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Volume 91, Issue 23

Wednesday, October 8, 1997

glass houses


Tree planting diaries: Assorted writings from the ramparts of pine

©Victoria Barkley/Gazette
GIFTS TO THE LAND. Victoria strikes a pose to show off what tree planting is all about.

By Victoria Barkley

Gazette Staff

The following are observations and opinions sporadically penned in the depths of Northern Ontario forests and logging town motels. Any irrational statements are not fully intended, but are products of tree planting and its subsequent affect on the writer's mind.

Part I:
The Road Trip

The Setting:
a Pontiac 6,-000 of dubious origins.

The Contents: ratty clothes, steel-toed boots, faulty radio, assorted cassettes, stale Cheetos, one happy albeit reluctant veteran planter, two tag-along friends suffering from road rage and windshield eyes (a formidable state of mind and vision when long car trips affect the diameter of the open eye).

The Location: London, Sarnia, Port Huron, Saginaw, Bay City, Mackinaw Bridge, Sault Ste. Marie, Wawa, Thunder Bay. Also gas stations, rest stops, variety stores.

The Narrative and Superfluous Details: Previous excursions to Northern Ontario's infamous logging and tree-planting territory began on a loaded Greyhound bus. The crowding and cramping of a smelly bus do little for the demeanor and detract from the changing landscape.

Nearly treeless farmlands make an arresting transformation into wild escarpments covered with birch trees and conifers. Wide frozen lakes periodically swallow the horizon or everything on one side of the highway. Every ascent along Highway 17 presents a combination of waterfalls, light burgundy, orange and dark green trees and bright copper sandy soil. (Sand is an Ontario tree planter's pipe dream come true). There is no camera capable of doing this panorama justice. Yellow grass and brindle moss drape over blasted rocks on the roadside. The exposed rock faces are white and pink with occasional blue-grey stripes. (Rocks are an Ontario tree planter's harsh reality in most locations on the Canadian Shield). The far reaching pine and spruce forests are periodically interrupted by hideous clear-cut tracts. As beautiful as the scenery might be during the road trip, a few days of planting will totally alter aesthetic appreciation.

Apart from the natural scenery, the traveller is free to absorb human-made roadside distractions: billboards for interesting motels, restaurants, banks and coffee shops, all conveniently located only a few hundred kilometres down the road.

On the topic of human constructs, the road-wrecked traveller might notice a rift in the mentality of local inhabitants. There are two distinct brainwave categories – one is the environmentalist, the other is the opportunist.

The environmentalist acknowledges the history of resource depletion and abuse of indigenous people, then sets out to learn how to repair damage and improve conditions for all affected parties. The opportunist acknowledges the history of resource depletion and abuse of indigenous people, then opens a gift store full of native-type crafts, imported from an oriental source whilst displaying makeshift teepees and cigar store Indians. Bear in mind the examples cited are extreme and illustrate a fictitious worst case scenario.

Part II:
The Basics

Very basic but adequate. Rookies and softcore planters might elect to rent a trailer if the company provides the service. A trailer is by no means spacious nor luxurious. There is enough space for two people to sleep and store luggage. Trailers provide a sturdy shelter from the elements and woodland critters.

Tents are more economical, provided one plans on using them in the future and keeps the tent in good repair. If the employer provides the trailer option, an inexperienced camper should seriously consider a trailer over his/her younger sibling's pup tent.

The Rules in Brief: The head honchos of any camp will spout information about camp life and planting requirements. They include, but are not limited to, the following items:

No smoking in the clear cut due to fire hazard. If anyone causes a forest fire, they are held financially-responsible for its control. Nobody wants to smoke a million dollar cigarette at their personal expense.

Hard hats must be worn on the job. This rule is enforced at a few camps due to pulp mill safety regulations, though anyone who has planted with a hard hat can attest to its uselessness.

Paycheques are issued after the contract closes. Some planting companies will pay their planters only after they receive payment from their client, which usually happens September through November.

No alcohol or drugs on the block.

Planted trees must conform to or meet various soil, density and depth criteria which criteria varies between provinces and companies.

Failure to adhere to the quality specifications could lead to replanting (a waste of time) or dismissal.

Planting is more about making cash than it is about planetary beautification. Quality does slide from time to time to make a few extra dollars. Let quality slide too much or too often and the purpose is lost.

