Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, by Charlotte Gill. (Greystone, 2011). $29.95.
This book is an autobiographical memoir focusing on the author’s experience over 17 years as an industrial tree-planter. The first five pages deal with Gill and her team being dropped off in a clearcut on Vancouver Island, the second five with a technical description of the general setting, Cascadia — its weather, its human and plant populations, and its history of aboriginal and European occupation.
This pattern continues throughout the book. The segments of memoir are encapsulated in one recent season (about four months) of planting up and down coastal BC, with flashbacks to earlier experiences in other areas (Ontario, Alberta, and central and northern BC). These are interleaved with segments on the history of logging and treeplanting (starting with the Phoenicians), on the 3.5 billion-year evolution and movement of plant species, on non-industrial (environmentally restorative) planting in Bangladesh and China, on Canadian forestry policy and politics, and on many other matters pertaining to trees.
So it seems that the objective is to document, as the subtitle puts it, “deep forests, big timber, and life with the treeplanting tribe,” from the perspective of an experienced and knowledgeable, and therefore presumably objective, witness. Gill says in an interview that when writing the book she tried to be “open and neutral.”
In this she is successful in connection with forests and timber. I’ll shelve this informative book alongside M. Allerdale Grainger’s Woodsmen of the West, Ken Bernsohn’s Cutting Up the North and Brian Fawcett’s Virtual Clearcut. Gill is less successful, though, in connection with the treeplanting tribe. She is neutral about the tribe only in the sense of being ambivalent, and she is open only in the sense of allowing this ambivalence to show while making no attempt whatsoever to explain or deal with it by actually looking at the members of the tribe.
But, while you may not get to understand the tribe, you do get to know how it is organized and how it does its job, as intimately as you get to know whaling in Moby Dick. You accompany Gill on numerous frantic early-morning drives, in stuffy crew-cab pickup trucks with five other sleepy and smelly members of your crew, along steep and rugged logging roads. You get out at the “block” and help unload large, waxed boxes, each holding 240 seedlings. You stuff handfuls of seedlings into three bags that clip around your waist. You sling on your backpack (lunch, raingear, pepper and bug spray, radio etc), hoist your shovel and head off the road, leaving your cache of seedlings behind. You are wearing old, worn-out clothes and specialized items like caulk boots (with spikes screwed into the soles), a “highviz” vest (in case they have to come looking for you), and (when the uber-company foresters are out checking the plantation) a hard hat.
You make your way through the logging slash, which is especially dense and tangled along the side of the road, and you start: “I push into my shovel as if it were a heavy door. A square of earth breaks open at my feet and sighs a moldy breath. I bend at the waist and slide the roots down the back of my spike . . . . I tuck them in with a punch of my fist. I haven’t stood up and I’m already walking.”
If you’re lucky you get “cream” — a clear (maybe burned) block with mineral soil (sand and clay), preferably not “bony” with boulders and not covered in a layer of “screef” that has to be scraped away before you can inject your shovel. All this means that you can punch in 2000 or more seedlings a day. At twenty-five cents each, working seven days a week (no weekends off or even stat holidays), you are making big money, a real motivator. But you are often unlucky. Cream is doled out by the supervisor using a simple lottery — he writes a number from 1- 10 on a slip of paper, puts it in his pocket, and asks everyone to guess the number. Whoever does or is closest gets the cream. If you lose, you could be stumbling around on higher, steeper, more rocky ground, watching your lucky colleague darting back and forth below making two or three times as much money as you.
But on the whole, Gill says, those who can take the physical discomfort and remain stoical about weather conditions and the vagaries of the “cream” lottery will survive and make good money. And treeplanters are earning in other ways too — by having revealing, formative experiences, experiences that enable Gill to affirm, “I love my job.” First, it’s healthy, both physically and mentally: “We can lift and carry, toil and dig, from dawn to sunset after virtually no physical training at all. Perhaps we feel something deep in our fibres that no one else seems to anymore. We can’t help but feel we were made for fresh air and long hours of movement. For manual labor, whose simple rhythms match those of the breath and the fleshy hub-dub of the heart.”
This feeling, Gill says, can extend through a long career, and is not enjoyed only by the big, strong and young: “You can be a grandfather and still do the work . . . . You can be ninety-nine pounds and scarcely five feet tall and perform just as well as a football player. You can be a man or a woman; it makes no difference.”
