Overstory Zero: Oregon Treeplanting Nostalgia

Greg Nagle came across this essay by Robert Leo Heilman that he asked me to post here. Heilman has been called one of the best writers in Oregon, and the following prose demonstrates why. He lives in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, just about an hour south from me on I-5, but I have never met him before (that I know of), and when I called on the phone to get his permission to post this, it was probably the first time we ever talked. Greg and I disagree with a few of Heilman’s assertions, but I think we are in agreement as to the quality of his work and his ability to capture the essence of much of treeplanting in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Heilman agreed to the post, but with the request that I provide a link to his own blog, which contains this writing and several more of similar quality and insight: http://robertheilman.wordpress.com/



The main thing is to have a big breakfast. It’s not any easy thing to do at 4 AM, but it is essential because lunch won’t come for another seven or eight hours and there’s four or more hours of grueling work to do before you can sit down and open up your lunch box.

The kids on the crew, 18 year-olds fresh out of high school, sleep in the extra half-hour and don’t eat until the morning store stop on the way out to the unit. They wolf down a Perky Pie, a candy bar and a can of soda in the crummy, good for a one hour caffeine and sugar rush. They go through the brush like a gut-shot cat for awhile and then drag ass for the rest of the morning.

But if you’re a grizzled old timer, in your mid-twenties, you know how to pace yourself for the long haul. You’re exhausted, of course, and your calves, hips, arms and lower back are stiff and sore. But you’re used to that.

You’re always tired and hurting. The only time you feel normal is when you’re on the slopes, when the stiffness and fatigue are melted off by the work. It gets worse every morning until by Saturday it takes hours to feel comfortable on a day off. Sunday morning you wake up at 4 o’clock wide awake and ready to stomp through downtown Tokyo breathing fire and scattering tanks with your tail.

Your stomach is queasy but you force the good food into it anyway, a big stack of pancakes with peanut butter and syrup, four eggs, bacon and a pint of coffee. There is a point when your belly refuses to take any more. Saliva floods your mouth and you force back the retching, put the forkfull of food down on the plate and light another cigarette.

It’s dark outside and it’s raining, of course. They aren’t called the Cascades for nothing. It’s December and the solstice sun won’t rise until eight, three hours and a hundred miles from home, somewhere along a logging road upriver.

Rain coat and rain pants, hardhat, rubber work gloves, cotton liner gloves and a stiff pair of caulk boots stuffed with newspaper crowd around the woodburner. All the gear is streaked with mud except the boots which are caked with an inch-thick mud sole covering the steel spikes. The liner gloves hang stiff and brown, the curving fingers frozen, like a dismembered manikin’s hand making an elegant but meaningless gesture.

Mornings are slow. It’s hard to move quickly when your stomach is bloated, your body is stiff and, despite the coffee, your mind is still fatigue-foggy. You have to move though or miss your ride and lose your job. You try an experimental belch which doesn’t bring up too much half-chewed food with it and relieves the pressure.

The laxative effect of the coffee would send you to the toilet but your ride to town is due soon, so you save it for later. Better to shit on company time anyway, squatting out in the brush. It gives you a pleasant break, a few minutes of hard to come by privacy, and it pisses Jimboy, the foreman, off, since, being a college boy and therefore trained to worry about what people think of him, he could never bring himself to actually complain about it.

Lester the Rat taught him that lesson the first week of the season. Les had just planted a seedling and straightened up and turned his back on the slope to empty his bladder. The foreman glanced back to see him standing there with his back turned and staring idly across to the opposite slope.

“Hey, Gaines, get back to work! Let’s go!”

The Rat turned to face him and shook the last golden drops off. He smiled pleasantly, showing a mouth full of crooked snoose-stained teeth. “Sure thing Jim.” he said mildly, “You bet.” None of the professors up at the university had ever mentioned anything like that and Jimboy blushed delicately while all up and down the line the crew snickered.

Jimboy makes more money than you do and doesn’t work as hard, which is bad enough. But he’s also afraid. It’s his first winter on the slopes and he’s not used to riding herd on a gang of brush apes. He also wants to make a good impression on his boss, the head forester, so he tries to push his eleven man crew into ever greater production. He sees himself as a leader of men, a rugged scientist overseeing the great work of industrial progress.

Everyone tries to get his goat so that, with any luck, he’ll amuse us some day by breaking out in tears like Tommyboy, the last foreman, did. “You guys are just animals.” Tommyboy had sobbed, setting off a delighted chorus of wolf howls and coyote yelps. It was the highpoint of the planting season and a considerable source of pride for the whole crew.


