It is hard to say why a book that is full of mould, sodden clothing, overdoses of sugar and carbs, bad weather, grizzly bears, cream and crud, broken-down trucks, blisters and tiny seedlings shoved into the ground should be engaging, rewarding and full of knowledge, but it is.
Charlotte Gill's Eating Dirt – short-listed for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for non-fiction – is so winning because it bridges the dizzying gulf between the people who command that work be done and the people who do it.
There is nothing romantic about replanting the forests that have been decimated by clear cuts. It is piece work. At about 25 cents per tree, a person has to plant 1,000 trees in a day to make even a rudimentary living. The work is hard and repetitive, done in circumstances that most of us would rather not even contemplate. But it takes a rhythm and it takes companionship and competition to make it happen. Who knows if it will actually work? Who knows if forest will come again? But if they do, these grunts will have made them.
Gill did this work for 20 years. It shows. She knows, for instance, in her bones, the difference between trying to get your speed spade into the soils of a fresh clear cut in old-growth forest and trying to get the same tool into a forest that has been cut before and grown up again. The latter is so much harder because, in the first cutting, much of the soil was just eroded away.
There isn't much variety or finesse to the work. It is the same thing over and over again. She repeats it through the book, like a refrain: "Bend. Plant. Stand up. Sprint along." The world record holder shoved 15,170 red pine seedlings into the ground in a single day.
You would think a book on such an unvarying occupation would be quite short. But in tree planting – as in so many of the unseen grunt jobs that keep the culture running – it is the relationships, not the prestige of the work, that hold your interest: the guy who lasts only a day or two before he is fired, the friend who almost drowns when a truck overturns in a deep puddle, the bouts of shaving when two new girls join the crew, the boat ride so rough you spend half your time underwater, the mother grizzly and her three cubs, the delicacy of a single friend who sleeps in her van so as not to occupy the other bed in a couple's quarters.
The greatest pleasure of Gill's book, though, is that she cuts these headlong stories against the millennial life of forests. Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar. Only a third of the old forests still survive, while the forests of the world are a checkerboard of clear cuts, the largest one 200 miles square. How does a forest come to be? What lives in the soil? Why is there so much life in the ruination of a cut block? It is moving to hear the answers to these questions against the backdrop of furious planting.
Gill wants us to believe that our times are not so different from all times when it comes to the ruin of forests. She jumps back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, and leads a brief crash course in the history of forestry, but this is where she is least convincing.
Much more telling is what she says of the young forestry grads who have been put in charge of her and her cohorts. Wear your hardhats, they intone, although there is nothing overhead. Wear your orange safety vests, they insist, though the nearest traffic is 50 miles away across roadless county. These are people who have never planted a tree, though they have read a lot of books about planting trees. But they are the authorities. They live on the other side of the divide between the grunts and the managers. Perhaps it was ever so, but I cannot help thinking that we have perfected this unholy division of labour.
Gill's is a book you can live in. You come to speak its language and to feel as she feels. The only thing I miss in it is the other life that she inhabited during the eight months of the year when she was not planting trees. Maybe it is none of our business, but I wondered: What did she do in that time? Who was she, and where? And what became of her and her boyfriend, K.T.? She lives – like many people nowadays – a hybrid life, and it would be fascinating to know how the parts of it combine.
William Bryant Logan is an arborist in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the author of, among other works, Oak: The Frame of Civilization and Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.