Crossings

Main_street_in_fog
From Granta:

I was standing in front of our old house: 168 Atomic Drive, Uranium City. The street numbers just visible next to what remained of the front door. Up close, our house didn’t seem so ominous, not like the day before when I’d stood on top of the hill across the street and had the sense of being actively warned away. It had been like peering down into a cold dark pool, our house and all the other houses on our street down at the bottom. Now there was just an aura of strangeness – a lingering hint of menace – like a membrane I had to push through.

I noticed things I hadn’t when I’d come back a few days before and seen our old house for the first time in nearly twenty years: the spruce tree with four branches growing out of what used to be the crown; the sidewalk, running up to the side door and then around to the backyard, where it had been devoured by a hedge that once separated garden from lawn and now covered both; the stillness contrasting sharply with the bright fall yellows of the saplings and small trees dominating every yard, their limbs tossing about in the breeze like sea plants writhing on the ocean floor.

Even after five days of entering empty houses, I still hadn’t gotten used to how easy it was, like I still expected someone to appear in the doorway demanding to know what I was doing. I pushed inside, breathing sharply inward as I always seemed to do when I entered one of the houses. Someone had scrawled cunt is good in foot-high letters by the steps to the basement. Rubble covered the floor of what had been our dining room, glittering with glass from the shattered windows. Holes had been punched and kicked into the walls; cupboards, a dishwasher and even a toilet tank had been ripped from their moorings and strewn about the hallway. Here and there touches of familiarity: yellow and black patterned runner carpet covering the steps to the basement where my bedroom had been, wallpaper with yellow and lime stripes on the dining room walls. Normality broke through in unexpected places, patches in a photograph that had mostly discoloured and faded.

Water dripped steadily from the ceiling in the living room, trickling down from that morning’s rain. A mound of grey material on the floor, moulded by the water into a miniature volcano. Possibly asbestos – our house, like most houses built here in the late 60s and early 70s, would have likely been lined with asbestos panelling. Or maybe just some unknown substance, the detritus of modern life as it starts to decay. Wind, rain, snow enters abandoned house so easily, erasing the boundaries between interior and exterior, man and nature. These spaces had a kind of final emptiness, stale air and a cloying, oppressive silence.

Read the rest in Granta

Misfits

Mists over Vancouver Island

 

Published in Urban Graffiti

The camp was at the end of a dusty logging road, a hundred kilometers up from the highway. The only other settlement was a tiny Indian reserve, just visible through a stand of trees from the road. The camp consisted of four portable trailers, each a city block long, and two smaller trailers, one for the administrative office, the other for the cook shack, the whole lot plunked down in the middle of a clearing shorn of all vegetation down to bare earth.
It had been a tough season, the worst I’d had in the four years I’d gone tree-planting, and I thought the camp would be a good place to go into myself, read the books I’d been meaning to read since I’d gone into the bush, prepare myself for the transition back to the city. The loggers weren’t due back for a few weeks, and we were all given our own rooms in one of the long trailers. The rooms were bare but comfortable, and the steady hum of the generator out the window blocked out the sound of my fellow tree-planters yelling back and forth in the hallway, or playing guitars in their rooms. I found the camp beautiful in a way, an echo of the Northern towns I’d grown up in and almost totally forgot about when I was in the city. The smell of oil and exhaust mingled with the sylvan-sweet scent of fresh-cut timber, and broken logs stuck out of the mud like the remains of a building after an earthquake. Next to the railway cars, a tractor with a claw the size of a small house shifted logs in and out of a twenty foot pile, while fully-loaded logging trucks appeared regularly at the opposite ends of the clearing, sending up plumes of dust, their tottering loads of freshly-skinned trees glistening in the sun. It was like a giant factory dropped in the middle of the woods.

I’d been mildly depressed for weeks. Part of it was how much tree-planting had changed since the year before: gone the free-wheeling travelers, the misfit hippies and punks that had been my solace in other years. The students were taking over, and their bright faces, so sure of their future and their places in it, gave me the horrors. In the morning, they played Van Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ in the truck and at night they gathered for hippy sing-a-longs in the cookshack or even the hotel room, hauling out bongos and guitars. When they started in, I usually went off somewhere to get drunk.

But mostly I was depressed about Molly. We’d been together a couple of years, ever since I’d met her in Vancouver hanging around the punk rock bars when I’d come down flush after my first season. She’d just come back from England and a month after we’d met, she’d wanted to go back, and dragged me to London, introduced me to a whole world of squats, traveling, the London and Europe punk rock scene. We toured all over Europe, staying in hotels and squats in Paris, Madrid, Berlin, going back to London when our money ran out to join up with our pals in the squatting scene, make enough money so we could travel again. We were always in some kind of drama: we both liked to drink, and we’d fight, break up and get back together again, sometimes a couple of times in one day. We had a lot in common too: parents from the old country we didn’t talk to anymore, a couple years on the street when were kids, the right, through those same parents, to British and Irish passports. The desire to leave Canada, to move ever forward. Yet part of the reason I’d come back in the intervening years, discarding my leather jacket and Doctor Marten’s for lumberjack shirts and cork boots, exchanging the ancient grey British and European streets for a mouldy tent and cutblocks of gnarled and rotting logs, had been to get away from her craziness, to remind myself of who I was. That winter had been the worst. Not just drinking, but dope. No longer on the periphery of our scene as it had been in other years, junk moved ever closer until everyone we knew was using and we were smoking off the foil to bring ourselves down after drinking too much.

For all that I missed her, missed our life together. I couldn’t shake the feeling that coming tree-planting had been an enormous step backwards, a part of my life that no longer fit. Yet now that I was in the bush, I was scared of what would happen when I hit Vancouver, this time to no Molly. I wasn’t sure where I’d end up, if I could even go back to London without her. After awhile it was easier to lose myself in work, not think too much about what might be waiting at the end of the road.

Read the rest

Youth

Urban Glow, Downtown Montreal

Published in Urban Graffiti

She was striking, with high Indian cheekbones and olive skin and long brown hair she’d tied back in a ponytail with an Indian braid, and an athletic dancer’s figure which she’d wrapped in a ankle-length leather greatcoat. As she said hello in turn to everyone on the porch, I noticed that, unusually amongst Bill’s friends, she was French.

She’d noticed me as well, because she stopped right in front of me, taking me in with amazing diamond eyes. Up close, she looked familiar though that didn’t mean much: in the month I’d been back in Montreal, every street, face or overheard conversation – whether in French or English – contained some association with a set of vaguely remembered persons or memories. For this and other reasons, I didn’t like to go out much, but that afternoon was special: Bill and his wife Sarah were having a baby shower for their daughter Gisele, who had just turned one.

Sarah, just two years off heroin.

