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Earth Day 2017 – The Earth in Pictures

This year marks the 47th anniversary of Earth Day, and the event’s mandate is to increase environmental and climate literacy across the world. This seems like a nebulous and hard to measure goal, but I would argue that we are living in one of the most dangerous times in history in terms of flagrant lying about the severity of our environmental issues. With Donald Trump doing his best to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency during an age when it is most desperately needed and moving the world’s superpower backwards in terms of its environmental outlook, we as visual communicators need to make sure that people are confronted with these issues on a regular basis. It is all too easy to live with blinders on, ignoring the climate and ecologically related threats facing the planet and to assume that someone else will come to the rescue with a technological solution.

And while this might very well be the case (I truly hope it is), if these conversations fade from the public discourse then the chances of this happening begin to fade away. Human progress, while plodding and often delayed until the last possible minute, is predicated on widespread demand and without this it is unlikely that business and industry leaders will put their efforts into solving the challenges we face. But if we collectively refuse to ignore the problems and continue to demand change then we will hopefully become impossible to ignore.

So in honour of this annual event I’ve put together a selection of my favourite environmental images. They range across continents and feature work from Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, China, Tibet, Bangladesh, Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico, where I am now based. Some show only beauty for its own sake, some depict the planet’s wrath in the form of natural disasters, others focus on pollution while yet more look at our insatiable hunger for resources. But all of them are connected by geography in that they were taken on the same lonely piece of rock and magma flying through space, the only home we have ever known. Whether positive or negative, hopeful or pessimistic, I hope these pictures give a sense of how varied and wonderful this planet is and why, in the face of the current political climate, we need to work harder than ever to protect it.

A fishing boat races across the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A fishing boat races across the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed “The Laos Sea” by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientiane as well as a fishing ground for locals.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav, Cambodia, and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav, Cambodia, and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

A Tibetan man stands above the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan, China. Fast flowing and oxidized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A Tibetan man stands above the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan, China. Fast flowing and oxidized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

Buddhist monks play basketball on a court in their mountainside monastery in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Despite the light covering of snow, the monks report increasingly warmer winter temperatures each year and a general reduction in quanitites of fresh water on the Tibetan plateau.

Buddhist monks play basketball on a court in their mountainside monastery in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Despite the light covering of snow, the monks report increasingly warmer winter temperatures each year and a general reduction in quantities of fresh water on the Tibetan plateau.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolonda Village, Tacloban, Philippines. Yolonda is the local name for typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged southern Leyte.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolonda Village, Tacloban, Philippines. Yolonda is the local name for typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged southern Leyte.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam. There are so few fish left in this section of the Mekong River that fishermen have turned to building inland fish farms to support their families.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam. There are so few fish left in this section of the Mekong River that fishermen have turned to building inland fish farms to support their families.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatapec, outside Mexico City, waiting for government water delivery trucks. As the city's water resources become increasingly scarce, more and more of its poorest residents depend on such deliveries.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatepec, outside Mexico City, waiting for government water delivery trucks. As the city’s water resources become increasingly scarce, more and more of its poorest residents depend on such deliveries.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion washed away their land.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion washed away their land.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags in Tacloban, Philippines. Much of the coastline was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan, and the sacks serve as a temporary replacement.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags in Tacloban, Philippines. Much of the coastline was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan, and the sacks serve as a temporary replacement.

Canadian tree planters hike into a clearcut where they will manually reforest the area. Canada is the world's largest exporter of wood products, and reforestation is part of the national law.

Canadian tree planters hike into a clearcut where they will manually reforest the area. Canada is the world’s largest exporter of wood products, and reforestation is part of the national law.

An elderly woman in Ecatepec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

An elderly woman in Ecatepec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave them to dry in the sun.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave them to dry in the sun. Recycling organic fibres such as these instead of throwing them away develops local industry and reduces waste.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunnan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunnan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala. Almalonga is often referred to as the Garden of the Americas, but it has become heavily dependent on agricultural chemicals to keep production high.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala. Almalonga is often referred to as the Garden of the Americas, but it has become heavily dependent on agricultural chemicals to keep production high.

