This is an excerpt from an article, it is the
middle piece of the entire article which is about three times as long.
By Bernadette Calonego
Copyright Calonego Media, Vancouver
Brian St.-Germain scouts the surround-ings standing on the edge of a steep mountain slope.
He cannot hide the horror on his baby face. Slippery tree trunks lie fallen on the ground. Rubble and snares, thorns and sharp-edged branches, Devil`s club everywhere. A seemingly solid ground turns out to be a floor made of trap doors.
St.-Germain, 20, is a rookie among the tree planters in Prince George. His regular visits to the local fitness club of Prince George did not prepare him for this ordeal. But he has learned how to “space”: Take a circle with a fixed radius of four metres. Plant eight seedlings within that circle so that the space between all the trees is the same. No easy task, but St.-Germain can do it.
He is not as fast as the rest of his group, mind you. Like Jessica Fox, for example. She can plant several trees per minute. Forcefully, she drives the spade into the dirt, widens the opening with a swift move. Simultaneously, her other hand grasps a seedling from the bags around her hip. She bends down, gently buries the root in the hole and stamps down the soil around it. Bend, bury, stamp. While straightening her back, Fox already detects one, two, three places to plant the next seedlings. Time is too precious to waste. Time is money.
“Thirty cents,” says foreman Dan Ouellette in his Montreal French ac-cent. “Ignore the hemlocks but space balsam if it is nice like a Christmas tree. And tell the others if you see a bear.”
Thirty cents – that is what the plant-ers get for every planted seedling. A price increase for such murderous terrain.
The day before, in another planting “block”, as they call it, the rate was 21 cents. But today, every-thing is more difficult. Everything. The mountain slope is 1.5 kilometres long, the difference in elevation 250 metres. The area saw reforestation seven years ago but many baby trees have not survived the long winters around Prince George. Now seedlings have to be planted again. Once the trees can grow on their own, the pro-vincial government takes over respon-sibility for the reforested land from the lumber companies.
St.-Germain shakes his hand in despair. He not only has to plant seedlings and space them correctly, he first has to find the seven-year-old little trees in the labyrinth of the tangled growth. He moans. “It`s crazy, absolutely crazy.” The rookie won`t make a lot of money today. Not even the “highballers”, the superstars among the tree planters, would shine in this terrain.
Shoulder straps hold the weight of several bags full of one-foot-sized seedlings that dangle around St-German`s hips, brushing against his body. Some men develop rashes in their lower body from this constant friction. Kara Ferguson, the cook in the camp, gives them corn starch to soothe the irritated skin.
St.-Germain climbs the steep, steep slope, carrying about 25 kilograms. Heavy step after step – and suddenly he breaks through the rotten underground.
Ouellette, small and wiry, with a ban-dana in his black curly hair, makes his way through the thicket, uphill and down again, again and again, an untiring climber. A tree planter walks 16 kilometers on an average day. A foreman like Ouellette probably makes 24 kilometres.
Ouellette is not happy. The people in his group plant too many seedlings too closely. They don`t see some of the seven-year-old trees. His trained eyes discover almost every flaw in the art of planting: wrong spacing, bent roots, ideal places ignored by the planters.
He singles out a tree trunk. A trunk stores heat, a warm spot for tender seedlings. “Hey, guys, don`t forget, that would have been a good spot”, he roars. “Amen, brother”, shouts Nathalie Mathis, 26, a waitress from Canmore in the Rocky Mountains.
It happens sometimes that planters try to bury more than one seedling in a hole. But cheaters would quickly regret their manoeuvres. Every plant has to be ripped out, every tree planted again. What a loss of time. Loss of money. For Ouellette, too, because he gets 15 per cent of the group`s revenues.
It is all about money. Nobody denies it. Money for trips to Europe. Money for a new guitar. Or a new band. Money to be an artist. Money for tuition fees. Money so that you can get em-ployment insurance for the rest of the year. That is why they work like horses. Four days piece work, one day off.
The July sun is burning hot. Last week, the planters had thought that nothing could be worse than the pouring rain. Shaking in the cold. Hands completely numb. Wet down to the bones. Wading in the mud. And now this unbearable heat. Fox staggers downhill. Sweat in her eyes, sweat and toxic mosquito repellent. She puts the water can to her lips, gets drunk with water, and even more water. Nobody carries up a water can – too much weight on a steep hill. When Fox rests for a moment, swarms of mosquitoes attack her. Mosquitoes, horseflies, blackflies, and even worse: no-see-ums, so tiny that nobody can see them, but they tear the skin and blood pours out.
The planters` bodies are covered with infected festering wounds, black marks, abcesses, rashes and blisters. “I only wear my swim suit in front of other planters”, confesses Mathis who joins Fox at the bottom of the slope. They fill their bags with seedlings out of a huge box.
Fox stretches her back. “After the first year, I thought, forget it,” she recalls. But now the student nurse from Vancouver Island is already in her fifth year. She gets better and better. A strong-woman act.
Fox lifts her fully loaded bags, fas-tens them around her hips, a human mule that urges itself on.
She begins the burdensome dance through the bushes and over the logs. Bend, bury, stamp. The next spot. Her back moves up and down like a whale`s fin in the ocean.
Michael Ross, a 25-year-old student from Quebec, is one handed. A congeni-tal defect. But that does not make him slower than the others. Four planting years have tought him a lesson in en-durance.
“The hardest part is not to stop, to carry on,” he says.
Not to stop. Not to give up. Ram the spade, open the surface, grasp a seed-ling. Bend, bury, stamp, step, step. Ram. Grasp. Bend. Bury. Stamp. Step, step. Thousandfold. Mind-numbing. Nerve-shattering. The wrist hurts. Your arm hurts. And the feet. The lower back. Scorging heat. Thirty cents a tree. How many more? Three hundred? Four hundred? Read the ground. The geography of the soil. Next one, bend, step, step.
Don`t give up.