Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Tree Planting

i lived in fortuna, in humboldt county, in northern california, during the 1970s. it was a depressed place economically, and temperamentally depressing as well for anyone unsuited to a winter of unending grey and 35 degree drizzle. i had been ekeing out a living doing firewood when my woody partners invited me to salvage a barn. a big barn. forty by sixty. sixteen feet to the eaves. the siding was full dimension one by twelve redwood and the beams hand-dressed redwood. it was the era of "barn chic." weathered barn siding was all the rage for trendy restaurants and hip boutiques.

after a month of dusty, sometimes dangerous deconstruction (not the literary kind), during which we miraculously avoided injury, the barn was transformed into a pile of siding and a pile of beams, and we were ready for some designer's money. the ad was placed. we were potentially, but not actually, flush. now what? now i get a call from another buddy telling me what a moneymaking adventure planting trees is.

the forest service lets contracts for tree planting. ya gotta have insurance and a business license and papers. but a partnership of independent contractors could sign a contract without those pesky requirements, like a performance bond and accident and liability insurance. sixteen scruffy northwoods hippies filed into the forest service office to sign the contract. some of the group had been making a sort of pilgrimage to the black rock desert in nevada every year to relax and enjoy the hot springs, so we became "the black rock unit." (yes, that is probably where burning man moved first when it left san francisco) one of the "partners," and two of the sixteen, was/were a married couple who would bring their homemade camper and cook for us. each partner kicked in $100. we bought food and materials to make three geodesic plastic covered domes.

we arrived in orleans, on the klamath river, in very early spring. the forest service tried to put us in a public campground close to town, an hour's drive to the nearest place we would work. after a bit of negotiation they let us drive out into the forest and pick our place. we camped at about 4000 feet maybe fifteen miles from orleans. no electricity. no "facilities." running water though. in the creek. the first two weeks were too wet to plant, so we hung out at camp. we built a sauna by the creek. we drove to our planting blocks any day that looked halfway dry, ready to plant. the inspector would scuff the ground with the toe of his boot. the drizzle would turn to rain. we would return to camp. the first day we planted it started snowing about 10 am. we tried for another half hour, then drove back to camp. we had about two weeks of temperate weather after the rain stopped and then it was hot. like over 90 degrees out on the unshaded, bare red dirt where we had to plant.

our forest service inspector was a no-nonsense by-the-book guy who was not initially favorably impressed by us. we didn't know anything about tree planting. he showed us how and inspected us closely. a tree every eight feet in rows eight feet apart. no j-roots. that's when the taproot forms a "j" with the very tip turned up. trees with a j-root won't grow properly. after a couple of weeks he saw that we did good work and lightened up, becoming friendly. after a month he told us we were the best crew he had inspected. we didn't know that other crews threw whole bags of trees over cliffs; that they slacked off planting the bottom of a big blocks, hoping the inspector wouldn't hike a mile down a steep hill to look. we never thought of cheating. three big steps. throw that hoedad into the ground. pull a little fir tree out of a canvas bag. shove it into the slot opened by the hoedad (no j-roots!!!) and stomp the dirt down around it.

the pitch on the tree seedlings dried out our skin. soon we all had painfully cracked skin, made worse by the stinging pitch. we sent an emergency shopping team to orleans. they brought back every bottle of any sort of hand treatment available. we smelled like old ladies (thank you, jergens), but our hands healed. some of us, not i, had inadequate footwear and suffered very painful blisters.

we ate well. our cooks had once run a restaurant. they made fresh bread for us. our days began with a huge fire, as the cook poured gas (or "girl scout water" per pablo at Roundrock Journal) on last night's embers in the dark of pre-dawn. then he made a lot of noise. he had, as a youth, sold hot dogs at yankee stadium, or the dodger place, (i'm from california, what do i know) and serenaded us with his hot dog selling spiel. we would eat, gather up stuff, and drive to the day's planting site. sometimes riding for an hour or more. we had sandwiches for lunch and yours truly always brought along his campstove and the huge coffepot. a big mug of after lunch coffee, a doobie, and we were on it for the afternoon.

on thursdays, or was it tuesdays, the cooks brought their four inch tv out by the campfire, along with the twelve volt battery, and we all watched the untouchables.

we worked for about two months. the contract was completed. several partners used their shares as down payment on land further east on the river. i returned to fortuna. several years later i moved up to the river where they had gone.

below is a picture of camp. on the left is one of the domes. the "kitchen" is in the center. a bit of the cook's camper is visible at far right, along with two planters. there is an extension cord draped around. we did have a generator that powered lights in the dark of morning.

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