “It’s a river of people instead of just one protagonist with a really amazing story,” she says of the tree-planting tribe and the difficulty it posed as fiction. She had no environmental or political motivation to write it as non-fiction. “I got my paycheque from the logging industry for 20 years. I think that disqualifies you from being an activist,” she says with a tiny smirk. “I would never have called myself an environmentalist when I started this book, [but]I convinced myself of something in the course of doing the research,” she adds. “I wanted tree-planting to be the answer [for environmentalists] and it wasn’t.”
She slogged through more than 20 drafts. The payoff: Eating Dirt won the British Columbia Award for Non-Fiction and was shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize and the Charles Taylor Prize.
Even now, she hasn’t quite left the wilderness work experience behind. “There’s something about the motions of that job that just kind of stick in your head all the time,” she says. She and her husband often talk about their lives as planters and how it informed so much of the way they live. “Tree-planting made me a really patient person,” she explains. “I can sit and be uncomfortable for hours on end. I can go without sleep. If someone says, ‘Go and scrub that floor with a toothbrush,’ I’m completely undaunted by it. I have no airs about what I will do or won’t do.”
Most importantly, that life in clear-cuts, some of which are large enough to be seen from space, illuminated the truth about her husband of five years. She met him at a tree-planting party in the off-season about 10 years ago. They didn’t work together for a few years because they had different employers. But when they did, “I really came to see what kind of a human being he was through the work … just watching him work so hard, I knew he was the kind of person who would always work hard.” She could also see he was considerate and loving. When they worked side-by-side, he always finished planting his bags of trees faster than she could. “But he would always come over and take half of what I had left so we would finish at the same time. That is something that you don’t do for someone you don’t care about,” she says.
She offers her benign smile, like that of an anthropomorphized tree in a children’s book. And then she concludes in the gentle tone of a storyteller’s happily-ever-after voice: “And he would do it every time.”