Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Rookie's Revelation by Erica Benson

I trudged down the muddy trail leading to the trucks. My planting bags slung lazily around my shoulder, my shovel helped me navigate through lagoons and animal carcasses. Like me, the sun yearned for the relief the night would bring. My feet felt like anvils from thirteen excruciating hours of tree planting. It had been a wet day; Benoit misjudged a “puddle” and fell in to his nipples. He was drenched, along with 180 seedlings housed in his silvi-cool bags. I almost planted a tree into a bee’s nest the size of Manitoba on the previous block, but caught my error when loud buzzing noises flooded my eardrums. The boy’s chucked rocks at it while the girls quickly maximized on their distraction, unloading their trees on the small block.

I speared my shovel in the ground, craving a plush mattress and goose down comforter. I threw my planting bags in the tall grass for a seat. I began to question why I had chosen to fly to a remote location in Alberta to live in a tiny tent with my sister and exist in a constant state of grime. I wondered whether the 5AM wake up calls, mosquito teemed camp kitchen and beaver water showers were worth the 10 cents a tree I was being paid. I also recalled a rumor floating around at the cache about McDonald’s for dinner and my stomach urged me on the endless trail. This was one walk that felt longer on the way back.

A conversation paraded through my mind, it was held the day before with my fellow slave worker Pax. We consistetntly had intricate conversations ranging from philosophy and history to drugs and suicide. On this occasion he asked me if I understood the word serenity. I wasn’t able to fabricate a clear explanation so Pax helped me in his gentle manner. He described it as a state of absolute peace, with yourself, and with your environment. Unfortunately I never consciously recognized a moment of serenity so I couldn’t treat Pax with an anecdote.

My memory came to a close when I reached the trucks at the summit of a four minute climb. There were scattered stars on one side of the sky as the sun neared the horizon. Most of the planters had returned, and I joined the usual end of day banter.
“How many boxes did you plant?”
“Do you have any food left?”
“How many times did you get stung?”
And today,
“Did you hear about Benoit?”
Scotty our Foreman confirmed the McDonald’s rumour, and we crowded the trucks to hand in our tallies.
As a rookie planter, you get the fortunate luck to sit in the Crummy, an emergency bench transformed into a box for five dirty tree planters to cuddle in. I took a seat on the far left that offered a minuscule window. I smiled as Jason, our appointed driver, rolled away from the block, and rested my head against Pax's shoulder.

That's when I noticed the gorgeous Albertan sunset. I sat up with a newfound calm and slid open the window. I gaped in awe at the beautiful melange of soft oranges, bold pinks and shy purples. I realized that although this job is physically demanding and mentally painful at times, I wouldn't trade it for a serving job at home. So far this summer I watched a live rodeo at the Calgary Stampede and tried sleeping through a lightening storm from the uncertainty of a tent while it struck close enough to feel the earth shiver. I overcame my natural shy tendencies and met a camp of sixty interesting and hilarious people from different regions of the world. I drove a quad for the first time, and learned how to make the best out of a terrible situation. Like the day we awoke at four AM so the mosquitoes formed a cloud around our heads, as if in a cartoon. Or the day Scott told me kindly that the bottom ten planters would not get to ride in the helicopter. In one month of tree planting I learned inexplicable things about myself and grew into a unique individual, overcoming much teenage insecurity. I formed an unbreakable bond with my sister, and wouldn't have enjoyed such a wondrous time if I hadn't been splitting that tent with her. I shared with her my love for literature, reading her "Apollo" aloud, often putting her to sleep. She taught me how to be comfortable with myself and proud of my individuality. She was also my supplier of support when I felt like a tiny bug on a big leaf. I looked down at the heads of my coworkers, my crew, my friends. We shared our life dreams with each other, our tears and our blood but above all, our laughter.
I turned to Pax and said one word,

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Planter’s Confession: A Canadian Tree Planter in Oz by J F Adair

Part One

The rolling hills of New South Wales were spread before us as our truck crept along the bumpy country road. A herd of wild emu moved nimbly over these hills in the distance, bobbing their heads as they ran, frightened by our vehicle’s noisy progress. Our Land Cruiser was one of two such vehicles in our small convoy that carried six tree planters to work outside the town of Tumbarumba in the Snowy Mountains of south east Australia. They call them mountains, but to my eyes, the eyes of a Western Canadian, they were hills, and not particularly big hills at that, lying somewhere between the rolling downs of Ireland, and the rugged crags of the Scottish highlands. There were five of us inside the bouncing Toyota, the same five who always rode together. I was in the back beside Kary, another Canadian, and Big Mike, a Kiwi. In the front sat Ember, an Irishman, and behind the wheel was Spew, an Aussie, his beady eyes wandering between the road and a meat pie he was cramming into his mouth. Spew, who was named for his habit of eating his own as a party trick, was a constant focus of our amusement, and this morning was no different. “Ah ya” he said, as he did at the start of almost every sentence, “me mate tied himself to the Sydney harbour bridge, with nothing but a rope tied to him, and jumped off just for fun.”

“Really?” Ember replied. He looked at us in the back seat with a grin and gave a sniff of his nose. The three of us in the back started sniffing too, smelling the bullshit, as we did whenever Spew was talking rubbish, which was pretty much always. “And how’d he get himself off the rope, like?” Ember said, suppressing a smirk.

Spew gave Ember a confused glance before replying “Ah ya, he just climbed out of there, hand over hand.” A chorus of sniffing came from the back seat. No matter how often we did this, Spew never seemed to catch on, he would just carry on telling his stories, oblivious to the fact we knew he was full of it. Once Ember made up a brand of beer, Byron Ale, and asked Spew if he’d tried it. “Ah ya, some of me mates in Byron Bay drink that,” he said, “it’s a bit dark for me, but.” That one kept us laughing and sniffing for a good week.

Our truck ground to a halt as we reached a gate and one of the boys in the lead truck climbed out to open it. As usual, it was James, who held the gate while trucks passed, his beard failing to conceal the look of gloom on his face. James had the morning misery down to a science, but in fairness it was a common expression among the planters, as no one enjoyed working in the hills in winter, especially when the weather was bad, as it was most days. Now when most people think of Australia they picture warm sun, a fine sand beach and blonde haired girls in bikinis with charming accents strolling by. This was a bit different. It was winter for starters, and we were in the high country. Now granted this was not Canada in January where it drops to forty below and the snow banks reach above your head, but it was not the tropics either; the temperature averaged below zero and the days were painfully short. Burned into my mind is the memory of my shovel biting into the ground as I planted my first trees of the day and looking into the east where the sun was just starting to creep over the hills, then leap forward eight hours and the day’s last box of trees and still planting as the sun, now in the west, sank into the hills once more. Most of the planters were backpackers who had packed for travelling hot Australia and were painfully under equipped for the work. Some planted in t-shirts and jeans, some did not even own boots, planting in running shoes instead and most of us didn’t even own a rain jacket. In this state we worked, from dawn to dusk, six days on and one day off, returning to a single trailer in which six of us slept, cooked, ate, and never cleaned. On top of this we worked for men of such moral depravity that the stories of their personal lives I will not share for fear of traumatising the reader. These men, who possessed all the sophistication of your average earthworm, despised us and cared nothing for our welfare. All of this had led to a general malaise in the planters, and it was not helping our morale that today looked to be more miserable than most. It had warmed slightly overnight and begun to rain, a hard, cold, lashing rain that cut through your skin and chilled to the bone in minutes. Those of us without rain jackets would suffer horribly this day. My coat had been stolen by a scumbag Frenchman who had quit because the work was too hard for him and then run off with my jacket. I had tried to compensate for this loss by fashioning a poncho of sorts using a garbage bag and duct tape, cutting holes for my head and arms and then taping the openings so they would not tear. If I was lucky this would keep the rain off my torso long enough for the weather to break.

Our trucks rolled through the gate and James closed it behind us and jumped back into the lead truck. Our amusement with Spew passed and a mood of quiet melancholy settled on us as we began to contemplate the long day ahead. The road ran beside a meandering stream with sharply cut banks and as we travelled alongside it we came to a spot where a tall eucalyptus tree grew all alone on the far side. Under its boughs, sheltering from the rain was a herd of cattle among whose number could sometimes be seen a cow with six legs, its two extra appendages hanging hideously from its shoulder, as if a calf was in the process of being born from the beast’s back. This animal would often be seen sitting apart from the rest, if it ventured too close it was attacked by the others and run off, as if they knew it was somehow not right. It was a daily ritual among the planters to try and spot “Leggy” and sometimes people would even get out and take photos of the freak, but this morning we barely glanced out the window as we passed the tall gum tree, our minds preoccupied with the day ahead.

The trucks turned away from the river and began the climb up into the hills, the chains on the tires cutting into the muddy track as we went. The hills ahead were carved with deep furrows, ploughed rows the planters walked back and forth on bending to plant several thousand trees each a day, six days out of every seven. These furrows gave the hills a rare appearance, as if they had been carved in crude terraces, their lines crisscrossing the landscape as far as the eye could see. The trucks stopped just below the crest of a gently rising saddle that connected two rounded hills. The ploughed trenches came down from the col stretching back and forth between the two hills with a rough track on either side.

Now came the hardest part of the entire day, stepping out of the warm, dry truck and into the freezing rain. I paused for a moment, grit my teeth and stepped into the elements to begin the long day. Immediately, the rain cut into me, biting my face, soaking my limbs, and slapping against the tattered garbage bag that was my sole protection from the rain’s fury. Despite the weather we all sprang into action as soon as we emerged from the trucks, the day had officially begun and the clock was running, it was time to start making money. Some of us climbed onto the trailer that was pulled behind the lead truck and began dangerously tossing boxes of trees to those waiting below, who loaded them onto the nearby quads. As usual, Spew didn’t help us, but just stood on a quad looking into the distance like an explorer at the helm of his ship pondering some great matter that us simple foreigners could never understand. What we did understand was that despite being almost all rookies, we each knew more about planting than Spew, who had never planted a tree in his life. The quads loaded, we quickly grabbed our favourite shovels and treebags from the disordered pile in the back of the Land Cruiser. Different coloured flagging tape had been tied onto the equipment in an attempt to reserve it, if you were a strong planter and liked by the crew this generally worked, if not and someone wanted your gear they would pull off the tape and claim it for themselves. Gear ready we each grabbed a box of trees, tore off the four flaps on the top and put the entire box into a large pouch on the planting belt. This pouch was worn on the side by some but more often on the back to provide freedom for one’s arms, and the process of reaching behind one’s back to take a tree several thousand times a day often led to severe shoulder injuries. This style of planting was different from that practiced in Canada where bundles of trees were carried in treebags at one’s sides, and was laughed at for its inefficiency by Scott Dog, the only one of us who had planted with a spade before.

