I stand by the side of the road in the steadily falling rain watching cars, pick up truck and vans drive by. I have no idea what Anial looks like. I have no idea what he drives. A red Nissan Navara pulls over. I confidently assume this is Anial. Somebody is in the front passenger seat so I take the back door. “Hi, I’m Chris,” I say. Thinking as I say it, he knows who I am. He’s picked me up. “Rato,” he replies. Not Anial. I decide to stick with it because the truck is already moving and I really want this job to be real. We pull into a BP garage up the road and do nothing. Neither driver or passenger gets out. Nobody says anything. We just wait. I begin to wonder if I’ll be coming back out of the woods today. Nothing about this seems sensible to me. My heart rate goes up. My brain starts spinning. The other back door opens. “Chris,” another man says, hand extended. “I’m Anial.” Ok, so at least the guy I’ve been speaking to is real. Drivers change, Anial gets in the front. Somebody attaches a trailer. We pull out, cross the road to the Mobil garage and in to a car park. People shift about. There’s a minivan. Still nobody says anything. I am still not sure if this is going as well as it could be. Finally we hit the road. Out of Napier, past Tutira and then inland towards the bigger hills and the forestry blocks.
Anial introduces the passenger in the front as Jim. “He doesn’t speak English, you don’t speak Fijian so I have to have two conversations.” In the end he only has one. Talking to me about the problem with machines taking people’s jobs. Not a problem for us I think to myself as we move closer to starting a job everyone has told me will be tough. Through the pouring rain spires of tall pines line the gravel road until we hit the wastelands. The logged acres. People mill about a shed in fluorescent orange. I finally begin to relax. Things start to resemble a working environment at last. The side door of the minivan opens up and the rest of the crew spill out in to the drenched air. There are no introductions. We’re drawn into an old metal shed that sounds like it’s only one big storm from being knocked down. A man called Dave introduces himself as the forest manager. We go over safety, which isn’t much more than be careful. Logging trucks are on the road. The hillside are often steep and littered with what is called slash. The left over trunks, branches, pine cones, and stumps of the last harvest. Dave then passes around one of the saplings. A thin branch of a tree with a pathetic looking root stump. This is what we’ll be putting in the ground. We’re then huddled around a small laptop screen to watch an elderly man demonstrate how easy it is to dig a hole, put a tree in, and close the hole in. Now Anial takes over, gear is dished out. The experienced guys snapping up what they can. I get my size 6 boots which feel more like an 8. I get a pair of green canvas chaps. I end up with someone else’s old belt. Fortunately it has holes the whole way around, so my narrow frame doesn’t yet become an issue. I then get a short sleeved maybe waterproof, fleece lined jacket to throw on. High-vis must be worn at all times.
We load into the van and drive deeper in to the wastes. We get out in to the unrelenting rain. The regulars are all commenting on how this isn’t normal. It rains sometimes sure but never this bad. Monday. First day. Probably the worst day. I’m given a wire frame and a shovel. Anial gets someone to strap me in to a broken harness to help hold the frame upright. A red plastic box of trees is pushed in. I’m lined up with the rest of the new planters. The experienced crew have already disappears over a ridge. Shovel moving up and down. A reach behind for a tree. A tree in the ground, and they’re gone. We stand four meters apart. We’ve seen the video. We know what to do. The first cut is the deepest. Push forward, cultivate the soil. The second cut comes in front. Lean backwards, cultivate the soil some more. The third cut goes in the middle. Wobble the shovel, widen your hole. Reach back, pull out a tree. Push the tree in the hole, roots first. Pack down. Give the tree a pull to ensure the roots are pointing down and that the tree is secure. Walk on three meters. Repeat. It sounds so much easier than it actually is. The ground is covered in debris. You have to scrape away until you find soil. You have to stay in line with the crew. All of whom are moving at different speeds. Once we reach the ridge, the wind drives waves of rain into our faces. The wet sinking in. The damp rising up sleeves. We reach the road. Turn around, move up four meters, go back. We manage to plant a box each.
Anial decides the weather is too bad. Not worth carrying on. Everyone is wet through. Some people get changed. I already know my wet clothes are going to try faster in the heat of the truck than in the rain back in Napier. My concerns shift towards whether or not this was actually a good idea. When I get wet, I’ve got nowhere to dry anything. I’ve spent a year avoiding the rain for precisely this reason. I don’t own enough clothes. I don’t really want to have to spend money on things I’m going to have to throw away in three months. I get back to the Westshore Holiday Park. I drape what I can in the cab and stand under the hot water flowing from the shower until the timer runs out. At least I’m warm now. I dry off in my towel, which I realise I now have nowhere to hang. The sun I haven’t seen all day has already set. This is going to be more challenging than I thought.
On the plantation the next morning there are already different faces in the van, all of them watching the wind blast waves of rain in to the windows. Nobody is keen to get out. Only the smokers, which turns out to be almost everyone. We wait. Anial says “If it’s still bad at 8, we’re going home.” A waste of a drive but of course it stops. We unload, gear up. I start following the line of the experienced crew. I’m left behind in minutes. The rest of the new guys are still floating around on the ridge. I’ve at least got trees in the ground. Anial shifts us to a different block so we can better see one another, see the pines we’ve planted. The soil shifts between pumice, sand, clay and mud. It all sticks to the spade, sticks to the boots. Rain comes and goes. Wet with it. Too hot without it. I’ve no idea how to dress for this job, and I’m starting to wonder if I even want it. But what else can I do? I can’t seem to dig deep enough. I’m convinced the roots are pointing upwards or sideways. I’m not getting good compaction. Half my trees feel loose to me. Ian off of quality control comes to watch us and dish out advice. Nobody tells me there’s a problem with my trees. I’d like to think somebody would tell me. Maybe I’ll wait until somebody tells me I’m doing it wrong. Ian tells us we might like him now but in a month or two we’ll hate him. Once he tells us we have to come back and replant a section because the trees are no good. Cool, great. Way to fuel my growing concerns that this isn’t going well. I don’t want to get this wrong. I don’t want to have to come back and do it again, for free. I have to get it right, now. A deeper hole. Anial tells me to put my weight behind me rather than kick into the compaction. “But I don’t weigh anything?” He tells me about other new fellas he’s had who were like me but they got it. I can follow the line ok. Trees are going in the ground. Some of them have to be ok, but will it be enough? I get through two boxes. Not bad, the experienced guys tells us back in the van. “You’ll get there,” they say. “It’ll get easier when the weather improves.”
On the last day of the first week I manage to plant three boxes. I’m keen but I’m slow. I take too long on each tree. Ian tells me to stop worrying about it being perfect. Relax a little. He’s right. I know he’s right but I also don’t know if I’m getting it right. He’d have told me if I wasn’t. Wouldn’t he? Anial seems to be ok with how things are going. Next week he says we need to get you new fellas pumping. 4, 5, 6 boxes. You’re here to work, you’re here to make money. It’s Friday, I’m tired. Maybe Monday will be better. I’m glad, relieved even to have two days off now. A day to relax and do almost nothing and a day to prepare for the next week. And of course, the forecast for Saturday is heavy rain all day. I need a dry day. A warm day. A day to get things clean, to get things aired out. I hope that Sunday is better.