tale of toil: tree planting, by med-o
I wallow on my knees in thick mud, hoedag in hand slogging up a near vertical hillside, napalmed bare... rain whistling sidways so hard it bores through my hermetic, vulcanized head-to-toe rainsuit. I look like an astronaut traversing across an eerie, silent moon crater rhythmically bending over to scrape the ground every 6-9 steps... I’m cruising over “gravy ground” — soil with no vegetation, no rocks, nothing but good clean dirt. I plunge the hoedag, much like swinging an axe to split wood, slitting the earth with its narrow, tapered blade. I reach into my 40 lb. hip bag, grab a 12-inch tall tree seedling and in one belly-over-torso-ripple-shoulder-arm-flip-of-the-wrist motion plant a baby tree. The flip of the wrist is the quintessential movement. It determines whether the roots settle straight down or form an L or J shape — sacrilege to the holy treeplanter. Like a human pack mule, I repeat this action hundreds of times, some times over a thousand times a day. It is the most arduous physically demanding work I’ve ever done.
That was 1978 when I was a migrant treeplanter; a job the Oregon State Employment Service lists as “the hardest physical work known to this office.., one person in fifty succeeds the three week training period.” Like thousands of other college grads that year, I was the product of a liberal education promising an exciting, ‘good’ job as reward for four years of costly training. So what the hell was I doing planting trees and eating mud for a living? Well I’ll tell ya, being a rowdy forest worker in a self-managed collective of modern gypsies traveling the beautiful hinterlands of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and northern California made career pursuits or ‘regular’ employment look awfully dull.
In the late ‘70s a developed network of worker-owned reforestation businesses flourished in the Pacific Northwest. There were roughly 30 independent ‘crews’ each containing 10-40 members: The Natural Wonders, the Culls, PF Flyers, the Marmots, Full Moon Rising, the Thumbs, and of course, the Mudsharks, to name a few. Like our crew names we were a very unconventional lot: refugees from New Jersey, recalcitrant hippies, radical workplace autonomists, and all manner of academic fallout. Here was a real existing alternative, self-organized and apart from “the system.” I could work outdoors and outside of a hierarchy, help regenerate the dwindling forests, and be in association with hundreds of others who shared my values. Not only were we doing something good for the natural environment; we were hip enough to organize our work and lives as free, equal individuals. At the time it felt like we could change it all: live and work together communally, avoid the witless, humiliating relations of working under bosses for owners, and stop the abusive forestry practices plied by timber multinationals and the Forest Service.
It took me two years to fully plumb the downside of what on the surface appeared so wholesome and radical. Serious contradictions emerged: from the widespread use of toxic herbicides to kill vegetation “competing” with the young trees to a corporate domination of the Forest Service that made trees more important than workers. But that all comes later...
In the midst of brutal, stoop labor we developed a very empowering culture of resistance. Unlike the rest of the industry, we made quite hospitable camps in the forest. Besides the desired contact with nature, we could live “on the cheap,” always a problem for migrant workers. We also avoided what was an idiotic, standard practice for regular treeplanters; an agonizing 1-2 hour commute each way on treacherous logging roads from the nearest town where they lodged. Our camps were a truly motley cornucopia of tents, trailers, teepees, and yurts in a clearing next to the woods. The yurt— a Mongolian invention easy to assemble, disassemble, and transport— was the mainstay of the camp.
The way we organized the work proces, however, was what really set us apart from the dominant practices of regular contractors. For starters, everyone was both owner and worker. Instead of one macho foreman, we took turns as ‘crew leaders,” sometimes daily, sometimes until a specific worksite was completed. We all freely debated the pros and cons of a particular work procedure, occasionally stopped work to make democratic crew decisions— which tended to drive Forest Service Inspectors crazy.
One of the most challenging, some times beautiful, often times unwieldy aspects of treeplanting was visualizing and carrying out a maneuver to cover a site.” In a word, figuring out the most efficient planting movement for the 10-30 person crew over a given area or time. It is actually a lot more complicated than you might expect. toremost, there is an inherent contradiction between objective contract specifications and the subjective terrain of forestlands. Most contracts called for the trees to be spaced 8 or 10 feet apart unless conditions dictate otherwise. But the forest is not like a flat, cleared farmland to be planted in a uniform grid. There are steep slopes, ridge-lines, rocks, ravines, creeks, and a whole slew of shifting indentations and perturbations. Unlike a legal contract the forest is not linear; it is very wiggily. To make planting more efficient we devised specific crew maneuvers. The three most common were line planting, floating, and humping. There was also the Swarm which meant the entire crew descended upon a certain area of ground. Mostly it was used as a fun way to ‘kick out’ the final portion of a planting unit.