I was quick this morning and my gear in place I headed for the rows with Big Mike just a few steps ahead of me while the others still fumbled with their boxes. I was already soaking, the rain running down my face in rivulets as I reached my first row and began to plant. I knifed my shovel into the ground with my right hand, pushing it forward and quickly pulling it back, Australian style, to loosen the earth as I rammed the plug of a six-inch pine tree into the hole, then stomped on the ground with my right foot to pack the earth around the roots before taking three steps and doing it again, a process I would repeat at least twenty five hundred times today. As a tree went into the ground somewhere in the middle of my first row and I pulled out my shovel the edge of the spade’s kicker caught my left thumb on the second knuckle, slamming against the bone and tearing away the skin. The dirt that already caked my hands had stained them a dark grey-brown and it was on this background that a swell of crimson bloomed, sending pain lancing through my hand. I watched it for a moment transfixed, the scarlet spreading against the grey like the opening of some exotic flower. This happened at least twice every day and I looked away from my hand, ignoring the pain and planted the next tree, plunging my bloodied palm into the earth as water began to run down my shirt collar and along my spine to collect in the small of my back. Among the planters only Ember and Scott wore gloves as it was considered soft, and even when I would later plant in Canada where wearing gloves was accepted practice I could never get used to them and carried on bare handed like the tree planters of old.

Planting on furrows, or scarified land as it was known at home, did not require much skill, one merely had to have the right spacing and have the green part of the tree facing skyward, and you were pretty much set. A planter could be making good money in a matter of a few days if he had the right work ethic and could tolerate, both mentally and physically, the tough, repetitive nature of the job. This day was, needless to say, a hard day, the rain did not let up once. Rather, a cold wind picked up as the day went along driving the rain into your face as you walked the rows. There comes a point, and all planters have been at this point, when one simply accepts one’s lot, and with this acceptance comes an almost joyous freedom. When you are frozen cold and wet all over, when your feet are soaking and every step is a sodden misery, when you have no place of comfort remaining, no depths left to sink to, then you become free. An odd euphoria came upon us during the day, as if what we were experiencing was so wretched we could not help but laugh and smile, and with that smile we proved that it could not get to us, no matter how bad it got. Smiles crept onto our faces and the day became not something to be endured, but experienced. I passed Scott Dog going the other way on a row beside mine and yelled “lovely day for a stroll!”

“Couldn’t be better” came his reply, a smile on his face.

A year later we would have a similar exchange planting on the side of a mountain near Bella Bella, British Columbia. As the relentless weather of the mid-coast in February pounded down on us we grinned and shook hands before climbing into our respective pieces. “I’ll see you on the mountain” I yelled, above the fury of the wind.

“Aye” he shouted back smiling. And on that day in BC, as on this one in Australia, we were brothers, united in jubilant suffering.

As all days do, this one eventually ended and again we sat inside the Land Cruiser, steam rising from our drenched bodies. “What a miserable day that was boys,” Ember moaned in his Irish lilt, now seated in the back. “What kind of life is this I ask you?” Ember was always quickest to complain. “I tell you, after Australia I’m never doing this again.” Big Mike just laughed quietly to himself. Mike had been in the New Zealand Special Forces before getting the boot for failing a drug test and he seemed to almost relish physical discomfort.

The rest of the drive was a quiet one as we all seemed content with our own thoughts and reflections, and soon enough we were pulling into sleepy Tumbarumba, down its one main street and along to the trailer park down a gravel drive. Now that the day had ended the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle as we pulled alongside our trailer. As soon as we stopped our calm was forgotten and a new race was on, the race for the shower. The one thing the trailer park did have was a pretty decent shower block, and with three stalls for six planters it was usually not too fierce a race. Not like when we had worked in Yarram, down south in Victoria, where an entire house of planters was serviced by a single shower, and some would resort to hiding other people’s towels or soap in an effort to be the first to the hot water. Things were made even easier by two who rarely showered at all, James and Scott, both Canadians, who incurred much ridicule for this habit. Now if you are one who has known Canadian bush camps full of dreadlocked hippies who shower less often than medieval serfs, this may not seem overly strange to you. Do not get me wrong, I enjoy a good day or two without a wash every now and then when you are out in camp and it does not matter, but this was not that sort of crew, and any behaviour deemed hippy-like was not tolerated. However, despite the fact that a shower was usually no dramas, as the Aussies say, today was not an average day. Everyone was soaked and chilled to the bone, and the thought of waiting in the cold outside a shower stall was enough to drive a man to madness. As soon as the trucks stopped bodies began piling out of vehicles, boots were kicked off and clothes were tossed aside as we ran for our towels and then to the showers. As I tore out the door I saw Ember hurl Kary’s towel out the back window. “Bastard!” Kary shouted, but Ember just laughed and ran after me. I remember tearing headlong, barefooted and naked save my boxers, over the sharp rocks of the driveway, with Ember barely a step behind me. We reached the shower block and took the second and third stalls, somehow Big Mike had beaten both of us there first. It was pure heaven when the hot water hit my skin that had been cold and almost numb to the touch. For a moment I just stood beneath the water, glorying in the pure pleasure of it and feeling the life come back into me and the chill leave as quickly as it had arrived. There was more than the usual share of complaints from the other side of the shower curtain, especially after we began having a rousing conversation between the stalls. “Sorry to interrupt boys,” came James’ voice “but how about hurrying things along a little?”

“Time for your weekly wash is it James?” Ember shot back. “Well I’m sorry lad, but I’ve still got some dirt between me toes.” We in the showers all had a hearty laugh, but for some reason humour seemed not so good on the other side.

That evening, washed and fed, we sat on the couches and chairs in the front room of our trailer. This five by four metre room had a single shabby table with a few rickety chairs, two ratty couches you could not have given away to the Salvation Army, and a small space heater to warm the entire trailer. It served the six of us as a dining room, a living room, and a boot drying area. A tower of footwear was perched around the small heater, sodden insoles atop the boots and shoes, all delicately balanced, one against another like a misshapen and rancid house of cards. The television, which received a total of three channels and was operated by massive metal buttons that were pushed to switch the station, was tuned to the latest reality show, a program involving a competition between obese people to see who could lose the most weight. The boys were mostly skinny, some of us now almost emaciated from weeks of planting trees, and the contestants were met with harsh ridicule, with Ember leading the charge. Truth be told, swept up in things I jeered them same as everyone else.

It was about this time that Big Mike, silent for much of the evening, brought up the idea of making cookies. These cookies would not be any run of the mill baked goods however, as Mike planned to add nearly an ounce of old shake he had, mostly broken up pieces of pot leaf and bud. Big Mike was a chronic pot smoker, perhaps the biggest I have ever known, and that’s saying lot from a kid from Vancouver Island who has tree planted and lived on ski-hills. He was a fan of buckets, or “buckies” as he called them, where a packed bowl is attached to a large pop bottle that has had its bottom removed and immersed in water. The bowl is then lit and the bottle pulled up from the water creating a suction that draws the smoke from the entire bowl into the bottle. This is then inhaled in one massive pull, sometimes as the bottle is re-immersed into the water to ensure no smoke escapes. I know from personal experience this is the mother of all ways to get high. After four buckets I can remember being nearly unable to walk home, but Mike was known to have half a dozen or more in the morning before planting and as many as thirty in the evenings.

Mike’s plan for tonight was to make pot butter and use that to make the cookies. This, he said, would be the perfect way to relax after a day like today, and we would have lots of time to come down in time for work in the morning. Things did not, however, go according to plan. We all stood around in the kitchen as he melted down the butter and then stirred the entire ounce of shake into the pot. It seemed a ridiculous amount to be adding to such a small amount of butter, but I said nothing and merely watched as the mess began to change colour, turning the darkest shade of green imaginable, almost black. Big Mike was unperturbed, in fact, he seemed strangely pleased, merely stirring the concoction with an odd little smile on his face. After awhile he removed it from the heat, strained out the shake, and handed me the “butter” to make the cookie dough. I tried to follow the recipe but there was way too much butter, but Mike insisted we use it all, so I poured in the entire mess and stirred, then dolloped it onto a baking sheet and fired it into the oven. We all sat back and waited as the trailer was filled with the scent of baking cookies. There was nothing unwholesome about the aroma, nothing to let on that these cookies were special, just that wonderful scent of grandma’s house coming from our humble kitchen. After the allotted time I went to take out the cookies, but to my surprise they had not held together in the oven. All the butter we added had made them melt, and instead of a dozen sand-dollar sized cookies, we now had one giant cookie the size of the entire round baking sheet. It was quite the sight, that massive psychedelic cookie sitting there in the oven looking at me, and I probably should have taken it as a sign of things to come. The boys had a good laugh at that thing, and then we split it up into half a dozen bowls, like Christmas pudding.

We moved back into the living room to sit in front of the television and eat. After about three quarters of my bowl I had had enough, the chocolate and butter flavour was pretty intense, so I put the rest aside. I was definitely thankful later that night that I had not finished my bowl. At first, of course, I felt nothing. Someone switched on a movie, The Two Towers, and we watched as Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn discovered the remains of the Uruk-hai on the edge of Fangorn forest. As one always does at times such as these, we began to wonder if anything would happen at all; perhaps this whole build up was for nothing. Before too long, however, I began noticing things were just a little bit different. The conversation among the planters, usually a sharp back and forth, had slowed to a trickle. Kary had a slightly dopey smile painted on his face, and his jaw hung open a bit more than usual. Big Mike stared straight ahead into the television, intensely focused, his eyes tinted with a reddish hue. Old Scott Dog looked like he was beginning to melt into the couch. My own senses did not seem quite right either. Sounds began coming at odd intervals and I was unable to make out their source. Things began to blur slightly, as if I could no longer focus my sight. A cocoon of warmth and numbness settled on my body and my vision became narrowed and fuzzy around the edges. Now the conversation in the room had died completely and we just sat and stared at the screen where the battle of Helm’s Deep had begun. Kary’s dumb smile had changed to a look of utter bewilderment, and his jaw sat agape like some massive yawning cavern. I could feel my brain shift inside my skull every time I moved my head. Watching the Orcs of Isengard assault the castle of Helm’s Deep was almost more than I could handle, but the prospect of getting up and changing the channel was beyond my comprehension. To put it mildly, I was fucking stoned.

