How to Resuscitate a Forest Left for Dead

In a remote stretch of British Columbia, the logging industry’s least-known legion makes the clear-cut forests bloom again. Their reward: 23 cents a tree.

How to Resuscitate a Forest Left for Dead

The alarms go off at 4:30, electronic morning birds chirping at each other across the camp. On the other side of the river an owl hoots at snooze-button interludes, perhaps echoing an interval learned from several mornings’ worth of tired campers. The slow-running water is dense with pink salmon, and even at this hour their leaps filter through trees and tent nylon, reaching ears with a sound like heavy stones tossed carelessly from the bank. The rain is late and the fish, held here by the shallow stream, are frustrated, occasionally throwing themselves onto the rocky shore to thrash frantically before bouncing back in the water.

A tree-planter surveys a slash-covered slope near Sayward, British Columbia.
A tree-planter surveys a slash-covered slope near Sayward, British Columbia.
A logging truck transports logs from a cut block as tree planters shuttle in for the day.
A logging truck transports logs from a cut block as tree planters shuttle in for the day.

Inside their tents in a company camp just beyond the limits of Sayward, a historic logging town on the British Columbia coast, thirty tree planters are also irked by the lack of precipitation, but their aggravation is much more lethargic. The crew is on “fire hours,” a cruel adjustment to the typical workday schedule imposed with good reason by the region’s overseeing foresters: fire hours keep planters out of the forest during the hottest and most dangerous part of the day, but require crews on the job by 7:30. Tent zippers reluctantly slide open and a collection of heads, illuminated under the cool glow of headlamps, floats towards the promise of coffee and breakfast. Tree-planting is a popular summer job for young people on the BC coast, and in Sayward, as in most corners of the province, the forested façade gives way quickly to “clear cuts” — the vast bald patches left behind by the logging companies that have been the backbone of the economy for generations. Close on the heals of loggers come crews like these, the “reforesting” arm of the industry that will plant the next cash crop of hemlock, spruce, cedar, pine and fir.

A sappling lies in a waxed cardboard box used for transporting live trees.
A sappling lies in a waxed cardboard box used for transporting live trees.
A tree-planter bends to plant a sappling on a cut block in the mountains.
A tree-planter bends to plant a sappling on a cut block in the mountains.
A tree-planter re-caulks his steel-toed boots on a day off.
A tree-planter re-caulks his steel-toed boots on a day off.

In the dim light of the mess tent the bodies become visible, young men with an assortment of beards in intensities ranging from demonstration forest to old-growth, and young women with sprouts of frizzy hair tufting up from headscarves or down from knitted toques. Their attire betrays a mosaic of considerations — or perhaps a handful of conflicting weather reports — from moisture-wicking athletic tights under tatty board shorts to abrasion-immune thrift store sweaters and ubiquitous fleece. Many have already laced up their “corks” — the steel-toed, heavily-spiked orange caulk boots that are the chief identifier of those working in the forest industry — while others circle the breakfast buffet in sandals and socks, saving the discomfort of stiff soles for the cut block.

Gearing up before beginning the morning's work.
Gearing up before beginning the morning’s work.
A crew boss uses a cut block map to plan out the day's planting.
A crew boss uses a cut block map to plan out the day’s planting.

Breakfast and lunch are served together, and the selection wants for nothing: eggs to order, bacon, hash browns, granola, fruit salad, yogurt and cereal for consumption now; the wherewithal for sandwiches and wraps, meat-heavy or vegetarian, and leftovers from last night’s dinner to be packed in Tupperware for lunch later in the woods, supplemented with trail mix, vegetables, hummus, and homemade cookies and energy bars. Corrine, the cook — a veteran planter herself — specializes in high-energy fare, and is loved for it. “Planters can eat between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day,” she explains.

A tree-planter navigates a pile of slash while planting trees.
A tree-planter navigates a pile of slash while planting trees.

Simon, the company supervisor, wears a ball cap with two LEDs shining from the brim. Even in the pre-dawn gloom, he is efficient and precise, his generator-powered laptop and printer pinning Forest Management Area maps to his office table in the corner of the mess tent. “This is the big leagues,” he explains at the morning’s shift meeting, referring to coastal planting contracts’ tendency to hire only experienced planters. “It pays less than the little leagues, but there are plenty of locals who want this work too.” The crew grumbles half-heartedly about the difficulty of the terrain, the dismal price of 23¢ per tree, the early hours and the requirement to wear brain-baking hardhats in spite of the heat. They drain their coffees, load roll-top vinyl backpacks into waiting crew cabs, and head off to the block, heads rolling gently in last-minute snoozes as the trucks rumble up the logging road.

