Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tree planting (part 2)

On my best numbers day of hitting 3000 trees, I got a rush of adrenalin from pushing myself so hard; mind, body, spirit. I had conquered much inner resistance, my sankara's. I had pushed through everything and felt like I was ready for anything.

bunch of butterflies
I spent the first weeks of planting with lots of breaks. For me it was hard to remember it was still a job and to manage my time wisely. I was basking in the non-responsibility of it all. I didn't have to worry about sinking boats, or other people's land and property, no one was asking anything of me, and I was pretty content.

frog bum
One of my tree runner's, Teddy (the person who makes sure you have enough trees to plant in your land), stopped asking me about how many trees I'd planted and instead asked "Okay Sam, what did you see today?" The list has gotten pretty long, "A big blue jay today". I've seen bunnies, frogs, toads, birds of all colours, butterflies galore. My best find, that I am most proud of was 3 lunar moths after a light rain. As soon as I saw it I dropped everything, ran to get my phone with a camera and ran back to take a photo. I continually gave thanks for seeing beautiful land that maybe only 100 people would ever get to see. Growing up in a big city I'm used to land that gets trod on by thousands of people every day. My favourite thing was finding little pockets, like a perfect sitting rock in the middle of ten foot poplar with wild flowers attracting butterflies.

two lunar moths
Pre tree planting I thought seeing chopped forests with scattered piles of macerated wood, called slash piles would be what moved me to tears. "So you go in and plant after they've raped the land?" one friend asked over the phone (who uses toilet paper, paper towels, and stationary like the rest of us). I was angry about the concept of clear cutting but seeing (Northern Ontario) up close, mother nature is resilient and makes lush green spaces no matter how harshly you cut away. There would be other things to make me cry. One of my planting partners Steph, and I, made lots of jokes about the land, we keep fucking mother nature all day long, pounding our shovels into the earth, sliding our fingers in to put that tree in deep, she keeps batting us away with swarms of bugs, slaps in the face with poplar branches, biting us with rocks, always putting up the better fight, leaving us a little more wounded for the next day. Her cruelest trick is wasps allowed to live in the ground.

Frog on slash
The last week of planting snuck up on me and my procrastination determination sunk in. I was ready to have my best week and give my all. I hated seeing my name near the bottom of the list when the totals were printed, I was working, but not like a hardcore tree planter (I could get 1000-1500 trees in and be satisfied. Where other rookies around me were hitting 3000-4000) My Tuesday started like no other. I didn't have my shovel or my planting bags, I was passed a message in the morning that my gear was in the truck that had left earlier. When I got there though, no bags, not even extra bags, and no shovel. I sat for two hours under a tarp and had a nap. Most people can hit at least 300-600 trees in that time, and I was napping. I was passive aggressive and doing my best to not care, "That's a total days break for me anyway, who cares? I don't like planting anyway…" Then some bags and a shovel came. Bags are not instantly one size fits all. They need to be adjusted at the hips and shoulders. Thankfully it was a nice shovel, short and angled. I bagged up (counted out bundles of trees and put them into two side bags. I keep my right side bundles wrapped in their cellophane because my shovel stays in my right hand. I unbundle the trees in my left side bag, so my planting hand can easily grab the loose trees. The bundles are usually 20-25 one year saplings of black spruce or jack pine.) and I went to make my line in.
photo credit - Taylyn
I hate this part, starting at the front, looking for some kind of random direction marker in the distance and just hoping it's kind of straight (but it ALWAYS veers) this was a super shallow piece and I hit the back line (where the natural forest starts) really quickly. You don't plant in the forest but there can be some pockets to fit a couple trees. I peered in, I thought just three trees would fit (6ft apart) when my flight reaction kicked in. Pain seared in my hand and I instantly dropped my shovel, wasps were at me. More blasts to my legs and I was running, tearing off my bags so I could get back to the road. Screaming and swearing and crying. They got my shovel hand right between the thumb and pointer finger. My leg had three stings too and were already starting to swell. I hobbled back to my cache (where I had napped earlier) sobbing with "Fuck!" flying furiously. I put on some Icy Hot muscle relief (best bug after-bite) swore some more and went back to find my shovel. I already had a two hour break, I had no excuse to not plant, wasps unfortunately are part of the job. I spent the next few hours raging with anger. "How come I was here? I'm obviously the stupidest person in the world thinking I can do this, this is not a job for me." I got so fed up I dropped my bags and just walked on the bush road, "I'm quitting, I don't care if there's only a week left. Fuck it all." I said to no one as I picked my bags back up and hauled ass. I planted 2225 that day, a personal best and started two hours late and still had breaks. Yes I would be back tomorrow.

It's pretty but imagine planting trees in that...
At the beginning, the hardest thing about tree planting for me was making quick decisions and then committing to that decision. You plant a tree, take a step and make a new hole 6ft away, but land is not anything close to a perfect field and you have to choose where your tree is going to go, is there nutrient rich soil, is it going to be to close to the last trees you planted? I would hesitate where to throw my shovel and that is the worst time waster. Or I would throw in my shovel and renege. The days that I was angry I stopped being a perfectionist and pushed myself through the hesitation. The first day I hit 3000 trees I knew I conquered that hesitation and knew I could hold onto that for other projects to come. And boy do I have a list of projects.

swamp flower
So tree planting was hard because of the bugs and the wasps and the ever changing temperature. It was also hard to push myself everyday, to not take a break, to think quickly, to commit to my decision, to not compare myself to other planters. It was also extremely rewarding. You don't have a boss telling you what to do. You get to be outside in nature all day long. You are exposed to fun and ridiculous moments every day you go to work. Every tree planter thinks of quitting and how much they hate it, but more often then not the tree planters come back to push themselves through another year. To enjoy in the lifestyle that you get accustomed to out in the bush with all the familiar friendly faces. You get the satisfaction of knowing you're doing something great, planting trees, and making money that you don't have a chance to spend until after you're done. You can treat it like a sport, as a job, as a way to put your whole life on hold for a few months. It truly was an unforgettable experience.

I've been describing these as 'what faeries would ride'


  1. Made me shiver, Sam, especially the part about the wasps - not many other people can understand what that's like, and I don't just mean the stings. I mean the mountain of a day you just overcame, when you can look back at the end of it and realize that not only did you survive these ridiculous circumstances, but that you kicked ass. you nailed down exactly what planting's all about, and I can't wait to swap stories with you:) xx Katia

    1. Thanks!! That's so great to hear from another planter and I'm glad I could capture the moment. So excited for when we have a catch up, YOU were the spark that set the whole 'me + tree planting' in motion!