NEW YORK CITY August 29th
Most people become tree planters because they don’t want to work in restaurants while putting themselves through college. Those who last a full season, whether they enjoyed it or not, tend to see planting as an amazing life experience, on par with, say, a trip through Kenya. These people will move on, eventually forced by higher expectations of career and purpose, by their desire to live in a city, by their acknowledgement that they don’t actually like planting, by other opportunities and a need to feel like they are growing up and becoming something or somebody they were not before.
Some people do not move on. Some of these people, when asked, will tell you how much they like planting: the people, the culture – the kind of relationships birthed in physical toil, hardship, and mutual dependence. Some love the physicality - slashing open soil, kicking holes closed. Some are just so perfectly suited to it, so good at what they do, that there is never a question of doing anything else.
Some do it because they don’t know what else to do.
I have committed far less of my life to tree planting than the other six members of my final crew. Will I be like them? Will I keep coming back?
We worked hard for two days, then found ourselves in a bit of a dilemma. On the morning of the third day we were told there were only two possible dates we could fly out. We had to either finish all our trees by Thursday, four days away, or space them out until next Monday. We had a decision to make: would we go hard for six straight days and then, maybe, maybe, finish? Or would we go easy?
On the sixty-eighth working day of my season it was decided we would go hard. The land was getting flatter and more sandy. The numbers were likely to increase dramatically.
We would work from 7:30 to 5:30.
During the workday Cam grew overzealous. We ended up working until almost 6:30 and narrowly missed dinner. It was a huge day for production, and my biggest day of the season. As a crew of seven we planted 22,000 trees.
I planted over 5,000.
If we could keep that up, then, theoretically, we could finish by Thursday. But we were not happy. Simon and Ben fought with Cam over being pushed too hard. I went to bed with tensed muscles, feeling unhealthy, unable to stop visualizing my work. My body and mind refused to exit the frenzied mental space I had operated in throughout my day. I hardly slept.
We looked weary the next morning in the cafeteria. It was a bad morning, the first of a few for me. I had to force food into my mouth and swallow against the will of my stomach.
My hands felt arthritic: they shook as I lifted my fork. It was raining. I knew if I could just get my body to the block and get the trees into my bags, things would take care of themselves. The thought of planting trees, even just one, was concomitant with a feeling of heaviness and dread.
Benny describes waking up that morning and just being, like, fuck.
Cam called off the push. There was no reason to kill ourselves this late in the season. He had alienated Benny and Simon, who had been told this final contract would be ‘smooth’ (Benny’s word: in his accent it sounds like ‘smood’).
The new plan was to take it easy. Some of us were to go home on Thursday, and those who wanted to stay and keep planting would stay. Knowing I was a marginal consideration on a crew of senior managers, I told Cam I would like to stay but would gladly go in place of anyone else. With a show of hands, everyone else indicated a desire to stay. It would be Jen and I. I was relieved.
We took the afternoon off that day, but my spirits never recovered. Every subsequent morning I dragged myself through my routine activities trying not to think of their motivation or purpose. I spread peanut butter across some bread.
I filled my water jug with tropical juice. I carried my boots, my bag, my water, and my coffee awkwardly as I walked by the big trucks, the pile of rocks, the aluminum-sided building, and to the truck.
My evenings, too, my time off, began to blend into my mornings. I felt horrible.
On the fifth day I found myself in my land and out of hope.
And the land got worse. Tallies went way down. It got colder. It rained again.
Now, everyone wanted to go home on Thursday. I despaired some more. I was the marginal. I would be the person who had to stay. Jen and I.
Simon and Ben had been getting stoned every night in the forest west of camp, near to an outdoor hockey rink that was falling apart, its plywood rotting a deep brown, some of the boards having fallen over.
They would say they were going to do some paperwork.
Ben had the most relaxed attitude among our crew with regards to production. His cache breaks would last for over an hour, and he didn’t seem to feel guilty about it. I tried to pressure him into working harder, pleading with him, saying ‘If we don’t get enough trees in by Thursday I’m gonna have to be the one who stays now, and…’
He told me there are things you can control, and there are things you can’t.