Ember came out of the kitchen and stood beside the couches looking at us; he had not eaten any of the cookie, he did not like pot but said it was for hippies. “Any reason why the oven’s still on boys?” he said. We all thought that was hysterical and erupted into laughter.

“Stoner,” Kary managed to say between snorts of laughter, looking at me, his mouth still agape.

“Jaysus, you lot are in some state,” Ember said, looking at us with disgust. Kary, still laughing, got up and walked into the kitchen. Ember followed behind him and began calling his name in a high pitched, mournful voice like a ghost, “Karrry, Karrry.” All Kary could do was laugh and take the abuse.

The boys came back out of the kitchen and sat down. Ember looked at me and said “at least you’re holding it together Sal, the rest of these boys look a sight.” The only reply I could offer was a laugh, I was holding it together! That was news to me.

Of course, with all of us sitting around stoned out of our brains looking like zombies from a B-grade horror flick, this was the moment two new planters would arrive, Billy, and his nineteen year old girlfriend Tina, both Australian. We must have looked a sight, all slouched on the couches, vacant looks on our faces. They both sat down, Tina looking very uncomfortable obviously not knowing what to make of us. The place was an absolute disaster. Nobody said anything. Billy finally broke the silence. “So youse are all from abroad?” he asked, in a nasal Aussie twang. Again there was dead silence.

I turned my head towards him and managed a reply. “Yup,” I said. Billy nodded and looked at the floor. Tina turned a shade of pink. Somewhere, some part of my mind that I could not quite touch was feeling bad for them, I just did not have the ability to do anything about it but I figured maybe one of the boys had it in them to make conversation. I looked around the room hopefully but was met only with vacant eyes staring into the television set; we literally looked like we had been lobotomised. It was up to me to put these two at ease. Summoning every ounce of mental endurance I had I began to speak, very slowly. “Did you two get a room?” Those six words must have taken me at least ten full seconds to say, like a record spun very slowly.

Tina turned an even deeper shade of pink and Biily gave me a look like I was a mental patient before replying. “Ya, we got our own room here in the park.” I nodded and turned my attention back to the movie while Kary looked at me and laughed. I had done all I could do and probably made them feel even more uncomfortable. I washed my hands of the whole mess and got back to the business of being off my head. It was not long before the new couple left, probably glad to escape this room full of the undead.

Before too much longer the shrieking of the Orcs became a little too much for me and I decided to retire and sleep things off. Sleep did not come easily, however. As I lay in bed in the dark my mind began to run wild, it had been stripped of all stimuli and had nothing to focus its bizarre energies on, so it started creating thoughts of the most elaborate strangeness and firing them onto my psyche at a rapid rate. I felt like I was the subject of a tale by H.P. Lovecraft, tormented by eldritch and cyclopean visions. Suffice it to say sleep was some time in coming.

I awoke the next morning to a tired body and a foggy head. All the usual pains were there, sore back, weary knees, throbbing shoulder. The fingers on my right hand were locked in the same curled up position they had been in all day holding the shovel. Scot Dog had told me this was known as “the claw,” as that is what your hand resembled with your fingers fixed in position, gripping a phantom spade. It took me several minutes of working my fingers back and forth to open my hand, and even then it would only open part way before snapping suddenly wide open, fingers fully extended. Opening my hand part way was an impossibility.

I got up, sore and tired as usual, and went into the kitchen blinking sleep from my eyes. There a melee of planters elbowed for room to make breakfast. Water was already boiling so I made an instant coffee and sat down in the common room. Taking a sip of the bitter brew I noticed a warm sensation on my body, and as I looked around the room things did not look quite right: shapes had odd angles to them and distances were hard to judge. Even the movement of people through the room seemed wrong, first they were one place, then another, no in between. Kary sat down beside me with a plate with two slices of toast and peanut butter. As he handed me a slice I noticed a glassy look in his eye and his mouth still hung somewhat too low. “Dude, are you still high too?” I asked him.

“Fuck ya,” he said laughing and taking a bite.

“Looks like another interesting day,” I replied. “At least it’s not raining.” Outside was still dark but the sky had cleared and the wind had blown itself out during the night.

“Ya, should be fun,” Kary said in his cheerful, carefree manner, still laughing as always, pieces of unswallowed toast falling out of his mouth.

Once more I must stress this was not a Canadian planting crew, and working stoned was not tolerated, although it was daily practise for Big Mike. The bosses, Mason and Rhino, who were very Aussie, very redneck and very unsympathetic, despised pot smoking, associating it with their most hated of attributes: hippyness. Being stoned on the job was grounds for a sacking, so this day would be a new experience for most of us. When we were working down in Victoria before they shipped us North, I used to get baked with Kary in our trailer at night, but we knew not to let on to the bosses, or to Spew their willing lackey. They knew Mike smoked but that was tolerated because he had the highest planting numbers on the crew and always drove the trucks and quads, for which he was never paid. But even he would have been fired if they knew about his habit of smoking buckets in the morning before driving the truck to the block.

As we finished our breakfast the trucks pulled up out front and it was time to go. We pulled on our boots and shoes and made our way out in the dark. As I walked up to our truck I suddenly noticed a hulking figure standing there watching us. It was Mason, the big boss, returned from Victoria where he had left Rhino in charge and was back to take over from our temporary leader, the witless Spew. In my haze and in the dark I had not noticed his menacing shape until it was before me. Mason stood six foot two and must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds, but even these dimensions could not explain the enormity of his presence. Somehow he stood above those, such as myself, who were actually taller than him. You could feel his presence before you saw him; you might be planting beside a creek when the hackles on your neck would rise, and looking up on a ridge above you, there he was, staring down, his eyes pure malice, cowing you into submission. Other than Big Mike I never knew a man who could hold Mason’s gaze, something so dark seemed to lurk behind those eyes that you could not help but look away. He rarely spoke, he rarely needed to, he would just point his drill sergeant’s chin at you and fix you with his stare, and somehow, you understood. If he was really angry, not just his normal everyday angry, but really angry he might speak a single word. He would stare at you, his chin menacing, his eyes fire, and say, “Work.” Before you had a chance to think about it you would find yourself obeying, unable to do otherwise. Now he just stood there, chin thrust forward, and watched us get into the trucks. Some of us mumbled a feeble, “morning Mason.” He did not reply.

As we filed into the trucks in silence like indentured servants I realised there was no Billy or Tina. Ember, sitting beside me, had that mischievous grin on his face he always had when he had something amusing to say. “So boys,” he began eagerly after we closed the doors and Mason had got behind the wheel in the other truck. “I could hear them two Aussies fighting last night, like.” He was grinning ear to ear, “I think they went down the pub after talking to you fuckin’ drug addicts last night.” He laughed to himself, “I could hear ‘em fighting outside me window, must’ve been one o’clock, like.” As usual, Ember’s malice was infectious, you could not help but get caught up in it. We were all grinning and hung on his every word, even Spew who was usually in his own little world, waiting for us to stop talking so he could tell one of his stories. “The girl, Tina like, she was fuckin’ givin’ it to ‘em,” Ember went on. He began putting on a high pitched, whiny voice, “You’re fuckin’ drinkin’ again, you bastard.” We all dropped into hysterics. “They were going on like that for hours,” he put on Tina’s voice again to similar effect, he had us near falling out of our seats. Ember could be one mean son of a bitch, but you had to give it to him, he was funny. “I think they were fightin’ because she wanted to leave, like,” Ember went on, “and no wonder, what, walk in and there’s five guys, fuckin’ drunk, stoned, off their heads, must’ve scared the poor girl half to death.” The smile dropped from his face. “I think maybe he was hittin’ on her like.” With that the mood in the truck sobered somewhat.

“Really,” I said.

“I think,” Ember replied, “not bad, like, but a bit.”

“What a class act this Billy fella is,” I said. “Good thing they’re gone.” Everyone nodded. The truth was we had no idea what a class act he was, not yet anyways. Billy and Tina had not left as it turned out, they had just missed their first day of work in a state of drunken delirium. Billy who was twenty six and looked older was an ex-jailbird and current speed addict. He had no qualms about telling his old prison anecdotes as if they were funny travel stories, and he seemed strangely proud of them. Tina, who was all of nineteen and seemed younger, had obviously been led down the wrong path by Billy. She seemed to think his prison history was cool, and she even told us stories of smuggling speed into him during prison visits. Of course we knew none of this at the time and figured we had seen the last of them. As it turned out, Billy would be a lowballer, one of the slowest planters on the crew, for another month, and Tina would be around, and get around, even more, but I am getting ahead of myself a little.

For now another day of planting loomed and we were not in much of a state for it. The mud was thick from yesterday’s rain and the going was slow once our trucks left the hard packed roads of the farm country around Tumbarumba. A low fog hung in the hollows between the hills but already was clearing in the pre-dawn light, bringing the promise of fine planting weather. We pulled into the last farmhouse before the block where we stored our quads and Big Mike and James got out to retrieve them. The boys got the quads going and followed us as we turned down a gentle hill towards the river. There we saw farmer John on his motorbike tearing around on the steep pastureland herding sheep, heedless of the slick terrain. John had apparently sold the land we were now planting for around a million dollars. He had a long white beard and must have been sixty five, but he handled his bike like a man half his age, putting down one big rubber boot and spinning around like a top as frightened sheep ran in every direction. He shouted a greeting and waved to us, a broad smile on his face as always. He was one of the happiest men I have ever met. We moved along beside the river and cattle grazing high on the hillside watched us pass below as they stood silently chewing their cud. Turning up and into the high country we disturbed a group of kangaroos who bounded ahead of us along the road for a few moments before darting off into the hills. The mood in the truck was again one of quiet contemplation, and even Spew was silent as no one had responded to his attempts at conversation. Ember sat moping with his arms crossed now that no one would engage him in more banter.