A young boy enters an illegal gold mine in southern Leyte, Philippines. Mining crews work for up to 10 hours per day underground, with little to no safety precautions.

A young boy enters an illegal gold mine in southern Leyte, Philippines. Mining crews work for up to 10 hours per day underground, with little to no safety precautions.

An aerial view of a Mekong River tributary near Luang Prabang, Laos, with a major hydropower dam nearly completed in the distance. Laos is attempting to transform itself into "the battery of Southeast Asia" by heavily damming its rivers despite the high environmental costs.

An aerial view of a Mekong River tributary near Luang Prabang, Laos, with a major hydropower dam nearly completed in the distance. Laos is attempting to transform itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia” by heavily damming its rivers despite the high environmental costs.

Small mounds of chemical fertilizer is placed next to each head of lettuce to ensure they reach maximum possible size. Lettuce is not a staple food in Guatemala and much of it will be exported to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, decades of heavy application has rendered the soil dependent on it.

Small mounds of chemical fertilizer is placed next to each head of lettuce to ensure they reach maximum possible size. Lettuce is not a staple food in Guatemala and much of it will be exported to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, decades of heavy application has rendered the soil dependent on it.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majority of their income.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake’s level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majority of their income.

A buddhist monk hikes through the Areng Valley in Cambodia as part of an anti-dam protest.

A buddhist monk hikes through the Areng Valley in Cambodia as part of an anti-dam protest.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos. Fewer than 400 wild elephants remain in Laos, while many of those in captivity are used for brute force labour.

Women watch as watWomen watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Ecatepec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City's water is lost to leaky infrastructure.er leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Icatapec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City's water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Women watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Ecatepec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City’s water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Children play cricket in a flooded field that has become a dumping ground for garbage and human waste. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A tree planter works along a rainy ridge in southern Alberta, Canada. Though this section of forest will be replanted, what grows will be a monoculture forest and cannot replace the old growth that once stood.

A tree planter works along a rainy ridge in southern Alberta, Canada. Though this section of forest will be replanted, what grows will be a monoculture forest and cannot replace the old growth that once stood.

In Iztapalapa, Mexico City, many residents are so short of water that their only source is from delivery trucks that might take as much as three weeks to refill their cisterns. As water becomes increasingly scarce in Mexico it is the poorest residents who suffer the most shortages.

In Iztapalapa, Mexico City, many residents are so short of water that their only source is from delivery trucks that might take as much as three weeks to refill their cisterns. As water becomes increasingly scarce in Mexico it is the poorest residents who suffer the most shortages.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinghong.

The foothills of the Himalayas in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). The Tibetan plateau is often referred to as "the third pole" because of its huge reserves of ice and water. This region is under serious threat from global climate change, which is in turn threatening the water supply for most of Asia.

The foothills of the Himalayas in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). The Tibetan plateau is often referred to as “the third pole” because of its huge reserves of ice and water. This region is under serious threat from global climate change, which is in turn threatening the water supply for most of Asia.

Cambodian monks bathe in the Areng River, near the site of a proposed Chinese hydroelectric dam.

Cambodian monks bathe in the Areng River, near the site of a proposed Chinese hydroelectric dam.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack. This region of Guatemala has become so dependent on the use of agricultural chemicals that many imports have been banned from the United States - despite the fact that many of the chemicals were manufactured in America in the first place.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack. This region of Guatemala has become so dependent on the use of agricultural chemicals that many imports have been banned from the United States – despite the fact that many of the chemicals were manufactured in America in the first place.

A tree planter climbs on a "log deck". Canada is one of the world's leading exporters of wood products, and the harvested forests must be replanted by hand.

A tree planter climbs on a “log deck”. Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of wood products, and the harvested forests must be replanted by hand.

Valeriano Cutúc is an Almolonga farmer who remembers a time before the chemicals were necessary. The current reliance on them is a constant financial strain as prices of the chemicals are beyond the farmers control. A sudden price hike could ruin a farmer who is already dependent.