Communication was the key of course. We talked a lot, sometimes probably too much, but you weren’t disciplined for excessive discourse. A treeplanter with a regular contractor would be long gone for the verbose outbursts we generated. Even though it sometimes slowed down an individual’s production, communicating a planting strategy and the contin uous adaptations required by the chang ing terrain definitely increased the crew’s overall efficiency.
This emphasis on communication in the work process (constantly conversing literally “down the line”) attracted many self-management idealists to the reforestation collectives. There were other fea tures which also made the collectives a uniquely worthwhile enterprise for many. First, treeplanting businesses require little capital; you need only a few tools and vehicles. Such small companies could start up without access to big money or having to mortgage your life away. Thus, they could be easily dropped if it became apparent they weren’t worth continuing. Secondly, reforestation is inherently labor intensive and requires large numbers of relatively unskilled workers. For workplace organizing this seemed fertile ground. Then too, restorative work is intrinsically worthwhile even after this ridiculous capitalist system is superceded. Finally, the fact that as migrant workers we were compelled to collectively organize our lives beyond the workplace provided a structural basis for avoiding both the narrowness of unions and the absurd separation of work, leisure time, culture.
The internal democracy of the re forestation collectives was most developed in a group called the “Hoedads” based in Eugene, Oregon. At its height it had 300 ± members distributed among 15 autonomous crews. Each crew had their own decision-making process, usually some form of consensus with a majority rule back-up when consensus was blocked. While that functioned well for a 20-per son crew, the 200-300 person General Meetings (GM’s) were an entirely dif ferent beast. Straight majority rule using parliamentary procedure was practiced. Despite a keen interest in more libertarian processes, I really don’t know how these meetings could have been con ducted otherwise.
As it was, the quarterly GM’s were wild 2-3 day affairs. I’ll never forget when a motion was made to create an across-the-board, flat hourly wage for all co-op members. This contradicted the philosophy of autonomy in which each crew would “independently contract” a specific job, give Hoedads a standard 20% administrative rake-off, and then decide among themselves how to divide the income. The debate began something like this:
“I move that the Co-op establish a single, hourly pay scale for all members at a $10/hr. base rate.”
A few people gasp, those sitting in chairs squirm and murmur, others milling on the sides and in the back shuffle nervously, and about 50 people raise their hands to be placed on the speakers’ list (I think, “Shit! Here goes another one of those endless discussion!”) Debbie from the High Rollers crew is the first speaker:
“I’m a member of High Rollers and we already pay by the share (equalized wages). . .1 like the idea of a standard pay scale; it makes it fairer when your crew gets allocated a lousy contract. But High Rollers have been together longer than most crews. We have worked long and hard to get our production up and we want to reap the benefits. The same wage for everyone wouldn’t be fair. So I’m against the motion.”
Someone yells out from the back: “Of course the High Rollers are against the motion. The bidding committee always allocates them the sweetheart jobs!!!”
There is a general uproar. The rotat ing chair speaks through a microphone and speaker to overpower the shouting:
‘Quiet please! Quiet! Everyone will have a chance to speak. Now Dave, you know you can’t just blurt out. Get on the speakers’ list and you’ll get your turn. OK Let’s See, Jason, you’re next on the list.”
Jason is a tall, quiet, bearded man basically a hippie pacifist. He talks eloquently about the difference between a co-op as a business and as a new way to live. He concludes his three minute account with: “I’m in favor of the motion because in the long run all the contracts even out. We all get our share of winners and losers. More important though, in ,the long run our health as a co-op isn t based on individuals being able to make more money but on our real com munity with each other.”
Jane, a hard-core “Amazon planter” speaks next: “All right, let’s cut through the shit!!! It’s simple. If high production crews and workers don’t make more money they will leave the co-op (perhaps the greatest success of the Hoedads was the spin-off of about 30 smaller co-ops, many with start-up money from the Hoedads). If this happens the whole co-op will suffer. .
On and on it went for hours. Eventually the motion was defeated, although several years later, as the industry slumped and the co-op contracted, a similar version was passed.
It was exciting to challenge the established canons of forest practices. Women treeplanters were perhaps the most daunt ing feature we introduced to a very backwoods, exclusively male province for the last few centuries. One of my fondest memories is how three women totally overwhelmed an all-too-typical Forest Service inspector pregnant with petty rules. Some inspectors were cool, found our alternative bent refreshing, and helped us make tons of money during a contract. Most were a pain in the ass. An inspector could make or break your contract depending on how strictly they enforced contract specifications. A tough inspector was like a hard-ass cop, if s/he had “an attitude,” no matter how per fectly you did the work, they could make sure you got the shaft.