The Block: The tree planters' workplace is a few hectares of a clear cut land, divided into sections for individual, pair or group planting. The block is bound by old growth, an access road, a body of water or a company flag line. The planter is assigned a portion of the block, bound by their own flag line, another planter's piece or a block boundary. The most efficient planting method is to plant the back of the piece, move six to eight feet from the last row of trees and work from boundary to boundary continually following previously planted land.

The land is never a perfect farmer's field. One hectare could contain sphagnum moss, sand, clay and lots of rock. Mineral soil, known as cream to all planters, is never easy to find. A planter must probe moss, grass, roots, rotten debris; then kick away the mess to expose the soil and plant one tree. One tree pays between six to 12 cents in various Ontario contracts. Rumour has it British Columbia planters make up to 25 cents per tree.

Part III:
Planting and Other Sordid Activities

There is no escape from the elements. In the course of one week, the weather can turn from sunny to drizzling to heavy snow and hail. Unless the crew boss or a posse of planters deems the weather unsuitable, the only thing to do is continue planting and swear profusely. Given the nastiness of the weather, it's surprising there have been few insurrections against mother nature and/or planting management. But veteran planter Shannon Sewell says, "even though the insects are bad, the land is rough, you're in pain, you still have to keep going."

Shitting: This is a major issue once a person realizes that the shoddily-constructed shithouse is several kilometres away. When the insides cry 'get it out of here!' a planter must crap somewhere. Shitting can be a wonderful activity outdoors once a few 'tricks' to avoid soiling oneself and/ or embarrassment are learned. Always carry toilet paper (shit tickets). Never shit on your own land or downhill. Never shit on someone else's land in a plantable spot unless you are sure they will have no idea who planted the log. Veteran Jack Mazeika's advice is to, "lean against a fallen tree. It gives excellent support, almost like the throne at home." In warmer weather, manoeuver as quickly as possible because the insects worship exposed hienies. Abandon all inhibitions because you will probably be caught with your pants down at one point in the contract.

Dogfucking: This fine art of time wasting has been executed by all people at one time or another. It is self-constructed down time. The cache, a place where trees are kept for planters' immediate use, is the ideal place to waste time. Bagging up trees turns into eating one sandwich, then several and chatting with a fellow dogfucker. Smokers may turn one cancer-snack into a chain. Unfortunately, crewbosses and field managers survey the caches and subsequently bust time wasters. On a piece of land, a planter may enjoy nature: playing with frogs or snakes, picking flowers and cloud watching. The planter may also take care of him/herself: get extra sleep, scratch their rashy hieny, pick the nose, jerk-off, etc. A planter might find comfort in composing a journal while he or she should be working.

The Crewboss: This is a person to throw rocks at when things are not going according to plan. However, treat a crew boss well and they will be your hero, bringing good land, accessible caches and candy. There is the crew boss type who does no good. Treat them well and they will make you check your land to find one tree in 4,000 which was planted too deep. The vindictive crew boss will also assign a planter to a piece of overgrown land featuring a rock face, clay, bees nests and several bears. Most of the latter type of crew boss meet a bitter but deserved end on the day off. The end involves a pool cue and a few contusions.

Part IV:
The Day Off

Within no time at all, the first week of arduous labour turns into a day off. The wee villes of Northern Ontario are besieged with 30 to 90 planters and managers in search of food, lodging, a shower, a telephone and free-flowing beer. Some towns will barricade the highway in the event of tree planters. Not that tree planters are horrible people, but they cause some harm to small towns. Former planter Richard Harris once said, "We dirty their laundrettes, sleep eight to a room, drink the beer, steal their women, fill the restaurants..." and cause undue noise, mayhem, destruction wherever they tread. (It's a good time).

Handy things, days off. Frustration and discouragement is common in planting. After all, the victim must plant a tree in mineral soil, not rotten wood nor duff. The planter must brave varying inclines, fallen logs and different surfaces for the sake of six to eight cents. But collecting seven cents 2,000 times a day makes the effort worthwhile.

©Victoria Barkley/Gazette
HERE COMES THE RAIN AGAIN. Able Gazette staffer Victoria hides from the elements in the ramparts of pine.

©Victoria Barkley/Gazette
DIGGING FOR GOLD. Tree planters need big pockets because they can make big bucks planting trees.

To Contact The Features Department: gazfeat@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997