At length, we came to the block and Big Mike, who had been following behind us on a quad, came to the window for a word with Spew. I still felt somewhat less than myself and I looked at Mike for some sign of a crack in his usually unshakeably calm yet intense demeanour. He looked at me for a moment with his blank expression and emotionless eyes, and then he laughed, obviously in near the same state as I was. This made me feel somewhat better as we filed out of the trucks, a bit slower than usual, and began to suit up for the day. The weather turned out to be much improved, with the sun breaking through the clouds more times than not, and the mercury sitting just above the freezing mark. My head cleared as the day went on, but for the first several hours my eyes could only focus on the smallest of areas and as my shovel struck the ground it seemed somehow distant and removed. Fortunately it was easy to follow the furrows and the length of my stride, which determined the distance between my trees, had become so ingrained that my planting suffered only slightly in speed and not at all in quality. Spew did several measurements on me as usual, a process where a cord attached to a shovel was stretched between your trees to see if your spacing was correct. One of these came up short indicating that I was planting long, and Spew was puffed up with triumph when he informed me. He was somewhat less triumphant when I pointed out that he had accidentally wrapped the cord around the shovel several times, making it come up short. As was his custom he refused to admit his error but stomped off muttering to himself in anger. “Why do you always have to be such a smart ass Sal?” he asked over his shoulder as he walked off. I wanted to reply “Because you always have to be such a dumb ass,” but with much effort bit my tongue and said nothing.

The day passed uneventfully and that evening as the shadows were growing long Big Mike and I were on the quads following the trucks back out of the block. We were on a narrow road that wound around the top of the hillside with a steep drop off to our left of at least twenty meters. As we approached a hairpin corner I heard Mike yell from behind me. “Hey Sal, hold up here!” I stopped and Mike pulled up beside me. “Wait until they’re way ahead here, then we can open it up down the hill,” he said to me over the engines of the ATVs. I just nodded and sat there for several minutes, following Big Mike’s lead. Suddenly Mike shouted “Yaaa!” as if to a horse and opened up the throttle tearing off ahead of me. Not wanting to be left behind I tore around the corner after him, where the road had begun to veer downhill. It was ridiculously dangerous flying around those corners with a death drop to one side, and looking at my speedometer, which had a digital readout, I could see it creeping above sixty toward seventy kilometres an hour. I kept up with Mike until I hit seventy five, and then my nerve broke, I could picture myself not quite making the next corner and rolling off the hill to my grisly death, and I eased off the throttle. I could see Mike had done no such thing. Around the next corner the road came back on itself in a sharp switchback and there I saw Mike fearlessly take the corner, leaning half-way off the quad so as not to tip it over and then flying into the straight away standing up and screaming, “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” before tearing around the next bend out of sight. Big Mike was a different sort of guy, I could see him wielding a broadsword on some ancient steppe, a battle cry on his lips as he hacked his way through the enemy ranks, but where does a guy like that fit in these days? He had already been thrown out of the army and was now applying to the French foreign legion, so hopefully he would find his place there.

Night was fully upon us as we pulled into the trailer park. There were four surprises waiting for us that evening, the first two of which were Billy and Tina, who were sitting on the porch smoking cigarettes. They quickly explained that they had just been too hung over from the night before to work and that they would be ready to go tomorrow. The other two surprises were the two young men sitting on the couch inside. One was tall and gaunt with short red hair and copious freckles. The other was somewhat short and stocky, not chubby, but solid. The redhead crossed his arms and averted his eyes nervously as we walked in. The shorter one, upon spotting Kary, popped up with a grin. “Hello my son,” he said in a northern English accent that was quite thick for one so young. “I didn’t know you were out here!” he said.

“Luder, how’s it going?” Kary said as the two shook hands and hugged, “come out to plant some trees, eh?”

“I figured I’d give it a bit of a bash,” the shorter man replied in a cheeky English sort of way.
This was Luder, a young Englishman from Cumbria, the same region my father was from, in the far North of England. You would not want to imply that Luder was from London, or anywhere else in the South, as he was an ardent northerner; anything relating to southern England was “typical southern bollocks.” I can respect someone who is proud of their heritage and his pride in his home reminded me of the way I felt about being from BC, and from Vancouver Island. I suppose it would be fair to say I liked him straight off. Kary and Luder knew each other from travelling Thailand, and I would later run into him in an opium den in northern Laos and we would travel together for many weeks. He would also play an integral role in the destruction that surrounded our departure from Tumbarumba, as would the redhead, but again I am getting ahead of myself.

The nervous looking fellow who was still sitting down and had yet to introduce himself would become known merely as “Scotland,” for that was where he hailed from. I honestly have no memory of his real name as none of us ever called him anything else. He was twenty six years old and this trip to Australia was his first time away from home, meaning not just Scotland, but also his parent’s house, where he had lived until just a few months before. This would also be his first job apart from petty drug-dealing, and he had no idea what he was in for. Luder confidently introduced himself around and Scotland managed a few words when I went and asked his name, and soon the normal evening routine was in full force, with the seemingly endless jostle of planters showering, cooking, eating and joking with one another.

The next morning in the truck we were in a much better mood to talk than the day before, and we had much to discuss. “You hear any more trouble going on with those Aussies last night?” Kary said to Ember, across me in the back seat.

“Nah, not last night, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time,” he said with a grin. “What about that redheaded fucker, Sal?” Ember said to me, “didn’t hear a peep out of him. What was his name?”

“I can’t remember,” I said. “He said he was from Scotland.”

“Another fuckin’ Brit,” Ember shot back. “That short cunt was making some Anglo-Saxon comments last night,” he said, half smiling. Ember and Luder had gotten into it a bit the previous evening over the British history in Ireland. It was rare to find an Englishman who would shoot off his mouth on that subject to an Irishman, but Luder had done it all the same.

Kary replied to Ember in his broad Canadian speech, “Luder’s a good guy, I travelled with him and another buddy of mine over in Thailand. He’s pretty mouthy sometimes for sure, but he’s a good guy.” That was Kary for you, a bit slow on the uptake perhaps, but loyal to the last. He knew who his friends and his enemies were and did not mind saying so. I respect a man like that.
Regardless of Kary’s defence of Luder, Ember looked unconvinced. “I’d like to hear what Scotland would have to say if he heard you calling him a Brit,” I said to Ember with a grin.

“They’re all the fuckin’ same” he said laughing, tongue in cheek.

“You see what that Scottish cunt had for dinner?” Big Mike said in his Kiwi twang. “He fucking put a can of tuna on a piece of bread and ate it. He didn’t toast the bread or anything. Smelled like fucking cat food.” We all laughed.

Spew decided to chime in, totally changing the subject, “Ah ya, them steaks in the pub are expensive, but. Twenty five bucks for a plate. Pretty big bone in it too.” Spew would eat dinner in the pub with Mason every night and talk shit about the no good foreigners, no doubt.

“You pay that every night plus beers?” I asked him in disbelief.

Spew nodded, “Ah ya, what do I care, I’ll spend a thousand dollars at the drop of a hat.”
Ember put on a face and shook his head, which almost started me laughing. “Dude, why don’t you just cook up some pasta or something, that doesn’t cost barely anything,” I said.

“What’s that Wog shit gonna do for me,” Spew said back, using the racial slur some Aussies used that seemed to refer to anyone of Mediterranean background. Spew puffed out his chest and went on, “When I eat dinner, I want some mashed potatoes, a T-Bone, and some female service!” None of us could contain ourselves at that and we fell into fits of laughter. Spew, clueless as ever, assumed he had said something exceedingly witty and sat there with a self-satisfied grin on his face. In my day I have worked with cooks and dishwashers, treeplanters and firefighters, roughnecks and drillers, and this still has to be the most meat-headed thing I have ever heard anyone say. The last week of the season, months hence, we would still be doing impersonations of this line, and planters hired long after it was said would laugh and do their own versions of Spew and his words of wisdom. It was a priceless moment.

The weather on the block that day proved to be good, with a distant but clear sun in the sky and only the occasional breeze that would pick up for a moment and send a chill down your spine. Over the day’s course I would take the odd moment to observe the new planters as I loaded a box of trees, or crammed a granola bar into my mouth. They were slow of course, but in their first efforts could be seen the seed of the planters they would become. Billy and Tina, working side by side, seemed hopeless. They were clumsy with their shovels, dropped trees behind them as they went, and were painfully out of shape. Billy resembled an enraged baboon as he made his way up the hills, grunting and puffing out his cheeks as he gasped for air. Scotland, if anything, was even worse and often seemed unable to get his spade into the ground. He would often spend nearly an entire minute to plant a single tree that was worth ten cents to a planter. He would jam his spade partway into the earth, jerk it back and forth and stomp on it several times before giving up and starting the process again on a new spot several inches from the first. I wanted to yell “just plant the damn tree!” but I said nothing, figuring he would learn in time. Time would tell however, that I figured wrong. Luder on the contrary, was obviously a hard worker and took naturally to the toil of planting. He was slow yet, and his straps from his planting belt hung at his sides in a sloppy fashion, and his trees were not planted as well as they could have been, but still, you could see it was there. His shovel broke the ground sharply with a single jab and you could see he was fighting to do the little things quicker. Fighting to get the tree out quicker, to open the hole faster and more cleanly, to take his steps with speed. It was all these things added up that made a planter fast, that could make a lowballer into a middle of the road guy, and eventually into a highballer. You could tell that straight away Luder understood that, but most of all, you could see he had the desire. With time anyone can learn to quickly dig a hole, plant a tree, and pack it with your foot before moving on and doing it once more. But if you do not have the desire to be fast, if you do not feel the fire that burns in the pit of your stomach through illness and injury, through pain and suffering and bad ground and bad weather, if you do not hear that endless whisper in your ear that goes beyond mere dollars and cents and says “I will at all costs be the best, no one will out plant me today,” then you will never highball, simple as that. This was why Scot Dog, in his fourth planting season, could be beaten by a bunch of rookies day in and day out. He did not desire to be the best anymore, and so he no longer was. Luder had the desire, I could see it in his eyes already, and I knew that in a matter of weeks, not months, he would be challenging to be one of the top planters on the crew.

For the moment the top planter was Big Mike, and I wanted his crown. I was already having a big day and fuelled with thoughts of glory and riches I picked up my pace even more, charging up a hill past several other planters. I seemed to have no fatigue, my legs never wearied, my spade arm never grew sore, and my lungs were always full of wind. I did not stop once all day; for eight hours I ran up and down hills thinking nothing but faster, faster, faster. When I ran out of trees I sprinted to the nearest cache for another box before sprinting back to work, when I felt hungry I tore the wrapper off a granola bar, shove it in my mouth and carry on, still chewing as I planted. The other planters would stop to smoke or eat, but I carried on while they hurled mock insults at me to try to break my pace. Nothing could slow me this day, however, and by its end I had put forty nine boxes of trees in the ground, a new season high on the crew, coming only eighty trees shy of the four thousand mark, a fine tally for a rookie by any measure.

