ABP. Always Be Planting. The rookie trainer explained this acronym to a large group of us on one of our first nights in a tree planting camp. The idea was simple – never walk more than two steps without planting a tree, otherwise we would not be maximizing our earning potential. And although we enthusiastically mocked him behind his back for the cliché motivational speech (one I’m pretty sure he borrowed from Vin Diesel in the movie Boiler Room), his words turned out to be truer than I could have imagined at the time.
I started my tree-planting career eight years ago as a student in desperate need of a summer job. A classically Canadian experience, I had known people who had known people who had planted their way through university and decided to fill out an online application – the bare minimum of effort needed to start looking for employment without actually leaving the comforts of my bedroom. During the dark winter months I all but forgot about it until I received a call telling me that I had been hired. I wonder if I might have done something differently had I known then the powerful effect tree-planting would have on the next half-decade of my life.
Having never done any sort of manual labour before, I was totally unprepared for the realities of what awaited me. I excitedly told friends about the vast quantities of money I was sure to make and spent hours shopping for outdoor gear online. After all, I was a reasonably experienced camper and was in relatively good shape, so surely all I had to do was turn up and wait for the cash.
A few months later, sitting in the large mess tent listening to the trainer deliver his Always Be Planting speech, I looked down at my feet and tried to comprehend what I had gotten myself into. It was only a few days into the contract and I had already torn the skin off the tops of all of my toes and much of the surface area of my heels. My palms were blistered, split, and bleeding. My knees and shins were crossed with a myriad of wounds, ranging from superficial scratches to semi-dangerous infected lacerations. My lower back was vigorously protesting the 50 pound loads of saplings I forced it to carry on a daily basis and I could barely get out of my tent in the morning without swallowing a fistful of painkillers. The high-tech quick-dry pants I had diligently shopped for months earlier had torn from the knee to the crotch, and my underwear and thighs were plainly visible to any who cared to look. I was completely miserable, and out of my depth both physically and mentally. The only reason I didn’t quit was the presence of two close friends from university, hired onto the same crew as me, who would have abused me without mercy for the duration of the following school year for my weakness.
The contract ended just six weeks later, our camp having planted all 7-ish million trees assigned to us. Though six weeks may sound like a short time, there was no power on earth that could have persuaded me to sign on for additional work once we were given the option to leave. I wanted a bed and a shower and a week’s worth of sleep.
I had been an average first year planter. Though I was nowhere close to matching the production numbers of the best in our camp, I was deeply relieved not to have been one of the worst, one of the “pussies”. I had done what was asked of me and came out the other side feeling decidedly manlier than at any point previously in my life. I had seen bears in the wild, slept on the ground, grown the thickest beard of my twenties, and drank beer like a lumberjack on nights off. I was in the best shape of my life and had more money in my bank account than ever before. I felt hard and tough and alive, full of youthful bravado like I had accomplished something great, even though I had been gone less than two months. I knew without a doubt that I would be back the next year.
And I did go back, every summer for the next five years. I logged more than 15 months of total nights living in a tent and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. The money, much more than I could have earned at almost any other unskilled labour job, allowed me to travel widely. I began to refer to the time in between tree planting as “the off season”. I began so many stories with “this one time, when I was treeplanting” that my non-planting friends eventually forbade me from talking about it. The experience was so immersive and engaging, not to mention profitable, that it was hard to imagine stopping.
But a string of injuries, culminating with a broken arm in my fifth season, led me to throw my planting gear on top of a bonfire and publicly announce my retirement. I left the bush behind and began to travel more seriously, moving to Asia where I began to pursue photojournalism and writing full time. But even while living abroad and visiting some of the most overwhelmingly sensory places imaginable, I don’t think a day has passed where I haven’t thought of treeplanting, even if only fleetingly. Some days it will be a fond memory, of drinking cheap lager around a fire and telling war stories about hordes of mosquitoes or massive earnings. Other days they will be “thank God I’m not treeplanting right now” memories, usually brought on by particularly nasty weather when I am deeply grateful to have a roof over my head. Terrible speech aside, that training instructor was right: in my head, probably for the rest of my life, I will Always Be Planting.
Recently I returned to Canada for the first time in several years, exhausted and emaciated from 9 months of non-stop intense work and travel. Directionless and searching for a new project, when my photography mentor (Zoriah Miller) suggested that I focus on something that I had a personal connection to and document it extensively for a long period of time, there was really only one subject that made sense. So after a frenzied email exchange, and the generous support of friends still in the industry (John Holota and Matt Hudon especially), I find myself once again going treeplanting – though I will be joining the camp in a working embed capacity, and thankfully wont actually be planting any of the trees myself.
Over the coming days, weeks, and months (probably about five of them) in the forests of northern Alberta I’ll try to get as up close and personal as possible and document the experience that influenced me, and many other young Canadians, so profoundly. It is a truly epic visual environment and one filled with intense human drama, so it promises to be an interesting few months.
I’m sure there will be a direct correlation between my level of misery and your enjoyment of the posts (this is almost always true), so at the very least you can be glad you aren’t there with me!