Read the rest here

Uranium City Return, Back to Edmonton

published in Urban Graffiti, December, 2011

Jasper Avenue, Edmonton AlbertaI hadn’t been back to Edmonton in nearly 20 years, not since I’d passed through with my parents at age 15 on my way back to Vancouver. I took the airport shuttle downtown to the bus station then checked in at the Grand Hotel across the street. The hotel looked rundown, but the wooden awning out front and the cowboy bar on the ground floor lent it a frontier feel, made it an apt jumping off point for the journey that would take me to Fort McMurray and beyond to a North I hadn’t seen since just before I’d last seen Edmonton.

Except for a guy who tried to bum five bucks off me in the hallway, the hotel was empty and quiet. I was tired from getting up at dawn and catching the flight from Montreal, but when I lay down on the bed, I was too agitated to rest. I felt my childhood all around me in the quiet streets stretching out beyond the window, the brilliant blue sky directly in front of my line of vision that just seemed to go on and on. It was more a shock than I’d expected to be back. For most of the time I’d been away, I’d suppressed my memories of Edmonton. Or lost them, I’ve never been sure which. I’d been thinking about Edmonton in a roundabout way, as part of that whole first 15 years of my life that involved the North, rebuilding it all piece by piece in my mind until I felt like I could enter it at will. Now here it was, memory made life. If I shifted position, I could just see the neon red CN logo, atop the hi-rise with the vertical black and white lines running down its sides. The CN Tower had been my favorite hi-rise when we’d lived in the city, and just seeing it again felt like a minor miracle and made me as anxious to walk Edmonton’s afternoon streets as I’d once been, in my drinking days, to hit the bars as soon as possible whenever I arrived somewhere new.

To read the rest go to Urban Graffiti 

Uranium City Return – An Excerpt

Published in Sensitive Skin Magazine, Fall 2011

At the end of the road, an airstrip appears, as unexpected as a landing pad for aliens. Instinctively, I look for the Eldorado Mine and the company town of Eldorado that stretched around the lake behind the airstrip and am startled to find nothing but hills and trees and a muddy black field. The plane lands and pulls to a stop on the edge of the tarmac. No one is there to greet us and we get out of the plane and wait. Behind the airstrip are the familiar hills – as rounded and smooth as hills on a golf course, and covered with pine, spruce and budding poplar – so familiar that I listen instinctively for the old rhythms and sounds. Though neither town nor mill were ever visible from the airstrip I can already sense the difference; knowing that I can cross these hills and see only more hills and more lakes makes the silence heavy and oppressive. For a moment it feels like we have shifted dimensions and landed in another time, the turn of the century say, and that the present and even my own past and the past of the town is still in the future and there is nothing here but the rocky hills, the stands of poplar and jack pine and spruce, the warm afternoon sun beating down on the tarmac.

Tim Beckett, Uranium City

The woman and the pilot unload her trays and boxes from the plane, handing things back and forth without many words as if they have been through this routine many times before. At first the woman hardly registers my presence then, when I help her with a few boxes, she opens up a little.

“So you like living in Uranium City?” I ask. Her judgment matters less now that I am actually here. She smiles with the slight trace of irony that I remember as a Northern trait and shrugs her shoulders.

“I don’t know. My mom’s here so I guess I like that.”

A mini-van blazes up the road and stops at the foot of the airstrip, and a woman and a man and two teenagers spill out of the doors. They seem slightly unreal against the stillness. They appear to be brothers and sisters of the woman I came in with. The man is thin and wiry and sports a broad moustache; he takes boxes from the plane and into the van, talking with the others. His speech has a curious native inflection – heavy consonants, thin syrupy vowels, sh for s – as if he learned to speak on a reserve. I help him and the others unload but he doesn’t greet me or acknowledge my presence in any way except to take the boxes from my hands. If I look at him he looks back guardedly, eyes blank, anxious to retreat into the familiar world of his family.

After everything has been unloaded it transpires that the rest of the family is flying back to Fort Mac and the blonde woman is going to drive the van into town. A commotion erupts – no one, it seems, has a key for the airport fuel tank and there is not enough fuel in the plane to get back without a stopover in Fort Chipewayan, a reserve on the far edge of Lake Athabasca.

“I don’t want to stop at Fort Chip!” the man with the moustache says brightly as the whole family points at the fuel tank and the plane, shrugs their shoulders and shakes their heads. Their voices rise and fall, cushioned by the emptiness, and their arguing has a circular frenetic quality, and the more it continues the more helpless they seem, as if any obstacle at all reduces them to bickering and inertia. Watching them I get the disquieting sense that this argument could go on forever if it was allowed to.

A blue Ford pick-up pulls in and a very thin man with slicked back hair gets out, holding a set of keys out in front of him and grinning, as if this too has happened many times before. The truck looks brand new, hardly dented or covered in dust. I recognize the man: he is Jackie Garret, proprietor of the Garret Motel and U-Drive, one of the town’s few remaining businesses, and an old-timer from the town’s other life. We’d talked on the phone before I came up. Jackie greets everyone and everyone greets him, relaxed now and laughing as they board the plane and, relieved that the arguing is over, I hop into the truck and presently Jackie gets into the driver’s side and we pull onto the highway for the seven kilometer ride to town.

At first the view is so exhilarating, I don’t want to say anything. The highway follows the arm of a clear open lake, then cuts between the two rock cliffs where they’d dynamited right through a hill the year before I’d left. Lichen-covered rocks flow from the road, and dusty blue hills float along the horizon, as serene as extinct volcanoes. Every sway, every dip and peak of the skyline slips into place as soon as I see it, so that I feel like I’ve last seen these hills only a couple of days before and this is home and I’ve never really left.

We round a curve and pull into MASL, the seaplane base on the edge of Martin Lake. There is a sign with faded letters: ‘Welcome To Uranium City’ and a number of houses around a giant white seaplane hangar. The houses are abandoned and fading to grey and the hangar is bolted shut, the white paint on its flanks peeling off, exposing grey wood underneath. Subconsciously I’d expected to find these buildings inhabited and still in use and seeing them abandoned shocks me a little. But the shock is mitigated by obvious signs of life – two seaplanes sit in the water in front of the hangar and further up the lake is the old Kiwanis Beach looking pretty much as it always had: swings on the shore and children’s slide in the water; rocky hill rising behind the sand and water sparkling in the northern summer sun.
We cross a bridge over the river that runs along the edge of town. One more turn and we will be on Uranium Road, the main thoroughfare through the city.

“It’s a hundred times worse than you could ever imagine it,” Jackie says abruptly, “you won’t believe what’s happened to this place.”

He is right.

There are some experiences so profound, so monumental, that you cannot even try to predict what they will be like before you go through them. Despite reading Deborah Foster’s article, despite being fascinated my whole life by ghost towns and derelict buildings; despite being well aware that the town I am about to see would have little in common with the town I left behind, I am completely unprepared for my first view of Uranium City.

