Home » Archives for jeremyfcohen

Author: jeremyfcohen

Never Again – The Tree Planting Promise

tree planting blog
Last tree planted my first year tree planting. Who the fuck buys yellow flagger?

To those who could never understand the appeal of tree planting I would guess that you don’t know the smells, the scenery(rich valleys, mountains and old growth forests), the people, the money, the camaraderie, the food, the personal growth, the visceral experience of slowly killing yourself through work but loving every second of it.
To those who understand through experience, you will know the heat, the cold, the scenery(empty fields, disappearing mountaintops and short stumps), the frustrations, the money, the lows, the working conditions and the arrested development caused by months in the wilderness.

tree planting
Somewhere on the Blackwater FSR

There is a running joke amongst those who know me that starts and ends with “never again”. Since my 2nd year I’ve ended every season and repeated those words, always knowing it wasn’t really true. It takes standing beneath a fallen tree in a cotton shirt during a thunderstorm, hands shoved in pants to find warmth, to really understand the never again mentality. Yet 9 years on I am still drawn to this work. Can anyone imagine a job which would require this sort of blog and this loud philosophizing of purpose and meaning? It takes a special kind of work and lifestyle to produce these words and books and photographs and as much as I hate it, I’d be lost without it.

This year will most likely have been my last. With grad school and summer research, tree planting would be a hinderance. So from “never again” I have already begun to think “what next”? Where will I get money, how will I stay in shape, what experiences will I miss? As much as it has been a means of escaping reality, it has also grounded me. It took a 20 year, overweight and unmotivated kid and turned him into a 29 year old, less overweight and slightly more motivated self. Along the way I realized how important school was, how debilitating unchecked mental health disorders could be and possible hard work really was. It took a long time for those lessons to sink in however. My first 3 years tree planting were embarrassing. Low numbers and low motivation kept me from making any money. But the lessons were taught and by the time I started my 4th year I had been accepted at Concordia University, had started running and found new confidence. That season was my best yet and would only get better with each passing year. This season was a good sign to give up the ghost. It felt like a TV show that went one season past its prime; OK but far from great.

Nothing is forever and people must move on. I’d be lying if I said Forestry work was not in my future in some way. Who knows, maybe I will jump onto a tree planting crew in Quebec for a few weeks next August(I usually work across the country in British Columbia). I can only hope that the path I am on maintains and I can finally discover a summer without the bags on. This part of my life will continue on through this blog, my photography, future photo-documentary projects and the lifelong scars that come with the territory.

Tree Planting Heat Attack

img035(smalle)

There is a normal course of events for the start of tree planting season. You leave your home where spring is in the air, fly into central/northern British Columbia(or Ontario or wherever) and the weather is cold, wet and miserable. I have distinct memories or camping near the Nazko Reserve in Quesnel and waking up to frozen water bottles, a frozen lake and a frozen body. My -7C sleeping bag left me shivering at night and at least 2 days a season would be cancelled due to snow.

This year has been much the same, minus the cold, rain and misery(well that part is still the same). It is hot, really hot. Since the day we started the thermometer has stayed steady between 24-32C. We have literally had 3 days of rain and only one of those days saw heavy rain. The heat is unbearable most of the time and we’ve taken to freezing Gatorade bottles the night before to get some relief during the day. Our supervisor Dani has surprised us with watermelon and cans of ice cold iced tea on a few occasions. There is nothing quite like working in an open field of rocks in 30C heat and no wind to knock some sense out of you.

 

I came to a realization this season about life as a tree planter. It is interesting how social conventions just run out the door in a bush camp. One day in particular I remember 4 of us in a circle talking to each other, everyone picking their noses before heading off to eat dinner. We all share food and snacks with each other knowing that our hands are full of snot and pesticides. Can you imagine taking food from someone you just witnessed picking their nose for 5 minutes straight? We eat and talk with our mouths full, we sleep in our dirty clothes, we do not shower for days at a time and we’ll have long conversations with people while peeing in front of them. Living the good life!

