One for All. All for one.

May 19, 2009
Tree Planting has a strange sociological aspect to it. You are forced through great tests of endurance, through a form near torture, with a group of people. The bonds with others galvanize quickly as you struggle synchronically. But when push comes to shove, some different qualities can emerge that put the epithet ‘team’ into question. Qualities of the job that, in the moment, are downright stressful. But humorous from a distance.
 
Characterized in a certain way, treeplanting is a very selfish undertaking. You get paid for the trees you plant. And if other people are impeding your ability to plant trees, there can be friction.
 
For example, the van leaves at seven. Every minute I have to wait in the van after seven is a wasted minute on the block. So if I am sitting there as one of my crew members stumbles down the hill from his tent with one boot half-on, a muffin stuffed in his mouth, a desperate, half-asleep look in the eyes, a trail of personal effects scattering the ground behind him, I don’t take sympathy. I don’t care that they probably don’t have time to prepare a lunch or fill their water bottles or eat a warm breakfast. Its criminal to be late in the morning.
 
That said, the only form of punishment for such base acts is the silent treatment – an effective form of public humiliation/ ostracization.
 
The fear of this and the circus of the morning mess tent have encouraged me to evolve into a ‘morning person’. Every day, I hit snooze one less time and embrace the moment of suffering when, like a terrified crustacean exposed between shells, I crawl between my sleeping bag and my work pants.
 
Its not much better on the planting block. Planters aren’t very talented at sharing trees, or their land for that matter. When we close off a block, the whole crew can all get placed on the same track of land to finish it off. As space rapidly closes up, we often start jostling for space, stealing eachother’s lines, little Pac-men trying to score a few more points before we move on to the next level. 
 
Let me return to the vagaries of the breakfast mess tent. At 630 am, 30 late planters rush in to simultaneously to grab breakfast and pack their lunches. They are disgruntled bears forced at an un-natural hour out of comfortable hibernation. The demand for lunch supplies is stratospheric. I eat 3 PB&J sandwiches, two fully loaded tuna sandwiches, 3 apples, a banana and some trail mix during a day. And I wouldn’t survive without it.
 
If you show up late to the feeding frenzy, you face supply shortage and viscious self-preservation. I once grabbed the last eight pieces of bread out of the bin, already fearing for my afternoon wellbeing. A few delapidated slices of spam were left strewn in the meat tray. And the poor guy next to me asks if he can have  a few pieces. After a drawn out “aaaaaaaah…” I ended up giving him only the end pieces. I felt like a giant douche when a new box of bread showed up, but I honestly believed that my survival hung in the balance. Killing a man for a slice of white Wonderbread – it could seem justified during the morning gongshow. Good thing they use a dull spatula in the peanut butter jar.
 
 
Sometimes we forget that we are interdependent and we regress to barbarism. But in general, a diffuse sense of comaraderie usually pervades common spaces. There is more to life than money, and calories.
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Snow Day

May 19, 2009
Remember when you were a kid, and the only way you could escape a day of grueling elementary school was if it snowed in such tremendous quantities overnight that the school buses couldn’t function? The proverbial Snow Day. Many a night I would pray for this white, flaky miracle. Crazy carpets would replace cramped desks, and a giddy sense of freedom would replace the authoritarian stares of teachers as I frolicked through powdery snow.
 
Tree Planters are a bit more ambivalent about snow days. Its Tuesday and I wake up to a strange pattering sound above me. This is soon followed by a chorus of groans and oaths as my crew members painfully liberate themselves from their tents. Which is hard enough with the aches of the morning, the impossibility of standing up inside your tent and the confusion of zippers. But add the surprise of a foot of snow sitting innocently outside your door, and the “Why’s” begin to overwhelm you. Why am I subjecting myself to these un-natural tortures? Why does it snow in May? Why am I awake at 530? And so on, until the thought of suicide in the face of outrageous fortune’s slings and arrows crosses your mind.
 
Or, simply put in the rough eloquence of the planter in the tent next to me as she crawled out into the snow: “F#*$ my life.”
 
A few days earlier, someone had informed me that there is nothing that justifies a day off tree planting. So, in a state of shock and resignation, I stumbled down to the mess tent. Big, wet flakes of snow caked on my insufficient fleece. My hands retreated like the limbs of a stunned turtle into the shelter of my sleeves. There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to work.
 
I made my PB&J sandwiches for lunch and then stood stoically in the long breakfast line. I finally got into the kitchen for a tea and some chocolate oatmeal that began to bring me out of my existential stupor.
 