Low clouds obscure the view of a steep cut block in the mountains.
Low clouds obscure the view of a steep cut block in the mountains.
A tree-planter's socks are covered in mud from leaky caulk boots after a full day of planting.
A tree-planter’s socks are covered in mud from leaky caulk boots after a full day of planting.

On the cut block it is clear why coastal planting is for veterans, and why the price of this particular contract could be considered low. The land is rough, steeply slanted, strewn everywhere with the collective detritus known as “slash” — branches, splinters, logs with rotten heartwood — the unavoidable byproduct of a successful clear-cut operation. In some places walking the cut block feels like following a never-ending high-tide line, sun-bleached and smooth-tumbled driftwood gently overlapping underfoot; in others, where slash is piled nine-feet high, safe footing is limited to the trench-like pathway between ragged parapets. If the work that preceded it was hard on the land, planting is equally hard on the bodies that replenish it, and the hazards of the task now at hand are many. A quick brainstorm of the looming dangers turns up a comprehensive list of human error and environmental disinclination: cuts, scrapes and scratches, impalement on jagged branches, concussion, contusion, sprained and broken limbs, forest fire, hailstorm, hypothermia, heatstroke, landslide, wasp nests, bears and cougars. Repetitive stress injuries top the list, particularly tendonitis — an affliction so common as to have its own nickname here: “tendo.” It’s only a couple of days into camp and a few planters have already succumbed to the dreaded tendo — they’ll spend the day on “light duties,” ferrying planters from block to block or cleaning empty seedling boxes from roadside caches.

One of the workers relaxes on a day off from planting.
One of the workers relaxes on a day off from planting.

The planters “bag up” with seedlings and drop down the face of the slope in teams of two, diverging laterally to divide the block into “pieces” — the personal patches of terrain each must plant today, regardless of the slash cover and the scarcity of soil. They move with gopher-like pulses, laden with insulated Silvacool bags, stooping out of sight to slide a seedling down the back of a submerged shovel, then popping up again to scout the next patch of appropriate soil. Their shovels are short and sharp, more like oversized garden trowels than tools for clearing a driveway, and the relationship with them is almost symbiotic.

Faraz Khodabandeh surveys a steep cut block before planning an ascent.
Faraz Khodabandeh surveys a steep cut block before planning an ascent.
A typically steep, slash-covered cut block in the mountains.
A typically steep, slash-covered cut block in the mountains.

Detail of a tree stump left by logging operations in the mountains.
Detail of a tree stump left by logging operations in the mountains.

“This shovel is like a tail,” one planter, James Beyore, explains. “It’s like an extension of my hand. I use it to plant, but I also use it to balance, to push off…” The balancing point is key, as from a distance planting may appear slow and contemplative, but up close the action is frenetic, a strange hybrid of gardening and time-trial free climbing.

Further up the hill the hulking hump of the mountain is made gentler by the rough road that cuts across its face. Clouds roll slowly over the mountaintop, and from down in the valley fog floats in to meet the cumulus, enveloping everything in a haze of grey. “At least the rain is falling down!” cries Amir, referring to the rising currents, thankfully absent today, that occasionally bring precipitation up the slope. The rain is welcome, both for the safety of the forest and the comfort of the planters. From around the block, amid the patter of rain on the rare snare of salal shrubs, come the sounds of shovels slipping into wet earth or occasionally clattering across subterranean rock faces with the wincing whine of nails on a chalkboard.

Tree-planters relax during a day off.
Tree-planters relax during a day off.
A tree-planters hands’ are callused and dirty after a day of planting.
A tree-planters hands’ are callused and dirty after a day of planting.

Crew bosses survey a steep cut block from above, overlooking mountain valleys.
Crew bosses survey a steep cut block from above, overlooking mountain valleys.

Brett appears at the foot of the cut, on light duties delivering trees. “How is it in there?” he asks Lauren, nodding towards the piles of slash stretching seemingly to the sky. “You know,” she shrugs. Brett’s words are telling – “in there,” not “up there” – and they hint at the deeper motivations of tree planting: it’s an occupation of immersion, of reforesting not from above a landscape but from within it, in the midst of slash and shrubs and mud and earth, and from a position at the mercy of the natural world. It is an adaptive profession, and this adaptation is evident both in a camp collaged together from tents, trailers and picnic furniture, and in the smoothly executed resourcefulness of trees squeezed into land where the untrained eye sees no trace of fertile soil.

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This week of Narratively stories is a collaboration with Boreal Collective, which is the common ground between ten internationally-based photographers. 

See more of Boreal’s work here: These Are Our Stories