Every summer Adam Humphreys, a Brooklyn-based director and filmmaker, sets off into the bush of British Columbia to plant trees. This is what people who are incapable of normal employment do. While planting he rarely showers, misses his girlfriend, and digs a lot of holes.
After years in the industry Humphreys caught wind of a tree planting legend named Franz Otto. Otto is a folk hero and a highballer (treeplanting terminology for someone who plants a shitload of trees), but there is an inherent mystique surrounding his legend that has kept Otto existing only in the drunken camp fire stories of horny tree-planters. Until now. Humphreys recently completed his first film, Franz Otto: Ultimate Highballer, which digs through the subcultural bush world to find its Chuck Norris.
Like Otto, Humphreys fancies himself a highballer. However, some people who commented on the recent Viceland post about tree planting don't think so. In fact, a full on “Fuck Adam Humphreys” war broke out between a few anonymous posters. So we decided to ask him about it.
Vice: I'm going to read a few comments from the last tree-planting post we did, and I want you to tell me what these people are talking about. We're not tree planters, so we don't really understand all the planting jargon gobbledy-gook. Here’s one: "I planted with Adam Humphreys at a camp and he was not a highballer by any stretch of the imagination--in fact, he got fired for having shit quality, then went to work with some skids across the river from our camp." Explain.
Adam Humphreys: When people stopped tree planting with pick axes and started using speed spades, and when pay structure evolved into "pay by the tree", a situation was created where competition flourished. In the mid 1980s people started to plant enormous amounts of trees, making reputations that spanned across the province. I have referred to this time period as "The Highballer Era," but I didn't know other people did as well. My friend suggested that Franz Otto: Ultimate Highballer is a love letter to the Highballer Era, and I like that.
"Bears rarely attack humans in remote settings--perhaps too many people planted too close to town and are only familiar with dump bears?!?"
I have lots of bear stories, but none of them are very dramatic. They're like: "I saw a bear and then it went away". Before I met Franz Otto I had heard from someone that he liked to wrestle bears, chase bears, etc.
"I heard Adam Humphreys was a stasher when he worked at Rhino." What the hell does that mean?
Three years ago, on a contract in Drayton Valley Alberta, a client checker [the person who checks the quality of your trees - ed.] found buried trees in a section of land near mine. It was a very big no-no. They threatened to fire the whole crew and kick the company off of the contract. It was very intense. As it turned out, the trees had been put there by a long time veteran whose reputation was almost unimpeachable. He was cheating, but people thought it was me. He eventually admitted to having stashed the trees, but I guess some people still think it was me.
What do you think Franz Otto would say to all these comments?
He probably wouldn't be very interested in the comments. I sent it to him, but he hasn't gotten back to me. There are documentaries where the filmmaker tours around with the subject and people clap for him after the movie, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to keep Franz Otto's mystique intact.
Are you really a highballer?
Do highballers get more girls?
Highballers have a higher status in camp, so yes.
Are there many women highballers?
Yes. Unlike most professional sports, women can be just as good as men at planting trees.
Where does the term highballer come from?
I think it comes from logging. The logger who logs the most per day is called a highballer too. Or the trucker carrying the logs. I forget.
Do you think tree planting is a noble profession?
Being a life-long tree planter is a unique and difficult path, and I respect people who do it. I think the older planters can really inspire the younger ones and assuage bad feelings associated with futurelessness, or fear of doing the job for too long. There is one particular older planter in my film who strikes me as noble.
Why do you think people care so much about treeplanting?
I don't know that they do and I'm not sure that they should. I think tree planting is a great setting for a film, because of all of the interesting details and stuff. I am also drawn to stories with "lost soul" type people in them, people who don't know what to do with themselves--in the tree planting industry there are many of those types.
Find out more about Franz Otto: Ultimate Highballer at www.franzotto.com