Six Million Trees

Six Million Trees
Published: Jun 24, 2017
The seasonal work of a tree planter, replenishing the gutted soil after a forest is clear-cut, mostly attracts people in their late teens and twenties, but not just for the money. As the author recounts in these excerpts from her book, Six Million Trees (in which her vigorous prose may seed a new style), the battle against blackflies, blizzards and broken bones, through isolation and desperation, provides something extra — and not so easy to come by: a sense of meaning, initiation and magic among fellow labourers worth repeating.

Six Million Trees
by Kristel Derkowski
Rock's Mills Press (2016)
Soft cover, 252 pages

The only thing we do is plant trees. That’s what makes people crazy. It’s the only thing we do. We plant trees all day, one at a time, over and over and over again. Every day, all day, we plant trees. We’re trying to make money—to make good money—so we plant them quickly. We have to plant fast, fast and nonstop, ten hours a day. Ten hours a day, ten cents a tree—to make two, three, four hundred dollars a day—how many trees do you have to plant, to make that kind of money, when you’re being paid ten cents per tree? How many trees can a person possibly plant? It’s the only thing we do. By the end of it, people go crazy. Bush crazy, we call it. Because we’ve been living in the bush for a long time. Because we haven’t seen anyone else. We haven’t done anything else. We plant trees all day. It’s the only thing we do.

When I went tree planting for the first time, it wasn’t because I wanted to go tree planting. It was more because I had nothing else to be doing, and because the world was making me claustrophobic and I had to escape somehow.

The sheer predictability of it was closing in around me. To hell with it. I decided to flee the country.

When Arron approached me in our second year of university, I’d been about to drop out of school. It was February; spring was approaching and the dull season of education would be over soon enough. Then as summer rolled in I would be scrounging around for some kind of irrelevant low-wage job and then spending four months grinding away my daytimes in order to pay off another season of school—And then after that was over I was supposed to go scrounging around again for some kind of entry-level employment in order to pay rent somewhere so that I could sleep in the same place every night and wake up in the same place every morning, spend the days watching the clock tick itself out over and over again and then go to sleep in the same place every night, and wake up again and so on—and the sheer predictability of it was closing in around me, and I was there thinking to myself, to hell with it, and I decided to flee the country.

Arron’s job offer was a sudden escape route. I thought maybe if I went through with this thing, then maybe I wouldn’t have to worry about the money, and also maybe it would burn out some of the wanderlust and then maybe I’d be able to go through with the rest of my schooling—as prudence advised. So that was why I chased after Arron and told him, Yes, can you please get me a job.

As I’ve said, it was terrible and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done but at least it wasn’t boring—at least, not in the same way that real life is boring—and what’s really important is that it’s very hard to be claustrophobic in a clearcut.

When I was hired, I didn’t know what a clearcut looked like, and I never really stopped to think about it. Somehow in the back of my mind, in those months approaching May, I was envisioning a quiet sun-dappled forest and all the healthful benefits of fresh air and exercise.

Which in hindsight, of course, is either quite sad or laughable. But as the saying goes, you live and learn.
So on my first day of tree planting, I learned what a clearcut looked like, and I was afraid—I mean, I was truly afraid, to such a degree that it was almost sickening.

We drove to work in a school bus that had a portrait of the Virgin Mary duct-taped above the windshield, gazing demurely over the rows of ragged seats. Above the door, just right of the Blessed Mother, there was more duct tape which spelled out spiky capital letters and an arrow and it said WELCOME TO HELL and the arrow pointed down to the open door, which in turn framed a frigid slice of clearcut and a white tarp over a cache of trees on the ground.

And it was, yeah, it was the closest I’d ever come to being in hell, all day every day.

Here’s what I discovered.

A clearcut isn’t a sun-dappled forest, and it isn’t a farmer’s field. It’s a wild shredded terrain that’s massive and churned up and it completely dwarfs the little human specks that go crawling around inside of it like tiny bacteria in a festering sore. Tree planters don’t spend their days strolling across cool fields of soft brown earth. They spend their days fighting, tearing, kicking and splashing, and at the end of the day they come out bruised and ragged, with eyes that burn blankly ahead because the mind is gone and the body is too tired to blink.

