Thursday, 7 August 2014

It's Over: Reflections of a Rookie Geriatric Tree Planter

After age 30 or so, most people stop doing things they are bad at. They also tend to stop trying new things for the simple reason that trying something new requires that you pass through a time when you suck, and sucking at something isn't fun.

In May I began a new job as a tree planter. I knew it would be hard. I knew I would suck at first. I knew I wouldn't get rich. But I also knew that I would improve, would make some money, and at the very least, I knew it would be an experience. That, at least, was guaranteed.

Hard. Writing the word is one thing. Living it is something else entirely. At first I couldn't believe that anyone could ask such a thing of their body. It didn't seem right. Something so physical and so unnatural as bending in half, over and over. Throwing the shovel again and again. I kept glancing into the distance, watching my crew members as they performed the motion repeatedly, without pause. Then I'd hear their numbers. 2K. 3K. How did they manage? It didn't seem possible. But it had to be. They were doing it; I had to as well.

And before long, the unthinkable became normal.

I threw the shovel all day, forcing the earth to open its dusty mouth so I could stuff a spruce inside. I ate with the voracity of a teenaged boy. I devoured donuts and wine gums and ice cream and felt my metabolism sear the calories like water on a woodstove. I ate enough sugar to render at least two adults diabetic. I watched my hands become swollen and calloused, sometimes bloody, always filthy. My muscles swelled. I tossed ferociously at night, dreaming of planting the motel room, and woke up repeatedly with aching muscles and joints. I learned to prioritize the morning tasks. Lacing my boots and cleaning the sleep out of my eyes could be done in the truck. As could breakfast and coffee, as my friend and co-worker Mel often demonstrated. Anything to gain a few minutes more of slumber.

Each morning drive, I fought anxiety induced nausea and each evening drive I was overcome with elation.

I hate this! I love this! I hate this! I love this!

We careened sideways through muddy logging roads. We piled onto the quad, holding on with one hand, boots dangling over the side. We planted through pouring rain, lightning, heat waves and snow, urging our bodies to adapt, willing our muscles to comply. We stumbled and fell daily, over logs or sticks or rocks. We urinated wherever, whenever. We got sun-fucked, snow-fucked, hail-fucked and rain-fucked. We tangoed with heat exhaustion and hypothermia. We were massacred by black flies and mosquitoes. Harassed by horseflies and deerflies. We got our eyes poked, smashed our shins with our shovels and drained our bodies of electrolytes.

To avoid unpleasant surprises, I learned to expect all horrors from a new piece of land. When it surpassed my imagination, I cried or sang or both. I swore, threw branches and kicked at rocks and roots. I growled. I begged. I sobbed. And I grew obsessed with trees--first planting them perfectly and then planting them faster. Always faster. And yet I was always the slowest. The rookie. The one who had trees left in her bag at the end of the day. The one with the most improving to do.

All nice land is alike. Each shitty land is shitty in its own way. 

On days off, we gorged on diuretics: coffees, beer, more coffees, more beer. At the planters' party I dropped acid and danced under the pouring rain to the DJ's steady beat. We baked cakes on motel beds. Ate supper sprawled on the floor in front of a Seinfeld episode. We longed for massages but lacked the energy to give them. We passed out before every sunset, stomachs groaning as we slept. 

I learned to skim above my thoughts and emotions as if surfing a wave, observing the stuff underneath the surface but with no direct contact. If I were to allow myself to feel these moments fully, I'd have been pulled under. I'd have drowned. I wouldn't have been able to set my alarm each night. To pull back the covers each morning and do it all again. It would have been too much. Far too much.

The planting season is a bit like being suspended on a slingshot. Time becomes something else, as life is on hold. Months go by. And then, one day, WHAM. The trees are done. It's over. Your foreman gets you a 60 of whisky to pass around and the next morning, the people you shared everything with are gone. You return to the life you had. Sort of. You become the person you were. Sort of.

So, would you go back? Everyone asks the rookie.

And in spite of myself, in spite of it all, I find myself saying yes. I'd go back. Absolutely I would.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Adventures in a 1990 V40 Volvo: An Exercise in Reframing

It was July 16, and I woke up with that signature tingle that marks the anniversary of one's first breath. The plan for the day was simple. My roommate Danika and I were to drive from Williams Lake, where we had been tree planting, to Kamloops, where we would resume planting. Her vehicle? A 1990 burgundy V40 Volvo called Victor.

A heat wave had been pummelling the province with record breaking temperatures and Victor had little to offer in the way of relief. Every 10 minutes or so we'd roll down the window to allow a blow dryer-like wind to blast our faces. I rarely sweat, but perspiration was seriously pooling that day.

We were two thirds of the way to our destination when the engine suddenly lost power.