Season Nine: Tree Planting Again

DSC_1546

A warning that this post may sound like an old man harping about how different things are nowadays and how the kids don’t know how easy they have it.
This is my ninth season tree planting, a place I never would have imagined myself being, but a place I am comfortable in nonetheless. Gone are the days where I felt the need to rationalize my being here as I truthfully do enjoy this job. There is a lot to hate, but the people, the experiences and the getting in shape make it worth it. Simply put, I experience things most people will never and make a lot of money in two months doing it.

After several years working for a large company, I spent two seasons working for a mid-size company and now am working for an 11 person company. Our company is camped out in Clearwater, BC behind a motel and diner, we are close to the Thompson river, there is full cellphone reception at both our campsite and within our blocks, laundry is on site and we get our meals and coffee from the diner. Let me tell you, this is a surreal experience. Surreal for severals reasons that any veteran tree planter would recognize. While a lot of tree planting companies have contracts at motels or in towns, most tree planting work is done in bush camps. These camps are secluded, far from cell service, you have to dig your own toilets, shower in terrible trailers and the food is provided by cooks inside dirty yellow school buses.

tree planting

This is where I get to the old man harping part. Though I’m used to a number of variables tree planting I have spent the majority of my time in bush camps. To give you an idea of how secluded these camps are, I once had to do an emergency evacuation of an injured person 200km from the nearest town. Today there are rookie planters who know only our currently comfortable situation with our warm showers, comfortable diner and cellphone reception. However I don’t know if you can fully appreciate tree planting if you haven’t lived in a bush camp. More than this, it is incredible to think about how much has changed in the 9 years I have been planting. What had been the complete norm for us 5 years ago, would be looked upon as crazy today. While bush camps are still a reality for most planters, some quick thoughts on the new normal for many rookies in British Columbia:

Laundry:

Ah the joys of the day off. You’ve just worked 4 or 5 days in a row, you’ve just woken up hungover and now you have to sit around and wait for all your bum co-workers to wake up. Now you’re in town, you’ve grabbed breakfast and all you want to do is sit in the pool or hang by the river. But no, instead you’ve got to spend 2 hours of your day and 10$ sitting in a dirty laundromat with a bunch of dirty tree planters. Good job! This is a staple of tree planter life.

The Rain:

There is little to prepare you for the rain and even less to prepare for days and days of rain. The feeling of waking up in a tent with rain hitting your tarp, getting breakfast in the rain, working all day in the rain and then coming home to a damp tent…in the rain, is terrible. Sometimes it rains so much you run out of dry clothing and go to bed in cold damp clothes. This year with the laundry room and the diner, we are in no danger of that. We’ll get home soaked, jump in a warm shower and run into the diner.

Internet Access:

This speaks less to our current situation and more to the way technology has changed over 9 years. The library used to be the staple of tree planting day off. You would drive to town, eat breakfast, throw your laundry in and head straight to library to use the internet. Now everyone has a smart phone or a computer and the cafe has replaced the library. Our camp has perfect cell reception and our blocks have cell reception. A fellow planter even conducted business on his break the other day. Weird.

Setting up/Taking down:

Setting up a bush camp was such a pain that our old supervisor used to pay the camp 500$ to do it. And you’d have to move camps a few times a season. You would get to your campsite, sometimes a gravel pit in the middle of nowhere, and begin constructing the mess tent and dry tent. The mess tent alone was so big it would take 15-20 people to set up. Then you would dig 5 holes for toilets, dig a giant pit for the dishwater and shower water and lay all the hoses from the river or lake to the camp site.

Tree Planting Gear: What Boots Should I Buy?