Uranium Road leads up a short hill and disappears around a corner. There are the familiar outlines I’d recorded through the undiscriminating lens of youth – the green stucco mass of the old hotel, the yellow cinder block cube that was the bakery, the two-story concrete building that used to be the car wash. But what I had recorded as a young man was open windows, vehicles, people, movement – now there is only parched brown earth and an eerie oppressive stillness. But for a yellow backhoe parked in front of the old car wash the street is completely deserted; even the windows have been blocked by lengths of greying plywood. Disintegrating concrete steps lead to the hotel’s main entrance; the awning has fallen away and the single steel door has been sealed firmly shut, a giant ‘EH’ spray-painted in yellow across the metal surface. Already there is a sense that this is a place that has not seen much movement for a long, long time.

The hotel is particularly hideous. It reminds me of a set of housing projects I saw once in Newark, New Jersey that had been torched and gutted in the sixties and then just left. It radiates the same sullen negativity, an emptiness that spreads to everything around it.

The Garret Motel is a sparse collection of blue and purple trailers decorated with white trim directly across from the car wash. A ragged Métis man stops Jackie at the front door and asks him for ten dollars. Jackie gives him the money then, when the man has shuffled away, he says, “Better take your bags inside while I check you in.”

“Lot of thieves around here?”

“No, not too bad. But if you leave them long enough they might just grow legs.”

In Jackie’s office the curtain are drawn over the windows and a single desk sits in the middle of a carpeted room. Papers and assorted debris cover the desk and the floor and the single couch in the corner – a road map of the USA takes up one wall. I sign for three nights; almost $250 in total with tax and Jackie gives me the key and tells me where my room is. There are eight rooms in all but as far as I can tell I am the only guest. The room is bare but comfortable, with a small bathroom, a double bed, a TV, and a lamp on the single night table. On top of the TV are two Bibles, open to the same page and stacked one on top of the other. In the centre of both pages is a passage from the book of Ezekiel:

“Thus says the Lord God, ‘When I shall make you a desolate city, like the cities which are not inhabited, when I shall bring up the deep over you, and the great waters will cover you,

“then I shall bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I shall make you dwell in the lower parts of the earth, like the ancient waste places, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I shall set glory in the land of the living.

“I shall bring terror upon you, and you will be no more; though you will be sought, you will never be found again.”

I study the passage for a minute, wondering who would have left the Bibles open like this and whether it is meant as some kind of message. Then I open the curtains to let in some light. Just beyond the window is a pile of wrecked cars, some sitting upright, some on their sides or piled upside down on other cars as if some massive accident had taken place a few years before and everything had just been left.

Too restless to sit still for even a minute, I put my bags on the bed and step back outside.

