Zen and the Art of Planting Pine Trees

words: Michael Crowden

“Here’s your hard hat.”

The way he said it seemed to imply that I was now bona fide, as though being issued this symbol of the working man conveyed a heightened status. This was a mighty fine hard hat. It was steel, not the common plastic variety, and it was brand new. Government issued. I remembered seeing guys around town who wore their hard hats even when they were off work. They did it as a way to let others know that they, by god, had a job. These were the working poor, and they were a minority among their peers. Being gainfully employed was a source of pride, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t see the need for a hard hat, at work or otherwise.

“Why do I need this?”

Right away, I could tell my question deflated the guy a bit, what with my not being sufficiently grateful. Mind you, he wasn’t wearing a hard hat, but then he wasn’t going to be planting any pine tree saplings.

“In case something falls and hits you in the head.”

This guy was standing here in his Smokey Bear hat and starched brown uniform telling me that I needed a hard hat to protect me against potential head injury from falling or otherwise hurling objects. He was a forest ranger for the Mississippi Forestry Department. This was my first job since being discharged from the Army six weeks before. I felt freed from the constraints of military discipline and was not about to let some uniform-wearing authoritarian tell me that I needed to wear head protection in the middle of the open fields where we’d be planting foot-tall pine tree saplings. I cocked my head, and slowly surveyed the open sky.

“Yeah, well, maybe you’re right,” I said sarcastically.

I adjusted the straps on the inside of the hat to fit my big head, then put it on backwards as he gave me a look that people in authority give to smart-aleck subordinates. It was a look I had seen many times before. He walked away and left me standing in the cold, damp morning dew with a gaggle of rogues, most of whom had done this job for years. It was seasonal work, done each fall. By the looks of the grungy hard hats the other guys were wearing, they had planted a veritable forest of loblolly pines. Clad in tattered bib overalls and smoking filter-less cigarettes, they had a distinctly Mississippi look about them—not like the professional hard hats you might see at metropolitan construction sites. These were men you’d see buying fried chicken and malt liquor from worn-out country stores with names like “Little John’s Grocery,” if they had a name at all. Most of them were simply known as “the store,” or by the nickname of their owner, with the only signage being faded cola and beer signs and hand-written admonishments not to spit on the floor or ask to use the restroom.

When the truck pulled around to where we were gathered, I could see the ranger who’d given me the hat riding shotgun, and another ranger behind the wheel. It was a cold day and the high humidity common in north Mississippi meant it felt a lot colder than the temperature would have you believe. The rangers stayed warm and cozy in the cab of the truck while we climbed into the back one by one. It was a military-style transport truck that reminded me of the lumbering duce-and-a-quarters I’d ridden in the Army, only the enclosure was solid, not canvas. That meant we couldn’t see outside.

Though we sat facing one another, and even though I was pretty sure that most of them knew each other, nobody said a word. You could just tell by the way they all looked that they had done this a thousand times before. Because all of us smoked, cigarette smoke quickly filled the bay as we rolled down the highway to who knows where. Well, it would be in Lafayette County, but other than that, we didn’t know where we were going and didn’t really care. We got paid by the hour and the clock started the moment we got into the truck, which was about 6:30 in the morning.

That’s when I noticed the lips on the guy in front of me. They were huge. Like most of the others, he was smoking a filter-less cigarette, and it was stuck to his lower lip. Not between his lips as you’d imagine, but stuck to the one lip. Once this guy took a cigarette from the pack, placed it in his mouth, and lit it, he’d never touch it with his hands again. With a skill honed over what must have been decades, he’d crack his mouth open slightly and curl his lower lip up until the cigarette touched his upper lip. Then he’d draw the smoke in before relaxing his lips again and exhaling either through his nose or out of the corner of his mouth. He just let the ash fall where it may. It was like watching a cartoon. I would have made a video and posted it to YouTube, but this was 1975.

When the truck slowed and jostled us around, we knew we were off-road and about to stop. We piled out onto a rolling meadow that might have been pretty; I don’t know because back then I didn’t take much notice of such things. A pickup loaded with supplies had followed us. The rangers handed out nap sacks, tree saplings, and digging tools. Because I was new, one of them pulled me aside to explain the eight-step procedure for planting loblolly pine tree saplings. The tool wasn’t a shovel, as you might think. It was a tapered tool called a dibble bar, designed especially for pine tree planting. First you push the tool in the ground at an angle; then you move the tool forward to create the hole. After you place the sapling in the hole, and while continuing to hold it up straight, you use the tool to push the soil over the roots, being careful to push first against the bottom of the roots, then the top. This ensures there is not an air pocket that would cause the roots to dry out.

After lining us up sideways, the rangers had us spread out by holding our arms out and touching each other’s finger tips to ensure the proper distance. Given the order to begin, we stepped out and planted a pine tree every four steps. Since some of us could plant faster than others, our line grew jagged as we covered the countryside with baby pines. By design, I was the slowest, but fortunately I had lined up next to what appeared to me to be the oldest man there. He was slow, too.
“Crowden,” said the ranger, as he slowly pulled up one of the saplings I had just planted. “You aren’t packing ‘em tight enough. The roots will dry out.”

“Yes, sergeant,” I said, more out of habit than out of sarcasm, although it probably sounded like the latter. He handed me half a dozen saplings he pulled from my row and told me go back and
replant them.

Son of a gun, I thought to myself. This is back-breaking work. Well, by god, he’s not going to pull any more of my trees out of the ground. I smashed the trees into their holes and squashed the dirt really tight. The proper technique required the dibble bar to be inserted a few inches from the freshly inserted sapling. Then you pulled the bar towards you to press soil against the bottom roots before pressing the bar away from you to press soil against the top. I’d check my work with a little tug before taking four steps and doing it all over again.

I paused after I had replanted all the retrieved saplings and looked around. I was now far behind the others, even the old man. Then I noticed the ranger on his knees beside one of the saplings I had just replanted. I watched as he took a spade from a holster and carefully dug around the little tree. With both hands, he pulled the tree up with a cylinder of dirt surrounding the roots.

“Crowden, come here,” he said. Still on his knees, he held the cylinder in the palm of one hand and then took the spade and sliced it into halves. “See that? Your tree’s got u-root. Ain’t gonna grow very tall with u-root.”

When I didn’t show up for work the rest of the week, the Forestry Department realized that this old boy had planted his last pine sapling. A ranger called and asked me to return the hard hat. I never did. In fact, I was wearing it when I wrote this.

Comments are closed.