Valeriano Cutúc is an Almolonga farmer who remembers a time before the chemicals were necessary. The current reliance on them is a constant financial strain as prices of the chemicals are beyond the farmers control. A sudden price hike could ruin a farmer who is already dependent.

Illegal gold miners bathe in the jungle near their mining tunnel in the mountains overlooking Pinut An, Philippines.

Illegal gold miners bathe in the jungle near their mining tunnel in the mountains overlooking Pinut An, Philippines.

Yaks eat in the early morning in Yak Kharka, Nepal. The Himalayas are one of the regions most threatened by global climate change.

Yaks eat in the early morning in Yak Kharka, Nepal. The Himalayas are one of the regions most threatened by global climate change.

Horses that did not survive the harsh winter in Northern Nepal.

Horses that did not survive the harsh winter in Northern Nepal.

The Thorong Pass stands at nearly 5500 metres above sea level, yet is nowhere close to the highest point in Nepal. The Himalayas are the world's highest mountain range, but region is under severe threat from global climate change.

The Thorong Pass stands at nearly 5500 metres above sea level, yet is nowhere close to the highest point in Nepal. The Himalayas are the world’s highest mountain range, but region is under severe threat from global climate change.

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Out of the Bush: What I Learned While Tree Planting

I am who I am today because of five summers spent living in tents in Canada’s northern forests. As a tree planter I learned what it meant to work hard – harder than anything I had experienced before. And while it nearly killed me during my torturous rookie season, I came out a far, far better person.

Tree planting taught me how to make due with limited resources in a remote location. Over the years I gained the ability to deal with huge amounts of personal discomfort and focus on the task at hand. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that self-pity was a waste of time – everyone was having trouble carrying 50 pounds of trees through mosquito infested swamps, they certainly didn’t need to hear me whining about it. In short, tree planting toughened me in a way that made it possible to work as a photojournalist today. Had I not set out for the bush nearly a decade ago, I sincerely doubt I would be where I am now.

In an effort to bring together the two jobs which have had the most impact on my life, I spent nearly four months in a tree planting camp last year trying to capture the experience with a camera.

Right now thousands of tree planters across Canada are starting their seasons, replanting Canada’s forests by hand. For them it will be as it has always been – simultaneously one of the best and worst possible ways to spend a summer. And while can’t say I’ll miss the job itself, every Spring I feel a powerful nostalgia for the truly unique lifestyle.

For those reading this from a destitute hotel room somewhere in the Canadian north, good luck and happy planting.

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A foreman checks his map, trying to decide where to put his planters.

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Tree planters walk to work, carrying all their gear, food, and water down a 4 km muddy trail.

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A planter moves through the aftermath of a forest fire, replanting the burned zone with new trees.

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A tree seedling, recently planter in the cracked soil of northern Alberta oil country. A good planter can plant thousands of trees per day.

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A planter works an especially good piece of land on a rainy day. He will go on to make over $600.

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A planter’s face is covered with soot and charcoal after working to replant a burnt forest.

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A planter falls up to his knees in soft mud. The ground, open and flat, should be a planter’s dream, but heavy rains have rendered areas of it unworkable.

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A planter drinks water from a gas container. The vessels are common among tree planters because they are high capacity, tough, and can be used as a stool if necessary.

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A planter silhouetted agains an oncoming rainstorm on the oil sands of northern Alberta.

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Planters work to dig toilets for the camp. Each time the camp is moved, which typically happens multiple times per season, the camps need to be rebuilt.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off. There is little privacy in a planting camp.

Planters pick thorns out of eachother's hands at the end of a work day.

Planters pick thorns out of each other’s hands at the end of a work day.

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The camp’s cook hangs from a log deck. Canada is the world’s biggest exporter of forest products.

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The camp sits around a fire on the last night of the season. Some planters will go on to other jobs, but many will head back to their province of origin.

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Planters watch the northern lights.