When the time came to give Mason our count I was surprised to find Mike was only two boxes behind me. I had highballed him, but just barely. We were about to move towards the trucks when Mason made an announcement. “It seems that we have a problem with overclaim,” he said, his face curled into a snarl. Overclaim was one of the deadly sins of tree planting, and involved claiming, and being paid for, more trees than one had really planted. Although a boss could easily tell when it was happening, it was almost impossible to figure out who was doing it, unless the culprit slipped up. “Today I’ve got eight extra boxes claimed from what was actually planted,” Mason continued. “This is the third day we’ve had an overclaim.” Although I would not have thought it possible his face darkened measurably and now his bulk seemed to block out the sun, leaving us in shadow. “If it happens again tomorrow, whatever number is overclaimed, I’m taking that off everyone here.” There was a murmur of disapproval but one look from Mason and we fell silent, our eyes fell to the ground. Only Big Mike kept his eyes level, that same cold and distant look on his face. Mason went on, “That means if you steal eight boxes from me, that’s eighty dollars, then I’m taking eighty dollars from each of you.” This was a Mason classic, turning a bad situation into a profit for him, always with the pretence of teaching us a lesson. He did not care that this was illegal because he knew there was almost nothing we could do. We were just backpackers working for travelling money and had neither the time nor the know how to come after him for what he stole from us. He would pull this trick time and again, and never to such an extent as following the destruction we unleashed at the contract’s end, but that was still more than a week away. “Now tomorrow,” he went on, “when I ask you how much you’ve planted, you think long and hard, and look to the guy standing beside you, because he’s the guy you’re screwing, not me.” As he finished his speech his eyes fixed on mine and my eyes widened as his gaze drilled into me as if trying to peer into my soul. I was suddenly filled with the blackest dread and I could not help but look away. I had claimed more than anyone else on the crew today; he would not suspect me would he? Surely he would have seen how hard I had worked? My questions went unanswered as Mason walked to the trucks without another word, and we followed behind like slaves on a chain gang.

When it came time for the next day’s count and Mason called Scotland’s name, he stumbled on his answer, “Ni...nine” he said. All eyes instantly shot towards him. Mason made no reaction however, merely calling the next name. Again there was overclaim, less than the day before, but still too many. “Five boxes off everyone,” Mason said, before walking off. We had each lost fifty dollars, and Mason had made five hundred.

“Did you hear that Scottish cunt today?” Ember said to us on the ride home. “N,n,n,nine,” he said in a goofy voice. “That’s fuckin’ bollocks if I ever heard it. He’s the one who’s been tackin’ extras on, this all started when he showed up.” There was a grumble of agreement in the truck. Spew said nothing but merely listened, anything he heard would get back to Mason, and Ember was hardly unaware of that. It occurred to me that Mason had said this had been happening for several days; Scotland had only started the previous morning, and Scotland’s numbers were too low to account for all the overclaim, but I said nothing. The seed of dislike for Scotland had been planted in the crew, and its flowering would be eventful indeed. The process of creating a scapegoat had begun, and as it grew we would heap more and more of our woes onto him until an explosion was inevitable.

That evening in the trailer Scotland spilled wine on the floor in the living area and merely sat down on the couch, leaving it there. I understood he had never lived away from home before, but this was too much. Luder could not handle it and stood beside Scotland staring at him. “Are you going to clean that up, mate?” he said.

“What does it matter?” was the redhead’s reply in his Scots lilt that was really starting to bug me.

“Because someone’s going to step on it, like,” Luder said, looking pissed off now.

“I don’t think so,” Scotland said, refusing to even look at Luder. Begrudgingly, Scotland went into the kitchen for a cloth and proceeded to take a dish towel, throwing it on the floor and wiping up the wine with his foot. He then sat back down leaving the cloth on the floor, and went back to watching television. I looked at Luder who just shook his head, and I laughed in disbelief. What was wrong with this guy?

Towards the end of the next day I was hunched down at a cache, refilling my trees as the rain spat down at an angle, when Ember came up, his box empty at his side. “What’s the craic?” I said to him, pronouncing it crack, a common Irish greeting.

“I just talked to Scotland,” he said, looking ticked off. “He said he’s on eleven boxes.”

“Well that’s pretty shit,” I said, “but more than his usual, he must be getting better.”

“Fucked if he is,” Ember shot back. “I heard him talking an hour ago, and he was saying he was on seven.”

Kary had come up as he said this. “You talking about Scotland?” he said, driving his shovel into the ground and opening a bag of gummy bears, which he handed to us before having any himself. Behind him came Scot Dog, who threw off his planting bags and lounged on the ground with the bags supporting his back. He drew out a pouch of Drum tobacco and began slowly rolling a cigarette. As usual, he was in no hurry.

“What do you think Scotty?” I said as I stuffed pine trees into my tree box, “is Scotland the dodgy bastard?”

Scott took a deep breath. “I don’t know man,” he had an earnest tone to his voice, “I mean, he’s a bit of a moron for sure, but I don’t think he’s a thief. I think he’s an okay guy.”

“Ya, I agree,” Kary added. “He doesn’t seem too bad.” Scot and Kary were cut from the same cloth that way, they would not call a man down if they did not think he deserved it, even if he was an easy target.

But Ember was unrelenting. “I was just telling Sal,” he said, “he went from seven boxes to eleven, in the space of an hour, like. You boys have seen that bollocks plant, he can barely plant four trees in an hour, never mind four fuckin’ boxes. It’s as plain as day he’s the one doing it.” Scot Dog and Kary had confused looks on their faces at that, but I did not stick around to see where the conversation went. My box was full and I headed back out onto the rows.

When it came time for the count and we were all standing in a circle, we were once again over. Among the many grumbled complaints Scotland’s was the loudest. “It’s not that hard is it, just to count your boxes?” he said.

Mason slowly turned his head towards him, and his face was carved with barely restrained fury. Despite being at least four meters from Mason, Scotland took a step back and actually started trembling as for a moment Mason did not speak but merely stared. “To be honest, mate,” Mason growled, “a lot of people here have been saying its you that has your count wrong. You went straight from seven to eleven is what people are saying.” Scotland went right on trembling but managed to stutter lamely, “I … I didn’t mean to.” Big Mike laughed out loud at that and Ember’s grin was as wide as the Cheshire cat’s. Mason looked back to the circle and the grins, even Mike’s, disappeared. “Three more boxes off everyone today,” Mason said and left to get in his truck. Again, he had made a tidy profit, but I am sure that never crossed his mind.

That evening I had just finished showering and was trying to decide what to make for dinner when Ember ran into the trailer laughing. “Play along boys,” he said, sitting down on the couch, “Kary thinks I took a video of him pulling one off in the shower.”

Kary came in straight after, wearing only a towel, his long wet hair plastered against his skull. “You bastard,” he said. The rest of us could not stop laughing.

“This one’s going on UTube,” Ember said looking at his mobile phone and laughing.

Kary’s face had gone bright red. “C’mon boys,” he said, a note of pleading entering his voice. “You didn’t really take a video did you?”

“My favourite bit,” said Big Mike, chipping in, “was this.” He put on a look of furious straining and jerked his head back and forth. I almost fell off the couch I was laughing so hard.

“Okay,” Kary said, sounding almost angry, “I was having a wank, I admit it, but you didn’t really take a video did you?”

“Damn right he did,” Big Mike said, without the hint of a smile, “and it’s a beauty.”

“I already told you,” Ember said, still laughing “it’ll be on the net by the end of the night, like.”
Kary looked properly pissed off now. “C’mon boys!” he said almost shaking, anger in his voice. It was the first time I had seen him the least bit annoyed. Ember said nothing, however, just kept looking at his phone, and Big Mike just laughed to himself.

I could not handle it anymore. “There’s no video,” I said between laughs. Kary looked relieved and went into his room to finish changing. Ember shot me a dirty look but I had to do it, Kary was too good-natured a fellow, and as funny as it was, I could not take him being pissed off. I would later wonder how Ember knew Kary had been choking the chicken in the shower, but some things are better not to ponder too much.

When the excitement had passed, I had just begun to think about dinner when Ember turned to me. “Hey Sal,” he said, “wanna come with me and Mike to the diner, like? It’s a fuckin’ zoo in here.” I was happy to agree as the chaos of now ten planters practically eating and sleeping on top of each other had put the whole trailer into a state of chaos, and we had already been given two warnings by the park management.

We sat in the grubby diner that stank of meat pies and filthy deep fryers and waited for our food. Big Mike was thumbing through a porno mag and had hit upon the section titled “hometown girls.” Every so often he would laugh and hold one of the pictures up to my face and say, “Check this one out!”

“Enough, enough,” I said after the fifth or sixth close-up, “I can’t take any more.” The pictures were horrendous to say the least, but Mike, for once, smiled from ear to ear.

The conversation had up to this point been on the adventures of Ember and Big Mike in Thailand, who had travelled there together in the months before the southern winter planting season. I will not recall the details of that conversation here, as those adventures were of such a morally dubious nature that I fear to recount them here would alienate me from many readers, purely by association. Suffice it to say that after a time the tales of Phuket, Pattaya, and Ko Samui came to an end and Big Mike levelled me with his cold eyes. “Me and Ember been talking,” he said, his Kiwi accent heavy on his vowels. “We figured we’d let you in on the secret.”

“Oh, ya,” I said, my curiosity piqued. Ember just looked at me, silent for once.

“The way to claim more boxes, without overclaiming,” Mike said, expressionless.

I looked around, the only others in the diner were locals, but this topic made me nervous nonetheless. “So it’s youse that been overclaiming all this time,” I said under my voice.
“No man, you aren’t listening,” Mike replied, the faintest trace of a grin creeping onto his face. “I said without overclaiming.”

“That’s right,” Ember said, breaking his silence. “That way fat boy Mason ain’t none the wiser, like.”

“What you do,” Mike went on, “is for every box you take, throw away four trees, just toss ‘em between the rows like you dropped them. Don’t do it all at once, but one at a time as you plant the box so it looks like an accident, not a scam.”

Ember picked up where Mike had left off: “Then as you’re planting the box, like, and you get one of those shitty little trees, you know the ones that are a pain in the ass to plant, like?” I nodded and he went on, “Grab another big one instead, like, and plant the fuckers together. You can’t tell the fuckin’ difference, it just looks like one tree.”

