Most people become tree planters because they don’t want to work in restaurants while putting themselves through college. Those who last in the bush, whether they had a good time or not, tend to see planting as an ‘amazing life experience,’ on par with, say, a trip through Kenya. These people will move on, eventually forced by higher expectations of career and purpose, by their desire to live in a city, by their acknowledgement that they don’t actually like planting, by other opportunities and a need to feel like they are growing up and becoming something or somebody that they were not before.
Some people do not move on. Some of these people, when asked, will tell you how much they like planting: the people, the culture, the camaraderie – the kind of relationships birthed in physical toil, hardship, and mutual dependence. Some love the actual physical act of slashing open soil, and kicking holes closed. Some experience the first modicum of success or triumph in their lives and never want to let it go. Some are just so perfectly suited to it, so good at what they do, that there is never a question of doing anything else. Some do it because they don’t know what else to do.
It is true that I spent Kemmess with members of the latter categories. I was the youngest member of the crew, and had committed far less of my life to the work than the other six members. I was not, however, the youngest member of the camp. There were miners, and contractors, sitting in the lounge room watching Ultimate Fighters on television, chewing tobacco, who must have been culled from the surrounding small towns. I sat with them while they talked to one another, never saying more than a few words between spits. They must have been in their late teens or early twenties.
We worked hard for two days, and then found ourselves in a bit of a dilemma. It would eventually provoke the events that finished me off. On the morning of the third day we were told that there were only two possible dates that we could fly out on. We had to either finish all of our trees by the Thursday, four days away, or space them out until the Monday. We were also told that it is not proper to take a day off in camp. We had a decision to make: would we work long hours for six straight days and then, maybe, maybe, finish? Or would we go easy.
On day sixty-eight of my season we decided to go hard. The land was getting flatter and more sandy (sand being the best thing to plant in, the crème de la crème of cream), we said to ourselves, meaning the numbers would increase dramatically. We decided to work from 7:30 until 5:30, but somewhere along the line, Cam got overzealous. We ended up going until almost 6:30, narrowly missed dinner. It was a huge day for production, and my biggest day of the season. As a crew of seven we planted twenty-two thousand trees. If we could keep that up, then, theoretically, we could finish by Thursday. But we were not happy. Simon and Ben fought with Cam over being pushed too hard. I went to bed with tensed muscles, feeling unhealthy, unable to stop visualizing shovel cuts holes and trees trees trees. I barely slept.
We looked weary the next morning in the cafeteria. It was a bad morning, the first of a few for me. The kind of morning where one had to force food into one’s mouth and swallow against the will of one’s guts, knowing the calories would be needed, wishing there was an easier way to get them. My hands felt arthritic: they shook as I lifted my fork. We would have to go hard for four more days to get the contract done. This made me despair. I knew I had to just get my body to the block, and things would take care of themselves. The thought of planting trees, even just one, was concomitant with a feeling of heaviness and dread. Benny describes waking up that morning and just being, like, fuck.
Cam called the push off. There was no reason to ‘kill ourselves’ this late in the season. He had alienated Benny and Simon, who had been told this whole thing would be ‘smooth’ by Rhino’s owner. The new plan was to take it easy. Some of us were to go home on Thursday, and those that wanted to would stay. Knowing I was the farthest down on the totem, I told Cam I would like to stay but will gladly go in the place of anyone else. With a show of hands, everyone else indicated a desire to stay. It would be Jen and I. I was relieved.
We took the afternoon off that day, but my spirits never recovered. Every subsequent morning I dragged myself through my routine activities trying not to think of their motivation or purpose. I spread peanut butter across some bread. I filled my water jug with tropical juice. I carried my boots, my bag, my water, and my coffee awkwardly as I walked by the big trucks, the pile of rocks, the aluminum sided building, and to the truck.
My evenings, too, my time off, went by painfully. I could not enjoy them because they were too close to, and invariably led towards my mornings. Soon, I found myself in my land and out of hope.
And the land got a lot worse. Our second block was a gravel parking lot. Tallies went way down. It got colder. It rained for two days. The others were starting to feel heavy, too.
Two days after expressing a desire to stay, all of a sudden, everyone wanted to go home on the Thursday. I despaired some more. I was low on the totem. I would be the person who had to stay if everyone jumped ship. Jen and I.