He was not motivated by money, he said, already having enough to get him through the fall. He came here to run a six-pack, and analogized it to a team sport. ‘When you are kids,’ he said, ‘you have a team that you go around with playing sport. Now you have a team and you work.’ He liked to come and be outdoors for a little while. He also said he used planting as a kind of rehab.
As did Simon: in passing mentioning ‘partying way too much,’ in thick, thick French Canadian accent. I asked him if this would be the end of his season. He told me he would end his season at this time next year. He explained: he planned on working on the coast in the fall, up until November, and then cone-picking through February, when the spring season starts on the coast again, and then back to the interior, back to Alberta.
My god, I thought. Cam had once worked a 200-day season. ‘When you work that long you take it easy in the daytime, make your three-hundred and go home,' he said. 'You get tired, sure, but you find a second wind – and then a third and fourth. You just keep going.‘
On the morning of the sixth day Cam told me I had a thousand yard stare.
I try not to complain to Cam. I told him I was fine.
‘I think you’re done,’ he said.
I said, ‘Yes, I am done.’
It was agreed that I would leave on Thursday.
Jen would stay with Cam and Colleen to clean up the rest of the work. She told me she envied me - that she wished she could leave herself, but I only half believed her. On the last day we planted until 2:30, and I made sure every single tree was perfect: straight up and down, one finger deep. The day dragged. Line planting in a group of five, we pinched the front of a piece and ended up having to walk in bags around a dormant body of gray water, to a green, buggy back corner. This is called dead-walking, and it is something that is always to be avoided: a waste of time and energy, and thus money.
We would plant that back pocket, and then walk back out, up a rolling gray hill, toward the main cache, where, panting, we could see the entirety of the piece. We all took breaks together and chatted, the smokers smoking, me eating. I planted alongside Simon, and we started counting down the bags early in the day. We were going to do five bags of 300. A 50-50 split: 150 spruce, 150 pine.
Our pace, already slow, slackened as the day went on. We had four in by 1:30, and decided that the fifth should be a small bag. I took 240, and headed back in. Simon took 210 and had a smoke.
Twenty trees into my line I saw Jen laboring up the hill toward me, evidently bagged out. I asked her if she had finished with the back pocket, and she said yes. I was relieved.
I reached the end of our line and started backfilling. Soon after, the other four were all around me. We worked well together, nobody getting pinched, everyone knowing intuitively what the other people were doing, where they could plant, what they should do. With a dozen or so trees left in my bag, I started back up the hill towards the cache. Halfway between the back and the cache, where a truck was now parked, waiting to pick me up, I put my last tree into the ground.
I sat down on the hard gray slope and watched the others. They were talking and working, laughing. I looked over the barren flat gravel and saw a grid of thin green dots, marked by small bits of upturned soil: the flip. I could hear Simon counting down his trees at the top of his voice.
At the end of his countdown his shovel flew up into the air, spinning and flipping in a great arc before falling and hitting the ground. Then he went and picked it up.
I am back in New York with Lauren.
We don’t know if we will get married yet but we have time. I can pay rent and live comfortably for nearly eight months without working. Also, the brand Lauren works for has opened a flagship store and I have been given a job as a part-time sales associate. The pay is under the table.
I find I am alright at selling the clothes. I can tell fairly well when a woman walks into the store what kind of thing she is looking for, and what size she needs. When she looks good in the clothes I tell her she looks good. When she doesn’t look so good, I wait to see if she feels like she looks good, and if she seems to feel like she looks good I tell her she looks good.
My coworker is Japanese and hardly speaks English, so I have to do all of the phone stuff, and sometimes I have to translate. Yesterday I was sitting behind the cash register when she approached me and motioned for me to follow her toward the change room.
A woman was inside the change room, behind the curtains.
My coworker stood beside me. I asked the woman if she needed any help.
‘No everything is good,’ she said. ‘I was just wondering what color you have painted these change rooms.’ I heard her shuffling around. ‘I love these change rooms. I love this color,’ she said.
I pulled back the curtain on the other change room and looked at the walls. The walls were green.
I said, ‘Green.’