Finally, word got through the frozen grape vine that planting would in fact be cancelled. Vets walked nonchalantly into the mess tent as if they knew it all along. Supposedly, your hands freeze up after 50 trees or so and your pathetic little line of saplings can’t be seen or followed through the snow. So you can’t plant.
 
Its a strange feeling to get an unexpected day off as a planter. We come here to make money, albeit in a fun, challenging and dignified manner. A day off means a day spent in the wilderness making no money (and of course spending it in town). A day off is something we all pray for secretly, but something that disappoints the stronger parts of us.
 
Someone suggests a nostalgic return to the Snow Days of our childhoods. Snow fights, forts, angels. I raise my feet in a warm hotel room, flip lazily through a Grisham novel and think to myself: snow fights? sounds like a day in a Siberian gulag.

Tree Planting 1. Adrian 0.

May 17, 2009

Tree Planting

I pick my way through the swamp. I’m shooting for 1500 hundred trees, the last day of my first shift. A shift, if you are speaking tree planter, lasts for a week. I’m close but my foreman just moved me to a swampy piece. Its Vietnam all over again. The only way to work a piece like this is ‘island hopping’. You keep your head up, pick out the next high site – an exposed tree stump, a raised mound – and hop over puddles to get there. But water is gurgling into all my holes, rendering them unplantable. It takes 3 or 4 spearing throws before I hit a decent spot. Every failed piercing is spirit crushing. My hopes are drowned afresh with each miss. Pulmonary edema for the soul.
Every so often I straighten up and look around helplessly. Its impossible to stay on a neat line, impossible to find plantable spots. Disheartened, frozen, I look down anxiously at my watch. Desperation to reach my number is a reboot. My eyes flash from the dirtied screen of my digital watch to the sizeable pile of saplings still sitting in my trigger bag. I jump back into action only to be stumped again a few trees later. If only I had a creamy piece of land instead of this schnarby swamp. Piles of rotting trees, exposed roots, thorny bushes – that’s schnarby. I look out across the scattering of puddles, tree corpses and ominous mud – my supposedly plantable block. 
Joyously, I hit my number for the day and tally 1510 trees. That converts directly to 151 dollar bills. But on another sheet I have to record another result. The man v.s. nature tally. Today, tree planting beat me. I’m wiped out. Drained. Sapped. Tree planting 1, Adrian 0. I throw a tarp over the boxes of trees piled at my cache and start trudging back up the planting road to the truck. It’s fifty-fifty, one of the vets tells me. Between the days you finish up feeling strong, and the days that break you. I look her in the eyes. Serious eyes. Eyes that say, get ready.
Its only been three days, but already I have started thinking in a new currency. A box of beers for the weekend? 200 trees. 45 minutes of relentless planting. 200 times I have to spear-throw a shovel into rocky dirt, force open a hole and jam a tree (along with my battered ‘planting hand’) into the resistant soil. Paying for camp costs (food and what-not)? 200 trees. A coffee? 30 trees plus the losses you are going to have while satisfying tomorrow’s amplified caffiene addiction.
For all the damage I managed to reek on the earth this week, I didn’t exactly emerge unscathed. Already, tendonitis threatens to render my wrist unusable. Already, the sole of my kicking boot is halfway broken. A Duct tape belt holds up my sodden work-pants. I’m covered in snot that is itself caked with dirt. Every time I cough, incipient ciatica fires a painful jolt up my side. But strangely enough, I have the impression that tree planting is actually healing me. My rickety rugby ankles feel stronger than ever. I eat well, stretch every day and go to bed early. I read. Every night. And every morning in the car. Instead of lazing around on facebook or plunking myself in front of the TV. 
The bedraggled entourage slowly congregates at the vehicles. Tally sheets are touched up and handed to the foreman. Boxes, bags and bodies are loaded into the trucks. Engines rattle and jump to life. We begin to trundle down the windy logging road. Defeated but alive, I stare out across the endless undulating hills of pine trees that dominate Northern BC. I look out over a block planted 5 or 6 years ago. But I don’t see the forest for the trees. All I can focus on are the runty, unhealthy trees – poorly planted trees. 
I wonder how mine are going to look.
The view from my tent.

The view from my tent.

What did the bear paw say to the face? Slap!

What did the bear paw say to the face? Slap!

Friday night, gettin er done!

Friday night, gettin' er done!


Vanderhoof. Hockey. Wildlife.

May 17, 2009

Vanderhoof Bar.

