We gathered in a disused parking lot before first light. What obscure transaction had dragged such riff-raff out of bed at this most ungodly hour of the morning was unclear, even to me. And I was here for a job.
I nodded, faking a yawn and attempting a look which I desperately hoped would come off as blasé. God, such a rookie move. Shit, I’m a rookie again.
‘Chips,’ I said, grasping that this was perhaps not a first-name basis deal.
‘Ever… huh,’ Buzz tried, his eyes ablaze as he concluded his inquiry by consuming half his cigarette in one draft. He waved emphatically.
‘Huh… right,’ I answered. ‘I’ve planted trees 9 years but, you know… never…’
‘Imps?’ Buzz asked, offering me a smoke.
‘Nah, I’m good,’ I answered.
‘I quit anyway,’ he said, flashing an ochre smile. I would sooner have believed he had just quit the habit of breathing.
‘Well… you ever worked north?’
‘Yeah, I put my time in the North,’ I said. Trying to sound suave at 5am, I was discovering, was much like trying to find a lost shovel on a cut block: a futile exercise.
‘You’ll do just fine,’ Buzz said, just as the company trucks rolled in. He patted me on the back with a heavy paw as we squinted in the headlights.
The eclectic bunch that had amassed while I was talking with Buzz, stood scattered in small clumps, looking vaguely rabid. The workers had an old-timey rowdy air about them which, given the early hour, was rather thwarted into a half-formed, misdirected ire aimed at life itself. Hoisting my bag and shovel onto my shoulder, I followed Buzz in joining all the other shadows creeping towards the fiery glow of the taillights.
‘Morn,’ we all said to one another, as though reciting an ancient keyword that opened nothing at all.
‘Alright boys?’ the driver said, turning the corner into the red light. Wisps of distant bagpipes came to us between the chime of keys left in the ignition. The whole thing lent an off-beat techno funeral feel to the gathering, which no one seemed to think was necessary.
‘Right, hum… My name is Will, I’m the supervisor for this contract. Good. So. Yeah. Everyone, show me your bags and shovel.’
Obediently, bags were raised in the air, shovel dangling from the belt buckle. Despite the variation in state of disrepair, ingrained filth and half-assed patchwork; the odd swapping of factory plastic buckles for metal vintage seat-belt buckles; the modification of shovel grips.., it was all very standard issue tree planting gear. Of the sixteen workers gathered, only I and three others seemed to possess the mandatory equipment. We flashed in-the-know glances at each other. However, when I saw the mosaic of Buzz’s teeth glint dully in the taillights, I knew we had made a mistake.
‘Right, boys and girls, the driver said, these are this year’s tree rookies.’
The company vets shared in raspy laughter and there was a clinking of metal against gravel as all the bags rushed back to meet the ground propelled by the strong gravitational pull of shame.
‘Right, welcome. Chuck your gear in the back and come to this side.’
None too proud, we nonetheless obeyed, crushing our bags into whatever free space there was between the towering rows of waxed boxes. Some of last contract’s dirt slid out of one of my pouches as I wedged it in an open corner between a collapsed box and the wall of the FIST.
‘There you go again,’ I mumbled under my breath. Why was I in such a rush to reveal just how much of a rookie I was? FIST or Fibreglass Insulated Seedling Transport is a tree planting term for the hollow storage unit affixed to the box of the pick up. I wrapped the word in barbed wire, buried it deep and swore not to utter it again until someone else did.
‘Roots?’ called Will, as I joined the other tree rookies at his side. A heavyset man groaned just as much as the rusty tailgate as he leapt onto the ground. He took two steps away from his truck and waved, barely, eyes squinting as though gazing at a noonday sun.
‘You, he grunted. You, you and you. Out.’
There was a nervous hubbub as the four appointed wondered dully what exactly they should come out of. One stepped tentatively backwards, but was swift enough to correct his mistake, joining the other three in stepping forwards out of the group.
‘These are your rookie… rookies,’ Will said. ‘No other way to say it I guess… Welcome.’
One smiled, accidentally, and to my ongoing shame, there were more than a few suppressed nonchalant yawns.
‘You’ll be training with Roots. We’ll get you up to speed in no time, I’m certain.’ Will’s voice held no such certainty. Quite the opposite.
This seemed a decisive blow to the rookie rookies’ moral. Unbidden, they marched off, not one spine between them, towards Roots’ truck.
‘Right… and that leaves: Buzz, Jen, Steve, Jean-Marc, Buddy, Mouse and Simon.’ There was a silence during which the rookie rookie’s eyes glinted enviously, desiring nothing more, in that moment, than to one day join the ranks of these illustrious few who were worthy of individual naming.