That’s how it is. A clearcut can be a varied terrain but it is very rarely an easy one. There are turned-up logs strewn across it with the roots towering above, nets of tangled branches to climb through, icy black moats thigh-deep, and slippery mud that blows the knees out. There are house-sized boulders cracked by fire, and sheer cliffsides hard and crumbling. There are fields of shoulder-high thorns stretching to every horizon, and whipping branches and hornets’ nests—and tree planters go barreling through it all and they learn to enjoy pain.

On my first day it was snowing, lightly. I planted about seventy trees. I earned about six dollars.

At the end of the day, every day, Camp Cost was taken off of each planter’s paycheck to cover the cost
of food and gasoline: Camp Cost was about twenty-three dollars.

Beyond the inherent difficulty of carrying a third or half your own body mass in added weight and moving nonstop for ten hours and doing the same motions on repeat with all of the force you can muster— Beyond that, well, sometimes you get lost. Or at least, I got lost. I got lost so much that it was downright

On my first day they told us this.

Plant trees, two metres apart from each other, all over your piece of land, with every tree tight and deep
and upright in mineral soil.

Mineral soil? I found rocks and moss and sticks, brambles and decaying organic matter, but I didn’t find
any soil. Haphazardly I put trees in the ground as deep as I could manage to, and then I lost track of the trees themselves and I couldn’t remember what direction I was supposed to be walking in, so then I went meandering in these slow jagged zigzags, stumbling over the seedlings I’d already planted, and every time I stood up to get my bearings everything rearranged itself and all those tiny hand-length stems disappeared completely into the chaos of the landscape and I had no idea where I was or what I was doing.

I staggered around kicking my shovel desperately into the ground, because I couldn’t muster enough force with my arm alone, and it might have been one hour or five before my crew boss found me. Amo arrived on foot, walking the land between all the rookies—rookies, who had flooded the camp and outnumbered the veterans—and he found all my invisible trees and followed them to me and tugged on them, pulled them up and said,

These are some of the worst trees I’ve ever seen.

So everything was off to a pretty bad start, and that went on for a while.

Our season, this year, began and ended in the rain. In the beginning it was early-May rains: drizzling sleet freezing everything into steely shades of grey. The churned-up roadsides were blackish mud and whitish frosting; the distant treeline was dark-grey, shadow-grey behind the mist. And everything between —stumps, sticks, snow, swamp — massive untamed landscapes all in shades of cold indifferent grey. For the first few days our hands froze into claws. The seedlings themselves were frozen, too; they came frozen in clumps straight from the tree nursery. We would kneel at the caches on the roadside, crouch beside the tarps where the bundles of baby trees were all piled in their white-plastic bags. We’d rip the bags open with frozen hands shaped like bloody hooks, and we’d grind our white-hard fingertips into the cracks between the root-pods to sever them apart. We’d shove trees by frozen handfuls into the plasticky bowels of our tree-planting bags. Shrug into the wet shoulder straps, clip the heavy waistband closed, tight, and charge back into the land. Heads down, half-closed eyes gazing groundward, with sleet tapping our hardhats and sleet seeping into our shirts and into our pants and socks and underwear. One tree at a time: Kick at the ground, stab it with the shovel, open a hole with a twist of the arm; Slide the root-pod of a tree into the little opening there, and stomp the hole closed with one boot; Then two steps, forward; And again, And again. The trees were baby spruce or baby pine. Their stems were just the length of a finger or the length of two hands, or anywhere between. Their roots were held in cylindrical pods of dirt, wrapped in cheesecloth, sized to fit roughly in a fist. Once every six seconds — or so — we would each bury one little pod in the soil, with one little stem standing up and sticking straight out. And then another. We would carry about three hundred trees at a time, piled into our planting bags, strapped to our shoulders and waists. The bags hung off our hips, one on either side. One bundle of seedlings inside each planting bag; a hundred-fifty-odd trees hanging from either hip. We’d take one tree out at a time, and plant it in the ground. And then another, and more-or-less three hundred more. Then march back to the roadside cache, and kneel, and claw, and refill and charge in — Faster this time. More trees, more money. More trees, more money: that’s it, that’s how it goes. Our hands would be frozen while everything else was burning: back muscles, thighs, shoulders and arms — knees, elbows burning as they creaked — everything rusty from the off-season — eyes and cheeks burning under the cold white sun — bloody knuckles and blistering palms, frozen numb and still burning. Eyes down, head down, spine horizontal and one hand in the ground. The other hand clamped onto an undersized shovel: shovel less than the length of an arm, slicing the earth open, twisting and swinging away to slice somewhere else — and again — once every six seconds, or so — Faster. More trees, more money. Three hundred trees in the land, then back to the road. One tree every six seconds — Faster. Back at the roadside, knees in the mud, we would chug water out of gas cans, water almost-frozen like everything else. Once in a while, we’d pause to inhale a sandwich or a piece of fruit or some sugar-packed power-snack, gripping and ripping with those bare blackstained claws.

