January 28, 2015
A falling chunk of granite the size of a child barely makes a sound until it clips off the trunk of a fallen tree beside me and disappears into the gulley another fifty feet below me, crunching into the undergrowth like a muffled bone-break. Further up the slope Matt cranes his neck toward me, one of his arms gripping the mountainside and the other fisted around a three-foot long modified-cut shovel.
“Shit! Are you still alive?” he hollers down through a sheet of rain.
I readjust the vinyl planting bags sagging on my hips. Two hundred cedar saplings poke out behind like a flared green mane. I lose my footing temporarily as I wave back and the sharp steel tack-like caulks on my boots gnaw against the stone of the cliff.
“What was the price on this piece again?” I joke.
“Twelve cents a tree, wasn’t it? Not enough,” Matt shakes his head.
It’s been five days since we departed Port McNeill on the northern tip of Vancouver Island by water-taxi and were dropped off in the Daedalus-maze of inlets and islands that make up Actaeon Sound in British Columbia’s rugged west coast. Steep green summits rise hundreds of meters out of the water, and in the prevailing fog that saturates everything, it’s easy to mistake them for the spines of primordial monsters. Thick cloisters of Douglas fir and Western hemlock snag at low clouds, and gripping at the sheer precipice of the shorelines the winking pale bodies of cedars are ubiquitous.
Most of the day, nine hours in the bush clambering over monstrous stumps and slogging through mud and sharp branches, we’re quiet. We learn to portion our breath, allowing only for the occasional observation. The weird gurgling croaks of ravens watching us like gargoyles from a snag. Bear shit near our cache.
At the end of the day as we hike back down the logging road to the F-150 (floated in by barge a week before our arrival) we discover a small ditch we’d had to jump across earlier has turned into a full-fledged creek and take turns pole-vaulting across on a flimsy cedar branch.
As with most fresh-water conduits on BC’s coast, a decent dose of rain will flash-flood existing drainages, turning them dark brown with tree tannins that bleed off in the water. Like well-steeped tea.
“Maybe I should fill my thermos,” Matt suggests, taking off his gloves.
Our contract is a two week “boat-show”, and our home base as we replant scattered clear-cuts is a renovated fishing boat moored to a dilapidated dock. The owner, an enigmatic and jovial man named Dave, greets us as we return wet, filthy, and hungry. Dinner’s already waiting for us as we crowd around a small table: freshly hooked Sockeye pulled out of the inlet, potato salad, apple pie. Then a six way poker game, $20 buy-in, leaves both Matt and I a little lighter in the wallet, despite the fact we’re probably making between $200-300 a day.
Afterwards in the cramped two-bunk quarter that we share Matt reads a Neil Postman book. The sigh of the ship swaying, the intermittent shuffle of a callused thumb turning over a page. It’s a weird sort of stillness that we share. One which is part exhaustion, part familiarity with the comfort that a shared silence can bring.
“What are you writing?” he finally asks and I look up from a journal.
When I don’t answer he nods. The truth is I’ve known Matt almost twenty years, and what truths we allow the other into are barely verbal. Unrequited loves, how often we think of girls when we’re alone on the slopes, our breath buried into our work. These kinds of things which are innately private, and at the same time recognized by both as indispensable.
It’s because of where we are and what we do. Isolation is a hallmark of a veteran treeplanter, in part because we are often on our own, miles from another human being. Sometimes several hundred from anything resembling “civilization”. More often than not straggling hillsides just shy of vertical with upwards of sixty pounds hanging off our shoulders in inclement weather that can range from scorching heat to nerve-numbing cold. It’s a profession very few find tolerable.
“I often write to her. I don’t know why,” I finally say.
“Maybe to feel less alone,” he replies matter-of-factly and laughs.
Maybe, I think. We all have our methods of coping.
One morning the turmoil of cloud finally disperses as I bag out at the top of a clear-cut, letting sun break out across the clearing. The thrum of a float plane in the distance, barely a white nick in the distance against peninsulas of sequoia.
I sit down on an old stump, a huge grandfather cedar eight feet in diameter at the base. Old-growth that shouldn’t have been cut. A huge split section lies exposed on the slope below, splayed open like a wound. Greedy bastards, I want to say out loud for someone to agree with me. Agents of small-print conservation, that’s what we are.
The hole in the cloud closes again and a gentle rain murmurs up out of the west. Matt catches up to me and gulps from his water bottle.
“That’s a real shame,” he says, pointing to the stump, “something like that doesn’t feel right. Beautiful tree.”
“Big money,” I add.
Clear-cutting is the most widely used form of logging in BC, and we’ve gotten used to seeing its expansive desolation. Brown earth ripped up, leveled hillsides we replant one at a time. It’s not like we’re mending the ecology in any meaningful way – no, our vocation seems a bit more solemn than that.
We’re bearing witness, I realize.
This is a task I’ve found myself inhabiting more and more the older I get. Not just here in the wilderness but at home, among my friends, within my own culture. My journal back in the boat is filled with these movements and observations, details of the day to day. As if to validate the existence of things that have passed, and to account for the things that are still here. Somehow Matt’s company has made that bearable, even if it’s a topic we find approachable, too sacred for words.
It’s a proof. The way my letters are proof of a girl far away or the green raised hackles of saplings planted down the clear-cut are proof of the forest’s eventual succession. That some things remain immutable. The work of men and friendship like iron hardening under water.
I flash Matt a smile and stretch and yawn noisily.
“C’mon! We’re out of the hard bits. The rest of this block’ll be cream,”
He smiles back. “Love it.”