‘The company veterans. They may look ugly and mean, but I assure you, there a bunch of softies… if you know where to poke ‘em.’ Will grinned wryly. Grinned all the more upon finding his prodigious wit under-appreciated. Right. Buzz, Mouse, Jean-Marc with me. The rest with Roots. We all jumped into the trucks. Will turned to Roots and said: Take the by-pass to the nine south…
Roots, however, just shrugged, as though the directions were over his pay-grade.
I’ll just follow you, he grunted. He turned away and, spitting, he said: In the truck. The fresh meat knew better than to hesitate this time and, finding all the cab seats taken by the vets, filed into the windowless Crummy.
The trucks pulled off with a roar like tug-boats under the weight of so many boxes, a plume of oily resinous smoke lingering as the only vestige of their obscure gathering. As we left the rural town for the big city, the mountains became progressively lower, as though sinking back into the earth. Dawn cracked in horizontal jets of gold, filtering through the fog that clung low to the river snaking alongside the highway. There was a magic communicating itself there, that even a rusty half-awake mind could appreciate.
My Crummy, bless my luck, possessed a window. Ask a tree planter whether he would choose an encounter with a Black Bear over one with a Grizzly Bear, and you’ll swiftly garner something akin to the distinction between a Crummy and a windowless Crummy. My thoughts went out to the poor rookie rookies. A windowless Crummy is a unique torture, not so easily explained. I will, nonetheless, try my hand at it.
To start, a Crummy is a metal rectangular box built into the FIST, designed—by some satanic agent, no doubt—to accommodate up to four passengers. Distinctive features include: a metal door that never shuts properly and wobbles and whistles in the wind; seat belts that do not work; a window at the feet, which connects with the rear window of the cab; and, as I’ve made amply clear, if there is a god, a window facing forward.
As the Crummy is perched in the trunk and above the cab, its unique position—other than granting sweeping vistas—facilitates optimal rebound at the mildest of bumps. The merest speed bump, for example, is guaranteed to send you flying out of your seat to savage yourself on the unforgiving, sharp-edged, poorly-welded, metal walls. So, needless to say that if you take away the panoramic views, and replace them with a solid metal wall, nausea and a distinct inability to anticipate bumps; you’ll understand why we all pitied our fellow sardines in the other, windowless, tin can.
‘I’m Fitz, the guy to my left offered.’
‘Oh, and that’s Ingrid,’ Sierra added, referring to the girl asleep in the corner. We all looked over at the curious phenomenon. To fall asleep in a Crummy was, indeed, a skill that very few ever lived to master.
‘Did you see the other crummy,’ Fitz said, pain in his voice.
We all acquiesced, acknowledging the senseless torture in silence. Despite being surrounded by strangers, neither of us felt compelled to fill the silence with words. Within the confines of the Crummy, we were veterans amongst veterans. Perhaps not Folliculture veterans, but vets all the same. Never mind the vague particulars of the job we were about to immerse ourselves into for the next twelve weeks. Planting, by its repetitive nature, had a surprising way of turning something new into ancient habit, in a mere matter of days. Surely, Folliculture would be not different. Or would it?
‘Strange no?’ Sierra said, after a while. ‘Heading away from the mountains to go planting.’
We all pondered this odd fact that had indeed escaped us. What else had we not considered? Was this to be only the first of many such realisations to come? Perhaps, switching discipline had been a mistake. But what other choice was there? Next year would see us crossing into the 2040s. There was no more denying it. The Silviculture industry was no longer in its death throes, but had undeniably reached the end of its decades-long decline. Want to keep working outdoors? Better trade in a shovel for a pickaxe. Centuries of excessive logging and unsustainable practices had left little more behind than a shallow layer of earth over bedrock. No one in their sane mind would think that there was, or had ever been, a living to be made out of tree planting.
And indeed, as we forsook the bald mountains for the steel and glass forest of the city, an uneasy feeling swept over us. This was the world upside-down. We were out of work and somehow too stubborn to admit it. So, one by one, those who refused to face reality ended up transferring into the hair industry. Where else to apply a skill honed over almost a decade? There was no making up for all that time wasted in unskilled manual labour. Not while everyone else wisely used that same time to studying and scaling the corporate ladder, and doing whatever else it is that real adults with real adult jobs do. Ticking boxes in life. We got left behind and there seemed nothing more we could do but double down.
Soon, we breached the outskirts of town, took an exit and, where before we would have stopped for a herd of elk or to watch a bear dash clumsily through the woods; now we stopped for traffic lights and, well, traffic. The trucks pulled up in a steamy back-alley. In this, at least, we found a measure of comfort. The decorum of society’s pariahs, it seemed, would not be utterly forgone.
