When in doubt, plant a tree

I haven’t gone tree-planting since the summer of 1995, but every spring when the soil starts to soften my heart longs for the North. And this year, maybe more than most, I’ve been hearkening back to the summers I spent in the bush in Northern Ontario. That’s where I learned everything I’ve ever needed to know about motivation and doubt.

Those are lessons I still think about, day in day out. I mull them over on these spring mornings in the city, where the little backyard trees I’ve planted must stand in for the forests I once knew in the North.

Tree-planting comprises a set of skills not easy to learn. When you’re a rookie planter, or ‘greener’, you get your lessons in the early morning, early in the season while there’s still ice in the puddles, and your city-soft hands are painfully cold. (You need bare fingers to place trees properly, so forget about gloves).

There’s a cadence to tree-planting, and the coordination required for it to come together is complex. The gear, the trees and the shovel are heavy. And the land is no flat farmer’s field cleared of obstacles. It is a scarified swath of rocks, stumps, broken tree trunks, muck, ice, gravel, and slash. You can’t walk in a straight line on level ground for ten feet. You don’t so much walk, as clamber, and scramble. And fall. A lot.

Learning to plant trees is akin to learning to play a musical instrument, in the blistering cold, while staggering around a battlefield strewn with wreckage, carrying a back-back full of bricks.

When I started out, deep into the bush along the Armstrong Highway north of Thunder Bay, in the spring of 1990, I was so keen I could barely contain my enthusiasm. I was in love with the North, the bush, the camp, the lifestyle, and all the green earthy goodness I thought tree-planting represented. I couldn’t wait.

I didn’t expect success to come instantly, so Day One was an enjoyable write-off. On Day Two, an experienced planter asked me if I’d cried on the job yet. I was still in good spirits; I said “No, why?” She said, “You will.” On Day Three, the camp burned down. By Day Four I was a cold, miserable, sleepless, friendless, feeble, emotionally incapacitated good-for-nothing without a hope in the world, standing helpless and alone in a wasteland, amid snow flurries. In May.

It’s so damned difficult, sometimes, to just focus on the task at hand. And the hardest part happens when you look at the task the wrong way. That’s when you’re liable to just give up, overwhelmed and defeated by what’s got to be done to get where you need to go.

As a planter, you stand there freezing and tired and lost in your land, with 35 pounds of trees around your waist, your nose running and your stomach grumbling and your feet soaking and your hands bleeding, and you look at the land you have left to plant, and you know it can never be done.

You are alone in the vast ruined wreck of a former forest, and you are an incompetent weakling with no sense of how to manage this terrible thankless job. It’s four days into the season, six weeks into springtime of your twenty-first year on Earth, and you have already ruined your summer, if not your life. And the bugs haven’t even arrived yet.

You are looking at what you have left to do —fill this ravaged landscape with baby trees— and you can’t believe you’ll ever do it.

I went through all this. We all went through all this. Most of us took an entire season to make any money at all, that’s how hard it is to get the hang of tree-planting. To earn enough to put yourself through university, you had to come back for another year, and another, and another. Those who did were called hard-core. It was a term we wore with pride. It was a term earned in battle.

For every single planter who ever walked the North in work-boots, the bulk of that battle was mental. Physically, we were all young and strong. Any able-bodied person, male or female, big or small, can plant trees properly if they can get the mental part down pat.

The mental part comes down to this, and it’s so simple you may not believe me, but you’ll learn it if you ever go tree-planting. Six words, that’s all. I’ll give them to you for free, the same way they were given to me.

When in doubt, plant a tree.

Too easy, right? I agree. I didn’t believe it. I fought it. I wanted to focus on my crooked line, my tilting trees, my wonky spacing, my sore fingers, my aching knees, my seizing back, my pounding head. The rising lump in my throat. The falling sum in my bank book.

But time and time again, as I walked under a cloud of darkness from the cache where the trees were dropped off, into the clearcut where the work was done, I heard the voice of some helpful veteran or other say, “When in doubt, plant a tree.” And eventually it began to sink in. Over time, I got it, even against my own will. It became my mantra, and ultimately, over the years, a part of my worldview. I couldn’t help it. It made too much sense to deny it.

