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April 6, 2023

The Tree Planting Series I. – How I started tree planting

“There is no electricity, you get the water from a stream behind the house and you have limited propane to cook and in top of that you have to climb a pathless mountain for an hour every morning to get to work, in pouring rain almost every day?,” my friend asked me astonished.

“Yeah but it’s good. It’s not freezing and we are sleeping in a house.”
“Why? Where do you sleep normally?”
“In tents.”

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It was June in Scotland, and for most of the summer on Knoydart, the season was so rainy that the locals haven’t seen anything like that in a decade, or so I was told. Later, as more rain arrived, they changed it to 15 years. I knew it would be cold, windy and wet in Scotland, but I wasn’t expecting to have to clean fog off my eyeglasses when I woke up in the mornings in the summer nor did I ever imagine that I will have to make fire in the wood burner on my birthday, in the middle of July. And yet, I still voluntarily say goodbye to the amenities of the 21st century, grab my tent and shovel anytime, and (sometimes hitch) ride up north, or west, to plant trees.

With a conflicting motivation on life after a trauma, this job couldn’t have come at a better time. My first motivator was my overall desire to enact radical change in the way I lived my life, with my eye in fields where I get to do good to the planet yet I can kinda-sorta do what I want with my time.

My second motive was a question of self-discipline. Tree planting is piecework, which means you are paid a set amount per tree. I wondered — when it gets tough— where would my motivation come from? Would it be from the money (I hoped not)? From a competitiveness to beat my own numbers everyday or someone else’s numbers? Could I push myself to what extent? I was curious and genuinely had no idea how I would push myself when it came to that. Especially because at that time of my life I felt like a failure so I wanted to prove myself I am good for something, too.

My third motivation was to experience life. When I met my now-boss, James on the Camino, I listened for days to his crazy stories of his planting years in Canada and the stories about his planters who now plant with his company.  Then I met one of his planters, Emma who told me her stories, too. Stories you don’t hear from just anyone. Stories I wished I could tell about myself. Despite my life already being like a Brasilian soap opera, I still wanted to collect more stories to tell. Good stories, from now on. And when my then “soon-to-be-boss” told me he thinks I’m the right kind of crazy to do this job and said  I’ll be good at it, it gave me enough confidence to at least, want to try myself out.

And so, on September 29th in 2021, instead of returning home to my lovely apartment and the corporate job I hated in Budapest, I just randomly bought a ticket to Scotland to plant trees as a complete rookie, with 0 experience.

As I sat there in front of the fire in July on Knoydart, in a luxurious house of a BAFTA winning film producer I was house sitting for, with every part of my body aching from planting and every cell of mine yelling from exhaustion, I was telling my friend about the way we live and work and play out there.

The cold is less of a problem when you start moving, in fact I always take layers off as I warm up and sometimes I end up planting in a t-shirt by the afternoon. There were times when we planted in hail because the car was an hour walk away and there was no place where we could find shelter, so we might as well just keep going.

Mentally I prepared for planting like a sport, yet the soreness I felt after the first two days were incomparable to anything I’ve ever done before and I did kickboxing competitively for years which allowed me to experience many different kinds of physical pain.

I used to worry a lot if I was wearing my tree bag correctly, judging by the deep bruises playing in blue and purple along both my hips until I saw that nearly all the rookies had them as well. My palm on my planting hand was always full with blisters, my wrist and forearm was so overused at times I could barely lift my water bottle.

When the ground is not frozen solid, the actual motion of planting a tree is not so difficult; a throw of the shovel arm, a two-fingered slot with the tree hand, and a kick with the boot. Yet, as with everything else, distinction and excellence comes with an increase in quantity and simultaneous decrease in speed.

As a rookie, I put 450 trees in on my first day in 4 hours, which I felt was already an athletic achievement. Though most vets are playing with numbers over 2,500 on their first few days of the season.

I look forward to sharing what the actual job itself is like in the later installments of this three-part mini series I plan to write about my tree planting experiences. Thanks for being a part of it!

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