Tree Planting

by Kurt Armstrong from Winnipeg, MB

At the age of 62, my father-in-law, who has a life-long affinity for impractical and highly entertaining adventures, decided to go treeplanting. He’d always wondered what it was like. Three of his own kids, plus two kids-in-law, including me, had a combined total of nearly twenty summers of planting; together we’d planted close to two million trees, a small forest with our fingerprints all over it. Walter had heard more than his fair share of planting stories. He also figured it was time to repay his ecological debts from forty years ago when he worked as a logger. So when Paul, his youngest son, started recruiting for his own planting crew, Walter was first in line.

Paul and Walter left the flat acres of Kola, Manitoba for the clearcut patches of BC’s interior in early May. They joined a camp of eager rookies and seasoned vets with a mean age of roughly a third of Walter’s. And Walter won every one of them over right from the start, not just because he was the only guy in camp who looked like Walt Whitman or Karl Marx or (let’s not beat around the bush) Santa Claus, but because Walter’s true vocation in life is storytelling, and twenty year old treeplanters love a good story as much as a classroom of kindergarten kids do.

As far as the planting itself, Walter was the best of planters, and Walter was the worst of planters. His quality was flawless – perfect planting spots, perfect depth, perfectly spaced and perfectly straight – but perfect trees meant he wasn’t going very fast, and that meant he wasn’t making very much money. His pace, and the costs of starting up; the grueling intensity of the work; the solitude; the sub-zero nights one after the other, and the rainy days; plus missing Anne, his wife, and being 62 at a job for twenty-somethings: altogether it took a real toll on him. His letters home were weary with discouragement.

So at my wife’s suggestion, I hopped the Greyhound and headed for Prince George to offer Walter some moral support and spend a few weeks planting some trees of my own. Walter gave me a big hug when we met up at the camp and after he ate his supper, we sat under the tarp by his tent and he talked about how all of this was taking so much out of him. He’d decided he would stay until the end of the spring contract -- about another week or so -- then go back to Kola. He felt that was respectable.

In my brief time there, I could see how important a role Walter played, even if he was consistently outplanted by everyone else. He told great stories, of course, but he also listened very carefully to others’ stories, and he had a deep well of empathy and encouragement for the other planters who were struggling as well.

So on the day off before the final week of Walter’s treeplanting career, I wrote a letter to each of the crew bosses and asked if they could read it to their planters. I thought that as a way to let Walter know how much everyone appreciated his presence, we could send him off with a great big final-day tally. I invited everyone to chip in a bundle of trees, or a hundred, or a thousand or, why not, even your whole day’s tally, for Walter. I hoped that together we could come up with 10,000 trees for him, more than $1000. It felt like a longshot: I’m his son-in-law, so I’m already on his side and I knew everyone liked him, but I felt like this was asking a lot.

Walter went back to his tent shortly after supper on his last day of work, but an eager group of us lingered around in the eating tent as the day’s tallies came in and Walter’s final day total began to grow. Paul’s whole crew, the crew Walter was on, gave their whole day’s tally, which put the count over 10,000 already. Others came by to give the day’s numbers to the crew bosses and threw a hundred or 500 or more to Walter. I stayed up late, watching the tally grow.

I missed Walter’s send off the next morning. I had to catch an early morning bus to Edmonton for a funeral. But I heard later that the camp supervisor had called an end-of-contract camp meeting to talk about the next contract coming up and to send Walter on his way. He told the story of when he had first met Walter, how he’d seemed like a pretty unlikely rookie planter, but that despite his numbers Walter was a really good planter and such a vital member of the camp. And then he presented Walter with the survey map of the last block he’d planted, with his final tally inscribed on it with a Sharpie: twenty thousand trees, a $2000 plus sendoff.  

Tree planters are known for being a lot of things – scruffy, dirty, smelly and occasionally, bothersome seasonal visitors that can stir up way too much trouble at the bar on their days off. I’d like to add this to the list of tree planter qualities: generous, very generous.