Planting the millionth tree

by Robert Leo Heilman

The Arbor Day Foundation sent me a Tree Survey a few months ago. At least it called itself a survey, but it turned out to be more of a pitch for donations in the form of a questionnaire. Still,

I decided to finish reading the thing before I tossed it in the wood burner with the other junk mail. Living as I do in a southern Oregon forest, I found questions like, “Are trees important to you?” amusing.

Reading along, I came to a question that gave me pause: “Have you ever planted a tree?” I thought first of the 150,000 trees that I planted while reforesting clear-cuts in the Cascades

and Coast Range, about enough to cover 300 acres of mountain slopes. That sounds like more than what it was, though. I have friends who were serious tree planters.

My pal Darlene told me that she must have planted about a half-million of the little things during her winters on the slopes. And there are three of my ex-tree planter buddies -- Johnny Escovido, Bruce Gordon and Les Moore -- who slammed over 1 million trees in the ground apiece. I’m sure there are others among my acquaintances who have surpassed that impressive number, though most tree planters don’t talk about how many trees they’ve planted. They talk about their chronically sore backs.

One million trees sounds like a much bigger deal than it is. It only takes about 40 seconds to plant a seedling conifer eight feet away from the last one you planted. Reforestation crews generally plant about 500 seedlings to the acre, so a million trees would only replant about 2,000 acres of logged-off land, about enough to, someday, provide habitat for a single nesting pair of northern spotted owls. I've worked on corporate clear-cuts here in Oregon that were that big, while up north in British Columbia there are cuts that are measured in square miles rather than acres.

A few weeks later, I ran across Lester “The Rat” Moore, and I got to wondering about when and where he planted his one-millionth tree. He was busy stealing firewood off of some timber company land at the time, buzzing up an old buckskin-colored seasoned madrone log and tossing the rounds into his pick-up to haul back to the tar-papered shack he lives in. He was in a hurry, and I was on my way into town, so we "howdied" but didn't stop to talk.

The Rat isn't exactly the sort of guy you'd see in a TV commercial. He's not the square-jawed handsome woodsman type the corporations like to promote, nor the caring sort who could serve as a poster child for an Arbor Day celebration. He's a small, wiry, snaggly-toothed guy who chews tobacco and drinks whiskey straight from the bottle. If you saw him on a city street, you'd probably try your best to walk past him without making eye contact. But when it comes to tree planting, he was the genuine article, good for a steady 1,000 trees every day, five days per week, 20 to 30 weeks a year for 20-something years.

It's a tough way to earn a paycheck, humping up and down mountains in the rain all winter. The State Employment Office in Eugene, Ore., once posted a warning notice about tree planting: “It is the hardest physical work known to this office. The most comparative physical requirement is that of a five mile cross-mountain run, daily.”

Most people would consider logging a tough job; tree planting is a logger’s idea of hard work.

That one-millionth tree of The Rat’s career might have been planted in Oregon or Washington, Montana, Idaho, British Columbia, Alaska, Arizona or Colorado. I doubt he remembers it. It was probably a lot like the 20,000 others he planted that month, and I'm sure that nobody handed him a golden shovel or took his picture for the occasion.

Nobody gives out awards for stoop labor, which is really a shame. It is difficult work, demanding both physically and mentally. I have seen many a fine physical specimen give up the attempt to plant trees after a day or two because they lacked the necessary gumption (or the desperation, which is just as useful) to see it through to payday. It seems that the people who actually bend down and touch the earth in order to do the work of healing the world are always the least honored of all.

Robert Leo Heilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, and he is the author of Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country.

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