Tree planting gear is a peculiar thing that seems to transcend time and space.Tree planters speak in days and weeks instead of months and years. I mean this to say, tree planting gear that lasts 3 weeks in the bush will probably last you 10 years in the real world. I have a rain jacket that has lasted 3 seasons without a hole and I now pray to it nightly. My tent has gone through 3 seasons and it only now starting to show it’s age. If a baselayer lasts me 3 months, that brand has my ultimate loyalty. And then there are boots. Boots are the first thing to go in the bush. Tree planters walk an average of 16km a day over rough terrain. They spend their days in the rain, trudging through rivers and standing in knee high mud. Finding a pair of boots which can withstand such abuse, be waterproof and be comfortable, well that is a rare thing.

Boots are often the biggest unknown for new and experienced planters. Everyone has a preference and every pair will have their benefits and downsides. Here is the TreePlantingBlog guide to buying boots:

1. Hikers:

By far the most popular option for Silviculture workers, hikers are lightweight, comfortable and relatively cheap. Your options are also limitless although as with most things in life, I would probably stay away from ultra-cheap brands and stores like Walmart. Most camping stores will have sales and it is worth shopping around. It is advisable to buy a waterproof pair. No one wants wet feet at the end of the day. And importantly, hikers offer great ankle support, something missing from the rest of this list.

Synthetic:

tree planting bootsSynthetic hikers have a few advantages over their leather counterparts. They are light and they dry fast. Light boots make it easier to navigate rough terrain and your legs get less tired by the end of the day. Importantly, synthetic boots absorb a lot less water than leather and dry a lot faster. If your boots are soaked straight through, you can stuff them with newspaper and by the next day, the water will magically be gone. The downside, they tear easily and seem to wear down a lot quicker. There aren’t effective synthetic care solutions the same as there are for leather products. If you are a vegan or just prefer synthetics, just make sure to wash your boots at the end of the day and you’ll be fine! The don’t last as long as leather, but they do break in a lot faster!

  • Comfort: 7.5/10 – decreases over time
  • Waterproofness: 8/10 – until you get a hole and then they aren’t very repairable
  • Durability: 6/10 – not easily mended

Leather:

LOWA boots tree planting

 

It’s no secret that leather products tend to withstand more abuse. I do not buy leather products but I would be remiss to not mention their benefits. If you take care of leather boots, rub in waterproofer and make sure they stay clean, chances are you’ll have your boots for a few seasons. They tend to be a bit more expensive than synthetics, but it is worth the cost when weighed on a scale of longevity. The downside to leather? Once they are soaked through, they take a long to time to properly dry out. And when they do dry out, you must be careful that they do not shrink. Furthermore, leather gets stiff and can be hard to break in.

  • Comfort: 9/10 – once they are broken in
  • Waterproofness: 9/10 – holes can be mended
  • Durability: 8/10 – leather boots can be mended easily and cheaply

2. Caulks:

caulk boots
Image taken from Replant.ca

Caulks(pronounced: corks) are the king of forestry boots. They are heavy, they don’t breath and unless you want to get trench foot, you’ll need special absorbing socks to wear them. But they are tough, they are waterproof and they let you dominate the ground under you. You may not be able to tell in the picture above, but the soles of caulks are lined with metal spikes. If you are going to be working a contract with a lot of screefing(kicking debris away), these boots make an easy job of it. Raining and need to walk over wet logs? Not a problem. And this especially is the advantage of caulks over hikers. There is no worse feeling than having your feet go under you when walking on a log. I personally have had bad luck with caulks and I have never had a pair last longer than a season. Usually a month into work, the metal spikes have created holes and water seeps in. However others have had caulks last 2 or 3 seasons. Luck of the draw. Caulks run anywhere from 150-250$. Edit: Hoffman Boots makes a leather caulk boot which I’ve heard is pretty solid.

  • Comfort: 6.5/10
  • Waterproofness: 10/10 – until you get a hole but they are patchable
  • Durability: 6.5/10

3. Blundstones

tree planting boots

2 years ago, everyone in my planting camp bought these boots. I thought they were crazy. However 2 seasons in and everyone I know still has them! Clean them up, and you can even wear them in the city afterwards. Because they are so low cut, you’ll need to pair them with gaiters, but for 150$ you really can’t go wrong. The downside to these boots are the same as every non-caulk pair, that is how much they’ll slip in wet conditions. *Thanks Andrew for the suggestion.