‘Out!’ we heard Roots bark. The rookie rookies, however, needed no such imperative. The door burst open as wild-eyed and crazed, they wrestled one another to be the first out of the windowless crummy, first to taste fresh air, to feel the light, kiss the ground and rejoice at their new lease on life. Sierra shook Ingrid’s shoulder and, reluctantly, she stepped out, releasing us from the Crummy. Out into the alley, we once more forsook out veteranship, and assumed the role of tree rookies. Joints stiff from the drive over, we stretched and yawned between dumpsters.
‘Not exactly fresh mountain air,’ I whispered under my breath, drawing commiserating smiles from Sierra and Fitz. I could sense a burgeoning friendship there, and had to warn myself against it. Once the proverbial shit would hit the fan, as it invariably did, the less emotionally involved one is, the better. Together we studied the every detail of the alley, gradually coming to grips with the precise depths to which we had fallen. The graffiti, the fuming sewer grate, the rusty fire ladders, the trash, the needles, the shuffling rats…
‘Right, said Will, facing the vets who stood nonplussed by the whole affair. You guys show them the ropes, we’ve got a few specs to discuss with the lab supervisor.’
With this, Roots and Will drove towards a garage door at the end of the alley, leaving us to yearn for oxygen in their thick carbon monoxide wake.
‘Right,’ said Jean-Marc, in a French-accented echo of Will. ‘You heard Naptime; in a few moments this door will open. Follow us to the end of the corridor.’
‘Creepy,’ one of the rookie rookies whispered.
Jean-Marc turned to glare at him, and the kid swallowed whatever more he was about to utter.
‘Quietly, yes?’ he added.
‘We’re not in woodland anymore,’ the veteran called Steve said, with marked disdain. ‘We work for a respectable client. Got it?’
Whatever ‘it’ was, the rookie rookies surely got, for they withdrew so deep within themselves that they became practically invisible. Just a row of vintage sweaters and cargo pants and waxed leather boots. Just then, the door swung open in a wide wincing arc. The sound was of such perfect stock quality that it could have been labelled Wincing Alley Door and sold to the movie industry. Perhaps a Sound Effects Specialist was indeed a wiser career path, I thought, almost seriously. One by one we stepped in, following the vets through a narrow white service corridor to a locker-room. The air was abuzz with electricity and sounds of electronic whizzing and whirring.
There was little ceremony to what followed. The two sexes were divided to either sides of a pastel surgical curtain. The fixture had a provisional appearance to it that suggested that it was indeed some sort of quick-fix concession, most probably due to the unaccounted-for presence of girls in the industry. Stripping naked before everyone was certainly an unforeseen humiliation. Par, I supposed, for a course called: Lowest on the FoodChain Job. The vets shouldered the humiliation nobly and so did we, after a while, after a fashion. The girls stepped first through the swinging doors into the room beyond. A rustle of motion widened a thin slit between the curtain and the door through which untanned flesh could be glimpsed. Most of the boys, perhaps uncharacteristically, did not dare study this window onto the carnal too close, lest undesirable swellings result. This did not seem to hinder Buzz in the slightest, who grinned wickedly. In fact, his teeth, in that moment, proved an infallible antidote to accidental arousal. It was not long, as you’ll understand, before I regretted the association. Not ten minutes into my new job and I had already potentially condemned myself to lifelong ED. Risks of the trade, I supposed.
There came a knock on the swinging door, which startled me plum out of my nightmares. And after a ten-second grace period, we stepped through the door into the showers beyond. There, a lukewarm substance that was not quite water scoured our every inches and bits. An acrid smelling fog filled the tiled room as yet another grace period was granted, not for modesty’s sake, this time, but rather to ascertain a thorough disinfection. One of the rookies coughed, which only bolstered everyone’s suspicions of how noxious the fumes were likely to be. There was a glazed look in the vets’ eyes that all but carved these suspicions into stone, and while we’re swimming metaphor-land, into an epitaph. Such hazards were typical of the Lowest of the FoodChain jobs. No wavers, no mention of it.
‘It’s all in the tree price,’ went the old adage. And for a tree planter, this included: handling pesticide soaked trees, breathing ash, risking life-long injuries on a daily basis; as well as a slew of unsavoury deaths such as: wild life attacks, weather events, falling trees, collisions with logging trucks, unsafe roads conditions… Even our vacation pay was deducted from the tree price.
As though reading my sombre thoughts, Buzz pawed me on the back and said:
‘It’s all in the hair price bud, all in the hair price.’
We laughed at this, vets and tree rookies sharing knowing glances, while the rookie rookies mostly looked about awkwardly not sure whether, or even, how to partake.
