Rita Leistner still remembers the day she planted 6,000 trees. It was 1989, and she was working as a tree planter in the Canadian bush, a job she held from 1984 to 1993. Tree planters need to hit around 2,000 trees per day to make minimum wage; the best of them can exceed 5,000. “Most of that day is a blur because it was such an insane physical ordeal, but I’ll never forget the number,” she says. She estimates she planted half a million trees during that formative decade in her twenties.
She remembers the job vividly. “Aside from how physically hard it is simply to walk in the terrain–overgrown, steep, strewn with logs left behind, gnarled with overgrowth, pitted with giant holes, obstacles of fallen trees and stumps, etc., there are the punishing biting insects, the rain, the snow, the endless exposure to the elements,” she tells me. “And yet in all of that, you feel incredibly alive! The air is so clean you can’t help but breathe deeper. The smells of the earth and wood and plant life, mosses and lichen, mushrooms, and the smell of evergreen needles (my favourite smell of all). After a rain, it’s even more pronounced.”
Leistner would grow up to become a photojournalist and documentary photographer, a calling that would take her to conflict zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and beyond. But thirty years after reaching her “personal best” of 6,000 trees, Leistner would make her way home once more to document the next generation of tree planters in Canada. From 2016 to 2019, she lived in their bush camps, braving the terrain as they did every day. The result is the epic book Forest for the Trees (Dewi Lewis Publishers, UK), currently available for advance sales via Indiegogo, as well as the documentary film Forest for the Trees.
We asked the photographer to tell us more about her time living with this close-knit community of more than 100 young tree planters. Support the book–and reserve your copy–today via Indiegogo.
Can you explain the basics of tree planting? Is it right that these professional tree planters are replanting trees that have been harvested for lumber? Is this profession unique to Canada?
“You are right, most of the land they are planting is land that was harvested for lumber. There is a new wave, however, where trees sponsored by government initiatives are being planted for carbon sequestering to combat climate change. Notably, even trees that are going to be cut down in 80 years are effectively combatting climate change by sequestering carbon.
“Is it distinctly Canadian? This kind of high numbers professional tree planting is very typically Canadian. In the US, because of how land ownership works, tree planting is done by the logging companies themselves. In Canada, it’s done by subcontractors who only plant trees. They are the world leaders in high numbers tree planting. If tree planting were an Olympic sport, Canadians would win all the gold medals.
“They do a lot of planting in Australia too, but they were trained by Canadians. I know the guy who started one of the first big tree planting outfits in Australia. Keep in mind that tree planting is a young profession, only in its second generation. It has a lot of potential, and I believe its time has come.”
What is it like to physically be in the forest, doing this work?
“It makes you feel indescribably close to the land. When you are planting trees, unlike if you are just walking or hiking, you are digging a hole, bending down, and putting your hand with the sapling deep into the earth thousands of times a day. Your nose is literary right next to the ground as you open up the earth, and all those smells are delighting and intriguing your senses throughout the day. That, I would say, is the great failing of a photograph, that it cannot show smells.
“Oh, and sounds too, of course. There’s the wind, the sound of the rain, birds, birds, and more birds, the buzzing of insects (that’s not a good sound because they are usually also biting you), the sound of your shovel clinking on rocks when you look for a plantable spot (clink, clink, clink, fuck), or your shovel whooshing into the earth if you find a soft spot; the sound of your own heavy breathing as you exert yourself, or grunting when you forcibly slam your shovel into the earth or have to pry open a hole in hard ground; the sound of your boots sloshing in swampy land or mud, the sound of coyotes in the distance, the sound of yourself yelling when you hit a rock and the pain reverberates through your shoulder: fuck fuck fuck!”
What are some of your most powerful memories from your four years living with the tree planters?
“I have crystal clear memories of so many powerful moments over the four years. Tree planting is very emotional for everyone, because you are pushing yourself so hard all the time, and you are exhausted, and being a documentary photographer, you experience similar conditions to your subjects, so I was exhausted all the time too, and trying so hard to do my best, and I hardly slept. No one is getting enough sleep, and everyone is working themselves to the bone. You see everyone at their most raw.
“The sad things, like broken hearts and dogs dying—those moments are felt by everyone in the camp because the grief radiates out in every direction. When D.’s heart was broken, she retreated into the forest for days, isolating herself and her tent from everyone else. From time to time, out of the blue, she would let out a scream so loud and woeful we could hear it from the road. I can still hear it as if I were there. It resonates with every memory past and experience since of lost love. Nothing is more painful or, unfortunately, memorable than that.
“When Evan’s dog Ernest died suddenly in the middle of the cut block one day, I heard about it while I was at a different camp about three hundred miles away. I packed up my gear and my trailer, drove to a city where I could get some prints made of photographs I’d taken of Ernest, then drove to the camp where Evan was so he could have the pictures to put in his trailer. It took two days to get those photos to him, but that’s what you do. A little while later, Evan gave us the gift of talking about Ernest, and about loss in general, on camera for my film. But it’s not just about loss. It’s about how one moves on, and finds joy again, despite loss.
“On a happier note, I’ll never forget the moment I captured the photograph of Jennifer Veitch that’s on the cover of the book. The physical, technical, and environmental factors that go into making each of these tree planter portraits is extraordinary. So many things can go wrong. Everything has to be perfect. I make a successful portrait maybe once a week, despite shooting non-stop all day for days on end—and that’s only when the weather is cooperating.
