BY: SYDNEY MCINNIS
Peel eyes open. Scream various profanities at whichever comrade is shaking my tent to wake me up at 5 a.m. De-mummify myself from my ferociously-wrapped sleeping bag. Shed a few tears at the freezing air that pierces the pores of my sore skin. Finally, take a breath and tell myself to shut the fuck up and go plant some trees.
This is how most mornings at bush camp went.
Seemingly, tree planting is torturous and impossible for the average folk. Deciding to accept my job offer after nervously applying was beyond intimidating, seeing as I certainly fit into the “average folk” category.
I decided to embark on my tree planting journey in North Western Ontario this past spring for several reasons:
-I really needed to kill some of my amalgamating student debt and heard that you could make a lot of money in the bush in a short amount of time. I moved to Toronto last year with no saved money whatsoever, just some serious access to O.S.A.P. funds and my almost infinite student line of credit.
-Some of my closest friends were heading to Atikokan, Ont. for tree planting with Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd., which is only a 3-hour drive from Thunder Bay, my hometown and where I’d be living for the summer break.
-I wanted to expose myself to things I had never been exposed to before.
-I was searching to reconnect with nature after my school year spent in the madness and concrete-ness of Toronto.
-I thought that I was being an eco-friendly hippie and helping out the earth by replenishing the trees that have been cut down by evil forestry corporations.
I was searching to reconnect with nature after my school year spent in the madness and concrete-ness of Toronto.
In May of this year, I hopped on a blue-painted school bus labeled “Brinkman Reforestation” that was parked in the Greyhound parking lot in Thunder Bay with a handful of my friends. On the multi-hour ride to bush camp, the planters sipped cheap beer, got acquainted and talked about what we were about to get ourselves into.
Before I knew it, I was moved into my tent among the trees, overlooking the beautiful Mud Lake sunset and getting my planting gear ready for the next morning’s work day wake-up. I felt terrified and utterly ill-equipped. The orientation and training were minimal, to say the least.
I was worried that I would fail myself, which was entirely feasible, even though all I was really seeking was a self-enlightening experience. Truthfully, I didn’t do the exercises that were recommended to prepare your body for the trauma it was about to experience for 10 hours each workday for the duration of the 2-month season. I am not necessarily the toughest or the most resilient. It could have gone any way.
I was put onto a crew with a few “vets” (planters who had planted previous to this season) and a bunch of “greeners” (brand spankin’ new planters who sit at the bottom of the tree planting hierarchy). My crew boss, a money and adventure-driven nomad, immediately started whipping us into shape and even gave us a crew name to live up to: “Satan’s Wolfpack”. Ow-ow. We were told an amount of trees that we should each be aiming to put into the ground on the first day and all that would follow. We were to make money and not ruin the crew’s reputation. The pressure was most definitely on. Put as many trees (worth about 10 cents each) into the ground as quickly and efficiently as you can.
The pressure was most definitely on. Put as many trees (worth about 10 cents each) into the ground as quickly and efficiently as you can.
Being the non-competitive person that I am, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of comparing my numbers with others. I found that this competitive, comparative aspect was what drove most planters to pound in high numbers of trees. It felt as if people would plant hard just to hear their name coming from the Project Manager’s mouth as top planter of the day. Somehow, I found motivation from some other internal source. I was planting enough that I was proud, and so was my crew boss. Cool.
A “shift” in tree-planting is the amount of days that you plant for before having a day off, where you had the option of going into the closest town or staying at bush camp. The night before the day off was labeled “party night.” Party night is exactly what you’d expect it to be, but stretched and multiplied by 400. Clothes come off. Copious body shots are taken. The entire hierarchy is thrown into the garbage. Basically, everyone is making out with everyone and no one questions anything. These party nights are an incredible contrast from a work night, where everyone assumes their most elderly rolls, fulfills their bedtime chores and snuggles into their tents by nearly 8 p.m.
The night before the day off was labeled “party night.” Party night is exactly what you’d expect it to be, but stretched and multiplied by 400.
The first party nights were fairly tame, since the insanity of endless hard work hadn’t quite set in yet. As soon as people started to go nuts from sudden isolation from the real world, that was when all inhibitions were truly lost. I started catching people in all sorts of sexual acts in all sorts of places, and the excuse was always that we were going “bush crazy.” It was astonishing seeing humans in such a primal state. I can’t imagine any other setting where one could learn this much, this quickly about human instincts, including my own. I caught myself taking 10 more shots than usual and biting my lip looking at just about anyone. I lost all of the vocabulary I’d been building and replaced most words with “fuck.” It’s crazy what being away from your phone and only being around trees and a bunch of insane people will do to that brain of yours.
Going into it, I was unaware of any negative aspects of this job other than that it was fucking hard and that it would probably snow (it did – a few times). After a few weeks of working, I started to learn, firsthand, the tribulations.
One of my first displeasures with the industry came when I asked why these trees were getting planted in the first place. I truly expected to hear that they were being planted to grow and to be. My wishful thinking, and that of many fellow planters, was way off – in fact, the thousands and thousands of trees that I planted for Resolute, one of Canada’s largest forest product companies, will be cut down in approximately 80 years to make fucking toilet paper. This made my days much more painful.