Then, we were through again, into yet another locker-room. Eyes averted to the sinful temptation of yet another carnal slit, we each found a locker with our name on it. Mine was labelled under my last name: Woods. And, before anyone could make the usual derisive jokes, I crumpled the piece of paper and chucked it into the bin. There was a symphony of stretching vinyl cuffs, swishing Tyvek, snapping grommets and zipping zips, as we suited up in full Hazmat regalia. We were lacing up long rubber caulk boots when the girls swept aside the curtain and joined us.
‘So,’ said the vet called Mouse, her words muffled by the N95 mask she wore. ‘Don’t worry about the shrinking. I know it sounds scary, but it’s the easiest part of the process. Once we are all shrunken, we will walk less than a hundred meters over to the buggies. If you feel queasy, or disoriented, anchor your gaze on that which is your size. Look at your fellow workers, look at the buggies, the gear. Don’t overthink it and you’ll be fine.’
Whether it was from the plastic of the suits against my skin, or the sheer apprehension at the idea of being shrunk, I soon found myself perspiring heavily. There were quite a few nervous chuckles and squirms from the rookie rookies and, as sociopathic as it may seem, the sound helped me take heart. As a team, we stepped onto a wide loading platform. Once everyone was on board, Jean-Marc, or Simon, I couldn’t tell which, activated a lever and the door sealed itself behind us with a hermetic swish of air and a definitive thud. We waited anxiously for several moments, and then the gate on the other side slid open to reveal a white rubberised floor.
As the sharp ceramic studs under my boots sunk into the soft floor, it suddenly, well… sunk in. We had already gone through the shrinking process. Together with the other rookies, we all gradually awoke to the proportions of our environment. We all gawked at the enormity of the laboratory around us. Beside me, Fitz tripped on his spikes. I was too awed to react in time. It was Jean-Marc who caught him, recognisable now by the soft french ‘Oups’ he let out.
‘Sorry,’ Fitz said meekly.
‘You’re alright,’ said Jean-Marc. ‘It gets old fast, you’ll see.’
Following procedure, like so many ants on patrol, we walked the hundred meters or so to the buggy. It would be hard to pinpoint exactly when my mind finally choked on, then swallowed the most elephant of all facts in the room. We were walking across somebody’s head! The soft rubber that our boots were sinking in was, in fact, skin.
‘Hey, pssst, Sierra,’ I whispered excitedly to Sierra walking beside me. But by the look in her eyes, she had already figured it out. The burgeoning awareness spread audibly through our ranks. There was some indistinct chatter beside us as the rookie rookies, who stuck to one another like ducklings, bragged about how many hairs they would plant and formulated all the different run-of-the-mill jokes that tickled only those who had yet to be pummelled to mush by the rusty gears of the planting industry. We let them have their moment, as we’d had ours. Humour was perhaps the only tool left to salvage the pride of us unskilled labourers. And, by the time we reached the buggies, the disbelief and novelty of walking across human skin, as predicted by the vets, had already faded.
‘Right,’ came Will’s trademark expression. ‘Welcome. Hm.. again. Everyone feeling alright?’
It was only then that I realised that two of the vets, Buzz and Simon, were dragging an unresponsive rookie. They dropped the limp boy at the centre of the circle, obviously annoyed at the extra unpaid work, or dead walking, a name amicably given to walking without planting.
‘Hum, right. Roots?’
If the grumpy man heard his name spoken, he gave no outward sign of it. So, there the rookie lay for the length of the safety meeting.
‘Mandatory Pre-Work. Root here is our Level 3. Any first aid related… thing… query goes directly to him. Alright? He’ll be glad to help,’ Will added with a smile which Roots this time did indeed reciprocate. Having heard it all before, I allowed my mind to dwell into details of this new uncanny reality, which were only just beginning to trickle in. Squinting, I contemplated for the first time the question of blood. How could I have not thought of it before? As I glanced back the way we came at the clear blood-red trail our spiked boots left behind, new considerations started to arise. Surely shoving a shovel into someone’s skin would inevitably draw blood, wouldn’t it? I found myself studying the immaculate white of the Hazmat suit. How gory would it become by day’s end?
‘Believe it or not, slips, trips and falls,’ Will was saying in an automatic monotone, ‘are one of the greatest hazard we face.’ Some of the rookie rookies chuckled, though the rest of us merely weathered the briefing without a word. ‘All the emergency protocol can be found in the red binder…’
When, at last, the pre-work was completed, we all, in turn, grabbed the pen with our thick rubber gloves and signed our initials in Sanskrit on a sheet of polymer. We were then divided into three teams. The rookie rookies were staying put to receive a—no doubt—enthralling introduction to planting, by Roots, who seemed cleft in two between a yearning—nay a desire—to make the rookies suffer, and a general all-encompassing hatred for humankind. It occurred to me then that Roots was probably a lifer. And who wouldn’t turn cynical in his position? Seeing in real time the decline of his livelihood, hanging onto the dregs until they too faded, and being forced to switch to… this unsavoury bit of business. Having, myself, planted the better part of three quarters of two million trees in my life, I could sincerely sympathise with the step down that this represented.
