2 months away from heading back into the bush, and all the good and the bad are coming back in full color, vivid dreams. Every day seems like it lasted a thousand hours, and before this season starts and obliterates the Techni-color memories of last year, I’d like to at least hastily transcribe last year. Writing for the sake of writing and overcoming writers block and a complete inability to focus on anything for more than 3.5 seconds.
While I knew by the end of last season that I wanted to return, the start was tentative. I wanted to go and cook. I was fat and out of shape and depressed, not really up to the physical challenge of planting- the equivalent of running a daily marathon.
I wake up, occasionally, to the sound of rain, sitting bolt upright to run my hands over my tent walls to make sure it isn’t flooding, only to find I’m safe and sound in bed. I dream of every piece of land I planted last year. A song on the radio that I listened to on a borrowed MP3 player might trigger a memory of a specific block, right down to the day, the minute, I heard that song. I feel fat and slobby and lazy, eager (and anxious) to be clambering over slash piles and through swamps, repeating the same, monotonous ‘step, step, screef, swing shovel, slip the pod along the blade, kick the hole shut on my way to the next site’. The best sleeps of my life, inside my little tent, woken up by the pale, early light of a sun that rises earlier because we’re so far North.
I remember the bad.
Fever-dreaming of clouds of blackflies so bad I moved through my land in a trance, moaning, choking down panic and the urge to flee. Faster, faster, through the forest, trying to outrun the bugs. Impossible- they’re a moving black sheet, your pants are black, hands are black, faces swollen and bloodied. Forget the last day when the deerflies swarmed, pulling them by the dozens out of my hair with increasingly frenzied hands. Dropping my bags in the middle of a corridor and running out. There comes a time in the season where you can’t stand still anywhere- everyone moves in tight, concentric circles constantly, trying to eat one of the dozens of peanut butter and jam sandwiches that have become your life source while waving one hand in an alternating zig-zag around your head. A party night in camp where we stared, transfixed and giant-pupilled, at the dinosaur mosquitoes descending in bzzzzz!-ing hordes. The constant hum and drone of the bugs is enough to drive a person insane. There is no escape, no respite.
Staring at a piece of debris-littered land, trying to figure out where the fuck exactly I am supposed to plant the tiny baby trees strapped to my hips and weighing me down, making my legs numb and tired. Every time I slam the shovel into the ground, I hit rock, jarring my wrists and shoulders and clacking my teeth together. My crew boss tries to inspire me, moving through the land deftly, finding the pockets of soil effortlessly, seamlessly multi-tasking, grabbing another tree from his bags as he steps away from the one he just planted. That is the first time I cry. I hate being bad at things. I don’t do things I’m bad at. It seems hopeless. “Do you want a hug?” he asks me, and I’m so used to kitchens and professional cooking that, affronted, thinking I’m being mocked, I say “No!” . I retreat back into my land, trying to find the right spots to plant good trees that will grow tall and straight and strong and be there, alive, in eighty years. I cry angry tears with every stupid tree I plant, deeply frustrated. It becomes zen, though. Step, step, shovel, plant, step step, shovel, plant. The less you think overthink it, the easier it becomes. Almost unfocusing my eyes, I start to find the next spot even as I am making the cut for the current tree. It is like one of those optical illusions where you have to unfocus your eyes to find the hidden image.
It rained endlessly. Ten fucking days straight at Fushimi on the shores of what somebody told us was a sacred lake (and that was a part of the good, to float and be bodiless and mercifully cool and becalmed in that lake). Listless on the bus to the block, hoping against hope that it would be a rain-free day, to no avail. Even water-proof jackets become saturated. Boots squelch with every sodden, heavy step. The land can’t hold the water that relentlessly alternates between drizzling and torrential. Dry is a distant memory. Wading through thigh deep swamps to get to the end of a piece is de rigeur. Feet become deeply etched with prune-y wrinkles that never quite go away. Dry socks are my currency. Setting up your tent and a new camp in record time, trying to erect tarps and mess tents and shitters before they can flood in the endless god damn rain.
We are trying to fill in the shitter holes to leave the camp at Fushimi, but it has rained ten days straight and I’m convinced we hit ground water when digging the holes, because they are completely full of water, which in turn, is full of shit and piss. Tree plant shits, soft and loose, the exact consistency and color of the main staple of our diet- peanut butter. The resemblance is uncanny. It isn’t as simple as just filling these holes in- we have to dig relief holes off to one side, then break the dam in between to get the water level down far enough so that we can fill the holes in with loose soil and gravel without them over-flowing. It is a long, messy, disgusting process, made no better by the fact that it is relentlessly drizzling. When we break the dam between the main hole and the relief hole, in the gush of bodily fluids and rainwater that goes by, a single piece of corn floats merrily by, a brief sparkle and reminder of a shepherd’s pie we enjoyed for dinner the night before. I absolutely lose it and completely crack up. That kernel of corn is a tree-plant high point for me and nobody can take it away.
