Millions of Seedlings

Photographs and Text by Liz Rubincam

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"What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger."
- Friedrich Nietzsche

10 cents a tree.

This is the average price that a Canadian tree-planter receives every time he or she puts a seedling in the ground. At this rate, a decent wage would seem impossible but an experienced planter claims 2000 trees at the end of a 10-hour workday, making the 3-month season quite lucrative.

In May 2009, I traveled to the city of Kamloops, British Columbia, where 40 planters, a project manager and some support staff from Folklore Contracting Limited had gathered for start of their season. According to the Western Silvicultural Contractors' Association, the silviculture industry employs approximately 10 000 seasonal workers and generates $500 million annually in economic activity in Western Canada. As soon as the frost has left the ground, tree-planters from all corners of the country, most of who are in their late teens to mid twenties, travel north in possession of what they need to work and live in the bush. The tented campsites are often remote and sightings of wildlife such as bears, moose, grouse, and deer are common.

The job demands great physical and mental stamina. A tree planter's hands have the most direct contact with the earth and as a result, many suffer from painful abrasions on the skin, calluses and frayed fingernails. Planters are expected to work, rain or shine, and unfortunately some develop muscle strains from the repetition of carrying and planting the trees.

Despite the challenges, there is much to be gained from a tree-planting season. By overcoming hardships, the planters form strong friendships with one another. There are also the physical and emotional benefits of working hard, breathing fresh wilderness air and eating three healthy meals a day, prepared by the camp cooks. Tree planters live simply, which challenges 'real world' notions of consumerism, recreation and even hygiene (planters are dirty!).

I planted my first tree during the spring of 1998 in Northern Ontario. I was determined to complete the season no matter what, but I do remember one day that almost broke that resolve. It was early May and we were planting bear root trees which came bundled from the nursery in thick brown paper sacks. The roots were wet and at least two feet long and it was cold and miserable work to get them in the ground. Then it started to rain and I was still not planting fast enough generate enough body heat under these conditions. I knew that my crew-boss would be disappointed if I stopped working, so I tried to stay in my land as long as possible but before long, I was soaked and chilled to the bone. I had to ask myself, was this worth the $50/day I was making? The $200-$300/day experienced planter wage seemed impossibly out of reach at this stage. Eventually, I left my land, and headed to the company van, parked nearby. Inside, I found the rest of my crew, both rookies and veterans, huddled for warmth in the damp, musty oasis. While in Kamloops this past May, I sympathized with the rookie planters, as they bowed under the weight of the seedlings in their bags and worked to achieve rhythm and efficiency, evidenced in the working style of the experienced veteran planters. Anyone who has planted trees for a summer feels unified by common experiences and struggles.

The hiring process for tree planters is stringent, especially within companies like Folklore where a crew-boss's pay is commission-based. An ability to live with few comforts of home, setting clear financial goals, and having a good work ethic are all characteristics that contribute to the success of a person's tree planting season. In my first year as a crew-boss in Nipigon, Ontario, I remember a particular rookie who seemed destined for greatness. He had completed numerous triathlons and displayed tenacity and drive in the first few days of the season. Part way through the first week, it rained all day in the land. While doing my afternoon rounds of the crew, I was surprised to find him sitting on a log, crying and asking to call his mother. He quit the next day. Time and time again, it's clear that there is no one recipe for success and survival in a tree-planting camp.

According to the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, 55 000 jobs have been lost in the Canadian forestry industry in the last two years. What was once one of the biggest industries in Canada has been seriously affected by factors such as the housing crisis south of the border, decreased print-media sales worldwide, the pine beetle, wildfires, and climate change. Reforestation companies, such as Folklore, are faced with fewer contracts to bid on and dipping piece rates for their planters. Many planters rely on their seasonal earnings to pay for College tuition.

There are 65 images in the full edit and are available upon request.