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Dirty Money: Tree Planting in Western Canada

Tree planters sleep on the ground, work in the rain and snow, battle swarms of insects, and bend over thousands of times a day – all in the pursuit of money. While tree planting is part adventure and part iconic right of passage, the ultimate goal is to earn as much as possible before the season ends. While some “rookie” planters might struggle to earn enough to cover their expenses, a motivated and experienced planter can expect to earn upwards of $300 every day. The very best earn even more still. Many tree planters return to this job year after year in pursuit of a large payout, whether for tuition, travel, or investment.

Known nationally as one of the hardest jobs a young person can do, this story follows a camp of 42 tree planters over a difficult four month season in northern Alberta.

Click here to see the complete collection of posts and articles about tree planting.

A forman studies a map of the day's cutblocks to decide where his tree planters will work. Foremen, also called crew bosses, are responsible for around 12 planters and have to make sure they always have land to plant.

A foreman studies a map of the day’s cut blocks to decide where his tree planters will work. Foremen, also called crew bosses, are responsible for around 12 planters and have to make sure they always have land to plant.

 

Planters walk through thick mud that the trucks are unable to drive through. Unusually heavy rains have made accessing the cut blocks difficult.

Planters walk through thick mud that the trucks are unable to drive through. Unusually heavy rains have made accessing the cut blocks difficult

A first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

A first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

 

A freshly planted seedling in the dry earth of the Alberta oil sands. Major oil companies employ tree planters in an attempt to reclaim the areas affected by their operations.

A freshly planted seedling in the dry earth of the Alberta oil sands. Major oil companies employ tree planters in an attempt to reclaim the areas affected by their operations

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses and planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses and planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

A planter is covered in charcoal after working in a burn block.

A planter is covered in charcoal after working in a burn block. Alberta has been ravaged by large forest fires recently, and the planters have been tasked with replanting the burn zones.

Members of the camps management team arrive five days in advance of the planters to dig out snow caches. The trees were airlifted into the camp the previous fall and have been frozen in these mounds of snow during the winter. It is critical that the trees be thawed before the planters arrive, otherwise the trees would be unplantable.

Members of the camps management team arrive five days in advance of the planters to dig out snow caches. The trees were airlifted into the camp the previous fall and have been frozen in these mounds of snow during the winter. It is critical that the trees be thawed before the planters arrive, otherwise the trees would be unplantable.

 

A planter struggles through knee-deep mud. Though this block shoud be a planter's dream (open with soft ground), heavy rains have made it treacherous.

A planter struggles through knee-deep mud. Though this block shoud be a planter’s dream (open with soft ground), heavy rains have made it treacherous.

 

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

 

A planter drinks water out of a gas container. These are common water vessels for tree planters as they are easy to carry and hard to break, and can be used as a makeshift stool.

A planter drinks water out of a gas container. These are common water vessels for tree planters as they are easy to carry and hard to break, and can be used as a makeshift stool.

 

A planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

A planter works along a ridge line on a rain day near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

 

A foreman's legs are covered in dirt and charcoal after a day of work.

A foreman’s legs are covered in dirt and charcoal after a day of work.

 

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

 

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. Alberta, Canada, 2013.

A foreman takes a break in from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

A foreman takes a break in from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

 

A planter looks at a photo of his mother that he found in his tent. Tree planters are away from their families for months at a time, and communication can be difficult.

A planter looks at a photo of his mother that he found in his tent. Tree planters are away from their families for months at a time, and communication can be difficult.

 

The first load of treeplantPlanters work together to dig new toilets for the camp. The hand-dug drop toilets are colloquially referred to as "shitters".ers arrive in camp and set to work digging holes for the camp toilets.

Planters work together to dig new toilets for the camp. The hand-dug drop toilets are colloquially referred to as “shitters”.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

 

A planter shaves on a day off.

A planter shaves on a day off.

 

Canada is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wood, selling tens of millions of tonnes of forest products every year. The forests that are cut down must be replanted, by hand.

Canada is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wood, selling tens of millions of tonnes of forest products every year. The forests that are cut down must be replanted, by hand.

 

Planters wait to be flown out of camp for a day off. Waiting is a part of everyday life for treeplanters who often have no control over schedules or transportation.

