Tree planting in Canada is often seen as a Canadian rite of passage because of the rugged mountain lifestyle, difficult physical labour, and its seemingly environmentalist nature.
However, the four years I spent reforesting large tracts of logged land in British Columbia, called cut-blocks, have shown me that this so-called environmentally-friendly job isn’t as sustainable as the industry would have you believe.
Charlotte Gill brings over two decades of experience in industrial tree planting camps as well as research into various controversial topics in the silviculture industry, in her book 2011 Eating Dirt. The silviculture industry includes every stage in the growing and cultivation of trees, typically for timber production.
Planting companies are hired by logging companies to replant their clear-cuts. Gill talks about how, in Canada, when companies log government-owned land, they are required to replant it. So they hire planting companies to reforest with the most profitable species for lumber – pine, spruce, larch, or fir.
There are strict quality standards for planting a tree in order to ensure they grow straight and tall in order to make for better lumber. It is the planters’ deep connections to the human-caused destruction of the natural forests that locate them within the Anthropocene – not their act of “rebuilding” these forests.
A fascinating portion of Gill’s work is where she distinctly locates tree planters in geologic eras.
Tree planters are fundamentally involved in the destruction and reconstruction of a critical part of the Earth’s surface. One way she does this is by following the history of conifers through multiple geologic eras until they end up in the hands of tree planters. A second way is by noting how, before entering the cut-block, tree planters must climb the cut-bank carved by the logging road. A cut-bank, while typically a naturally steep and eroded bank caused by rivers or streams, here it is manually created to make a flat surface large enough for a logging road all the way up a steep mountainside.
The cut-bank exposes multiple layers of earth – bedrock, mineral dirt, and living dirt – formed over a long period of time, which planters must climb every time they enter the block. This creates a forced interaction with the way cut-blocks disrupt not only the visible forest but also the deeper layers of ground underneath.
Planters interact with cut-blocks more intimately than anyone else. Surveyors only walk small portions of the land while the trees are logged by feller bunchers, massive machines that effectively work as large claws that saw and carry the felled trees. Tree planters, on the other hand, walk through every square foot of the decimated forest, consciously scouring and pushing through every piece of it for ten hours every single day. An incredibly deep familiarity is built between the planter, the trees, and the surrounding landscape.
“Most days I carry several species, and every three steps I must choose which one to plant, depending on the composition of the soil. I can tell what the earth has in store by the vegetation that grows on top,” Gill writes in her book Eating Dirt,
“My hands know each kind of tree by feel alone. …I’ve got to memorize where I’ve been so that I don’t hit the same spots twice.”
It’s additionally important to note that tree planters never leave this environment for the entire planting season. In my own experience, when we set up camp in the same environment we are working, it becomes our entire life for that period of time. This constant interaction and relationship with the altered earth around us enable planters to have a deeper understanding of the logging industry’s wider impacts than simply cutting down forests.
On a more positive note, Gill also questions whether clear-cuts are actually just a space for death of trees when, almost everywhere, there are signs of life.
“Some people think a clear-cut is dead and ugly, but I don’t. …Up close and inside there is always something moving between the broken logs and stumps. The dirt is alive,” Gill writes in Eating Dirt.
She continues on to mention the salamanders, frogs, earthworms, slugs, spiders, and water living in the seemingly-dead cut-blocks.
Planters are never in complete control of the environment – the life they are surrounded by inevitably makes itself visible. Natural disruptions are often met; in my own experience, there have been ambushes of wasps, ravens, grizzlies, or just mice. There are constant signs of the forest “taking back” what belongs to it.
“Sometimes I find some stray bit of cast-off machinery. The forest eats the chainsaw instead of the other way around,” Gill observes. The surrounding life is not passively allowing humans to destroy their environment. Rather, it continues on, paying no attention to human actions.
Through Charlotte Gill’s book, we are able to recognize how tree planting is part of the larger deforestation and reforestation industry, in which they are replanting a forest filled with pesticides with species chosen specifically for their suitability as lumber.
However, they also have a unique position in that they interact more intimately with clear-cuts than anyone else. This allows for greater perspective both in how deeply the land is affected by clear-cuts in addition to ways the surrounding environment is constantly reclaiming the land taken from it.
All photos included are my own and can be found on my blog: waywardanneke.blogspot.ca