There’s a flash of headlights and the crunch of gravel in the driveway. Mighty Mouth awaits in his battered old Ford. You pull up your suspenders and start slapping your pockets: tobacco pouch and rolling papers, matches, bandanna, wad of toilet paper, pocket watch, jack knife, store stop money– all there. You put on a baseball cap and a plaid woolen overshirt and gather up your gear: caulks, extra socks, rubber gloves, cotton liners, hard hat, rain gear, coffee thermos and feed bucket and step out into the rain.

There’s nothing to talk about on the half hour drive down the creek and downriver to the mill. You know each other too well by now, riding and working together twelve to fourteen hours a day– two moonlit rides and a picnic lunch every day– for three winters. The Mouth holds a beer bottle between his thighs into which he spits his chew as he drives.

You roll a cigarette and listen to the radio and peer out through the windshield watching for the twin reflection of deer eyes ahead. The road is narrow and winding, the roadside brush thick, and you never know just when a deer will step out or leap, windshield high, in front of you. Every day, somewhere on the drive, you see at least one fresh deer carcass on the road. Headlights dazzle the deer and usually they stand there frozen in their tracks before leaping aside at the last moment. Sometimes they leap towards the headlights though, always a suicidal move for the deer, but, like a kamikaze pilot, they can kill too.


The mercury arc lamps light up the mill with a weird, hellish orange glow. Steam rises from the boilers and there’s a sour rotting smell everywhere. The huge metal buildings bristle with an improbable looking tangle of chains and belts and pipes. There’s a constant whistling, clanging and screaming of saws and machinery coming from them. Bug-eyed forklifts and log loaders crawl around the half-lit yards, mechanical insects scurrying to keep up.

Through the huge open doorways you can see the mill hands at work in their tee shirts, sorting out an unending river of lumber and veneer into neat stacks. The mill workers sweat like desperate dwarves. They make more money than you and stay dry but you feel pity and contempt for them. The poor bastards stand in one spot all night, moving to the computerized lightning rhythm of conveyors instead of their own human speed. The cavernous interior of the mill sheds seem as cramped as closets compared to the open mountain slopes.

You work for the mill but not in the mill, on a company reforestation crew. Most of the company land is planted by contract crews, but the mill runs a crew that plants land that the contractors won’t touch– too steep or too ravaged, too old or too brushy for them.

Acres away, beyond the log pond, past the five story tall walls of stacked logs, next to the hangar sized heavy equipment repair shop, is a small refrigerated trailer full of seedling trees in waxed boxes. Each box contains 600 trees in bundles of fifty.

Mudflap and Sluggo are helping Jimboy load tree boxes into the back of a four wheel drive crew-cab pickup. They are young, straight out of high school, and eager to get a promised job in the mill come spring– if they “work hard and show up every day”, of course. So, they help load trees and ride with the foreman every morning.

You transfer your gear over to a mud covered Chevy Suburban crummy. If you’ve ever ridden in one you know why they’re called crummies. The rig is a mess, both outside and inside. The seats are torn, the headliner is gone, the ceiling often drips from the condensed breath of it’s packed occupants. But you have a great fondness for the ugly thing. It is an oasis of comfort compared to the slopes.

We spend a large part of our lives roaring up and down river powered by its monster 454 V-8. Of course, none of this travel, or crummy time, as it’s called, is paid time. Only the forty hours per week on the slopes earns us money. The other 10-20 hours of crummy tedium is not the company’s concern. Together with the half hour lunch, also unpaid, we spend 11-13 hours a day together for our eight hours’ pay. All winter long we see each other more than we see our wives and children. We know each other intimately after so many cramped hours. We bicker and tease each other half-heartedly, like an old bitter couple, out of habit more than need.


The ten of us plant about 7,000 seedling trees every day, or about 700 “‘binos” apiece, enough to cover a little over an acre of logged off mountainside each. It gets depressing when you start adding it up: 700 per day= 3,500 per week= 14,000 per month= 56,000 trees in a season for one man planting one tree at a time.

Maybe you’ve seen the TV commercials put out by “The Tree Growing Company”: Helicopter panoramas of snow capped mountains, silvery lakes and rivers, close ups of cute critters frolicking, 30 year old stands of second growth all green and even as a manicured lawn and a square-jawed handsome woodsman tenderly planting a seedling. The commercials make reforestation seem heart warming, wholesome and benevolent, like watching a Disney flick where a scroungy mutt plays the role of a wild coyote.

Get out a calculator and start figuring it: 700 trees in eight hours= 87.5 trees per hour, or 1.458 trees per minute– a tree punched in every 41 seconds. How much tenderness can a man give a small green seedling in 41 seconds?

