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Stuck in the Mud Photos courtesy of Rita Leistner/Stephen Bulger Gallery.

Stuck in the Mud

For women in tree-planting, gruelling labour is the easy part.

A few years ago, a woman named Bella was deep in the woods of interior British Columbia. She was helping set up the first of many bush camps where she would spend her summer—her fifth season of tree-planting. She knew what needed to get done before she could plant her first tree. There were trailers to unload, tents to build and pits to dig out behind the kitchen trailer for six outhouses. There was a water filtration system to connect, electrical cords to bury and fridges to lug into place. 

As a group prepared to set up one of the mess tents—a huge canvas structure where twelve-person crews could gather for meals—Bella heard a few male tree-planters debating how the poles were meant to fit together. But when she told them how to do it, they didn’t even glance her way; it was like she “hadn’t spoken at all,” she says. Soon after, the same planters listened to a man in camp when he offered the same advice. 

Later, the men unloading the equipment called for someone “strong” to help, paying no attention to the women waiting in front of them. When Bella brought it up, one man said he hadn’t even noticed them. 

As the season progressed, Bella started seeing other things that didn’t sit right. Several male planters ignored crucial directions from women in management about tree quality and spacing. One planter claimed he could tell what a woman did for a living “based on the look of her butt”—the kind of sexual comment nearly every woman in camp soon experienced. Then there were the unsolicited shoulder rubs in line for dinner, the groping and unwanted hugs. 

Bella quietly raised her concerns with other women in the camp, and they echoed her sense of feeling nearly invisible. But despite living in tents pegged mere inches apart, cramming together into packed vehicles and sometimes planting trees next to one another for hours, they “weren’t ever seemingly able” to talk properly about it, Bella says. 

It wasn’t until the three-month-long season wrapped—tents rolled up, worn boots full of holes burnt in the fire, sports bra tans now permanent fixtures on their backs—that they finally did. The women agreed that “it was like a sexist nightmare version of a tree-planting camp,” says Bella, who didn’t want her last name published for fear of career repercussions. She only felt sure it wasn’t, or shouldn’t be, the norm because of her four previous seasons. But for many women, she soon realized, that hellish experience was just another day in the reforestation business. 

Tree-planting is an industry that depends on repetition: the reliability of the seasons changing like clockwork, the assurance that lumber consumption rates will continue at a predictable pace and the steady efforts to replenish resources. Planting techniques and gear have remained largely unchanged since the industry’s inception in the 1970s. 

But tree-planting’s social culture has failed to evolve as well. That means camps can be dismissive of female planters and managers, or worse, hostile and dangerous. There’s a persistent view that tree-planting is a temporary job with an expendable workforce. But that ignores the fact that, for many, it’s a long-term career—and one that this country relies on, with a growing and often unmet demand for labour.

Ironically, perhaps, tree-planting itself is a gender equalizer. The ratio of male to female “highballers,” the most productive planters in camp, is often roughly the same. In fact, many planters I’ve known over the years think women generally make for higher-production planters, with our load-bearing hips and lower centre of gravity. Most importantly, while anyone starting the season in shape has an advantage for a little while, ultimately it’s mental toughness that matters.

There’s no way to anticipate what a planter might face in a day’s work reforesting deserted clear-cut Canadian forest. A flat tire, a disgruntled grizzly bear, a slip and fall far from medical professionals; these are only a few of the risks. Like the six thousand other Canadian planters working every year, I was lured to the industry by the promise of quick riches, the chance to glimpse the northern lights and sleep beneath the stars. But nothing could have prepared me for the first time I found myself outdoors for eight hours straight, short shovel in hand. 

Tree-planting requires carrying forty to fifty pounds of seedlings through “slashy,” debris-covered land over a distance equal to a full marathon each day, often through nonstop rain or swarms of mosquitoes. Because it’s piecework, not paid by the hour, you have to hustle—highballers plant a tree in the ground every six seconds. Depending on the price of trees and difficulty of the terrain, planters put in anywhere from two thousand to six thousand trees per day. Some camps are big on ­competition and treat every day like a sport. Highballers win respect as well as money, their names and personal bests scrawled on a piece of painted clapboard. The season is relatively short, from fifty to seventy-five planting days. If you work hard you get the freedom to travel, pay for school or fund hobbies for the rest of the year.

Facing such gruelling physical tests, far from cell service and civilization for weeks at a time, the group of strangers in the wilderness with you becomes your entire social circle. The misery and hardship of planting gives way to drug- or dopamine-induced highs when your crew reunites at the end of each long, lonely day. Tree-planting is an escape from the monotony of the nine-to-five grind; there are no emails to answer or disgruntled customers to greet. On the other hand, it’s usually just you and the land.

