Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Summer of Mud and Sun

May 29 2008

Friends and Neighbours,

With great fanfare and measured pride I announce the launch of my new website. I built it myself over the last few months using Dreamweaver (self-taught). New features include: an mp3 player that allows streaming of all of my albums, built-in google calendar link to keep track of upcoming gigs, the complete introduction to my book in easily readable form, and a blog feed on the front page which I will try to update more often than I send these magical group missives out.

Now it's time for the great Spring migration, which goes a little something like this:

A month ago I ended my winter of hibernation in Vancouver with a one-month stint in treeplanting camp, a brief return to the lifestyle I abandoned four years ago for the path of the troubadour. It was bliss, actually.

On Sunday I was planting trees on a steep 45 degree slope overlooking glacier mountains outside of Merritt BC, a very clear and breezy day. I dislodged a large rock and watched it careen down the mountainside gaining speed, throwing up broken branches and sticks as it went. Primitive pleasure.

On Sunday night we had the night off party in treeplanting camp, with a wrestling theme, complete with a wrestling ring and spandex-clad planters doused in canola oil struggling to pin each other. I fought Steve and made him tap out after three exhausting rounds, waking up the next morning to find my feet and knees were badly scraped from the sand on the tarp that formed the makeshift ring. A fine send off for the rapping bushman.

Tuesday I flew to Ottawa, and for the past few days I've been visiting my mom here, taking in the intricacies of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy. Yesterday I observed question period in the House of Commons from the Opposition Gallery (all about the Bernier resignation scandal), then afterwards we had dinner with Michael Ignatieff. Many of you will have heard the news, but for those who haven't, my mother was elected as the MP for Vancouver Quadra back in March. In this matter my pride is less measured. I had a great conversation with Ken Dryden last night about polysyllabic rhyme.

In a few hours I will board a plane for London England for the next round of touring in the UK, a Summer festival tour with my newly-formed hip-hop group Mud Sun. Thanks to the strength of our first record, we have been invited to perform at some great music festivals, including Glastonbury (which I have heard is already a mud/sun mecca). Check out the recent review of our album:

In August Dizraeli and I will bring our new show "The Rebel Cell" to the Pleasance Dome at the Edinburgh Fringe, my fourth trip to Edinburgh but the first time doing something other than the ever-popular Rap Canterbury Tales. I'll tell you more about the new show later, but for now it's time for my now-familiar plea for assistance.

We need accommodation in Edinburgh for the month of August and haven't been able to find an affordable place yet, so if any of you know of someone in Edinburgh who has a flat for rent, please let me know. I am also in the process of organizing a tour of the USA for November, and I'm open to perform anywhere there is interest.

In the meantime, I look forward to seeing some of you soon in the UK. This is more of an informative than an expressive letter I know, but I have a plane to catch and much information to convey.

Good things to you all,


Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Elements

May 17 2008

As it turns out, I didn't get integrated into another crew after the training was finished, instead I was given a crew of my own, promoted so to speak, so now I am a foreman. Inevitable cries of "nepotism" must be laid to rest by the fact that I have more experience than any other planter out here except my brother, who is the supervisor. Besides, nepotism is for nephews. This is fraternalism. How did I plant for ten years and never get a chance to crew-boss? Lack of aptitude some might snidely offer, but it was also a case of seniority. On my former crew, the average number of years experience was somewhere around fifteen, which put me behind most of my co-workers in line for a promotion. On this crew, the average is probably closer to fifteen weeks experience, considering the fact that half are greeners, so I suddenly find myself a perch among guppies.

Well, aptitude comes with experience, and I am gaining it daily. Besides a few setbacks, a forgotten map one day, a cache of trees left on the block another day, things have generally been running pretty smoothly on Baba's crew. Last week we got to the block at 8:15 a.m. to find it buried under two inches of fresh snow. Another crew working up the same road drove by saying they were heading back to town to drink beer and have some of the fun that snow days usually entail. I'd like to say I cracked the whip, but actually I just polled the crew and no one seemed to want to flounder around in the snow, so we started driving back down the mountain. But half a km from the block one of the planters ventured the opinion that we should have given it a try, so I promptly hit the breaks and turned around and we went for it. I wasn't about to force anyone to work, but I didn't want to take away the option either. We screefed the snow away and planted in it all morning, fingers frozen, and by the afternoon it had completely melted away.