Planters wait to be flown out of camp for a day off. Waiting is a part of everyday life for treeplanters who often have no control over schedules or transportation.

 

Planters sit around a camp fire and watch the northern lights.

Planters sit around a camp fire and watch the northern lights.

The planters celebrate around a camp fire after planting their last trees of the 2013 season.

The planters celebrate around a camp fire after planting their last trees of the 2013 season.

Click here to see the complete collection of posts and articles about tree planting.

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Always Be Planting: Late Season Mud and Cold

For most tree planters in northern Alberta, the 2013 season is drawing to an end. Though some exceptionally motivated people will continue on to work on special contracts, for most planters the last trees of the summer will be planted over the next few days.

This season has been arduous by anyone’s standards. Heavy rains, erratic weather and unexpected delays have worn down even the most experienced planters in the camp. And in true tree planting fashion, the last shifts of the season will be some of the most difficult. Rain has ruined the access roads to the blocks, meaning that planters have to walk up to 10 km through thick mud that sticks to their boots and drains both energy and morale. Even though planters are motivated by money, there are many who would rather the season be over than struggle through these conditions. But tree planting is a job of endurance, and for the most part the planters will see the job through to the end.

Planters are trucked into the block as far as the vehicles can drive before being stopped by thick mud.

Planters are trucked into the block as far as the vehicles can drive before being stopped by thick mud.

A planter works a thick section of land, overgrown and littered with debris referred to as 'slash'.

A planter works a thick section of land, overgrown and littered with debris referred to as ‘slash’.

A planter drinks a mixture of water and electrolytes to try and replace the minerals and salts lost from sweating.

A planter drinks a mixture of water and electrolytes to try and replace the minerals and salts lost from sweating, despite the low temperature.

Planters walk through thick mud that the trucks are unable to drive through. Unusually heavy rains have made accessing the cut blocks difficult.

Planters walk through thick mud that the trucks are unable to drive through. Unusually heavy rains have made accessing the cut blocks difficult.

A planter huddles with others on a cold and wet day.

A planter huddles with others on a cold and wet day.

A planter tries to sleep on a cold drive out of the blocks.

A planter tries to sleep on a cold drive out of the blocks.

Planters wait to be picked up after a muddy walk.

Planters wait to be picked up after a muddy walk.

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Always Be Planting: The People You Meet

When people find out you are a tree planter, they often seem to mentally classify you as some sort of new age environmentalist hippy. A common first reaction is along the lines of “Oh, it’s great that you do that for the planet.” But people who know the industry understand that it is only an eco-friendly job in the most indirect of ways, and that the people who do this job are more likely to be well educated and athletic than dreadlocked dumpster divers. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with living off the grid, but rather that tree planters are a diverse tribe of people and can’t be generalized as easily as others may think.

Ranging in age from as young as 17 to well into their 30’s, tree planters find their way to this iconic Canadian summer job in different ways and with different motivations. Ironically, those who take the job with the intention of trying to help the environment are usually some of the least productive and often the first to quit. Likewise, people who come tree planting in pursuit of some sort of life changing “experience” are usually among the least successful. The very best planters are more akin to competitive athletes and are motivated by money – whether for school, for travel, or for debts.

Tree planting is unique in the sense that it has a white collar work force – mostly middle class and university educated – performing the most blue collar of jobs. Not many other labour intensive industries in the developed world require workers to sleep on the ground, carry out a multitude of unpaid tasks each day, and demands that they provide all their own equipment. Most tree planters would also, strangely, refuse most other resource related jobs (such as oil field work or mining, for example), even if they were higher paying. There is something special about the combination of hard work, good money, and remote living that brings these groups of people together each summer. Regardless of their motivations, tree planters are more than a stereotype.

A planter on day off wearing a newly purchased thrift store dress. She studies outdoor recreation.

A planter on day off wearing a newly purchased thrift store dress. She studies outdoor recreation in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

A planter's face and eyes are swollen from insect bites. Before coming tree planting, this 28-year-old worked as a social media marketer.

A planter’s face and eyes are swollen from insect bites. Before coming tree planting, this 28-year-old worked as a social media marketer.

