Plant trees, that’s all you did?
My first blog dove into why I went tree planting, and some hardships of the first days as a rookie.
This second post dives deeper into planting itself, focusing on the mental and physical aspects of planting high numbers.
My 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!
For the uninitiated, tree planting elicits responses like “Sounds fun!” or “Thank you for saving the planet,” both of which are not exactly true. For those who know planters, they relay second-hand horror stories of black flies or multi-leveled blisters, both of which are more true. What few outsiders know about the job however, is the depth of logistics required, as well as the competitive physicality of the job.
I was recently asked after I returned, “So all you did was dig holes and put trees in for the whole day? That was the whole job?” From the job title, tree planting sounds incredibly self-explanatory, and it would seem exactly as aforementioned. This can, however, quickly be shown to be untrue by comparing the planting rates of a first-year rookie and a second-year vet. Five days into planting, an average rookie is likely planting around 1,000 trees a day, while a vet on the same land could easily be hitting over double that. The difference in speeds stems almost exclusively from the logistical experience the vet has. In essence, the only difference is in their head — allow me to give an explanation.
For every planting contract, we have a required tree density. For instance, if we are at 8 foot spacing, your trees must be spaced 8 ft. off each other in all directions. At the start of your day, your foreman will point out your boundaries, which becomes your ‘piece’. The size of your piece is largely dictated by your planting average (how many trees you can typically plant in a day). You also need to ensure you’re pairing the right species of tree for each particular land type, which can vary greatly in your piece. This means that throughout your entire day, you are strategizing the fastest way to fill your allocated piece, keeping track of tree density, tree species, and also keeping an eye on the time since you want to try to close your piece by the end of the day. For a seasoned planter, this is all happening while they are zipping along and planting. For a rookie, significant time is lost standing and trying to see where they have already planted, and where to go next.
For rookies, the start of the season is largely focused on ensuring good quality. Quality checkers from both our company and the client check every single piece that’s planted. Any poorly planted trees or incorrect density requires you to return and replant that particular piece of yours. Logically, you are not paid to replant and thus always want to ensure high quality.
By far one of the most rewarding parts of the entire season for me as a rookie was tracking my own improvement, and hitting the big milestone numbers. There are few jobs left now that let you so distinctly see your progress, and reward you in direct correlation for it. I can distinctly recall the day I broke 2k, being one of the first rookies to do so. The next big milestone was a rookie 3k, which our crew did not have yet.
By this point in the season, Karol had taken me in as his unofficial protegee and was trying to secure a rookie 25 for me (this means 2,500 trees planted in a day). We had been planting together for three days and I kept being just shy of it, reaching 2,250. For a vet like Karol, planting with a rookie is fiscally self-sacrificial since they are managing land for two people and planting with a less experienced person, which usually slows them down by about 500 trees a day. Very few vet planters are willing to do this, and none so for as long as Karol had been planting with me.
Nevertheless, we decided to give my 25 goal one more try and plant together for the day. The morning had started a bit later than usual and I didn’t want to go home having missed the goal yet again. Henry, our foreman, met us at our land and showed us the shape of the piece on his GPS.
“It’s allocated for right over 6k, do you understand?”
I realized then that this was the day I needed to break 3k. At 6,000+ total allocated trees, with the two of us together on the land, I needed to hit at least 3,000 trees. My personal best (PB) at the time was 2,250, which meant I would need to plant at least 750 more trees in the same amount of time. I had no idea how I would do that.
We had little time to discuss a game plan and could lose no time in breaks or retracing footsteps. The trees themselves come in boxes, 500 or 440 trees per box depending on the species. All the tree boxes you need are stacked together on the logging road in a common area called the cache. You must then take the 440–500 trees from a box and load them into your two tree bags which rest on your hips. Once you plant all the trees in your bags, you must return as quickly as possible to the cache for your next bag up. A good planter loses very little time deadwalking and times their return to the cache almost perfectly with when they run out of trees in their bags. This would be critical for us today, and was something I had not yet fully mastered on my own.
I check my watch — 8:16 a.m. We would have until exactly 5:00 pm to plant at least 3,000 trees each. Karol checks his bag’s waist clip, “Are you ready?”
“Cue the music. Let’s pound.”
The raw, electro-bass opening of Carpenter Brut’s Trilogy begins, and we’re off.
That day, we planted 3,130 trees each. The only time we weren’t planting was when we were loading the trees into our bags. Over the course of 8 hours, we both ate a single cookie and half an apple each. At the pace we went, any more food would’ve turned my nausea into vomit. On average, our pace was around 9 seconds per tree, for the entire 8 hours. Karl kept time by the minute, and any time I was lagging more than a few paces behind him, he’d yell back some variation of, “Pace up!”
The feeling of pure elation when that last tree was planted, knowing we’d broken 3k, is comparable to very few experiences in my life.
“Well, did you do it?” Our foreman asked, when he pulled up at the end of the day to pick us up.
“3,130, both of us.” I couldn’t stop grinning, this was my new favorite number.
“Fuck yeah, holy shit!” The entire crew was cheering and slapped our backs as we climbed into the van, “You absolute beasts.”
I loved everything, I loved everyone. I flashed Karol my most grateful smile, “Thank you,” I mouthed over the commotion.
He nodded, “You got it.”
Six days later, I would break my own PB again, planting 3,320. Ten days after, I would beat it yet again by reaching a season’s best of 4,320, and be one of six rookies to break 4k that entire season.
As the season went on, the mental aspect became the primary driving factor for how many trees I planted. My foreman had tapped me on the shoulder early in the season and told me my progression was promising, on track to vie for rookie baller, the elite title given to the first-year planter at the end of the season who has the highest seasonal average. “You need to push for it every day that you plant though. There can’t be any off days.”
Planting a tree is not hard, and frankly planting a few thousand isn’t either given enough practice, but the real difference comes from doing so every single day. Ballers, those that planted the most, never gave up a single opportunity. Frigid mornings meant the afternoon would be perfect pounding weather. Blistering sun just meant the black flies would be slowed down too. Deer flies following you just meant you had to out-plant them. I started seeing the land less as an obstacle and more as a puzzle — levels I had to learn to solve. It was a distinct shift I noticed, and a mentality I hoped to keep somehow long after I’d left this northern land.
In it’s own way, I learned to love what we went through together. I would wipe sweat off my forehead, only to see my hand come away red, realizing what I thought was perspiration was actually blood from the fly bites. Jackson would show us his wasp-bitten hand, swollen like a Christmas ham, no knuckles visible. TA would be listening, picking the myriad raspberry thorns of the day out of his shins with tweezers.
In such a godforsaken land, I found so many moments of pure, unbridled joy. Being presented with a new opportunity to push yourself — mentally and physically — every single day was revitalizing. It didn’t matter if the day before you’d had to replant, or didn’t plant as much as you wanted. Today was always a clean slate, and you could always push as hard as you were physically able to. As the vets said, any day could be a PB day. It’s just up to you.