Mention tree planters, and the first image that comes to many peoples’ minds is of a scruffy looking young adult, often a university student, who smokes pot and probably doesn’t have a very large collection of personal hygiene products.
Though there are tree planters who fit that description, they’re certainly not representative of the group, says the author of a book on the subject who is appearing in Victoria next week.
“If you’re out in the bush for most of your life it doesn’t matter if you have dreadlocks or a beard down to your chest, the only thing that matters is the job,” says Charlotte Gill, author of Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe.
“A lot of (tree planters) though look like ski instructors or golf pros. They look like regular, normal, average people.”
Gill, 40, is a “career tree planter” who originally took up the job for the same reasons many do. It fit nicely between semesters at the University of Toronto, where she studied English literature, and it offered an opportunity to earn a lot more money than most other summer jobs.
But where some do the job for perhaps a summer or two while they’re in school, Gill found herself going back year after year, starting in Ontario and eventually working her way west to B.C.
“It’s one of those things that’s really appealing because of its adversity,” Gill says. “We test the limits of our own human endurance, and there’s something very appealing in that.”
The simplicity of life in such remote areas was also a big draw.
“You go to work, you do your job, and at the end of the day, you’re finished,” says Gill. “You don’t bring any stress home with you. You have no briefcase full of homework.”
After nearly 20 years on the job, including a dozen on Vancouver Island, Gill planted her last tree in 2008.
Eating Dirt is a collection of Gill’s experiences as a tree planter, as well as an exploration of the value of forests and the relationship between humans and trees.
She also examines the inner conflict many tree planters go through trying to rationalize doing something good for the planet on the heels of the destruction created by clear-cutting.
“It’s hard to be an environmental idealist when your wage is being paid by a logging company,” Gill says. “It’s a complex issue with a lot of layers to it, and there are no easy answers.”
The subject is one of many that Gill will address when she appears in Victoria on Tuesday (Feb. 7). The author will read from Eating Dirt and answer questions about her life “on the cut”. Gill will be joined by fellow author Barbara Stewart, whose book, Campie tells of another isolated job, that of a camp attendant for oil rig workers.
Life in the forest is certainly not without excitement, says Gill, and the memories are plentiful.
“It’s quite possible to see sea lions, a whale and a grizzly bear all in one day,” she says. In the book, there’s a chapter about an especially memorable encounter with a bear.
“It’s one of those things when there’s danger, you really see what people are made of. It’s a really illuminating experience.”
Gill hopes that in reading this book, people will gain a better understanding of tree-planting, and the people who do it.
“I’m really proud to be a tree planter.”
Charlotte Gill will be at Cabin 12, 607 Pandora Ave., at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7.