Mike cut in, “Do that four times each box, that makes eight less trees in an eighty tree box, so for every ten boxes you plant, you get one for free.” Mike’s face took on a smug cast, but his expression remained as hard as ever. “If you can put forty boxes in the ground a day, thats an extra thirty bucks a day, nearly two hundred a week. That’s nearly an extra day’s planting money for doing nothing.”

Ember laughed. “It’s fucking brilliant isn’t it?” he said. “And now that you know, don’t go telling no one, if too many of us are in on it that fat bastard Mason will get wise.” Ember put his hands behind his head, “So what d’ya think, Sal?” he asked me, and as he did our food arrived.
I got away with murmuring, “pretty smart,” and the boys seemed content to let the conversation shift to the waitress, who appeared to have a prosthetic leg.

As the boys talked, I thought about what had been said. I now realised why Mike and Ember were the only planters who wore their tree boxes on their sides, not their backs, it would make sorting the tree sizes easier. This also explained why their planting numbers seemed strangely high. Often I could have sworn I was planting at pace with Mike and taking less breaks as well, but he would still be a couple boxes ahead by day’s end. Also, Ember seemed a fair bit slower but was often only a box or two behind me. I did not consider myself a thief and I was proud of what I could plant, if I cheated I would not have the same feeling of accomplishment. On the other hand, this was about money and Mason was an asshole who ripped us off whenever he had the chance. We were making him a millionaire and yet he treated us like dirt in his boots. This would only be stealing from him and not hurting the other planters in any way as it would not show up as overclaim; the trees had gone out, they just had not been planted. Truth be told I did not know what to do. Whichever way you cut it, I had to hand it to these two, they were smart, if there was a scam to be played they would figure out how to play it.

The next morning began like any other day, I barely noticed the pain in my knees, wrists, and shoulders now, not because it had gone away, I had just grown used to it. My right hand was so badly locked up that even by the time we started planting it was not opening easily. It did not really matter as I could grip my shovel just fine whether I could open my hand or not. The strangest thing about it was that the odd sensation between pain and stiffness in my hand was no longer disturbing, but had grown somehow familiar. In truth, I had almost begun to enjoy it.
As the daily plant began and with it a light drizzle that sent icy rivers running down my collar and along my torso, I thought about the previous evening’s conversation. I thought about losing that sense of accomplishment from knowing you had planted what you said you had planted. I thought about the morality of what was effectively theft. I thought about the consequences of getting caught: being shamed in front of all the planters, losing my job, and more than likely being savagely beaten by Mason and Spew. Then I thought about Mike and Ember and who knows who else, out there cruising to high numbers and not working nearly as hard as me. I thought about how much I hated Mason and wanted to stick it to him for all the times he had stuck it to us. I thought about how easy it would be to do and about how hard it would be to get busted. But what did it in the end was the money. When I thought about nearly an extra day’s planting cash for the same work, I was seduced and I made the wrong decision: I decide to cheat.
Moving along the rows that morning I would throw the occasional tree, very nervous as I did it. With my bag on my back it was difficult to realise you had a small tree in your hand, then find a bigger one to plant with it, all without losing your speed or rhythm. The spectre of Mason took on a new and darker meaning; now when I would look up to see him staring down upon us, the picture of the mighty overseer, the fear did not come from an irrational place, but from the very real possibility of being caught. It seemed to me that between fumbling with tree sizes and wasting energy worrying my pace had slowed from its normal rate. I was sure that I had “planted” no more trees than normal by midday. But the thing that really did it for me was not the lack of gain, or, I am sad to admit, the moral dilemma. What turned me from the cheater’s path was the worry. I could not imagine weeks of looking over my shoulder, constantly fretting, never knowing if this would be the day I would be caught. After scarcely half a day, my first and last experiment with planting crime was over. But despite this things would never be the same. I now knew, at least in part, what was happening on the block. In the following weeks, when we had left Tumbarumba and were back planting in Victoria, and the search for the cheaters intensified often focusing on myself, I was burdened with the knowledge of who some of the culprits were, but could say nothing. Looking back I think Ember and Big Mike were so devious they even figured this into their plans. They saw that I was working harder than them and their numbers did not reflect that. Mason might become suspicious at this and suspect them, so they sought to bring me into their fold so as to inflate my numbers and thereby cover their own tracks. Again, you had to hand it to them, they were slyer than two foxes. Now that I knew I could not help but suspect everyone and see cheating everywhere, and biting my tongue was hard at times, as was swallowing being “out planted” by guys you knew were not pitching straight. But bite my tongue I did as one thing I am not is a rat; someone who sells another fellow down the river is just about the lowest thing you can be in my books.

The overclaiming on the crew ended as quickly as it had began, a fact that left me wondering. I remembered something Mason had said when we were all pointing our fingers at Scotland. Displaying his keen understanding of the dark aspects of human nature, especially when it applied to tree planting, Mason had said he would not put all the blame on Scotland just because the problem had started just as he joined the crew. Some planters, he said, would seize an opportunity like a new guy starting to claim extra trees and then lay the blame on him. I had scoffed at this when I first heard it not believing one planter would do that to another, but now I was not so sure.

The third evening with no overclaim was our night off, and as our after work ritual was in progress, tinted with that joyous feeling of freedom that comes with a day off from planting, Mason walked into our trailer. The fact that Mason was in the planter’s trailer was a rarity in itself, but what was truly astounding was he was holding a case of beer. Without a word he walked into the kitchen, put the beer on the counter, and left. As he walked out he said in a very loud and angry voice, “Do some dishes!” Then he was gone. It would be hard to exaggerate our surprise. Scott Dog merely stared at me blankly, his mouth open in shock. Kary laughed and said, “Did Mason just bring us beer?” This was a guy who had neglected to refill the gas heat on our previous contract in Victoria, where temperatures were routinely below zero. Eventually we went to the local charity shop, the owners of which, after hearing our story, donated blankets, warm clothes, and several space heaters free of charge. The previous year he had refused to compensate a planter who had received broken ribs from a quad accident, ending his planting season. This planter, who some of the boys on the crew had worked with, had to take Mason to court before he got one dollar from him. This same guy, who showed nothing but contempt for us, day in and day out, had just bought us beer. I could not work it out. Perhaps he believed the beer would appeal to the degenerate nature of our crew and steer us from our dishonest course. If he believed that he did not know this crew like I did. Whatever the case, none of us were willing to entertain the idea that it was a gesture of good faith, not even in our most trusting of hearts, not even for a moment. Long weeks of abuse had done their damage, and could not easily be reversed.

It was Ember that broke the silence. “Not a fuckin’ word,” he said angrily, “just ‘do your dishes,’ and that’s it, jaysus I hate that cunt.”

“He bought us beer,” Scott Dog said, “that’s something.”

“Fuckin’ Toohey’s,” Ember replied. “Stuff is shite.”

The next morning dawned cold and clear and most of us were awake at a decent hour. The previous evening’s festivities had been short lived due partly to the beer running out, and partly to the fact Mason said we would be finished the contract in two more days, three at the outside. When we were done here there would be at least three days off before we returned to work in Victoria, our first consecutive days off in over two months, and some of us planned to go to Melbourne to celebrate. We knew when we were finished here the party would be of epic proportions and we had held back in anticipation. It was thus with a relatively clear head that I sat on our porch enjoying the morning air, a cup of hot coffee in my hand. Scott Dog was sitting next to me strumming his guitar, a joint in his mouth, and James and Kary were playing hacky sack on the lawn in front of our trailer. For the moment we actually looked the part of tree planters, Jesse even had a full beard, and Scott’s was coming in pretty well, at least in patches anyways. All we needed was a girl with dreadlocks and the picture would be complete. In fact, all we needed were some girls of any sort on the crew, there was way too much male energy going around, and it was bound to lead to problems. Tina had proved to be shy and quiet, perhaps understandably so being surrounded by such a motley crew, and had added little to our mix. As often happens on most all-male or nearly all-male work crews, we were going slowly but steadily mad. It was a funny crew this one, made up of all different types of people, from all different parts of the world. With Billy and Tina there were even a couple locals. If there was one thing this crew had it was vices, you could pretty much name your degeneracy and someone was deep into it. Ember was a gambler, and every day after work he would quietly head to the bar to bet on horses, or football, or “pokies,” the electronic gambling machines that were in every pub in Australia. He often said he was up this year, winning far more than he had lost, but I wondered. Billy was a speed addict and meth-head, a sad loser if ever there was one, and he had dragged Tina, young and foolish, down into the gutter with him. She even had a criminal record now, a result of taking a drug rap for Billy. Several of the boys made a habit of frequenting prostitutes and talked about it openly. A number of us, myself included, were pushing the envelope on alcoholism, but we were tree planters after all so I suppose that is to be expected. That morning, however, everything seemed just fine sitting on the porch in the sun, the whole day laid out in front of us. Today was unseasonably warm for mid-winter, it reminded me of a crisp but pleasant April morning back home. A day off came but once a week for us and it was a precious thing. Perhaps that is one of planting’s greatest gifts: the enjoyment of a day away from it. There is no feeling of guilt for tasks left uncompleted, no sense of time wasted or unearned. You know to your very core that you have earned this day, and with this knowledge comes a pleasure so rare in everyday life: the total joy of the experience of the moment, no before, no after, only a glorious now. But it is a funny thing about good times, they do not make much to write about, at least not for someone like myself who perhaps looks too often on what is dark and bleak in things. Nonetheless, all too quickly that day of leisure and rest, and cold beers in the warm sun and curling wisps of grey smoke came to an end, and it was time to trudge back to the block once more.

Monday morning, our first day back, we made great progress. Driven by energy from our day off and by the fact the end was finally in sight we had our strongest day as a crew to date. Luder planted thirty boxes for the first time, moving him into the top group of planters. Billy and Tina approached twenty boxes each by the day’s end. Big Mike was on a tear and broke the fifty box mark, finishing on fifty three boxes. Even Scott Dog, usually happy to cruise along at a moderate pace seemed filled with energy and set his contract high. The only exception was Scotland, who still fought with his shovel, tripped over his own feet, and by day’s end could not crack double digits. It now looked obvious that tomorrow would be the final day, and the atmosphere among the crew that evening was one of elation as we bounced back down the slow dirt road.

The next morning dawned grey and miserable with a steady rain falling. The pain in my left shoulder from reaching behind my back for trees was near unbearable as I forced myself to get out of bed and my right hand was so cramped I could barely dress myself. Most of all I felt tired, a deep weariness in my bones that went beyond simple fatigue. Emerging to make breakfast that morning I could see we were all in a similar state, moving slowly and without energy, our faces gaunt and removed. The new energy from our day off was completely gone.