"Shit," Danika said. "I think Victor is over-heating."

We coasted onto the shoulder and waited for 10 minutes, hoping it would cool down and we could resume our travels.

It's worth mentioning at this point that we were on a narrow, winding highway that featured large transports, steep cliffs over looking the Fraser River on one side and rock cuts on the other. You can't just pull over anywhere. Luckily, we were able to coast into a safe area. Since there was no cell service and we weren't sure about the nature of the car trouble, we crossed the highway and climbed up a steep crumbling hillside with cacti and sage bushes. No cell service awaited us at the top, just this view:

So we resumed driving. Before long, Victor lost his chi again. This time we coasted over to an abandoned fruit stand, helped ourselves to some plastic chairs and sat in the shade. At this point, the temperature was well into the 40s. The sun was unforgiving and we had just one jug of water that was now as hot as tea.

Still no cell service, so after 20 minutes we set off again. This time Victor lost consciousness in a more precarious place, on a turn between two steep hills. Luckily the highway widened out with a passing lane, so we were able to avoid collision as we pulled onto the narrow shoulder. The situation was clearly unsustainable, however. Using the one shaky bar of cell service, Danika called CAA and we were assured a tow truck would be summoned.

We waited on the side of the dusty highway in the sun as transports whizzed passed us and occasionally a helpful man stopped to ask if we were OK. We'd peer wearily into their AC chilled interior and say, "Yes, we'll be fine. A tow truck is on its way."

But where was this tow truck?

After an hour, Danika called the CAA again and was told that the tow truck was out of cell and radio range and had not yet been notified of our situation. We'd have to wait. We sat on the trunk of her car and continued to bake as transports barrelled past, causing Victor to shudder.

"So is this the worst birthday you've ever had?"

"No way," I said. "We're together at least. And it's a sort of adventure."

And here's the thing about reframing: as soon as you start spinning a shitty situation into something positive, it gets easier and easier. Suddenly I could think of all kinds of reasons to be grateful:

- It was unbearably hot, but at least we weren't planting
- Nice and generous people were stopping to see if we were OK
- Extreme situations allows for deeper discussion and bonding

Suddenly things weren't so bad anymore.

And then the tow truck arrived.

And we were whisked the remaining hour and a half to Kamloops. The sky was smoky from all the surrounding forest fires, giving the parched land an apocalyptic feel. Our driver pointed out where all the local lunatics lived and told us tidbits about the geography of the area. I found myself soaked with gratitude. Not just at being rescued from slowly baking to our deaths, but from the empowerment that comes with the simple but profound realization that nothing is anything but a perspective--something that tree planting has emphasized. Any situation has the potential fall into the worst or best category. The deciding factor is one's mind.

Oh, it's cliché when you spell it out like this. But during those rare moments when your own reality is splayed in your hands, waiting for direction, and you realize you hold the power, there is nothing more satisfying.

Best birthday ever!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Example of a Postcard Written by a Geriatric Rookie Tree Planter

Hey mom!
How are you?
Things here are good and getting steadily better.
Being a rookie tree planter is like buying an instrument and joining an orchestra without knowing how to play. You learn as you go. And I’m getting faster, more efficient.  
We see bears almost every day, usually from the truck. A few weeks ago I learned how to smoke pot out of an apple. It made the shale and brambles bearable. The bugs are obscene. Even my bug bites have bug bites. 
In a few days there will be a gigantic party here marking the end of the spring trees and the start of the summer trees. With copious amounts of drugs (I am told). I haven’t decided whether to experiment or remain sober for observational purposes. Such bashes are said to be truly epic. 
Tree planting is really tough, but the other night I had a dream that the season ended early and I was sincerely disappointed. So maybe it’s not so bad after all, eh?
Love you! Talk soon,

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Mosquitoes are Smart. Black flies are Dumb. Both are Terrible.

I grew up in a swamp. I know black flies. I know mosquitoes. But tree planting has allowed for an involved, on-site research opportunity to confirm what I have always suspected to be true: mosquitoes are methodological and clever whereas black flies are simple-minded insects with little to no thought process.
Mosquitoes are cunning and careful. They insert their stinger with the precision and the professionalism of a physician. They take their time. They go for the veins.

