Planting Trees Was Life Changing
When we think about life changing events, about the things that shape us, we often think of “milestones” and “firsts”. Traveling far from home, marriage, having a baby, your first job — these are the things that come to mind. One of the things that most shaped my life, and myself as a person, happened after reaching these milestones. At the age of 38, I took on a job as a tree planter. It was meant to be a short stop on my way to other things, but I came back for another five seasons. Over that time, I learned a lot of things I thought I already knew, especially about myself and how I related to the world. And about who I wanted to become.
Everyone Is A Rookie Once
So, how did I come to be planting trees for a living for the first time ever at the age of 38? The short answer is that I was working a summer job as a mature, returning student. The long answer, in retrospect, is that maybe part of me knew it would heal me if it didn’t break me.
I had spent most of the first fifteen years of my adult life working in health care as a Continuing Care Assistant (aka the “hands-on” nurse that does the dirty work rather than the pills). The work chose me, rather than the other way around, but I was lucky in that I liked it. Due to misunderstanding the regulatory requirements regarding certification, I found myself unable to work in my field after moving for my husband’s job, as I was no longer “grandfathered in” under old requirements. After significant research and soul searching, I decided to return to school in a career truly of my choosing. I traded nursing homes for the great outdoors and entered a Natural Resources Environmental Technology program in community college.
I was having a difficult time choosing something to do for my first work term that would also make me some decent money. I saw an advertisement for tree planters in my nearest town and wondered if a labor job in natural resources would be allowed as a work term requirement. It turned out it was, as long as I did something else for my second work term.
Most people (except the program instructors)thought I was crazy to even consider it. Why was I choosing piece work instead of a guaranteed wage? Why take a labor job when I could learn more from doing a technical job where I could use my knowledge and skills from school? Why the dirt? Why the bugs?
I had all kinds of answers. Piece work was a financial risk but it could also give me an opportunity to earn more if I worked hard and got good at it. It was going to help me understand the “on the ground” applications of my technical knowledge. It would make me more able to relate to front line forestry workers if I was in a future position of responsibility. All of these reasons were true. But I think I also wanted to see what I was capable of.
I read all sorts of articles on tree planters. I especially got into reading from a website called “Hardcore Treeplanters”. I practiced the movements of planting. I thought about every way to be efficient. I immersed myself in the stories of experienced tree planters and asked my instructors lots of questions. I also believed that my physically active lifestyle, past experience as a competitive runner, and comfort with being in my own head would help me feel prepared. I had no idea how much I had left to learn.
Everyone Starts From Scratch
I didn’t realize that nothing prepares a person to plant trees for a living except planting trees for a living. Former military members, manual laborers, triathletes and even people who worked as forestry laborers doing something else were equally unprepared.
There are few things that tree planters do that are part of ordinary life. For one thing, even though I did my research and on a cognitive level I knew this wasn’t the case, part of me expected the land I planted in to be like this:
No matter how much “Hardcore Treeplanter” I tried to absorb through my pores, my experience as a gardener imprinted bare, tilled soil as the “feel” of planting no matter what my brain told me. The reality of planting looks more the next picture I took of a clear cut I drove by one day:
Actually, the land in the picture would be more pleasant to plant in than average. I rarely felt like recording waist high barriers of fallen trees or mosquito-filled bogs. My point is that moving through the brush piles, over stumps, up and down hills, in every sort of weather while also under an average weight of 45 lbs of trees slapping around your hips, while also bending over to plant a tree literally thousands of times a day is simply not something with an everyday equivalent in our modern world.
I was newer than a kid on the first day of kindergarten. I felt more overwhelmed with my own ignorance than I did bringing my first born child home from the hospital.
I was fortunate in that I got to the point of being able to plant about 1200 trees in a day before the end of my first week. Okay for a beginner. And then I just plateaued and stayed at that level for week after week. 1200 trees at $0.06/tree. That’s $72/day, or $360/week for a mother with three children and a husband who had just helped her get through the first year of college debt free on an income that could be defined as lower middle at best. This rookie earning capacity lasted so much longer than I had expected.
I Learned My Superpower Was Also My Weakness — I Don’t Give Up
That headline above — it’s in my mind right now in my oldest child’s voice. From only a week ago. He’s in his first year of university, stressed out about finances and frustrated that my husband and I don’t have our own finances in order yet. He’s worried about if money troubles could mean he has to drop out. I snapped at him to not make excuses for being a quitter (yeah, I’m not always the most empathetic person) and he pointed out that I don’t know when to quit. He may be right. Planting trees made me aware of how much this not quitting is my strength and weakness.
