Learning to Dance with an Absolute: Treeplanting, Disappointment, Grind & Bliss

Me, planting in N Ontario...

Me, planting in N Ontario…

There is something of a tradition amongst some Canadian youth to go north in the summer months to replant large areas of land previously logged.

Requiring long days of straight piece-work labour in all weather, in very remote areas of Canada’s north, it is considered by many to be the most physically demanding work in the country.  Some time ago, over nine seasons, I planted more than a million trees in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

Treeplanting as Dance

Treeplanting can be dance. Admittedly, the sight of a swearing, stinking, grunting human, picking its way across a terminal landscape of splintered wood, churned up dirt, and waist high vegetation, straining against the weight of a cumbersome bag of  seedlings, shovel plunging, is a far cry from, say, ballet. But if you broaden a description of dance into any form of communication that is achieved through physicality, then treeplanting can surely be included.

The communication is not from an expressive performer to an audience through symbolic gestures: there is no performer, no audience and no symbolism. The communication is between the planter and the earth through direct contact.  The dance is improvisational in that every planter is unique, and has their own unique way of proceeding through a landscape, and every inch of that landscape is unique, and every tree that is planted is unique, and every occurrence of a tree being planted is a unique and unrepeatable event.

The dance is, however, improvisational with the provision that the terrain ultimately dictates the context and ambience with which and in which the treeplanter improvises. The terrain doesn’t improvise. The terrain doesn’t accommodate the planter. The treeplanter improvises to the absolute of the terrain. The terrain rules.

The macro-geography of a region and the logging and reforestation practices of the local contractor will dictate in a general way the kind of landscape that planters find themselves in. In Revelstoke, you’ll be choppered onto a mind numbingly steep mountainside covered in rubble and huge splintered stumps, in north Alberta you might end up pounding a big flat bed of hard clay, in North Ontario you could follow machined trenches across rock and through swamp, and on Vancouver Island you’ll carefully and deliberately pick your way through a selectively logged rainforest.

A planter may stay in one section of land, areas of between maybe a hectare to ten hectares, anywhere from a couple of hours to days and days.

And during the time you’re in that piece of land it’s your world.

It’s truly, truly astonishing the degree to which that world, that little piece of land—a fragment of a clear-cut, which is a dot on a map of the region, a region which can’t even be found on a map of the province, a province which is a little block in a map of the world, a world which is a little dot on a map of its solar system, a system which disappears completely in the immensity of the universe—becomes your entire universe.

That little piece of land, your universe and dancing partner, can take you to an utterly enchanting, ecstatic, dopamine buzzed bliss, or to the most miserable, wretched, defeated low that you’ve ever experienced. That little piece of land—be it a way overpriced glorious clean clear loamy cream patch of joy,  or the most gnarly, bristling, skin ripping, stinging nettle, wrist zapping rock pile, slash heap of pain—that little piece of land can change your life.

I’ve seen people laughing uncontrollably, hysterically singing in utter gay abandonment, blissed out until years of worry drip off their glowing faces. I’ve seen people weeping inconsolably, screaming in uncontrollable rage, throwing their shovels into the bush, attacking other planters, foremen, supervisors… all over a little patch of land. 

Rhythm, Endorphins and Solitude: Ingredients for Bliss

An aerial view taken over a recent clearcut located within the last 4percent of valley bottom old-growth that remains on southern Vancouver Island. Photo by: T.J. Watt, Utopia Photo.Trance states rely heavily on rhythm as a means of regulating breathing, motion, and thought patterns. Rhythm is, as Tom Robbins once wrote, “everything pertaining to the duration of energy”, and so it is an absolutely essential component of a treeplanter’s daily performance. Any long distance athlete knows that significant changes in speed require way more energy than keeping your performance steady at the maximum speed kept up for the duration of the event. Go the same speed, keep the same rhythm from start to finish, and you save energy.

In treeplanting you have to climb over stuff, and under stuff, and push stuff out of the way, and find where the next tree should go. One tree might take you 30 seconds to plant or the next three minutes, so any rhythm is considerably influenced by the nature of the terrain. But overriding the nature of the terrain is the planter’s level of intensity: how hard are you pushing. Remember, it’s piece-work, you’re paid for how much you plant. Treeplanters will maintain a pulse rate of 120 all day, day after day, for months. It’s truly an ultimate marathon sport. The great piston of the planter’s heart is beating and beating and beating, insistently pulsing through the whole body. The body is stressed and, as any distance athlete knows, enough pain equals – god bless them, the gain of pain—endorphins: nothing better than a little home brewed morphine to get you through the night.

There’s also solitude. Whether you plant with someone else or by yourself (solo was more common), planting is something you do on your own. You don’t have to dig a hole for anyone else, or put the tree in for anyone else, or kick the hole shut for anyone else. You do it all by yourself and for yourself. Your quality is your quality, and the number of trees you put in, and how much bread you make, and how many cigarettes you take, and how long your breaks are, is, beyond a relatively minimal level, up to you. You’re alone, on your piece of land, with your own private thoughts, in your own private universe, for hours and hours for days and days.