Planting is good for the brain, too: “Planting trees was a whole, complete task. You could finish what you started in just a few seconds. You could sow a field in a day . . . . Best of all, in a cut block you could erase your old self. You could disappear almost completely.” Also the job is interesting: “Some people think planting trees is as boring and crazy-making as stuffing envelopes or as climbing a StairMaster. I love my job for exactly the opposite reason, because it is so full of things. There are so many living creatures to touch and smell and look at in the field that it’s often a little intoxicating. A setting so full of all-enveloping sensations that it just sweeps you up and spirits you away, like Vegas does to gamblers or Mount Everest to climbers.”
These all-enveloping sensations, Gill suggests, are the Wordsworthian ones that originally formed us and continue to have an effect, even now when most of us are too busy “getting and spending.” Gill paints a scene expressing Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us” theme: “Our workplace is a crash site. Two forces in juxtaposition. One is old and slow, accumulating biomass. It wants nothing more than to build. The other is fast and rapacious – our appetites, seemingly without end. Most days we’re too busy making money to see it this way, but sometimes we look up from the rubble and wood chips. We feel the breeze cool the sweat in our eyebrows. We gaze down at the ocean, where this same earthly breath ripples the water. Tide running in one direction, wind running the other, like the quivering fir of an animal rubbed the wrong way. We feel a mild ache in our chests. A brush with a thing that’s lost forever. Or maybe we feel nothing at all.”
So there is a problem: “Maybe we feel nothing at all.” The old Romantic double-bind pops up: does the nurturing spirit run from nature into humans, or does it also have to be moving the other way, an inherent and proactive receptivity? Sometimes planters turn “a blind man’s eye” on the landscape, and when that is happening treeplanting is more like eating shit, never mind dirt. This is because, as Gill explains it, treeplanters have “so much to overlook . . . the terrible Karmic crimes entailed by piecework.”
These crimes are hyperactivity, monomania, obsession, and thoughtlessness. Gill feels that they are, mainly, male crimes. Near Prince George, she plants with a company that “hired men as exclusively as possible, because men could be relied on to be competitive and hard earning. The result was a camp of mostly males, which led to a culture of furious contagion. Young men working like human piledrivers just to outdo each other. Even the women got caught up in work fever. Most of us were single. Unattached to places, people, and rules, and sometimes even to principled ideas.”
These ideas, she goes on to explain, have to do with understanding that “planting trees was a complicated gesture, a two-faced business . . . . We got paid, sometimes handsomely, by the very same companies . . . that cut the trees down, which canceled the altruism [of repairing the damages of clearcut logging] right out of the equation.” Also, for the companies, “if they plant more, they can cut more, and that is the irony of us.”
So Gill wants treeplanters to be as thoughtful and inquisitive about the job as she is. She feels, and she affirms that “quite a few” of her crew must feel, “that squidgy shame of people who work in high-volume situations. Those hatchery people who stir yellow chicks around on conveyor belts. Farmers of veal and lamb. People who deal in baby creatures. So much to overlook.”
Yet another irony is that no one knows if planting works – if harvestable forests will result 80 – 100 years down the road: “Tree communities were never designed to arise from bare earth. In this sense a forest is a prerequisite for itself.” Also, “we can plant too many of the same kind of trees . . . reducing habitat and increasing susceptibility to disease. We can sow exotic seeds in the wrong place, never knowing what kind of invasive, ineradicable monster we’re creating.” So it may be that treeplanting is just a plot on the part of the giant forestry corporations to quiet public unease about the environment: “As treeplanters, we are simple, monotasking professionals, purveyors of visually effective green-up, or VEG, as the industry calls it for short.”
Finally, Gill wants planters not to be “unattached to places, people and rules.” They should show concern for trees by planting them carefully, and for their colleagues by being safe and sympathetic. Unfortunately, they are too busy, too hyped-up, to do this consistently.