Regular contractors usually had one foreman who dealt with the inspector. We had the advantage of ganging up on the poor sod with two or three rotating ‘forepersons.’ It didn’t always work but it sure did this day. How? Well, Han nah, Ginger, and Cathy did what they normally do during a hot day “on the slope;” they planted with their shirts off. When they saw the inspector was giving us a hard time they marched up to con front him on it. Now here was a guy who liked ironing his underwear. A real prick who desperately needed to be in command:
It was hilarious. Imagine three, strap ping, bare-breasted women, all sweaty, dappled with earth, and dripping eros striding up to this inspector/imposter... he turns all red and shy and hot and confused. They didn’t have to say a word: six healthy breasts stare down a repressed stiff. He lasted about 30 seconds, turned, and bolted for his life. Totally forgot he was supposed to be an asshole, even for got his underwear and iron in getting the hell out of Dodge before it was too late.
The attempt to develop gender balanced crews, while successful in some groups, never shook up the industry to the degree we hoped it would. It did, however, make night life infinitely more interesting if not ribald. I mean were talking young (almost exclusively 20-30 year old), high-powered, very fit bodies isolated in some remote forest with not a whole helluva lot to do after dark. Well.., you get the idea. It sure was a lot of fun but the ever-changing love liaisons and resulting power dynamics also had a nasty habit of screwing up our egalitarian group decision-making processes.
While we never created the broad systemic changes dreamed about, we did realize many small, localized changes. One of the funest and funniest was the invasion of small town, “cowboy” taverns. It is difficult to fathom how dramatic our impact could be in these sleepy towns. Try to imagine 20-30 scruffy, wild-eyed men and women barging into a backwoods bar like gangbusters. Often there would be an audible silence. Who or exactly what are these creatures? Frequently, some or all of us were kicked out before the night was over. Although most of us were heterosexual (perhaps 20% lesbian and 5% gay men) often we would freak out the locals with same-sex dancing. Despite the rough and tumble, “macho” character of the work and subculture, there was a lot of chummy, very direct physical affectation. The tiny towns we visited saw us like a circus. Few townsfolk had ever seen such a weird group or heard the strange, radical, and esoteric conversations we might spill.
We often talked to locals and other treeplanters about a very curious problem. Perhaps for many it seemed anti-America. “Did ya know they’re droppin’ tons of poison up in them there hills. We’re talking known cancer causing chemicals. Yes, it’s likely they’re polluting your drinking water. . . Yes, these chemicals cause cancer, miscarriages, death. Yes, your friendly Forest Service or timber company is spraying this shit like a firehose on a burning house.”
Most herbicides were applied through aerial spraying from helicopters —just like in Vietnam. As I became more savvy to what was coming down, I learned the widespread use of these poisons sprang from the huge inventories leftover from the Vietnam war. Public-minded manu facturers like Dow Chemical were leaders in the efforts to pass reforestation legis lation with teeth. The most common applications were 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, both active carcinogens in Agent Orange. Be sides poisoning the worksite, aerial spraying also made ‘drift’ possible as mountain breezes carried the noxious material to surrounding environs including water sheds.
Thiram-coated tree seedlings were another hazard. This pesticide was supposed to repel animals such as deer that love eating tender new trees. Too bad it made lowly treeplanters sick. At least precious trees were protected. By the time I became a planter Thiram was no longer being used, mostly because of concerted agitation by collectives in the previous five years.
Another sordid reality of the back-to-nature reforestation biz was the transformation of forests into mono-species plantations. When gushing treeplanters told nie they loved working in a forestry collective because “you didn’t have to work for the man” I always retorted, “Yeah, but you’re still workin’ on the plantation.” What had often been a diverse mix of coniferous and deciduous trees was usually replanted in a grid of Douglas Fir or Pine clones. They were the most profitable since they grew quickly and were more lucrative as forest products.
The overall paradign that held all this together was what I called the “myth of sustained yield.’ Corporate interests successfully instilled an ideology inside the Forest Service that through their management forest lands could be harvested and reproduced in perpetuity—a sustainable, ongoing practice through the administration of scientific management. It was a nice theory. The problem was that the logging industry knew only one way: cut, cut, and cut. It the regeneration process couldn’t keep up then that was a technical problem. Genetic engineering, or some damn technique, could be developed to make those stupid trees catch up with the logging program.
