Treeplanting Box

Charlotte Adams was never the quickest planter.  She thought of herself more as a tree gardener than a tree planter.

She didn’t name the trees that she planted individually – that plainly wasn’t practical – but she did view every box of trees as its own unique “family” of trees. “This box looks like a box of Hemingways” she would say, sitting cross-legged at the cache, peeling off the sticker and writing “Hemingway” in black permanent marker across it. She would happily show her stickers to her crew bosses at the end of the day, but she would never hand them over for her crew bosses to keep with the other stickers they collected. 

They were her stickers.

After her first day of planting, which occurred on a schnarby, rocky slice of Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario, she planted only two boxes; the Thoreaus and the Emersons. She thought it fitting to dedicate her first two boxes to the naturalists.  After work, she pasted her stickers with the family names written across them into a page of her sketch book and wrote the date at the top. On her second day, when she planted three boxes, she pasted those three stickers onto the next page in her book. She never missed a day, or a sticker with its family name.

As a history and a literature buff, most of the names she gave her boxes had a lot to live up to. The full western literary canon was well represented on her land, though eventually she was forced to draw on lesser authors.

She was on her fourth season of planting when she passed the half million tree mark. She had accumulated a small stack of notebooks over the years, and while she hadn’t conducted a formal census, she estimated that she was closing in on her 2,000th family planted.

Her crew bosses appreciated the fact that she was a high quality, reliable planter who never complained, but none of them managed to motivate her to increase production. She was on the low side of average, despite her excellent technique and admirable work ethic. There was no explaining to Charlotte that once the threshold of “good enough” quality was passed, it was throwing money away to focus on higher quality rather than increased production. To Charlotte, every tree needed to be perfect. Not only did she clearly have the highest quality in her camp, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone to learn she had the highest quality in the country. When she learned about obstacle planting two weeks into her first season, she obstacle planted every tree from that moment onwards, regardless of whether it was a contract requirement or not. When she received frozen bundles in her boxes, she would sit hunched over at her cache for fifteen minutes, meticulously separating stuck together trees to avoid damaging their roots. 

She gave every tree she ever met the best chance possible at life.

In her third last week of the season in her fourth season, on a planting a block outside of Hinton, Alberta, she lost a sticker. It was the first time in her career it had happened. Halfway into her fifth bagup she realized that the pouch she carried her stickers in was open. It was difficult land she was planting that day and she had fallen twice already. The pocket must have been popped open during one of her falls. She double checked her math. She was on her fifth box of trees but she only had four stickers; one was definitely missing.

There are those who would scoff to hear it, but it was one of the worst days of Charlotte’s life. At first, she was calm and methodical. Realizing she had dropped a sticker, she quickly returned to her cache, set her bags under a tarp, and went back into her land to search.  

She searched for hours.

Determination had given way to despair after four hours had passed, however. Her crew boss, Andrew, showed up at her cache at around three in the afternoon. He found her wandering her land in tears, without her bags on. This wasn’t an altogether uncommon situation to find a treeplanter in, but Andrew had been in the same camp as Charlotte for all four of her planting years and he quickly understood something was wrong.

At first, he was concerned she had injured herself or had become delirious from heatstroke, or something otherwise medical in nature. He ran across the land at full speed, painfully falling once, arriving at her side breathless.

“Charlotte what’s the matter?” he panted.

“I lost a sticker.”

Andrew was confused and took a moment to gather his breath. “What kind of sticker?”

“A tree box sticker.”

Even more confused, he then thought perhaps Charlotte was worried that he wouldn’t believe her when she gave him his tallies. He relaxed and laughed a little bit.

“Charlotte dear, I’m going to believe you that you planted that box of course, you don’t need to find the sticker.”

“It’s not that” Charlotte replied, her eyes vacant from worry and frustration and the exhaustion of stumbling around crying in her land for the past several hours.

“What is it then?” asked Andrew, catching himself, ashamed that he had laughed about the situation.

“I forget what I named that box.”

Then Andrew understood.

There are many people who might not have. As a seasoned treeplanter and crew boss, it was hard for him to understand anyone getting sentimental about a single box of trees. With that said, he knew her relationship with her trees and the unique way that she had named hundreds of thousands of them. 