One of the major characters in Gill’s memoir is Adam, her supervisor on that last coastal job that provides the frame story for the book. Adam plans the jobs and how they are to be done, delivers the planters to the sites, supplies them through the day, checks on them: “Adam’s knuckles are scabbed. His fingers are shaped like kielbasa. Most of the time he looks indestructible, like Achilles, like someone with ninety-nine lives. Like most supervisors, he used to plant trees himself, as if he’d been born for it, like so many Poles who set their hands to the job, as if the capacity for physical work was genetic. If the average tree planter rams a shovel into dirt 200 times an hour, bends over 1,600 times, lifts more than 2,000 pounds, and walks ten miles per day, the Adams of our world would find ways to double the score. Adam used to go into a cut block as if into battle, crashing through everything that stood in his way. He was the kind of treeplanter he likes to refer to as the megaballer . . . . Megaballers are men, plus a handful of women . . . driven by earnings but also spurred by more subtle motivations. They are the kind of people who can’t walk past a game of basketball without wanting to join in and slam dunk it or see a mountain without wanting to climb it and spear a flag in the summit. They are industrial athletes.”
“More subtle motivations.” Can the karmic pleasures of treeplanting overcome these motivations — the competitiveness and hyperactivity (represented by Adam) that the job rewards? Or is there something inherently dark in those people who are attracted to planting and who excel at it, something that kills their receptivity to nature and human nature? Gill often describes planting as “a sporting event, like one of those marathon tennis matches that persists for grueling hours until someone grows tired and cracks. Sometimes these alpha struggles break out into actual fights, often over unimaginatively trivial things. Once the blood sugar and the endorphins and willpower have worn off, only anger is left. The old, bold motivator. Sometimes we all try to find things to think about just to stir out fury so that we’ll have the energy to keep going.”
Gill can do this, generating in herself the monomaniacal frenzy of sports culture, but she says she’s not very good at it: “I’m not too bad at planting trees, if only because of the practice. . . . I have the hands of a typist. Being filthy and clammy makes me hate myself. And most of all I’d rather plant a pretty tree than a fast one. Which is one thing a tree planter should never do if she intends to earn a living.” But even if she is less inclined than most of her colleagues to engage in the frenzy of planting, and more receptive to the karmic pleasures and so a better person than the megaballers, she is still disappointed in herself. She is complicit in the frenzy of piecework.
This comes out in one of the more gripping and revealing events in the book, when Adam nearly kills Helen, an older woman, an experienced treeplanter, and a kind of role model (more on this later) for Gill. Helen is an artist: “Hers are tree-planting landscapes, our rain-drab coastal ranges done in the colors of fondant icing.” Helen is sympathetic: “Helen and I make tea and talk in whispers. We talk about art. We discuss what women discuss when left to our own devices. Family relationships, love.” Helen is sensitive. She “talks like a poet, like a broken-hearted person.” In one camp she is assigned to stay with Gill and K.T., Gill’s fiancé, but goes out at night to sleep in her van.
The story of the accident begins with Adam telling the crew, “We’re under the gun, production wise. So it’s going to be an extra long shift.” Gill fumes: “We’re always under the gun or behind the eight ball . . . . The seedlings have nothing to do once they’ve been stuck in the ground but grow for a whole human lifetime.” Adam goes on, “And I want you guys to tell me when I’m driving like an asshole.” Gill reflects, “we hardly ever tell him to slow down.” This, she realizes, is mostly because they can’t get to the block to make money, and home from the block to wash, eat and sleep, fast enough. They are complicit in the hyperactivity engendered by piecework.
Gill is not in Adam’s truck when the accident happens, but Helen is, riding in the passenger seat beside Adam, “as she often does, since they have a nice way about them. They share the fond, silly banter of grown-ups who are romantically immune and therefore safe in each others company.” It’s on the way back, at dusk, that Adam takes a washboard curve too quickly, is temporarily blinded by the sun, and leaves the road. “Adam hits the buttons on the armrest with his fist, and all the windows in the truck hum down . . . . Later it will occur to Helen: He thought to do that . . . . The truck corkscrews . . . meets the surface upside down, skidding with gravity onto the water’s surface. The nose of the truck meets the earth with a muffled bang. Adam tumbles. Helen’s seatbelt snatches her back . . . The truck tips sideways, pinning Helen at the deepest part of the slant. And then the water rushes in, icy cold and dark as iced tea.” Helen can’t release her belt because her weight is on it, but Adam, who has exited on his side, climbs back in over the steering wheel and releases her, “but not without biting off the nail of his index finger. He gets a grip on Helen’s jacket and pulls her into the air.” Then he rescues the boys in the back seat, who are standing up in a bubble of air. He tells them to cover their eyes, and kicks in the glass so they can get out.