Going Back to the Old Hotel

Uranium City Hotel, Uranium City, Saskatchewan

published as ‘The Hotel’ in the Evergreen Review, Jan 2013

Weeds rise from the cracks in the underbrush along the edge of the parking lot, reaching up the concrete steps to the hotel’s main entrance. In the fog, the weeds look febrile, like they are about to crawl right up the walls. I climb the steps, pull on the steel door that once opened onto the lobby. Locked tight, as they’ve been since 1982, when the hotel closed. Up close, even the yellow ‘EH?’ that decorates the front and back of every road sign the seven kilometers from town to airport, looks faded, like it was painted a decade or more ago. Even the steps are crumbling: a few more years and they will collapse altogether.
Yet pull back a few feet, and the hotel looks as impregnable as a fortress, a block long three story building of green stucco, so monumental you expect it to remain standing long after every other building has collapsed into the ground.
The door to the Zoo bar on the ground floor is just below the big ‘Welcome’ sign carved into the concrete slab behind the parking lot, black letters painted on a white background, the first thing anyone sees after they turn the corner into town. To my surprise that door opens without resistance, and as I step inside I want to believe that despite the outward signs of abandonment, inside the hotel will still be functional — the bar and café, just as they used to be, maintained and frequented by townspeople who never left – who file in through underground tunnels to drink beer or shoot darts in the bar, or gather in the upstairs café for coffee — a parallel existence, cut off from the rest of the town by the boards over the window, the hotel’s menacing stillness. Stepping inside, I almost expect to see lamps or candles, hear music, hear a voice from somewhere deep within, shouting out a greeting.
Or a warning.
Stale air hits my face like a liquid wall. The door slams shut behind me and everything is dark until my eyes adjust. A shaft of light reaches through a broken window at the back of the bar. The bar is much smaller than it appeared when I stared through that same window, waiting for a miner to get me and my girlfriend Willow a six-pack. Hardly big enough for a hundred people. The little round tables that cluttered the space have been taken away, and lengths of wood cover the floor next to the single beer counter which has been kicked over on its side. The bar fridge, still protected by a half-dozen heavy glass doors, sits against one wall. A Carling Old Style box, cardboard warped with age, lettering faded white with yellow borders, sits in front of one of the doors.
The air is as heavy as the air in a cave — decades of rot, of mysterious man-made substances vaporizing in the stagnant air. That fake wood paneling on the walls like some ’70s basement den. I can almost imagine how it would have been, even if I was too young to ever actually get inside. Cigarette smoke hanging below the drop-down chipboard roof, country music wailing off a battered jukebox, plenty of drunks, white and native. Maybe some greater sense of transience than the average small-town bar, with the miners coming in from the bunkhouses, the natives by truck and skidoo from the reservation towns fifty, a hundred miles away. The fights spilling out into the thirty below cold with the northern lights crackling overhead like signals from a distant planet, the taxis pulling up outside, depositing miners, people from around town. She’d taken me down to see it, many times. It was like a carnival, electric and a little dangerous, faces brighter in the lights and the cold. Then the announcement that the mine was closing and for a few weeks everyone in town coming to the bar wondering what the hell they were going to do, how they would fight the powers that had torn their lives apart, until one February afternoon the moving vans pulled up off the ice road to that barren parking lot outside.
Light, fainter than from the back window, slants through the door that leads upstairs to the hallway and I follow it until I am standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor, next to the men’s bathroom where I’d scored pinners of bad weed when we couldn’t get weed anywhere else. The hallway looks as if an army of looters has run amok, scattering acres of debris over the industrial carpet which still covers the floor, knocking holes in the paneled wall. The trash seems almost incongruous, since the three kilometers of abandoned houses outside are mostly empty, denuded of the furnishings that must have been left in great abundance when the town was abandoned. It’s as if all the refuse, all the artifacts, from the rest of the town, has been swept up and dumped here. The carpet is buried; I can’t even make out its original color, and in places the debris is ankle deep. The air smells of mold, plaster dust, a sulfurous decay that could be anything from rotting asbestos to corroded pipes.
It is too much to handle, so I go up to the second floor, an area I never saw when the hotel was open. Light, muted by the fog, streams through an open window and into the hall, so that the rooms at the end of it appear to glow. Like downstairs, the walls have been kicked in, the floor covered in trash. I bend down to look at it. Newspapers from late 1981, the first months of 1982, beer cans with whitened logos, indecipherable plastic bottles, some papers with the town council letterhead on them, copper pipe, electrical wire, lengths of wood; refuse too decayed or fragmented to identify.
The ceiling here is only a foot above my head, the rooms off the hall too narrow for more than a bed, a night table. Must have been a hell of a place to stay, with the brawls spilling out into the parking lot, the local girls coming up to hang out with the miners, the parties continuing in the rooms until the early hours. The floor buckles as I walk down the hall, enough to make me cautious about each step. Some of the walls between the rooms have been bashed in, and in the back of the building entire sections of the exterior wall have been smashed out. The ceiling sags until it reaches the end of the building where it’s collapsed, exposing the rooms to rain and wind. Graffiti runs across every wall: ‘Laureen sucks cock!’ ‘Fuck you whore!’ — the same graffiti kids write everywhere. The dates on the walls start at 1985, and run right up to the present. So the kids keep coming here, year after year. Do they come at night, carrying flashlights and cases of beer? Do they kick in the walls during the day, ignoring the adults on the street below who in turn ignore them? The holes in the back look like they were knocked out with two by fours, steel beams. One room has been so badly damaged it opens right onto the lot behind it.
No way this kind of damage was done by kids. Not small kids anyway. Maybe it was someone I know, one of the native guys we used to hang out with in the parking lot on those winter nights, one of the native guys who stayed behind when everyone left — coming here during those hard years when it became obvious that no one was coming back, and nothing would ever happen here again. What a relief it must have been, in the face of that knowledge, to come up here, drink beer and smash holes in the wall until you saw the whole town spread out below you and the phosphorescent sun glowed through walls and ceiling and warmed your flesh.
Back downstairs, I am a little shaken. Even if I understand the violence in the abstract, it freaks me out to think of someone I know coming here to tear this place to pieces. The hotel was the center of town, and I wonder just what happened in those dark years when everyone who was still here was stranded. The hotel is less menacing than some of the other buildings, where you feel angry forces seething in the darkness; here it is just eerie, as if, despite being at the heart of the still occupied center of town, it is that much further removed from the town’s living history. Downstairs, the rooms seem to go on indefinitely, opening onto black holes, burrowing deep underground. Somewhere down a hall is the old Chinese restaurant, the Stope bar, a respectable drinking place to offset the bedlam in the Zoo. In the darkness these rooms appear without form, denuded even of air. And perhaps after so many years of being sealed away, the oxygen has gone, so if you did venture back there, you would slowly asphyxiate and never come back.
At the end of the hallway, light creeps in through the cracks and holes in the plywood that covers the windows, illuminating the lobby in multiple shafts of grayness, like the light in the depths of an old stone church. The lobby ceiling is at least fifteen feet high, and the front desk where the old Chinese manager used to stand, toothpick in the side of his mouth, is virtually intact, as are the rows of boxes for keys and mail. Even the windows here, unlike in virtually every other abandoned building in town, have been preserved, protected by the plywood that went up when the hotel was closed — as if they expected to come back, pull the plywood down, open the hotel up again like nothing had happened. And I can almost imagine it: the hotel coming back to life. The foggy light streaming through the tall windows as it did twenty years ago on fall afternoons when I came here with Willow after school. Watching the breeze scatter red and yellow leaves across the intersection. The first snowfall, wet flakes spiraling out of dark grey sky and landing against the windowpane, the metal door banging shut every time someone came or went. Mrs. Mercredi, the daytime waitress, emerging from the gloom, coffee pot in hand, taking us in with that knowing smirk as we edged into one of the booth tables in the cafeteria.
But even if the plywood did come down, the steel door would still be sealed shut, the floor covered ankle deep in garbage. The air would still taste stale and faintly poisonous. And this place would still give me the chills. Even if the lobby is relatively intact, there is a sense of being completely removed from the rest of the town. I can feel the ghosts lurking in the darkness at the back of the building, where the cafeteria and the lounge used to be. I sense that if I stay here too long, I will be absorbed into the cold air, the trash decaying on the floor, the indefinable film that coats every surface. Like the debris, the ghost presence that lurks everywhere in the empty town seems concentrated here, as if the lobby is the place where the spirits gather before spreading out to their posts in the abandoned town. Even the emotional twists that have yanked me to and fro for the five days it’s been since I got town seem concentrated here, so that even as I stand stock still, I feel alternate forces of fear, longing, elation; overwhelming and crushing depression.
I turn to go, glancing back at what had been the cafeteria. The booths, round counter seats and even the counter have all been ripped out, leaving a row of plugs on the laminated floor. It looks so ghostly, so absent, I can’t bring myself to cross the barrier of the doorway. I wonder if she ever came back, in the year or so after the mine closed, when the town had yet to completely empty out and the hotel was still open, when it still seemed by some miracle that the town might be saved. I wonder if she sat at one of those booths staring out at the winter dusk, looking on the fast-emptying downtown, sinking into the shadows that must have already been creeping in.
I step carefully to the back of the hallway, suppressing the urge to check behind me for the figures I feel there in the gloom – to run, gasping for oxygen, the steel door banging behind me as I rush back onto the silent street. It feels almost sacrilegious to be here now, as if the hotel had become a tomb. And perhaps that’s exactly what it is – a tomb at the heart of the town.
Outside, the air tastes cold, fresh, alive. I release the metal door and it taps closed, the sound muffled by the fog. The street is so still, I can feel my heart beating, like the echo of a metronome, ticking away in the gloom.
I won’t go back inside. The hotel, of all the buildings in town, deserves to be left alone.
My footsteps crunch on the gravel as I walk to Main street. The Robinson’s Drug Store, the CIBC bank, the MacIntyre shoe store, the pinball hall. Everything boarded up, bushes pushing from the concrete. Charred beams, distended pipes sticking out of vacant lots. No one around, even the Athabasca, the town’s only remaining restaurant, locked tight. Fog cloaks the end of every street, and as I continue down Main Street, I feel as if I am walking through an abandoned cathedral.

Finding Myself on the Heygate Estate

Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, in Sunshine

I moved onto the Heygate Estate in the fall of 2007, after answering an ad in Loot. Twenty years before, when I’d lived in a squat in one of the warren-like brick estates across the New Kent Road, I’d look up at the prison-like terraces of the Heygate, and wonder, “who the hell would live in a place like that?”
Now, I was about to find out: people like me.

I went round on a Saturday afternoon. The flat was high up in the monolith next to the Elephant and Castle train station, one of the half-dozen monoliths that make up the outer wall of the estate, and I walked up the curving gangway that led up off the Walworth Road with some trepidation. I’d talked to my flatmate/ landlord to be on the phone just the day before and he seemed reasonable enough. He’d had a pleasant, regional accent, and seemed pleased that I was North American, that I’d lived in New York before coming back to London since he’d been to New York the year before – we’d even seen the same Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Part of it was the estate’s sheer size: the terraces loomed overhead like the riggings of a battleship, and all summer the papers had broadcast a steady stream of accounts of murder and teenage mayhem taking place on estates like this one. I’d heard stories of crack houses on the upper floors, hookers hanging out on the streets at night. Even if I’d spent a good part of the intervening years not far from nightmare 60’s estates like the Heygate, or even more marginal – and dangerous – areas of Brooklyn, I wondered if I wasn’t going to be assaulted or robbed on my way to the viewing. Yet I was curious as well. I’d never been up the estate before, and had always wondered what it was like inside. If nothing else, I’d get a first hand view.

