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.

 

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