I love how hockey playoffs stretch into the spring. There is usually a lull then, between school and summer jobs, that gives me a chance to embrace our national sport again. Its kind of an annual fling. The Crosby – Ovechkin clash is in full swing, and the last Canadian team still in the runnings, the Vancouver Canucks are in peril of elimination. Dinner is over. I’m sprawled in a lawn chair, looking out over treeplanter camp. I’m a python, digesting my days feast – immobile, with two enormous beef fajitas forming the pronounced bulge at my midsection. 
Neils is making my anxious. He keeps getting text updates of the score on his phone. Its the 2nd period. Tie game 3-3. He jumps up and down out of his chair and paces around the fire. He’s a BC boy and noticeably upset by the tight Game 7. Does anyone have a radio? I ask, So we can follow the score? I’m excited to follow the game, but I’m still not moving much. Pro-activity is not a big part of tree planter evenings. I scan the circle of beleaguered faces around me. A few people grumble disinterestedly that No, they don’t have a radio. Its a panglosian solicitation. Everyone is too busy doing important things – stretching, pulling off soggy boots, tending to flesh wounds – to deliver me a radio on a silver platter.
In a flash of inspiration, I suggest we drive into town for the final period. We’ll be home early enough, I petition. Come on, its do or die. Nick the Driver replies compliantly: I’m down. But inertia keeps us glued to our canvas chairs. Neils is too anxious to even reply. I let the proposition simmer for a moment. I’m about to give up when Nick catches my attention. A quarter rests profoundly on the top of his balled up hand. Call it, he says. I smile, I like the idea of letting chance decide. I call heads, enjoying Nick’s easy-going impulsivity.
Heads it is. Hockey time.

Spurred to action, we rush to the tired white Suburban and rumble into town. Vanderhoof. Population, very low. But even the furthest outposts of civilization in Canada can be trusted to have a hockey bar. The game turns out to be an exciting rout. 5 goals are scored in the third period alone, unfortunately not many of them by the Canucks. But the real entertainment of the night is the crowd at the Grand Trunk Inn and Sports Bar. 

A pleasant, well-kempt Indian man casually offers me weed the moment I walk in. No thanks my friend, I answer and smile at him apologetically. He makes a pass at Neils too as we search for a table. We plop ourselves down in front of the high def TV and silently urge on the home team. A rowdy table of tradesmen say their hellos and then resume their banter about the slow work at the lumber mills and the appealing attributes of each other’s mothers and sisters.
Then the waitress comes round. Heavy-set and weathered by too many years of bad habits, she leans skeptically over our table. She doesn’t bother to introduce herself, or to ask what we want. Her impatient, judgmental expression is her attempt at honesty, a blatant dismissal of formalities. We order beer. She pours it. No funny business. But the ominous clouds of tomorrow’s hard labor has cast a shadow on our desire to indulge in alcohol. So I clear my throat and innocently pipe up, Um, do you have any juice?
Fuck. Her reply is simply this: fuck. She rolls her eyes, even chuckles to herself at the absurdity of my order. Its the first word we hear her utter. Her entire personality is encapsulated by her voice and her first word. Her voice is deeply masculine, gravely, the product of a lifetime of cigarettes and sarcasm. She decides to ignore me and turns to my crew. Solara, with her blond dreadlocks, orders a small glass of Molson Canadian. Later, she rushes up to the bar to cancel her order. The reply of the waitress? She firmly drops the glass on the bar and sternly responds, well who’s going to drink it then? Solara cowers, takes a meek sip from her glass and retreats to our table.
I end up getting a Pineapple juice. She doesn’t charge me because no one has ever order a juice before and she is too lazy to make up a price. As if we have caused her great encumbrance, she sighs and declares that she is going out for a cigarette. 
The hockey game flies back and forth as the Vanderhoof village bicycle approaches our table. She is a bear of lady who eclipses the TV. She wobbles drunkenly and slurs her icebreaker: You must be the bad boys. Nick fearfully points at me randomly and replies that I’m the bad boy. I freeze in fearful contemplation. Should I climb a tree? Back away slowly? Play dead in hopes that she marks me with her urine and buries me but leaves me alive?
She is around 40 years old. Her bulky thighs are unnaturally forced into a tight pair of jeans. An image pops into my mind when I see them: the throats of force-fed geese destined to be fois-gras. Her short blond hair is styled into the mushroom cut, popular amongst the teenage boy demographic. I smile apprehensively. She smiles at us drunkenly, hungrily.
Fortunately, she wobbles off and plops down on the lap of a man half her size. He has long greasy hair that flows from underneath a dirty hockey cap. She teeters back and forth on his skinny hips. His head bobs back and forth to get a glimpse of the game. All of a sudden, a naughty flirtation erupts from her lips for all the bar to enjoy: Oh! You touched me there!
Thanks for sharing. A lean back mirthfully in my chair, shake my head in wonderment and ponder if I’ve truly arrived: Into the Wild.