May 11, 2011

Walls and Windows (or Treeplanter For a Day)

Treeplanter in action by Hugh Stimson

While doing some driving around on Mother's Day afternoon, I was enjoying a radio program called The Vinyl Cafe on CBC.  The Vinyl Cafe is a weekly variety hour hosted by Stuart McLean, who, as well as reading aloud letters from all over Canada, reads his own stories and welcomes a wide range of musical guests. It's an old fashioned concept which works very well on radio (think Garrison Keelor), and like so much of what the CBC does, serves to connect people from all corners of this vast country. This past Sunday, the theme of the stories was treeplanting, a job thousands of tough, young Canadians do to put themselves through school or to make their next adventure possible.  Stuart first read out a wonderful letter written by a man from Winnipeg, whose adventurous 62 year old father-in-law spent a summer with a treeplanting crew, and while he wrote home despairing at his lack of treeplanting ability (it has got to be one of the toughest jobs out there) he proved to be a wonder at keeping up the spirits of the rest of the crew with his fireside stories and encouragement. After the letter, Stuart read one of his own stories about the fictional family of Dave and Morley and their two children, Stephanie and Sam.  This week's tale was an uplifting and comical one about Stephanie's summer (and great success - a final daily tally of 2600 trees - after much perseverance) treeplanting in the blackfly-ridden bedrock of Northern Ontario.The story was so good and brought back so many memories that I sat parked outside the video store until it was over.

The following post is an edited version of the fifth one I ever wrote. I'm posting it because it has a bit about my own experience with treeplanting, and also because, in our recent Federal election the Conservative Party won a majority government for the first time in years and there are rumours they want to do away with, or greatly cut back on funding for the CBC - something which concerns me greatly. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this reposting.


Last week I was rifling through my CD collection, looking for something different, when I found Paul Simon's Graceland album. I put it on and was struck by the colourful imagery of the lyrics. I listened to the album every day for a week and each time I listened I heard more and more in it - a far cry from my response in 1986 when the album first came out. Back then I was carried away by the African rhythms and the words were, to me, more of a prop than anything. The fourth song on the album, called 'Gumboots' has a particularly fantastic line. I even posted the line on my Facebook page:

"Believing I had supernatural powers I slammed into a brick wall."

I think the song is about love but the line stands alone for me like a mantra. A few Facebook friends, one now in Toronto, one in Salt Lake City, one in Vancouver recognized the lyric and responded like the album really meant something to them too. I love when that happens - when a little community comes together for a moment over a joke or a shared passion for something. I guess that's the beauty of these social networking things.

Anyway, last week, after I had found the album I put it on and started cooking dinner. (My kids, who had never heard the album, asked if it was some of my 80's music- and then scattered.) That line about slamming into a brick wall jumped out at me and I've been thinking about it ever since. Now I think I know why. When I was younger, a lot younger, I didn't exactly put bath towel capes over my shoulders and leap off the shed roof, but I did want, like many kids, to be, to do, so many things. In many ways I wished I had been born a boy, because I believed they had much more fun than girls. My closest sibling in age was a boy, two years older than me, and he and I played together most of the time. I always got along well with boys because I found them much less complicated than girls. When I was a skinny, undeveloped eleven and twelve year old I used to wear cut off jeans and baseball shirts and kept my fine hair short. I remember going into Woolworth's to use the bathroom, and when I asked for the key, the woman at the counter said, "Um...would that be girl's bathroom?" She really wasn't sure. Not too long after that, when I was walking with my friend, Toni, who was extremely pretty, some boys called out, "Toni's got a boyfriend!" That was my first brick wall. I knew that even I could not be both a girl and a boy, and since I was getting to 'that age' I was pretty sure I preferred to be recognized as a girl. When my mom took me shopping for grade eight clothes I let her buy me a flowered blouse. Even so, my young life continued to include a series of attempts to be something I was not destined to be. Granted, I had many successes, but I would invariably take on too many extracurricular activities, and then crash hard when I could not handle my superhuman efforts.

