Planting trees on the South Fork Salmon River with a crew of Mexican men (part 1)
The men are energetic and talkative, strong and young. Unfortunately they don’t speak my language, nor I theirs. Well, they are speaking in broken English, occasionally, and I speak no Spanish, decisively. The Mexicans have a reputation of doing the taxing job of planting trees efficiently, thoroughly, and quickly. Senior Heffe, the boss, said I could try this job but that all of the gringos he’s seen over the last 10 years had not lasted because it is very hard work. He told me that I wouldn’t last two days; I laughed and told him I was 55 and I figured that was young enough to know, old enough to know better. We both laughed.
“See you tomorrow” I said.
“You don’t have to.”
We headed out the next day with a crew of 27 people packed into two vans and travelled an hour or so to the starting point and an immediate climb of 1,000 feet, weighed down with roughly 40 pounds of seedlings. We started the planting and I really didn’t care much for the work, but I did care for the money—$13.00/per hour–and the views. I figured we were going on the Cascade District west of the town of Cascade, on a piece of logged land that I didn’t know, nor care much about. But we went east to a burned and cut-over piece of the South Fork of the Salmon River drainage. This salvage sale was challenged and lost by The Wilderness Society several years ago.
This is my home territory—the Needles—which is now adjacent to a 100,000 acre proposed wilderness that I had fought to preserve for more than 25 years: steep land with burned trees now stacked one upon another in a land of full of black bears, spruce grouse, mountain lion, huckleberries, morel mushrooms, gray wolves, tamarack trees,and in the river below steelhead, bull trout, and Chinook salmon. This is no wasteland, but a stunningly beautiful place, impaired, for a short time, by fire and management. This parcel was eliminated from wilderness candidacy by logging that the U.S. Forest Service had proposed and managed roughly five years ago. I was now replanting this land by utter coincidence.
Let me be the first to say that it ain’t particularly easy work: climbing a thousand or more feet up and down and up and down through a burned canyon with many downed trees, planting seedlings in a straight line of people that were placing trees 15 feet apart. We lined up 27-people across and swept the land; we came down on this land like a biblical plague of locusts that stomped every inch of the land we crossed. I was confused by commands that were spoken in Spanish and when the workers moved in formation to meet convolutions of this uneven land; I moved differently.
All the animals were chased away as we hacked the ground with our foot-and-a-half long blades, clearing a place where seedlings could grow, and planted small Ponderosa pine, spruce, and Douglas fir. I saw three bears that ran and at least half a dozen piles of their scat along the route. There was much ruckus among my amigos when animals were seen, but I didn’t see much beyond the land below my feet. After the second day, my muscles ached, my hands and feet were blistered, and my air was spent; I slept on the floor of the motel room in Cascade instead of driving 30 miles to and from the work site to make the starting time of 5:30 am, and ate the generous food that was offered me. I could afford no more.
The best thing about this job was that it provided an opportunity to get in better shape and get paid for it. And of course it was a gorgeous stretch of land known by few. The water tasted sweet out of rivulets that ran down the mountainside and I drank it in quickly in the cup of my hands, quenching the thirst, again and again. I’d experienced a place that I never saw this closely and I vaguely hoped that the threat of Giardia and disease carrying ticks were going to prove empty ones. At the moment I didn’t care. The water in each moment was pure and life giving. I hadn’t counted upon the aches and pains that arose in the odd crannies that I never knew could give pain. Aspirin did the job on most of these aches and the rest were only the price of entry to the Mexican ways in this American land. When the week was over, I gladly took the weekend to heal and came back for another week of this abuse in paradse.
Part 2 Continued next week