As some of you may know, I am frequently employed to plant trees in the hills of Scotland for cash. Most of the trees I plant are Sitka Spruce, a conifer bought over from Sitka Island, a small cold island off the west coast of Canada. The victorians, as I understand it, decided it was simply the best tree for the job of replacing the British Isle’s decimated native woodland. Wikipedia has this to say:
Sitka spruce is of major importance in forestry for timber and paper production. Outside its native range, it is particularly valued for its fast growth on poor soils and exposed sites where few other trees can be grown successfully; in ideal conditions young trees may grow 1.5 m per year. It is naturalized in some parts of Ireland and Great Britain where it was introduced in 1831 (Mitchell, 1978) and New Zealand, though not so extensively as to be considered invasive. Sitka spruce is also planted extensively in Denmark, Norway and Iceland. In Norway, Sitka spruce was introduced in the early 1900s. An estimated 50,000 hectares have been planted in Norway, mainly along the coast from Vest-Agder in the south to Troms in the north. It is more tolerant to wind and saline ocean air, and grows faster than the native Norway spruce
My job is to go into blocks of Sitka that have been felled and plant in wee baby ones for the next crop. It involves dragging trees in bags weighing up to 8kg up steep slopes in a car trailer, filling a harness/bag thing (herein referred to as: bags) with trees and marching up even steeper slopes and bending over repeatedly with a glorified, forged steel, handled trowel on a stick. Fairly simple so far? You get paid 5p to 9p per tree aiming for about 2000 every day, it works out at between £100 and £180 daily wage. Sounds good? Ok, now do this 4 days on, one day off in all winter’s finest for 6 months straight, live in your choice of leaky tent or live in van, eeking out a lonely existence 100’s of miles away from your friends and family every year! You have to be nuts to do it but you see sunrise everyday and you can swear and fart near your boss and not get fired! And the farts are huge when you eat twice your normal calorie intake a day!
As fun as that sounds, usually something goes wrong. This, our first week in, ahem, December of the November to June season, has been something of a nadir.
I decided this year to ditch the leaky tent and go full tramp with a dodgy early ’90’s caravan, replete with wood burning stove, solar panel and 60 watt laptop for movies to burn away the 18 hour nights near the solstice. The maiden voyage of which came to calendar on Sunday 6th December 2014. Finally, the nursery delivered the Oaks and Junipers, stakes and tubes, for the burn side beautification of a windmill cum Sitka farm on a bleak hill in Western Aberdeen. Finally, after three weeks, the nursery stopped saying: “This isn’t winter, the trees are not dormant enough to move” and let us at ’em.
Great, I thought, I can stop hammering the overdraft and actually earn some cash.
On pulling out of a wee farmhoose, the ‘van’s wheel struck a steel I bar girder that had been placed to stop such vehicles sliding off the farmer’s track, into the field. Bump. Pop. Unfortunately, in the towing car, where I sat, this wasn’t audible and off I rolled onto the A71 and got up to 40mph before urgent flashes from the person behind me led me to pull the F off the road. The wheel hub was hot and battered. I was stuck in pretty much the worst place.
I called the polis to let ’em know and they said alright go get your spare. Off to Fala, where I live, and Kev let me rob the wheels off his trailer. Amazing mateship of Kev! Thanks! Back to the ‘van and the wheels don’t fit. Another call to the polis and it’s not going to stay there the night. The AA want to charge me £120 to have it moved. Nice. So they come 4 hours later, after a polis car turns up, and drag it to an impound costing a further £25 a day for the pleasure.
Next day I have to run James, my tree-planter partner in crime, 50 miles to Stirling to rendezvous with Eric, our boss, who can only meet the Forester that day to get the job started. A mandatory formality where they tell you honest, simple, health and safety concerns which, although vital to safety, don’t rarely change from site to site..
So off I took James at 5am the following and he makes a 3 hour trip for a 15 minute chat in lieu of us starting at the caravan’s first convenience. I trek back to Edinburgh to start searching scrap yards for the right wheels for a ’91 Abi Ace Viceroy caravan.
On about the 8th scrap yard I am trapped in my car by two builders in their van who refuse to let me out. After half pulling out of my parking spot, they turn into the road I’m on and race towards me and won’t let me finish my manoeuvre. Do they have right of way? I’m pulling from the right into the left lane.. Still, I go back in cussing at their impatience. They sidle up and park their van next to my car. No hope out, their start menacing stares and I loose patience with the universe and impolitely tell them they can beat me up now if that is their preference.. Off they bugger and I can’t believe it.
Next scrap yard features a wonderful array of piled up junk. Just my sort of place. After some perusal a friendly staff member is finally the first nice person I meet that day. He tell’s me that the recovery crew who got my van are indeed less that favourable and that his dad used to have the same caravan as me and that he knows the exact wheel I need. He gives me a £20 discount seemingly because of no more than I’m having a bad day and off I go to the ‘van’s pound.
After a long wait, I get at the van, jack it up on it’s stability feet and replace the wheels. I am surrounded by cars that have had to have been cut open by the fire brigade to get the folk out..
Back on the road finally. Wait, they didn’t charge me for the recovery! YASSS!
That night a tempest rolls in. After seeing the cut up cars I don’t fancy a high sided drive in a gale. It’s Tuesday. Time for food and sleep.
On Wednesday we set off. On seeing the ‘van in the morning I realise the gale has blown off the sun roof right above the bed and, indeed, the bed is saturated. Oh well. I jimmy up a web of string to hold the busted thing on and Nessa and I embark with £50 in the tank. We meet James in Dalkieth after a bungled attempt to get the bus to a convenient Park and Ride. The journey, although in the last throes of the tempest, goes smoothly, even though the Forth Road Bridge is closed to us. Slowly we get into Aberdeenshire and quickly find a nice spot to set up. We start playing cards and eat before trekking into the plantation to find some sticks for the burner. It’s a blizzard.
This morning I awake at 6 to start the fire and brew a pot of Turkish coffee. The fire’s lit in 5 minutes but the pot takes another hour to boil so I doze with Nessa, James on the sofa after crashing his live-in £3000 van the month earlier.. At 7 I smell the coffee. There is just the hint of light on the horizon. Bacon started, I watch what seems to be the sunrise, although it’s full 8:20 by the time the sun actually crests and we’ve already slid down the snowy road to the site by that time. Can’t get in that way. 17 miles away the other road is also ice.
I doze a bit back at the ‘van and we moot the decision to drive back to Edinburgh and leave the caravan where she is. By the way, she needs a name! The weather man says it’ll be Sunday before 6 centigrade at midday might thaw it. Hurriedly we pack. That’s another 4 days and Sunday is Nessa’s birthday. We’ll be back monday.
Not a single tree planted. Not a penny made.
Getting back to Ed, we’ve spent the £50 on fuel. I realise, in our rush and packing while dozing means I left the caravan’s tow hitch unlocked. Someone could just pull the whole lot, burner, solar panel, bed, all our effort decorating, food and nice pans in a oner. Maybe her name could be ‘Stolen’ or perhaps ‘Burnt’.
More hopefully – folk are generally nice in Scotland – those two in the van who threatened me were the first to do so in 6 years’ residence here – it could be called ‘Residence’ or ‘Heavy Arse’, so long as it doesn’t get pinched.