A foreman enters his crews numbers into a notebook so the camp supervisor knows how much each planter should be paid. He is a university graduate who returns to Toronto to live an urban lifestyle during the winter months.

A foreman enters his crews numbers into a notebook so the camp supervisor knows how much each planter should be paid. He is a university graduate who returns to Toronto to live an urban lifestyle during the winter months.

A planter smokes a cigarette in camp. In the off season, he studies neuroscience.

A planter smokes a cigarette in camp. In the off season, he studies neuroscience and has  around 8 more years of school before reaching his goal of  becoming a doctor.

A planter sits at the end of a work day, waiting for dinner. Between this season and the last he drove through the Southern U.S. and Mexico, living out of a car with his girlfriend.

A planter sits at the end of a work day, waiting for dinner. Between this season and the last he drove through the southern United States and Mexico, living out of a car with his girlfriend.

A planter sits in a "crummy", a large personnel box mounted to the back of a pickup truck. She is a graduate of environmental science and travels when not planting.

A planter sits in a “crummy”, a large personnel box mounted to the back of a pickup truck. She holds a degree in environmental science and travels when not planting.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. He is midways through a commerce degree and will leave for a semester abroad in Sweden when the season is finished.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. He is midways through a commerce degree and will leave for a semester abroad in Sweden when the season is finished.

For the complete collection of posts about tree planting, click here.

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Always Be Planting: The Mid-Season Grind

A single production day of tree planting is a tiring experience, with some university studies estimating that a male planter can burn up to 8000 calories during a 10 hour day. While most people could struggle their way through one day on a cut block, a “professional” tree planter works five to six days a week for the entire summer. As the days and shifts pass, the rugged living and intense physical exertion can wear down even the most motivated people. A good tree planter needs to be able to keep up a rigorous pace of work for not just a day, or a week, but for several months.

Over time injuries and equipment failures increase in frequency. Personality clashes in the camp can escalate. First year planters can get frustrated and quit. Once the excitement of starting a new season wears off, tree planting can become a battle of attrition.

Planters and management unload trees from a refrigerated transport truck, known as a "reefer". Since planters are in peak production shape, trees must be brought in continuously to keep up.

Planters and management unload trees from a refrigerated transport truck, known as a “reefer”. Since planters are in peak production shape, trees must be brought in continuously to keep up.

A planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day.

A planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day. The summer of 2013 has been one of the wettest in Alberta’s recent history, forcing evacuations in the province’s biggest city, Calgary.

A planter uses duct tape to protect his fingers.

A planter uses duct tape to protect his fingers.

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses and planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes.

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes.

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

The camp's tree runner replaces a flat tire. Equipment is used relentlessly and as the season progresses things break frequestly. The tree runners act as the camp's technicians, and are the ones who typically fix things.

The camp’s tree runner replaces a flat tire. Equipment is used relentlessly and as the season progresses things break frequestly. The tree runners act as the camp’s technicians, and are the ones who typically fix things.

A foreman takes a break in from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

A foreman takes a break from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

A planter falls asleep in his car at the end of a work day. As the season draws on, the fatigue builds.

A planter falls asleep in his car at the end of a work day. As the season draws on, the fatigue builds.

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Always Be Planting: Hurry Up and Wait

One of the most attractive aspects of a tree planter’s job is the fact that, other than physically planting the trees, they have virtually no responsibilities. Logistical problems fall under the purview of the supervisor and tree runners, daily transportation and block management are handled by the crew bosses, and camp cooks make sure there is always food ready. At the end of a work day a planter needs to make no decisions more complicated than whether or not to eat a second helping of dinner.

With little responsibility, however, comes a loss of control over their lives. Everything from the prices they will be paid per tree to the items in the breakfast buffet is determined by someone else. Planters often have little to no information about big picture issues, such as when a contract will end or when they will have a day off. So when there are no trees to plant and no one is telling them what is happening, planters have no choice but to wait. Sometimes they wait angrily, sometimes happily, or sometimes introspectively, but in the end they are simply sitting idle until someone tells them otherwise. A good management team can minimize this unprofitable down time, but ultimately patience must be among the virtues of a  good tree planter. When confronted with delays, the best planters will simply wait harder.

