In the early spring of last year, I went to the UK for a long list of reasons, but mainly to do with needing some fresh air after writing a book. The plan was to hike for a week in the Scottish Highlands (where “hiking” is simply called “walking”). On the way, I was going to meet up with a Canadian tree-planting contractor I know, Mr. Hugh Gilmour of Flat Cap Forestry, do a little tree-planting mostly for fun, and see if there was a story there. I’ve written about some parts of the trip in earlier posts, but I also wrote a piece about the tree-planting sojourn for Canadian Geographic magazine. The paper version has just appeared on newsstands, and you can read the full-text by following the link at the end of this post.
The story explains who these Canadian tree planters are, and what they are doing so far from their own boreal forest. Here’s a little background on writing the piece.
Tree-planters in Canada often live in tents right on the planting block. This crew was living in a pretty country inn made of stone, with good ale served at the little bar. Hadrian’s Wall was only a few kilometres south, close enough to reach on foot. Hugh and I had a few that first night and talked about what work I would be doing the next day. I assumed I would be a humble planter, but Hugh’s management partner had thrown his back out, and so they were short one crew chief. Thus I was promoted before work even began.
In the morning, it transpired that my vast age was my only real qualification for the job. Under the terms of Hugh’s insurance, only crew age 25 and up were allowed to drive the company vehicles, and so I found myself piloting an enormous (by English standards) van down a narrow (by English standards) stone-walled road trying to keep up with Hugh in the van ahead. Still jet-lagged, it felt like a rally race to me. I found it a little unnerving to be shifting gears left-handed, going down the wrong side of the road with the lives of a half dozen sleepy planters jammed in behind depending on me. But we reached the planting blocks as Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot was playing on the radio. Not a bad start to the day.
Having had in my mind the idea that I would plant trees in England and daydream all day as I had done one pleasant summer many years before working in northern Saskatchewan, I was disappointed to be relegated to management. But by the end of the day, I was profoundly grateful that Hugh had not sent me out with a spade and bag.
Planting is bloody hard. I planted a handful of trees myself just to remember the motion, which is easy enough. Watching these young guns banging them in, I remembered how hard it had been even in my twenties, to repeat that motion 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 times a day while scrambling over the uneven ground. I recalled how knackered I had been those first few days back then. I realized that it would have been epic to plant all day — and possibly humiliating — despite my relatively high fitness level for my age bracket. Thanks for sparing me the indignity, Hugh.
As it was it was tiring enough. My job was to make sure the planters had sufficient trees to keep working. In Canada, crew bosses deliver trees along the rows by riding quads, and that is true in the UK sometimes. But this particular block had no accessible roads, and so Hugh and I had to haul in the bags by hand. The footing was incredibly difficult — over slash and deadfall, deep mud and soggy sedges, and large cones of heavy wet clay into which the trees were planted.
There was not room in the short Canadian Geographic piece I wrote to address how eerily silent and artificial these UK tree plantations are. Where once there were oak forests, these monocultures of sitka spruce and other new-world trees are propped up by herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and tilling machinery. They are planted in rigid rows, ugly to my eye, and grow so thickly that no understory can get a toehold. As a result, virtually no wildlife comes into these ranks of evergreens. I never saw a vole or a mouse or a nything on four legs, nor even a bird.
Plantation trees do a great deal of good in modern-day England. But they are a pale substitute for the great forests that once covered the island.
The full text of my Canadian Geographic piece is here.
David Brownstein of the University of British Columbia contacted me after reading the article. He studies the history of tree planting and maintain biodiversity in managed forests, among many other things. Check out his website for more.
Finally, if you are a Canadian planter who would like to try working the winter season in the UK — a good way to combine work and travel — visit Hugh Gilmour’s Flat Cap Forestry site for more information, including how to apply.