The author gives the (wounded) finger . . . a little protection.

And charge in again, bent-backed. Faster. More trees, more money. Simple enough. Around 6 pm each day, we’d empty our bags for the last time, clip them light around the waist. We would pick up the almost-frozen gas jerries, shrug into our muddy backpacks. Carry our shovels, lower our heads and stomp or sway or stagger back towards the van. Fifteen people in the van, and our gear on the roof. The windows would go white and the swampy wetness of the clearcuts would seep out of our socks, boots, seep out of our pants into the fuzzy grey carpet. Shoulder-to-shoulder, we would share food, words, sweat and foggy breath, and Konrad would drive us back to camp. That was the beginning of it. That’s how the days went by. More money, more trees. Simple enough.

Following Korea we spent four days in Japan. It was another section of burn block, just east of where we’d been.

Black shining logs strewn across the ground, red and green mosses shooting out in between. The massive twisted stumps there had their soot-faced roots exposed where the soil had eroded away, after the forests were cut down. There were graveyards of round white stones and soft patches of ash on the ground. There were tangled tan branches of raspberry and, where the chem-spray had been missed or rained away, there were thickets of glinting poplar.

The roads to Japan were deep and sandy, and the van got stuck a lot. We’d tumble out, then, blinking half-alive into the white daylight, and we’d get behind, at the back or the open side doors, and we’d push, push, while the wheels spun and spewed sand around. Roll forward six inches. Put sticks and logs under the wheels for traction. Push and spin and push—let’s try backwards—push and roll backwards six inches, move the sticks and push again.

After this went on for a while, it seemed as though Konrad found a new technique to navigating the road. It seemed as though he simply stopped using the brakes. We’d fly around the bends, against the ditches and branches tight on either side, and in the backseat we’d be hitting our heads on the roof. The road rattled the van, clattered so loudly that it was hard to talk over, and I could feel the rattling inside of my left leg. It was like the noise jumped right inside of my bone, and I could feel it buzzing in there, somewhere between ticklish and painful.

Konrad asked me how my leg was doing. I told him maybe it was broken. He’d usually ask once a day.

Ten hours passing by, with one or two little dialogues to break the silence. Once a day, Konrad and I would have the same conversation, and then it would linger in the air even after that and chase me around—more and more meaningless each time until he stopped asking—How’s the leg? It’s totally fucked. How’s the leg? It’s fucked. How’s the leg? It hurts.
How’s the leg? It functions. How’s the leg? It’s a leg.

Plant a tree, plant another tree. There was nothing else to be done or said about that. There was no reason to say anything unless it was important, logistical—trees, land, vehicles—and otherwise it was a joke, it was something obscene.

How’s the leg? It’s fucking great.
It’s fucking great, it’s fucking great—

Mornings, evenings, trees, steps, words, music. Music, all on repeat. I fell into time with one single album, twelve songs that I listened to on repeat. Every day I could hardly wait to put this beat into my ear and hammer along within the hammering of the music. Always in my right ear and not the left, always the same. All day without fail, the same twelve songs. By the end of the contract, I’d listened to the same twelve songs about three hundred times in a row. Three hundred times on repeat, and nothing else, ever.