We began to plant that morning with thick mud under our boots and cold rain drenching our bodies. No matter how hard I tried to move quickly, I could not. I willed my legs to pound the ground faster, but they simply refused. The strength just was not there, and worst of all my will was weak, and without a strong will a planter is nothing. I was slow, we were all slow, and were not getting any faster. The long wearisome days, the constant abuse by our superiors, and the bone chilling, spirit crushing weather, had all combined to break the crew’s collective backbone. What a difference a day makes.

Mason grew more and more angry as what he had hoped would be a short day, turned into a long, long one. As usual, he did not need to say anything but merely stood and watched us plant, the lines on his face deepening in fury with each passing minute. One merely had to glance in his direction, or stop planting for a moment, and his eyes would turn upon you, forcing you back to work. Despite our lethargy, none of us dared take even a short break, and this did nothing for our morale as we plodded along in the thickening mud, bent over like slaves of the ancient world under the gaze of our cruel master.

As morning moved towards noon the cold deepened and the rain turned to hail, miniature shards of ice that cut the skin on your face like needles. It was about this time that Scotland cracked, he could take it no longer. On the final day of our Tumbarumba contract, the end, miserable as it was, in sight, he quit. In front of all of us he took his belt off, threw it in the back of the truck and went and sat inside one of the Land Cruisers. Seeing him sitting there, his arms crossed and looking straight ahead inside the warm, dry truck was a savage blow to our spirit. None of us could believe it, and we stopped planting as hailstones cut into us and stared, but Scotland would not look back. Mason ignored the fact we had stopped working for the moment and walked calmly over to the truck. He opened the door beside Scotland, and to our surprise spoke in a voice too low to hear. As we all stood and watched, Scotland got out and stood beside the truck, his arms still crossed, his head down in shame. Mason walked back to where we were all standing and said, “You don’t work for me, you don’t sit in the truck.” At that we all laughed despite our misery and went back to work without so much as an evil eye from Mason. Although still wretched and weak we were now driven by our hatred for Scotland, and it fired us on. You may think us cruel, but in a situation like ours, the only thing you really have is each other, the only thing that really keeps you going is the rest of the crew working next to you, you know they’re going through the same thing you are and as long as they keep going, you can to. To leave your crew and quit in the middle of the last day on the block, to abandon your mates to the weather and the toil and the wrath of Mason was about the worst betrayal imaginable, and there was no making up for it.

Walking to the trucks an hour later for more trees I passed Scotland, who was still standing in the rain, his head down. I stared at him hard, my hatred for him coursing through me, but he refused to even look at me. He was a sad sight, standing there as he was, utterly broken. Kary and Scott were behind the trailer as I arrived, smoking cigarettes and reloading their trees.

“What kind of a guy leaves us out here, eh?” I said to them. “I mean its shit, I know, but this is the last fucking day, and we’re in this together.”

“That’s what we were just saying,” Kary replied. “What a loser.”

“I actually want to just go up and hit him, just lay him out,” Scott said.

“Ah, fuck it,” I said. “Let’s just get this thing done.” The boys both nodded and we went back to work, shooting evil glances at Scotland as we passed. I feel a bit sorry for the guy now, looking back. He just was not a tree planter, plain and simple. But at the time I felt no mercy, driven by a madness that had come upon me, had come upon all of us, a fury directed at him. He was our white whale, and all the anger at the injustices of Mason, the frustration at the cramped and filthy living conditions and the ever abysmal weather, all our pains and grievances we heaped upon his narrow shoulders. Even Scott and Kary, two of the nicest most solid guys you will meet were at his throat. His fate was sealed.

The afternoon dragged along and the rain receded to a light drizzle as we carried on, tree after tree, row after row. Even Mason got out and helped plant, so keen was he to finish the contract. I passed him once or twice going the other way down the rows, it was like passing a belligerent rhinoceros who just happened to be planting trees. Once, after upwards of nine hours of planting, Scott Dog and I attempted to stop for a water break, our first of the day. There was no sign of Mason and we figured a quick drink of water was well within reason. I picked up the massive jug for a drink, but before I could raise it to my lips I looked up and there he was, scarcely five meters away, staring at us. I will never know how that behemoth of a man snuck up on us like that, but there he was, standing astride a furrow, all his wrath turned upon us. His look was simply too much to take, and without having so much as a sip I put down the jug and we both went back to work without a word. Some of the boys had worked on a previous contract with Mason on Melville Island off the coast of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. It was forty degrees every day with one hundred percent humidity, and planters would routinely drink fifteen litres of water a day. One day there was no drinking water due to a mechanical problem with the pumping system in camp, and all the crews took the day off, all except Mason’s crew of course. He kept them working until someone passed out with heat stroke and nearly had to be flown to Darwin for treatment. Taking this into account, I suppose things could have been worse.
At long last, after nearly eleven torturous hours, we were done. It was now fully dark and I was most of the way up a steep slope, the arms of which swung around forming a tiny grassy vale between them. It was here some of the boys had started a box fire that burned high and bright as the wax-coated cardboard caught the flames. Some of the guys took their boxes still half full of trees and hurled them into the fire. Their fatigue suddenly forgotten, the planters started tearing off their clothes and dancing around the inferno like wild pagan witchdoctors. I bounded down the hill to join them and tossed my box with its last half dozen trees still in it into the flames. Tina, the sole girl among nearly half a score of crazed lunatics, hid behind a large gum tree, peeking out from behind its trunk to watch us with wide eyes. It must have been one hell of a sight, eight grown men taken by madness, naked save their underwear, hurling themselves around that fire, shrieking like banshees and howling like wolves. We were finished, we were free, it was over. At least for a while.

The ride back was joyous, our misery and our hatred of Scotland for the moment forgotten. The whole way back was one loud conversation, everyone talking over everyone else, and when we heard the news that the checkers, the folks hired by the logging company to assess our work, were taking us all out for dinner, our spirits rose even higher. Under strict orders from Mason, Scotland was not invited.

It was a great dinner at the local pub with steaks, burgers and fish and chips and all the beers we could drink. At one point Scott Dog got up and to our great amusement began swing dancing with the female checker. Only Big Mike did not attend, choosing to stay at the trailer and smoke pot, distant as always.

When the bar closed and we moved the party back to the trailer, Mason actually came with us, the enmity between him and the planters forgotten, at least for now. Back at the trailer we were wild and raucous and filled with life. Someone had bought a massive bottle of Jack Daniels and Ember danced around the room swigging freely off of it, his arms around Kary and Jesse. The three of them spun around the tiny living area, singing and laughing, and Ember kicked out one of his feet with wild abandon, by accident booting Scott Dog, who was seated on a couch, square in the jaw. Drunk and crazy we all thought this was hilariously funny and roared with laughter as blood poured down Scott’s chin, who sat there in silence, a confused look on his face. If ever there was a party in need of calming female energy, this was it, but there was none to be had, Tina must have been hiding somewhere, and we grew all the wilder. Scott, now up and dancing himself, his mouth still dripping blood, tripped over Ember and they both fell onto the couch that Luder and I were sitting on. The couch gave a loud snap and collapsed on the floor, one side completely ripped off where the boys had landed. Mason merely sat on his chair and laughed at this, drinking his beer. Ember remained on the floor as the rest of us got up. He had passed out, totally consumed with drink, the near-empty bottle of Jack still in his hand. As he lay there unconscious he suddenly began to be sick, and we all jumped back in amazement as fountains of bourbon and beer mixed with half-digested steak and chips poured onto the ground, and all over the couch. The incident had gentled us, at least temporarily, and as James was putting Ember to bed the rest of us sat on the remaining furniture and conversed in more reasonable tones. Mason chose this moment to start talking and to our amazement he began complimenting us, saying what great planters we were. He praised Ember and Scott Dog, and Big Mike, and Kary, almost everyone. Then he started in on me. “You mate,” he said, “for being able to go out there and do it from day one, are one of the best I’ve ever seen.” I could not believe my ears, even in my drunken state, and for that night at least we were all mates, every wrong was forgiven, every angry word forgotten.

After his stunning speech Mason left for his own trailer and James never returned. Billy and Tina had long since snuck away, Scott was passed out on the remaining couch, and Mike was who knows where doing who knows what. The party was in danger of dying, but Kary, Luder, and myself were having none of it. We cracked fresh beers and kept right on going laughing and yelling like there were still ten of us. As Kary and I were deep into a bullshit session, Luder emerged from the kitchen holding a fire extinguisher, an evil glint in his eye. We ran for the front door but it was too late. As we were making our escape Luder hit us with a jet of the white cancerous smoke, covering much of the trailer in the process. We ran out into the trailer park and up the gravel road, Luder in hot pursuit, firing jets of white powder after us as we ran. If the hounds of Beelzebub had been on my heels I could not have run faster, and I ran for my very life, laughing in the process. “Truce! Truce!” we could hear Luder yelling behind us. He had stopped the chase and Kary and I approached slowly and cautiously, prepared for treachery. “Scotland,” he said his eyes dancing with mischief. “He’s the target.”

“Scotland,” Kary and I said together. “Let’s get him.” We shook on it and headed back for vengeance.

Back at the trailer Luder continued to display his genius for evil, pulling two cartons of eggs from the fridge. We heavily armed ourselves and stood outside the bedroom door Scotland shared with Jesse, where he had been since planting ended that evening. Luder’s eyes were wide, and Kary laughed in anticipation. With a battle roar we flung open the door and flipped on the light. James blinked away the light and looked up at us in surprise from his bed. Scotland, on the top bunk, sat up in shock and his eyes filled with fear when he saw us, for he knew we had come for him. The barrage was merciless. The first volley was a total success with Kary and I landing torso shots and Luder winding up and nailing Scotland full-on in the face. As goo dripped from his chin he attempted to pull his blanket over his head but we tore it off the bed along with the sheets and continued our assault. Jesse sprung out of his bed and ran for cover and Scotland merely crawled into the foetal position, taking it. Perhaps he thought such a pathetic display might cause us to pull back in sympathy, but if so he was sadly mistaken as his refusal to fight back only enraged us, and we doubled our attack. When our ammo ran out Luder took the extinguisher and without a word unloaded the entire thing into the bedroom. It must have been nearly twenty seconds before it ran dry and Kary and I ran outside to escape the noxious fumes that were engulfing the trailer. As the fumes cleared we re-entered to survey the destruction. The living area was coated with a white powder that hung sickly in the air. The couch was utterly destroyed and puked on, and stank horribly. The inside of the bedroom was a sight as white powder mixed with egg hung from the beds, the walls, even the ceiling. It looked like the inside of a cake mixing bowl. I could not believe what we had done. Scott Dog, now awake, appeared at my side. He was coated with the white powder and his mouth was still bloodied, giving him the appearance of a cheaply made-up vampire. “Awesome,” he said, surveying the carnage. The most impressive sight of all was Scotland, now standing in the middle of the room covered head to toe in a rank mixture of eggs and fire retardant. He looked like some hideous monster composed entirely of fish batter, and to his credit, he laughed, said nothing, and went to take a shower. We all laughed, still not believing the chaos we had created, and retired to our beds, passing out in sheer exhaustion amid the ruin we had wreaked upon ourselves.

