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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

One sunny morning a year into the pandemic, my wife and I piled the kids into the car with snacks and backup phone chargers, and a hope that my memory was reliable. We went out looking for “my” trees.

About 25 years ago I started working as a tree planter in Northern Ontario. I would have planted several thousand saplings a day, every day, for weeks and weeks. I worked every summer for six years, which by my math added up to over 500,000 trees. Half-a-million tall, healthy trees growing around the province that I had put into the ground with my own bare hands, in wind and rain, in blazing sun and sweaty heat or snow and sleet, with bugs stuck in my eyes and hair, with utter exhaustion, blisters, a sore wrist, torn fingernails and raw scraped knuckles.

Until that day, my trees had been an abstraction. While we were planting, we joked and mythologized about what our trees would be like when they grew taller. But always with a touch of cynicism. The saplings were no longer than my thumb, their tender roots curled inside a tiny pod. Often there were many taller healthier things growing around the trees we planted. The weather in early May could be hot and dry, the soil parched and sun baked; sometimes the wind blew hail and snow onto the barely thawed ground. It seemed unlikely our saplings would last more than a day or two.

The environmentally oriented tree planters among us took pride in bringing life back to a barren clear cut. Most of us felt that we were just turning a wild forest into a lumber farm, domesticating vast acres of untouched nature to be commodified. Satisfying a lumber company’s hunger for profit, and our own need for money. We might as well have been planting widgets: Get as many trees in the ground each day, pay for another year of university.

How do we find our way back to moments in time? And what if we can’t? But I remembered every turn as we drove deeper into the forest north of Algonquin Park.

Eventually, I stopped the car and stared through the windshield at the clear blue sky and swaying pines. As I stepped out and looked up, I could hear the wind blowing and see the treetops softly swaying. Mesmerized and compelled, I walked toward them and into them, suspended between past and present.

They were so tall and solid, much bigger than I thought they would be.

There were so many of them, so quiet, swaying soundlessly in the wind. It was like they were welcoming me. Row upon row of fully grown, healthy pines pulled me up short and left me speechless. They spoke of that time of my life, in 1995, when I was strong and young in my mid-20s. When I had no idea what my future would hold.

I walked further among them, through the underbrush and around slight rises, stepping on dried-out pine needles on the forest floor. I went deeper and deeper, listening to the sound of the wind in their high branches. Humbled and moved, I never had such a strong sense of my impact on the world.

I put my palm on the flaky bark of the nearest giant. Years ago, I had pressed each baby pine into the earth and with a solid kick from my right heel, closed the hole I’d opened with my shovel before hurrying on to the next spot. At the end of the day, I’d looked back on these rows with barely a thought about their future, more preoccupied with getting warm or dry, clean and fed, and figuring out how much money I’d made that day and hoped to make the next.

I felt a quiet presence and at home among my trees, as if they had been waiting for me. What was vague and unlikely had grown specific and very real. What I had held in my blistered hands, had grown into a towering forest surrounding me.

I had forgotten about my kids. They ran to join me.

“You planted all these?” asked my 10-year-old son, Forest. He was dazzled.

“I planted more than this every day. And this is where your name comes from,” I told him.

Together, with my 6-year-old son River, we walked deeper into the woods.

I showed them the direction I would have walked, how I would have selected each site to plant each tree, how I would have paced six feet off to the next spot – space we all know now as physical distancing. I showed them the old stumps from the trees that would have been cut the season before I planted these saplings.

My wife joined us, her eyebrows raised as she looked around, smiling. All the stories I’d told her were true. I could tell she was feeling pride and admiration, curiosity and wonder. We had started a family together, our boys growing tall and healthy, too.

Walking deeper, I spotted a clear cut. We emerged suddenly into the open space and I felt even more at home than in the forest I’d planted. It was more familiar, this open space where I had once spent thousands and thousands of hours. But the sight was raw and violent: Upturned stumps, heaps of sticks and piles of logs too small to harvest. A barren, scarred lunar landscape – beautiful and rugged.

When I see a clear cut, I see potential, an opening. I see money to be earned and I see life.

We followed a line of tiny trees, not quite knee height, up a slight rise. I dropped the picnic bags I’d been carrying and opened plastic containers full of carrots and grapes and apple slices. We ate a picnic on a tall flat stump at the top of a hill.

At our feet, I could see Jack pine saplings planted at even spaces along the side of the hill stretching out before us.

Trevor Norris lives in Toronto, and temporarily in Nipissing Township.

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