Tree planting made me a different person

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As I sit here and write this article from the comfort of my warm apartment, I can’t help but long for the summer nights I spent living in a tent.

For the last two years, I have spent my summers working as a tree planter in the Northern Canadian bush. I’d pack up my life and spend three months waking up at 5 am to endure the intense physical labour tree planting entails. The job puts you through unpredictable challenges that put your mind and body to the test, but if you survive your first season, you come back a changed person.

I first heard about tree planting when two of my friends decided to plant in 2019. For two years they would come back after their seasons with stories about interesting people they met and small towns they explored, but they never shied away from sharing the horror stories. They told me stories about the blisters, chaffing, bug bites, and extreme conditions they faced while tree planting. Planting always sounded hard but it still piqued my interest, and in 2021 I gained the courage to join my friends’ tree planting.

During your first season planting, you’re given the title of ‘rookie’ by ‘vets’ around camp. Being a rookie is hard, you’re not only learning how to plant a tree but also how to navigate the social systems of the bush. The first thing I noticed about planting was how incredibly frustrating planting a tree was.

You’d think it’s simple. Throw your shovel into the ground and shove a tree pod in; but realistically, there are quality specs, distance minimums, and land management you have to learn and abide by as a tree planter. If you want to make money you have to keep up quality while continually learning to plant faster. If life on, what’s called, the block was hard, learning the ways of the bush was harder.

Planters can be very accepting (I experienced this while switching companies between my first and second seasons), but the adjustment to living with strangers in the Canadian wilderness can always be jarring. You’ll meet and form close bonds with a whole variety of people because you all face the same extreme conditions. During both of my seasons, from May to mid-June, there were chances planters could suffer from both hypothermia and heat stroke on the same day. Bears may be a constant guest at your camp, and when the season transitions from spring to summer trees soon the weather and the foliage was against you.

As you adapt to the insanity of the job you learn it’s not for the faint of heart. If the weather or the land didn’t affect you, the toll on your mind and body could. Most days planters, myself included, find solace in podcasts or playlists to get them through the day but sometimes your technology dies. When you plant and are forced to hear nothing but your thoughts, you learn a lot about yourself. Depending on how early your phone or speakers dies you may be stuck with your thoughts even longer. As hellish as this sounds, this forced reflection can help transform you.

Planting is an unconventional job that will have you impressing yourself when you see what you can push your mind and body through. I’ve been humbled waking up with tendonitis in my hand, forcing my fingers into a stiff claw. I’ve planted a landslide on the side of a mountain while carrying 50 pounds on my waist. I’ve worked through rain and wind storms that had me asking the question “why am I here?”, but kept planting anyway. The land taught me patience and I apply it even when I’m in ‘the real world.’

I may be out of the bush for 2 months now but the lessons stay with me.

Whether I’m tree planting or attending school, I can persevere as I face challenges, whether I like to or not.


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