Planting is done with an improbable looking tool called a hoedag. Imagine a heavy metal plate 14 inches long and four inches wide, maybe five pounds of steel, mounted on a single-bit axe handle. Two or three sideways hacking strokes scalp a foot square patch of ground, three or four stabs with the tip and the blade is buried up to the haft. (Six blows 700 times= 4,200 per day. At 5 lbs. @ that comes to 21,000 pounds of lifting per diem and many planters put in 900-1200 trees per day.)

You pump up and down on the handle, breaking up the soil, open the hole, dangle the roots down there and pull the hoedag out. The dirt pulls the roots down to the bottom of the hole, maybe 10 or 12 inches deep. You give it a little tug to pull the root collar even with the ground and tamp the soil around it with your foot.

The next tree goes in eight feet away from the last one and eight feet from the next man in line’s tree. Two steps and you’re there. It’s a sort of rigorous dance, all day long– scalp, stab, stuff stomp and split; scalp, stab, stuff, stomp and split– every 41 seconds or less, 700 or more times a day.

700 trees eight feet apart comes to a line of seedlings 5,600 feet long– a mile and some change. Of course, the ground is never level. You march up and down mountains all day– straight up and straight down, since, although nature never made a straight line, forestry professors and their students are quite fond of them. So, you climb a quarter mile straight down and then back up, eat lunch and do it again.

The ground itself is never really clear, even on the most carefully charred reforestation unit. Stumps, old logs, boulders and brush have to be gone over or through or around with almost every slash hampered step. Two watertight tree bags, about the size and shape of brown paper grocery bags, hang on your hips rubbing them raw under the weight of the 30-40 pounds of muddy seedlings stuffed inside them.

Generally, what’s left of the topsoil isn’t deep enough to sink a ‘dag in so you punch through whatever subsoil, rocks or roots lie hidden by the veneer of dirt.

It’s best not to think about it all. The proper attitude is to consider yourself as eternally damned, with no tomorrow or yesterday– just the unavoidable present to endure. Besides, you tell yourself,it’s not so bad once you get used to it.


Tree planting is done by outcasts and outlaws– winos and wetbacks, hill billys and hippies for the most part. It is brutal, mind-numbing, underpaid stoop labor. Down there in Hades, Sisyphus thinks about the tree planters and thanks his lucky star every day because he’s got such a soft gig.

Being at the bottom of the Northwest social order and the top of the local ass-busting order gives you an exaggerated pride in what you do. You invade a small grocery store like a biker gang, taking the uneasy stares of lesser beings as your natural due. It’s easy to mistake fear for higher forms of respect and as a planter you might as well. In a once rugged society gone docile, you have inherited a vanishing tradition of ornery individualism. The ghosts of drunken bullwhackers, miners, rowdy cowpunchers and bomb tossing wobblies count on you to keep alive the 120 proof spirit of irreverence towards civilization that built the west.

A good foreman, one who rises from the crew by virtue of out-working everybody else, understands this and uses it like a Marine DI to build his crew and drive them to gladly work harder than necessary. A foreman who is uncomfortable with the underlying violence of his crew becomes their target. It is rare for a crew to actually beat up a foreman, but it has happened. There are many ways to get around a weak foreman, most of which involve either goldbricking or baiting. After all, why work hard for someone you don’t respect and why bother to conceal contempt?


The long, smelly ride ends on a torn up moonscape of gravel where last summer’s logging ended. No one stirs. You look out the foggy windows of the crummy through a grey mist of Oregon dew at the unit. You wonder what shape it’s in, how steep, how brushy, how rocky, red sticky clay or yellow doughy clay, freshly cut or decades old, a partial replanting or a first attempt. The answers lie hidden behind a curtain of rain and you’re not eager to find out.

The foreman steps out and with a few mutterings the crummies empty. Ten men jostle for their equipment in the back of the crummies. The hoedags and tree bags are in a jumbled pile. Most planters aren’t particular about which bag they use, provided it doesn’t leak muddy water down their legs all day, but each man has a favorite ‘dag which is rightfully his. A greenhorn soon learns not to grab the wrong one when it’s owner comes around cursing and threatening.

It’s an odd but understandable relationship between a planter and his main tool. You develop a fondness for it over time. You get used to the feel of it, the weight and balance and grip of it in your hand. Some guys would rather hand over their wives.

The hoedag is a climbing tool, like a mountaineer’s ice axe, on the steeper ground. It clears the way through heavy brush like a machete. You can lean on it like a cane to help straighten your sore back and it is the weapon of choice when self-defense (or a threat) is needed. It allows you to open up stumps and logs in search of the dark gold pitch which will start a fire in a cold downpour and to dig a quick fire trail if your break fire runs off up the hill.

