Saturday, September 28, 2013

Trees in Land - A Much Overdue Tree Planting Post


To a city boy from southwestern Ontario, Highway 527 heading North towards Armstrong feels like a forgotten road, the setting for the opening shot in a mystery film with a criminal on the run. The small white lettering, "somewhere in Canada" appears across the bottom of the screen as fog rolls over the thin, pot-holed pavement, a road with no shoulders and a million winding curves. "Armstrong: 210km" warns the mark on the right hand side of the road, and if a town the size of Armstrong (Pop. 1,216) is the only pocket of civilization worth mentioning, it's a surefire sign you're on your way to the middle of godforsaken nowhere. 

It's early mid-May, May 13th to be exact, and the lakes we pass on the way to our bush camp are still frozen solid, waiting for the late spring thaw. This year the tree planting season has been pushed back a full week due to a late cold front that dumped several feet of snow in the bush surrounding Thunder Bay.  As we pull the caravan of beat up old buses, stake trucks and personal vehicles off the gravel of the 811 into camp, we find several inches of snow still remain in some of the prime tenting spots. Not that there are too many prime tenting spots in this camp. For the first five weeks, we're set-up in a giant abandoned gravel pit, a full kilometer away from the nearest lake. 

After gear is unloaded from the buses and the mess tents are set-up, we stand around huddled in small groups, half of us smoking cheap cigarettes, breath visible in the damp, grey cold. Talk inevitably turns to land, tree prices, and rumors of a new client this year. It's the type of recycled conversation planters never grow tired of.

"I hear we've got a real creamy contract this season," one rookie chips in, optimistically.  Naively.

"Yeah, I heard that, but I think we're getting less per tree," another responds. "They got 9.5/tree last year, didn't they?"

A second year vet chimes in with some new found authority to set the record straight."No, no... it was 9, plus the half cent for production. 9.5 after 2-4. And don't count on cream. You can't trust a damn thing you hear from the office."

"Well, we're working for the same company as Crossroutes, aren't we? So we can just slut 'em in and actually finish sometime before August" another vet responds, then pauses as he glances over to see me standing there. 

The pause in conversation is due to the fact that I'm checking quality for the crew this year. Gone are the days of pounding trees until my hands bleed and blister and my feet go numb. Gone are the days of toeing the fine quality line between passing a piece and replanting it, a balance I like to think I'd perfected in my third and final year planting. My job has shifted to the other side of the fence. It's now my duty to keep the client happy with the quality of trees planted, while at the same time keeping our daily production rolling. We have a deadline, after all, and if I do my job well we shouldn't have a problem finishing the contract on time while maintaining a passable level of quality.

So I laugh in response, and hesitantly reply, "Well... not sure about slutting them in, but quality specs might be a little different this year." 

"What does that mean?" one vet asks, and I'm not entirely sure how to respond. Being new to the job, I'm a little unsure what to expect, and it's nerve-wracking knowing that I'm the one responsible for ensuring that the client is happy when (or rather, if...) they come along to check our trees after I've passed a block. I've been told by head office that this client cares more about density than perfect trees, but this is Greenmantle, and we've always taken pride in our quality, in the knowledge that the trees we plant are actually going to live. It's a crew identity that Greenmantle vets take pride in, and I'm a little hesitant to give any quality related advice at this point in the young season.

Give them an inch, they'll take a mile. And it makes sense. I already know that's something I won't hold against the planters. Heck, I'd do the same if I were still planting, and it's a tension I'll have to live with for the next two months.

As I'm lost in thought, conversation dies down and the group splits off to set up personal tents, level trailers, and hook up water lines. After camp essentials are assembled, the group of sixty-five or so planters shuffle into the mess tent for the first crew meeting of the year. I'm asked to introduce myself, so I start by trying to explain my role, that fine balance between meeting client standards and keeping the planters rolling in the money they've been promised. A thought pops into my head, and I roll with it:

"Basically, it's my job to keep our client happy. He's the guy who's paying you for your services, and I'm the middle man who makes sure your performance is up to par... So, basically I'm your, uhhh, pimp, I guess, and Dave is paying you to keep him happy." It's an off-color joke, no doubt about it, but people laugh and the mood lightens a bit as the rookie planters realize that this isn't your regular office staff meeting. Supervisor-employee relations look a little different in a bush camp, where you're living together, not just working together. There needs to be a little room for play, a leveling of the chain of command when you're not on the block. 