He saw how real her pain was. He knew that there would be no rationalizing it away. He knew how insulting it would be to tell her to just take another sticker and make up another name.

So, he did the only thing he could do, and he began to help her search. He was in the midst of a busy day, and he couldn’t afford the time, but he didn’t care. He spent an hour and a half looking with her, to no avail. Eventually, he told her he couldn’t keep looking anymore and that he needed to pack up, that the crew was likely going to be late getting back to town, and that she should finish the trees she had left in her bag at the cache.

In a daze, she walked back to her cache, clasped her bags around her waist, then went back out into her land. Andrew left to pack up the other planters’ caches and clean up garbage. A couple of planters had run out of trees at the end of the day and were angry with him.  Other planters had been sitting, waiting at their caches for forty minutes by the time he picked them up, half an hour late.  They weren’t happy either. Normally he would care, but not today.  Like everyone in camp, he was in awe of Charlotte’s relationship with her trees. She was a happy, even-keeled person and he had never seen her anywhere near this upset. He felt the sort of sadness for her one feels upon hearing that a friend’s favorite pet has passed away.

Charlotte didn’t say anything on the drive home and didn’t show up for dinner. Andrew told the other crew bosses what had happened, and word made its way around camp. Everyone handled the situation delicately.

Charlotte showed up ready for work in the morning as usual, but she looked bleary eyed and exhausted. Everyone was extra friendly towards her for the rest of the shift, but she didn’t notice. She barely noticed the last couple days of the shift pass by.

With time, as it generally goes, things got better. A couple of weeks later, at the end of the season, she tried to convince herself that she had almost forgotten about it. She told herself she was being silly about it, and that it didn’t matter, it was only one sticker. Eventually, she began to more or less believe what she kept telling herself.  

Soon enough, she didn’t have time to think about it any longer. The season was over and she was on the long bus ride home thinking of the future, not the past. She had graduated university before the planting season begun, and a whole new chapter of her life was beginning for her. 

She didn’t know it at the time, but she had planted her last tree.  Like many planters, she didn’t know it was her last season for many years. She always thought she might go back, even for a small contract or just a visit even, but she never did. 

She had studied earth sciences at university and her first job was with a small environmental consulting company out of Squamish, B.C. Over the next five years life happened, with its various ups and downs.  She changed careers twice, and had an engagement broken off in the summer of 2015 with much heartache.

In 2017, however, she met Noah Joyce on top of the Chief, a two thousand foot granite mountain on the edge of the town where she worked. They fell in love immediately and were married eighteen months later on the exact same spot they had first met. Being the literary buff that she was, she joked that she mostly fell in love with him because James Joyce was one of her favourite writers and his last name was too romantic to resist.

Noah had never treeplanted, but he understood the culture. At campfires with friends he told rock climbing stories and she told treeplanting stories. From time to time, she would take her old journals out of a box in the closet and look over them. Most of the names she had given her trees were just names, but small notes added to the pages helped her to remember specific days and places.

A page from July 2013 had three Brontë stickers, and she recalled that particular sunny day of planting on a block just outside the town of McBride, B.C. 

To the chagrin of their crew boss, who preferred Chopin on early morning drives after a late night of drinking in the supervisor’s trailer, the crew had insisted on blaring AC/DC for the entire forty-five minute commute that morning, pulling up to the block bellowing out Thunderstruck at the top of their lungs. Charlotte had been given a piece with a large hill in the back that had a beautiful view of a lake down below the tree line. She was in the midst of reading Jane Eyre and decided to name three boxes that day after the Brontë sisters. She felt bad for Anne, who history doesn’t remember as well as Emily or Charlotte, and planted the trees she had mentally afforded to Anne’s tree family in the area with the best view at the top of the hill. She was sure Anne appreciated it.

Whenever Charlotte looked through her book and reminisced though, she felt a pang of loss when she thought of the missing sticker. Try as she might, she could never come close to remembering the name she had given that sticker. She had spoken of the missing sticker to her husband on a couple of occasions, who understood her well enough to know it was, as he put it, “her treeplanting Rosebud.”

As it was for many, 2020 was a bitter year for Charlotte and Noah Joyce. They joyously announced their pregnancy to the world in February and began to lay grand and exciting plans for the summer.  They were living in Jasper together and after Valentine’s day they began searching for a larger place to live – somewhere with enough space for a nursery.