The next day there was snow in the air instead of on the ground, nine hours of horizontal sleet, freezing wind and rain, and we worked through that too. Treeplanting has always carried something of a mythological quality for me, a feeling of participating in something epic. It truly pits the human body and strength of will against the elements, constantly daring you to fold. It's the closest I and any of my friends have come to serving in the army. Everything hurts, you spend much of your day questioning your own sanity for even signing up, and yet you know on some level that you're fighting the good fight, and that you will let people down if give less than your best, or quit (especially if you have dependents or a mortgage). The first greener quit a few days ago, because he said he felt he wasn't contributing, that he was constantly frustrated. The job isn't for everyone I guess.

My friend commented on the block the other day that there are two kinds of fast planters: the first are workaholic immigrants and francophones whose mentality is "we are here to earn", and the second are middle class white boys from the suburbs who have something to prove about their work ethic. I guess I fall into the second category, and so what? There is pride to be taken in choosing a harder path when easier ones are available, just to discover what you are capable of. I think that same psychology lies behind the desire of so many suburban white kids to be rappers, myself included. It's probably the least likely vocation you could choose in terms of success rate, but what else do you expect from such a defiant generation? Both treeplanting and rap give you skills and resilience that transfer to other things, once the grind starts to get you down, and both of them are there for you if you decide to dive in again. In the past I've been paid a lot better for performing than I have for treeplanting, but not nearly as consistently. Four years earning a living only from art is still pretty rare. This is me rationalizing why I'm back at work instead of touring like an itinerant rock star, or a Kerouac type, but I'll be back to that lifestyle soon enough.

Day three of last shift was blazing hot all day, on a block with big rock piles and frozen ground and snow patches to dig through and plant around. Frustration is epitomized by trying to plant trees in a big pile of soft-looking dirt that is frozen solid. Whenever I passed a snow patch, I'd scoop some of the slushy crystals into my hat to keep my head cool while I was working. The part of the block we were planting was a long hike to the back and cut off from the front by a wildlife tree patch left in the middle of the clear-cut, so that it was shaped like a big hourglass above the road. We stayed until almost six pm to finish that upper piece, just to save the next crew the hassle of having to walk over our planted trees to get to the unplanted ground at the back. Then we loaded the remaining trees and garbage into our bags and into boxes on our shoulders and hiked everything out, leaving no sign of the cache, because the quad (ATV) had broken down, fighting the good fight, karma yoga, all that feel-good stuff. After work I got the whole crew a beer for their efforts, feeling like Andy Dufresne.

Ten days to go until I depart for England and the next round of touring, and a return to relative solitude. How do I feel about this? I feel the same way that I feel about many important things, in my quintessentially Canadian way. How do I feel about vegetarianism, about global warming, about the seal hunt, about globalization? I feel a deep and passionate ambivalence.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Training Days

May 10 2008

Yesterday I started a new phase of this job: training greeners. This contract has a dozen rookies out of thirty planters, and yesterday I took them out into a fill plant for some planting boot camp. I've done this for so many years, it's easy to forget how hard it was when I started, how awkward the shovel felt in my hand and how confusing it was to try to work the block effectively.

I first went out treeplanting when I was fifteen year old, to a contract in 100 Mile House in central BC. On my first day I planted 250 trees, unable to believe that some people could actually love this job. 250 trees at 22 cents each isn't exactly a windfall. But I loved the lifestyle from the beginning, sleeping in a tent and being outdoors and sharing your daily activities with a tribe of people who quickly become your friends. I didn't break 1000 trees in one day until my second summer contract, this time near Whitecourt Alberta, and didn't break 2000 trees a day until my third at age seventeen in Clearwater, BC. My personal best was 4400 in one day, on the same contract near Whitecourt about five years later. On the second day out here in Merritt this year I planted 3000 trees in the furrows, priced at 13 cents per tree. It's good pay for good work, once you get the hang of it.

