An old tree planting cliché is someone throwing their planting bags on the fire and saying “I am never coming back, this job is bullshit.” Maybe it’s raining, and their $40 Canadian Tire tent is half collapsed, and they’ve been sleeping on a deflated air mattress, if anything at all. With a buzz from the night before, and a vile hangover, they might hand out all their camping gear to all takers.
And they are right, it is a shitty, stupid, endlessly frustrating job.
I’ve seen people do this with over ten years under their belt, so why the hell would it take so long to see what most people see right away, that the whole enterprise is sickening.
People have gotten a stick in the eyeball, a stick in the ass, treed by bears, surrounded by wolves, fallen off cliffs, flipped trucks or simply left behind. Just this summer my friends, to the astonishment of local paramedics, heroically saved a planter from certain death through a complex relay of satellite phones and epipens—things that anywhere else would be an easy 911 call. From a bee sting.
Although these are not your typical experiences, the job has a horrific reputation for a reason. But when it's all over, people think back on their horrors in the bush with a twinkle in their eye.
That twinkle is made, in part, of real tears. Because everybody cries. At least once. Whether you're barfing from heat stroke, your feet are numb from rain and snow, or stuck waist deep in the mud waiting to be pulled out, it will happen. At any given time you may find yourself choking on a bloom of up to four species of biting insects (count them: black flies, horseflies, no-see-ums, mosquitoes). The tougher people I know said it was bugs covering their knuckles, or biting their eyes until they were swollen shut, that finally reduced them to tears.
Or maybe it will be the feeling of being totally alone, on your third hour without water, with the scorching sun beating down and the stiflingly thick windless air radiating off the sprawl of bone dry sticks, and the buzzards circling overhead as you realize how much you suck at this—that will bring you to your knees.
I have a clear memory of crawling through a endless pile of branches near Alaska when lightning lit up the clouds, followed by a downpour—when I snapped, hands toward the sky, Shawshank Redemption style.
But this is why people gush about their tree planting years. Because it is transformative.
It turns city kids from feeble hairless rats into hardened mercenaries. It kind of needs to be awful. Like crossfit junkies and marathon runners, it revels in the pain and discomfort. The whole thing is weirdly reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s Vietnam montage.
But its real virtue lies in the fact that it is indiscriminately difficult. Big or small, weak or strong, the whole endeavor is a triumph of sheer will, and anyone who makes it through has done so out of stubbornness. This combined with the actually fucked up logistical nature of the enterprise, the good chance you’ll have to stand up to a bear and being cut off from the world with the same 50 people for months, leads to another equally important component. If you end up with a good crew you’ll experience your hardship as the forge where you formed your strongest bonds.
Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll and Isolation
Taking a co-ed group and isolating them in the wilderness is a practice worthy of study. There is a palpable shift as people’s social universe is shrunken to a few dozen strangers, as group dynamics start to verge on tribalism. Take away TV and internet and all of a sudden chopping wood becomes a legitimate source of entertainment, with dudes clutching beer cans congregating to evaluate technique.
And the messiness of the job gives people a particular look, after just a few weeks they look like they’ve been picking potatoes in the Dust Bowl. Anyone who has worked a dirty job knows the satisfaction of watching the dirt run down the drain. Tans burn deep, wrinkles catch dirt, and lower eyelids curl from squinting in the blazing sun. To wash when you are truly dirty, to eat when you are truly hungry, to drink when you are truly thirsty are satisfactions that peel back the civilization’s less necessary necessities. You might find that after a day of this kind of work you can have a satisfactory sleep using a pair of folded jeans as a pillow. There is no longer any ambiguity in how you feel, and the relative nature of comfort is brought into sharp focus when someone passes a single cold can of coke around to be shared by a truck full of depleted people covered in a dry film of sweat, dirt and blood—windows down, hair blowing. Try staying in a cheap hotel with some Dominos after weeks in a tent and you may no longer wonder how it feels to be a Saudi Prince.
And since most people are under thirty, cut off from the world at large, and in the best shape of their lives, the whole thing is a hormonal tinderbox. All it takes is a truck load of booze and you’ve got a hedonistic affair, where the relief of surviving another ostensible death march is dumped out twice a week in a messy ritual of alcohol, destruction, and nudity.
So on party night, when that golden hour sets in and people slowly emerge from their tents—wearing their Sunday best, having scrubbed what dirt they could out of their knuckles, and maybe a little eyeliner—that small amount of care will hit you with such charm it will burn a snapshot deeper in your mind than your high school prom date.
Crawling Out of the Money Pit
Like any subculture, the rabbit hole runs deep. Tree planting is a tradition started by the waylay hippies of the 70s. Now there are companies for frat boys, christians, white people with dreads and burning man runoff (those last two have a lot of overlap).
Regardless of whether you plant trees to save for Burning Man or pay off your student loans, if you let it fester in your life long enough it will grow another head. Many people know from the start they will be lifers, and have built great lives for themselves and their families. But for people with other plans the job is notoriously hard to quit. While you sit at an uninspiring job, pretending to be doing work you might reflect on your former, richer fitter self as you wait to for the day to end for a few mindless hours of a Netflix original series. You might notice that after eight hours of sitting in a desk chair, that your couch doesn’t hold a candle to a lawn chair by the campfire.
Because in reality tree planting is the ultimate rip chord. When life shits the bed you can always quit your “real job,” dump everything on the curb and disappear for months of mindless money making. I see people attempting new careers, putting on a button up shirt and dusting off their master’s degree, only to come crawling back from the city, broke from high rent and low pay, leaving their boss who’s demanding emails follow them home.
I’ve seen people come back after one year, I’ve seen them come back after 25. It is the ultimate escape route, the emergency brake, which is why, when you burn your bags and announce ”I AM NEVER, EVER COMING BACK” nobody takes you seriously. Because distance makes the heart grow fonder, and while you're away you might just realize that you love this job.
All images courtesy of author.