Eating dirt, willingly

Yilin Huang
Cansbridge Fellowship
5 min readAug 5, 2021


This first blog post dives into why I decided to go tree planting, and some hardships of those first days as a rookie tree planter.
My second post will dive deeper into planting itself, focusing on the mental and physical aspects of planting high numbers.
The third post will focus on the logging industry itself and how the experience compared to what I was looking for.
These do not need to be read chronologically - feel free to hop to the post(s) you’re most interested in!

Planters bagging up their trees, which come to us in iconic white cardboard PRT boxes.

“The kitchen propane froze again last night,” Mikey tells me on my way down to the mess tent.

“No food then?”

“They have oatmeal, coffee is up too,” Compared to the usual grunts we all greet each other with at this time in the morning, 5:30 a.m., this is a profound conversation.

The freezing temperatures at night had been giving the kitchen trailer a particularly hard time, and twice this shift already the cooks had trouble getting the propane stoves to start when they got up at 3:00 a.m. to make our breakfasts.

It’s May 5th, and for most in Ontario, early May is when the last grips of Canadian winter finally let go. Buds on trees remind you they’ve made it, and birds take on the duty of singing in the mornings again. But tack on the word “Northern” in front of Ontario, and the land takes its job too seriously. I knew it would be cold, but I wasn’t expecting to have to scrape frost off my eyeglasses when I woke up in the mornings. And yet, year after year, young adults across Canada voluntarily say goodbye to the amenities of the 21st century, grab their tent and shovel, and hitch rides up north, or west, to plant trees.

I had been eyeing this community of tan, unshaven, nose-ring totting youths with particular admiration and envy ever since my roommate came back from a summer in the bush sporting scabs, scars, and wilder stories than I ever could fictionalize. But today’s higher education does not so easily let one live out the envies of youth, and so, year after year I played the game, and the game rewarded me back, and I felt I hadn’t missed all that much anyways.

The summer before my final year of university, I picked up a book for $2 at the local Christian thrift store, “Eating Dirt”, the book was called — which I had mainly noticed because it was jokingly housed under the ‘Health and Wellness’ section as reliable longevity advice. The book speaks of life with the tree planting tribe and is written by professional tree planter, Charlotte Gill, who has two decades of planting and over one million trees to her name. I wolfed the booked down in three days. In one of the last pages she asks us, and perhaps herself, “What have we learned in all this time? How are we improved after a million stooping acts? We’ve cried in frustration, seen pain so brilliant it glowed. We’ve sobbed with laughter, submerged ourselves in paroxysms so violent our ribs were sore the next day. Does this happen elsewhere, in cubicles, in elevators? Is it possible in ironed attire?”

Does this happen elsewhere? With conflicting motivation on life after undergrad, the question couldn’t have come at a better time. My first motivator was my overall desire to enact change within the climate sphere, with my eye in fields similar to deforestation policy. Many of these policies rely on the promise of replanting, yet how could I honestly profess to know best when I had no idea what it meant to plant a tree, let alone a thousand? Charlotte Gill’s biography stated she planted a million trees in her career, did that shock you when you read it before? When I read it I had little reaction, like a statistic. Frankly, I had no remotely comparable frame of reference.

My second motive was a question of self-discipline. Tree planting is piecework, which means you are paid a set amount per tree , usually around 12 cents in Ontario. Your pay is directly given based on how many trees you plant and nothing else. I wondered — when it got tough, when the hails, northern winds, black flies, and summer heat waves hit — where would my motivation come from? Would it be from the money? From a competitiveness to beat my own numbers everyday? Could I push myself to that extent? I was curious and genuinely had no idea how I would push myself when it came time.

And so, on April 29th, less than 24 hours after writing my last undergraduate final exam, I met up with Karol to begin our 2,100 km drive north, which would take us three days. Karol and I had met four years prior when we both worked as park rangers in Killarney Provincial Park, and he had secured my spot in the planting camp earlier this year. Going into his third planting season, he was what planters call a vet, while as a first-year, I’d be a rookie. He had called with me several times in the early spring to make sure I knew what I was signing up for. I figured I knew enough to start.

“The cold should only motivate you to move even faster for warmth!”: Advice I found very difficult to follow.

As I sat now in the frosty mess tent with my bowl of oatmeal, I thought to the day ahead. The cold was less of a problem when you started moving, and many of the vets would be planting in a T-shirt by the afternoon, despite it still being in the single digits. Months before, I had prepared for planting like a sport, yet the soreness I felt after the first two days were incomparable to any sport I had ever done. I had worried I was wearing my tree bags incorrectly from the deep blue bruises along both my hips until I saw that nearly all the rookies had them as well. All the while adapting to this new life as fast as you can, you are still ultimately here to do what you’re being paid for; planting trees.

When the ground is not frozen solid, the singular motion of planting a tree is not so difficult; a throw of the shovel arm, a two-fingered slot with the tree hand, and a kick with the boot. Yet, as with every sport, distinction and excellence comes with an increase in quantity and simultaneous decrease in speed.

As a rookie, I put 720 trees in on my first day, which I felt was already an athletic feat. Even then, most vets are playing with numbers in the 2,500 range on their first few days. How they found the time and energy to squeeze in four times the number of trees I did is, as of yet, beyond me.

But the push to excel is, partly, what brings us together in the Cansbridge family, and I look forward to sharing what the actual job itself is like in the second installment of this three-part mini blog. Thanks for being a part of it!