The buggy, it turned out, was little more than an armoured exoskeleton of a car, as worse-for-wear as the trucks had been. But they didn’t come equipped with Crummies, so there was that to say in their favour. Beside us, the vets all crammed into two buggies with the indifference of familiarity, and set off as though on a runway, vanishing behind the heavily rounded horizon.
‘Right,’ said Will, eyeing the disappearing buggies worryingly, Implanting! And we were off, zooming away in a perpendicular direction to the vets. ‘I know what you’re all thinking, he said with a knowing smile. How come they’ve managed to come up with a shrink-ray, and still not manage to keep people from balding.’
The other tree rookies and I looked at one another sharing in the awed disbelief that such a thought had, in fact, never occurred to us.
‘No?’ asked Will, sensing the general feeling. ‘Right. It wasn’t my first question either.’
‘What am I DOING HERE?’ Will yelled theatrically, hitting the steering wheel with both hands. ‘That was MY first thought anyway.’
At this, we all burst into laughter. It felt good to let off some steam, and we all felt closer to one another for it. As we travelled a surprising distance across the head, Will broke everything down for us.
‘We used to get all of our hires from tree planting. But you lot are a dying breed now. So, we are forced to hire rookies.’ He shook his head at this. Then, he moved on. ‘Not much different, Implanting, we’ll get you up and hitting your numbers in no time. We pay between 15 and 20 cents an Imp, which might seem low, but I assure you, the ground is quite fast.’
The ground, I thought with an involuntary shudder venturing a glance back at the blood-red tracks of burst capillaries our wheels left behind.
‘Our top planters, Mouse and Buzz, don’t tell Jen I said so, put around 3,500 to 4,000 in a day.’
Will glanced at us all in turn, allowing time for the information to sink in. Accordingly, we took a moment to make the appropriate calculations. The money added up to a pleasing amount, but the real question remained: do we have it in us to be as good as Mouse and Buzz? There was no telling how good Mouse and Buzz were. The two could not be more disparate in shape and disposition, but, then again, in the experience of everyone present, planting always did seem to transcend any attributes other than mental fortitude and deep-rooted inclination for efficiency.
‘Unlike traditional tree planting, there is only one valid micro-site. For the implants to grow, the bulb at the base must be planted directly into the pore, or follicle. However, depending on the job specs, the density varies. Some clients may wish—or only afford—implants planted at 14,000 stems per hectare, whereas some, will desire every single pore to be planted to assure higher survival rates. Then of course there’s the fill plant which, exactly as when planting trees, means that we go into patchy or thinning areas and bump up the density to the prescribed amount. We won’t have much of this work this year, but rest assured that the pay will reflect the extra dead walking. Everything clear so far?’
‘Hectares,’ Fitz said, with a chuckle.
‘Yes. Every measurement is shrunk with us,’ replied Will who was beyond seeing the humour of the situation. That a head could be measured in hectares, I could personally attest, was a bewildering fact to wrap your mind around. We all nodded, a hint of relief on our faces. Once the queerness of our circumstances wore off, the many similarities between Tree Panting and Implanting all but guaranteed a smooth transition.
Will slowed the buggy as we reached a pile of boxes with a tarp thrown over it. The cache was a welcomed sight in this desolate landscape, something familiar to steady our gaze. We hopped off, and Will swung around to the metal compartment at the back of the buggy. He unclasped it and started distributing brand new planting bags and shovels.
‘I left your old ones in the truck. Can’t let you use them I’m afraid. Sanitary reasons.’
Experienced in the assembly of bags, we all set about threading webbing through buckles and adjusting the straps to our own specific dimensions.
‘Right, so the rest is fairly straight forward. You’re all familiar with the use of flag?’ he asked, throwing a roll of teal plastic ribbon from one hand to the other. As we were too concentrated to answer, he pushed the point: ‘You cut a piece and drop it at every Implant to mark its location, yes? Yes. Good. Whatever you’re used to doing, here we flag every Imp.’
He walked over to the cache, threw open one of the boxes, reached into the plastic bag and retrieved a bundle of what seemed like fifteen Imps. He shook one loose from the transparent film wrapped around the base of the hair, and showed it to us. It stood to logic, although I had yet to make the connection, that the implants themselves had not been shrunk. And for the life of me, my mind could not wrap itself around the concept.
