Tag Archives: deforestation

Tree Planting in Rural Cambodia

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

After around five months of careful (and at times frustrating) planning, the first of ten thousand new trees are in the ground in the rural Cambodian province of Takeo. Funded by the Canadian clothing company Tentree Apparel, the project seemed like it would be relatively simple when I proposed it, but ended up being several orders of magnitude more complicated to pull off.

I first heard of Tentree when they reached out to me in the fall asking to license some of my Canadian tree planting images. After sending off the files, I had a quick look around their website to see what they were all about and learned of their eco-oriented business model – for every item sold, ten trees are planted somewhere in the world. To be perfectly honest, the cynic in me immediately thought the whole thing sounded like a gimmick to capitalize on the wave of going-green culture.

So I decided to reach out to Kalen, Tentree’s media officer, and feel the brand out to see if they actually practiced what they preached. Since Tentree had active planting operations in Asia already, I asked, why not start up in Cambodia as well? In a country with a roughly 75% deforestation rate from illegal logging and development projects, if anywhere really needs reforesting, it is Cambodia. In retrospect it was perhaps an overly bold move to ask a company with which I had no working relationship other than a one-time transfer of images if they would trust me to establish, supervise, and document a rather expensive new operation from the other side of the world. I pretty much wrote the whole idea off as unlikely from the moment I hit the send button.

But much to my surprise, the next morning there was an email from Kalen, expressing interest and asking for more information. Having worked in the forestry industry for six years before transitioning into media, I was immediately suspicious: would they want to plant a huge swath of a single, cheap species of tree simply so they could add the total number of tree planted to their scoreboard? Would they insist on planting a non-native species to cut costs? Were they going to micromanage the whole thing according to some sort of established corporate doctrine?

Anticipating the worst, I sent back a proposal to plant a mix of endangered native hardwoods (far more expensive than many fast-growing softwoods) in a variety of locations – meaning the planting would take substantially longer than if they were all dropped into a single location. With a pitch that featured such selling points as high cost and a slow execution, I fully expected that to be the end of our correspondence.

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Students at a primary school in Takeo transport tree saplings to the planters using a small wooden cart.

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A Buddhist monk volunteer carries a sapling to a suitable planting location. Monks have a strong connection to environmental issues, believing nature to be sacred, and dozens volunteered their time to join the project.

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A group of monks work together, digging holes, planting, and watering the saplings.

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A monk’s hands after a few minutes of panting. While many monks are spared from the labour intensive livelihoods of most Cambodians, these volunteers had no problem getting dirty.

Within a few days, however, I got an enthusiastic response from Kalen, telling me to go ahead. Since we had never met, or even talked on the phone, this was quite a leap of faith from the guys at Tentree, and somewhat of a shock for me, who now found myself in charge of the logistics for a complex operation in a foreign country as well as all media production. Now that the project is on its feet and running smoothly I can admit that at the time I was in way over my head.

The realities of government permissions, negotiating with tree nurseries in a language I was barely functional in, finding the manpower to physically put the trees in the ground, and somehow transporting and feeding hundreds of people for multiple days of hard labour in a remote area sunk in all at once. It’s not worth mentioning all the ways I tried and failed to get this project going on my own, but suffice it to say there were quite a few botched attempts.

Yet just when it seemed I had made a huge mistake in taking so much on, I was introduced to a group of  student activists from Pannasastra University of Cambodia called The Model Teens. Practically overnight these hugely ambitious volunteers turned the operation from a well-meaning but ill-planned pipe dream into a reality. Without their help in securing a fair price for such a large order of trees and their local contacts in the rural provinces outside Phnom Penh, securing us protected and fertile ground, I doubt a single tree would have been planted.

Together with hundreds of student and monk volunteers, the Model Teens and I set out from Phnom Penh last week to plant the first few thousand of the ten thousand tree total. With much of Takeo’s population scraping out a subsistence living from the increasingly desertified land, it seemed like an ideal place to put new life into the ground.

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High school students plant trees around the perimeter of their campus.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

 

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Students and monks work together to transport the trees to the planting areas.

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Girls collect water in plastic bags from a pond on their school ground.

More than anything it was great to be a part of actually creating something lasting rather than only observing and documenting other people’s lives and achievements. While I am still first and foremost a documentarian rather than an operations manager, as the Tentree operation in Cambodia expands in the coming years, I have no problem setting aside my camera to take an active role in seeing it succeed.

