After weeks of being told “after this we’ll be on the windrows,” we finally arrive in the promised land. Flat ground. The slash of branches, cones, and needles has been swept up by a bulldozer or something into neat rows. The soil is soft. The digging easy. I realise this is what I had pictured when I first committed to planting trees for a little living. Not the steep slopes covered in debris, overgrown with blackberry. I have come through the hard stuff and this is my reward. The reward for us all. Only, because it’s easier the pay rate per box goes down. Presumably, to also cover the cost of making it easier for us. For the first time when the boys tell me I’m pumping, I feel like they might be right.
The end of our biggest day is staggered. People make their own minds up as to when they want to finish for the day. After 11 boxes, a personal best, I decide to call it a day. I look in the trailer on the way past. There are still a lot of boxes. I could do another one but I don’t want to. When I walked past Roland, he said he was on his last box. If I pick up another one, we’ll be out for another hour. I want to go home. Matt and Reece are already back at the van. We must be finishing up. Josh follows not far behind me. We watch the others come back to the trailer, pick up another box and go back out. “I thought we were finishing,” I ask nobody. “I could have done another box,” says Josh. Matt and Reece have other ideas. Reece returns to the trailer and comes back to the van with two boxes. Meanwhile, Matt is over the road digging a deep hole. Two empty boxes return to the trailer. I don’t especially care. People can do what they want. I’ve only got a few weeks of this life left. Josh feels otherwise. In the morning, in the van with everyone on board, he says to me “those boxes them bros buried over there, that’s why we keep getting deductions.” Those who were trying to catch a final few minutes of sleep are suddenly wide awake. “Who buried a box?” “Where are the boxes buried?” And now I’m in a bind. I head over to the trailer to gear up for the day, Ratu follows me. He has the decency to tell me he saw Reece carry a couple of boxes away from the trailer before he asks me what happened. At least now I can say “I’m not a snitch, you got caught.” So I tell Ratu what happens. The story travels. The rest of the crew react in various stages of anger.
The good times don’t last. Another block comes out of nowhere. On the drive in we pause at the steep bluffs. I’m not the only person in the van who makes unhappy noises. I have always been nervous of the steep sided gullies. Branches and trunks lay crossed over the ground, above empty air. Blackberry trip wires lie in wait. Everyone falls at least once a day. A trip over a tree. Where you hoped there was ground, there isn’t. I make my way down the face of this new piece. For the most part I walk, seeking out the step like drops that will get me down to the stream so I can clamber up the other side to pick up my next box. Something goes wrong. I’m not walking anymore. I’m Tom Petty. I’m free-falling. Seconds stretch out. My body contemplates a full evacuation. Absolutely nothing flashes before my eyes. Then I stop. Landing, somehow on my feet. “That looked like you weren’t going to stop,” Mike says, from somewhere above. Briefly, it felt like I wouldn’t. But I did. And I carry on climbing up to get my box and keep on planting.
At the end of planting for the day, we’re scattered across a hillside. Taking a seat on stumps, waiting for the van to show up. I watch the grey clouds rip through the sky. The wind rolls through the big pines like ocean waves. The forest roars. A storm is coming. Behind me Dave lets out a scream somewhere between wahoo and yeehaw. I turn around to see what he’s looking at. The forest snaps. A tree crashes through the canopy. The skinny trunks of the mature trees flex only so far. Minutes later another one goes. The exposed edge taking the full force of the wind. There’s relief when the van arrives before the rain and we head home.
