Imagine waking up at sunrise in a camp a couple hundred of miles away from the nearest small town. Trek even further into the wilderness until you reach a man-made clearing. Throw on gear that weighs roughly 50 pounds. Make your way through a steep and treacherous terrain, bending down ever so often to tuck a spruce or fir seedling steadily into the ground. Continue until sundown. Repeat the next day. And the next. And the next. For an entire summer, while insects feast on your exposed flesh. Such is the reality of tree planting, a job that employs thousands of young Canadians every year.
“Everyday, you fluctuate between wanting to leave, and never wanting to leave,” says Rita Leistner, quoting Meghan Bissett a tree planter. Leistner estimates she planted more than five hundred thousand trees during her twenties, between 1983 and 1994. “It’s a combination of high intensity sport and skilled industrial labor. And, aside from the physical toll it takes—everyone is in pain—it’s emotionally taxing. Isolation is a big challenge. Being alone with your thoughts all day can be dangerous. It can break you, but it can also be transformative.”
Leistner has been among the thousands of young people who have spent the summer planting new trees in Canada, about a half billion each year, more than half in British Columbia and Alberta. Lumber companies in Canada harvest large tracks of forest for wood pulp and construction material. Nearly 90 percent of Canada’s forest are public owned and the law requires replanting because of concerns that aggressive harvesting is not sustainable. So each year, thousands of young people spread out across Canada for the summer restore trees and minimize the pace of deforestation. Critics question the impact of tree planting on the environment and debate the effectiveness of restoration efforts.
For Leistner, tree planting was a pathway into photojournalism. She has spent the past two decades covering conflicts across the world, with a focus on the Middle East. “When people ask me what helped prepare me for that dangerous profession, I always tell them ‘tree planting’. It inevitably surprises them, since few know what the work actually involves.” (Read why illegal logging is more violent than ever.)
This disconnect, a feeling of personal indebtedness and the desire to touch on the tensions at play in the logging industry prompted her to return to one of her first employers, Coast Range Contracting in 2015, but this time as a photographer. Using a medium format leaf shutter camera and a high speed flash carried by an assistant, she set out to make live-action portraits of the new generation of tree planters that would elevate them to the realm of heroes.
The heavily-lit and extremely sharp images call to mind the dioramas often found in natural history museums, thus highlighting the role these laborers play in the forest ecosystem. Subcontracted by the logging companies responsible for the devastation of the land or by provincial or federal governments whose policies determine the scale of the extraction, tree-planters are inextricably tied to the industry their back-breaking work is trying to mitigate. Though they work at a pace that seems incommensurate to the speed at which trees are being felled. To freeze them mid-movement, as Leistner does, reinforces the impression that these “warriors of the land, gods and goddesses of dirt”, as she calls them because of their impressive stamina and the environmental value of their toil, are fighting against time.
Though technology might help speed up the restoration process, the tree-planter turned photographer wonders about the implications of an automated process. On the one hand, it might just hasten the speed at which new forests are ready to be cut, fueling an ever-growing consumption. And on the other, it further detaches the public from the realities of the logging industry. (Watch how tree plantations are restoring Uganda's decimated forests.)
“Nobody spends more time in cutblocks than the tree-planters, not even the loggers who are just in and out in their machines. They are witnesses to the destruction and know exactly what effort it takes to attempt to reverse it,” she says. That awareness, Leistner believes, shapes their stance towards environmental policies. She points out that one of the representatives for Vancouver in the Canadian parliament, Joyce Murray, as well as the Canadian ambassador to Columbia, a country facing heavy deforestation, were tree-planters. Both are advocating for changes in forest management.
“It’s an experience that is hard to put in words. It’s deeply meditative, and an opportunity to commune with yourself and nature as well as build deep bonds with other members of your crew through hardship,” describes Leistner. “But it’s also overwhelming. You cry a lot. Still, at the end of the day, you can see that you’ve done something tangible. And so you return the next year, determined to plant even more trees.”