Before Charlotte Gill, 40, of Powell River, B.C., became a prize-winning short-story author (Ladykiller, 2005) she was a tree planter. A professional tree planter, in fact, and for 17 years—long enough to plant a million seedlings on the West Coast’s windblown mountaintops, mist-shrouded sodden valleys and all the terrain in between. It was a job of constant physical misery and intermittent moments of emotional and intellectual clarity, a job she loved and loathed. And one Gill had to write about, in Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize in 2012, to fully grasp the pull it exerted on her and her companions, and still does. “We still think of ourselves as planters,” she says.
In prose that is at once lyrical, nuanced and sharp-edged, Gill examines a trade and a way of life, from the micro (the way even the most barren-seeming of clear-cuts is swarming with tiny life) to the macro (the sheer scale of Canada’s timber industry).
Primarily a fiction writer, Gill had long contemplated turning her past life into a novel, but the sheer humdrumness of the job, its lack of what she calls “heavy-duty drama,” seemed to make it “better as a true story.” That was surely the right decision, but even so, as she notes in Eating Dirt, there were moments when the everyday would disappear and events would begin “to avalanche,” like the time she and Kevin Turpin—K.T. as he’s known, then her boyfriend, now her husband—could sense another presence.
On the other side of the gushing creek we arrive in a tiny pocket of clear-cut, fringed with tall trees. The fog thickens. I get a feeling, a hunch at once familiar and peculiar. A prickling at the back of my neck. My ears are full with thundering water, and the air is like vaporized milk. We are two senses short. This land is what people call big country. So huge I wonder how two living creatures might ever cross paths. Still, a shiver passes over my scalp. I get the feeling we’re not alone.
So does K.T.
Let’s stick together, he says.
We plant trees in long lines, then cross back over the creek. We pass through a strange smell, a musky blend of wet dog and old garbage. We slow down. K.T. rounds the hillside. He freezes into a full-body flinch. He holds his hand out to stop me in my tracks.
Cubs, he says.
K.T. starts into a crouched, backwards walk. I do, too, without asking questions. We reverse like two people trying hard not to break into a run. We return to the creek, scanning for signs of motion. K.T. reports what he witnessed. Three cubs, this year’s brood, no bigger than basketball sneakers. They have black-brown fur, so young they wobble more than walk. He admits he didn’t see the mother bear. Without a doubt, she’s close by. A black bear, he guesses, from the look of the cubs.
There’s so much air churning around today, surely the mother bear has picked up our scent. Surely the waft of our lunches attracted her in the first place. We hunker down to wait. K.T. and I stare up at the road for so long I get a crick in my neck.
Do you think she’s gone now? I ask.
We could check, says K.T.
We catch sight of the sow, who has climbed a promontory of slash. A tall brown bear with shoulder humps and an enormous black snout. A grizzly.
Guess those weren’t black bears, says K.T.
On regular days, not much of anything happens. But when the plot starts to move, it avalanches. Now my blood zings with adrenalin. A knob of fright pushes up in my throat. The sensation is not entirely unpleasant. In all my time planting trees, I’ve seen only one other grizzly, and it sprinted away as soon I came close.
This bear’s fur is the color of butterscotch. She breathes steam and shakes like a dog from head to rump. The droplets fly in a silvery corona. If it weren’t for the roar of the creek I’m sure we’d hear her sniffing. With her puffy face and low, pinched brow it seems as if she’s wearing a facial expression I can only describe as weary vigilance, the look of single motherhood in the animal kingdom.
She definitely knows we’re here, says K.T.
Bear alert, I say into my radio.
Adam comes on the radio. Can you work around it? he asks.
It’s a grizzly. Three little. One very big.
We’re coming, says Adam.
Our helicopter pilot drops into the conversation. Tell me what the fog is doing.
I’m unsure how to answer, because every few seconds it lifts and lowers, like diaphanous stage curtains.
It’s variable, I say.
The mother bear climbs down from her perch and disappears. After the radio chatter falls away all we can do is wait for the copter to arrive. We listen to the breeze comb what’s left of the trees. Canopy rain spatters down on our cheeks. We feel a little helpless.
