19 years in a cube doing software development. Training guys from India to replace me. Typical corporate nonsense. Layoffs everywhere, crappy economy. Top of my chosen field, a one percenter on paper. Happily married and busy raising three young kids. But at the end of my rope and fed right up with contract software development. Something inside me snapped. I ordered a new set of planting bags online, packed up the van and headed north to live by the shovel again. It was truly glorious!
It was the last week off a six month software contract at the end of June. My team was sitting around pondering our next options and the name of a crappy tech company came up. I don’t know why but I remarked “nope, I’d rather go treeplanting”. A guy I didn’t know in the cube across asked if I had treeplanted. Instantly bonding, we got talking and he mentioned a company that he used to plant for was working just an hour away from Calgary in Kananaskis. I found out I knew the supervisor from many many years ago because he also had a treeplanting web site.
I thought about how it would be *interesting* to go out for a day or two and see if I could still do it. One thing led to another. My wife said there’s no way you can get a job after 19 years away from it. “And besides, you’ll die out there. you wont last more than a couple of days”. It felt like a dare and I got my fur up a bit. I said to her, “look honey, this is serious, as soon as I send this email, I could be going and are you okay with that?” She’s said things like pffft, whatever, sure, good luck. You don’t have an IT contract lined up. You might as well try to go make some money.
I hit Send.
Before it even had a chance to sink in at how bad an idea this was, I had driven six hundred km and was sitting in Whitecourt at the Petro-Canada card lock waiting for the crew trucks from the planting company to arrive. The plan was to meet up and convoy out to set up camp that evening. Crummies rolled up. Bearded dreadlocked hippies and tree women with the right amount of insolence towards all that was Whitecourt started to mingle and reacquaint after a few days off between shows. Wow, I sure don’t look like them I thought. Clean shaven, a bit pudgy, mostly bald with what hair I still had being grey. Even in work camp clothes I looked too clean cut. Back at the office two days ago I was sure in my mind that I could still plant. Here right now I felt way to old and totally out of place.
I walked up to a guy filling up a crummy and asked if my foreman was around. He had this perplexed look on his face and asked “are you from the forestry company”? Not at all confidently, I said, “no, I’m here to plant trees”. Not a lie — he laughed right in my face. I was thrown off by that. I said, “uh no, I really am, I’m supposed to be onTiffany’s crew”. He paused and just said, “well okay, she’ll be here in a few minutes”.
We drove out, set up camp in the middle of an ugly landing an hour down a greasy logging road from town. Everyone was either asking me directly or wondering behind my back “how the hell did you get hired?” What does he think he’s doing here? It probably wasn’t that blatant, but in my mind it sure felt that way. The supervisor had earlier promised no new planters would be hired for the summer plant. Summer planting days had to be earned in the spring. This unwritten rule hadn’t changed at all over the years. We had to sit around a couple of days before the first planting day. The attention to the new guy was awkward. I was getting more annoyed every hour. I tried to channel it and just kept thinking that I’m going to have to really pound to fit in at all.
I had gone for three runs just to break my body a bit before the first day. I skied a fair amount in the winter but that was just putting around with my little kids mostly. The one huge powder day I only lasted three runs before I was too wasted to go down anymore. I was really out of shape.
The crew was serious and laid back at the same time. Mostly interior fast ground planters. It wasn’t one of those flaky rookie mill companies that my website from the nineties had solely existed to discredit. Kids in their twenties with three to five years of experience. I felt ancient. They were in fine treeplanting form, thirty or forty days in, not yet broken like they would be in thirty more. Most put in two to four thousand trees a day. Highballers, solid planters, no slackers. Everyone worked hard on the block and at at camp. The girls were insanely good with many amongst the top planters of the camp.
All treeplanters used ribbon now. They flag every tree so they could see them. Even in site prepped ground. Most planters had it dialed and it didn’t slow them down at all. They said it was odd because I didn’t use ribbon. I preferred to imagine they thought I was a Jedi with special powers. I got in trouble a bit for not using ribbon when paired up and had to quickly adapt and ribbon every tree the odd time that I partnered a piece.
Prices are exactly the same as what I remember but the quality standards are easier now. The money is only better if you don’t adjust for inflation. After my first decent day they sent in a checker to really go over my piece. My foreman and checker were surprised at how good my trees were. Apparently, every tree I planted was perfect. Tiffany hesitantly confided that I could ease off on the quality a bit. My past planting buddies would find this hilarious. Back in the nineties, my quality was always riding the line and a constant worry to me. I had trouble adjusting to this. Now, I couldn’t plant a bad tree it seemed even if I tried. My spacing was still there. I could go from 7’s to 8’s to 9’s whenever I needed too. We had a super generous minimum and even in oddly spaced site prep I could still nail my density. The spacing specs varied a lot from block to block. I was shocked by how this was still burned into my brain.