  • Comfort: 7/10
  • Waterproofness: 7/10 – they need to be treated often and worn with gaiters
  • Durability: 9/10

4. Gum Boots:

bogs boots tree planting

Do not buy regular rain/gum boots from Canadian Tire or Walmart. These offer no ankle support, will rip apart in days and will hurt your feet. However this season I’ve decided to try something new. A few companies offer boots similar to caulks but without the metal spikes. I bought a pair of Bogs Classic Ultra mids which are waterproof, have a reinforced sole and appear to be much more durable than the caulks I am used to. How they’ll fare with wet logs and rough terrain is another question, but I have high hopes. Good gum boots will run you 100-200$

  • Comfort: unknown
  • Waterproofness: 10/10 – until you get a hole but they are patchable
  • Durability: unknown

So what boots should I buy? As you can tell, boots are a crap shoot. What tree planting gear lasts someone 3 seasons may only last you 3 weeks. This job demands so much from gear and variables are uncontrollable. My best advice, if you can afford it, is to always have 2 of something. Buy a pair of gum boots or caulks and have a pair of hikers on reserve, or alternate depending on weather. And remember, no matter how waterproof your boots are, no matter how much money you’ve spent, nothing will keep your feet dry and comfortable in ALL situations:

IMG_3809(smalle)

Tree Planting and Safety: A Sad State

 

spectrum resource group

In eight years working in Silviculture, I have been struck by lightning, been driven off loggings roads, almost collided with logging trucks at least three times, been put in compromising situations and felt my life or my well-being in danger countless times. Add to this the fact that I’ve known of a least six or seven deaths, several severe injuries(including someone who can no longer walk) and have witnessed numerous blatant health and safety violations.

Forestry in general is a boys club and a club of hard people with hard attitudes. Yet Silviculture is made up of a diverse grouping of locals, hipsters, hippies, university kids and international travellers. Why then do the hard attitudes regarding health and safety transcend the boundaries of Forestry into the collective psyche of Silviculture workers? I am going to argue that an unaccountability amongst workers, married to an unaccountability and selfishness amongst tree planting companies leads to a situation where our lives are needlessly put in danger.

“All it takes is one great supervisor to have a major impact on safety awareness.”

I worked for the same tree planting/forestry company for my first six years. They were/are one of the largest Silviculture companies in British Columbia. They sit on Provincial safety boards and have pioneered many of the safety accords that are currently in place meant to protect workers. Yet the juxtaposition between these facts and the reality on the ground is laughable. Foremen driving high, supervisors working people beyond the point of exhaustion for monetary gains, cooks threatening the health and physical safety of workers, untrained people using dangerous equipment, foremen being told to run trees alone at 11pm in the dark, etc. The problem, which will be illustrated in the next paragraph is one of power being exercised from the top down(ie: where the worker exercises no control over his or her own safety).

The Good(ish):

I once worked with a woman named Sarah. She was the company checker and she had no qualifications, no training and little experience in the bush. Our company had mandatory training for heavy equipment and the fact that she passed and was allowed to drive equipment was a shock to all. Long story short: while climbing a hill on a quad, Sarah reached the peak and instead of braking, hit the gas. She flew off a cliff, the quad rolled over her and snapped all the ligaments in her knee, crushed her kneecap and her head narrowly missed a large rock. This was complete and utter incompetence within a company who knew she had no place on that mountaintop. Why am I labelling this as good? Our response was perfect. Sarah was stabilized while two people drove to camp and returned with the level three first aid respondents. Sarah was c-spined, loaded into a truck and rushed 175 km to the nearest hospital. Everyone had a role and they knew what it was, even those with little or no training.