Helen is traumatized. She lasts the few more weeks it takes to finish the job, and during that time she and Gill discuss the incident — concluding that Adam and the others want to quickly forget about it. They seem to regard it as resulting from an unavoidable occupational hazard. No use dwelling on it. Gill and Helen seem to think the accident was avoidable, though they provide no reason for thinking this. They interpret the mens’ silence as guilt. Depressed by this, Helen quits. Gill thinks, quite rightly as it turns out, “I’ll never see her again.” She is angry about losing her friend. Of Adam she says, “For days after the crash, he’ll jam his finger in ratchet straps or mash it by accident under tree boxes. Every time he feels that awful crush, I hope he thinks of Helen.”
Yet, as Gill has admitted, they hardly ever tell Adam to slow down. Later she thinks, after Adam has lugged a hundred pounds of trees uphill to her planting area, “We make good money from the force of his turbojets.” They benefit in other ways. At one point Adam turns up to tell her that there are two cougars in the vicinity. At another point he orders the chopper in, asking no questions, when Gill and K.T. discover a bear and cubs in their vicinity. Gill knows that she and the crew are implicated in Adam’s hyperactivity, and even that Adam has a wife in town who feels the same way: “When we see her in town, Mrs. Adam, she can barely look at us, as if we are to blame.” The fact is that Gill is part of the problem that led to Helen’s leaving, and that could be why Helen never kept in touch.
Gill’s view of the tribe gets darker as the story unfolds. At the end it is very dark indeed. When the coastal season is almost over, the crew passes another crew and recognizes them from an encounter the previous year at a logging camp. Gill recalls them as, “A gang of men with work-worn smudges for eyes, pushing their plates toward the cookhouse steam trays. They went at the food as if they hadn’t eaten in days. Their eyes grazed the naked shoulders of the girls among us, the spaces between the straps of haltertops. They kept their hands down and went to work at their plates, shoveling with their forks in their fists. They had the look of people who did nothing but pound and slam, who bled themselves out in tree-planting combat, who smoked pot all night to dull the ache of their battered bodies. We bantered across the tables, but we didn’t intermingle. Like those vanishing clans who’d rather hold grudges than speak the last words of a dying tongue.”
She’s describing brutes. Noticeably this crew is without women, who it seems could not thrive at the logical extremities of the profession. But, again, it also seems that Gill is at least close to the extremities and thriving, enjoying the karmic exhilarations of turbo-charged physical exertion and close contact with nature. She’s even engaged to a megaballer, K.T., about whom the boss says, “If I could clone your boyfriend, I’d be a rich and happy man.”
I think if I were a planter I’d wonder, “what does she want?” “Why does she think my accepting the parameters of the job without complaining is an indication of detachment from “rules” or “principled ideas?” Why does she think that my doing my job indicates that I’m not aware that I could be contributing to a corporate scam or environmental disaster? Isn’t it clear, and hasn’t it been clear for centuries, that civilization is possibly heading down a garbage and corpse-strewn road to oblivion and that no one knows how to stop or change direction? And why would she think that men are more inclined than women to scuttle busily and efficiently over cliffs?
And (though I hate to string out on a topic that is obviously making me defensive) if I were Adam I might wonder why, since she is aware that she has accepted, by way of making a living, the brutalizing conditions and uncertain outcomes of treeplanting, is she so angry at me? Why does she make me a symbol of the whole fuckup, describing me as an Achilles, an insensitive brute who maybe enjoys his skill at killing but certainly didn’t start the whole fucked situation? Do you want me on your side or not?
Or if I were Janice, a professional forester, the uber-company’s diminutive silvicultural administrator, who lectures the crew on “due diligence” (wearing hard-hats, which is impossible, and being careful about the natural re-growth even when it’s dead) while the crew mocks her: “A bunch of words sprinkled over us like magic-dust. We think it has something to do with Due Diligence, which as far as we know means going through the motions of giving a shit while you’re doing something terrible to the environment.” Yet isn’t that exactly what Gill and Helen want Adam and the guys to do about the accident, going through the motions of giving a shit, apologizing for doing things that Gill and Helen actually want them to do?