The rest of the meeting breezes abstractly by. Little can be said to properly prepare planters for what lies ahead. The vets know what they're in for, have been dreaming dark dreams about it since early January. For the rookies, no amount of talk can ready them for the reality of what they'll face in the coming days; the slow learning curve of finding the proper microsite, perfecting the C-cut, sliding the tree in at the right depth, straight root pod and all; the uncertainty of six-foot spacing; the difficulty of properly managing land... These are all things that take time and focus to perfect, and the rooks don't yet realize that they are weeks away from making the kind of money they've been promised.

After the meeting some planters head straight to bed, motivated to get a good night's sleep for the days that lie ahead. Others linger around camp, clinging to the company of fellow planters and refusing to head to bed just yet, delaying the inevitable morning and the first of forty days of misery. But one by one planters peel off and hit the sheets, bundling up in thick wool socks, sweaters and toques, praying the $30 sleeping bag they got from Canadian Tire is actually good to the -4 degrees it promises. And praying even harder that the temperature doesn't drop below that, like it so often does in early May, North of Thunder Bay. 


 We fall out of bed and into our rags, still crusted with the grime of yesterday. We're earth stained on our thighs and shoulders, and muddy bands circle our waists, like grunge rings on the sides of a bathtub. 'Permadirt', we call it. Disposable clothes, too dirty for the laundry.  - Excerpt from Eating Dirt, by Charlotte Gill

Every morning starts this way, with a groggy rollover and a resigned sigh. We force ourselves to pull on filthy clothes, soil and sweat stained pieces of fabric, held together by threads wearing thin. I slide the same sweater I've worn all week over my head, holding my breath to avoid the stench of stale sweat, bug spray and damp polyester. As tree planters, we follow a strict economy of clothing. Every load of laundry eats at the profits of the weeks planted trees, so we recycle socks, boxer shorts and long johns, sometimes going 2 weeks between wash cycles. The sweater, a Value Village purchase at the start of May, is my trademark piece of clothing, a shirt that most planters wouldn't recognize me without. It keeps my body warm in the early morning air, keeps the black flies and mosquitoes off my forearms. It's early June now, and the insects have emerged to claim their pounds of flesh.

"What do they eat the rest of the year?!" someone asks incredulously, attempting to fill a grimy travel mug of coffee with one hand, swatting mosquitoes away with the other.

"Nothing, man. They get enough off us to last them 'til the next spring." And it's almost believable. Some mornings I consider bathing in a vat of pure deet before even stepping foot outside. In an average week I'll tear through at least one $8 can of Muskol. While we pinch pennies in many ways, one can of bug spray is a small price to pay to avoid the swollen faces and allergic reactions that occur at least a few times every season. Mel knows what I'm talking about. She got bit so badly her face ballooned right up, eyes almost swollen shut, and she was forced to don a pair of sunglasses for the next three days to mask the fact they'd gotten to her. We call it getting "Fiona'd", after the female ogre from Shrek. Some planters started calling Danielle that after a particularly bad bug-bite incident last contract, and the term has stuck like black flies to a sprayed up hard hat. 

(Note: This is not Danielle.)

The bugs are just one of many morning concerns, as we scramble to throw together a lunch, fill water jugs, and wolf down pancakes, bacon and eggs in the precious few minutes before the bus horn honks and the tires start rolling. I usually don't bother with a plate, let alone cutlery in the madness of the morning rush. Instead, I hold a pancake in one hand, bottle of syrup in the other, and simply alternate which hand I raise to my mouth: bite of pancake, shot of syrup, bite of pancake, shot of syrup. I do this without thinking, keeping an eye on my water as the 2 gallon jug fills beneath the slow, pressure-less stream. 