Despite the integrity of our internal democracy we were still pitted against a monstrous economic combine that just wouldn’t quit. The reforestation business is the humane arm of a sprawling forest products industry which has nearly deva stated our nation’s woodlands. We were the good looking, visible front designed to make the slaughter okay; the mop-up crew who spruced up an otherwise stark scalping of a fragile, essential natural habitat. Most of our planting sites were 20-100 acres that had been clear-cut; in other words, every single tree had been mowed down.
Once all logs were removed from the clearcut, piles of slash were burned, and the ground was chemically dosed and torched. Since the application of hazardous toxics occured months before the planters arrived most contractors carefully kept it a secret from their workers. Collective crew were more fortunate; since they knew the risks they could choose not to work on such sites. Yet many crews did anyway, especially when the market was tight.
Despite our Herculean efforts, we were still victims of a global forestry machine over which we had no control. This is the decisive problem of self.management; as with all enterprises under capitalism, worker/owners tend to manage their own exploitation. ‘I’he overall nature of the work (or even if it should be done at all) was completely swamped by the day-to day bullshit of being a business. This takes on even more insidious mutations when you self-manage “good works” like restoring the earth, providing health care, or conserving energy. Here capitalist logic has bred an ideology that readily sacrifices the lowly worker before the altar of public good.
Before examining the treeplanting microcosm, it is useful to look at a inure widespread example such as the energy conservation programs of the ‘70s and early ‘80’s. There is no question that these retrofitting and weatherizing pro grains were a prudent public policy. Indeed, the U.S. has undergone a significant drop in energy onsuniption be cause of them and this is a healthy change. Little attention, however, was given to how or who carried out this work. Mostly, inner-city youth (primarily 18-25 year old Blacks and Hispanics) were paid mininturn wage to expose themselves to serious health hazards. Installing fiberglas insulation in ceilings 40 hours a week is something no one (except a robot) should ever do. Removing and being exposed to old asbestos particles is even worse. Such workplace hazards were subsumed in a national program to become energy independent, to save precious natural resources, and provide GOOD JOBS for the chronically unemployed. What a perfect marriage: saving the planet (or the nation, for the less liberal) and creating full enmployrnent all at the same time. No one ever mentioned the qualitative character of the jobs or that full employment might be an obsolete undesirable notion to base any social policy on. You can be sure, however, this twisted ideology will be increasingly proselytized as the west’s economy and/or ecology self-destruct.
Within reforestation, rarely was the treeplanting drone valued equally (much less above) the cherished tree seedling.
Most Forest Service inspectors rigidly adhered to a program intent on maximizing tree, as opposed to the planter's, life. For instance, the ideal weather conditions for planting trees was determined to be 38 degrees and raining—hardly ideal for humans. But to successfully compete in the market, we had to work 8-10 hours a day in the most wretched, wintry conditions.
Science was the alchemy inspectors looked to when confronted with the absurdity, if not downright cruelty, of many forestry practices. Scientific studies had proven herbicides increased tree growth. This business about miscarriages and worker disabilities, well, more research was needed. There was not yet any conclusive long-term studies.
Forest Service paranoia about tree survival reached preposterous heights. At higher elevations where the snowpack might not melt until April or May. The idea was to get the trees into the ground as soon as possible after the snow melted to insure the ground was still moist. True, occasionally a heat spell could bake the soil to a crisp but this slight possibility by no means justified the incredible workload oppression we endured. Contracts specified a limited number of days for completion and F.S. inspectors would crack the whip to meet this totally arbitrary schedule. . . or else you didn’t get paid.
One of the more bizarre instances of this senseless productivism occurred when the Mt. St. Helens volcano blew up. We were working about 40 miles northeast as the crow flies—or in this case as the ash falls. What a terrifying experience. We had no idea what exactly happened. Since I was the crew coordinator that day I noticed an incredibly dark cloud to the west and told everyone: “Better get your raingear, there is one helluva rain storm moving in and fast!” Stiff gusts started peppering the exposed hillside and — how strange! Instead of raindrops, large, black snow flakes floated down. Even stranger was how dark, truly pitch black it suddenly became. It was noon and darker than the darkest night; you couldn’t see 2 feet in front of you. As the ash piled up 2-3 inches deep, it became impossible to move without kicking up the bone dry, nearly weightless, irritating dust. These re-airborne particulates obscurbed the already microscopic visibility so much that headlights from our vehicles failed to illuminate the road.
Yet, despite this very tense, uncertain, and potentially catastrophic situation Forest Service honchos still wanted us to keep working. After all, the trees were ready, waiting a few days to evaluate the circumstances might endanger their health. We refused (workers with a regular contractor wouldn’t have had that choice) and later I learned some of the ash contained silica particles that cause silicosis, a fatal lung disease. It took us a year of legal proceedings to get paid since we stopped work without an F.S. sanctioned “stop work order.”