Those initial, low paying weeks of work were an enormous strain. The planting sites were near home, so I wasn’t in a situation where we needed to camp out or live in motels. This seemed great at first, because it meant I could spend time with my husband and kids. The down side was that we still lived an hour away from the pick up point and my $360/week was getting used up on gas. Already long days at work were made two hours longer by the commute. I left my house at 5 am, often not returning until after 7 pm. Sometimes I couldn’t afford the gas. My husband stayed home with the kids and I “camped” out in the parking lot we met up in, sleeping in the back of my car, as did a few other tree planters. And yet, at no point did I decide to throw in the towel. At first, I told myself that the reason was that I needed to finish my work term for college. After I finished the mandatory hours for the work term, I decided to stay on until the end of spring season so that I could get my finishing bonus.
At this point of around eight weeks in, I had started to get over my plateau and make a little more money. I was feeling vindicated about my choice to stay on. And then everything went downhill fast.
First, we ended up working on a site that was a very long drive away, leaving the crew with less time to make money. The ground was rocky and steep and the crew I was in was made up of mostly rookies like myself. One other crew had been working on the site ahead of us before we came to join them. About three days after we arrived, their entire crew quit. It was a very disheartening thing to witness while trying to convince oneself to keep going. Soon this desire to quit spread like a contagion. By the end of the week, there were only three people left out of my work crew, and the crew boss asked to leave at that point to attend to personal matters. We formed a new “mini crew” by joining two women in their late fifties (one of them was our new crew boss) who each had nearly thirty years’ experience planting trees. These women knew all about not quitting. When I questioned my choice of staying in this exhausting job, I watched these women work. I appreciated their ability to take the long view and remember that for every site that was difficult to work in, for every day their body didn’t cooperate, there were also days on “creamy” land where it was easy to make money, days when their bodies felt youthful.
They encouraged me when I felt done with everything. We went on to a new work site that was the hardest to work in yet. Fallen trees, boulders and brush piles everywhere created obstacle courses. New forest growth up to our heads crowded our bodies and blocked our sight. It rained for nearly two weeks, and slippery conditions made work even more challenging. One of the remaining crew members slipped and suffered a concussion. The other one asked to work with another crew as he was butting heads with the crew boss. And so we were down to three women of varying degrees of middle age, picking away at finishing work on this hopeless seeming job site. At this point I told myself I was staying because I didn’t want to leave them finishing this all on their own.
By twelve weeks in I was offered the opportunity to work away from home in the next province over on land that was easier to make money on. It turned out that things were as advertised. After all the difficulty, I was able to push hard, get a “rhythm”, increase my speed, and make more money. Sometimes the people around me would complain about the land they were working on. But I kept remembering how much worse things had been only weeks earlier, and how the two women I worked with handled obstacles so cheerfully. It helped me keep things in perspective. Knowing I got through everything so far convinced me that I was the kind of person who could keep going. It was this confidence in my ability to get through difficulty that led to other, more typical achievements. This new, tree planter me was also the me that decided to run my first marathon, finish a university degree, and start a business. With the exception of the marathon, there were arguments for me quitting these things, too. Only time will tell how much education and entrepreneurship pay off. But the old me that may have quit earlier in the game is gone, and I’m not planning on going looking for her. No matter the outcome, I have experiences that will always be a part of me because I have learned to take a risk and to give things a real try.
Sometimes I Was Just A Bag of Meat and Bones — And That Was Okay
One thing that really changed was my relationship to my body. To reach the point I was able to make real money planting, I had to submit to simply doing the work, regardless of how I felt. Food became “fuel” , simply something I ingested for the sole purpose of keeping the machine-body of mine going. I didn’t care I kept eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. Once I dropped my banana in the mud and just said “*%@# it!” and ate it anyway. It was still fuel. Many days all I really thought of was this repeating rhythm of “step, step,plant”, over and over. It turns out the human body really is made to do nothing but walk and carry and bend over for hours a day, day after day. One of my co-workers said what we were doing was “unnatural”, but I’d argue that if that was the case, how come people of all ages, shapes and sizes are able to do this job? We all just sleep, wake up, eat, move around, and eliminate wastes day after day, every day. It’s just the proportions and degrees of these things that change. One of my work friends found this depressing. He said, “I just feel like an animal. Like a machine. All I’m good for is just moving all the time, putting trees in the ground, and eating and going to bed when I get home.” Sometimes I found this depressing, too. But mostly I was amazed at the miracle of what my body could do, and the beauty of all our bodies and their capabilities. I don’t think I really appreciated how much just a “sack of bones” can do. My body’s beauty became more about its capabilities than it’s appearance.