The foreman hands out the big waxed cardboard boxes full of seedling trees. The boxes are ripped open with a hoedag blade and the planters carry double handfuls of trees, wired up in bundles of fifty, over to the handiest puddle to wet down their roots. Dry roots will kill a tree before it can get into the ground, so the idea isn’t purely a matter of adding extra weight to make the job harder– though that’s the inevitable result.

300-400 trees get stuffed into the double bags, depending on their size and the length of the morning’s run. If the nursery hasn’t washed the roots properly before bundling and packing, the mud, added water and trees can make for a load that is literally staggering.

No one puts on their bags until the boxes are burnt. It is an essential ritual and depriving a crew of their morning fire is, by ancient custom, held to be justifiable grounds for mutiny by crummy lawyers everywhere. Some argue that homicide in such a case would be ruled self-defense, but so far no one’s ever tested it.

The waxed cardboard burns wonderfully bright and warm. A column of flame fifteen feet high lights up the road and everyone gathers around to take a little warmth and a lot of courage. Steam clouds rise from your raingear as you rotate before the fire like a planet drawing heat from its sun. It feels great and you need it, because once the flames turn to ashes you’re going over the side.

“OK. Everybody get loaded and space-out.” The Mouth calls out. You strap on your bag, tilt your tin hat and grab your ‘dag. You shuffle over to the edge of the road and line up eight feet from the man on each side.


The redoubtable Mighty Mouth, the third fastest planter, plants in the lead spot and the men behind him work in order from the fourth to the eighth fastest men. It is a shameful thing to plant slower than the guy behind you. If he’s impatient, or out to score some brownie points with the boss, he’ll jump your line and you plant in his position, sinking lower in the Bull-of-the-woods standings. Slow planters get fired and competition is demanded by the foreman.

There are many tricks to appearing to be faster than you really are–stashing trees, widening your spacing, pushing the man behind you into the rougher parts while you widen or narrow your line to stay in the gravy–but all of these will get you in trouble one way or another, if not with the boss then, worse still, with the crew.

The two fastest planters, the tail men, float behind the crew, planting two to ten lines apiece, straightening out the tree line for the next pass. They tie a bit of blue plastic surveyor’s tape to brush and sticks to mark the way for the lead man when he brings the crew back up from the bottom.

The notion is to cover the ground with an eight foot by eight foot grid of trees. If mountains were graph paper this would be easy, but instead, each slope has its own peculiar contours and obstacles which throw the line off. Each pass, if it follows a ragged line, will be more irregular than the last pass, harder to find and follow. It is difficult enough to coordinate a crew strung out over a hillside, each planter working at a different rate, going around obstacles such as stumps, boulders, cliffs and heavy brush, without compounding it by leaving a ragged unmarked line behind for the next pass.


It’s best not to look at the clearcut itself. You stay busy with whatever is immediately in front of you because, like all industrial processes, there is beauty in the details and ugliness in the larger view. Oil film on a rain puddle has an iridescent sheen that is lovely in a way that the junkyard it’s part of is not.

Forests are beautiful on every level, whether seen from a distance or standing beneath the trees or studying a small patch of ground. Clearcuts contain many wonderful tiny things– jasper, agate, petrified wood, sun bleached bits of wood, bone and antler, wildflowers. But the sum of these finely wrought details adds up to a grim landscape, charred, eroded, and sterile.

Although tree planting is part of something called reforestation, clearcutting is never called deforestation, at least not by its practitioners. The semantics of forestry don’t allow that. The mountain slope is a “unit”, the forest a “timber stand”, logging is “harvest” and repeated logging “rotation”.

On the work sheets which foresters use is a pair of numbers which track the layers of canopy, the covering of branches and leaves which the living trees have spread out above the soil. The top layer is called the overstory, beneath which is a second layer, the understory. An old growth forest, for example, may have an overstory averaging 180 feet high and an understory at 75 feet. Clearcuts are designated by the phrase “Overstory: Zero”.

In the language (and therefore the thinking) of industrial silviculture a clearcut is a forest. The system does not recognize any depletion at all. The company is fond of talking about trees as a renewable resource and the official line is that timber harvest, followed by reforestation results in a net gain. “Old growth forests are dying, unproductive forests– biological deserts full of diseased and decaying trees. By harvesting and replanting we turn them into vigorous, productive stands. We will never run out of trees.” the company forester will tell you. But ask if he’s willing to trade company-owned old growth forest for a reforestation unit of the same acreage and the answer is always “No, of course not.”