Simon and Ben had been getting stoned every night, hiding like high school kids in the forest west of camp, near to an outdoor hockey rink that was falling apart: it’s plywood rotting a deep brown, some of the boards having fallen over. They would say they were going to do some paperwork.
Ben liked to make us laugh: he worked as a grip in Montreal in the off-season. He had the most relaxed attitude among our crew with regards to production. His cache breaks would last for over an hour, and he didn’t seem to feel guilty about it. I tried to pressure him one day into working harder, pleading with him, saying ‘If we don’t get enough trees in by Thursday I’m gonna have to be the one that stays now, and…’ He told me there are things that you can control, and there are things that you can’t, and I felt a little better. He was not motivated by money, he said, already having enough to get him through the fall. He came here to run a six pack, and analogized it to a team sport. ‘When you are kids,’ he said, ‘you have a team that you go around with playing sport. Now you have a team and you work.’ He liked to come and be outdoors for a little while. He also said he used planting as a kind of rehab.
As did stoic Simon: in passing mentioning ‘partying way too much,’ in thick, thick accent during his explanation of being here. I asked him if this would be the end of his season. He told me he would end his season at this time next year. He smiled and there was a silence. He explained: he planned on working on the coast in the fall, up until November, and then cone-picking through February, when the spring season starts on the coast again, and then back to the interior, back to Alberta.
My god, I thought. Cam had once worked a 200 day season and he elaborated: ‘When you work that long you take it easy in the daytime, make your three-hundred and go home. You get tired, sure, but you find a second wind – and then a third and fourth. You just keep going.’
I went. One morning Cam told me I was exhibiting a thousand yard stare. I try not to complain to Cam, so I started talking about Vietnam vets, having seen too much, and how it was such a tragedy that all of those guys came back changed forever, and he wasn’t listening. He interrupted me: ‘I think you’re just done.’ I was relieved.
I said, ‘Yes, I am just done,’ and it was agreed that I would leave on the Thursday.
Jen, warrior Jen, ever-ready and stronger Jen, would stay with Cam and Colleen to clean up the rest of the work. She told me she envied me - that she wished she could leave herself, but I only half believed her. ‘This is where Jen is supposed to be,’ I thought. ‘This is where she is massive. And Cam, free-wheeling, always seeming terrifyingly close to peril, would not find it easy to be this kind of Cam anywhere else. The outside world would not allow him to be productive, would need him to change.’
And me. I knew I had to go.
On the last day we planted until two thirty, and I made sure every single tree was perfection: straight up and down, one finger deep. Still, it dragged. Line planting in a group of five, we pinched the front of a piece and ended up having to walk in bags around a dormant body of grey water, to a green, buggy back corner, full of thick, slimy clay. This is called dead-walking, and it is something that is always to be avoided: a waste of time and energy, and thus - it goes, when one is doing piece work - money. We would plant that back pocket, and then walk back out, up a rolling grey hill, towards the one main cache, where, panting we could see the entirety of the piece. We all took breaks together and chatted, the smokers smoking, me eating. I planted alongside Simon, and we started counting down the bags early in the day. We were going to do five bags of 300. A fifty-fifty split: One-fifty Spruce, one-fifty Pine.
Our pace, already slow, slackened as the day went on. We had four in by 1:30, and decided that fifth should be a small bag. I took 240, and headed back in. Simon took 210 and had a smoke. Twenty trees into my line I saw Jen laboring up the hill towards me, evidently bagged out. I asked her if she had finished with the back pocket, and she said yes. I was relieved. I reached the end of our line and started backfilling.
Soon after, the other four were all around me. We worked well together, nobody getting pinched, everyone knowing intuitively what the other people were doing, where they could plant, what they should do. With a dozen or so trees left in my bag, I started back up the hill towards the cache. Halfway between the back and the cache, where a truck was now parked, waiting to pick me up, I put my last tree into the ground. I sat down on the hard grey slope and watched the others. They were talking and working, laughing. I looked over the barren flat gravel and saw thin green grids, marked by small bits of up-turned soil: the flip. I could hear Simon counting down his trees at the top of his voice. ‘Three…. (step step shovel throw kick) Two…. (step step step throw wiggle kick throw wiggle) OOOONNNNEEEEE!’ His shovel flew up into the air, spinning and flipping in a great arc before falling and hitting the ground. Then he went and picked it up.