After my high school graduation I took a twenty-eight hour trip by train to visit my sisters in Winnipeg. Travelling alone was so unnerving that I stayed with my food basket in the one car the entire time, even though I knew one could move around most of the train - so I did what came easily. I introduced myself to the only person my age on the car and he and I stayed up almost all night talking quietly. During my third year of post-secondary education (I was still living at home with my parents) I decided that I should go to Europe. After all, everyone else was doing it, my friends were all well travelled, and it seemed like a rite of passage for college students. My sister Clare and her friend had recently come back from four months in New Zealand and Australia and I wanted to be able to do what she had done. I began saving money and looking around for someone to travel with. When none of my friends proved available, I began to think about going alone. The more I thought about it, however, the more I knew I couldn't do it. Every fibre of my being told me it was a bad idea; I just knew I did not have the confidence and worldliness necessary.

The travelling given up I decided to try treeplanting - my brother was making loads of money at it, and I had university to save up for now. I was hired immediately by my brother's crew boss on recommendation alone. We rookies were to be bused in and out each day during a two week trial.  The first day we left at 5:30 a.m. I had my new caulk boots and shovel, a plaid shirt and cargo pants, so I looked the part at least.  We were given our heavy shoulder bags of pesticide soaked baby trees, given some instruction and a plot of slashburnt slope and told to go for it.  I had never been one for hard labour and I wasn't sure how holding a treeplanting shovel in one hand and a baby tree in the other was going to change that, but I was willing to try.  The girls around me were encouraging, but it seemed they already knew what they were doing, particulary one European girl who was built like a brick #$%*house.  I planted tree after tree, about 500 by the end of the day.  That doesn't sound bad for a beginner except for the fact that I planted at least a hundred on the wrong line and the European girl came to my rescue and helped me replant them.  One day of the two week trial was all I managed in my very short career as a treeplanter. I came home after the first day with badly stretched achilles tendons, which had been shortened by being a dancer for several years, and could barely walk for a week. Oh, the humiliation of having to quit after one day! And yet another brick wall. A few days later, however, my mother's friend offered me a job working for her at the Kootenay Lake Summer School of the Arts as an administrative assistant. She had told my mom that if she had known I was going to try treeplanting, she would have talked me out of it. She had once owned a treeplanting company and knew it would not be the right kind of work for 'someone like me'. I was a bit choked when I heard that, but relieved about the arts admin. position, a job I loved and held for three summers, and a field I continue to feel at home in.

Brick walls are, undoubtedly, hard to face up to and extremely humbling, but in the end, can prove to be our greatest friends. There is that old saying after all: "When a door is closed, somewhere a window opens," usually a window into our own natures and our limits, with a better view of the path we are meant to be on.

Click here to see Gumboots performed live by Paul Simon


  1. Thank you. I try.
    Lovely shot of the rhododendron

  2. What a great post! We all hit brick walls once in a while, but I think what is more important than hitting that wall is not limiting ourselves in the first place.

  3. I resist those brick walls but truly believe that they DO INDEED make us stronger and wiser!

    Your header photo is FABULOUS!

  4. Diane: You are right, of course. We have to try, don't we?

    Jill: I think as adults we do tend to know ourselves a bit better and avoiding brick walls is a matter of saving energy and emotional well being!

    The photo is from my garden. I like to change with the seasons and I'm pretty sure I can come up with four decent photos a year :)

  5. What sort of trees were you planting? Are they conifers as a crop?

  6. Lucille: Treeplanting in Canada is mainly to replace forests that are logged for lumber and raw log export. They are mainly Douglas Fir and

  7. brick walls build character and test and show us our limits...good on you for tree planting we need all we can get...

  8. Why Rebecca - Every time I read one of your posts, I learn another piece of your fascinating history.
    You sing, you dance, you write, you man-handle trees...what a woman! :)


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!