Mosquitoes work in organized structures and use tactics to maximize blood yield. For example, if they happen upon a dude doing some gardening, it would not be advantageous to swarm the poor bastard as he is more likely to get frustrated and either retire inside or apply a poisonous concoction. In such a case, the mosquito swarm team would use a different technique. They might hang out in the tree line, sending out only a carefully calculated amount of frontrunners to assess the scene. If the gardener appears tolerant enough, they’ll send more, but gradually so as not to push his threshold too much too quickly. If, however, the victim is swatting and cussing, they’ll hold off until their compatriots have been executed, at which time they will be replaced.
Indoors, mosquitoes take their time. They hang out on the ceilings and walls, waiting. Then, one by one, they descend, hover above their victim until they have selected an optimum target spot. They are tidy and leave their victim with almost no trace (until the itchy welt a few hours later).
Black flies, on the other hand, don’t possess a scrap of intelligence. Their sole technique seems to be a sort of cluster-fuck blood feast. Each one for themselves, driving their victims either indoors or insane.
Black flies are sloppy. You reach behind your neck in a black fly infested area and your hand comes back bloody. They are impulsive, like starved vampires, mowing on their victims with wild urgency. And indoors, while the mosquito simply adapts to the new environment and changes tactics, black flies forget their ultimate purpose and can be found clinging to windows, confused and desperate.
Now imagine a group of tree planters working out in the middle of nowhere with a job to do and no chance of escape. The bugs get excited. This is their chance to flourish! The mosquitoes engage in a frenzied blitz, sending out all team members at once, and when they discover the optimum spot of penetration, the information is quickly shared, resulting in repeat injection sites.
Black flies use their usual (only) technique of flying at full speed and dive-bombing their victim with very little precision. They fly up noses, down throats, into eyes. Inevitably many of them succeed in extracting the blood nectar they so desire. The tree planter, who is busy tending to the trees and is no match for the swarms, ends up looking like they lost a fight at the end of the day.

In conclusion, mosquitoes are of superior intelligence, with their tactics, patience and precise injection practice. Black flies are stupid, lack reasoning skills and attention to detail, but with their sheer number and exuberance they can really fuck you up.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Shut Up and Plant: Day 25 in the Life of a Rookie Geriatric Tree Planter

When I purchased my planting bags, they came with a sticker that read, "Shut up and plant."

I didn't know it then, but this slogan would become among the most pertinent advice. 

The "shut up" doesn't refer to talking. How could it? We plant alone. There's no one besides the bugs and the brambles to talk to. No, the "shut up" is directed at the mind, which, when left unbridled, can quickly become a problem.

Lately, my mind has been taking me for a ride, and curbing its wild and often sabotaging tendencies has been among the greatest challenges of this whole o̶r̶d̶e̶a̶l̶ experience.

It'll decide to play the same song, over and over and over. And not an appropriate song either. Something energizing would be helpful, something fast with a good beat, but my mind will select a Raffi song from the 80s and play it relentlessly. I'll gently suggest a Caravan Palace song or a sweet Led Zeppelin tune, but to no avail. I get Baby Beluga or worse, a mere snippet of it repeated throughout the day, never to be completed.

Then there are the negative thoughts that begin to spew as early as mid-morning and can last until the very end of the day if I'm unable to curb them.

"You sure are planting slowly!" it'll begin.

"Yep. The slowest planter on the crew, how do you like that?" it'll continue.

"You know, you're ruining your body for barely more than minimum wage. Haha!"

SHUT UP! I'll beg. Please SHUT UP!

"Actually, you might never get better," it sneers.

I WILL, I whimper.

"How can you? Look at you. You're exhausted. You have more hours of planting remaining than the amount of sleep you got last night. How can you keep this up for seven more hours?"

I don't know, I squeak. I don't know.

"What were you thinking? A 32-year-old rookie. What an idea!" 

STOP! I plead, the tears only one more insult away. SHUT UUUUUUUUUP!

On the physical front, I'm doing OK-ish. Even when I think my body can't take another step, can't drive the shovel into the ground again, can't bend over to place the tree one more time, it somehow does. 

But the mind! With its relentless need to taunt and provoke is where the battle truly takes place.

The rare times when I have managed fast, fluid motions where the trees start to go in with less effort and strain have occurred when my mind was on a brief hiatus. Planting, I have quickly discovered, requires a state of no-mind. Of meditation. Of ultimate mind suspension. And this takes practice. As my muscles and tissues and joints adapt to the outrageous physical demands, my mind is learning to back off, to float on the waves of my subconscious, albeit for the smallest of stretches.

And when that doesn't work, after a rough day like yesterday, battling everything from the daily mind-fuck to tough land to the obscene amount of black flies, there is sometimes a Caribou waiting in the truck to gently lift the spirits--or at least prevent them from plummeting deeper.

The less my mind interferes, the better I get at planting. Of course, it still checks-in countless times a day, offering a slew of creative insults and unhelpful suggestions, but I am learning (trying!) to keep it in check. To keep the momentum of the movements. To just shut the fuck up and plant.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

It ain't so Bad: Words from the Woods

Since my most recent post, I have received many thoughtful but genuinely concerned messages. So I’m here to tell you that there are some great things about tree planting too! Such as…

You can eat anything you want!  