You listen and tell yourself that it’s the company who treats the land shabbily. You see your frenzied work as a life-giving dance in the ashes of a plundered world. You think of the future and the green legacy you leave behind you. But you know that your work also makes the plunder seem rational and is, at it’s core, just another part of the destruction.

More than the physical exhaustion, this effort to not see the world around you tires you. It takes a lot of effort not to notice, not to care. You can go crazy from lack of sleep because you must dream in order to sort out everything you see and hear and feel during the day. But you can also get sick from not being truly awake, not seeing, feeling and touching the real world.

When the world around you is painful and ugly, that pain and ugliness seeps into you, no matter how hard you try to keep it out. It builds up like a slowly accumulating poison. Sometimes the poison turns to venom and you strike out, at work or at home, as quick as any rattlesnake, but without the honest rattler’s humane fair warning.

So you bitch and bicker with the guys on the crew, argue with the foreman and snap at your wife and kids. You do violent work in a world where the evidence of violence is all around you. You see it in the scorched earth and the muddy streams. You feel it when you step out from the living forest into the barren clearcut. It rings in your ears with the clink of steel on rock. It jars your arm with every stab of your hoedag.


“War is hell.” General William Tecumseh Sherman said, because, unlike a Pentagon spokeman, he was in the midst of it and could not conceive of something so abstract as “collateral damage”.

“Planting sucks.” we say, because unlike the mill owner who signs our paychecks, we slog through the mud and bend our backs on mountain slopes, instead of reading progress reports on reforestation units. Like infantry we know only weariness and hopelessness in the face of insanity.

“The millions of trees that the timber industry plants every year are enough to plant a strip four miles wide from here to New York.” the foreman tells us.

Our hearts sink at the thought of that much clearcutting but Madman Phil, the poet, sees a vision. “Forward men!” he cries, “Shoulder to shoulder we march on New York. The American Tree Planter! Ever onward!”

Someone starts it and then the whole crew is humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic while, in our minds, we cross the Cascades, the Snake River Valley, the Rockies, the Great Plains and onward, ever onward, a teaming, faceless coolie army led by Walt Whitman, Sasquatch and Mao Tse Tung, a barbarian horde leaving a swath of green behind us “from sea to shining sea”.

“Oh God!” Jimboy moans, “You guys are crazy.”

History: Left Bank #4, Gotta Earn A Living, Hillsboro OR, 1993: Northwest Passages, A Literary Anthology of the Pacific Northwest from Coyote Tales to Roadside Attraction, Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA 1994 (extract); Overstory:Zero, Real Life in Timber Country, Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA 1995; Oregon State Library, Talking Book and Braille Services, Salem, OR  (audio book edition) 1996; Earth Island Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, San Francisco, CA  (excerpt) 1997; Earth First! Journal, Eugene, OR, February 1997 (excerpt);The Anchor Essay Annual, The Best of 1997, Anchor Books, New York, NY; Word #1, Waldport OR 1998


3 thoughts on “Overstory Zero: Oregon Treeplanting Nostalgia”

  1. I’ll give RLH kudos for being a master of the written word, but there’s a definite The Man/Wobbly undertone to all of it. Some find it appealing, obviously.

    • I agree, Dave — but it is certainly entertaining reading for those who remember those times and circumstances, and Heilman definitely captures much of the essence of the treeplanting industry as it once existed. Certainly, though, his focus is on the small company crews and the low-bid government contractors, such as the Hoedads, and doesn’t touch much on the crews that typified large industrial reforestation contracting.

      I belonged to the Associated Reforestation Contractors, Inc., (ARC) as an officer and as an editor of their 1500-circulation trade magazine for several years in the early 1980s, and we definitely had a different business culture than Heilman describes — but containing many of the same types of characters — more of an urban/rural divide, and corresponding work ethics. Mostly, the ARC was diligent in operating professionally with well paid, highly experienced local workers and dominated contracting on private lands, where owners were liable for work-related injuries (as opposed to government lands) and required legal (at least for many years) employees with fully insured vehicles and compensation coverage. During much of that time, in fact, there was an ongoing legal action between the Hoedads and the ARC regarding compensation insurance and claimed public assistance abuses. Very much “The Man vs. the Wobblies” in that respect. We all went broke at about the same time, though, when the spotted owl flew into the picture and the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted.

  2. In february 1981 I was working a contract on Lowell RD on the Willamette which had a very low bid contractor who did so bad the first few days with an inexperienced crew that the FS immediately moved to default him. The next day the entire crew showed up armed, and the FS high tailed it out of there. They were from Douglas County.

    I talked with the FS inspectors when they for back to the station.


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