In March, however, Charlotte miscarried.

Charlotte and Noah leaned on friends and family, but combined with everything else happening around them, they endured a quiet and sorrowful summer. They took long, sombre walks through the mountain meadows and Noah went off alone to climb much more than he used to. This worried Charlotte, and while he would have stopped at a single word had she asked him to, Charlotte knew he needed the time to himself. She sat at home on those days and tried to stop herself from reading and then re-reading the children’s books that they had bought in expectation. She knew she should get rid of the books, but she could not.

Then fall came, and with it, a shock. In October, they were pregnant again. They were excited, but also equal parts cautious and anxious. It had been a difficult year, and while it was all they could each think about, neither could bring themselves to talk about what would happen if the second pregnancy didn’t work out. 

Charlotte grew increasingly restless as Christmas approached, and her restlessness induced an anxiety that resulted in a vicious cycle. She worried that her anxiety might impact the baby’s development, and she was all the more anxious for it. She took leave from work and Noah took as many days off work as he could.  They would take long drives out of town, finding remote roads and hikes to distract them.

One day, in early December, they were aimlessly driving east of town along the TransCanada Highway when Charlotte recognized a turn.

“Go in there” she said, pointing at a forestry road sign.

Noah flicked on the truck’s turn signal. 

“You know” he said, making the turn, “this would be a good day to grab a Christmas tree.”

“I was thinking the same thing actually, I used to plant somewhere off this road I think, and the trees would be about the right age. We planted spruce and fir in here if I remember.”

Noah nodded and asked if she remembered how to get to her old block.

“I’d have to think” Charlotte said, “but I think take that left up there at the top of the hill, it looks familiar.”

They drove around for a half an hour before they reached an intersection that Charlotte remembered clearly.  She saw a series of large boulders pushed off the side of the road that she remembered.

Then she shot forward in her seat with a start.

“This is the block” she exclaimed quietly, pursing her lips as she combed through her memories.

“What block?” Noah asked.

“The missing sticker, I think we’re by the missing sticker block.”

“Oh” Noah nodded, “I didn’t realize it was so close to home, I thought it was out in B.C. somewhere.”

“Yeah, I guess I never thought of it” remarked Charlotte, still thinking, “I mean it doesn’t matter really, it’s just odd that this is where we ended up.”

“Mmm hmm” agreed Noah, “so, where do I go from here?”

“I think up that road to the right up there, but it’s all overgrown.”

There was only a light skiff of snow over the frozen ground, but the road had been deactivated and was undriveable.

“Can we walk in?” Charlotte asked.

“Sure” Noah replied, “let me grab an axe, you grab the backpack.”

It took them about twenty minutes to hike in before they found ground that Charlotte began to recognize.  Even though everything looked much different now, she remembered a crooked bend in the overgrown road they walked in on.  There was a notable shift in the spacing of the trees that she assumed represented the border between her piece and the rookie who had been planting next to her that day.  It looked like he’d slammed a few fifteen plots into the front of the piece, as he was wont to do.

“That’s my land, that’s my land in there” she said excitedly, pointing off the road to a mix of perfectly spaced and healthy eight-year-old spruce and fir.

It was the first time Noah had seen Charlotte excited and happy in months, and he smiled contentedly, following her around the land and she showed him around her old piece like one would a new home.

“See, my cache was right over there, and this is the area I planted on that first day, when I stopped after losing the sticker, here’s my first line in over here, see how I was mixing in the fir three to one, you can see the pattern if you look.”

“Well I can’t think of a more perfect place to take a Christmas tree from, I’m sure the land will forgive you taking one.”

“Mine are spaced too perfectly” Charlotte laughed, “we should take one of the ones from Miley’s piece over there.  Guaranteed there will be a few double plants, we can rescue one of those.”

They walked over and, sure enough, found a double plant where a shortish spruce tree was languishing, though still alive and fighting, in the shadow of a healthy Douglas Fir.

“This one” said Charlotte, pointing to the fir, “what do you think of this one?”

“I think it’s perfect” said Noah, “you’re happy with this one?”

“Yes, let’s take it.”

Noah grabbed his saw and quickly cut through the base of the tree, dropping it to the ground.  He handed the saw to Charlotte, saying “I’ll grab the tree if you can take the saw and the bag.”