My leg is fucking great, I said. Fucking great, I bent down and bent down.
Bent down a thousand more times and the album would start over.
Fucking great—
And I started to go faster. There was a lot of pain and perhaps it was adrenaline—again—that made me go faster. I kept falling over.

One leg, now, less numb. Feelings started to return: exhaustion and hunger and smiles and words. 

I stepped on uneven ground, I twisted the ankle slightly—and my left leg would fold and I would be on my knees. Inconvenient. Climbed up, heavily, staggered upright just to bend over again.

Bend over, bend over and the album started over.

I walked out of my land and folded onto the roadside by accident. Glanced up and saw Konrad down the road, on the quad, and he was looking at me.

I stood, again, upright and walked back to my cache, and at my cache I folded again, but deliberately this time. Konrad roared up and accused me—smiling, smiling again— I saw you sit down on the road there—
And I told him, I didn’t sit down, I fucking bailed and ate shit.
 And he didn’t say anything. Smiling again, shrug, again, he roared off again.

I started to go faster.

While drunk on our Night Off in camp, that shift, I told Konrad that I would hit a Personal Best the following day. That would be our final day in Japan.

And so I did. I’d started to go faster.
Rolling hills in red and green, thorny sticks and twisted bare-black roots.
I stabbed the ground, stabbed the ground. I found soil in little pockets between the round-white stones. Little pockets of soil to bury the roots of the next generation, the roots of the white spruce and white spruce and white spruce and white spruce, between the roots of the twisted black stumps where the soil was eroding away.

The same twelve songs on repeat, and I started to fly. 
White spruce, another white spruce, and the album started over.
I walked out of my land around 4 pm, out onto the sandy-rocky path winding between the burns of Japan. The road was endless and grey and empty. The sky was bare and blue and also endless, also empty. One of my legs was buzzing in a strangely half-numb manner—endlessly buzzing, oddly empty of sensation. I straightened my back and walked, and the album started over.

Shouldered my gear and walked out. One step then another. One leg was buzzing. One ear was full of the same predictable sounds, and the other was empty like the sky and the road.

There was no one on the road. A kilometre or two before I ran into a few other planters, and they’d run of land, too. Konrad was nowhere to be found. We walked, together. We cattle-planted: we planted together, side-by-side.

Bend over, bend over, shovel in the ground. Seven planters in a row, seven shovels in the ground. Fourteen steps at a time, and again. Sun rolled across the empty sky. Seven shovels in the ground. The album started over.

We could see the van, once we’d made it far enough—once we’d made it close enough to the entrance of Japan. The van was perched up high, shiny flashing white and stationary, and it was stuck deep, deep in the sand—again. It was a tiny white glint on the horizon, across all those rolling red-green hills still unplanted, still charred and treeless with the soil slowly trickling away. Seven of us trickling slowly along. The sun slowly trickling down.

A deliverer arrived to tow the van out of the sand, the bumper ripped right off the front of the van.

Seven of us in a row, bending over, and the album started over.

One leg was buzzing—one hour and then another—a thousand white spruce, another thousand white spruce.

I hit my Personal Best, that day. Sure. The seven of us didn’t finish working until Japan was full of white spruce. The seven of us and Konrad, we made it home after 9 pm, with the front bumper lying on the floor of the van and the license plate perched on the dashboard. We rolled home to an emptying mess tent. Both ears finally empty of music, and full sporadically of dialogue. One leg, now, less numb. Feelings started to return: exhaustion and hunger and smiles and words. I went to sleep that night and when I woke up the leg was much less numb. Much less numb, and instead explosive.

So I broke the routine that day, after Japan. I didn’t roll home in the van with the license plate in the windshield, on Day 45. I went to the hospital instead. ≈ç

KRISTEL DERKOWSKI is has completed an architecture degree, is an artist, intrepid traveler, van lover and little bigshot in the tree planting world in Northern Ontario. She is currently working on her next book. When she isn't planting she lives in Toronto. 



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