‘Small, but not shrunk,’ I whispered to myself, willing the concept to sink in.
‘I know right?’ answered Sierra at my side. Then she too whispered the mantra. ‘Small, but not shrunk. Small, but not shrunk.’
‘It’s a slippery concept isn’t it. A common perceptual dissonance. You might not learn to reconciliate the two facts but, with time, you will certainly learn not to care enough to try.’
‘Now,’ he continued with his instructions, ‘the root of an Imp is called a bulb. The bulb, just like the roots of a tree, needs to be planted straight for the hair to grow straight. Can’t squish it in,’ he said, pressing his fingers into the gelatinous bulb, leaving finger marks. ‘Open your hole too deep and there will be an air pocket beneath. Open your hole too shallow and the roots will “J” at the bottom,’ he said, bending the end of the bulb into the shape of the letter “J”. ‘Plant the bulb too deep and you risk ingrowing, plant it too shallow and the bulb will dry out and the hair will die. It’s all standard stuff I expect you’re all familiar with? Good. Last, but certainly not least, there is a specific way to pry open a pore, and it may take time to master it properly.’ He stole Fitz’s shovel, stepped over to a pore and slammed it in.
Fitz, Sierra and I all let out a sigh. We were all, in that moment, sharing an overwhelming relief at the lack of blood, the eruption of which, we had all secretly come to dread.
‘Precise and strong. No shovel kick. Ingrid?’
Ingrid, who was already stepping towards the boxes, looked up.
‘Yeah,’ she said circumspectly, extracting an earbud from her ear.
‘Like this,’ Will said, showing the shovel movement once more. They met glares and she put her headphone back in.
‘Good,’ Will said, at length.
We bagged up, run of the mill stuff for a tree planter, placing the Imps, bulb-forward into the two bags affixed to each sides of the harness at our waists. We reached a consensus that a conservative 200 Imps, 100 in each bag, would surely take less than an hour to plant which would see us back to the cache before our blood sugar dipped too low. It was all a little gross, to be perfectly honest. Find someone else’s hair in your food or, anywhere really, and your lips are most likely to curl down in disgust. I certainly felt mine doing so, and was grateful that the mask hid it from view.
Will paired us off, gave us a rough azimuth to follow and set us off across the land… head. I was paired with Sierra, and Fitz with Ingrid. Devoid of defining landmarks, like bush roads, free-standing aspens or boulders, such as could be readily found on a cut block; the importance of flagging the line of Imps soon revealed itself to be imperative in finding our way back to the cache. Ingrid was the first one back. Sierra and I finished within an Imp or two of one another and walked together back to the cache.
‘Lemon-squeasy,’ Sierra said, obviously perspiring a ludicrous amount, as I was. The suit made me feel as though I was wearing a garbage bag while running the Boston Marathon.
‘Fitz,’ I called over to the dot in the distance, you good?
‘What?’ he called back.
‘Good?’ I repeated.
‘Must be creamier on your side,’ he called back jokingly. Cream was a characteristic far more attributable to sandy, easy-to-plant ground, than rubbery skin. That being said, we would probably never forgo the slang. If only for the non-negligible nostalgia factor. The era of tree planting had past and we were now knee-deep in the next era, inglamourous as it undeniably was. As we joined Ingrid, she was just about to head out again. Her white Tyvek suit was a Jackson Pollock of splattered blood and other yellowy fluids whose origin I thought best not to ponder.
‘What are you listening to?’ asked Sierra.
‘Oh. Sorry. What are you…’
‘I’m just kidding, I can hear you just fine. Posthumous Diary. It’s this Podcast where they read diaries of dead people.’
‘Oh,’ Sierra said simply, surely regretting having asked.
‘Sounds… fun,’ I offered.
‘It’s not,’ Ingrid retorted, placing the earbud back into her ear. Then, too loud, she added: ‘And that’s what I like about it.’
‘Well,’ Sierra said, glancing at me, the glimmer in her eyes hinting at a smile.
‘Pshioo,’ I exclaimed, hitting the ground, spent. ‘4,000, eh?’
‘Tell me about it. Couldn’t sleep last night. Do you ever think, maybe…’
‘You’ll have forgotten how to do it?’ I said, completing the thought.
We laughed, as would anyone who had just crested a mountain of misery. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, implanting, like tree planting, was seasonal work. The balding demographic mostly wore hats in the winter, which all but guaranteed a frenzy when the hat were soon to come off in spring. And so, the season extended from April to end of June, with just enough work during the summer to sustain the vets in the company and no one else. It thus followed that most planters spent more time not planting than planting, cruising through the rest of the year on Employment Insurance. This 1/6 work-to-unemployment ratio, all but guaranteed a nervousness at the start of every season. What if I forgot how to do it? Only the first day of work could answer that. And luckily for us, we could now answer that question: We hadn’t forgotten.