By the end of the week we’ve run out of trees. We planted everything we had. What happens when you don’t have trees to plant? You go and pull some up. I think the forest will take care of itself. Pine cones from previous years are swallowed by the soil. Trees grow on their own. What they don’t do is grow in straight lines, with the correct spacing. This, apparently, is unacceptable to the timber industry. Having planted hundreds of trees each day, we’re now pulling others out of the ground. Walking the line again. “They all look like pine trees!” I scream. How do you tell the difference? They’re greener. What? The trunk is darker. Crop trees have buds. What about this one? No, that’s a re-gen. But it has buds? It’s not on the line. Another way to tell is once you’ve pulled the tree out of the ground. Long, deep tap root, it’s a re-gen. If the roots are shallow it’s been planted and it’s too late. You’ve pulled it out of the ground. “Who wants to do more planting?” My hand goes up. I don’t want to pull trees up. I want to put them in the ground. Anial is trying to secure a new block, elsewhere. Something that might just carry us in to the end of the season.
Back at Westshore I’m going through my usual evening routing of making lunch, then dinner. A man I’ve never seen before wanders into the kitchen and tells me we’re about to go into lockdown. I can’t help but laugh. “Seriously?” complacency has got the better of me. There’s a case in the community, in Auckland. Where else? The government do what they’ve done best. They go early and they go hard. The whole country back to Alert Level 4, total lockdown, for the first time in well over a year. Planting trees isn’t essential and we’re stood down until the weekend at the earliest.
By the second day of lockdown I’ve had more meaningful interactions with the long term residents of Westshore Holiday Park than in the three months I’ve been here for. I spend the day on the picnic benches with Brian, Darren and Matt. We talk about nothing and waste through the hours of the day. Hoping we can go back to our normal lives soon. Knowing the reality will be a while longer yet. In my own private, personal, solitude I feed raisins to a blackbird. This one, more brown than black, has bounced around the grass outside my door since I arrived. I have witnessed the bright orange beak stretch worms out of the ground. If I sit perfectly still, my little friend will come right beneath my feet to investigate potential snacks. I move, the bird is gone. I move, and place a raisin next to where I leave my feet and return to pretending to read my Kindle. Waiting for the blackbird to return. Black wax feet bound along. A song ripples in the throat. The raisin is snatched and carried away, to a safer distance. I watch my friend pecking and pulling. I put another raisin down and crawl inside.
Lockdown comes and lockdown goes. Accompanied by a minor earthquake, another infection, a round of antibiotics. Anial plays “will we, won’t we go back to work” with the government for a while. We’re almost sort of not quite essential workers. Trees have been delivered. Two weeks in the pod and they’ll be dead before we get them in the ground. Alert Level 3 comes and we’re allowed back to the bush. Life resumes almost normally. Masks finally become a required accessory in New Zealand. Maintain distance from others. Stay the hell away from Auckland. A problem. A potentially big problem to my future plans. Has Covid-19 finally caught up with me? I wanted to be in Auckland by early October, sell the van and head further North. Now I’ve got to sit tight. At least I’ve got another few weeks of work to go.
Had anyone asked me after the first week of planting if I thought I’d still be here at the end of the season, I’d have shown you my internet search history for another job, doing anything, anywhere but here. Fortunately, nobody bothered to ask. We’re spread across two vans. A bubble in the front, one at the front of the back, one in the middle of the middle, and one at the back. Anial tells us Matt and Reece won’t be coming back. They’ve had more than enough chances apparently. We’re heading out again, to that final promised block. The steepest hillsides, the firmest of farmland. Hard climbing, harder digging. So much for saving the best until last. For those of us who remain there is no argument. Pull on your boots, pick up your spade and get moving. While there’s still a hillside to be planted, still trees to be put in the ground, there’s still money to be made. This is the last chance. Once this is finished we’re back to re-gen pulling and hourly rates. I gamble. I hand my notice in. A week later than planned but with more than enough time. The boys tell me they’ll miss me. “If you ever come back to Hawkes Bay,” Anial says, “give me a call, my number won’t change. I’ll give you a job.” We all count down the days together. For me, I’m ready to switch off the 4:30am alarm. The rest of the crew knows an official leaving means Anial will shout us a KFC. The final week comes, with a weather warning of heavy rain and high winds. It ends as it began, soaked through. At last, I can retire my spade.