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Tree planting for many folks isn’t just a job, it becomes a lifestyle. I would get excited in the Spring, knowing that I would shortly be leaving city life behind and the allure of technology along with it. I looked forward to preparing all the items and gear I would need for the season. I tingled with anticipation at the thought of seeing old friends again and embarking on another tree-planting adventure. In many ways, the beginning of a planting season always felt like the first day of school, so it felt like a natural progression from schoolhood into adulthood.

Photograph by Rita Leistner / Stephen Bulger Gallery

Making the Decision

There’s a joke amongst planters that you never actually retire. You only say you’re never coming back at the end of the season, only to find yourself ready to go on day one of the next. We try to coax each other out of retirement, saying things like, “What about coming out for a celebrity plant? Just one shift!” For many people, it is difficult to consider leaving this lifestyle behind. And this was certainly the case for me.

It was in my fourth season of planting when I felt like I was running away from something rather than running toward something. I had this neverending need to keep moving. Every offseason I would try something different, a different job, a different city, a different province. During the dark days of Winter, I would rack my brain if there was anything else I should be working towards or doing. I would take courses, workshops, and research continuing education programs - only to find time had passed quickly and suddenly Spring was in front of me again. I would think to myself, ‘It makes sense to go back out and do one more season, I’ll see friends and make good money.’

This cycle continued until I felt confident I didn’t want to continue with fieldwork. The cons were outweighing the pros, and what sealed the deal was the lack of sustainability I felt in pursuing longer-term management positions and the physical limitations that were starting to catch up to me. To say tree planting is a physical job is the understatement of the year. While ideally, silviculture workers can support their bodies before, during, and after the season, it is just basic biology that, at a certain point, people need to be realistic with where their body is at and its capacity. While the industry is improving on supporting the overall health of tree planters, the “shut up and plant” culture is unfortunately still deeply entrenched. I decided to trust the feeling that had been developing deep in my belly, calling for me to move on from tree planting.

A lesson I learned later in life is that keeping decisions to myself is empowering. Historically, when I told people my decision to stop planting and then changed my mind, I felt a sense of guilt and shame. Even when the people I shared my decision-making process with supported my flip-flopping, I still felt like I was no longer a reliable narrator of my life story, I felt like I couldn’t trust myself. Now, when I keep decisions to myself for a while to let them percolate, I give myself permission to change my mind, I give myself permission to explore all the options and try new things. Looking back, when I started considering stopping planting it would have been helpful to keep the concrete decision-making to myself until the chips began to land.

Decision Made, Now What?

I felt a deep sadness, if I wasn’t a tree planter who was I? I think from a young age we are encouraged to link our identity to our job, starting with the age-old question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” The expected answer is always a job title, not a personality trait or a state of being but a job. So when it comes time to change careers, it can feel incredibly debilitating for the identities we’ve built of ourselves in our minds. This is what happened to me. I felt deep grief for the chapter of my life that I was choosing to close.

An important note here, I let myself be sad. So often, with significant transitions and changes, I want to rush through the hard feelings. But through practice, I’ve learned that life is allowed to be sad and hard for a while. It is healthy and important to let these feelings move through me rather than them getting stuck somewhere in a hip socket or shoulder joint manifesting as back or neck pain. There is research demonstrating that the body manifests emotional pain as physical pain, if you want to learn more about this check out Dr. Gabor Maté's book When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. Throughout the process of letting go, I work on trusting that this chapter will always be with me. These experiences led me to the person I am today, and I am really proud of who that person is. During my time tree planting I learned so many things and grew exponentially as a person, I will carry all of this forward with me.

So I let myself be sad, then went into solution mode. Okay, if I am not going to plant trees anymore, what am I going to do? Luckily I had slowly been working to answer this question for a few years so I had some great leads.

I got the advice to talk to a career counsellor or life coach. This was one of the best decisions I made. I’ve experienced this phenomenon in life where when I’ve worked really hard on something for a long time, I can no longer think objectively about the thing. I almost always find it helpful to have a neutral third party weigh in on the situation to help bring me back to reality. Another benefit of working with a neutral external party is that they can see your work experience and help you figure out where it might transfer. Because during this time, a loud and critical voice kept swirling around my brain creating tension in my sternum and keeping me up at night. This voice said:

I have no transferrable skills. I am not qualified for anything other than planting trees. I'm stuck.

While this is entirely untrue, it was creating a murky haze around what the future could look like. Working with a career coach helped me see what I wanted to do and the direction I needed to go to get there. Working with someone in this way can be expensive and not accessible for everyone but there are folks who provide a sliding scale so it is worth considering if looking to make a big transition.

Building a Beautiful Life

I realized I needed to figure out what made planting feel so good. I wanted to hone in on the aspects that kept drawing me back and made it such a wonderful career so that I could work to incorporate them into my life. Here are some of the things that I loved about planting that I wanted to recreate versions of in this new chapter:

  • a sense of belonging;

  • friends - making friends as an adult is hard - planting made it easier;

  • solitude bookended with community;

  • space from technology;

  • structure & routine;

  • goal-oriented;

  • physically intense;

  • being outside.

Now I can’t sit here in my home office as I write this and tell you I have achieved all of these things. Many of the items on this list are probably my purpose in life, so casually building these into my day-to-day routine will take time. But knowing about them is important, and helpful.

It is also helpful to keep this list in mind when starting to consider other jobs. One thought that I hadn’t considered in terms of my next job was to stay in forestry. I moved back to Ontario from BC to connect with my community and didn’t consider job options within the sector.

When I started looking into it, there were lots of jobs within and outside of the sector that looked interesting:

  • Forestry Consulting;

  • Human Resources;

  • Project Management;

  • Wildfire;

  • Farming;

  • Outdoor Guiding;

  • Park Ranger.

I got excited at the possibilities. I decided to go back to school for a postgraduate certificate in Human Resources because that encapsulated a lot of the work I wanted to do. In the meantime, I was working on integrating these things into my life to help support me:

  • Finding like-minded community;

  • Creating a movement routine that feels good;

  • Prioritizing and making space for outdoor adventures;

  • Appreciating the indoors, like when it is raining or storming outside and I am inside so warm and so cozy.

Practicing grace and patience and letting the transition be challenging was the best thing I did for myself. It's easy to be hard on ourselves and want things sorted out immediately, but life doesn't work like that. It takes months and years for things to transition and make sense again. And that is okay.


If I Am Not a Tree Planter, Who Am I?

This is huge. Life transitions are hard, and this one is rarely talked about.

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