Sunday, 31 March 2013

Confessions of a Tree Planter: An Interview with Adam Turpin

It’s that time of year again. No, not the annual spring barbeque where Uncle Larry dips into the mimosas and takes off his shirt to go Sasquatch hunting. I’m talking about planting season. Tree planting, to be precise. All around Canada people are digging out their mini shovels from the basement and heading off into the bush for weeks of painful labour, supplying our fair country with oxygen (and wood, and pulp, and paper….as I understand it) at pennies a tree.

But those pennies can add up. Just ask veteran tree planter and Toronto native Adam Turpin as he begins his umpteenth season, now foremaning his own team set to tromp around in northern Alberta’s wilderness in early May. You may think you know, but you have no idea. Enjoy: an interview with a man who is intimately connected our wooden giants.

Tell us about yourself. Who is Adam Turpin, in a nutshell?

Who wouldn't want a piece of this? Honestly?
I’ll try to make the nutshell as small as possible; I find it’s difficult to describe myself when I really sit down and think about it. I can start by saying I’m a soon-to-be York graduate who studied Kinesiology. I’m 25, and love long walks on the beach. Oops, wrong questionnaire. 

Seriously though, I’m a tree planter. This upcoming summer will be my fifth year doing it, and I’ll do my best to give you the most accurate picture of what it is we do.

What initially interested you in planting and why the hell would anyone want to do this?

It’s been so long that it’s hard to tease out the particular reason why I chose to go. An acquaintance of mine at the time, (a friend now) had gone and I was briefly told about it, and it sparked an interest. She spoke of the nature, the money, the drunken debauchery. It all seemed too unreal to believe so I had to try it for myself.
Paradise for planters, hell for pretty much everyone else.
I had previously done a mix of indoor and outdoor work, and I much preferred being outdoors. You’ve got to deal with the elements, but it’s more real…and planting most definitely has shown me the elements! Bugs, rain, snow, heat, mud - it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to give it a go, given the difficulty level. But that’s the beauty of the job. It really shows you what you’re capable of by the end of a season.

Planters will give you different reasons for their motivation, but it’s a known fact that employers want people who are motivated by making money. Planting can be a very lucrative seasonal job for the student (if you’re willing to work hard at it), so I think that’s a big reason why people start (and continue).

I understand that a very specific culture exists around planters and what they do. Can you lend a little insight into what this is and how you fit into it?

That’s a great question. 95% of people I talk to about planting either know absolutely nothing about it, or they’ve got a friend who talked their ear off about it because they went themselves. We certainly like to talk about our job.

From time to time, I hear about our stereotype though, that is, we’re all just a bunch of tree-hugging, pot-smoking hippies in the bush. While some planters may fit this description, others are your everyday Joes (and Jills). You wouldn’t be able to pick out a planter from a crowd just based on looks.  I wouldn’t call myself a hippie, but there are certainly aspects that we have all drawn from that subculture, such as having the utmost respect for your fellow person and knowing when to work hard and when to play hard. I can’t speak for all tree planters, but that is what I have seen. I can tell you we most certainly aren’t lazy!

What does it take to be a (successful) planter? Would I make the cut?


Adam and his team en route to a site in Northern Ontario
Ha, just kidding. I’m fairly certain you’d be successful at it, but that doesn’t mean I think most people would. It’s a very difficult job, although I think most are capable of it if they really put their minds to it. You look at the people you know and think “Hmmm, I wonder if you could last an entire season.” I guess it’s impossible to tell, unless they actually try it.

A successful planter is always going to have to draw from two components. The first is the physical requirement. It’s physically demanding work. You often eat up to 6000 Calories a day and drink up to 10 litres of water when it gets hot. The terrain can be arduous, and don’t forget that we’re carrying up to 50+ pounds of trees on us at once. And of course, you’ve got to bend over every seven or eight feet to put a tree in the ground. Needless to say, if you have any prior injury, this job will aggravate it. And if you don’t, well, your body will still hate you in more ways than you can imagine.

Of course, physical labour isn’t the whole thing; there’s still a huge mental component to the job as well. Doing this job is tough, but doing it while there’s a cloud of blackflies in your face and boots that are full of water is in a whole other category. Sometimes it can be hard to keep your sanity. Actually, the truth is, you lose that about two weeks in. I swear, every year I give in faster and faster, that’s called ‘bush crazy’.  I think it makes the whole experience a little easier to get through.

Storytime. Give us your best anecdote of being in the bush while planting.          

This is probably the most difficult question to answer, because I can give you a plethora of stories, given enough time.
Some plots are only accessed by helicopter - you have to be
air lifted in and out every day! 
Last season, while dropping off garbage at the dump, another foreman and I were surrounded by about five black bears. It was terrifying at first, but they were pretty tame and only wanted our garbage. It was exhilarating haha. Another favourite quip about tree planting is the ridiculous outfits we pick up at the thrift shop. I’ve seen planters in Santa costumes, banana suits, tu-tus, jogging suits, dresses, fur coats… you name it, we’ve seen it. I almost don’t think it would be quite the same experience without all the silliness that happens.

Is there life after planting for you, or will you just perpetually shove things into the dirt until you die or fall ill?
Go forth, Adam! Plant those bitches!
That’s a good question, and I’ve been asked it before. It really depends on my plans in the future. If I go back to school then I’ll be planting for a couple more years, but I hate making long term life decisions. It’s very possible, but I wouldn’t want to limit myself from doing anything else, even if I do love the job so much.

Cool. Thanks for the interview!

Thank you!

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