The whole St. Helens Fiasco, as we called it, also unraveled how easy collective democracy can elude groups. Previously, I’d never had problems with our directly democratic, self-managed process. But this disaster created a very dif ferent situation. Never have I seen so many good-intentioned, principled people act so stupidly. People were yelling and crying, running madly in all direc tions, jumping into trucks and crashing them (since they couldn’t see), withdrawing to their tents to await the inevitable. A half hour of pure chaos followed by a total breakdown of collective thinking and action. You have to realize it was pretty damn scary. We had no idea how long the ash would keep falling, if it would ever get light again, if that noxious dust would keep swirling up and choke off our oxygen supply. A sick, heavy sensation that this was the preview of the nuclear holocaust hung like a moldy blanket over everyone. With it came conflicting, very emotional opinions about what exactly was happening, what should he done, and how to do it.
Outside of such extreme circumstances, our collectivity was an important source of strength. In addition to empowering our personal and political life, the positive sitle of self-management is that we were much inure informed and able to fight stupid, unhealthy working conditions like planting in St. Helens ash. Perhaps the broadest expression of this was our opposition to the chemical spraying of tree seedlings and fbrestlands. It took several years of concerted research and activism to stop this insane practice. It never would have happened without “those damned treeplanting collectives” as one corporate chemical lobbyist put it. Eventually we helped develop two impor tant organizations through this battle: the National Coalition Against Pesticides and the Northwest Forest Workers Association.
Self-managed collectives certainly have their problems especially under the economnic and psychological pressures of global capitalism. I suspect some dynamics like sexual jealousies or uneven power relations based on differences in personal animation, intellectual, and social capacities would remain under even the most libertarian culture. But the over arching problem we faced was the crazy financial competition that pitted us against other enterprises and ourselves to always INCREASE PRODUCTION or perish. This was exacerbated in the ‘80s with the decline of the forest industry in general and reforestation in particu lar. The Reagan administration’s deregulation mania also had a wicked impact on reforestation. Since it was a money loser — even though rniniscule in comparison to the revenues acquired from logging — it was one of the first to get the axe in the Forest Service’s budget slashing. The industry’s decline was the kiss of death for the treeplanting collectives, as it was for all forestry businesses and workers in the Pacific Northwest.
I can’t say I miss slogging like a mud-shark up a steep slope on a frigid January day. but there are two things I really miss. Most important was our support for one another and the community of resistance to the dominant culture. The sharing of life and love including our alienated labor was so different from my present life in San Francisco. There are certainly more diverse, interesting people and activities here. But with modern urbanism comes a specialization I abhor. Most of my income-producing work is as an electrician by myself or with one or two others. The money is great, the work is easy to organize so I’m freed to do a lot of other more interesting activities. The problem is that my job takes me away from any group engagement in how to organize and change work. Instead of any widespread feeling that groups of people could collectively change their plight, the pervasive attitude even among many of my libertarian friends locally, is that the “work problem” requires an individual solution. If you are in a bad job then get your act together and place yourself in a better situation, the mainstay of careerist ideology.
Similarly, what to do with my wages is totally my decision. This is certainly easier and guarantees I use it the way I want. The problem is that it isolates you from what surely must happen if we are to ever change the capitalist Leviathan. Even in a utopia where money was eli minated, like Peter Berg’s Bioregional Councils (see “Dollars & Ecology”), worker or community groups, or even eco-councils, still have to decide how resources will be developed, distributed, and used. In the more probable future in which money remains, I certainly hope we can develop new forms of frnan cial collectivity beyond the nuclear family or state administration.
The other thing I yearn for is working outdoors on a daily basis. I’m very anti workerist — believe 90% of modern work could be eliminated and we would be better off for it—but I really loved the intense physical nature of treeplanting. This physicality was not just located in the body but in the immediate surroundings as well. The work and the fitness generated by it enhanced my sensitivities for the simple pleasures of breathing fresh mountain air or appreciating the delicate, intoxicating forest smells. I could never base my life just on that. Collective tree-planting was attractive precisely because such a simple nature-based life was integrated with inure complex intellectual, political, and artistic concerns.
One of the cruelest aspects of this modern processed world is our separation from that kind of experience. Except for the rich, we face an untenable and schizophrenic choice. We can either accept ecological impoverishment in the urban fray, where all the cultural and political action is, or escape to the countryside and become isolated in wholesome living. The need to change that social double-bind is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from treeplanting. Developing a new culture that coalesces ‘naturality” and human creation is essen tial. It begins with an ecology of mind, body politic, and earth.