Working the Land : Labor Day 2012

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I. To live, we must go to work.

II. To work, we must work in a place.

III. Work affects everything in the place where it is done: the nature of the place itself and what is naturally there, the local ecosystem and watershed, the local landscape and its productivity, the local human neighborhood, the local memory. — Wendell Berry, from Citizenship Papers

Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe is an incredibly evocative story of hard manual labor in the gritty clear-cuts of western Canada. For seventeen years, Charlotte Gill and her tree-planting tribe scrambled across scablands that were once forests. Here’s how she describes her job, one that she admits to love and hate in equal measure: “My job is to find these trees new one-hundred-year homes, though I seldom think of it that way. Douglas-firs with slick, wet needles, twigs dressed in green whiskers. I tuck them in with a punch of my fist. I haven’t stood up and I’m already walking. Bend. Plant. Stand up. Move on. The work is simply this, multiplied by a thousand, two thousand, or more. Twenty-five cents a tree.

Charlotte Gill is a wonderful writer, and when she isn’t describing the soggy grind of tree-planting, she goes into great depth about the evolution of the planet’s forests, global deforestation, and the natural history of cedars, firs, fungi, grizzly bears, and much more. It all adds up to one of the best books we’ve read in quite a long time. Here’s one of our favorite passages:

Manual toil is not just a labor of the hand, like knitting or surgery or diamond cutting. The whole body becomes involved, including the mind. If we’re lucky we reach a Zen state in which impulses flow between the nerve endings in our fingertips to the brain’s motor controls, bypassing our intellect almost totally. Time whooshes by while appearing to stand still, and the mental chatter falls silent. When we stand up straight at the end of the day we’re changed in some small way, as if we’ve walked out of a theater after a marathon movie. We’ve been somewhere else. A return to the self after an existential pause.

Here’s more from Charlotte Gill on Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe:

Up close and inside there is always something moving between the broken logs and stumps. The dirt is alive. Before the heat of summer the salamanders, frogs, and earthworms are busy sliding in and out of their holes, as if they were renovating. Slugs the size of bananas leave trails of viscous goop. Every five steps I crash through a spider’s handiwork, a sticky veil across my cheeks and eyelashes. I open a hole and find water at the bottom. I can even see the current, the slow eddying of this tiny pocket of snowmelt as it dribbles through the soil. I wonder how long it will take for this cupful to reach a creek and eventually pour out to sea.” — Charlotte Gill

Also pictured above, a wonderful anthology that will definitely appeal to readers of Eating Dirt:

Working the Woods, Working the Sea is a unique collection of poetry and prose by Gary Snyder, Tom Jay, Holly Hughes, Tim McNulty, Jim Dodge and many more from the North Pacific Coast. Deeply connected to the land and sea through physical work, these writers speak of the beauty and power of the environment, and of their shared labor and sense of community.

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