It’s so quiet, all you’re hearing is the sound of your body and your shovel and the birds and the weather. You haven’t spoken a sentence in hours. No one and nothing has significantly distracted you from the wide ranging of your mind. Your heart rate’s been pounding away at a steady 120, stressing your body to a degree that the old endorphins are kicking in…

Rhythm, endorphins and solitude, for days and days, can certainly set the stage for moments of bliss.

The Dance: Blissful Communion vs. Circuits, and Expectations

There’s another factor that has to occur for the bliss to happen. It’s this factor which makes ‘bliss’—a really joyous feeling of hyper-energized unity—so rare: the dance has to be good. You’re always in contact with the terrain, always in a physical communication with it, and ‘bliss’ occurs where this communication between planter and earth becomes, even if only fleetingly, communion.

Engaging in good dance with terrain is not actually easy. It’s definitely easier in easy ground, but the nature of the terrain isn’t really the decisive factor in good dance. The decisive factor is what’s going on inside your head.

Hours and hours of solitude doesn’t necessarily result in mental relaxation or ease.  For a lot of us, it means that our poor little brains, unhinged from the normal conditions and limitations of other people, syntax and reality checks, go on lengthy and unbridled gallops through the future, the past, the possible, the impossible, the what ifs and the if-onlys of an entire lifetime and a life to come. The time you threw up in class, the girl you wished, the woman you miss, the book you’re writing, the land someone else has, why did he say, what did she mean by that, if only I could the time you threw up in class the girl that you wished… ad infinitum…

These little ‘reels’ have a kind of a circuit. On a good day, it is fairly expansive and on a bad day it is about as long as a breath of air—returning over and over and over to the same goddam problem that it didn’t resolve yesterday, or an hour ago, or a few minutes ago, or every second second for the last three hours. Such brain blathering, which can seem impossible to control, is hardly conducive to beautiful ‘blissful communion’ with the terrain… or with anything else for that matter.

Another thing that is not conducive to ‘blissful communion’ is expectation.

Every piece of land is different, and within one piece of land there can be a wide variety of terrain. Every place you step is like no other place. But what tends to happen is the old brain, while it’s haphazardly journeying around, accustoms itself to a certain kind of terrain.

The most extreme example of this is to send somebody who has been in a bit of a cream patch (really easy terrain where it’s easy to make really good coin) for a while into a pile of slash (extremely difficult terrain covered in piled up debris), or somebody whose accustomed to clear scarification—land prepared by machinery— into unscarified land. You end up bringing where you were, popping in trees at high speed, into where you are, which, as it turns out, is a place you can’t do that.

So there’s this conflict between what’s in your body and your head, and your desire and expectation for success, and the actual conditions you’re faced with. Fighting conditions through fits of expletives, or trashing your body in a rage against rocks, wood and dirt, has no effect on the terrain.

Expectations also play a huge role regardless of the terrain a planter’s been in. Everyone deserves to make decent coin for hard work. And everyone wants to feel that, if they’re working pretty hard, they should be able to plant roughly as much as everyone else, and most folks are a little competitive (and some are very competitive). You walk onto your turf with what may be a fairly fixed set of expectations in your head and in your body: a goal for the day, for the week, for the next few hours. But the terrain couldn’t give a shit what’s in your head, what hopes you have, or what desires you wish to realize. It’s just there, being what it is, wholly oblivious to your hyper-conscious machinations. And, to repeat, the terrain rules.

Disappointment and the Ground

Disappointment is the best chariot on the road of the dharma.”  So said Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist poet-scholar and artist and general crazy person now six-feet under. It’s a phrase which has recurred to me in planting probably more than any other phrase besides certain combinations of profanities.

Disappointment brings you down, in the most certain and concrete way, to where you really are. It’s the place where your expectations and desires get thoroughly trounced by the reality of your situation. In treeplanting, the terrain is the reality of your situation and the degree to which you adjust to it, maneuvering your own limitations into a relationship with it.

When you quit wishing the ground was something different—easier, faster—when you quit hoping for something else, when you accept the terrain for just what it is, then your feet, and your whole body, can touch and feel and make full contact with the ground. And when your feet are on the ground, loving gravity, the chattering and hoping anxiety evaporates. Then you’re really making contact and moving with the terrain, making no judgements of it, making no demands on it, just finding the best possible path through what’s there, moment to moment. And your body just knows what to do, flowing from plantable spot to plantable spot in a perfect fluid economy of movement that feels… fantastic!

You’re a wild thing, a mobile attribute of the terrain itself, inseparable from it, conforming perfectly to it…

And you know, when the dance is good, it’s really good: it’s not only a dance, it’s sex. After all, there you are, penetrating the good and great ground, rhythmically pumping your shovel into the earth, plunging your hands deep into its loins with freshly incubated seedlings. Day after day, grinding the ground, spreading seeds by the thousands, into the soil, into the clay, amongst the rocks, through the woods, into the slash, and deep into the primal, moist, wet swamp.