The first time in my adult life that I experienced a sense of all pervading self-pity was after taking off my boots during a lunch break on my second day as a professional tree planter. The previous day, when our mostly rookie crew had been lined up in a patch of clearcut and taught the basics of how to put trees in the ground, had felt disconnected from reality. It was a day of learning when nothing was expected of us and we were collectively excited about starting what we all thought would be a grand adventure in the forest.
On the second day, however, it became clear that I’d committed to something I didn’t know if I was capable of finishing. Up to that point I hadn’t lived a protected life per se. As a teenage skateboarder, snowboarder, and casual mountain biker I had suffered my fair share of injuries, including a fractured spine. My father and I took yearly back country canoe trips far into northern Ontario’s vast national parks, so I was relatively at home in the wilderness and all of its associated discomforts. Though I was by no means the epitome of toughness, neither was I totally disconnected from all physicality.
So when I accepted the offer of employment from one of Canada’s largest reforestation companies, complete with warnings from my new crew boss on the physical and mental challenges of the job, I was overly confident to the point of cockiness that I had what it took to succeed in the notoriously difficult industry. I was sure that I would be an outlier, a prodigy who astounded everyone with my grit and work ethic, and that the upcoming summer would be nothing more than a long party with a massive pay check at the end.
But on that second day, when I removed my boots to check on the cause of the sharp pains I was experiencing in my toes, my confidence faltered. In just a few hours of work I had chaffed the skin completely off the tops of both feet and my heels were raw and mottled with blisters. When my crew boss (a tough female veteran with 6 years of planting experience under her belt) stopped for an update on my progress, I showed her the bloody mess that my feet had become with every expectation that she would gasp in shock and help me to a place of comfort where I could tend to my wounds.
Instead, much to my horror, she gave me a look that bordered on disgust. “Why did you take your boots off? Put them back on and get back out there. You’re just wasting time with this pity party.”
Mortified at the challenge to my ego and thinking of my friends at home to whom I’d pontificated at great length on why I was sure to be the perfect tree planter, I squeezed my feet back into the steel-capped boots, hoisted the 20kg bags of saplings onto my shoulders, and staggered back into the land. Shovel in the ground, insert tree, stomp the hole closed, walk 2 metres, repeat. As I gasped at the pain in each step, I turned to see my crew boss watching from afar. “You’re not going to make very much money at that speed,” she called before jumping back onto her ATV and speeding off.
If there had been a non-confrontational way for me to drop my gear and teleport myself back to my comfortable student apartment, I would almost have certainly seized the opportunity and never looked back. But there was no way out without formally quitting and admitting to myself and the rest of the camp publicly that I couldn’t hack it.
I finished the day’s planting, earning a meagre $35 and verging on a psychological meltdown the entire time. I worked through the rest of the week in much the same manner, cursing my predicament constantly.
Despite this rough start, I didn’t quit. I went on to plant trees for the next 5 summers, logging more than 18 months of nights in my tent and planting more than half a million trees.
During my career as a tree planter I suffered a broken wrist, torn ligaments in my knees and ankles, several sprained fingers, hundreds of gashes and bruises, and tens of thousands of insect bites. I worked in weather conditions so foul and cold that on multiple occasions I resorted to urinating on my own hands just to regain some measure of dexterity. Some mornings my back, shoulders, and wrists would be in so much pain that I would have to swallow a fistful of assorted painkillers just to get out of my tent.
While so much discomfort periodically brought back those eye-watering moments of self-pity I had experienced on that formative second day, I knew I would never actually quit.
This willing return to punishment is what makes tree planting one of the most unique summer jobs in the world. There are very few, if any, other industries where such a white collar workforce could be coerced into living and working in such a primitive and brutal manner. For the most part, the average tree planter is a middle class, well-educated, liberal urbanite.
There are exceptions to this stereotype - like the methamphetamine smoking roofer I met in my first season who sometimes chose to plant trees with a fire axe instead of a shovel, until being eventually fired for intimidating his co-workers - but by and large tree planters are the type of young Canadian who could easily find employment in trendy coffee shops, downtown bars, offices, promotional agencies, or suburban landscaping operations.
In other words, people with options. Yet for some unknown reason they chose to spend their summers enduring conditions that no other industrial professional would accept. It is inconceivable that a career logger or oil field worker would sign a contract that mandated they provide all their own equipment, pay for every meal they ate, sleep on the ground, and live without running water.
There are various reasons why this white collar demographic is willing to endure the bluest of blue collar conditions, and often those reasons differ from planter to planter. For some it is the money that drives them; a reasonably hard working planter can earn $250 per day and a good planter can often make twice that much. For others the money is secondary to the hard partying social dynamic. A camp of hard-drinking tree planters on their night off has been the source of headaches for countless residents of small towns throughout the boreal forest.
For others, including myself, the primary motivation came neither from the money or the parties, though I admittedly enjoyed both of those benefits greatly. For me, the impetus to return to the bush each year was one of self identity. True, I relied on my tree planting income to fully support my life for half a decade, but more than that I loved the polarized duality that came from moving between my normal white collar life to my decidedly blue collar existence in the woods.
The act of transitioning from spending long hours in the university library writing papers on early Victorian literature to the feral existence of sleeping on the ground and going weeks at a time without a shower provided a balance in my life that I don’t think I could have found anywhere else. Combined with the camaraderie of spending months in remote locations with 50-odd people of approximately the same age, tree planting seasons provided an escape to a second life where middle class notions of career and family were secondary to the primal experience of being savagely humbled by the physical world on a daily basis.
As Western societies like Canada view such kinds of manual work with increasing disdain, tree planting provides a well-paid escape to a harder, simpler lifestyle where people are defined not by test scores or climbing the corporate ladder, but by the number of jack pines and black spruce they are able to put in the earth with their bare hands.
Among the most common misconceptions that arise about the nature of the job is that at its core is some sort of commune-style living where dreadlocked eco-warriors work tirelessly to repair the damage done to the forests. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While most tree planters probably land left-of-centre in terms of their environmental views, those who enter the profession thinking they are about to become agents of change are often among the first to quit.
Tree planting is, in fact, an extension of the corporate logging industry. Canada’s logging giants are among some of the biggest in the world, and they harvest hundreds of thousands of acres of forest each year. Government enforced forest management acts require that these companies replant a percentage of whatever they cut, and since no machine has yet been invented that can both move over rough terrain and distinguish between a good and bad planting site, thousands of young people across the country are given the job. When these planted trees mature, they will be summarily cut down by the same logging company. In essence, tree planters are simply building large scale farms, with the trees spaced out so as to make harvesting as efficient as possible.
Granted, when enough of these artificial forests have been planted the loggers will no longer need to cut down old growth, but nevertheless planting trees commercially is not going to save the planet. Those planters who apply for the job without fully understanding this aspect of the industry are quickly disillusioned.
Ultimately the people who thrive on challenges are the ones who make the best tree planters. Some are driven by the competition and push their bodies to the limit in order to plant just a few hundred trees more than anyone else. Some are determined to never have to take out student loans or are planning long term travel and will go to any extreme in exchange for a large paycheque. Others still are simply addicted to disappearing into the wilderness, disconnecting from their ordinary lives, and getting dirty.