I’m off to Nepal for the next few weeks for a mixture of commissioned humanitarian and personal work, but at this stage the project is running so smoothly that I suspect my managerial oversight would be more of a nuisance than a benefit to the hundreds of planters. But with a dedicated independent tree nursery already under construction to expand the operation for next year’s planting season, I can leave Cambodia in the knowledge that I was able to contribute to something bigger than myself.

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Water is carried by student volunteers to each of the newly planted trees.

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A monk takes the opportunity to wash his hands as a newly planted tree gets its first watering.

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Hundreds of volunteers work together throughout the day to make sure the trees are properly planted.

Updates from Nepal to come.

 

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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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Reforesting Cambodia, Ten Trees at a Time

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 74% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 75% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

In the 1970’s, 70% of Cambodia was covered in primary (untouched) rainforest. Today, that number is closer to 3%, mostly due to the dual blights of large-scale land development and illegal logging.

The roots of Cambodia’s mass deforestation trace back to the Khmer Rouge era when various factions, locked in a deadly fight to wrest control of the country, financed their armies from the sale of timber to foreign governments and corporations. While  guerrilla groups, including the then-fledgling Khmer Rouge, sold most of their harvest to Thailand, the ruling government they were focused on ousting was exporting to Japan and Vietnam. With all sides engaged in a fight to the death, there was little consideration left over for possible future environmental impacts.

Valued for high-quality hardwoods, such as the luxurious rosewood, Cambodian forests continued to be heavily exploited throughout the civil war period and into the 21st Century. Today the national forests are a spectre of what they used to be, and despite a government supposedly committed to preventing illegal logging, the countryside of the southeast Asian nation is more often experienced as a dusty red desert than a lush tropical rainforest.

A few months ago I was introduced to Kalen Emsley, one of the founders of Ten Tree Apparel.  A company with a business model that revolves around a pledge to plant ten trees somewhere in the world for every item of clothing sold, Ten Tree is already approaching the one million mark in Africa. Having myself spent more than a year of combined days living in a tent as a seasonal tree planter in northern Canada, it seemed logical to combine my past experiences in reforestation with my more contemporary skills as a photojournalist. Kalen and I started working out a way to expand Ten Tree’s planting operations into Cambodia, and through a series of emails and Skype calls we eventually figured out how to make it happen.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Tree planting operations have become somewhat of a cliche, with businesses around the world sending teams of office workers with a few shovels to plant a few hundred trees in a field somewhere. In contrast, this project will see thousands of native trees planted in areas where they will be of direct benefit to local residents – near rural schools, for example. And unlike the industrial scale planting I used to do as a student summer job, these handmade forests will be comprised of mixed species – not just large swaths of monoculture.

Though it’s still far too hot in Cambodia to begin planting (ten thousand dead trees wouldn’t really help anybody), the trees have been ordered from a local nursery and our idea is on its way to becoming a reality.

Workers at a nursery outside Phnom Penh receive instructions from their manager.

Workers receive instructions from their manager at a nursery outside Phnom Penh.

 

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia's often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia’s often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh

When the weather cools off (which is, sadly, not until the end of April at the earliest), teams of student volunteers and environmentally active Buddhist monks will travel out of the city to put some trees in the ground. I’ll be there to document it, but until then these images from my recent visit to the nursery will have to do.

 

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March to the Arang Valley

My friend and fellow Phnom Penh photojournalist, Thomas Cristofoletti, called me a week ago and asked nonchalantly if I wanted to go walk into the jungle with a group of forty monks. Truth be told, I really didn’t have any idea what he was talking about – but it seemed like a fantastic proposition nevertheless. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that question anyways, and I wouldn’t have been able to respect myself had I said no.

Several days later, when I was crossing rivers in the black of night, it seemed less fantastic.

The monks, working in partnership with several non-profit organizations, were heading to the remote Arang valley in western Cambodia in order to raise awareness about the dangers of deforestation. The only way to get to the village of Pra Lay, where the bulk of the monk’s demonstration was scheduled to take place, was along a winding dirt path of unknown distance.

In the beginning we were under the impression the walk would be about 16km, which is, though strenuous on an uneven jungle road, very manageable. Halfway through the walk, rumours began to circulate that the actual length of the trail was over 30km. In the end, the most agreed upon number seemed to be around 25km, but that element of not knowing how much longer made things all the more tiring when we were still walking at midnight.