‘You laughing at me?’ Fitz asked, dumping his empty bags on the ground, lowering his mask to guzzle half a bottle of water.
‘Yup,’ Sierra said cheerfully.
‘She’s fast,’ Fitz said, pointing to the now disappearing Ingrid.
‘Listens to dead people too.’
‘Well… that explains a lot.’
I flipped onto my knees, and, shoving a breaded chicken strip into my mouth, began bagging up again.
‘Three hundy,’ challenged Fitz, smiling gleefully through a mouthful of black olives. Upping our bag-up by one hundred Imps.
‘Not me,’ I said, shaking my head resolutely. ‘Tendonitis on the first day? No thanks.’
From that bag-up on, we never coincided again. All the better, as we were all content to dive into our respective Podcasts and Audiobooks, and let the hours flow by unnoticed. Will came and went as the day progressed. Sierra told me, as our paths crossed, that he gave her two thumbs up at some point, further confirming that we hadn’t forgotten entirely how to plant after all. On the way back to the cache, I saw Will making wide waving motions in the distance, trying to catch Ingrid’s attention. It appeared that not all of us had had such a successful transition.
At the end of the shift, nine hours had passed since arriving on the client’s head. We were beat. Will came to pick us up. His mood seemed to have followed an inversely proportional curve to ours, growing more nervous as the day went on. From the moment we left the client’s head, the blame for bad work would fall upon him. If a patch of hair wasn’t well planted, it was Will who stood to be fined. And by Fitz’s gossip, it seemed that Ingrid already had had to replant some faulty Imps. That notwithstanding, on the way back, there was febrile excitement in the buggy. Or, seeing as Ingrid was already asleep, at least between Fitz, Sierra and I. As the day wore heavy on our bodies, our minds had gradually been set free, and were now as light as feathers. We had done it. We had remembered how to do it, yet again. And with just a rough tally in mind of the money we made, it already felt like: See you on the other side.
Safe in the knowledge that the days were all about to blur into one another, and that it was just a matter of putting your head down. Of tucking your neck in so as to not break it as you juggernaut your way through the numbing, zombifying, slew of indistinguishable days of hard physical labour. Before we knew it, we’d all be on Ei again, free to pursue whatever we deemed worthy of the sacrifice, whatever figured on altar to drink up the offering of twelve weeks’ worth of blood, sweat and tears. Every planter is unique in this regard. Look upon my altar, for example, and you will find an eclectic array of things, which nonetheless always included sleeping in, and writing stories such as this one.
On the way back to our small rural town, it seemed that the barrier between the implanting vets and us, tree rookies, was finally broken. And the whole truck was freely sharing in the merry mood. Sierra, Fitz and I all bent low to listen through the opening of the truck’s back window at our feet.
‘You’ll see,’ Jean-Marc was saying, eating Skittles by the palmful, ‘some skins are different than others. Some have fat wrinkles like ravines. Some have super hard skin, some so soft and slack that the imp hardly stays in.’
‘I once broke a shovel blade on a bone spur,’ chimed in Will. Granted, ‘it was a shit shovel. But still!’
‘Yeah,’ Buzz said, and by the looks of exasperation on Mouse’s face, this was going to be good. ‘I worked on an Indian guy once.’
‘Don’t,’ Mouse said, but there was nothing for it.
‘Smelled like curry for days after that.’
‘Oh, alright,’ Mouse said, obviously finding the comment distasteful.
‘No, I’m serious,’ he continued undeterred, ‘and worst part is, I LOVE India. I’ve spent many off-seasons travelling there. And the only thing I love more than India, is, well… curry. The smell made me salivate all day long. Then…’
‘Anyone else have a story to tell?’ Mouse was saying, although, by then, even she couldn’t suppress a smile.
‘Let the man finish,’ Will shot back with a devious spark in his eyes.
‘Then,’ Buzz continued, pursuing his inspiration as though never interrupted, ‘I went to an Indian restaurant.’ An outburst of disgusted laughter erupted inside the truck.
‘You recognised the guy, or what?’ asked Jean-Marc, visibly engrossed by the tale.
‘No no,’ whispered Buzz, as though that possibility had never occurred to him. ‘Found a hair in my curry.’
The whole truck exploded in wild laughter. Even Mouse partook, which I took to be a highly honourable character trait.
‘Riddle me that,’ Buzz said, mind-blown with the Karmic confusion of it all.