No one was waiting for the rickety tin can lift that bore me up to the building’s upper reaches, and no one was on the terrace. Barry met me at his doorway, standing behind the metal gate the protected the door proper. (MISSING PAGE – LOOK IN PREVIOUS COPY.

Going back home to Uranium City

main street, Uranium City, Saskatchewan

 

The vehicles began streaming in on Friday morning and by late afternoon almost 600 people had arrived at the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park for the 2001 Uranium City Reunion.
Almost 20 years had passed since Eldorado Nuclear announced the closure of its Beaverlodge Mine, which led to Uranium City losing over 80 percent of it’s population in just six months. But this last summer, ex-residents drove or flew in from the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and, in my own case, Montreal, Quebec.
The town they came to remember sits on the opposite end of the province, just 40 km south of the NWT border and divided from the rest of Saskatchewan by Lake Athabasca. Just 200 people now call Uranium City home. And, beyond the barely occupied downtown core, empty houses, schools, and public buildings stretch over three or four kilometers of some of the most exquisite country in the Canadian Shield.
In the 1950’s, Uranium City was a boomtown, fuelling the British and American nuclear weapons programs. Later, it fuelled the Candu reactor, which was supposed to put Canada at the forefront of the nuclear industry. By the late 1970’s, it was to be a model northern town. Candu High, built in 1978, was the best-equipped high school in the North, and Eldorado Nuclear spent $100 million on new roads, cedar-panelled houses, bunkhouses, offices and improvements to the mine. Declining ore prices and an inexplicable change of policy put an end to that.
And yet, both town and reunion area testament to a community that survived – aided, curiously enough, by the internet – two decades after being deserted by the very industry which gave it life.

“The veteran prospector came – heavy-bearded, with face burned brown by a thousand suns, roughened by sand and wind. The novice came – protégé of God alone. The drifter came – forsaken of both God and man, searching for a new beginning. All of them were lured by the golden promise of an awakening North.”

– Des Fogg, a Uranium City journalist, 1959.

Uranium was discovered near Beaverlodge Lake in the late 1940’s, and Eldorado Nuclear, which supplied ore from Port Radium, NWT to the Manhattan Project, sank three mineheads which in turn set off a staking rush. Thirty-three mines – some no more than a hole in the ground, some large enough to require bunkhouses, stores and even townsites of their own – set up in the area.
Uranium City grew apace. The first store was a tent set up by Gus ‘the Famous’ Hawker, an English immigrant who made headlines back home when he chartered a plane and flew to London with his six daughters to see Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Tents and shacks sprung up around downtown, then a hotel, bars, cafes and a movie theatre. Main street was as busy at night as it was in the day; the flood of men and money outdid the Klondike rush of the century before.
In 1959, Prince Phillip paid a visit. Then, that same year, both the British and American governments cancelled their contracts for Canadian uranium. Every mine but Eldorado shut its doors.
Soon, the town’s fortunes rose again when the Canadian government began stockpiling uranium for the Candu. Uranium City’s population grew. Locals were encouraged to invest in businesses and miners and their families were imported from as far away as the Phillipines and Germany to fill the new housing complexes around town.
Then, on Dec. 3rd, 1981, came the announcement that Beaverlodge Mine was closing. Protests were made, petitions circulated, meetings held, all to no avail. When the winter road opened across Lake Athabasca in February, moving vans rolled in from southern Saskatoon and Edmonton and for a few weeks the ice road as busy as the Trans-Canada highway.
My family lived twice in Uranium City, first in the 60’s, then the late 70’s before we moved to Vancouver in 1980. When we left for the last time, I was 15 and yet I neve forgot Uranium City or the North.
In the 60’s, there remained an echo of the frontier, and bush pilots, prospectors, and trappers were as much a part of town life as the miners and retailers who made up the bulk of the population. By the mid-70’s, Uranium City was coming into its own as a stable community, and yet, accessible only by air and the winter road, it was still very much the frontier. Summers and winters were spent outdoors, and stepping into the country, one felt hundreds of miles of uninhabited territory out beyond the town; at night the Northern Lights crackled overhead.
In 1996, I went back after an absence of 16 years. The first days were difficult: much of the town looked as if it had been ransacked by an invading army, then abandoned; roofs and walls had been removed, doors swung loosely on their hinges, and every window was smashed. Our old house had been stripped to bare wood and graffiti covered the walls. Candu High was little more than a concrete shell, dark and cold at its core, with refuse strewn across the floors.
I returned in 1987 and 2000, partly to research a novel I wanted to write about the town, partly out of curiosity. The population is mostly native, a change from the old days when the population was mostly white. The people who stayed did so for the same reasons that people have always stayed in the North – a love of the land or a disinclination, for whatever reason, to live in the south.
James and Luffy Augier were born in Camsell Portage – a Metis community 100km to the west – some 60 years ago and lived in Goldfields and Gunnar Mines townsite (where James began work in the mine at age 14) before moving to Uranium City in the 60’s. James started his own construction business: by the time the mine closed, he was a millionaire. Now, James guides in the summer and hunts in winter, remains active in Metis politics, and lobbies the government to clean up the town. Though five of his six children have moved south, James and Luffy plan to stay as long as they can.
Danny Murphy moved here in the 1970’s with his wife Pat. They took a lot outside of town and lived in a canvas tent while they built their first cabin from logs and timber from the abandoned mines. Four cabins decorate their wooded lot, ornamented with license plates, moose and caribou antlers, cast-iron stoves and other memorabilia. Danny doesn’t miss the south:
“The government wants us all to clear out but we ain’t going. We like the country up here.”
Andy and Clarice Schultz plan to move here in a couple of years when Andy, at age 43, retires from his job in Alberta. Andy was born and raised in Uranium City but left upon graduation in the 70’s. He came back 20 years later and decided that Uranium City was where he wanted to be. A few years later, he met Clarice and they took over his old family home and a cabin on a nearby lake.
Last year they crossed Lake Athabasca five times by skidoo, bringing up supplies and getting ready for the permanent move.
In 1952, Jim Price went down in a white-out over Lake Athabasca and walked for 24 hours across the lake to get help for his three passengers. He got help, but lost both his feet. Now, at 71, he lives near the seaplane base and flies for his own pleasure.
Although Uranium City has experienced far more than its share of pain and darkness, these people and others provide an echo of the old frontier spirit. This is a town, after all, where the post office is run out of the local jail, where people think nothing of traveling hundreds of miles by boat or skidoo, where a Canada Day Parade is still held on Main Street, where kids play hockey in the deserted Legion.
Len Kilbreath began the ‘Friends of Uranium City’ website in 1996, for the purpose of promoting the 1997 reunion, which was the first to be held in Cypress Hills. There’d been other reunions, which drew a couple of hundred people, as well as an annual New Year’s Dance in Saskatoon which always had a good crowd – but Len and his wife Joyce put on the first large scale reunion near their home in Vernon, BC in 1992, drawing 400 people.
“It was like stepping back in time, seeing people who’d shared their whole life together and really built the town.”
Encouraged by this success, they held the first Cypress Hills reunion in 1998, which brought in 700, most of whom hadn’t seen each other since the mid-80’s. Len spruced up his website, adding photos, articles, and an address list which quickly grew to over 1000 names. For the first time since the mine closed, people began to find their way back to each other. The years after the closure left much anger, shame, and bitterness in their wake, and in a way the Internet provided the perfect medium for people to make contact with the town – and each other – because of its relatively casual nature.
It was through this website that I discovered a dozen old friends, some I see regularly, some I just keep up with through the odd email or phone call.
The 2001 reunion lasted three days. Most of the 600 people were in their 50’s or 60’s, their faces etched by the cold or long hours in the mines, slightly out of place in the resort setting. There were plenty of children as well as 50 or so of my ex-classmates from Candu High, now in their mid-30’s, married with kids of their own.
To many, Uranium City had been the only place they’d known when the mine shut down. The subsequent years when their friends and neighbors left and the houses were abandoned had left a wound that will never totally heal. And yet they retained their easy closeness, and the habit of finding absurdity and humor in any given situation: traits that had made living in Uranium City so memorable.
Now, Uranium City struggles year by year. The hospital is set to move in the spring of 2003 and most resident feel that when the hospital goes, the government will cut basic services. But deadlines for the move have come and gone before and there are hopes that the hospital might stay a little longer, just as there are hopes that the price of gold might rise and the gold mine at Goldfields might open again, or that a ‘rare earth’ showing 30 km out of town might clean up the tailings ponds left by the Gunnar and Lorado mines, or that the town site itself will be cleaned up, or that the fishing lodges and spectacular countryside will bring in enough tourism to keep the town going.
As long as there are people in Uranium City, there is hope that one day the town might blossom once more.

