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first person

Illustration by Brandon Kornelson

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I’m about to begin my fifth season of tree planting. Each year, around this time, I have mixed feelings about the job. Never have I loved a job so much while simultaneously hating it with a ferocious passion. Before a season, after being nestled up in the coziness of my home for the winter months, I begin to romanticize and crave the challenges of life in the bush, along with the friendships and adventure that comes with it. When I start planting, however, I am filled with instant regret.

Tree planting is piece work, and where I plant – mainly on the coast of British Columbia – I generally get paid between 25 and 45 cents a tree. If you work hard enough, the job can be lucrative: It gives planters the opportunity to lead a nomadic lifestyle, spending a few months filling their bank accounts and then pursuing whatever they want to do till next season. But there are many challenges that get in the way of these potential profits.

In the early hours of the morning, we join our crews – usually six to 12 men and women dressed in long johns, spandex, dress shirts, straw hats, headbands, ripped up jeans, hard hats and whatever it takes to mitigate the hardships of planting. Some of us will be covered in duct tape (sometimes I have to duct tape my nipples to prevent painful chaffing), bug nets, sunscreen, baby powder, bug spray and dirt, lots of dirt.

Our convoy of trucks (or occasional helicopter ride) travel rugged logging roads deep into the woodlands. During the ride, we prepare ourselves for the brutish challenges that lay ahead. Some smoke things or use stimulants, while others take energy drinks and painkillers. My drug of choice is podcasts, which seems to be the perfect remedy for the misery of the bush.

When we step out of the trucks, often in the pouring rain, we’re faced with the ultimate jungle gym: a steep chunk of land that’s just been logged. In front of us will be a gnarly hillside covered with piles of logs, bushes, mounds of branches and scattered debris, all of which form booby traps that torment tree planters with endless trips and falls. I will stare at this hillside in awe and reluctance, “How am I going to do this?”

But I am there to make money, so I quickly step into the rain and fill my bags with hundreds of tiny trees. The conversations with my crew become strategic with a few jokes and shenanigans thrown in to boost morale. Seasoned tree-planters treat this more like a sport than a job, and competition fills the air.

Once our bags are full, we suppress any reluctance and charge up that godforsaken hillside. We jump from log to log, and if they roll out from under our feet, we grab onto branches – or anything within reach – and swing around like wannabe Tarzans. We push through stinging nettle, devil’s club and blackberry bushes. We stumble and fall constantly, always pushing ourselves to go faster amidst swarms of insects that we often inhale. The craziest among us will sporadically plant naked.

And we always come home with stories to tell.

Last year, I managed to accidentally step on a can of bear spray with caulk boots (forestry boots with sharp metal spikes on the bottom). It exploded and the fierce pressure sent the spray directly into my eyes and all over my body. It was an excruciating experience.

Others experience far worse. One of my foremen survived a bear attack a few summers ago. Another was almost killed by the blades of an unstable helicopter. And daily miseries get to us all: Sometimes planters wander into hornet nests, and then try to escape, thrashing and flailing over the obstacle course of logs. We get delusional in the heat, nurse severe cramps that can last through the night, suffer fits of anger and occasional breakdowns.

To contrast these miseries, majestic moments are always waiting. I recall, during the onset of my first planting season, lying in my tent one night, listening in reverence and wonder to a pack of wolves howling in the distance. The season afterward I recall coming across a bobcat that was sitting and calmly staring at us.

But something else lurks on those hillsides. There is a deep solitude that comes with tree planting, a solitude that can push you to the edge of yourself. I’ve worked with a 62-year-old tree planting legend named Grant – believed to have planted more than seven million trees in 40 years. “You become an animal up there,” he once told me. And he’s right.

Spending too much time amid the daily comforts and secure environments of civilized life makes it easy to fall prey to the notion that we know ourselves. But these portrayals often crumble when put to the test. While tree planting, I am confronted with someone else; a self I thought I knew. It is a person I try to come to peace with on those hillsides, during those strange days of isolation and contemplation.

Grant is relentless in his drive to plant trees (he chews on ginseng roots all day for energy) and he’s one of the fastest planters I know. Once he got caught in a rockslide while planting and broke his back. It took him years to recover, but he came back stronger than ever. And his passion for the job – and the type of people it attracts – reminds me of what it is I love about it.

Tree planting is a laboratory of self-examination and a spectacle of self-growth. You master your mind, confronting the worst and the best in your nature, pushing yourself as hard as you can into new horizons of your character. A new version of yourself awaits at the end of the experience.

And after sleeping in a tent all summer, you learn to never take your bed for granted.

Brandon Kornelson lives in New Westminster, B.C.