The Bad:

I honestly have too many negative stories to share. I will limit them to a paragraph. First of all, read my story about Thomas, the cook from hell. Thomas threatened workers with physical abuse, violated numerous healthy and safety codes and was never fired by my company. Next, read my story about being struck by lightning. The lightning was obviously out of everyone’s control. However we were called “pussies” by upper management for quitting our day early and our supervisor at the time did not believe we were struck. He thought we made it up to get out of work. This same supervisor also had our camp work a 17 hour day in 33 degree heat with no water supply. Lastly, I returned to work a small contract with this company two years ago. I was horrified when I learned that the supervisor was having his foremen leave camp at 9pm to quad in trees alone! My foreman was out at 10pm alone on a rainy night and flipped his quad over up a nearly vertical embankment! How could any of this occur if it were not for a complete and utter lack of safety culture amongst ourselves or the fear of repercussions?

As dire as these examples may seem, it isn’t hopeless. In fact all it takes is one great supervisor to have a major impact on safety awareness. For my first four years in the industry, I worked under a particular supervisor. This man was incredible given the circumstances described above and although the issues I have brought up existed under his supervision, his focus on particular aspects of safety have had lasting effects. Every two weeks a meeting would be held with the entire camp where the issue of driver safety would be pummelled into our heads.

“We did not speak up because we were comfortable.”

spectrum resource group

When Christine Benoit-Belisle was killed in a car crash in 2008 a few kilometres from our camp, a meeting was held that night and the situation discussed at length. Those events remained in our consciousness and four years later, in another part of the province and with a different company, those who were touched by that supervisor’s message have continued to stand up for road safety. This includes calling people out when the rules are broken. This is the importance of empowerment from the bottom up.

I do not want to argue in this piece that the solution to poor health and safety attitudes is government legislation. The reality inherent to this industry is that it can be dangerous. There is little to remove the danger inherent while working in the Canadian wilderness. Legislation only makes accomplishing work tasks more difficult and it results in companies and workers bending the rules. Likewise, the emphasis should not be placed solely on Silviculture companies. As Silviculture workers, we need to hold ourselves accountable and we need to hold the companies we work for accountable.

Conclusion:

The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work is our best friend. But workers are afraid of being fired and no one is ever held accountable. Silviculture workers need to talk about these issues amongst themselves freely and then stand together. My negative stories all took place within one company and a company who outwardly prides itself in its culture of safety. However this is an industry-wide problem. We did not speak up because we were comfortable and because we did not know any better. We did not want to go to a new company and lose our friends and we did not know that another world existed outside of ours. It took a strong voice that made us realize that we had been silent for so many years and had put our lives at risk for no justifiable reason. When money, deadlines or incompetency result in our being placed in compromising situations, we need to recognize these things and stand up for ourselves. Safety should ideally begin with good leadership but should then be spread from the bottom up. Don’t expect your company or the government to have your best interests at hand. Instead you need to learn, adapt and speak up. This isn’t about blaming the victim, this is about workers standing up to shady and dangerous practices amongst ourselves and the companies we work for.

Do you have a story about safety and tree planting? Share it in the comments below!

Thomas: The Tree Planting Cook From Hell

tree planting bc

I think it normal for everyone at some point, or quite often, to think “what have I done or experienced that is of any value up until this point in my life?” It would be wrong to say that the thought does not enter my head every so often. Thankfully, this unhealthy train of thought is susceptible to simple reflection and I realize that in between my boring life of University, video games and slight socializing, I have had some experiences which people could write short, badly written novels about. Most of these experiences come thanks to my summers tree planting or the little traveling I’ve done. Some stories will never escape my lips(or at the very least never be written on this blog) and others I will begin to share. I want to write these here for no other reason than as a way to remember these exciting moments in my life and as an appreciation for the art of creative non-fiction(and to shame people like Thomas).