See that hand covered in cuts and ground in dirt? I took that picture of my hand after trying to scrub out the dirt, wincing as it abraded my swollen hands. I took this picture in my first year planting, soon after the first time I planted 2400 trees in a day. They are beautiful, capable hands that earned my family an income and gave back to the earth. No manicure treatment could make them any more beautiful to me than they were as I took that picture. Yup, the work was hard on my body. And I didn’t decide to continue it for the rest of my life as did the two lovely ladies I worked with my first season. But really, I am happy to be this bag of bones.
I Discovered the Limits of Being My Own Company
Oftentimes, we worked on our own for a whole nine hours. We could see the heads of other people in the distance, and if you yelled somebody could hear you. But essentially, you were on your own.
My first year planting, I didn’t yet own a smart phone. I was used to running and hiking without headphones, and I had believed myself to be capable of being in the moment with my own thoughts. I didn’t realize how different it is to be able to be in your own thoughts for a couple of hours versus entire work days, on repeat, for weeks on end.
Sometimes I was like a Zen master, in the moment, feeling my feet under me and the air around me and needing nothing but the “now” of putting trees in the ground. Other times I brooded, haunted by “should haves” and “could haves”. There were times I recalled arguments and stomped and huffed as if they were happening that moment, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks. I cried in frustration at the pointlessness of it all, and got excited about future plans.
I started to realize that while I was often happier when being “in the moment”, there were times it just wasn’t going to be pleasant. I learned to find ways to get out of my own thought cycles, no matter if in ways that seemed silly. I sang out loud, distracted myself with “eye spy” games. And that was just as okay as being “in the moment”. What really mattered was learning to be with myself, no matter how I did that.
I also came to love the purposefully not in the moment, creative times. I came up with inventions and book ideas. I composed entire sections of my undergraduate thesis in my mind as I planted. I saw paintings in my mind before going home to paint them.
I Stopped Sweating the Small Stuff
I used to really, really obsess about doing things the “right way”. The problem with it was that trying to do things perfectly really got in the way of getting them done in time, or at all. I think this was a large part of why I hit a really long plateau planting trees in my first year. I tried to space all the trees absolutely perfectly. I would check each tree to see it was in the ground tightly. I’d look around me and step between trees I planted, judging distance and replanting to make adjustments. Another planter walked past me and asked what I was doing one of these times I was checking. When I told him, he said, “Just plant trees. Let the foreman check. That’s what he’s paid for.”
I took his advice (with difficulty) and started making real money soon after. It turned out that I planted the trees just fine, with good spacing and no problems. I just needed to learn to worry less and share the load a bit more.
I learned you couldn’t always be prepared for everything. Sometimes the weather turned suddenly, or the work plan changed and the day was shortened. I could cry and scream at the clouds for raining (actually, sometimes other tree planters really did this)when I didn’t forgot my rain jacket, or I could just figure something out.
I Learned We All Have Our Stories
In contrast to the long hours alone, the commutes in the work truck, and time in our living quarters when away from home, were filled with people. Even for those with cell phones, reception was spotty, and the jostling of bodies in the truck thwarted any attempts at reading. So what did we do? We told stories.
Over the years, I have planted with countless students, from undergraduate to PhD candidates. I have worked with “lifer” tree planters, down on their luck farmers, former convicts, refugees from Rwanda, Christian ministers, and hitch hikers on a way stop. What I found is that absolutely everyone has a story. Our bags of bones hold stories we can all learn from. I now know about the struggles of people in distant lands, about making difficult life choices regarding marriages and jobs, about educational philosophies and acts of faith not from reading or studying, but from really listening. I used to walk past people with my head down, not wanting to engage with strangers or deal with small talk. Spending two hours a day squished among six to twelve other bodies encouraged me to interact more. To my delight, I have learned there are exciting things to learn from just about anyone you meet.
So, Was Planting Trees My “Destiny”? Did I Find What I Needed?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that I am a very different person six years after planting my first tree. Who knows what is better, or meant to be? What is clear to me is that what changes a person or their life may have nothing to do with all the milestones and events we hold as important, or even necessary. Planting trees educated me as much as university, taught me about myself as much as therapy, and fostered my ability to connect. I even got to plant with all three of my children by my last summer and even with my husband on one day, sharing a bit of my story and world with him.
This is who I am now. I am not the same person as I was. And that’s fine.