02/09/2012 11:58 EST | Updated 04/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Eating Dirt

Over the next few weeks, the Huffington Post will run excerpts from the five finalist books vying for the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Each of the authors has personally chosen the excerpt for our readers, and in his or her intro, explains the choice. After all the excerpts have run, Huffpost readers will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite book in advance of the announcement of the 2012 prize winner on March 5.

Intro from the author:

I used to be a professional tree planter, and for many years, clearcuts were my office. Reforestation is so often a remote occupation--in Canada, the U.S., all over the world, really. Environmental rehab, like the logging that precedes it, happens in the industrial backwoods far beyond public view. And so most of us witness these scenes of geographic heartbreak from a distance--in photographs, and sometimes even from space. (You can see thousands of clearcuts, like missing puzzle pieces in the global forest, as easily as zooming in on Google Earth).

As I was writing Eating Dirt I felt a kind of odd duty to show a different perspective. I wanted to show what it's like to stand in the middle of a razed forest in a boots-on-the-ground, visceral way. I wanted readers to feel transported, as if they, too, had been in the cutblocks, shovels in hand, pounding seedlings into ancient dirt while being pelted by hail and savaged by mosquitoes. I hoped people might feel this earthy and repetitive task in the grooves of their fingerprints, as many of us do, after we've spent years bent over in the fields. Not only that, I wanted them to like it in a weird and surprising way. The way that I love it, even now. It must have something to do with the rawness of being outside, day after day, in the unmitigated tides of nature.

Clearcuts get a bad rap out in our society. It's true they are devastated places, painful to behold, the evidence of our appetites writ large on the landscape. At the same time, I thought I should examine that idea from all angles. A tree planter will walk practically every square foot of a clearcut. It's possible to become quite acquainted with the land. I tried to avoid passing judgment on modern forestry practices, opting instead just to describe what I saw. There's a lot of incredible life in the field. Everything is growing furiously, seizing its opportunity. I could probably stand in the middle of a clearcut, look in any direction, and see a thousand things struggling patiently to get back up after being knocked down. In that sense, planting trees has been one of the most hopeful experiences of my lifetime


MY FAVORITE PART of a clear-cut, if such a thing is possible, is the very top edge, where the stumps meet the old forest. I will have climbed hard to get there, but usually it's as clean as a fairway and is a good place to catch my breath. Inside the pillars of the standing forest, the breeze calms. The air is moist and cool. Many of the trunks are marked with lines of spray paint or ribboned with tape--they've survived by inches, for now. This is the block boundary, where the ecosystem cleaves in two. The ground is still clothed with a thick layer of moss, sometimes several kinds in various colors. Sword ferns sway. The wind rushes through the canopy. This is the voice, according to local indigenous myth, of Dzunukwa, a witch-spirit who eats misbehaved children but whose blessing brings great wealth. Standing in the drip line of these forest grandfathers I often wonder what it must feel like to be a faller. Trees crash down around these men all day, like dinosaurs falling from the sky.

Some people think a clear-cut is dead and ugly, but I don't. To me it is heavy with history and ruination and decay, the way a crumbled Doric column tells of extinct civilizations. Branches with chandeliers of trembling, rust-red needles. The corpses of creatures that once lived a dozen stories in the air litter the ground. I find the wrinkly remains of lungwort, which once hung from upper branches. High-flying tree lettuces that perched in the crooks of the canopy. They look not like organisms that lived on mist and tree bark but like something a scuba diver might have plucked from the depths of the sea. I touch them and they turn to mush or to powder, or they crackle into tiny pieces. Perhaps mine is the thinking of scientists who find rat brains fascinating or surgeons who think of sutures as craftwork. A perception of strange beauty that comes from overexposure and the willful overlooking of the obvious.

At this time of year, before the winter is really gone for good, the slash fields are brittle gray, weathered and skeletal as a bone yard, but only when you look at them from afar. 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. Water percolates just beneath the ground surface, like a pulse beating under skin. 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.

I find human objects, too. Loggers' axes and wedges and chokermen's cables. Mostly they are things that have broken or been used up and tossed aside. Empty Gatorade bottles and juice boxes. Silvery pouches that once held Hickory Sticks and Planters Peanuts. Gas cans that slowly erode, oxidized and consumed by the outdoors. Paint weathers. Edges dull. Sometimes, when the cut is really old, I can't tell what an object is without picking it up and holding it to the daylight. Sometimes I find some stray bit of cast-off machinery. The forest eats the chain saw instead of the other way around.

There is a peculiar energy to a cut block in spring--a cold, moist sizzle. Although the trees are gone, a galaxy of buds and seeds and eggs and creatures waits underground for the right day to burst forth. They build, cell upon cell, with unseen industriousness. Their progress is as inevitable as the French curls of ocean currents or cumulus clouds tumbling across the sky. Nature marches ineluctably forward. It's why blobs of moss grow on cement and mold blackens bathroom caulking. Why we declare war on the dandelions in our lawns. Outside, beyond our fences and sidewalks and window panes, something is always devouring something else. Some ugly, tough-stalked stinker of a flower struggles up out of rubble. It rises, dies off, is eaten or rots down to make room for something else to grow in its place. That's plant destiny. It's our fate, too.

If you could liquefy this energy and turn it into something drinkable, like a green fluorescent protein, you could bottle it and make a squillion dollars. Verdant pastures might spring from deserts. Grasslands from toxic-waste dumps. Humans who drank it would never get old and never need to sleep. Nobody would lose their hair. We could charge ourselves up with sunlight. We could jump over buildings and fling ourselves from bridges and never suffer any injury at all.

Some people think planting trees is as boring and crazy making as stuffing envelopes or a 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. It has a way of filling up a life with verbs that push into one another, with no idle space in between. So that you just can't believe all the things you saw or all the living beings that brushed past your skin.

The next excerpt, from Madeline Sonik's Afflictions & Departures: Essays will be posted on Monday.

Keep watching this spot for news of the others, and information on when it's time to vote!

Learn about the other nominees:

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