We don’t get a close enough look at Gill’s colleagues to see for ourselves if her judgments are justified, and we don’t get a close enough look at Gill herself. I think Gill is not telling the whole story. The beginning is there, a kind of fairy tale: “Once, before I had ever planted a single tree, I lived in Toronto, in a student house . . . . Aimee was our alpha female. She had big, curly hair. She clomped around in leather boots with wooden heels. She wore scarves that fell to her knees and miniskirts from sutured scraps of leather . . . . She introduced me to a lot of printed words. Al Purdy. Gwendolyn MacEwen. Tom Robbins. The beats. People who ate drugs and lived like hobos and fell wildly in love and lit up the skies with their voyages through the cosmos. Aimee was a tree planter.”
Aimee’s treeplanting associates, one of them a boyfriend named Dave, were always dropping in, getting drunk, laughing loudly, playing guitars, speaking their strange language. They had, Gill thinks, “a furious way of being.” Dave illustrated this best: He was always moving, bobbing, flowing from one action to the next. He insinuated wind. He never called first, and he never arrived by the front door.” Aimee illustrated other features that Gill connects to planting: “I’d never seen her cry. I’d never seen her anxious over exams or upset about a sub-stellar mark. I’d never heard her complain about mess or cold or waiting. I’d never heard her utter a jealous word.”
Gill becomes fascinated with planting because she likes planters. Aimee warns her: “It’s backbreaking.” “Your back seems fine to me,” Gill replies. And she thinks, “I could stand to have my back broken if this was the way a spine could grow back.”
After Aimee, as Gill tells it, treeplanters have all been a letdown. None of the people on Gill’s crew seem to have “lit up the skies with their voyages through the cosmos.” There is Jake or “Elfie,” he of the third-person monologue: “Elfie’s not digging this action. Elfie thinks this is fucked up.” It turns out that Elfie is into literature: “We listen to Jake talk about the fictional vicissitudes of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. We never pegged Elfie for the bookish type . . . . Such are the surprises of working life, where our talents are mostly hidden.”
Then there is K.T., who has fallen (wildly, maybe, as Gill thinks a planter should) in love with Gill: “built like a basketball player . . . he plants trees like Wayne Gretzky plays hockey, with speed and finesse that elude his own explanations.” While K.T. has some of the features of Dave and Adam, he does demand non-alcoholic beer when he prefers to stay sober, and he cares: “We tend to ourselves as farmers feed their livestock.” And he can express his care verbally as well as physically. In one scene he and Gill confront a bear and her cubs. It’s not that he rescues Gill from the bear, but he’s with her, scouting the bear’s location, sharing her anxiety and his sandwich. When she asks him if he’d stand between her and the bear if it came to it, he says he would. She believes him, and so does the reader.
The trouble is, this has nothing to do with finding your tribe. This has to do with falling/being in love. It’s pretty obvious that Adam would get between her and the bear too. At any rate, the boisterous society of artsy planters that Gill once observed around Aimee in the winter doesn’t form around her. Instead, there is Facebook: “Some of us have known each other for years, since the days of pimples and cowlicks . . . . We Facebook in the winter but seldom call, since we’ve seen too much of one another. . . . We’ve known each other through all kinds of vicissitudes . . . All these coincidences somehow figuring from a distance, like a moon hugs the oceans of a planet.”
It seems clear that there’s no way anyone could ever match Aimee, the artist, the stoic, the individualist. For some reason, Gill never comes around to the realization that her vision of Aimee is not based in reality. That vision derives from some need in Gill that goes unexplored. Or, and this is what I suspect, it’s the result of some sort of feminist theme that Gill wants to enforce on her material whether or not it clarifies anything about the treeplanting tribe. This theme determines that Aimee is a hero and Adam is, if not a villain, a problem. It also makes Gill’s attraction to the megaballer K.T. into an intriguing contradiction.
There are touches in Gill of an older BC writer, Rita Moir, whose concern in Buffalo Jump to connect with her distanced mother is (as I’ve described on this site) so bent by feminism that she ignores her obviously far more caring father and launches into rants about maleness. These rants have her complaining about bull buffalo, who hang out in bachelor clubs while the cows look after the children. Or about the neighbor guy who calmly tries to explain to her that so long as she lets her loyal ol’ hound Connor wander the neighborhood when the local bitches are in heat, he’s just naturally going to get torn apart by younger dogs (like the neighbor guy’s) and require expensive visits to the veterinarian.
