Look at this guy.
I feel bad for him. Even though the quality of this photo is definitely on the low-side, I can see many many pixel of sadness in his eyes. Who is this miserable man, you ask? It’s me. Hi. Specifically, this is me during my third week of my first year of tree planting aka living hell. How did I survive? Great question, I ask myself this once a year, but it’s really hard to put into words. Especially words that make sense to someone who has never planted. I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal here, it’s honestly all I know.
But aside from the gaps in vocabulary, describing planting to someone who has never done it is always difficult because everyone’s experience is different. For example, my friends Cam Brisebois and Boyd Cameron had very different first years. And when I took my brother planting, he did way better than me. But this isn’t about him. Or Boyd. Or Cam. It’s about my many failures. It’s about realizing you’re caught in a cycle and being unhappy and motivated enough to change it. Because that’s what my first year of planting was: one never ending loop-de-loop.
This fucking sucks.Andrew Hynes, 2018
But it wasn’t the actually act of planting trees that made it challenging. No, that became relatively easy after a few weeks. The real hurdle that I struggled to overcome was the repetition of my negative thoughts.
- “Why aren’t you planting as many trees as [insert better planter here]”
- “Everyone thinks you’re such a slower planter”
- “It’s raining, I’m just not going to try today”
The constant negative thinking has come to be known as Repetitive Negative Thoughts (RNT) has been the focus of many studies that look into how athletes deal with anxiety and performance stress (Casali, Ghisi, Jansen, Feraco, & Meneghetti, 2021). Tree planters are really no different than other athletes, it can be a competitive, stressful and cutthroat environment. You get injured? You might not be able to plant for a week or two and there goes an entire paycheque. Some camps also really focus on numbers (the total amount of trees you’ve planted so far that year) and even encourage a competition of sorts by offering trophies and titles to who plants the most trees. It can really bruise the ego. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about that my first year. I was just trying to emotionally survive. Battling my own RNTs each day. It made me want to quit, but quitting was harder to do than stay and suffer. The job was awful and was making me think very little of myself…but it was also a social hub. I was making friends, I partied at night and commiserated with my follow planters by day. I wanted to belong but never really felt like I did because of my performance. Studies shown that these social contracts lead to higher job satisfaction but also higher intentions to quit that job (Zhou & Hu, 2018). It’s a puzzling combination but I definitely can understand how it applies to tree planting.
My friend Boyd (see fig. 3) dragged me out planting. I say dragged because he asked me countless times if I would join his crew. He had planted for 4 years and was now given his own 12-pack, a group of planters that he was responsible for and who would plant for him. I made a bunch of excuses, some were true, most were not. The real reason I didn’t want to go is because I had heard from him and others just how awful it could be. A friend of mine who I really looked up to at the time tried it and quit after a month and half. Then the phone rang. I picked it up and it was Boyd. He tells me that his girlfriend for the last four years had ended things and it had really taken him by surprise. I honestly remember thinking that this sucks but I still do NOT want to plant…then I said yes. It was like I went on autopilot. But I was ultimately okay with the decision, I didn’t have a lot going on and I was getting almost too comfortable at my parents place. I had a week to get everything I needed and then I was on a plane head to Prince George, BC.
I was picked up by Boyd in a huge planting truck. Which is a Ford F-350 with a big wooden box attached on the back (see fig. 4). I was swiftly taken to a motel to meet the rest of the crew. It was nice. The next day we headed to the our bush camp. Which was in the middle of nowhere. But we all made it a nice home (see fig. 5)
Then we started planting. I was bad. There were three other rookies on my crew and they planted more than me every single day. It was defeating to constantly be last. There would be days when I pushed and wanted to beat them but still wouldn’t. Then I started hearing about everyone else numbers. The CBC tree planting documentary One Million Trees is a great introduction to the world of planting in British Columbia and also a look into the amount of meaning people in this industry give their total of trees planted aka their numbers.
Once I had that comparison of everyone’s numbers, I started really getting down on yourself. I started thinking I’m not cut out for this. And then I started wanting to quit, and once those thoughts start it becomes incredibly hard to silence them. Especially when you are having those RNTs. At that point everyday become the same I couldn’t break it — no matter what I did. What follows is a reflection on that cycle and my first year planting, what brought me there, how I coped, and how I made it through and how it changed me. I was inspired by a segment I heard on This American Life, one of the greatest podcasts still being made today. The episode is called Stuck! and even inspired the name of my digital story. The segment is Carmen Maria Machado telling the story of being stuck in an abusive relationship as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” tale.
My version is a reimagining of this emotional story, where the abusive relationship is between me and my RNTs during my first year of planting. For the sake of empathy and time, I’ve created my own Choose Your Own Adventure so that you can play through it and find out what I and I’m sure many other planters went through.
When you’re ready, click here to begin.
Bumstead, E. (Director). (2021, June 11). One Million Trees [Video file]. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ep6sWECi3BE&ab_channel=CBCDocs
Casali, N., Ghisi, M., Jansen, P., Feraco, T., & Meneghetti, C. (2021). What can affect competition anxiety in athletes? the role of self-compassion and repetitive negative thinking. Psychological Reports, 1-20. doi:10.1177/00332941211017258
Stuck! [Radio series episode]. (2021, August 27). In This American Life. Chicago, Illinois: WBEZ.
Zhou, M., & Hu, T. (2018). Jobs found through social contacts: Puzzling coexistence of higher job satisfaction and higher quitting intentions. The Sociological Quarterly, 60(1), 116-137. doi:10.1080/00380253.2018.1526053