Part One – Thomas the Cook:

There is a tree planting dictum that states: “the cook is your best friend“. This is more so true when one has dietary concerns. Being friendly with your camp cook can mean larger portions, faster seconds and a willingness to make you delicious vegan food. A cooks job is not an easy one: up at 4am, short nap in the afternoon and then cooking/cleaning from 3pm until 11 or 12 at night. So imagine cooking for a camp of 30-40 people while having to prepare a separate meal for one or two people. Needless to say, I’ve stopped short of bribery to ensure the cook and I get along. The camp cook serves an important function in the life of the tree planter aside from providing sustenance: they are the largest morale boost short of the hot tub on a day off. After working for 10 to 12hrs in the bitter cold and rain; burning 3000-4000 calories, food becomes our oasis. Some of my fondest memories these past 5 years involve food in some way. Cold, soggy fajitas after a 17hr day and a third degree burn or eating lasagne with Sam in our work truck at 11pm after we performed an emergency first aid rescue.

In my 8 years of tree planting, the cooking has been nothing short of spectacular. Teresa, Jen, Abe, Katherine and Christine have been amazing cooks and people. Teresa and Christine in particular will always hold a place in my heart. Teresa was the cook that people warned me I would never have. She went out of her way to make everyone happy and ensured we were well-fed. Smoothies every morning, sushi, fresh bread and soup every night. We had it far too good. I landed in Prince George at the beginning of my third year and found out Teresa had moved on. This is where the story of Thomas the cook begins…

tree planting nutritionOur camp converged on our yearly orientation meeting in Prince George with rumours swirling. Teresa had left and the new cook Thomas seemed nice. He owned a vegan restaurant in India and cooked in Ottawa. I couldn’t have been happier. In the dank hall of the conference room, my eyes focused on a tallish man with a moustache and fedora, arms crossed and sitting on a table facing the crowd. This was Thomas and when it came time for him to address the crowd, his kurt, brutish manner managed not to betray our expectations for the summer ahead. As is my custom, I approached Thomas after orientation in order to introduce myself and offer to help out in any way, considering my dietary limitations. His response: “Vegan? Yeah. We’ll see what happens.

How about I headbutt you? Then you’ll have a fucking problem!

His lackluster cooking did not however, betray his cold response. For a cook claiming to have owned a vegan restaurant, his use of frozen vegetables lacked some imagination. While the meat-eaters enjoyed their steaks, et al, the vegetarians and vegans were stuck with repetitive, terrible meal choices. I went to bed hungry more often than not and our displeasure soon became very apparent. Three weeks into our season and we began to witness the crazy side of Thomas. His wonderful assistant quit in a stream of tears after having obscenities hurled at her and Thomas barely spoke a word to anyone in camp. Now that Thomas was cooking solo, the food situation for the vegetarians worsened. By this point, Thomas scared us to where no one dared question his cooking and morale stayed low. Do not forget the point to which food plays a critical role in our lives. We stopped speaking of food on our rides home except to complain or express pity for the vegetarians. The atmosphere in the mess tent was sullen and bleak. Our oasis of food was revealed to be a mirage, an illusion of Teresa and a joke on the word edible.

The Confrontation:

After another meal of frozen vegetables and unpalatable goop, I hit my breaking point and took up our case with the camp supervisor, Jim. The case was made on behalf of and at the request of all the vegetarians. The next day I saw Thomas unloading the food for the coming week. I was walking towards my tent when I heard a whistle followed by Thomas waving me over. He motioned me behind the school bus kitchen where I met him sitting on a ramp, slightly elevated above me.
“What is your problem?” He asked, cold eyes locked on me.
“Excuse me?”
“Why the hell didn’t you come talk to me about my cooking?”
“Well you are not the most approachable person AND it is Jim’s job to deal with this.”
“What’s wrong with my cooking? You’re the ONLY person who seems to hate it. I asked all the vegetarians in camp and they love my cooking!” – Thomas was an intimidating figure. The majority of people who told him his cooking was decent had done so out of fear.
“That is not what I have heard. You feed us mostly frozen veggies…etc. The vegetarians asked me to talk to Jim”
“Why the fuck did you go to Jim?” His hands were gripping the edge of the ramp and his body kept lurching towards me.
“It’s his job, calm down Thomas.”
“Fuck you!”
What is your problem? Stop yelling”
“Problem?” He brought his face down within centimetres of mine. “You want to see a fucking problem? How about I headbutt you, then you’ll have a fucking problem!”
I don’t exactly remember what happened next but visibly shaken, I most likely uttered something embarrassingly awkward and walked away. I made my way across camp to a work truck and explained to some friends what had just occurred. We noticed Thomas sitting inside a truck opposite us. He sat staring, not moving a muscle except to slowly drink from his beer. He sat there with his gaze fixed on me for the next half hour.