Like Moir, Gill can’t accept what is. Admittedly we have to work as a society to ease those hormonal aspects of our personalities that impede civil peace, but taking on Mother Nature has to be done carefully and in concert. A lot of guys will go now for vasectomy, for example, while castration they will probably continue to resist —with the support of some women, like Gill it seems. Even Moir doesn’t want to do it, at least not to Connor. Gill hasn’t gotten much further than Moir in working some of this out. Both have stopped at the conclusion that, when it comes to the problems of family life or treeplanting, testosterone and machismo are usually to blame. What they derive from that, by way of solving the problems, remains unspecified.
So Gill I think was confused about intent, about whether she was setting out to celebrate or enquire into tree planting and whether any enquiry was going to take a feminist angle or be impartial. I think that this confusion, mainly, caused the problem I see in the story. It’s also inclined her to ignore the members of her crew except Adam, who represents the problem as she sees it. No real backstories are attached to her colleagues, and there’s little interaction. As Gill has it, the work of planting, alone in the cut, is the interesting part. Camp life is brutish. I’d bet that most planters would say it’s the other way around.
Gill’’s preconceived theme is matched by a preconceived style. I need to be careful here because her subject matter does come through, especially her sections on the history of forestry, planting, plants etc. And the tension between her attempts to critique (Adam) and celebrate (Aimee) comes through. These two features make this a book worth reading. It’s just not, in large parts, very easy to read. It’s too obviously amateurish, anxious to herd the reader places that the reader can easily and more effectively get on her/his own or that the reader needs a better reason to have to experience.
Her style has been identified by critics as “telegraphic” and “lyrical.” These are the words that pop up most often. Mostly the critics approve, enthusiastically, of this style. Only one, Michael Lawson, who as a tree-planter finds the book very good, has suggested that “others [non-treeplanters who can’t refer back to their own experiences] may find her account too abstract . . . . her lyrical style threatens to under-represent the constant and inescapable numbers game [of piecework].”
The telegraphic aspect of her style is a matter of short sentences, often in the form of sentence parts, phrases, subordinate clauses, words and items in a list that are punctuated as sentences. The lyrical aspect derives from too things. First and foremost is the extensive use of figures, most often metaphor, simile and conceit (Gill is almost totally innocent of irony). She favors, unfortunately I think, simile — the loudest of figures in that it announces itself with “like,” “as” and the speculative “as if,” and in that it draws as much attention to the writer as it does to the subject. It takes the reader’s eye off the ball for the longest period of time. The other feature of her lyrical style is that she can’t hold back when describing something. She doesn’t know when to lay off with the details, and she doesn’t trust the reader to fill in the obvious.
Gill doesn’t favor simile just by using lots of them in concentration, but also by delivering them in strings, as when she writes in a paragraph (quoted earlier) that some think treeplanting has to be as boring “as stuffing envelopes or as climbing a StairMaster,” but that actually “it just sweeps you up and spirits you away, like Vegas does to gamblers or Mount Everest to climbers.” Or when she writes in another place, “Silviculture is a business of tiny things rolled out in big numbers, like grains of rice, like leaves of tea in China.”
Sometimes she elaborates her similes and metaphors into conceits, as when she compares planting to sports or war: “Brian and Adam are our sergeants . . . Heads together, they embroil themselves in what they call ‘a meeting of minds,’ turning topographical maps this way and that, testing the hand-held radios to ascertain which ones have run out of juice . . . . We wait for their plan of attack as if it is an actual attack, a kind of green guerrilla warfare.”
It may seem inaccurate for Lawson to connect this lyrical style to abstraction, but I think what he means is that the analogies distract readers from the material at hand and so distance them. The theory of analogy is that it helps the reader visualize a thing or action; on these terms, the more analogies the better, so long as they are accurate. But, leaving the question of accuracy aside for the moment, and even the question of need for analogy in the case of some actions and objects and in the sense that something needs to be left to the reader’s imagination, the effect of having too many figures in close concentration is dizzying, strobe-light-like.
Here’s a description of old-growth forest that loses me for all the above reasons; too many figures at once, some hard to visualize (inaccurate?), some drifting off into irrelevancy: “Big trees surround us at the edge of the clearing, what’s left of an old, gnarled forest. Storm-battered firs with flattened bonsai crowns. Gnarled cedars with bleached wood tusks protruding from lofty lime-green foliage. Trees with mileage, like big old whales with harpoons stuck in their flanks. Handkerchiefs of mist drift among them.” “Bonsai” is okay; the tops of the trees have been permanently pushed horizontal by the prevailing wind. “Tusks” seems alright though maybe horns or antlers would do better as closer to the top of an animal. “Mileage” applies to cars so the analogy is to old cars but whales are superimposed instead, whales with harpoons in them. This set me to recalling a scene in Moby Dick so that I momentarily had the hankies drifting around the whales.