We all laughed some more. The best part of it all is that throughout the telling, Buzz kept glancing around, not understanding why we laughed as we did. When we all quieted down once more, Mouse said:
Pretty sure that’s racist.
Yeah, Sierra agreed. Buzz glanced back at the Crummy, seemingly confused at our presence.
‘It’s not. It’s not! It’s the opposite, hum… racephile or whatever the word is. Guys: I love curry. Can’t get enough of the stuff.’
The truck fell into an awkward mix of laughter and consideration for a moment. As though a jury, presented with all the evidence against the accused, the truck weighed the facts of the matter.
‘Judge me now, but work a full shift on a farmer’s head, and tell me it’s not garlicky.’
‘Ooooook,’ interrupted Mouse, having had just about her fill of the babbling ignorance.
‘It just is. Just the same as white heads gets pink when you shove your shovel in. It’s just… physics.’
‘Physics!,’ exclaimed Jean-Marc, unable to contain himself. ‘This guy,’ he said, pointing at him with a half-eaten drumstick, ‘I tell you. The best.’
‘What about Asians?’ Will asked, wilfully egging him on.
‘What about Asians?’
‘Oh, don’t get me started on those blokes!’
‘Please don’t,’ said Mouse who had by now deemed us all guilty by association, and quite beyond redemption.
‘Won’t let you plant with a shovel.’
‘Wahahahy?’ cried Jean-Marc, literally crying.
‘They make you use chopsticks!’
We all shared convulsive laughter at the salty humour. Like maids gossiping at their employer’s behest. Buzz reached over and hugged Mouse, shaking her playfully.
‘It’s a joke, love. Just a joke.’
After a while the truck quieted down, and Will seized the moment to play some of his music. Though his planting days were mostly behind him, he never quite lost the habit of listening to angry Scottish music. Anger is a potent emotion to harness while planting. Though not for my taste, for how much mental energy it churned, I could not deny having used it once or twice. Mostly anger at a bad foreman or at rocky land. Every planter has their philosophy, what with all the free mental space the work granted.
My philosophy always was that of no emotions. Attribute no emotion to pain, to exhaustion, to frustration, to despair, to cold, to wetness, to heaviness of bags, to heat… and you disarm their power over you. Not indifference, mind you. Merely not cataloguing. It’s amazing how quick you can believe your own complaining and thereby ruin your day. Practice the philosophy of no emotions, and the roller-coaster of planting, with its soaring highs and hellish lows, becomes much like a calm morning lake that you slice with the bow of your canoe.
‘This one really goes off at 2 minutes 36.’
‘Oh, not this again Naptime,’ cried Jean-Marc. But his words were lost under layers of screechy bagpipes.
‘Naptime?’ Fitz asked.
‘Yeah,’ answered Jean-Marc with a sly smile, ‘where do you suppose he goes all day while we work?’
The bagpipes screamed on. The song, of course, was the one and only song ever written for the dreadful instrument. You know the one. And when the two-minute thirty mark came, Naptime wrenched the volume to such decibels that it warranted a grunt of annoyance from Ingrid, who was sleeping in the corner of the Crummy. There was, as redundant as it is to say, nothing special or, indeed, different about that part of the song. No bagpipe solo to distinguish. Nothing, ‘going off’.
We pulled into the parking lot at 5pm, precisely twelve hours after leaving.
‘Same time, same place,’ said Will.
‘Same time, same place,’ I answered, as I swung back to get my planting bags. And together with Fitz, Sierra and Ingrid, we chucked them into the nearest dumpster. The end of an era.
‘Hope I never go bald,’ said Fitz, solemnly.
We said our farewells then, and disbanded. And, on the way home, I stopped by the ice cream place. As I pulled up into the drive-thru, I couldn’t help but marvel at the incongruity of it all…
‘I’ll have the triple fudge sunday, please. What? Oh, sorry. Double fudge pecan. Large. Yes, that’s right.’
…that the balding and desolation of earth was never met with such ingenious solutions as those contrived for the balding and vanity of humans. I guess, somewhere deep inside, I still held the forlorn hope that it would come, at least, as a surprise.
‘Do you have a plastic bag? I don’t want it to spill in the car. You don’t. Well, how am I su… No no. It’s fine. Sorry, long day. Just hand me a bunch of napkins, will you? Thanks.’
But, perhaps it was foolish to think that the end of the world would ever hold the power to surprise or to awaken humankind even.
‘Fill her up. Yeah, regular’s fine. What? No, I need to idle so the ice cream won’t melt. Do you mind? God, everyone’s has it in for me, today! Fine, but make it quick, ok?’
What a beautiful legacy that is for our species. Indignant of our own extinction.