Holy sweet mother of pearl did it hurt. It rained every day for at least an hour. Wet feet were the norm. Forget being out of shape, that didn’t affect me that much. Nineteen years off made my skin soft. Blisters like you wouldn’t believe. Little ones on both hands, both feet had three bed sores larger than toonies on them. Every step killed. A huge blister on my back opened up. Every tree I bent over to plant felt like it was tearing my flesh apart. I ripped my middle finger nail off on my tree hand the very first day. I lost four nails on my feet. My shovel hand wrist swelled up on day three. I made a soft cast with a wrist brace and duck tape. It wasn’t enough to let it heal. At 46 I taught myself to plant left handed. I did three Alieve’s a day with breakfast. This was just enough to get my boots on and to the crummy. Getting around in camp was the hardest. I limped everywhere without my blister tape on. Wallmart slippers were a gift from heaven on my first day off. Next time I won’t show up without a decent pre-made fiberglass cast for my shovel hand.
Safety really is number one now! Everything is safety this and safety that. It really messed up the days. I had to do a six hour online safety course before I even drove out to the contract. My old bee sting picture with my eye swelled shut was in the company’s safety manual as an example. That was too funny. It felt like only every third day I could really pound without safety related procedures slowing down the crew’s production. One day we line planted three small blocks in a big cattle plant just so the crew wouldn’t get spread out. In the nineties we piled four planters on a towed two wheel trailer with three more riding on the quad. That configuration took us almost everywhere in the Alberta mud. In 2016 it is either waling in or take a noisy expensive helicopter ride to get where the crummies can’t go. Fox 40 whistle and pack in a raincoat every day. At least we didn’t have to wear hard hats on the block. On the balance treeplanting is slightly safer than the nineties, but what a cost.
I found I could still crank the tunes and block out the pain. I mixed salt and sugar at the right ratio in all my water to avoid dehydration cramps. First day I put in 1900 in six hours and it just kept going up from there. If I worked a full day, I would hit 3k. After day three I was trading with the best planter on my crew who was top 15 in camp for top crew planter every other day. On day nine I put in 4500 to get close or maybe even be top spot in the whole camp. It beat my old personal record by a hundred trees. It wasn’t a competitive vibe at all though. Me against myself. My mind needed some sort of reference with the rest of the planting numbers just to convince me that I sort of belonged out there.
Getting decent numbers helped me relate to everyone on my crew and camp even though I was probably older than some of their parents. They were asking what I was like as a planter when I was younger. I said I was in way better shape back then but I think I’m mentally tougher now or at least way more stubborn. I just don’t give a f— about anything that would slow me down. Old man power, just wait until I’m sixty! Lol.
I had been texting recruiters and CTO’s back home from the one spot we had cell reception in camp. It was high up on a dirt pile where we built the crappers. After day ten, I got word that I was hired at a startup in Lethbridge. They wanted me ASAP. I told my supervisor buddy that was it. My supervisor was stoked that I came out and I ended up making friends with the young kids on my crew.
My last day, I had had a bit of a tough moment with my foreman not being happy with the way I organized the planting on my piece. Tiffany had good reason to feel that way, it looked like I was creaming it right out and leaving the snarp for others. I was bummed because I knew all I needed was a couple more hours and she would have been happy. But we got to talk about it all and have a good hug at least before I drove off into the night.
My crew really were a good bunch. I still miss them all. I had a hoot at a camp rave party on one of the days off. They thought it was hilarious that I went to Value Village and got reflector stickers and swim googles for my costume. Still had to go to bed before midnight though.
Two days later after day 10, I was back in cube land at the new job. Surreal. I felt like the guy from the Hurt Locker back from the war walking around the grocery store in a daze. I had PTSD for at least the first week back at work.
Did this old man really go out and do it? Did he plant hard and take no prisoners? I don’t know. I survived and got some decent numbers. I beat my old personal best and I didn’t let up until the very last day. Physically, I think I could have done another twenty days. Mentally — not so sure with a loving young family back at home. I’ll have to go one more time, train for it and last a full season to really know for sure. Only 80k more to to to hit the million tree club.