Eating Dirt

Silviculture. The word makes me think of mining, or maybe something to do with manufacturing metal. Surprisingly, it refers to the cultivation of forest trees, or as Wikipedia tells us:

Silviculture is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values. The name comes from the Latin silvi- (forest) + culture (as in growing).

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill takes us into the world of the people on the ground floor of silviculture, the ones who re-plant the forests after logging companies cut them down. Their life-style is foreign to most of us, but fascinating.

Perhaps this isn’t the best time of year to talk about a book that details a life of working outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, but since I’m sure you’ll be inside while reading, I’ll go ahead. Gill’s writing is lyrical and not at all dry as dirt. Though Gill does state that dirt tastes like sand mixed with cold butter at one point. The book details a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, with people working outdoors in all but the harshest weather of winter. If you spend much time outdoors here, you will recognize the feeling of water drip, drip, dripping down the back of your neck.

Much like nomadic herdsmen, Gill and her co-workers consider themselves a tribe mostly separated from the rest of society. They are the workers in the background that we don’t even suspect exist, but who are essential to our lifestyles. They allow us to harvest the planet’s natural resources without worrying about replenishment. Yet they are as unsentimental about it as a farmer is about butchering cattle. Their jobs are never going to be mechanized or done by anything other than human hands.

Gill recounts the time spent waiting for the planting season to begin, which we would consider free time but to planters seems just like waiting. Then the planting season begins and it becomes their whole life. With a job that is outdoors, completely isolated (horrors!-even out of cell phone range in an emergency), and seemingly monotonous, your mind is completely free to wander and notice details. The whole world belongs only to you, and you are the only human living in it. The work is endlessly variable in that the terrain and your surroundings are always changing, yet the end product is constant. This job is the very definition of long-term investing, since most of the trees planted by these workers will not be available for harvest until close to the planters’ retirements.

We learn about the history of the logging of our forests, and when the realization hit that it couldn’t go on forever without re-planting. We also learn about the day-to day events that define their characters. One chapter tells of being stationed in a small town where the townspeople give them the stink-eye look of ‘It’s them again!’. As the author describes it:

We look hungrily deranged, like crazy gypsies descended from the mountain to pick through the dumpsters for chicken bones

This book didn’t make me love going out into the rain, but it made me appreciate our environment and the people who work out in it. Thanks to their hard work, hillsides and forest will no longer look like a barren and desolate landscape out of a post-apocalyptic movie (and we won’t, hopefully, have zombies any time soon).

Be sure to visit A Reading Life for more reviews and news of all things happening at the Everett Public Library

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