The alarms go off at 4:30 – electronic morning birds chirping at each other across the camp. On the other side of the river, an owl hoots at snooze-button interludes, perhaps echoing an interval learned from several mornings’ worth of tired campers. The slow-running water is dense with pink salmon and even at this hour their splashing filters to ears through trees and tent nylon with a sound like heavy stones tossed carelessly from the bank. The rain is late and the fish, held here by the shallow stream, are frustrated, occasionally throwing themselves onto the rocky shore to thrash frantically before bouncing back to the water. Inside their tents, camped out along the Salmon River near Sayward, B.C., on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, 30 tree planters are also concerned by the lack of precipitation, but their aggravation is much more lethargic. The crew is on “fire hours,” a cruel adjustment to the typical workday schedule imposed with good reason by the region’s overseeing foresters: fire hours keep planters out of the forest during the hottest and most dangerous part of the day, but require crews on the cut block by 7:30. Tent zippers slide reluctantly open and a collection of heads, illuminated under the cool glow of headlamps, float toward the promise of coffee and breakfast.
In the dim light of the mess tent the bodies become visible—young men with an assortment of beards in intensities ranging from “demonstration forest” to “old-growth,” and young women with sprouts of frizzy hair tufting up from headscarves or down from knitted toques. Their attire betrays a mosaic of considerations—or perhaps a handful of conflicting weather reports—from moisture-wicking athletic tights under tatty board shorts to abrasion-immune thrift-store sweaters and ubiquitous fleece. Many have already laced up their “corks”—the steel-toed, heavily spiked orange caulk boots that are the chief identifier of those working in the forest industry—while others circle the breakfast buffet in sandals and socks, saving the discomfort of stiff soles for the cut block.
Breakfast and lunch are served together and the selection wants for nothing: eggs to order, bacon, hashbrowns, granola, fruit salad, yogurt and cereal for consumption now, the wherewithal for sandwiches and wraps—meat-heavy or vegetarian—and leftovers from last night’s dinner (to be packed in Tupperware for lunch later in the woods), supplemented with trail mix, vegetables, hummus, homemade cookies and energy bars. Corrine, the cook, a veteran planter herself, specializes in high-energy fare and is loved for it. “Planters can eat between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day,” she explains.
Simon, the company supervisor, wears a ball cap with two LEDs shining from the brim. Even in the pre-dawn gloom, he is efficient and precise, his generator-powered laptop and printer pinning forest management area map to his office table in the corner of the mess tent. “This is the big leagues,” he explains at the morning’s shift meeting, referring to coastal planting contracts’ tendency to hire only experienced planters for such steep terrain. “It pays less than the little leagues, but there are plenty of locals who want this work, too.”
Being offered a job on a coastal contract is a recognition of one’s skill and dedication as a planter (they typically don’t hire a tree planter for the coast if they have less than a couple of years of interior planting experience). Though it pays less—likely due to the high costs of coastal harvesting—if a planter declines the job it could mean never getting hired by the same company again. The crew grumbles half-heartedly about the difficulty of the terrain, the dismal payment of 23 cents per tree, the early hours and the requirement to wear brain-baking hard hats in spite of the heat. They drain their coffees, load roll-top vinyl backpacks into waiting for crew cabs and head off to the block, heads rolling gently in opportunistic snoozes as the trucks rumble up the logging road.
On the cut block, it is clear why coastal planting is for veterans and why the payment on this particular contract could be considered low. The land is rough, steeply slanted, strewn everywhere with the collective detritus known as “slash”: branches, splinters, logs with rotten heartwood—the unavoidable bycatch of a successful clear-cut operation. In some places, walking the cut block feels like following a never-ending high-tide line, sun-bleached and smooth-tumbled driftwood gently overlapping underfoot. In others, where slash is piled nine feet high, the safe footing is limited to the trench-like pathway between ragged parapets. If the work that preceded was hard on the land, planting is equally hard on the bodies that replenish it. The hazards of the task now at hand are many. A quick mental survey of the looming dangers turns up a comprehensive list of human error and environmental disinclination: cuts, scrapes and scratches, impalement on jagged branches, concussion, contusion, sprained and broken limbs, forest fire, hailstorm, hypothermia, heatstroke, landslide, and encounters with prickly devil’s club, wasp nests, bears and cougars. Repetitive stress injuries top the list, particularly tendonitis—known simply as “tendon.” It’s only a few days into camp and a couple of planters have succumbed to the common, dreaded tendon. They’ll spend the day on “light duties,” ferrying planters from block to block or cleaning empty seedling boxes from roadside caches.
The planters “bag up” with seedlings and drop down the face of the slope in teams of two, diverging laterally to divide the block into “pieces”—the personal patches of terrain each must plant today, regardless of the slash cover and the scarcity of soil. They move with gopher-like pulses, laden with insulated Silvacool bags, stooping out of sight to slide a seedling down the back of a submerged shovel then popping up again to scout the next patch of appropriate soil. Their shovels are short and sharp, more like oversized garden trowels than driveway clearers, and the relationship with them is almost symbiotic: “This shovel is like a tail,” one planter explains. “It’s like an extension of my hand. I use it to plant, but I also use it to balance, to push off.” The balancing point is key, as from a distance planting may appear slow and contemplative, up close the action is frenetic, a strange hybrid of gardening and time-trial free climbing.
Further up the hill, the hulking hump of the mountain is made gentler by the rough road that cuts across its face. Clouds roll slowly over the mountaintop and fog floats up from the valley to meet the cumulus and envelop everything in a haze of grey. “At least the rain is falling down,” says Faraz, referring to the rising currents, absent today, that occasionally bring precipitation up the slope. The rain is welcome—both for the safety of the forest and the comfort of the planters. From around the block, amid the patter of rain on the rare snare of salal, come the sounds of shovels slipping into wet earth or occasionally clattering across subterranean rock faces with the wincing whine of nails on a chalkboard.
Brett appears at the foot of the cut, on light duties delivering trees. “How is it in there?” he asks Lauren, nodding toward the piles of slash stretching seemingly to the sky. “You know.” She shrugs, not really answering. Brett’s words are telling—“in there,” not “up there”—and they hint at the deeper motivations of tree planting: it’s an occupation of immersion, of reforesting from within a landscape, in the midst of slash and salal and mud and earth and from a position at the mercy of the natural world. It is an adaptive profession, and this adaptation is evident both in a camp collaged together from tents and trailers and picnic furniture and in the smoothly executed resourcefulness of trees squeezed into a land where the untrained eye sees no trace of fertile soil.