Battle in the Woods

  • Charlotte Gill
    Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe. Greystone Books (purchase at
  • Mark Leiren-Young and Tzeporah Berman
    This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge. Knopf Canada (purchase at

Escalated by affect and conflict, both environmental and corporate rhetoric build fictions and factions around claims on the truth. For Tzeporah Berman in This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge, learning to negotiate in the space where those battle lines converge becomes a journey of humility, disappointment, surprise, victory, censure, but most of all, an ongoing acknowledgement that no battle is ever definitively won alone. Mark Leiren-Young writes with and about Berman in what I can only describe as a mixed genre that is part coming-of-age and vocational autobiography embedded with a practical guide to becoming a environmentalist for the twenty-first century. This Crazy Time chronicles a heady past twenty-odd years of Berman’s involvement in the Canadian and later global environmental movements—British Columbia’s early 1990s Clayoquot Sound blockade, Greenpeace, ForestEthics, and PowerUp.

Divided into four parts—Blockades, Boycotts, Boardrooms, and Climate Reckoning—the eighteen chapters move out and back from different environmentalist and personal perspectives: confrontation, campaigning, negotiation, intervention. Leiren-Young and Berman document her rise and battle stories, where Berman enacts civil disobedience, risks and succeeds in arrest, and initiates successful marketing campaigns. But, many of these battle stories are also internal battles, nuanced reflections motivated by finding a way to advocate for the radical change necessary, while addressing the complexity of the problems and the economic and social impact, without compromising ecological values. Not an easy dance. Indeed. Her experiences on the front lines of many campaigns open her eyes to how ecological concern extends beyond class, gender, and cultural lines, and inspires people to stand in solidarity.

Her growing awareness and the ways she navigates (and sometimes stumbles through) the ever-present personal, social, cultural, and political challenges, for me, are the heart of the book, and allows me to forgive her occasional celebrity touting and keeps me reading. She finds she is not immune to typecasting others, and notes, Once you have the environmental lens, you start to see everything through it whether you want to or not. As the book—and Berman’s various encounters with different stakeholders—progresses, this early awareness becomes a formative lesson in her later negotiating strategies. As her confrontations, campaigns, and negotiations demonstrate, every player who battles for control of resources (material or human) wears a particular lens that colours the language deployed. Her challenge comes in learning how to switch lenses, see from the other side. In other words, learning how to make compromises.

Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt, part memoir and natural, cultural, and tree-planting/logging history of the Pacific Northwest, from the get-go rides the reader relentlessly, verbing hard. This tempo becomes clear when Gill writes, I love my job … because it is so full of things … it has a way of filling up a life with verbs that push into one another, with no idle space in between. Her language also leaves no idle space, breathes life into those verbs that kept me reading. There is also familiarity in her prose, a hard-edged romance and road-trip rhythm and vernacular that reminded me of the Beat poets. And, indeed, she eventually mentions reading Al Purdy. Gwendolyn MacEwan. Tom Robbins. The Beats. These writers make their presence felt in Gill’s prose and imaginings: rhythmic resonance, and a mix of dense, stacked metaphors, poetic economy, and rambling descriptions of human and natural landscapes cut in with tree-planter slang and humour. Eating Dirt is a dirty romance of tree-planting culture, though there’s nothing romantic about the work. As Gill pares the ecosystem down to the microcosms of soil, so she strips down the tree-planter to bones and muscle, no modesty, just function. She observes, Mostly, we’re invisible. They are the people that we don’t see during the battles described by Berman. There presence appears as after effects: seedlings, new growth.

But that new growth Gill does not proselytize as antidote to unsustainable logging practices or tree-planters as environmentalist saviours. As often as she evokes the beauty of the land, she takes care to conjure the conjugal mess of that strange industrial marriage between planters and loggers. Dropped off in clear cuts of slash and stumps, the tree-planters must renew the sudden flattening of monstrous biomass, often within hearing of chainsaws that sound like mad mosquitoes. And, this is a financial marriage: We’re pieceworkers, here to make money, a lot of it, in a hurry. For the ones, like Gill, that return yearly, she claims, We’re professional tree-planters, monotasking professionals. Perpetually wet and sweat-soaked and caught up in the ambient complexities of clear-cuts and Pacific Northwest rainforests, the jet-fuel speed, the grunt work, and dirt lust (an itch for land to plant) condition them into industrial athletes.

Though very different on so many environmental levels, This Crazy Time and Eating Dirt are perfect companion reads. They create a fuller picture of the Pacific Northwest’s complex logging and environmentalist cultures. Berman’s book, a heroic tale of a remarkable and renowned individual taking on big issues, provides pragmatic guidelines on how to make collective change. Gill’s book, on the other hand, makes visible that which remains, ironically, largely invisible in Berman’s book: the forests and the smaller players whose lives are interwoven with (and integral to) these forest ecosystems. However, in their endeavours, both make us see the humans—for better or for worse—through the trees. Whereas Berman ends on imagining a changed world, Gill, through the power of imagery, brings us back to the connections between people and trees. Gill admits, Forests for the Future. Forests Forever, as the slogans and the t-shirts say. Not a salve or a fix for the planet, not exactly. We gave the trees some small purchase in the world, and they gave us the same in return. Small battles are as important as big battles; the real challenge lies in not losing that purchase once won.

This review “Battle in the Woods” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 148-49.

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