SHIFT ONE May 4th
At the tiny airport near Williams Lake, BC, I awaited my foreman, Kayla. I had been unable to find her on Facebook (she probably didn’t use the internet, I thought) and so had no way to recognize her among the fifteen or so people standing near the baggage claim and greeting the passengers of my small flight.
I looked at everyone long enough to see if they were looking back, looking for me. They weren’t. I walked to the glass door near the exit where I could see the road approaching the terminal. Cars came infrequently. It was too cold to wait outside. I made my shovel visible on top of my backpack and blue rubbermaid container, so as to be easily identified.
After two hours Kayla arrived. She had long auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail and introduced herself with the drawn out bro-slang of an early X Games TV host, which felt a little forced and affected. We shook hands and I loaded my things into her truck.
Kayla handed me her CD wallet and asked me to find something to listen to. I didn’t find anything I liked, and I suggested we listen to the radio. I tried to be as open and friendly as possible. I talked about myself, about my life in New York, about losing my visa. I asked her about her life, but can’t recall anything significant that she told me on that day. This was to be her first try at running a crew of her own.
We drove to the head offices of Dynamic Reforestation which were located in a remote home on a large piece of land somewhere outside of Williams Lake with a wooden fence around it and seemingly nothing nearby. I asked Kayla questions about quality and tree prices and she said: ‘It should be good,’ ‘The land, once it thaws, will be good,’ ‘There will definitely be money to be made.’ It was snowing. Kayla got out of the truck, saying she would be back shortly, to ‘hold tight,’ and walked into the Dynamic office. I sat in the truck for 45 minutes watching snow build on the windshield, half melting, and then sticking more, for a while, until I couldn’t see through the windshield anymore and was entombed in the vehicle behind a bright curtain of white, feeling extremely shitty.
I reflected on how I had ended up in this truck, on this piece of land, in rural Canada. I had not planned for a life after graduation. I did not have a job and did not really like the idea of having a job. In my final year at school I spent several agonizing sessions with a career counselor.
She identified me as ‘creative.’
I told her I didn’t create anything, though - that I had tried, but was unhappy with everything I was capable of producing, and too ashamed to share it, let alone earn a living from it. And I had no formal training in any field.
She asked me if I could identify anyone who I admired and I said, ‘Herman Melville.’
I said, ‘Michael Haneke.’
She suggested I work in advertising.
The field was highly competitive. She suggested I make contact with the secretaries of advertising agencies through LinkedIn and Facebook, and try to make lunch dates with them, so I could ask them more about their work and organizations.
My friends in New York were mostly artists, would be artists, and increasingly, artists in the process of becoming not-artists.
In high school I assumed I would work in finance, like my father and the majority of adult men in my extended family. My uncle, a financial advisor, boasts of working four hours per day, and has recently built a moderate to large family home in one of Vancouver’s best neighborhoods. As a young man he was a DJ at a local restaurant, and once wrote and recorded an album of heartsick country songs lamenting the end of a long-term relationship.
I sensed I would not like working for Kayla. There are several kinds of bosses, teachers, and authority figures, in my experience. I have been most willingly subjugated by charismatics; the strong willed, the unknowable - those capable of instilling fear. I do not fear Kayla. I feel her insecurity. In the event of a terrible accident or a survival situation, I can not imagine Kayla taking a leadership role. She was two hours late.
When Kayla came back to the truck she apologized for taking so long. We drove back into town. I was consumed by negative thoughts, and spoke little. I began to worry about the impression I may have been giving her, so I attempted to be more upbeat and personable. Kayla told me remedial details about the other people on the crew. She spoke of Caroline, who she had already pegged as the highballer. I told Kayla that I had been a highballer before, that I would do my best to compete, and would be surprised - once the season began in earnest and I was used to the BC conditions – if I wasn’t her top planter.
‘We’ll see,’ she said.
At a store called Surplus Herbie’s I bought six pairs of gardening gloves. I discarded all the right-handed gloves into a garbage can near the store’s exit, and tucked the lefties into my Rubbermaid, which was now covered in a light layer of snow in the bed of the truck.
We drove to camp, an hour and a half west of Williams Lake, on a big ranch overlooking the Frasier River, near Alexis Creek - a small and impoverished First Nation’s community of seven trailers and a general store.
There are over a hundred of us camped on the farm: foremen, runners, planters, checkers and cooks; drifters, college students, transient workers, rookies and grizzled veterans, mostly between the ages of 18 and 40. Across the river, five hundred cows are visible as dark shapes on the beige, snow-flecked grass. Their mooing echoes throughout the valley, day and night.
I scrambled to set up my tent in the light snowfall and crawled into my sleeping bag fully-clothed.
When I woke, the roof of the tent was bowed toward me under eight inches of snow, which stuck around and prevented us from working until late in the day. The motions came back to me easily, a sort of sixth sense.
On the second day I planted alongside some of the stronger planters on the larger crew and had them bagged out on my first three runs.
They were surprised to find me back at the cache first.
‘How many trees are you taking out there?’ one of them asked. Some people take more trees and plant longer bagups whereas some people take less trees and plant faster bagups. Different planters have different strategies. As casually as possible I told him that I was taking in bags of three hundred.
‘I would like to bag up bigger,’ I said. ‘There is a deep pocket in the back of my land but I don’t want to kill myself on my first day.’
I asked him what he was taking into his land. He had been taking 270s. After three bagups I was beating him by 90 trees.
‘So you must be a pretty serious pounder?’ he said.
Thereafter the two stronger planters began to work harder, with more determination, and eventually closed the gap. I could not keep the pace I set early in the day, and finished with 1,800 trees at $.17 for a take of $306. The other two planters came in with slightly bigger numbers.
I felt good. I knew the stronger planters would talk about me, and it would become known that I was a very good planter.
In British Columbia, it is said, the quality standards are higher than in the other provinces. Whether this is attributable to BC being the province with the most robust forestry sector, or a provincial legacy of passionate environmental activism, I am not sure. I am used to planting in Alberta, where oil is the focus, and tree-checkers are less discerning. This is reflected in tree prices, which are lower, so you have to plant more of them.
Planting a perfect tree takes longer than planting a good-enough tree. The goal of the highballer is to maximize production, therefore money earned. This means, in a sense, finding a minimal acceptable quality, finding the easiest possible tree to plant that will pass.
In Alberta, we never failed a block. Supposedly this happens frequently in BC because of the higher quality standards. The minimal amount of effort you need to exert to plant the most amount of trees that are good enough is raised. Good enough is better than I am used to.
On my first day I was checked by the foreman of the other crew, who said my trees were good, and was impressed by my numbers. The next three days I was with Kayla, who had a less favorable view of the quality of my trees, and made me replant one day.
I write this on my day off, a Sunday in Williams Lake. Every business in town is closed save the laundromat. I walked three kilometers to find the internet cafe where I sit and type this.
I have heard about a planter in camp who is making between six and seven hundred dollars a day. I’ve seen him in the mess tent. He is handsome, Nordic looking, likely in his late twenties. He has a blond mohawk and stylish but practical outfits.
NOTE: In camp there is no Internet connection, so I will only be able to write on this page every five days.