News & Updates
Work or Play?: To Plant or Not to Plant
By Matt Brady
It’s generally in July that I attempt the same lie, year after year. Friends just shake their heads, knowing the truth behind the words. It might start as a mutter, a murmur or a muffled whisper, but eventually I’m telling everyone in a building crescendo – “this is it guys, my last season.”
It comes after years of hard work. Early mornings and long nights, repeated end-on-end. Three (sometimes four or five) days make a shift; one day off, and the next shift begins. Nights are spent either wondering or knowing full well your planting destiny for the next few days, drinking and carrying on to displace pain and ignore agony. These shifts go by the quickest when you have a great camp life, full of people who know how to live in the moment as a community and not wallow in selfish independent states of muted disinterest. Although many simply see the act of planting as a means to an end I’d like to think that there’s something else there, something that relaxes and soothes the twitching ADHD minds of our generation.
In life there are two distinct types of activities in which people partake: work and play. In the first, ‘work’, there is instrumental value, defined as value outside of the activity itself. Instrumental work is backed by myths that have been incorporated into nationalist agendas, religions and business mantras, myths like: “hard work is ennobling.” To work is to be productive, to ‘contribute’ to society and to be a responsible person. While planting for many has instrumental value, I feel that these offerings pale in comparison to the true value of tree planting.
Out on the block, with bags pulling on my shoulders, and trained muscles acting to the rhythm of the plant—the oft-gentle motions that repeat themselves spontaneously—I often find the same thought patterns occurring. My mind goes through different stages, first observing the land and giving myself goals and timings. Then I take in the surroundings and work on keeping a quick step. If it’s a truly opportune day I’ll give myself simple things to adjust, either a faster push to the next spot or a quicker trigger on the tree hand. As the rhythm gains momentum my thoughts may drift to random occurring ideas that shift across the periphery of my attention. I have fun attempting to seize these idiosyncratic ideas or storylines, to the befuddlement and sometimes amusement of neighbouring planters.
Lots of days are spent like this – wondering about land and working to motivate oneself either by the carrot or the stick. At times it’s best to lie to oneself; letting the mind tell the body that a sore knee isn’t sore at all is one favoured exercise. An existential observer would identify all of these experiences as a kind of battle between conscious thought and physical reality. Philosophers from Descartes on have debated how our minds and bodies are truly connected, and this ‘fight’ that planters wage with their minds, attempting to fool their bodies into working harder and harder is another example of how truly complex this relationship must be.
While we battle and toil, scraping and scrambling across broken landscapes in forgotten corners of wild countries, there do come earnest moments of peace. I am no meditation guru, and yet through this repetitive action of planting tree after tree I have found my wayward way to a blank state of mind. Countless examples shine forth, whether noticing a 2-inch wound for the first time at the end of the day, or having a 45-minute bag-up whiz by in what seems like seconds. A blank mind while planting may seem like a terrible idea, and yet it’s in these moments that I feel I do my very best planting. My body knows what to do, densities and microsites work themselves out, and all of my attention is focused on these actions. A particular glow highlights my emotive being, not necessarily one of specified happiness but of a more general joy.
I am not saying that my experiences are definitive; each and every person plants trees a different way with totally different mindsets. What I have noticed, however, are these recurring structures of thought. Days can be extremely difficult; planting a block without soil is an extremely annoying act. There’s no groove to find when you’re banging your shovel against boulders and rocks, falling over mile-high slash and wishing the sideways rain would just quit turning to hail every half hour. That type of experience is, without a doubt, instrumental work. There’s little enjoyment, and a lot of thinking about reasons to quit, to stop or perhaps to go enjoy the luxurious comfort of the truck.
‘Play’, being the second type of activity a person can experience, in the sense of doing something that perhaps does not entirely make sense, or may not be the most efficient means of achieving a goal, but has value unto itself. Intrinsic value. Something that you do for ‘fun’ not because it’ll make it easier to pay a mortgage or live in that comfy downtown loft, but due to the nature of the act itself.
Surely a tree-planter could find an easier job to work at, something perhaps closer to home? Yet here we are, come spring, looking out at the snow and waiting for the sun to free us from metropolitan agony. The little known early 20th century philosopher, Moritz Schlick, wrote a much more articular view of work and play in his essay On the Meaning of Life. It is the joy in sheer creation, the dedication to the activity, the absorption in the movement, which transforms work into play. To be sure, it only works perfectly where it is not brought externally and deliberately to the activity, but rather evolves spontaneously from the nature of the action and its natural rhythms.
I cannot speak for everyone when I say that there is a special connection with this idea of planting just for its own sake. I have always wondered why I feel little daily attachment to the actual money that I am earning out in the bush, and rather a strong connection to the mental and physical enjoyment of planting itself. It’s taken me seven years to come to this point, to truly recognize why I keep coming back. Planting is work, of course. But it’s also play, especially in those special moments when it’s so much more.
Matt is one of the youngest Millionaire planters ever, having hit 1,049,927 trees in 2014 at the age of 24. He has retired, planning not to return to the field in 2015. Or so he says.