Notes from the Cut-Block

Tree-planters, British Columbia

 

A truck horn goes off in the cold pre-dawn, pulling you awake into the gloom of your tent. Limbs and head and back ache with days and weeks and months of imcomparable fatigue and it seems easier to just lie there and let the rest of the crew go to work without you. But you get up anyway, pulling on clothes made damp by the night air, and stumble outside. In the cookshack dozens of other people are huddled around bare wooden tables, making lunch, eating breakfast, talking. Music blares from the kitchen – often but not always Bob Marley, Dire Straits, or the Talking Heads. You make lunch, the cook makes you breakfast, you sit at a table with a few people you may or may not know and eat. Soon you gather your lunch and your planting gear and jump into an idling pick-up, again with people you may or may not know. Three, four, five pick-ups pull out of camp and you ride through thick forests, past huge logging trucks weighted down with felled timber, up steep mountains on disused roads scarred by holes and deep water bars until finally you reach the cut-block.

This is the hardest part of the day, harder even than getting up. A tangle of logs and brush and patches of moss works it’s way up or down the hillside to the edge of the forest. You get out of the truck and have a coffee or a cigarette or perhaps just stand there in disbelief that this is where you are yet again. Already, further down the road, several people have started to work. The white canvas bags strapped to their waists groan under the weight of the trees strapped in on either side and they move with a strange bobbing motion, banging their shovels into the ground, grabbing a tree from their bags, bending over and sliding the tree into the hole made by the shovel before standing straight and closing the hole with their foot.

It seems undignified to say the least. But you are here to make money. You strap on your bags and start in. The motion that leads from shovel into dirt to tree in hand to tree in hole to hole pushed shut is so automatic that a kind of internal machine takes over. You plant one tree then another then another through hundreds and even thousands to the end of the day.

 

I first went tree-planting eleven years ago. I was twenty years old and looking for a way out of the nine-to-five labouring job I was stuck with in Montreal. A friend had gone the year before and I decided to follow him out west to B.C. where we ended up in a bush camp not far from Prince George.

The first morning the foreman showed all the new people how to make a hole in the ground with a shovel, take a seedling from our bags, put the root plug in the soil and close the hole with our foot so that the tree was straight up and down and firmly anchored in the ground.

“Once you can do this a thousand times a day,” he told us, “you’re set.”

A thousand trees was a hundred and fifty dollars and this was what my friend said I should be making. It took me almost two weeks to reach that benchmark but that was okay: everything else about tree-planting made it worthwhile. The foreman was an old hippy who had been planting trees since the early seventies. He tied his silver hair back in a ponytail and had tattoos running up and down both arms and he treated everybody, even young recruits such as myself, as an equal. The rest of the crew came from across Canada, as well as France, Australia, Germany and the UK; there was even a hillbilly couple from Oregon who planted trees year round in the U.S. but came north for the spring because money and conditions were better. Many spent the off-season travelling across Asia or Latin America; one man had just finished a two year trek across Africa. Almost half the crew was female and, along with the obvious sexual allure, the presence of women made the riguors of camp and job less intimidating. Camp life was civil and courteous; men and women both liked to drink and tell stories; everyone enjoyed each other’s comany and no one seemed too concerned with how many trees you put in the ground. Even the food was superb. The cook had been trained in haute cuisine – in the morning we had fresh bread and eggs hollandaise, in the evening duck a l’orange and beef bourgignon.

The job itself, while not exactly stimulating, was not unenjoyable. We were free to  work as fast or slow as wished and I liked working outside, often alone. Supervision was confined to a foreman coming by once or twice a day to check tree quality. I saved enough to go to Europe and England and went back the next year and the year after that. That first experience was never recaptured – each year the atmosphere became more competitive, more serious – but I kept going nonetheless and worked through virtually every part of BC, from the Queen Charottle Islands to Prince Rupert and Mackenzie in the north, Prince George and Golden and Revelstoke and Vernon in the interior, on through Hope and Harrison Hot Springs and Vancouver Island in the south – until finally, after six seasons, I’d had enough. I gave away all my equipment and almost entirely forgot about the industry.

Then, this spring, I needed money. Back I went. Tree-planting is like that: no matter how long you stay away, it is always there, a kind of insurance.

 

 

The best days are clear and cold with a steady breeze that keeps off the bugs. The trees on the edge of the forest shake back and forth and if you stop for a moment you can hear the wind through the branches, a low wooshing sound that seems to sweep everything along with it. You work steadily and with little interruption; the trees go effortlessly into the ground. You race against the clock – trees against hours, minutes, seconds; hand and body flowing effortlessly across ridges, dips, upturned branches, stumps, and low-lying brush. The amount being paid per tree is equal to the difficulty of putting trees in the ground and you know you will make money that day. You press yourself harder, pushing through each bag-up; striving desperately to reach your goal before the crew cab pulls up along the gravel road at the bottom of the piece and it is time to go home.

