Interview: Kristel Derkowski Author of Six Million Trees

Derkowski’s memoir of working as a tree planter in the clear-cut forests of Canada is a riveting piece of literature. 

Rocks Mills

Shelf Unbound: Six Million Trees chronicles a few seasons you spent working as a tree planter in Canada. You were required to plant hundreds of trees per day and it was quite physically and mentally challenging. Why did you choose this job?

Kristel Derkowski: I have to say I didn’t really choose it—or at least, I didn’t seek it out. A friend offered me the job, and the money was supposed to be good, and the timing was certainly good, so the choice was pretty convenient. I’d heard that the work would be hard, but to me that just seemed like a bonus. For someone very young and very bored, the whole experience looked intriguing—I wanted to see what would happen, and maybe I wanted to test myself. Thing is, I underestimated the test. We weren’t required to plant hundreds of trees per day, but rather hundreds of trees per hour; a good planter would put in three to five thousand trees in a single day, every day. So, for an uninitiated teenage girl with a tendency to daydream, the hard labour was a bit of a shock to say the least. I’d thought I was interested in a challenge, but I really had no idea what I was getting myself into until I was already there. Then I had no choice but to figure it out.

Shelf Unbound: You note that your employer was a paper company required to replace trees they had clear-cut and that the trees you were planting would be cut down when they reached maturity in 60 or 80 years. How did you reconcile the ultimate futility of your great effort?

Derkowski:An interesting question, because I think the same could be asked about a lot of different jobs and different tasks and goals in general. Why plant trees just to cut them down later? Why sweep the floor when it only gets dirty again? There are different answers out there. In the case of tree planting specifically, maybe the work isn’t futile at all; maybe it’s important to serve future generations by renewing access to a crucial natural resource. But a more interesting response, for me, is that a person’s sense of fulfillment in their work can exist independently from the end result. Planting trees is difficult, and because of that it’s engaging. It’s a high-speed obstacle course, it’s a game, it’s a puzzle and a competition, and there are all sorts of factors involved—there’s the land, the weather, the people around you. What a really good planter learns to do is to focus on nothing but the task at hand. That’s what makes them good. And I think that if a person can lose themselves in nothing but the task at hand, they can find a very real sense of fulfillment in that alone. And after that, maybe the trees get cut down, but maybe that doesn’t matter so much. Maybe you write a whole book and it never gets published—but maybe that doesn’t make it futile. I think that it’s possible to find satisfaction in the actual work, in the actual experience of planting, or writing, or whatever it is—and then, no matter what happens next, it’s already been worthwhile. 

Shelf Unbound: In between planting seasons, you suffered a bad break to your leg, and yet you returned to the rigors of planting. Why did you not choose a desk job or something less physically demanding?

Derkowski: In hindsight that’s a very reasonable question…but at the time, I don’t think I even considered another option. There was a kind of magnetism about tree planting, an emotional appeal that couldn’t be rivaled by the prospect of a desk job. And partly because of that, the leg wasn’t a good enough reason to quit. If I decided to retire, at the age of 20, from the physical challenge and the sense of adventure that came with the job—then how much of my life, exactly, would this accident be allowed to affect? Would I also stop running? Hiking, biking, backpacking? I think I saw the injury as something to overcome, and not something to give into. I didn’t want to be left wondering about what I’d missed out on. 

Shelf Unbound: Late in the book, you describe an epiphany. “My production almost doubled, very suddenly.

Something snapped into place. Suddenly everything was motion, and all of the obstacles disappeared. It was an incredible place to be.” And you write, “I think that changed my life.”

Do you still feel changed by that moment, and how so?

Derkowski: Sure, I do. I think what happened there was a very intense moment of grounding. I hesitate to use the words “rock bottom,” because things certainly could have been worse, but I have heard the experience of “rock bottom” being described in a similar manner by other people. I guess it can be very clarifying to find yourself in a deep rut, because you’re forced to come to terms with what matters and what doesn’t. You’re forced to let go of certain things. For me, the isolation and the repetition of planting created a kind of meditative outlet, and it helped me process some personal confusion—some of which is addressed in the memoir and some of which is not. Either way, the result of all that was a very intense moment of sheer clarity. It was this raw bare-bones sensation in which I felt really, really fully alive. And there was nothing else attached—no uncertainty, nothing to prove, no expectations. It was a moment in which I knew exactly where I stood, and despite everything I was grateful to be there. The sensation was strong enough that, yes, even now I find it possible to ground myself in the memory of it, and in the clarity and perspective of that moment. It was one experience that I’d describe as genuinely priceless.

Shelf Unbound: After describing how very hard and intense the work is, you end your memoir with the line: “And then I’m going back to the bush.” Have you gone back, and what draws you to this lifestyle?

Derkowski: I have indeed gone back. After writing the memoir I went back for another season of planting, and after that I went back again as a crew boss. For starters, the financial freedom is nice, and the timeline is reliable and it’s comfortable to fall back on. Then there’s the nature of the job itself: the way that it tests you, as a person, and the way that it changes you, too. It’s a hyper-speed lifestyle, and the days are unpredictable—which is thrilling to begin with, and maybe becomes a bit of an addiction. You get used to a certain level of excitement, and then it’s hard to settle for less. Then on top of that, there’s the people who go through it with you. For those of us who’ve been at it all these years, it’s like we all grew up together. It’s hard to find that level of shared experience elsewhere. So in between planting seasons, we’re all scattered across the country living separate lives, and we all start thinking about each other again. After a couple of months, these chains of messages and phone calls start making their rounds—and then there’s a dozen people all saying to each other, “I’ll go back if you do.” Sure, the money’s not bad, the job’s pretty interesting, but I think a lot of it does come back to just that: “I’ll go back if you do.” 

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