by Jessica Matthies from Calgary, AB
I cook for treeplanters. Every summer for the last eight years, I have packed up my vehicle and traded life in the city - electricity, cell phone coverage, makeup, flush toilets, and sleeping in - for life in a treeplanting camp - generators, green spaces, dishwater hands, outhouses, diesel F-350 trucks, and long days in a kitchen.
There is a joke amongst planters that no matter how much you might hate planting while you’re doing it, how broken down and beaten and burned and bug-bitten you may get, how many times you swear you’ll never come back – by January, you will have forgotten all of these things, and you will strangely be overcome by a longing for life in the bush again, you’ll remember your planting friends, the campfires….and you will go back.
When I close my eyes and think of camp, this is one of the many magical nights that come to mind:
Cold air. Inky darkness speckled by a million billion stars. We sit, blinking. Wax is sizzling off the tree boxes that are burning hotly in a 20’ line, warming sore feet, and abused, duct-taped hands, and noses that are simultaneously burnt and frozen.
The driftwood log that I am sitting on bounces as someone jumps across it to get closer to the fire. My fingers trip over the strings on my fiddle, and I look around at this tribe of treeplanters that surrounds me. The other musicians keep playing, lost in whatever riffs and rhythms they’re hooked into. Conversations hum along the line of down-vested, knit-toqued, blanket-wrapped people. Amanda is pointing at something off on the lake’s shoreline, and Zap is standing to one side of the fire, hand in one pocket, beer in the other, laughing at some story about a cache break and a crow.
Kerry is playing her djembe drum, and Elliot has his bongo. The guitar is being passed from Maurice to Sheena, and when I pick up my fiddle again, another jam will begin.
The Honda 5000 generator that I cursed at last week for seizing up has been shut off for the night, and the music floats and mingles with the crack of driftwood on the fire.
In another 6 hours, I will wake up, still trying to absorb the last bit of warmth from the Nalgene bottle that I filled with boiling water just a few minutes ago, and I will stumble out of my tent, and start cracking eggs and frying bacon for the 50-odd people in this camp. And then, when the 2-gallon pot of oatmeal is bubbling away, I'll start up that generator that wakes everyone else in camp up, and provides us with power for running water, lights, and most importantly, music from the little discman that keeps the kitchen humming: Metallica. Jack Johnson. Feist. Some jazzy swing band. Van Morrison. St. Germain. CCR. - - the sounds of breakfast moving everyone through the sandwich line and the breakfast line and out the door with their plates stacked high. Oatmeal. Granola. Pancakes. Scrambled eggs. Coffee. Andrew will walk out with over a dozen pieces of bacon topping off his hash browns.
Every morning is the same as the last. Every morning is a little different. Hopefully, a little warmer, though next month it will be so hot that we'll be peeling the tarp roof off of the kitchen at 8 am to let out some of the heat from the stoves and ovens, but for now I just settle back into the driftwood log, sore and shivering. I can't really feel much in my left shoulder any more, due to a repetitive motion injury from chopping vegetables on counters that are too high for my 5-foot frame. But that’s ok. At least my hands aren’t shaped into a permanent claw from pounding a shovel into the ground several thousand times a day.
“What are you gonna play”, Seb is asking me.
I break out of my thoughts and pause to listen.
I rub some warmth back into my fingers and pick up the fiddle again.
I don’t know what I am playing, only that I am playing for this crazy, eclectic tribe that I love, as we all try to forget that we have to get up in the morning. Forget that we will beat our bodies into aching masses to make that cash that will fuel our endeavors for the next year. Forget that the tree prices are too low and the ground is too rocky. Right now we absorb the music, and throw more tree-boxes on the fire, contented and proud in our elemental existence that defines treeplanting.