When in doubt, plant a tree.

I learned it the hard way, and I passed it on to anyone I could in turn. Once, in my second season, I saw a greener grinding to a halt on the job. I could tell by the slump of her shoulders that’s what she was doing, even from five hundred feet away. I’d done it myself just a year before.

She just was standing in her land, her hands at her side, her shovel down, sobbing, overwhelmed by what lay before her, unable to believe in her own ability to get there. I took one look and I dropped my own bags, ran into her land, took her by the shoulders, and gently turned her around. What she needed was a change in perspective.

A 180 degree pivot was all it took. There behind her in neat rows, like fuzzy little cartoon soldiers, were the hundreds of trees she’d managed to put in that day so far. A little forest striving to be. A good day’s work, really, for anyone.

You don’t look around at what’s left to do. If you must stop to catch your breath, you look back at what you’ve done.

Then you stride forward, while reaching around behind you to grab the wrapped pod of a seedling tree and pull it free from the bundle in your bag with one hand, while with the other, you throw the shovel forward, screefing briefly to scuff away the duff as you do; into a plantable spot you push that blade, leaning with your own weight on the shaft, cleaving the soil with one fluid motion; you kick the shovel, bend down, pop the wad of soil back, slip the tree in, straighten up, close the hole with a heel, tug the little trunk and tweak the top for good measure, and you’re already a stride away with one hand behind your back, reaching for that next tree and throwing the shovel forward again.

And it takes no longer than it took you to read that single sentence. Under ideal conditions, anyway. One of the first things you learn tree-planting is that the conditions are never ideal.

When in doubt, plant a tree.

You do that, and you do that, and you do that, and whenever you’re in doubt, you do that. I did that first with ineptitude, then with frustration, then with reluctance, then with stubborn submission, then with deliberation, then with plodding confidence, then with a measure of ease until by the end of my first season, I was a pretty good planter.

Then I did it time and again, for three more seasons, thousands of times a day, over three hundred and thirty-three thousand times in all, before moving up the ranks to become a tree deliverer.

I ran trees for two more seasons. Being a tree-runner seemed heroic —riding a quad, driving a truck, bombing around in a Bombardier swamp buggy— but it was a job so rugged and lonesome and reckless and physically exhausting that it made tree planting seem easy in some ways. I had to learn to face my frustration again.

I learned, though, and I grew, and in that job I literallly got to see the map. I gained an appreciation of the bigger picture, how each individual piece of land got planted off in much the same way as a single tree gets planted.

I had a hand in the planting of millions of trees. Whole forests of trees, all of them planted according to the same simple principle.

When in doubt, plant a tree.

Stride forward, thrust out your shovel, bend down, pop in a tree, and do it again.

If you must stop, and look around, don’t look what you have yet to do. It will always and ever be an immensity. Look back, over your shoulder, at the long, careful lines of little seedlings in a row, every one of them an agreement between your hard-working hands and Mother Nature herself.

Look back and take that in, and nod and take some satisfaction in your good work, and then breathe deeply, bend down, and plant a tree, and another and another and another, forever and ever amen.

When in doubt, plant a tree.

And all the land that lies before you will be forest in good time.

7 comments on “When in doubt, plant a tree

  1. Oh my! One of the best and most beautiful things you have ever written, David. Thank you.

  2. David,
    this is wild. I was just thinking about my days in Gogama working with tree planters (I was assisting with my buddy on a White Pine Weevil project – easy gig by comparison). We used to say “the thin mask of civilization” took about two weeks to come off, then suddenly decompression would begin. It was a great experience. Often thought about living in the bush…until I saw Deliverance again! lol
    Great read man. Maybe a new merch table idea: give each audience member a small tree! All the best.

  3. Amazing!

  4. without a doubt danny shoebottom would be proud.

  5. sorry forgot to add “legendary” before dannys name,my mistake.

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