Amazingly, no one in the park called the police, no one had even come to investigate the disturbance. We awoke to hangovers of such severity, a result of alcohol and fire retardant ingestion, that life seemed not worth living, and the destruction we had caused seemed that much worse for our sobriety. As we packed up our things to leave that morning we made a mistake that would later come back to haunt us. Faced with the impossible task of cleaning up what we had done while saddled with the mother of all hangovers, we simply packed the truck, closed the doors, and left, leaving the ungodly mess behind us. We did not even do the dishes that were literally piled to the ceiling, but childishly hid them, filthy as they were, in the cupboards. I am not proud of this by any means, but it’s what we did, although not without later reprisal.

Hung over and exhausted from our long labours we drove out of Tumbarumba away south, leaving New South Wales behind and heading back to Victoria, bound for Melbourne and our long awaited taste of freedom. The ghost of Tumbarumba was not gone and we would soon face it coupled with the wrath of Mason, but for now we knew none of that and likely would not have cared if we did, for at long last we were free. At least for awhile.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Accountant by Erika Quiring

In case you forget what it feels like to have bags on, this is how it is. You are wearing your clothes, of course, and they are probably sort of dirty-looking on the outside, from the outside mountain clean dirt. Then you have the possibly multi-dayed layer of sweat between yourself and your clothes, which evaporates off pretty quickly, or equilibrates with the mist in the air so that you're pretty nice and cool most of the time. (Actually the mistier the better, cause the salt washes downward off your clothes to your boots, which are so hot and damp most of the time anyway that you've likely blocked any neural stimuli from your feet, long ago, so that it's almost like they don't exist as part of you. And, so, a bit more hot sweat won't matter there.)

There are also the parts of your body that are tightly covered by the padded bag straps; those parts don't get the benefit of evaporative cooling and are always sticky and hot, even on the coldest days. You've probably lost fifteen pounds or so by this point in the season, so your pants are a bit loose and chafey, and you might be heavily belt-reliant for keeping the old pants up. The belt on the bags sits right around the same spot on your hips as the belt on your pants, which is coincidentally the same spot where your panties sit, and those are also damp but not in the good way, and so between the three of them, they chafe your hip bones nearly to blisters. Then you've got 300 trees swinging around from those points in stenching old bags that smell like rotting plastic and fungicide, which in addition to being utterly and horribly indispensible, weigh pretty heavily all around. They chafe your outer thighs, and this effect is I swear worse than any torture that our non-planting brethren have devised. (Planting *is* war, thanks for asking.) Because you've developed a pronounced, horrible sensitivity to chafing at those spots, but those are the spots that always chafe, because that's how the bags have moulded themselves to your body; that's how you move.

And when you put more weight in, for the fifty billionth time, and lurch up the hill again, your legs, which are as ridiculously lean and ropy as the rest of you, get this tired sharp pain just above the half-way mark of the quadricep. Meanwhile you can smell your crotch and your boots most of the time, and you are aghast that your body could generate two such distinct and equally repugnant flavours, but you're trapped in this get-up, maybe 50 feet from the creek, but you can't throw off your bags and unlace your boots etc., because, well, that would be unproductive. And you're trying to bag out fast, get off this fucking block before the bear that got wind of you earlier in the day decides to come close enough to take a good, near-sighted look at the weird creature prancing around in its territory.

Those trees go slow, even when they go fast.

Friday, February 27, 2009

To Plant or Not to Plant a parody in iambic pentameter by Sarah Schenker

To plant seedlings, or not to plant seedlings,

That is the question, often I ponder.

Whether ‘tis saner in the mind to suffer

A summer’s worth of Murphy’s Law and pain,

Or to pack thy tent and to a cubicle,

For to spend those warm and primal months of life

Safe from slash and sweat and tendonitis,

From spruce rash and The Claw and yellow flagger.

Surely we have all dreamed of dropping bag

And hurling shovel, a perfect triple arc,

Thunking neatly into the nearest stump,

And walking triumphantly off the block?

Aye, such a dream must heavy each planter’s heart

From time to time, and yet, dare we to act,

To shrug off the burden of endurance

And the spurns driven deeper into our backs

By over-zealous, self-righteous checkers?

Indeed, why withstand us the hordes of horse flies

Thicker than the hide God giveth to a moose,

Logged slopes more treach’rous than the Gates of Hell

With their hidden pitfalls, a thousand feet

Down, to land amidst ravenous cougars,

When we might, by the virtue of our own two feet

Liberate us from the Almighty Block?

Ah, but who among us hath crossed over,

Dropped DEET and run for civilization,

And returned to tell of what evils await?

It seems we would rather an evil known

Than one that looms essentially formless.

The weight of one’s bank account after all

The boxes are in the ground, weighs rather

Pleasantly in the aching, tired mind.

Thus we are shown slightly irresolute

In our choice, the lesser of two evils,

We are frozen not particularly

Desiring either of these demons be,

Yet planting seedlings in out active doubt.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Requiem for Will by Dusty Blowhard

Aimless, drinking too much coffee, stoned again, waiting for Dougie to finish work, it was the day before the Oregon Country Fair, where all the hippies love to go. We would drive down that night and get drunker than drunk and higher than high (as was my fashion in those days) and I’d see for myself if my hippy friends were right about it being a really fucking cool gig.

I wasn’t planting that year. I’d ignored the tendonitis for months, working through the winter, and had fucked myself up to the point that even WCB, those prickliest of pricks, agreed; I was too mangled to work. The repetitious impact syndrome, as my doctor called it, was as sure a sign as I’d ever get that hitting things with shovels and axes and chainsaws was not a career that I should be doing. I ignored him, being me, but happily took the Worker’s Comp stipend, agreeing to rest up for as long as it took.

I wasted it getting wasted, like I had the rest of my youth, not educating myself out of the rut I’d dug. Having fun, playing video games with career criminals and reprobate hippy scions of great wealth, moonlighting as a dope-grower’s labourer, I did nothing of value for months and months. I got really good at some video games and listened to a lot of jungle music, as drum and bass was called then. That was all. I wrote, but all I wrote was garbage.

So there I was, sitting at the café on Yates and View, reading a paper, when Kent walked up. He was looking even more bugged out than usual—not just half-mad this time, but fully crazy, and as always with that dangerously energetic spring in his heels. He looked that way generally, but much less so. I could tell immediately something was wrong, and wondered what new bad news he had.

He and Will had got popped for a sizeable grow-show some months before, and still reeling from the heavy fines and the loss of their crop, both had gone out planting to try and make up some of the loss. Will hadn’t planted in a couple years. I’d been stoked when he told me that he had gone back to straight bush work; he didn’t have the head for details that successful criminals need. And, he had become super-fat. I’d entertained the notion of going out with him on his gig, briefly, but the WCB checks were too delicious, and my arms still hurt a little.

“Pete!” said Kent.

“Kent!” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“Will fucking died."

“His fucking heart exploded. He was planting for Honeycutt and he never showed up at the end of the day so they went out looking for him and they found him dead at the back of his piece. Massive fucking heart attack. He’d been born with a defective one and it fucking exploded. The fat fuck. Hey, I gotta go. Later.”

“Uh…okay…hey, you okay? Kent?”


Neither was I.

And so, he left me there at the café, both of us out a friend. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost a buddy to random death, but Will, the mad bastard, was one of my favourite people in the world. I was a rookie again, and Kent was too I guess, to the very new, very ancient truth, that everybody dies and you don’t get a say about the who and the how and the why and the when. Everybody I’ve buried since then proves that for me at least, it doesn’t get easier, no matter how many times it happens. I’ll always be a rookie at death.

The Oregon Country Fair sucked that year. I’m told it was one of the best ever. But for me it was miserable. I, with characteristic foolishness, ate too many mushrooms, and moped alone, making no friends, alternately feeling pissed off and utterly gutted. I ran my mind over the fact of his death like a tongue over a broken tooth not yet numb. It’s half a lifetime later, now, and it still ain’t numb yet .

I wondered, then, and still do today:
The day you died, William old boy, did you feel any different, when you went to work that morning?

Did you have your walkman on when your ticker popped? Of course you did: you always did.

Were you singing, as you climbed that hill, annoying your fellow planters with your semi-melodic howling?

Of course you were; you always were.

What was the song, Will? If I go to the block you died on, can I catch the echo? Is your voice still in the wind?

Of course I can’t, of course it isn’t. It doesn’t work like that. And even if it did, even if you went ghost, you’d’ve picked a better spot to haunt than some fucking clearcut.

And; what did they do with the trees in your bag? Did they stash the bundles right then and there, to wash their hands of your curse, like I probably would have done, or did they plant them out in the shape of a big “W”? Not likely. I’m told nobody even liked you on that contract, that you kept so totally to yourself, everybody figured you were just an asshole. Hell, maybe they weren’t wrong to think so. You never did much care what people thought of you.

So, Will--who finished your piece? Was it spooky as hell? No doubt it was, no doubt it was.

And--who got your money?

You were a stupid genius, Will, or a very clever moron—I could never figure out which. You were a far cry from the athlete you were, and you seemed as old as the hills you planted, but you died at 25. I’m a lot older now than you ever got, but you still seem older.

I met some of the guys who’d been on that crew, who’d dragged your massive ass off the slope and notified your mom and dad that their son was dead. I asked about you, but they didn’t want to talk about It.

Of course.

You will never be forgotten, Will—not by your friends, and not by the poor bastards who had to haul your carcass back to the truck.

Rest In Peace,
William Plaatjes of Squamish.
1970—1995, or thereabouts.