Dirt bag geniuses: How planting trees gives artists room to grow

Tree planting culture is basically kind of like that group of kids from Peter Pan who throw the colourful goop at each other, but with a couple grumps [in the crowd], and everyone’s a fully grown adult.
— Max Brown

Around springtime in B.C, you’ll find a surplus of artists in the forest. Are they identifying mushrooms and getting naked? Possibly, but they’re mainly there to plant trees, millions of trees.

Replenishing cut blocks after logging season is one of the most lucrative and effective ways to survive as a “starving artist” in today’s increasingly unstable art market. Tree planters are self-motivated, independent, and eclectic — a perfect match of the artist profile.

For freelance artist Danielle Kantola, planting is an incomparable lifestyle. “Tree planting has given me the freedom to take time off of work and develop my artistic skill through financial relief. It has allowed me . . . experiences that influence my art by altering my views on life,” she explains.

Kantola has designed model props for various films including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Escape Plan, Maze Runner, and Machete 2. She’s also designed the book cover for a collection of philosophical stories called Bottomless Dreams, and two sculptures for the city of Burnaby.

British Columbians have access to tree planting at a higher rate than most Canadians. According to Statistics Canada’s most recent (2013) reforestation inventory, 86.4 per cent of B.C.’s forests were replenished, while Canada as a whole had only 52.4 perc ent of logging reforested. Thus, the potential to become a tree planter is greater in B.C. compared to Canada as a whole.

That’s lucky for Nathan Gurley, tree planter and one of the founders of electronic music duo Moontricks. Although planting is physically tougher than his regular life, the two-month commitment to live in a tent in the woods becomes a mental retreat to replenish his creativity.

“Feeling a sense of disconnection from society is [a type of artistic] inspiration that you get [from] tree planting,” says Gurley.

Tree planters sharing stories after a day’s work. Photo by Cayden Johnson

Tree planters sharing stories after a day’s work. Photo by Cayden Johnson

Tree planting is work that entails extreme power of mind to motivate the suffering body. It’s essential to strategize efficiently in order to make money. Every day, planters can directly observe their achievements and failures by the number of trees they put in the ground: life becomes just that simple. Indeed, during the months of planting, it’s near impossible to think about anything aside from the task at hand, and the lifestyle becomes oddly meditative.

Gurley explains, “The hard physical [element] is stifling [and prevents getting] anything artistic done [during the season] but it’s fuel for artistic reset after.”

Gurley has planted for four years and relishes in the benefits of seasonal work, like the freedom to book shows and create freely in the off season. Gurley grew up in Kaslo, B.C., where many of his friends were planters before he became a rookie. He tours, performs, and records music during the 10 months of the year when he’s not camping in the woods and planting trees. Gurley survives mainly off his music career, with a little extra help from tree planting.

“My craft requires a great deal of expenses and gear. [I’m] always upgrading new equipment,” says Gurley, “[My music] is a business [that] money has to be put into, [and] finding this extra money can be hard.”

Less than one per cent of Canada’s labour force are artists who, according to Hill Strategies’ report “A Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada,” earn an average income that is 32 per cent lower than other the overall Canadian labour force. This explains why many contemporary artists need multiple jobs to maintain their lifestyles. Tree planting offers the perfect lucrative short-term solution, providing an alternative to the capitalist nine-to-five norm.

Freelance illustrator and Vancouver resident Max Brown is another planter who commented on the financial difficulties of being an artist. A visual arts graduate from Emily Carr University, Brown plants in the spring in order to devote time to his daughter and focus on art during the off season.

“Artistic people are attracted to planting because they need to pay their rent and student loans, and they likely aren’t doing that by selling art,” Brown says. “Artists don’t have the freedom to create and experiment artistically because of the high cost of living in B.C., and the lack of funding for the arts.”

According to Statistics Canada, the annual average household expenditures were one percent higher in B.C. compared to the rest of Canada in 2014. Residents on the West Coast have even higher expenses than those in the B.C. interior.

And while the window for local art markets decreases, the cost of living and tuition continue to burden British Columbians. As Danielle Kantola explains, “My technical art school was $320 00 for the diploma program. I find student debt extremely draining . . . It can be very challenging to pay all your bills and still strive to better yourself at the same time.”

The direct correlation between how many trees somebody plants and how much debt they carry is a common joke amongst planters. But Brown insists there’s more to the job than lucrative benefit. He credits some of his artistic inspiration to the continuous task itself.

“The [art] I’m doing now that uses repetition techniques is pretty much directly inspired by the way pieces of land are planted,” says Brown. Brown creates visually complex escapist-style drawings and paintings that are intricate, surreal, and visually fascinating. Brown writes he’s inspired by nature and the strangeness of human emotion.

For artists trying to explore the experiential aspects of human existence in order to expand their creativity, tree planting offers exciting stakes. Every day, planting wavers between mental torture and enlightenment.

Chris Akehurst, owner and operator of A&G Reforestation, has been in the planting business for over 40 years. He explained to me that during only two months of planting, people tend to experience more suffering and delight than the rest of the year combined. Romances, friendships, and nemeses often develop within the confines of planting camps. Tree planting spawns its own anti-hegemonic, intelligently ridiculous subculture.

“Tree planting culture is basically kind of like that group of kids from Peter Pan who throw the colourful goop at each other, but with a couple grumps [in the crowd], and everyone’s a fully grown adult,” says Brown. “The culture has made me more patient, and not so stressed about becoming successful in the monetary sense.”

The money, the time off, the culture, and Brown’s reminder that “strenuous work is good for the soul,” proves that if you can handle hard work, it’s absolutely rewarding. The next time you drive by a cut block, remember the artistic possibilities, and imagine what you would do with life if you felt you had nothing to lose.

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