Charlotte Gill's tree-planting memoir has won British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe was awarded the $40,000 prize at a ceremony in Vancouver on Monday.
"It's a long way just from even having the little idea. I didn't know how I was going to write it. There was so much material, so much research to do, my story was so big. I didn't know even how I would wrestle it to the ground. So this is like not even in my wildest dreams," Gill said after winning the prize.
Earlier, she pointed out that Monday was "tree planter new year" – the first day of the season for some of the crews.
In Eating Dirt, Gill recounts her life as a tree-planter: her beginnings in Ontario, the move to the West, and the often shaky co-existence between nature and planters she encounters over her 17-year/million-tree career. A sort of literary ode to the grittiness of the work, Eating Dirt also educates the reader on tree biology and the history of the West Coast forests.
The jury, which considered 134 books for the award, cited Eating Dirt as "an insider's perspective on the gruelling, remote and largely ignored world of that uniquely modern-day 'tribe,' the tree planter." It said Gill's description of the forest "brings it vividly to life in all its mystic grandeur with striking details and evocative analogies, using intelligence, verve and humour to illuminate the dangers that live within, and threaten from without."
The book is also on the short list for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction and was on the short list for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-fiction (won by Charles Foran's Mordecai: The Life & Times).
When Gill was seeking a publishing deal for Eating Dirt, in mid-2009, she had some challenges, both because of the economy and the subject matter. "It was a very tough sell in Central Canada," she said during an earlier interview. "So I feel really grateful to even have a publisher [Greystone Books] I wasn't sure how it was going to go. There were some closed doors when I had that manuscript in my hand, for sure."
Gill, 40, was born in London, and grew up in Eastern Canada and the United States. Her tree-planting career saw her move to the West Coast, where she eventually studied creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her first book, the short-story collection Ladykiller, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the B.C. Book Prize for fiction and was short-listed for the Governor-General's Literary Award for fiction. Gill recently moved from Vancouver to Powell River, B.C.
The B.C. National Award, presented by the British Columbia Achievement Foundation, is open to all Canadian writers. The other short-listed books were Prince George, B.C., native Brian Fawcett's memoir Human Happiness; Toronto-based writer Andrew Westoll's The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery; and Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism, by Montreal writer Joel Yanofsky.
The jury panel members for 2012 were former Vancouver city librarian Paul Whitney; Patricia Graham, vice-president, digital, for the Pacific Newspaper Group; and Ottawa-based author/editor Shari Graydon.