Thursday, February 16, 2012
Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt
Why do bad things happen to good people? Not a relevant question in these parts lately: this year's recipient of the BC National Book Prize for Nonfiction (and a cheque for $40,000) is the talented, smart, and very cool Charlotte Gill, for her wonderful book Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe.
The gist of the book is that Eating Dirt portrays a single tree-planting year, one of the seventeen that Gill put in, mostly in a few areas on the British Columbia coast. In this portrait, she has to cover a lot of ground: the camaraderie of shared physical labour, the isolation of the job, the beauty of the forest, the hopelessness of the task, the idiosyncratic characters, the resonance of BC-coastal character types. To her enormous credit, the book is similarly accomplished in each area she addresses. It's an environmental(ist) text, a labour text, a coming-of-age text, an approaching-middle-age text, and all sorts of other things to boot.
Content aside, too, Gill's prose is terrific. The persistence of fragments, for example: she says that that's just her style as a writer, but her style's wonderfully adapted to her subject, in that she keeps using sentence fragments in her evocation of the one-damned-tree-after-another life of a tree-planter. Or the superabundance of often unusual metaphors (her first planting gloves smelling, when she put them on, "like new skateboard wheels," p.57), so appropriate for the superabundant fecundity of a coastal rainforest -- and the intensely tangled wreck of life that is a recent clearcut.
A joy to read, Eating Dirt, and I'm pleased now to have met its author. Gill did a reading at UVic last week that concluded with a generous, thoughtful Q&A -- in spite of some questions that just weren't as clever or insightful as they'd sounded when I was prepping for the event. If she appears in your town one of these days, do yourself a favour and show up for the event!