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One tree at a time: Charlotte Gill on how words and trees are similar

 Eating Dirt: Charlotte Gill

From tree planter to creative writer to literary mentor – Charlotte Gill has not followed a conventional career path. The British Columbia author’s 1988 decision to trade her urban undergraduate lifestyle for a summer spent planting trees in northern Ontario was a crucial turning point in her life. It led to 17 years work as a seasonal tree planter and, ultimately, to a best-selling book. It also, curiously, led to The Banff Centre.

Gill’s Eating Dirt – a personal exploration of both the lived experience and the science of tree planting – won the 2012 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and the CBA Libris Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award. Gill sat down with Inspired to talk about her journey from the clear cut to the printed page.

What came first, tree planting or writing?
I am sometimes described as a tree planter turned writer, but more accurately those two things mutually evolved. I began tree planting when I was 19, and I also began writing when I was 19. My first book [Ladykiller] was published in 2005 when I was well into my planting career, so in a way I feel that tree planting was an excellent psychic training ground for me as a writer. As a tree planter, you spend a lot of hours by yourself trying to accomplish something large that is composed of a series of very tiny pieces. In a way, that is not dissimilar to writing a book – one word at a time, one sentence at a time. Continue Reading →

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Charlotte Gill: reading about eating dirt

Literary Journalism alum Charlotte Gill brought her book Eating Dirt back to the Centre last month. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

“I lost the afternoon in a wet smear of movement and sensation. At the end of the day I felt as if I’d been blown and beaten by the slaps of a car wash,” Charlotte Gill read from her book Eating Dirt to a packed house at Canmore’s Communitea cafe. It’s an account of Gill’s many years as a tree planter, and I’m feeling a little guilty about my cleanliness and the cushy office chair waiting for me at my job. But Gill has the skill to bring all of us into the clear-cut with her – which she does at one of the popular reading nights for Literary Journalism.

My experience with The Banff Centre has really gone hand in hand with the growth of my career over time.

In 2001, Gill brought the manuscript for her first book, Ladykiller, to the Centre. Since then, she’s been back for self-directed residencies, and she was also in the Literary Journalism program herself five years ago, making a graceful switch from fiction to nonfiction writing. “I knew I had this experience that lent itself really well to a first person story – a true story,” she says about the genesis for Eating Dirt. ”It just seemed that narrative non-fiction, literary journalism, was the right way to tell it.”

A self-proclaimed urbanite who leads a tea-drinking, cardigan-wearing writer’s life, Gill wondered why she was so attracted to tree planting, something that on the surface was so uncomfortable and unpleasant. “I decided that although I couldn’t think of an answer I would somehow let that inform the writing. If I had to encapsulate it in a nut shell I would say that for every bit of physical discomfort there is, there is an equal opportunity for an incandescent experience and I think that a lot of people really get hooked on those extremes. It’s almost like there’s no way to live in the middle.”

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