The mother bear reappears at the edge of the road. This time, she’s closer. Her nose works the air. She’s “looking” for us. The breath falls to the pit of my lungs, and everything around us, all the wet branches and glossy leaves, recedes into a grainy middle distance.
I hear the beating of distant helicopter blades and feel a wash of ambivalent relief, because now we have a new problem.
I hope the pilot sends her running in the right direction, says K.T.
We are in the trees at nine o’clock, I say into my radio.
The sound of the helicopter emerges from somewhere deep in the valley, echoing in the trees of the upper forest. The machine descends through the clouds. I catch sight of the black registration letters on its underbelly. The pilot has removed the cockpit door, as they often do in the fog. He leans out into the open air to get a clearer view and hovers down over the middle of the cut block.
I see it, the pilot says through the radio.
We hear the engine come down a few notes and know it’s time to move. K.T. and I climb up to the road to meet it.
In an attempt to frighten her away, the pilot buzzes the grizzly, lowering to just a few feet above her head. The cubs scuttle. Their mother rears on her hind legs and gives the air beneath the helicopter a swipe with her claws. Then she drops to the ground and heaves herself away.
Once she’s left the scene the pilot settles the helicopter onto the road. We jog to meet it. On our way we stop to snatch up our bags. They’ve been gashed open, ransacked, and left to fill up with drizzle. We clip into our seatbelts. As we lift, we see this grizzly family in the midst of their escape. The cubs dart between their mother’s legs and hide beneath her torso. They run like this, sheltered by the bulk of her body. She’s a thin bear, we see from the air, her fat stores whittled down from hibernation, pregnancy, and lactation.
The helicopter rises to altitude. It peels away from the mountainside in a stomach-tugging nosedive. K.T. and I huddle in the back seat. With the open door, we’re blasted by the wind, wet, and cold. The pilot makes chatter through the headphones, and I answer his questions in a post-adrenal daze. We pass through veils of rain. When we emerge on the other side I see nappy treetops. The clear-cuts like jigsaw puzzle pieces, the little green lakes in the distance. All of it so repetitiously tiny, so inconsequential from above.
In a few minutes, we set down on a road I’ve never visited before. We kick around in the gravel, waiting for Adam to arrive. I feel odd, not quite inside myself, my brain not yet caught up with the sudden safety of this new locale. I’m really hungry.
We dig through our packs to assess the losses. The outer layers of scrim-reinforced vinyl have been shredded into strips. Each ribbon measures the width between the mother bear’s claws. Our lunches have been devoured, the containers cracked and crushed, the teeth marks still visible in the plastic. At the bottom of his bag K.T. finds one intact sandwich. He opens the box, and the air between us fills with the yeasty whiff of fresh bread. He ponders the sandwich momentarily and then tears it in half. He sizes up each of the pieces in his hands and takes the smaller one for himself. We push bread into our mouths. We stand like this on an open road, 100 miles from our home in Vancouver, looking into each other’s face.
Last year we read a story in the news about a bear attack on two hikers. They were a married couple. The bear lunged first for the wife, knocking her to the ground with a single blow of its paw. It chomped down on her shoulder and dragged her into the bush. The husband ran away. To find help, he claimed afterward. But we knew the truth of it. He ran in blind terror to save himself. It wasn’t his fault. Life and death and wild animals. You never know what kind of person you’ll be.
Would you have run? I asked.
Never, said K.T.
When else might we ask such strange and illuminating questions were it not for planting trees?
It’s just cheese and lettuce, says K.T. now.
It always is, I reply.
The sandwich. So bland and loathed every other day of the week. But today, because it’s all we have, it tastes like the best thing I have ever eaten. K.T. and I watch our crewmates toil away in the distance. A diesel truck rumbles toward us. It’s the battered red truck, whose coils we’ve got to heat three times before it will start in the mornings. Soon we’ll be back out in the field.
The sun beams humidly. Blood beats in our ears. Our salivary glands gush. We hear our breath whistle through our inner passageways. My heart still gallops in my chest, pulsing blood up through my neck. Life rushes up in its mortal constituent parts. A he. A she. A sandwich torn in two.
Excerpted from the book Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, © 2011 by Charlotte Gill, published by Greystone Books. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.