The next morning I nervously waited in line for Thomas to serve breakfast. Thomas looked me in the eyes and said:
Since you’re so special and have such special needs, I’m not going to feed you“. So I didn’t eat breakfast and that night, food had to be snuck to me. This ridiculousness ended the next morning when Jim the supervisor exchanged choice words with Thomas.

Where Crazy Gets Really Crazy:

tree planting stories

This is where the bipolarity of Thomas and his general insanity took new and “exciting” turns. Thomas, now forced to feed me, refused to look me in the eye as I refused to look into his. Slowly he began to alienate more and more planters. Dani and Jess incurred his wrath and he began to loudly complain that we were not holding our plates high enough for him to properly serve us food. The strangest thing was that Thomas also began acting like my best friend. Huge smiles, friendly greetings and a vast improvement in the quality of my food. I was perplexed, although even as our relationship had outwardly improved, his manner became more inexplicable and insane. Thomas began sleeping inside the kitchen bus. When informed of that being a health hazard, he set up his tent on the roof of the bus. Someone caught Thomas filling up our camp’s juice reserves with lake water instead of the purified water at hand. The nail in the insanity coffin however, was his behaviour when left alone. Joel, an injured planter, was to experience this first hand. Thomas would sporadically sneak up behind Joel, laugh maniacally and walk away in silence. Or they were to pass each other and Thomas would literally scream gibberish in Joel’s face and then continue on his way.

With the culmination of these events and the “inability” of our company to find a replacement cook(something I still take issue with) a meeting was called. We drove several kilometres outside of camp one night, so as to speak without Thomas around. We aired our grievances, expressed our fears and were eventually told that we were out of luck and would have to deal with him for our final 3 weeks. With two weeks left to go in our season and Thomas appearing as “normal” as he’d ever been, he suddenly disappeared. Our season was going to be extended by an extra week and Thomas had already booked his flight home. A day before his flight and with 2 weeks still left in our season, he fell off a ramp and “injured his back”.  What a mess. Our company scrambled, did what they should have done a month earlier, and found another cook.

There was a polarity to Thomas that spoke to a severe mental illness. He had reduced an assistant to tears several times over, threatened me with physical violence and refused to feed me only to reverse course and act as my best friend two weeks later. He smiled at us one day, scowling the next and abused his authority in hazardous ways. Three years ago, this was one of my first encounters with the rope-walk of mental illness and how poorly that reality co-exists with a broader reality. The world of the mentally ill does exist in an alternate universe, albeit one that runs alongside our own. This is something I would later see in myself and in many others. Thomas taught me valuable lessons in diplomacy and stress, as well as in how to deal with psychosis in the work place. In much the same way that my worse days as a tree planter begat life lessons and positive memories, this episode has turned into a great story to tell as well as a lesson for myself and for our entire camp. Never let crazy cook, stand up for yourself and do not be afraid to call out an abusive company. We stayed silent for too long when so much insanity could have been avoided.

Addendum: This story happened a long time ago and some details have been lost. I thought it only fair to add a quick edit. 1 – We had a planter with severe peanut allergies in our camp. The peanut butter had to be kept in a separate tent. Thomas fed this gentleman(Andy) a cookie with walnuts in it, leading to an emergency evacuation to the hospital, literally almost killing him. 2 – After Thomas “hurt” himself, we were left without a cook. For a week, Daniel, a planter, volunteered to cook for us. Seeing Dan in an apron in the morning was an instant morale booster, as was his willingness to cook vegetarian, even though I doubt he’d ever cooked a vegetable in his life!