I was wearing tough leather boots, while the monks wore battered leather or rubber sandals. Add to that the fact that Buddhist monks do not eat anything after 12 p.m., and so had been walking for more than eight hours on empty stomachs. Together with a young monk, Prim Huon, I was the first to arrive on foot at 1.33 a.m; many of the older monks who had fallen behind didn’t straggle in until around 4.

Since I haven’t finished the editing yet and have spent most of the day slogging through audio transcriptions of the interviews I conducted, I’m just going to share a handful of images as a preview. The rest of the story will be ready by early next week.

This is one of the first cases where monks have come together in a large group to protest environmental destruction, and I look forward to sharing it more fully.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley, hoping to encourage the residents to think critically about environmental protection.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

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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: A Season in Pictures

For most tree planters in Canada, the 2013 season is finished. Some planters will find spots on smaller summer plants, and some will branch out into other forestry related jobs, such as working as an attendant in a forest fire fighting camp, but the majority are headed back to wherever home is.

The following is a visual summary of the three month season, more or less in the order things happened. Overall it was an incredibly tough season to be a tree planter in northern Alberta. Equipment failures and heavy rains plagued the camp at every opportunity, and most planters did not make as much money as in previous seasons. Despite the constant adversity, camp morale stayed high throughout the season and many planters were already talking about their plans for the next summer’s plant as they said their goodbyes. Full of highs and lows, both physically and mentally, the 2013 was certainly a memorable one.

Click here to look back at the complete collection of posts about tree planting.

A member of the camp's management team sits in a housing trailer in the  company's regional equipment yard. Arriving several weeks before the planters, the management team works to gather all the necessary equipment to ensure a smooth start.

A member of the camp’s management team sits in a housing trailer in the company’s regional equipment yard. Arriving several weeks before the planters, the management team works to gather all the necessary equipment to ensure a smooth start.

Management staff dig frozen trees out of a snow cache, where they have sat buried since they were trucked in along an ice road the previous fall. If the trees are not dug out far enough in advance they will be frozen and therefore unplantable.

Management staff dig frozen trees out of a snow cache, where they have sat buried since they were trucked in along an ice road the previous fall. If the trees are not dug out far enough in advance they will be frozen and therefore unplantable.

A moose skeleton is surrounded in fur after being picked clean by forest carnivores and insects.

A moose skeleton is surrounded in fur after being picked clean by forest carnivores and insects.

A foreman and a planter shield their eyes from the winds of a helicopter rotor.

A foreman and a planter shield their eyes from the winds of a helicopter rotor.

A planter expresses frustration during a slow and wet camp move. The camp must be moved several times over the course of the season and the planters are unpaid for this mandatory work.

A planter expresses frustration during a slow and wet camp move. The camp must be moved several times over the course of the season and the planters are unpaid for this mandatory work.

A planter walks past a reclaimed tailing pond. Tailing ponds are large resevoirs of the toxic byproducts created by the extraction of oil from sand in northern Alberta. Working for a major oil company, the planters are tasked with reclaiming these former industrial sites with trees.

A planter walks past a reclaimed tailing pond. Tailing ponds are large resevoirs of the toxic byproducts created by the extraction of oil from sand in northern Alberta. Working for a major oil company, the planters are tasked with reclaiming these former industrial sites with trees.

Two planters work together to set up the camp's "dry tent", a small shelter where clothes can be dried after a wet day.

Two planters work together to set up the camp’s “dry tent”, a small shelter where clothes can be dried after a wet day.

A planter watches Raven, a camp dog, from inside his tent. Tree planters, unlike other resource based workers, are required to sleep almost exclusively outside and must provide all their own gear.

A planter watches Raven, a camp dog, from inside his tent. Tree planters, unlike other resource based workers, are required to sleep almost exclusively outside and must provide all their own gear.

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 planters works past a log deck on a rainy day in northern Alberta.

A planters works past a log deck on a rainy day in northern Alberta.

Two planters, who have been friends since high school, wait to be driven back to camp at the end of a long and muddy walk.

Two planters, who have been friends since high school, wait to be driven back to camp at the end of a long and muddy walk.

A foreman smokes by the fire after the camp's final tree has been planted. For most tree planters, the 2013 season is over.

A foreman smokes by the fire after the camp’s final tree has been planted. For most tree planters, the 2013 season is over.

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

On a personal level, my time documenting this iconic summer job is finished for the time being. I am working on a final post as a response to numerous emails, in which I will attempt to explain the mechanics of the job a little more clearly and, with a combination of words and pictures, describe the addictive allure of this truly weird job. 

 

Posted in Blog, Canada, Tree Planting Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

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.

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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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