Planters try to get some extra minutes of sleep on the ride to work. Tree planters wake up at 6am most days, and sleep is precious.

Planters try to get some extra minutes of sleep on the ride to work. Tree planters wake up at 6am most days, and sleep is precious.

A planter puts her feet up at the end of a work day.

A planter puts her feet up at the end of a work day.

A planter waits with Jasper, a camp dog.

A planter waits with Jasper, a camp dog.

A planter waits for his crew's vehicle to leave for the blocks in the morning.

A planter waits for his crew’s vehicle to leave for the blocks in the morning.

Planters nap on each other on a delayed morning start.

Planters nap on each other on a delayed morning start.

Planters wait outside a Walmart. Much of a tree planter's day off is dedicated to running minor errands, such as laundry and picking up essential items like bug spray and cigarettes.

Planters wait outside a Walmart. Much of a tree planter’s day off is dedicated to running minor errands, such as laundry and picking up essential items like bug spray and cigarettes.

Planters tage refuge from the rain inside their crew's vehicle.

Planters take refuge from the rain inside their crew vehicle.

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Always Be Planting: Getting Wet

Tree planting is, in of itself, an extremely demanding job – both mentally and physically. University studies have estimated that a shift of tree planting is equivalent to the effort of running two marathons. There is enough for tree planters to deal with on a daily bases without battling the elements.

Yet planters are expected to, and generally want to, work in nearly every weather condition. Snow, hail, rain, and extreme heat are all obstacles to overcome, and each offers its own set of challenges for planters. The heat can be a killer, and save drinking copious amounts of water and wearing light clothing, there isn’t much to be done except sweat through it and take breaks as needed. Snow is probably they easiest to overcome. As long as the planter wears layers of clothing and keeps moving, they will stay warm and relatively dry. But rain can be miserable. Some planters thrive in the wet, but for many, including myself, rain is utterly depressing. Clothes become saggy and chafe in embarrassing places. Trees become heavier as their dirt pods soak up the water. What was once solid ground becomes soupy and unstable, and feet rot inside soggy boots. And as soon as it lets up the mosquitos rise out of the earth in maddening swarms.

The spring/summer of 2013 has been unusually wet in Alberta, with cities in both the north and the south experiencing heavy flooding and in some cases evacuation. This causes all manner of problems for tree planters, both direct and indirect. Roads have become impassable which halts production, and therefore affects earnings. The tree deliverers have often been unable to access the work sites to bring the trees to the planters, getting ATVs and heavy equipment stuck in thick mud, also stopping the planters from making money. The wet clay ground has repeatedly dried and been soaked and dried again, forming ankles twisting ruts.

Even for those who don’t mind getting wet, the rain has undeniably been this camp’s enemy.

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A planter waits to go to work on a rainy morning.

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A camp foreman tries to stay dry.

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One of the camp’s deliverers works in cramped and wet conditions to secure a load of equipment.

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Planters work together in the rain to load broken equipment on a trailer, hopefully to be repaired in town.

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A planter struggles through knee-deep mud. Though this block shoud be a planter’s dream (open, and with soft ground), heavy rains have made it treacherous, and the numerous sinkholes are unpredictable.

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A planter pauses between bag-ups under a light rain.

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A planter stands in the flooded entrance to the camp, contemplating the best way to drain the water. Heavy rains have trapped the planter’s vehicles in the camp and only the heavy duty 4×4 trucks are able to get out.

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Planters stay dry at the end of a work day in the camp’s dry tent – a propane heated shelter where wet clothes can be hung overnight.

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Always Be Planting: Camp Life

Though tree planting is fundamentally just a job, in reality it is much more. An all encompassing lifestyle, planters live together in remote areas for long stretches of time. Camp life is as much a part of tree planting as the work itself and the social bonds formed are what makes tree planting such an addictive experience.

The camp's head tree deliverer attempts to build a fuel shelter but is intercepter by Jasper, a camp dog.