Then you stop. The morning fog has cleared from the bottom of the hill and you are looking down at a broad green and blue valley ringed on either side by a line of frost and snow and rock. The sight is so awe-inspiring that you take off your bags for a moment, sit on a stump and take in the view, glad to be alone on the cutblock when it is cool and breezy and you know you are going to make money.

This is a good day. Most are much, much worse. On blistering hot days the sun beats down on your back so forcefully that even walking a few feet seems impossible. Rain depletes the body in different ways than heat – you move slowly, are more inclined to lethargy. Your hands get wet and never really stop being cold – mud and water stick to clothes, boots, face, hair.

Then there are the bugs. The mosquitoes come with the spring run-off and stay until the fall. Their needling whine follows you through the day and they crawl over your face and in your ears, biting any unprotected skin. The blackfly, if they come, are even worse. They go for the eyes. They go up your nose and in your mouth. They rip out chunks of flesh and hover over your head in great swarms, attacking you as soon as you stop for even a few seconds. After a couple of days of this you pray for rain, for hail, for a blizzard – anything to deliver you from the clouds of insects whirring and buzzing about you.

Worse than all these is the monotony that comes from driving your shovel over and over into soil, rock, shale, twigs, and clambering over rocks and branches and bushes and the bodies of fallen trees. The mind detatches from the body and goes into free fall: snatches of song you haven’t thought about in years play over and over in your head. Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf. Dancing Queen by Abba. The fatigue wells up inside you until you forget what it is like to feel any other way; your feet, your whole body creaks with pain then goes numb. Even getting in the truck in the morning inspires a sort of revulsion. The windshield is covered with grime, the floor with broken lunches, dirty plates, silverware, cups, boots, socks, gloves, and odd bits of equipment. A layer of dust coats the dash and the seats and covers your skin as soon as you step inside; the other planters talk obsessively about their tree prices and the petty crises of the job. Making it to the end of the day seems impossible.

And yet you get through all the same. Why? Because one hundred, two hundred, a thousand trees and you will have the two hundred or more dollars you expect to make that day; because everyone else is doing it; because someone next to you is planting faster than you are. Essentially, tree-planting is about strength of will. In it’s grossest form it is the competitive urge – the need to better everyone else, to see one’s worth in terms of the number of trees one can plant in a day – but more than that it requires you believe that if you work hard you will do well. Tree-planting is the work-ethic in it’s purest form.

 

Tree-planting takes place wherever logging takes place. Most of the work is in BC, Quebec and Ontario but it exists on a smaller scale in most of the Maratimes and the Prairies, and even the southernmost pockets of the Yukon and the North-West Territories. It is a big industry: each year an estimated 17 000 planters go to work for 1200 contracters around the country. In 1990, at the industry’s peak, 789 million trees were put in the ground. Since then the figure has hovered around  700 million.

The earliest plantations were begun in BC in the thirties. Back then people used newspaper bags to carry the seedlings. Plantations were small; selective logging – cutting only the most harvestable trees as opposed to levelling the whole forest flat as is the modern practice – was the rule and even after clear-cutting took precedence mid-century replanting was rare. Tree-planting in it’s modern form began in the early seventies. Logging companies, under pressure from various levels of government, began noticing that the vast stretches of wasteland created by clear-cutting weren’t regenerating themselves and hired impromptu companies formed by back-to-the-landers and hippies from the city to replant some of them. These are often referred to as the ‘green-side-up’ days because checking was so lax that all that was needed was to have the green part of the tree (ie not the root) sticking out of the ground. Planters brought their own food and stoves to the rough camps erected on the edge of whatever cut-block they were working on and cooked for themselves. If they were ambitious they made saunas out of rocks and wood and plastic; if not they stayed dirty for weeks and even months. Contracts ran for the duration: there were no days off and it was not uncommon to work a month straight. Sometimes, when things got desperate, they lived on nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. Everything was covered in filth – if someone needed a knife or a spoon they wiped it clean on their shirt-tails then dropped it back in the mud when they were finished.

The white nylon tree bags – three bags with belt and shoulder straps – that are now standard equipment hadn’t been invented yet. Trees were carried in a single pouch or even, in the most primitive companies, a steel bucket. Some planters carried loose trees in their teeth – no one knew then about the pesticides with which seedlings are regularily sprayed. The entire forest industry looked on tree-planters with scorn.  The loggers in particular saw them as hippies, drug addicts, degenerates.

But to some these were the boom years. A wide variety of people – from hippies to travellers to foreigners to loggers either laid off or tired of their trade – were attracted to the industry by it’s lack of structure. The money was the best it’s ever been. Even an average planter made the equivalent of four hundred dollars a day – twice as much as now.

Throughout the eighties the industry expanded. The biggest change came mid-decade when the federal government discovered that there was a huge backlog of unplanted cutblocks (on average the logging companies had been planting only 20% of what they cut down) and failed plantations across the country. Money was poured into silviculture at both the federal and provincial levels and in 1987 it became mandatory for all logging companies to replant the forests they cut down and see the seedlings through to maturity (about ten years). This coincided with a late eighties logging boom; increased logging meant increased replanting and together these forces created a need for more tree-planters. Contracters went to big eastern universities and recruited students by the thousands.

This influx was a mixed blessing. Students were motivated and fit; they boosted production and gave the industry new credibility. For most the exposure to new places and people was a healthy one; many adapted fluidly to the tree-planting life. But tree-planting has always been a somewhat sleazy business – cowboy operators were notorious for stashing trees (either by burning or burying them) or delaying final payment for six months or more. For these types the younger students were a near-perfect form of cheap labour: eager to please and imbued with the work ethic; possessing little to no experience in the job market and consequently no idea what their rights were. Unscrupulous contracters recruited young students en masse, isolated them in the wilderness, treated them like cattle and skimmed huge profits off the top.

In areas of B.C. around Fort St. John and Prince George, and even more so in Quebec and Ontario and Alberta, tree-planting is a matter of endurance rather than skill. The terrain is flat, the soil close to the surface. It takes little time to learn the trade and it is not uncommon for one person to put in three or four thousand trees a day. In B.C. the industry specialized: experienced planters went into the harder ground along the coast and in the interior mountains. But in the flatter, easier parts of the province, and in most of Alberta and Ontario and Quebec large crews of young inexperienced students took root and flourished until they supplanted everything else.

