It’s five am, and as I roll out of my sleeping bag to grab my head torch I disturb the small colony of mosquitoes that have gathered at the top of my tent overnight. It rained for 10 hours yesterday, meaning that dry clothes aren’t an option this morning - wringing out a pair of socks that you’ve already worn for five days in a row is a unique experience.
Stumbling out of the two man tent that has been home for the past two months gives me a moment to appreciate the sun slowly rising out of the forest. My boots have frozen from sitting outside my tent overnight, and a month a go I probably would have cared. Not any more - it’s day 40, and there's still at least a week to go. This is Northern Ontario, true Canada. Head out of Toronto and drive straight for about 1000km and you’ll be here, in the land of bears and blackflies.
"That new car you’ve been saving up for is pretty far away when you’re pissing on your hands to keep warm during a snowstorm"
Welcome to the world of tree planting - it’s a summer job that’s much more than a job, it’s an experience that turns even the weediest city kid into a hardened mercenary, sending them home with either a bag full or cash or a boot full of blisters. You wake up at dawn, spend ten hours planting thousands of spruce saplings, and then you go back to your tent and do it all again, hopefully a few hundred dollars richer than the day before. Importantly, you are paid per tree (around 10 cents in most contracts), which leaves the prerogative for production entirely up to you.
The work, too, is tougher than you’d think. You might be forgiven for imagining that a clear cut is going to be, you know, actually clear. In reality, it’s a maze of fallen trees, slash and mud that looks more like a battleground than the ploughed field you’d hoped for. You aren’t alone in there either - apart from the black bears and timberwolves, Northern Ontario has the world's highest concentration of biting insects. Fill your bags with 20kg of baby trees and you’ve got all the ingredients for a proper day’s work. Now repeat it. Every day. For two months.
Last season, one guy was so traumatised by the first day of work that he tried to walk 70 kilometres out of the bush to the main road in order to call his mum and get a lift home. It was two in the morning, and -12 degrees. He was found the next morning by some loggers, hypothermic and delirious. On another occasion in July, I had stuck my shovel into four wasp nests before noon - I soon found out that it’s tough to hold a shovel when your hand is the shape of a football. These are the moments, though, that you sign up for.
The Hippies and the Highballers
To most on the outside, tree planting is the domain of the hippies; full of those long-haired folk who want to save the world one tree at a time, and live out a wilderness dream while doing it. In reality, this is not quite all true. The real work is done by the ‘high-ballers’, and the real motivation is the money. It’s not unheard of to emerge with $27,000 in 45 days of work, and if you’re willing (read: crazy enough) to work for four months, then the paycheck can be double that. To the high-ballers, planting is simply a sport to dominate, but it takes the mindset of an ultra runner to keep this kind of motivation day in, day out.
Many of these guys are athletes outside of planting, and so it’s natural that they be fuelled by competition. Athletic habits carry over for those who are truly serious; protein shakes take the place of cooked breakfasts, muscles are stretched and rolled at the end of the day, electrolytes are carefully measured out before work. Planting is no longer just about earning, and the success of a day is invariably judged alongside the achievements of others.
One day this season, I dislocated my thumb halfway through the day. Of course it hurt, but strangely my first thought was ‘Shit. My buddy is going to beat me today!’. So I popped it back into place and ended up planting a PB day. Making excuses doesn’t really fly out here - you soon learn that your body and mind have very different understandings of what is possible. Sure, it hurts to plant with a dislocated thumb, but it's either that or face abuse for being a quitter when you get back to camp.
Type II Fun
Why then, will every planter you meet look back on their time in the bush with a grin? This is a question that I battle with every day on the block. The money is great, sure, but it’ll only get you half way there. That new car you’ve been saving up for is pretty far away when you’re alone, and stuck up to your waist in a bog while you pick horse flies out of your hair. Or when you’re pissing on your hands to keep warm during a snowstorm.
Comfort, you learn, is a relative concept. Only at planting have I truly known what it is to eat when hungry, to drink when thirsty and to sleep when tired. It’s hard to take your feather pillow at home seriously when you’ve spent weeks sleeping on a rolled up hoodie. It is here, when living in this stripped down version of reality, that you truly appreciate the comforts of home. If a season of planting does anything at all, it burns the fat off your soul.
This job encapsulates what it means to have ‘Type II Fun’ - the kind of fun that is anything but at the time, and yet is enjoyed months later. You’ll spend all day cursing your decision to return to this god awful place, but as soon as it’s over will be begging to go back. It is in this weird part of reality that planting exists; terrible to experience, but impossible to forget.
You leave a small part of you up there in the bush, and there is only one way to get it back. That is why we keep returning to this horrific, fulfilling, awful, amazing job.
Will I be back, you ask? F*** yeah.
Do It Yourself
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The spring planting season in Ontario runs from May to July, although trees are planted in parts of Canada all year round.