He bent down to pick up the tree when he noticed a small scrap of something flapping in the wind from under a rock.  It was a weather-beaten scrap of folded paper, its edge barely protruding from the frozen ground.

“Looks like whoever planted this land littered in addition to planting bad trees” Noah said with a laugh, standing up with the tree in hand.

“What do you mean?” asked Charlotte.

“Looks like a sandwich wrapper or something” Noah said, pointing at the ground.

Charlotte’s eyes found the protruding scrap of paper and she cried out.

In a flash, she was on her knees, scratching at the frozen ground.

“What is it?” asked Noah, surprised at the sudden fury of her movements.

“Give me the saw” she demanded, reaching her arm out behind her as she kept her eyes fixed on the ground.

Noah placed the saw in her hands and she began to cut the frozen ground around the scrap of paper.

In a minute she had a small wedge dislodged from the ground, which she broke against the rock.

“It’s my sticker” she said slowly, turning to Noah. “My lost sticker.”

Noah frowned. It didn’t seem possible. He wasn’t one to believe in fate or destiny and finding that sticker would fall into a category well beyond the limits of reasonable chance or coincidence.

“Are you sure? Probably just a scrap of garbage, wouldn’t your sticker have blown miles away and degraded by now?”

“The wind must have blown it over here and, see” she said, pointing, “it got pinned under the edge of this rock” Charlotte said, looking down at the paper in her hands.

“Look” she said, excitedly, “you can’t read it but you can see the faded printing from the nursery.”

Noah squinted. It was the right size and shape and it did look like faded printing through the dirt.

They both stood there, staring at the paper.

Noah broke the silence first, “Can you read the name on it?”

“It’s hard, the marker seems to have gone greenish and the paper’s filthy.”

Noah couldn’t make anything out and he glanced up at the sunset. The light was rapidly dropping out of the sky and they still had a walkout to do with the tree.

“That’s incredible darling, but let’s look at it back at the truck. I took a GPS shot here so we can find the spot again if we need to, let’s get going.”

Charlotte nodded, carefully sliding the sticker into her inner coat pocket.

“Everything that’s happened this year, I can’t believe it” Charlotte said, mostly to herself.

“I know, it’s hardly believable” Noah responded, “but don’t get your hopes up just yet, let’s take a closer look at it. Regardless though, it’s amazing you found this block even without the sticker.”

They walked out in silence, each of them considering the impossibility of it actually being the sticker.

When they returned to the truck, Noah threw the gear and the tree in the bed and hopped in the front of the cab, turning on the overhead lights.

Charlotte had taken the paper out of her pocket and was trying to open and flatten it without tearing it. Noah grabbed a dry paper towel and handed it to Charlotte who delicately wet a corner and wiped as much dirt as she could off the sticker, avoiding the area with what appeared to be marker on it.

“This is definitely a tree sticker” said Charlotte excitedly.

“I think that writing on it starts with a J” said Noah, squinting.

The paper fell from Charlotte’s hand into the cupholder as a forgotten memory from that day flooded her mind like a dam bursting.

“It’s not possible” she whispered, shaking her head.

“What?” Noah asked, staring at her.

That morning, the morning she had lost the sticker, she had been thinking about a sad story she had read the night before in her tent. It was a story called “The Dead” from a collection of stories she was reading.

“I remember the name I wrote.”

“You remember it?” asked Noah, surprised.

“Yes, I remember naming the box now. I was thinking about the author of a book of short stories I was reading.”

“What was the book?”

“Dubliners.”

There was no need to tell Noah who the author of Dubliners was.

He coughed and his face became red. “It’s not possible” he echoed, picking up the paper and staring at it blankly.

“I don’t think it’s possible either” said Charlotte quietly, staring at him “but I think it’s happened.”

Noah lifted the paper to the light again and they both looked at it, and they both saw it.

Noah and Charlotte Joyce both saw what Charlotte had remembered.

There was no mistaking it now; the name was legible when they knew what they were looking for.

“Joyce”

Charlotte looked over at Noah.

“You know, maybe in spite of everything that’s happened, we’re exactly where we are supposed to be.”

“Whatever happens” nodded Noah thoughtfully.

“Yes,” replied Charlotte, smiling softly, “whatever happens.”

 

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