Q&A with Charlotte Gill

Tree Planter/ Author

February 2, 2012

By John Burns

Eating Dirt, your tree-planting memoir, paints a visceral picture of the job. How did you fall into that work?

A roommate said “Tree planting, tree planting” and the words just stuck in my head—I started planting within six months. Over the last 17 years, I’ve seen almost all the province—everywhere there’s logging, and we’ve done a ton of that. The amount of wood that has come out of those forests is mind-boggling—92 million cubic metres in one year is the biggest harvest.

Did you feel you were saving the planet?

Attempts have been made to turn tree planting into something heroic and glorious, but it’s such a little humble dirty task to do a thousand times a day. I personally planted about a million and a half trees in my career. We’re getting to seven billion for the province. I wanted to believe it was a viable solution for clear cutting, and having done the research, I discovered it’s the best solution we have, but we don’t really have good solutions. There’s a reason we in Canada are exporting our logs and India and China aren’t growing their own: hundreds of years ago, those countries just cleared their forests. The same in Europe—they’ve been without original forest cover since the Middle Ages. There are only three big chunks of primary forest left in the world, and Canada has a big one—we’re where a lot of the lumber in the world comes from.

Almost all logging in the province takes place so far from Vancouver. Can we even understand the scale of forestry from our city perspective?

Vancouver is a city with wonderful secondary forests. Cut one tree down in Stanley Park and there are riots. That said, it’s easy for us southerners not to understand the scale of the logging in B.C. Or the pine beetle, say—it doesn’t strike us how devastating that was, not just for the landscape but for the people who thought of themselves as forest dwellers. Once the forest died, they had to reengineer their whole communal identity.
Did you make much money as a tree planter? $250, $300 a day. High-ballers shoot for an average of $500, five days a week, February to October.

Why did you stop?

I had some persistent knee injuries. Scars and stuff from falling down, cutting myself. My shins look pretty battered and beaten up. But my life was an adventure every single day. I’d get in a pickup truck at 7 a.m. or a helicopter or a boat, and I just had no idea what would happen to me. I didn’t know what my wage would be. But it’s necessarily a young person’s job, it allows us to extend our youth. I’m 40 now—I retired in my late 30s—and up until this point I really had no responsibilities or obligations in the way people do when they have families and mortgages and regular jobs.

Do you miss it?

I like ease and relaxation in my life, but I learned from tree planting that I’m actually happiest when I’m working hard. It gave my life a lot of purpose—for every terrible, miserable, physical sensation you can possibly have, there’s an equal and opposite incandescent pleasure. I was able to appreciate the simplicity of, say, a hot shower because I’d been so miserable for the eight hours before. There were days I would see sea lions, a whale, and a grizzly bear all in one day. It didn’t feel like an amazing, magical experience at the time. It just felt like normal life.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.