Zen and the Passion for Tree Planting


I’ve never planted a tree.

Not in my back yard. Not as part of a class project when in elementary school (at least, to the extent that I can remember that far back). Not as a Boy Scout, or as part of a community renewal undertaking nor a river reclamation project. And certainly not in the middle of a part of Canada that God — but not God’s flying, biting, buzzing creatures — forgot.

And yet, I do have a sense of the passion that exists for tree-planting, of the large-scale variety. You see, while I am myself an aging Boomer who has come to enjoy the Creature Comforts, I have a son who has invested a few of his summers in the pursuit. I know that he has not told me all of the stories of what is involved. No parent could honestly expect that. But he has told me with his words, and with his eyes, enough for me to know that there is a distinct allure to the job.

By virtue of a back story that is not now relevant, I have recently crossed paths with Scott Chisholm of www.tree-planter.com. He challenged me to try to capture in words this passion for tree-planting that I have seen in my son, and others of his generation with whom I am familiar. There are of course risks in trying to do this from the outside. With humility, I acknowledge the caution at http://www.peppermillrecords.com/pm007, where one can find a CD of original tree-planting songs, and the observation that “Not that everyone isn’t welcome to bask in our nostalgia, but to truly appreciate these tunes, one must actively take part in this silvi-culture.”

Fair enough. Point taken. This is my attempt to describe something that I have never tried, nor felt personally. Feel free to add to it your own grain of salt, and make it as big as you want.

First of all, let me challenge my own description of tree-planting as a “job”. For those who do not have the passion for it, I suppose that it probably is. But these are not the people to whom I refer in these comments. Those are the people with the passion for it. Or ought I say, The Passion?

For them, it is more than a mere job. Being paid for one’s labour is one aspect of a job, and there is good pay in tree-planting, certainly, for those who survive and move up the hierarchical ladder. But it is my sense that the pay is not the principal attraction for those with The Passion.

So, what is?

There are a number of things that come through quite clearly to me. For example, there is the sense of:

  • camaraderie, and of community with other planters
  • being quite different, if only for these summer months, than the rest of the world
    connection with Nature
  • reward — be it hot food, a shower, a slap on the back, a “good” ache or a deep sleep — for a task well done and a day well spent
  • accomplishment — for none of this comes easily, what with the risks and the obstacles posed by weather, animals, discomfort, injury and isolation — that accompanies these rewards
  • making a difference, however small, ecologically.

All of these parts of The Passion come to the non-physical part of the person. Indeed, the physical part of the tree planter actually suffers, in order that the non-physical part can enjoy these benefits. There is a metaphysical element to all of this………a sense of Zen.

Now, planting trees in a foreboding locale in which one cannot see, or hear, his nearest neighbour is not the only thing that I have absolutely no qualifications to discuss. Zen philosophy is another item on that very long list. But to the extent that I understand anything about the subject, I realize that it involves a sense of self and awareness that comes from actual experience, often in extended periods of silence, and internal analysis. And that pretty much describes your summer, doesn’t it? Admit it……you even chant a bit of a mesmerizing mantra when you are out there, alone, with no one around to hear you, right?

That got me thinking. If Robert Pirsig could write a best seller entitled “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, then surely a Silvicultural Veteran could write “Zen and the Passion for Tree Planting”. Perhaps he or she already has.

Let me save you the trouble. I Googled it, and found that no one has. But someone should. Someone should write about the non-physical (dare I say “existential”) experience that clearly is the attractive part of the tree-planting experience. (From what I understand about it, the physical part cannot possibly be the attraction.)

Someone has recently written a novel about the tree-planting life, though. In my wander through the Web, I came across a reference to “Greener Than Eden”, a 2006 novel by Michael Kohn. The publisher’s blurb says he has invested six summers in planting trees. I haven’t read the book, but have just tracked down a copy, and will do so. (Nor do I know Mr. Kohn, in case you are wondering if this is nothing more than a long-winded promo for his book.).

What intrigues me about this book is the fact that one of its reviewers has picked up from it that same sense of Zen that I have picked up from my son and his colleagues. In “This Magazine” (http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2006/07/greener.php), Holland Gidney has noted that the author’s:

“……poetic descriptions capture wonderfully the logged landscapes where Noah’s crew does its reforestation work, and even the most urban reader will become aware of the Zen aspect of replanting forests by hand:

‘And so we continue our crazed dance across the sphagnum, the hours blurring by with bag-outs, as if in the cycle of our motions we’ve lost every split second between action and perception, being and seeing.’ ”

So there it is. Ms. Gidney (and I don’t know her, either) and I have both picked up the very same sense of Zen that permeates the tree planting process. She from a book, and I from my son and his buddies. Pretty much clinches the argument, I’d say. Tree-planting is an existential process and The Passion for it ignores the physical challenges that are integral to it.

Indeed, even the practitioners of Zen themselves realize the connection between their passion and the planting of trees. Referring to a British monastery, David N. Kay refers in “Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain” about it:

“…Like Shasta Abbey [in California]…….developing a tree planting scheme in 1977 that…began on a modest scale …. but subsequently became a major project…. The priory has organized regular ‘tree-planting days’…. so that many thousands of trees are now spread out over 18 acres of land.”

And if you need more proof that tree-planting is existential, consider this quote from a planter that can be found on one of the pages in Scott’s website:

“I love tree planting, but I hate planting trees.”

Put that quote to your Philosophy Professor when you return to University in September (or to your table-mate when you are both enjoying your day off in the local pub, late into the evening) and listen as the conversation flows deeper and deeper. Or higher and higher.

You are of course free to disagree. After all, you have walked the walk, and I have not. Nor never will. But until one of you writes that book to describe to me what really lies behind its allure, this will be my working assumption……..for those who share it, The Passion for tree planting is existential and strong, so strong that it allows the planter to ignore the many physical negatives of the task, in order to enjoy the clearly positive non-physical benefits.

That makes me somewhat envious. Middle age and the preference for Creature Comforts over existential and non-physical Passion comes all too soon. And once they arrive, they are loathe to leave. Long may you enjoy your Passion.

Submitted to Tree-Planter.com by “A Curious, and Envious, Father”