The camp’s head tree deliverer attempts to build a fuel shelter but is intercepted by Jasper, a camp dog.

Planters wait to be flown out of camp for a day off. Waiting is a part of everyday life for treeplanters who often have no control over schedules or transportation.

Planters wait to be flown out of camp for a day off. Waiting is a part of everyday life for treeplanters who often have no control over schedules or transportation.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

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Planters and a camp dog try to chase a bear away from the camp site. Bears, drawn to camp’s food, can become a serious problem.

A foreman's legs are covered in dirt and charcoal after a day of work.

A foreman’s legs are covered in dirt and charcoal after a day of work.

Jasper, a camp dog. Dogs are common in planting camps and provide bear security as well as entertaintment.

Jasper, a camp dog. Dogs are common in planting camps and provide bear security as well as entertaintment.

One of the camp's tree deliverers takes a break from cleaning up the camp.

One of the camp’s tree deliverers takes a break from cleaning up the camp.

A planter shaves on a day off.

A planter shaves on a day off.

The camp's cooks prepare dinner. Cooks work the longest hours in the camp and cooking for more than 40 people in a remote environment is a constant challenge.

The camp’s cooks prepare dinner. Cooks work the longest hours in the camp and cooking for more than 40 people in a remote environment is a constant challenge.

Planters sit around a camp fire and watch the northern lights.

Planters sit around a camp fire and watch the northern lights.

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Always Be Planting: The Beginning

After countless technical issues – a catastrophic water loss, faulty equipment, and broken vehicles, among other things – the tree planters put their first trees of the 2013 season in the ground.

The contract is a somewhat unusual one. Massive forest fires devastated large areas of northern Alberta in previous years, and the planters have been tasked to reforest the area. The blocks are covered by the charred remains of burnt trees, which weave together and make moving through the land a sharp and dirty nightmare. The planters are constantly getting poked in the eyes by the skeletal trees, and they are coated in ash and charcoal from constantly rubbing against the blackened branches. The moving is very slow, frustrating, and often painful. The temperatures soar to unseasonable highs and many planters, unused to the elements so early in the season, are incapacitated by heat stroke and exhaustion. To make matters worse, a stomach virus spreads through the camp and many of the planters miss days of work as they are crippled with diarrhea and nausea.

Despite the adverse situation, the planters in the camp are mostly experienced ones, and morale remains high. People are starting to make money, which is what tree planting is ultimately about.

A planter sits in a vehicle in camp, waiting to go to the planting blocks.

A planter sits in a vehicle in camp, waiting to go to the planting blocks.

A tree planter moves through burnt trees. Forest fires burned across large areas of northern Alberta and the planters have been tasked with reforesting the burn zones.

A tree planter moves through burnt trees. Forest fires burned across large areas of northern Alberta and the planters have been tasked with reforesting the burn zones.

A veteran planter of 13 seasons drops a piece of flagging tape. The coloured tape allows her to see which areas of the overgrown land have already been planted.

A veteran planter of 13 seasons drops a piece of flagging tape. The coloured tape allows her to see which areas of the overgrown land have already been planted.

A planter emerges from his land to get more trees.

A planter emerges from his land to get more trees.

A first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

A first year planter puts a tree in the ground.

Extreme heat takes a toll on planters early in the season as their bodies aren't yet in peak planting shape.

Extreme heat takes a toll on planters early in the season as their bodies aren’t yet in peak planting shape.

A planter is covered in charcoal after working in a burn block.

A planter is covered in charcoal after working in a burn block.

A foreman drives planters back to camp at the end of the day. With walks of up to 5km to and from the active planting blocks, a ride home is treasured.

A foreman drives planters back to camp at the end of the day. With walks of up to 5km to and from the active planting blocks, a ride home is treasured.

Planters pick thorns out of eachother's hands at the end of a work day.

Planters pick thorns out of eachother’s hands at the end of a work day.

Blisters form on a planter's feet, so painful that she is unable to work for several days.

Blisters form on a planter’s feet, so painful that she is unable to work for several days.

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