Or check back at a passage I quoted earlier, about silviculture being a matter of “tiny things in big numbers, like grains of rice, like leaves of tea in China.” Is Gill just showing off when she tells us that rice and tea are plentiful in China? This is what I mean by too much detail. Tea might be more plentiful in India or Sri Lanka, for all most people know or care. Leave China out of it, or make the reference to China relevant: “like grains of rice, leaves of tea, and people in China.” Admittedly there are some large Chinese people, but at least in my version (stupid as it might be) there’s a rationale for mentioning China.
Gill doesn’t always write in this “lyrical” style, and the contrast is instructive. Every once in awhile you find yourself in, as it were, a clearing: “The dirt in the forests of the Pacific Northwest is poor in nitrogen, which is a critical nutrient for plants. Tiny, underground fungi sheathe the tree roots. But they lack the ability to photosynthesize. They draw nitrogen from the environment and convert it to a form the tree can digest. In exchange the tree feeds the fungi sugars. Together they grow, turbo-boosted by each other’s secretions. It’s an evolutionary miracle that the conifers have grown to such soaring heights, and they owe their success to this symbiotic relationship.”
Here the focus is on the details. There are only two metaphors to embellish, and one of them, “sheathe,” is common. When Gill describes dramatic action, too, as in the scene when Adam loses control of the truck, she usually applies metaphor and simile more incisively: “the cab is set ablaze with oblique golden light,” “the cab billows with the strange wind of a roller coaster,” “the truck corkscrews,” “the water rushes in, icy cold and dark as iced tea,” Helen smells “fermented scum” that makes her feel “a phantom touch as if she were dipping her curls ends first into a bucket,” and “the truck’s cab is . . . a familiar space turned surreal, like a funhouse crazy kitchen.” These figures are spaced over 2 ½ pages. The figures — the blaze, the corkscrew and the phantom — are quick, though the latter is erased by the confusing dipping of hair in a bucket. The roller coaster wind I like, and the iced tea too, though it could more quickly have been “the water rushes in, cold and dark as iced tea.” The concluding simile, about the funhouse crazy kitchen, I don’t get, though Gill has described the trucks as ballasted with a lot of sandwich wrappers and broken dash mugs.
But even here where Gill eases off a bit on the figures, unnecessary detail threatens. The pond that the truck crashes into is said to be “one of those quarries at the side of the road that engineers use for road building. A rock face blown out of the ground with dynamite, a deep pond filled with stagnant rainwater that could be shallow or bottomless or rimmed by jellied clouds of tadpole eggs.” Here Gill loses herself in picturesque speculation, impeding the rush of her description. We don’t need to know most of this, and soon the water will be described again when Helen is drowning in it. When Adam puts the windows down, it’s “as if he’d done all of this before, crashed a truck into a pond only to discover that the openings fail once the electronics have submerged. Or as if he’d read it in a survival manual.” More “as if’s.” The speculation on why Adam thinks to do this is not important, and the reader would easily twig on the problem of electronics under water. The truck crashes, “meets the surface upside down, skidding down with gravity onto the water’s surface.” I think readers could guess that gravity is involved. If Gill wants to get all scientific about it, there’s a bit of momentum involved too. Finally, when Adam kicks a window in to get the other planters out of the back seat, a window that’s supposed to be open, it seems that Gill herself has lost the picture, maybe due to her earlier speculation about electronic windows not going down when under water.
I’ve made Gill’s style a secondary complaint — secondary to her moralizing on the defects of planters — because as I said her descriptions come through. It’s just that they could be so much less ponderous and distracting. They are a product of her teacherly attitude to the reader, an attitude that parallels her teacherly attitude to the treeplanting tribe. It’s not credible that planters in general are obtuse victims of a fuck up that Gill herself understands. It’s not reasonable that she would spend 17 years searching the clearcuts for another Aimee, who she seems in her youth to have massively idealized, and that she would finally attach herself to K.T. Her story was replaced by a message, and the result is that neither comes through. What the book needs is a close look at camp life and the characters who share it with Gill.
6475 words May 31, 2012