Only once have I worked for one of these companies and once was enough. It was in Ontario. Thehundred or so people in the camp came mostly from Bishop’s or Queen’s or McGill. Their median age was twenty and they knew nothing about what to expect; for many tree-planting was little more than a paid adventure. Though superficially friendly the foremen treated their planters with contempt: in the mornings all hundred of us scrambled to make lunch at a table with room enough for twenty and were herded twenty to twenty-five into vans designed for eighteen (this is strictly illegal). The unlucky had to stand, or sit crouched down for the entire hour and a half it took to get to the block; the rest were squeezed so tightly into the seats that their limbs went numb. The heat was unbearable; by the second week the blackfly came on in great swarms that were worse than anything in BC. At night the head foreman kept everyone awake until after midnight playing his stereo – it was his way of showing the crew a good time.

I quit when he fell asleep at the wheel and almost went off the road.

Despite the influx of students, tree-planting’s bohemian roots live on, albeit in mutated form. Some camps draw on every cliche the sixties has to offer: guitars, harmonicas, and bongoes proliferate; music leans heavily towards Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. The women wear flower-painted smocks and write poetry in hand-painted binders; the men favour dreadlocks, thonged sandals and spend hours strumming out-of-tune guitars. A kind of childishness reigns: people talk about what they had for lunch the whole ride back to camp.

In other companies tree-planting is a kind of team sport. This tendency is more prevalent in the bigger companies of a hundred or more but to a certain extent it pervades the entire industry. Competition amongst planters is encouraged and can become fierce: people compare numbers at the end of the day and judge each other accordingly. Those with the highest score enjoy highest status, favoured by both the foremen and the other planters. Since the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality, the quality is often poor, and even worse than listening to people talk about their lunch is listening to people talk about how many trees they planted that day.

Hackeysack seems universal. People play it for hours, both before work and after.

Tree-planting remains an inclusive industry, however, and one of the most positive things about it is the general policy of acceptance. There may be (mercifully few) Grateful Deadheads but there are also ex-loggers, academics, artists, carpenters, fishermen, homesteaders, bikers, and students of law and medicine and business. Increasingly, many Latin American and African immigrants have entered the trade, attracted to it for the same reasons as everyone else – money, freedom, the chance to travel and have a good part of the year free to pursue other activities.

The best crews are the most diverse. The company I worked for this spring was run by a father of four who’d been in the industry over two decades. The crew was small, only fifteen people, and yet the age scale ranged from fourteen to fifty-two. There were a few students, mostly from small colleges in the BC interior, a number of local kids from Lillooet (where the company is based); the rest were people who, for one reason or another, made tree-planting their livelihood. People took the job seriously enough to ensure high quality, yet were mature enough to leave the job behind at the end of the day. No comparing scores, no talking about lunch, no games of hackeysack. Both the owner and another man brought their sons out for the summer; the differences in age and background made camp life interesting and congenial, similar to the atmosphere I enjoyed my first year.

 

 

Tree-planting is seen as  a way of making up for years of deforestation; and tree-planters in general are assumed to enviromentalists. The reality is more ambivalent. Though many tree-planters believe in the ultimate benefit of what they are doing, the prime motivation for most is money. Some planters could care less whether their trees live or die; they slam them in the ground with an eyes to making as much money as possible, and to meet the absolute minimum quality standards (tree quality – spacing, microsite selection, species mix – is set by the company a tree-planting contracts from. The company in turn is answerable to the provincial Ministry of Forests. Failure to reach appropriate quality levels means non-payment). Logging companies plant trees not only because they have to by law but because tree-planting makes logging look like the renewable resource they claim it is.

What tree-planters are creating are not forests but evenly spaced rows of economically valuable timber; tree farms. A seedling may grow into a healthy harvestable tree but it will never replace the centuries old tree that was cut down before it – the ecosystem that created that tree is gone forever. Groundwater that would ordinarily be absorbed by the forest washes through exposed topsoil and sends it down the hill into streams and rivers and lakes, leaving behind bare rock or moss. Even assuming the block is planted immediately after it was logged (and this is rarely the case) it will be decades before a planted tree absorbs even half the water the old tree did.

Of course, a planted forest is better than no forest at all. A planted tree holds at least some of the soil and soaks up at least some of the ground water; growing trees soak up even more carbon dioxide and release more oxygen than mature ones. More and more attention is being paid to the quality of both seedlings and plantations; cut-blocks like the Bowran (which, so the story goes, was one of seven man-made phenomena to be seen from the moon) have been almost completely replanted.

Tree-planting’s other, less tangible benefits can be seen in logging towns like Prince George. Tree-planting has an obvious seasonal presence – from April onwards VW vans and young people with dreadlocks, sandals, and beaded jewelry are seen in town. Hordes of young students pass through either looking for work or waiting to be taken out to one of the dozens of camps operating in the area. On any given night the hotels and bars are filled with tree-planters. The immigrants who flock to the trade give the plain functionalist streets a vaguely exotic look.

Many locals resent this massive influx of strangers and one can understand how they feel: the younger planters especially can be irresponsible or just plain obnoxious, drinking recklessly in packs or pushing their ‘alternative’ clothes and lifestyle on people who don’t understand them. But tree-planting has undoubtedly given the economy a boost. Tree-planters not only spend money in bars and hotels, they spend money in local pawnshops and bookstores and hair salons and restaurants; contracters spend money in supermarkets and hardware stores and gas stations. Almost every town in BC is dependent on logging to some degree and as pulp mills scale down or cease operations altogether tree-planting provides a much needed injection of cash into these beleagured communities.

There are other benefits. In our highly suburbanized society it is no bad thing for large numbers of young people to go into the bush for a few months of the year and be thrown together with other young people from across the country, in a setting that provides at least a modicum of contact with nature. Even the big student crews force kids to go to a part of the country that they would never otherwise see. How many college students from suburban Toronto would go to northern Alberta or even northern Ontario if it wasn’t for tree-planting? It is encouraging that every crew in BC has at least a few French Canadians; in some they are even in the majority. Tree-planting has become a right of passage for many young Canadians and at it’s best it can bring people of different backgrounds and regions together in ways that are rarely possible in regular society.

 

By far the best experience of tree-planting is that of having done with it. You are in a small-town bar or restaurant, waiting for the ride back to wherever it is you live. Whether the ride is in a company pick-up or a bus or a plane doesn’t matter so much as the fact that you are leaving and for the forseeable future you won’t be forced to get up at six am and go out to the cutblock and put in another gruelling day. Probably you are hungover from getting trashed with everyone else in your company; hopefully you are considerably richer than when you started. If not, at least you don’t have to think about trees or tree-planting again for a long, long time. There is always next year but who thinks about next year on the last day of the season? Perhaps you have, as some people do, burned your bags and all your other tree-planting gear, vowing that this season will be your last, definitely, you can’t go through all this again.

You might be back,  you might not. Very likely, with time, you will forget the worst things about the job and remember only the good: the friends you made, the good times you had on the nights and days off, the days when the weather was good and you made a lot of money. You will remember these moments and next season, when you need money for travel or school or perhaps just to stay alive, tree-planting will beckon and you will be in for another season.