My days went from slightly painful to excruciating when my knees started to throb. Walking over any inclines in land, which was probably every 10 steps, seemed impossible. Bending down to wedge a seedling into the soil made me want to throw a temper tantrum. This was especially unfortunate because I was genuinely enjoying the job. It was quite meditative in a multitude of ways. Repeating the same movement over and over again, although agonizing for the joints and those developing repetitive strain injuries of mine, numbed my mind in the finest way. Instead of thinking “fuck, I fucking hate planting trees,” I started to think absolutely nothing. Sometimes I would blast tunes and sometimes I would just listen to the soft sounds of the boreal forest that wrapped around me. When my knees started to hurt, this wasn’t possible anymore. Every step felt like the world’s greatest chore.
According to WorkSafeBC, based on planting about 1,600 trees per day (which is relatively close to my average), “a tree planter carries a cumulative weight of over 1,000 kilograms, bends more than 200 times per hour, drives the shovel into the ground more than 200 times per hour and travels about 16 kilometres on foot while carrying heavy loads of seedlings.” No kidding it’s common for planters to develop injuries in their joints. Of course, practicing perfect technique can help you to avoid these injuries, but your goal is to plant the most trees in order to make the most money, so technique isn’t always the first thing on your brain. Especially when you have a boss yelling at you to plant faster all the time.
According to WorkSafeBC, “a tree planter carries a cumulative weight of over 1,000 kilograms, bends more than 200 times per hour, drives the shovel into the ground more than 200 times per hour and travels about 16 kilometres on foot while carrying heavy loads of seedlings.”
I quickly learned that I was developing patella tendonitis. The bush camp medic examined me and put me onto modified work (bullshit work around camp where you get paid minimum wage) to give my knees time to heal so that I could resume planting as soon as possible.
My new duties rather than planting trees were aimed at being non-body strenuous. I helped the cooks prepare dinner on the kitchen bus, which is a school bus renovated into a fully functioning kitchen made to cook for a lot of hungry humans, and did other useless jobs that the boss would think of for me on the spot. I was making minimum wage to do almost nothing. At first, it was maniacally satisfying to know that my friends were busting their asses and getting eaten by ticks and black flies while I stayed at camp safe and sound. Soon, I realized that safe and sound was not what I came there to be. I wanted to get back to playing on the Canadian Shield.
During this time, I started falling asleep a little later than everyone else, since I was much less exhausted by the time the sun set. I started to hear many people coughing for hours in the night. There was some talk around camp about what the source of the cough was, since there were no other symptoms of sickness besides the terrible cough. I talked to everyone about it and eventually the general suspected consensus, after inspecting the labels on the boxes that contain the seedlings and doing some online reading on days off in town, was that it was a result of the pesticides that coat the seedlings. We do not know if this is necessarily true, but regardless it sparked an interest in the subject of pesticides among a lot of the planters at my camp.
At first, it was maniacally satisfying to know that my friends were busting their asses and getting eaten by ticks and black flies while I stayed at camp safe and sound. Soon, I realized that safe and sound was not what I came there to be.
The strangest part about this situation is that pesticides were never discussed during orientation, or ever for that matter. During orientation, it was outlined to us that it was protocol to wear gloves while planting, but there was never a reason provided, which meant that no one took this guideline seriously. Daily, I watched my crew boss plant trees without gloves and then sit down and eat a sandwich. I understand that in order for these trees to grow capably in a competitive forest with natural trees growing too, they must be able to fight off any resistance that approaches them, but we need to be informed. Residue and exposure levels are regulated, therefore the pesticide harms cannot be airborne, but in order for people to feel motivated to consciously minimize health risks of pesticides, they must first know the precautions to take and exactly why.
After a week of rest and much time dedicated solely to dwelling on the bizarreness of this job, I still couldn’t walk comfortably. I was sent into Thunder Bay to visit the emergency room, where the doctor wrote me a recommendation to my boss for me to be placed back on modified work. Really, what my doctor suggested to me was to stop planting trees forever. He told me that around tree-planting season, between May and July each year, he sees an absurd amount of young people who have wrecked their shoulders, wrists and knees for life because of “just a stupid job that only contributes to the corporate chain.”
The doctor told me that around tree-planting season he sees an absurd amount of young people who have wrecked their shoulders, wrists and knees for life because of “just a stupid job that only contributes to the corporate chain.”
I travelled back to bush camp with a fellow injured planter, where I decided to give modified work one final go. I decided that if my knees failed to heal after a little more rest time, I would hit the road and find a job at home where I wouldn’t be paying $25.00 a day in camp costs (the cost for planters to live at bush camp which includes using the facilities and eating the food).
I returned to Thunder Bay feeling, and smelling, terribly. For some time, I was fairly jaded. I slammed Brinkman for weeks and swore I’d never work for them again. I hated tree planting because it harmed the body that I had cared for and made strong.
Tree planting, or any form of piecework for that matter, requires extremely hard work in order for you to make the cash you went there hoping to bring home. If you’re willing to damage the only body you’ll ever have and twist your mind into the tightest knot for a huge corporation that probably deceives, then go for it.
Tree planting, or any form of piecework for that matter, requires extremely hard work in order for you to make the cash you went there hoping to bring home.
Don’t get me wrong – it was an incredible learning experience filled with lots of beauty and peace, too. I learned so many things about myself. I learned about how humans react in pressure-filled, unusual situations. I got to experience the wilderness and the things that live there. I know now what I am not willing to do; I am not willing to subject my precious body to work like that just to make a few thousand dollars in the summer.
However, I still encourage you to get out and do something like this – something that will alter your perspective and reveal parts of yourself to you that you have not yet discovered, just educate yourself beforehand. Explore away.