Tree planters burn on average 6000 calories a day, so this opens the door wide open for possibilities. I’ve been eating like a 17-year-old male on a growth spurt (yes my tree planting appetite finally kicked in). I've indulged in a banana split and an apple fritter the size of my head on the SAME DAY! I never pause to consider the calorie content. And I haven’t gained a pound. Tree planting is the ticket for an all-and-anything-you-can-eat lifestyle.  

Save on gym memberships!

Tree planting will tone every muscle you have, for free! And it’s efficient, like working out on three machines at once. Imagine, if you can, lifting weights while you hustle on the Stairmaster and simultaneously work your abs. Your arms will become hyper defined, your thighs solid, your stomach as firm as a punching bag. All that in exchange for a little muscle pain. OK, a lot of muscle pain. But the results are undeniable.  

Save $ on alcohol!

With extreme exhaustion, a little alcohol can go a long way. After a rough day, just one beer can be enough to hinder speech, two can affect fine motor skills and three can be enough to knock you unconscious. Drinking just got a lot more affordable. Planters’ beer includes Pilsner, Caribou and Lucky. We went for the latter.   


There is truly never a dull day. Something is always happening. Like yesterday, when the snowmelt and the heavy rain combined to wash away the logging road and we had to build a bridge with fallen logs. Surprise!   

 See, now? It's not so bad when you put things into perspective.


Monday, 12 May 2014

Day Three in the Life of a Rookie Geriatric Tree Planter

Become aware of the 5:45 alarm sounding. Turn over in your sleeping bag once, twice. Listen to your crewmembers slither, sigh, hit snooze and snore for five more minutes.  Five precious minutes. Ignore the heart palpitations. After a few minutes, in tandem with the others, rise and head to the bathroom or kitchen, whichever is less occupied. Be quick. Wherever you are, someone else needs to be there. Marvel at your crewmembers as they gorge on multi-egg omelettes, toast, and cereal. Ignore the early-morning nausea. Choke down your porridge. You’re told your tree planting appetite will kick-in soon. You’re told you won’t be able to replenish the calories you will burn during the day, that your body will feed on your own muscle tissue. You’re told many things. Ignore these things for now. Concentrate on finishing your breakfast.

At 6:45 load your stuff into the truck. Make sure you have your shovel, your planting bags and your water. Forgetting any of these items would be a disaster. Unforgiveable. Heave yourself into the truck with the other five crewmembers. Ignore motion sickness as you wind through dirt roads for 45 minutes. Hold on to the door as the truck enters a logging road and slides and skids and veers over mud and bumps. Ignore the pressure in your bladder.

When the truck reaches your land, exit and take your things out of the back. Ignore the bear tracks.

Put on your gloves and fill your bags with trees. Groan under the weight as you heave the bags onto your shoulders. Clip them to your hips. Ignore the back pain. Take your shovel into your hand and step onto the clear cut. Ignore the mounds of bear shit.

Drive your shovel into the ground. Use the Lord’s name in vain as your struggle to open the earth. Wider. You have to fit your hand in there. The roots have to be straight. Use your spiked work boot to drive the shovel deeper. Push the shovel backward. Forward. Harder. Faster. Drop the F bomb. Use the Lord’s name in vain in combination with the F bomb. Slide the tree into the earth. Use the back of the shovel to close the hole. Give it a final kick. Pull off some blue ribbon and say the S-word as your flag the tree. Now do it again. A few hundred more times. But faster. Much, much, much faster. You need to be planting in the thousands.

Ignore the pain in your wrist. Ignore the pain in your shoulders. Ignore the pain in your fingers. Ignore the pain in your lower back. Ignore the dirt in your left eye. Ignore the dirt in your mouth. Ignore the swarms of mosquitoes. Ignore your chapped lips. Ignore the rain. Try to hyperventilate less--all that heaving is making you light-headed. Ignore the negativity that floods your brain. Ignore your sense of inadequacy. Ignore the dizziness. Ignore the nausea. Ignore the fear of failure. Keep planting. When your shovel strikes a rock, scream as sparks shoot up your arm. When your shovel knocks against your kneecap, howl savagely. Drive your shovel into the earth again. And again. Ignore the urge to cry. No, actually, surrender to the urge to cry. Weep shameless onto your land. But continue to plant as you do so.

After nine hours of this, stagger back into the truck when it returns to fetch you. Take an ibuprofen immediately. No, take two. Keep eyes open during the drive back. Ignore your seizing leg muscles. Ignore the others’ accomplishments for the day. Poor little rookie. You can’t be expected to perform as well. Ignore the fact that you are earning minimum wage. Ignore the aching. Ignore the fatigue until it can no longer be ignored. Then get your pyjamas on and climb into your sleeping bag. Set the alarm for 5:45.

Dream of planting.