The good, though, too.
Forty tree planters on the dance floor at the Companion, relentlessly chanting the name of the DJ who is trying to end the night. “Jean-GUY, Jean-GUY, JEAN-GUY, JEAN-GUY!” we chant. We’ve become savages. Some of us are bare-foot, I have fore-saken underwear. Our dancing turn into conga-lines that wind around the entire bar, the tallest man in the group is piggy-backing his girlfriend and switching people’s hats, my friend is so drunk she is falling down and smashing her face against the wall and being carried off the dance-floor by two crew-bosses, one under each shoulder. She inquires, “Are my teeth ok?” smiling widely. “I don’t know what they looked like before,” one of them replies, completely seriously. Three of us lean against a post outside on the patio, chain smoking and chewing gum and talking, for some reason, about a Tijuana donkey show. We wake up in the HoJo the next morning, eight to a room, so fucking happy to be in a bed for a night, then loiter at the laundromat with the broken Maytags from the 1960’s all day.
Waking up, before the blare of bus-horns summoning me for breakfast and tepid camp coffee, to the sound of loons on the lake. Opening my tent door to face onto a pristine, Northern Ontario lake. When the sun comes out, the field our tent-city is in turns into a riot of wildflowers. Queen Anne’s Lace, wild strawberries, wild roses, tree foil, daisies.
More nights off- our camp boss climbing onto the dry bus and turning the high beams onto a table dragged out for Boat Races (possibly the worst drinking game ever invented), and there being a Mad Max/imminent rumble feeling to the night.
The feeling when the last of the 4.5 million (yeah, million) trees goes into the ground and the people who have toughed out the bugs, the weather, the injuries and the general shittiness absolutely lose their minds.
The feeling when, scaling a hill to tent city, your friends turn to you and you all say, “I love you!” simultaneously and without reserve.
Watching the arrival of a woman who embodies treeplant, in her gold VW, drive by again and again like a Benny Hill sketch, stopping each time to pack more and more people into the car until eventually, it streaks by, slowly grinding to a halt on over-taxed flat tires. I’m flat on my back on the grimy aisle of the bus with one of my girls, howling and screaming, “THAT CAR HAS TO GO AWAY NOW! I can’t handle it! It has to go away!”
Nights spent up till dawn, watching the sunset, sitting on your friend’s lap in a camp-chair and overlooking the late just sighing “Isn’t that something,” over and over again. A wordless remembrance and agreement of the events of the night prior, too ridiculous for words, that belie belief in the ‘real’ world. Even I wake up in my tent the next morning wondering if the crush of bodies and the mess-tent dancehall were real or just an exhaustion induced dream.
Good days on the block when the sun shines and there are surprise Freezies and I hit a zen-inducing rhythm of planting, like some intricate dance through the floating swamp islands and slash and moss and clay and sand. Good days on the block when we spotted owls, or a wood duck sat on her nest and stared at me with one beady, black eye while I planted around her. Days when you notice, for the first time, the size of the sky, the improbability of these tiny seedlings growing to the size of the residuals that stand sentinel around the periphery. Cache-slutting with the girls, the peeps, the crew, until driven back into the land by an irate boss, just to find a spot to nap in the sunshine, hidden by fallen logs and moss.
But I think mostly it’s the feeling of finding something that was hitherto unknown. I, to the surprise of many, am bad at making friends. The time I came closest to quitting treeplant wasn’t when the bugs came out or I struggled to hit 2k or when my knees or wrists were aching. It was when we had to form groups to rent hotel rooms on town nights. Deep, overwhelming anxiety drove me close to a catatonic stupor. “This isn’t what I fucking signed up for,” I lamented. “Fucking forced socialization.” But short weeks later, I had bonded, found my people, found a weird sort of love and acceptance. I felt, for the first time in many months, love. Love for all the weirdos and eccentrics who were just doing their own thing, working seasonally and ski-bumming and travelling, the naive students and idealistic youth and prematurely aged, sun-lined stoners. And found myself, magnetically drawn, into my own group, who instead of reprimanding me for my tactlessness, appreciate it, who never think I’m too much (well… maybe…) and who both follow and lead into foibles and follies.
Two more months.