“The most successful portraits are the ones that are so rare and so exact that if I were to paint the perfect portraits of tree planters, that’s what they would look like. In this photograph, Jennifer is leaping over a mountain, with the mountain in the background, in mid-action. It’s hard to describe how difficult it was to capture that exact moment. I am running backwards through this insanely difficult-to-maneuver terrain with my ten-pound US $30,000 Phase One medium format camera with my assistant running backwards right beside me like my shadow carrying a Profoto B1 500 light with a big soft-box on it, and Jennifer driving her body forward and landing her shovel to plant the next tree… And she is moving fast! I mean, what could go wrong?
“I’d been shooting her for over three hours when we got that shot. When I had it, I knew it. And by the way, it was the third try in two years of trying to get a shot of Jenn that I was satisfied with. And it was the first time in the two years I’d been shooting that I felt I’d captured the shot I’d had in my mind for over twenty years.
“My sister Linda got me my first planting job in 1984, and I’ve always associated planting with her, and that particular love and attachment one can have with a sibling, if we are lucky. Jenn’s sister was also planting, and already Jenn and Cynthia reminded me of me and my sister when we were younger. When I got back to camp that night and looked at the portrait of Jenn on my computer and saw that it was perfect, I wept (see, even my happy memories end up with me crying).
“Oh, and every time I crashed my drone. Once I climbed a thirty-foot spruce tree to recover it!”
What is your most indelible memory from your own time tree planting in the 80s and 90s?
“One of them was when our planting block became the site of a forest fire. Back in those days, anyone in the vicinity of a fire was obligated to put on water packs, grab shovels, and fight the fire. We weren’t qualified to do it and had had very little training. It was crazily dangerous and, as you can imagine, hot! I was a crew boss at the time and felt a great sense of responsibility for the safety of my crew. No one was hurt in the end, but I’d never experienced stress like that before then.
“Another one: One year, the loggers at one of the companies we were working for were on strike. Tree planters aren’t voting members of the unions, but they do work for the logging companies. Our contract obligated us to continue working despite the strike. But the loggers considered us scabs and interlopers from the south (most of the planters are a kind of urban migrant workforce; mostly younger people who go to the northern boreal forest zones from the cities in the south along the US border).
“One night, no sooner had we finished setting up our new camp (an operation that can take a full day or more to complete), a convoy of some thirty trucks full of angry loggers rolled up in the middle of the night demanding we leave. There were so many of them they were able to push over our ‘reefer’–an enormous, refrigerated truck used to store the seedlings we plant, and weighing some twenty tons! When it landed on its side, it sounded like an explosion. It woke me in my sleep.
“None of us had been so scared in our lives. We weren’t given time to pack up half our gear; just left stuff lying in the forest; a lot of expensive gear got broken or left behind. The convoy of loggers ‘escorted’ our convoy of tree planters out of the bush toward town where a police convoy then escorted us right out of town. By the time we arrived in the next town, the sun was coming up. I stayed awake all night talking to the driver of the bus to keep him from falling asleep at the wheel. After that, we didn’t go back to work on that contract and had to wait for more work.”
Did any of the planters you met remind you of yourself?
“Let me answer this another way. I got an email this week from someone who had an old and dear friend named Ted Wheeler, who planted for over thirty years. Ted passed away last summer at the end of the planting season, and this person wrote to me to say he’d been looking at my photographs a lot since then. He said he could see a part of Ted in every one of them. It’s the same for me: I see a part of myself in every one of them. In my work, I’m always trying to make these connections, the things that enable us to see ourselves in others. This project is about this community of tree planters, but it’s also about me, and about what I remember from that time in my life.”
?How does this body of work tie back to your work in war zones? In what ways, if any, has this project been a source of healing or reflection for you after your time covering conflict?
“Returning to tree planting was coming full circle for me. I’ve always said that the work of tree planting prepared me for working in other challenging circumstances, like conflict zones–the grueling physical labour, the rugged living conditions, the logistical skills necessary for living and working off the grid including off-road terrain driving, vehicle maintenance, all the ordeals of figuring out water and power in remote locations, not bathing for many days on end; the self-motivation necessary for piece-work labour and the psychological determination to get through it all.
“Of course, war zones bring a whole other level of realities and psychological factors to the table, and I am by no means saying they are the same thing, but the physical part, the logistical part, the psychological strength, that prepared me for the rest of my life. After planting, I became a photographer and spent the next twenty years honing my skills and working on many long-form documentary photography projects with a focus on communities (such as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, women wrestlers in the U.S., psychiatric wards, logging camps).
“When you plant trees, you live in bush camps, sometimes hundreds of miles from towns or cities. It is a very close-knit community. That is a big part of what draws people to it. I think I spent the rest of my career trying to understand how communities worked. In 2016, I came back from a trip to Palestine, and I had just published my last book about Afghanistan, and I decided I wanted to take a break from conflict. I’d been through a lot psychologically.
“In 2007, I got sober, which gave me more choices. By 2015, I was ready to make a project about hope and recovery. I’m definitely drawing parallels between healing the land and healing oneself. Mental illness and addiction and recovery are themes that I feel are contained within the photographs–planting trees and heroically facing each moment of life, one tree at a time, one day at a time. These themes also run throughout my film.”
Is there a question you wish I’d asked you that I didn’t?
“The question I ask myself a lot, given how much work it takes is: ‘Is it worth it?’ My answer changes depending on my mood. My therapist says that an artist asking whether their work is worth all the blood, sweat, and tears is the same question as ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ and it’s better not to go there. Life and making art are just like planting trees. Stay focused and keep going, one tree at a time, one picture at a time, one day at a time. It’s that simple, and that hard.”
Rita Leistner is represented by Stephen Bulger Gallery.