The complete suspension of reality in a planting camp is, in a way, magical. A planter’s first taste of “bush crazy”—embracing the job’s chaos, abandoning inhibitions—is necessary for long-term survival. But living in an alternate universe can also be dangerous. The isolation and culture of self-reliance can bring a sense of lawlessness, a blurring of lines between the personal and professional. Drunken debauchery on nights off is expected, and hookups with co-workers are the only option. There can be a culture of machismo with which everyone must contend—a contempt for showing frailty, physical or mental. 

The need for toughness is especially felt by women, who will plant through sickness, who will plant through pretty much “everything, because they want to prove they’re not weak,” says Bella. 

On a rainy Saturday last April—a chill lingered in the air even as the ground had begun to thaw—seven women from the industry gathered in a Vancouver shop yard. The group was a mix of management rookies and vets, including a company owner and a former supervisor in the process of becoming a forester. Stephanie Osborne, a second-year foreman, had helped organize the workshop, which would help participants brush up on mechanical skills. The yard was filled with bush camp equipment; generators, water pumps, propane and hot-water tanks lay waiting for each woman to take her turn. The meet-up was also the first physical extension of a Facebook group called “Womxn in Silviculture.” Towards the end of Bella’s bad season, she had considered issuing a ­formal complaint to executives of the company involved, but she quickly abandoned the idea. At the start of every season, planters are told they should speak up if they ever feel unsafe, but it’s also seen as a sign of weakness to complain, she says. In any case, in most camps there are no clear policies around reporting issues like harassment. Some bigger companies have written policies directing planters to report misconduct to a supervisor. But that gets tricky if management is part of the problem. There’s rarely access to email or cell service to call a faraway HR department.

There’s also the fear that speaking up will lead to being cast out. This industry hires largely through word of mouth. It’s next to impossible to get a rookie job at many companies in BC without prior experience or a connection. A cult-like emphasis on loyalty at some companies creates a culture where “if you leave or complain, you’re never allowed to come back,” says Bella. That silencing normalizes everything from broken shower stalls to sexual harassment. 

While she never filed her complaint, the informal conversations sparked the idea for an official space to discuss women planters’ equity. In the off-season, many conversations about the industry move online, to Facebook groups and forums. But those spaces are mostly dominated by men and can get aggressive, with misogynistic remarks and homophobic name-calling. Bella and a few others founded Womxn in Silviculture, a Facebook group of their own, and invited any non-male tree planters to join.

The group has since grown to over seven hundred members from across Canada, as well as some foreign workers from as far away as New Zealand. It’s full of questions about where to find women’s size five hiking boots, listings for the upcoming season and debates about the merits of different gear. But there are also nuanced conversations about bigger issues, like how to design better sexual harassment policies. 

The internet has proven to be a surprisingly useful tool for an industry that’s relied, since it was invented, on humans with shovels and bags. Erin Bros has seen  firsthand as Womxn in Silviculture has shifted planting culture. Originally from Manitouwadge, Ontario, near Thunder Bay, Bros has spent most of her life in and around tree-planting camps. The child of tree-planters who later became foresters, she grew up in the nineties visiting camps her mother managed in Northern Ontario. She’d heard stories about how hard the industry was for her mom, with employees  “constantly verbally harassing her, basically telling her that she should be in the kitchen at home.” 

Bros has spent the past nine years in the bush in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, witnessing, years later, many of the same problems her mom faced before her. She recalls being told the owner of a certain company just “didn’t work well with women.” Another season, she was passed over for a foreman position because the supervisor always hired men instead. 

Bros says the discussions happening online are the only significant signs of change she’s seen in a decade. These thorough conversations “would never happen in an actual camp,” she says. “A lot of stuff gets brought up in the off-season when you’re reflecting, not really when you’re in it.” That could be, in part, because it’s impossible to see the season clearly as it’s unfolding. Some days you wake up to the sound of rain softly hitting your tent and force your feet into boots that are already soaked. Some days are so cold that you have to pee on your hands just to keep your fingers moving, and by the time you get back to camp, it’s all you can do to shovel in dinner and make it back to your tent.

But the Womxn in Silviculture group has become a union of sorts. It’s creating a culture of awareness among rookies and vets alike, encouraging them to demand the same protections, accountability and support from planting environments they would from other workplaces. Its members are rethinking the tough exterior they once took pride in—the disdain for taking showers that masked the fact the showers didn’t work, or the refusal to admit to being injured in order to avoid seeming fragile. Maybe, in fact, that’s a strange kind of loyalty that will never be returned.

Women’s experiences affect the industry more than its leaders may realize, says Bros. Numbers and anecdotes show some women staffers are deterred from working their way up. That’s a problem, especially since demand for planters is increasing; reforestation contracts are expected to grow in response to the wildfires of the past few years. Danielle Meade, one attendee at the April workshop, says companies need to protect the industry’s future by creating camps and communities people want to come back to. “Owners need to think about the future, and think hard,” she says. “Already, there aren’t enough planters.” 