I learned a few seasons back that it is entirely possible to prepare for a day of planting with little more than seven minutes of prep time. It takes a serious amount of multi-tasking with a very low level of foggy morning consciousness, but tree planters are creatures of habit and once your morning routine is down you can stumble through it almost mindlessly. This year however, I have a new item to add to my morning checklist: a commercial vehicle circle check for 'The Wiz'. 

I drive a beat up old International school bus, dubbed The Wizard after a former Haveman's lifer who would duct-tape empty beer cans together in his hand until he had a walking staff of empties taller than his head, at which point he would slurringly force the rest of the crew to refer to him as the Wizard. It's the kind of magic worthy of a bus-christening and custom German engineered spray-painting, and I was fortunate enough to inherit the keys to the legend that Iz the Wiz. Not that driving a tree planting bus is something most people should aspire to.

 There's something for every sense on the morning drive to the block. The taste of bitter, perked coffee, topped with enough sugar and cream to dull the flavor and inject the necessary caffeine into your bloodstream. There's the smell of soggy, soiled clothing, mixed with whatever foul scents the human body conjures up when stretched to the limit and packed full of fats and carbs and sugars. Most mornings I plug my headphones in, listen to the new record from The National, another album to go along with records from previous years: Dan Mangan's Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Right Away Great Captain's The Church of the Good Thief, Josh Ritter's The Animal Years, anything by Tupac... It's all music that I will forever associate with this time of year, this entirely separate world of planting trees. Other mornings I listen to the rattle of the bus, the spit of gravel, the sound of fresh duct tape being ripped and wrapped around fingers, boot laces and pant legs, the same duct tape you'll find filled with soil and sticks and blood, torn up and discarded in the aisles of the bus, stuck to seats and window frames when you go to clean the rig out at the end of the week. As we drive, we see nothing but the green blur of trees whipping by, the rain or fog against the windshield, the odd hare that darts out in front of the bus and back into the bushes. By the time we get to the block in the morning, I feel nothing but the vibrations of the steering wheel in my hands and forearms, the cramp in my right foot from holding down the pedal. It's sensory overload every morning, but I take it in almost unknowingly, still wiping sleep from my eyes and running over lists in my mind: which planters do I need to check in on today? Who has to replant? Which block is going to close today, and at what time? 

The thing about school buses is that they are built to transport small children to and from school on perfectly paved highways and side roads. Strict speed limits are adhered to. Parents or school principals can be called upon when discipline is needed. School bus drivers generally have their license for more than two days before they're hired to drive dozens of kids around. The children, while sometimes unruly, are at least occasionally bathed, and most wouldn't dream of lighting a joint or crushing a tall boy on the way to school. And that is where driving a planting bus drastically differs from a driving a school bus. Instead of perfect pavement, we barrel down washboard gravel and I call out kilometers on the CB radio ("Bus heading in Kitchen Penny at 11") to the logging trucks that ride these roads, these modern floating log jams. I get static-muffled, mumbled responses in return: "something-mumble-*crackle*-mumble-seven"... It's just enough to inform me of another vehicle's presence, to keep my guard up as I round any corner in a 30km radius. 

Instead of "Maximum 50" signs, I look for fear on planter's faces, glancing occasionally into the wide rearview mirror of the bus to gauge my speed. If I see wide-eyed fear or nervous glances I'll let up a bit, wait for them to calm down or get distracted before I put the weight back on the pedal. If I see apathy, disinterest or tired eyes, I plow on, foot to the floor, for time really is money out on the block. For lowballers (or "small planters", as we're calling them this year) every minute might be worth a quarter, maybe a little more on a good day, but for highballers, every minute wasted on the road to the block could cost them upwards of a dollar, lost money that I don't want to be responsible for.  


