Friday, May 20, 2011

You have to ask why.

Back in 1994 I was offered an opportunity by a friend in the writing program at Concordia. She had planted trees up in Alberta and Saskatchewan for a company called Northern Reforestation for years, and said it could be a good way to earn money during the summer. I took a chance and called the number, and mere weeks later was on a VIA train headed for Saskatoon. I had been across the country before, but never on such an adventure.

The first camp we had was out in Candle Lake, with long, flat, and dry clearcuts, it was like planting corn. The trees were perfectly spaced, and there was little work to get them in the ground. I was lulled into a false sense of security by this, because it was more a test of endurance than skill. I thought I had it aced. I had anticipated huge numbers to pay for my way, and yet was only making about $20 a day, where others were literally planting thousands, and making hundreds each day. It was barely enough to cover the cost of my meals and camp fees.

On the first night off, to make things worse, a young bear came through my tent as I slept. I screamed (Clay, to this day, will say I sounded like a girl) and ran to the mess tent where my friend Shawn was standing with his knife and flashlight, having been visited minutes before.

I have never been a quitter. I stuck it out, and with duct tape over the bear hole, I planted for another week before buying a new tent and a tarp, and I kept at it.

After that contract, another, and after that one, with a bit of money now in my pocket, I went to Slave Lake Alberta, for the 'real' planting. On the Alberta contracts we were out in rough land, some gorgeous scenery in the Swan Hills, and hard work. For some of the contracts we had to build corduroy roads by hand, and wade through knee deep mud just to get to where we were going. We often got lost. No maps, trudging around in the second largest swamp in the world.

I woke one morning, on a contract north of the town on a river, with a freezing cold ass because the river had risen so much that my tent was flooded. I spent the rest of the night sleeping on a picnic table. (it wasn't the last time either) Again, I didn't give up.

Years later, I have to ask why. Why did I do it? Why, after not making much money, did I go back?

I was usually no farther ahead than when I left Montreal. There was no romance involved for me at planting, though I did have lots of fun in Saskatoon between contracts. One year I even met a wonderful girl who convinced me to stay there for the winter. The people were great, and the food good, and the work was hard, but to this day I don't know WHY I did it. I just did. It was horrible, and if I had it to do over, I wouldn't hesitate.

Perhaps it brought me back to a reality I craved. It is very hands on, boring, and physical, and I had just spent years in University and theatre being very heady. It allowed me to introvert into my thoughts, and to be close to my breaking point, my real breaking point, so much farther down than I expected. That edge experience is essential for being an artist. In fact, some of my best work was spawned at tree planting. But I didn't know that then.

This picture at left was the last picture taken during my stint in the Swan Hills in 1997, as all these pictures are from my last year. I had planted for three summers, and I was exhausted, and when I returned to Montreal that year, I decided to do something else during my summers. I wasn't a very good planter anyway, and would probably never have thought of planting again had I not read about the wildfires.

Seeing photos of Slave Lake in ashes has brought back all the memories of the laundromat, the Sawridge Hotel, the Outlaw, Remote Helicopters, Don buzzing the camp at 5am in the Jet Ranger, the drive in contracts, the blue Bus, nights off in the mess tent, the "showers", digging shitters, assembling camp in the wilderness before the planters got in ... it was all unique, and all helped form me. I wonder about all those trees. Did everything I work for burn down? That, my friends, would be the greatest irony, if all that work was for, quite literally, nothing. An entire logistic network to send me across the continent to put little seedlings in the ground, only to have them go up in smoke fifteen years later.

The experience haunts me to this day, and the very mention of Slave Lake has me feeling as if a part of my past has vanished. Here's hoping that even one of those trees survived. Hell, maybe someday I'll type something on it, or build a shed from it. I guess the point is, I did something. I'd be pretty sad if my grandkids were looking for stories, and I couldn't tell them one thing that I, myself, did.

So why do we do anything? Because we can.

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