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Satellite imagery shows British Columbia has some of the richest, most luscious forests in the world, densely populated with nearly any type of tree a squirrel would want to climb.
Of course the pine beetle has eaten much of the local stock and regular logging practices have cut down the amount of tall, swinging hardwood that accounts for a good chunk of Merritt’s economy.
Logging companies now have to hire contractors to replant the forests they harvest, and this is where tree planters lend their hands, backs and joints to help rebuild the landscape now barren after being stripped of its livelihood.
Tree planters have lived in Merritt while working nearby since the 1980s, adding fuel to an economy that perhaps needs it now more than ever.
But they weren’t always welcomed.
As I arrive at the Sportsman’s Motel to meet Francois Sauvé, owner of Leader Silviculture, I realize I haven’t eaten breakfast, and with a painful day of planting ahead under a sky threatening to downpour, I can only wonder why I put myself into this mess. With tennis shoes on feet and the physical agility of a fat apple fritter that hasn’t left the office in months, I knock on Francois’ door.
The man who turns the handle doesn’t look like a bearded pot-smoking hippie that a more presumptuous reporter might have expected. No, this clean cut man has a distinct French Canadian charm, and so instead of taking my chances spinning my Jeep through the mud, I hop into his heavy-duty pickup.
“You know, 10-20 years ago people didn’t really accept us here,” he says. “Tree planters had a bad reputation, always criticized for being pot smokers, drunkards and partyers who trashed hotel rooms. It’s not until recently that the community respects us more and the loggers are now working with us. They used to say we’re tree huggers and all this stuff.”
Francois explains that his crew is usually planting here from early April to late June. He brings 70-80 of the top planters in the country, about 80 per cent of whom are from Quebec, mostly recruited through personal connections.
More than 200 planters from the three companies that operate in Merritt live here each spring, buying groceries, completely occupying several hotels and adding colour to Merritt’s nightlife.
But right now the 70-member crew is deep in the trenches, plunging shovels into the ground, digging up dirt and tucking in the roots of four-inch trees before packing the ground with a few sly kicks.
“We’ll get you planting out there.”
Francois reminds me of the commitment I’ve made to plunge the tiny bundles of life into the ground.
About 15 minutes up the Coquihalla Highway towards Kamloops we make a right turn, and then down a bumpy gravel road with potholes the size of craters that even a horse would have trouble trudging through.
I see my first planter to the left, his eyes peeled, broad steps, calculating his every move before spearing the ground every three metres or so to place a tree.
“This guy is good,” Francois says. “They get into a zone. Some guys can make a lot of money out here and it’s all a mind game. They say 90 per cent of it is mental and the rest is in your head.”
When the pickup finally comes to a muddy sliding stop about 15 kilometres from the freeway, a good-spirited team of two foremen and a contractor meet to discuss strategy. It’s up to these guys to make sure every planter has access to trees at all times, and with the workers paid $0.13 per tree – and some with goals of planting several thousand per day – no one wants to let them down.
So the contractor ties to his quad boxes containing hundreds of trees and then bounces over logging debris up a steep slope. A foreman then takes me on a walk up the same slope to meet one of the planters, who is working his way through vicious poking sticks and wobbling logs.
Jean-Philippe Marquis is one of the many planters who recently finished a semester at school. About 30 per cent of the workers are students. Marquis has a goal of planting about 2,000 trees per day that will help him pay off his Quebec student loan. The aspiring broadcast journalist recently finished his studies and is saving up before seeking employment.
“A lot of people think we’re all out here for the environment,” he says between tree placements, “but it’s really about earning money. All we’re doing is planting the land for the logging companies to come and harvest; this isn’t environmental.”
As the rain begins to pour and the wind picks up, a tree falls 100 metres away – others crack and an eerie silence absorbs the flat. This must be the mind game that I’ve been hearing about. Without another person around for about a hectare, these planters have to overcome a forest that speaks to them, a wilderness that could turn on them at any second.
“A lot is in your head, but a lot is physical too,” Marquis says. “We’ve had quite a few people go down this year because of injuries.”
Not wanting to take away too much of his planting time, I stumble down the slope back to the pickup. Francois has gone to help pull a truck out of the trenches, so foreman Frank Brassard drives me to the easiest terrain to lay a few trees.
After piling 300 trees into a bag around my waist and handing me a shovel, Frank explains the best technique and leaves me alone for 10 minutes.
The trees must weigh 100 pounds around my waist and I walk towards a trench to plant my first. When my 10 minutes are up – and I am fraught with exhaustion – Frank returns, catches a glimpse of my form and chuckles.
“I planted 40 trees in 10 minutes,” I tell him, slightly dignified. “That’s what, $5.20… not bad.”
Frank takes a look at what I’ve done and laughs again. My face turns a bit red from embarrassment and he says, “I’m not sure… I don’t think they’re all planted far enough into the ground.”
“Yeah, there might be a few ones growing in every which way if I come back here in a few years,” I reply.
These planters certainly have my respect.
With the average spruce tree near Merritt growing about one foot per year, it’s not hard to monitor the plants’ progress.
Surveyors consistently measure the effectiveness of the tree planters by, among other tests, placing a spike with a string attached and measuring the circumference of an area. Seven trees must be in the 300 square feet, no more and no less.
Francois’ team is responsible for planting 1,400 trees per hectare. With more, there wouldn’t be enough oxygen in the soil, and less means not enough trees are being replaced.
Tree planting is a science to those in the office, but it’s a way of life to the men and women who spend April to June each year living cramped in a Merritt motel for $22 a night, a subsidized price.
Some of the strongest men and women work in these hills — both physically and mentally they draw on their personal strategies to get them through each grueling day. Some use meditation, practising metaphysics to overcome the mental challenges. Others train their bodies throughout the year.
Whether each planter is interested in driving up their bank account or prepping the ground with survival seeds for mankind, somebody is adding to the greenery appearing on that satellite feed – and, heck, without that, there’s not much hope for any of us.