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.