Although women often excel as planters, they are even less  well represented in the ranks of management. Most of Bros’s employers have tried to hire at least 40 percent female planters, she says—a balance that most planters would agree is usually achieved. But when it comes to more senior positions, that balance disappears. Bros has had just one female supervisor throughout her decade in the industry. Bella, Meade and Osborne, the workshop’s organizer, all experienced a similar discrepancy. 

Before the workshop, Osborne felt a lack of confidence was holding her back from advancing in tree-planting. She believes many of the industry’s cultural problems are rooted in the fact that tree-planting is viewed as a student or deadbeat job which doesn’t merit proper training. The step up to management includes increased responsibility with equipment, and for women trying to make that step, one potential deterrent is a lack of familiarity with vehicles and gear and few opportunities to learn. 

But Meade, who started planting back in 2006, also points to an industry-wide lack of support for women who have already earned more senior positions. In her first year supervising, the company put her in a camp with a male co-supervisor who had authority over her as well as every possible advantage in camp. “I was just given all the shit,” she says. “The shittier computer. The shittier reefer. Everything.” 

Meade got through that season thanks to the support of her five-person management team, most of whom she’d hired and trained herself. The experience made her rethink the entire chain of command she’d taken for granted—she wanted to work consistently within a team rather than as a boss. With that idea, she founded her own company, Tree Amigos, in 2013. “After a while, you realize the main thing bringing everyone together is that you’re all suffering at the same time,” she says. “I thought [tree-planting] could be more meaningful than that.” 

Last year, Meade began converting Tree Amigos into a co-op, which she considers a more egalitarian and practical setup for the bush than a top-down management system. She explained the model to others at the workshop. Tree Amigos is introducing collaboratively developed policies, including procedures for dealing with harassment accusations. When a situation arises, a committee of volunteers will listen to the evidence, interview everyone involved and make a democratic and transparent decision.

Dwindling interest in the job would be a loss, not only for the industry, but for women and girls—at heart it is still a unique cultural experience beloved by many female planters, a way of life they want to pass on. Meade believes the job is “important and transformative,” that it can broaden people’s whole outlooks; she jokes that it should be a requirement for every candidate for prime minister to have planted for three years. 

The connections made in bush camps are a big part of what brings rookie planters back into the fold. Experienced women worry that if inequities don’t change, “there’s not going to be people convincing friends to join in five years, telling them how great it is, what a magical experience they had,” says Meade.

Tree-planters thrive on pushing their personal limits and facing hardship head-on. I’ve seen planters return to camp with faces so swollen from black fly bites they can’t see or speak, only to get up and go to work the next morning. I’ve heard of people warding off black bears with a shovel to the face. We plant through snow, hail, and wildfire smoke, helicopter as part of our morning commute and climb up rain-slicked cliffs to plant trees on the coast. 

That stubbornness is finally paying off in a different way. Last season, I worked with the same female foreman I had for my first season. Five years later, she was part of a management team that was entirely female, including the supervisor, who was one of the best camp supervisors I’ve ever had. We were only growing.  

ABOUT THE ART by Rita Leistner

From 1984 to 1993, I planted over five hundred thousand trees in Canada. It was one of the experiences that most shaped me. My first camp consisted of me and twelve men. Later, when I worked in conflict zones, people would ask what had prepared me for that kind of work—by which they meant that kind of work as a woman. When I replied, “tree-planting in Canada,” they were surprised, because tree-planting didn’t sound hard. 

Twenty-three years later, when I returned to the cut block in 2016 to film and photograph tree-planters, I was impressed to find that a full 50 percent of the tree-planters were women. One of the camp supervisors was Melissa Morrison; Garth Hadley, the owner of Coast Range Contracting, told me Morrison was the best supervisor he’d known in his thirty-plus years in the business. This was vindicating to me after having been told by my own employer in the eighties that women would never be capable of working as tree-planting senior management. Ironically, I’m grateful today for that setback, because it led me toward my career as an artist. It turns out the majority of artists who have done important work on tree-planting are also women, for reasons I can only speculate about. 

These photographs are unstaged action portraits shot during high-intensity planting. I wanted to give the tree-planters the same kind of respect in art as has been given soldiers and loggers. Unlike them, tree-planters were long a stigmatized and marginalized workforce—in the fifties and sixties many of the workers were Indigenous people and even prisoners,and later, most were students. Having photographed conflict, I became acutely aware of the expectation to portray soldiers as heroic, and historically loggers were depicted as synonymous with nation-building. Meanwhile, tree-planters were later sometimes denounced as accomplices of the lumber industry. 

I wanted to elevate tree-planting in our cultural imagination through portraits with a grandeur, lighting aesthetic and composition that evoke classical painting. Women are shown as heroic, with great endurance, working the land with their bodies. They leap over mountains, wielding a shovel in one hand and a baby seedling in the other. The hyper-real depictions of the landscape draw attention to the disappearance of wilderness after half a millennium of logging. 

The portraits are part of a five-year project that includes an exhibition and book, The Tree Planters, and a film, Forest for the Trees, scheduled for release in the spring of 2020.