As the contract presses on into late June, the mental state of the crew starts to feel a little off-kilter. Bush Crazy is what we call it. Aside from the obvious symptoms of mid-week binge drinking, or the complete loss of social etiquette (Ahem... Spencer...), there are symptoms strewn throughout our interactions that hint at the fact our minds are slowly slipping from us. We talk in fake british accents for hours at a time, conversation centered on the most menial of subjects. On one weekday casually dubbed "Woman Day", a pair of planters work through their piece yelling random bits of female-related jargon at each other: 

"Eating your feelings," Connor yells out.
"Dancing in the rain," responds Jason, plowing through head-high poplars in search of the next microsite. "Sundresses," Connor screams back, to which Jason quickly chirps back, "Feeling bad about my insecurities and blaming it on my boyfriend instead of dealing with it myself!" 

It's an absurd exchange, but it keeps their minds focused on something other than the next tree, and the fact that they've been planting a piece of complete kife for the last two days. As they bag out and climb the steep slash pile before their cache, I see the crazed look in their eyes and I'm tempted to feel something along the lines of sympathy for them. Instead, I catch myself and snap out of it before betraying any weakness. Lord knows I've been there, been thrown in worse land, planted through worse weather. I've seen cream and kife, forty-degree sun and blizzarding cold.  So I bury whatever sympathy I feel and all I offer them in response is the simple phrase: 

"Trees in land."

It's what we say when we've exhausted all rational responses to a situation, when things get so bad we can't begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's a rallying cry, something we say to encourage perseverance in the face of ever-changing adversity. It's a simple phrase, the tree planter's equivalent to "c'est la vie", or Kurt Vonnegut's "...and so it goes". Three simple, world-weary words that simultaneously accept and dismiss everything at once.

So if you're planting through waist high slash, a horde of black flies crawling all over your upper thighs from the block dump you just took, your joints swollen and back aching... 

"Trees in land". 

If it's 2 degrees out and raining sideways, soaking through every 'rainproof' layer of clothing you own and your crew boss just stole your silvicool tarp...

"Trees in land". 

If it's 7pm on the last day of the contract and you've been planting for 12 hours with bloody knuckles, your body sucked dry of all fluids after you've planted what you thought was your very last tree, and your crew boss pulls up and drops you one more box of 500 black spruce, he'll probably just smile and say,

"Trees in land." 


In the west it's said you can plant trees almost year round. Northern Ontario planters aren't offered that luxury/cruel temptation/laughable impossibility, depending on how you look at it. So, after two hectic months, we sit around the stake trucks tipping back end-of-contract beers as evening settles in. Some planters lie draped over the hood of the bus, while others fashion pillows from planting bags and boulders. Dried sweat and bug dope coat everything in the same salty, chemical-laced spray we've been drinking in all day.

The planters have celebrated their last trees, each in their own unique way; one vet plants a tree entirely with his bare hands and stoops down to kiss it good fortune. Another plants their last tree with every possible infraction: loose, duff shot, upside down, J-rooted leaner, and proceeds to urinate on the seedling in some defiant attempt to vent the frustration that built up with every tree planted through the season. A second year hiballer shotguns a beer he's been backbagging for just this moment, crushes the can on the ground, slams his shovel through the aluminum and slides the tree in the beer soaked hole before kicking it shut and raising his hands skyward. "It'll live," he assures me. 

After last beers and tallies, we pile onto the bus and into trucks for a final filthy ride back to town. This drive back to the shop is unlike any other. Whereas most days the ride would consist of weary napping and quiet conversation about the land, the bugs, or the number of trees planted,  all the small talk of day to day planting fades quickly to the back of our minds. A tangible buzz fills the air as conversation shifts instead to what's next: family vacations; prepping for school in the fall; return to a previous, civilized job we'd previously taken for granted. Some talk of travel to the west, or whatever direction strikes their fancy. 

Whatever the plans are, they promise a return to normalcy. 

A return to proper functioning muscles and minds, a healed body and a healthy brain. 

A return to the friends and families that ground us and carry us through the remaining ten months of the year. 

A return to everything we love and missed and longed for, and everything we were trying to escape.