Now the greeners are out there figuring it out stroke by stroke, how to read the ground, find the plantable spots, identify the good naturals and space off of them, and of course how to get those trees into the ground quickly, while still maintaining quality. Some of them pick it up easily, a few of them planting 700-800 already on their second day. For the others who are still struggling with it, I remind them of how I started out, and show them the techniques again.

Now it's late, most of the camp is already in bed, and my truck is loaded with boxes of fir and pine trees, ready for the drive to work in the morning. Tomorrow training is officially ended and the rookies will be integrated into the crews of experienced planters, myself included. Give them water wings, teach them a few strokes, and get them to jump in the pool. Some will achieve fluid motion, while others will flounder. But you don't have to become a professional to appreciate the experience.

I'm having fun out here, I have to admit.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


May 5 2008

I'm sitting on the sidewalk outside the internet cafe in Merritt, BC. The place is closed, but its signal is still broadcasting and I have half an hour left on my laptop battery, so what the hell. Today was day one of my month-long mini-season and return to the treeplanting life. The camp is in a great location, normally the campground of the Merritt Mountain Music Festival, now dormant save the planters who just moved in. My tent is on a sandbar a stone's throw from the bank of the river. In my mind there is no better sound to fall asleep to, but the days are not quite so tranquil. Sweat and dirt and frozen ground that shovels cannot penetrate were the order of day one. Still, I managed to put in 1600 seedlings even working on three different blocks, and the nuances of the job have not escaped me in my four-year hiatus. What has escaped me is my physical fitness, ouch.

I always had a bad habit of planting on auto-pilot while letting my mind wander, reciting or composing lyrics in my head or playing out scenarios, daydreams, plots and schemes. Today I practiced focusing on my breathing and on the motions required to put each tree into the ground with minimum effort. I recently finished reading Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth", which was sometimes irritatingly nebulous, but it also contained some truly useful tips and techniques for focusing and being present, even with difficult experiences.

It's also hard not to drift into the future. At the end of May I'll fly this coop and proceed directly to the Sunrise Celebration in Western England. The plane will land at Heathrow at 6 a.m., and I'll make my way to Somerset directly, where I'm performing with Mud Sun (for the first time!) that same night.

For now though, my ride is leaving shortly to take me back to camp, and tomorrow we have a massive gravy block, all furrows (some still frozen). From the cool breezes of Merritt at night, salut.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Back to the Bush

May 1 2008

The day after tomorrow I'll be loading my things into a crewcab truck and driving to Merritt, B.C. to go treeplanting for the month of May. Except for a few short visits of a few days, I haven't been treeplanting since 2003, but before that it was my summer job, the perfect counterpoint to the life of a full-time student. Every spring was the same, finishing up exams and essays in April, packing my things into a truck, and driving into the mountains for a summer of living in a tent and working the land. Sounds romantic doesn't it? Well, it definitely has its moments, but they are mingled amongst the aches and pains and generally grueling physical work. Hmm, my duality is revealed. Last time I treeplanted a full season in 2003 I remember feeling like I had to escape the job or I would be ground down completely by it. I planted for ten years, starting when I was 15, and I loved the job unconditionally for most of my tenure. It was just in the last year or two that I started feeling strongly like I had to get out of it.

But over the past four and half years since my early retirement from the planting scene, I've come to romanticize it more and more, remembering the freedom of leaving the city swarm behind and experiencing the wilderness as a daily presence, not just a weekend poultice. Also, the hurt subsides once the body has acclimatized, and as a lifestyle it has a lot to recommend it, good food, good pay, good people, good karma, good times, and best of all, no stress. In camp, you're responsibilities are clear day by day, working hard and getting along with your co-workers, but there isn't room for a mess of distractions under those conditions. I've been self-employed since 2004 and I don't think I've rested my mind for more than a day or two since taking that leap into the abyss, boarding that raft off the island, or whatever metaphor you prefer.

This year my brother graduated to a full-blown supervisor and got his own contract, and he's been filling his crew list with some pretty special, creative people. I couldn't resist, nor could I afford to. Performing rap and selling CDs and books has been my sole source of income for over four years now, but it's a boom and bust existence, and times are lean, especially in the winter, and in this city. At the end of May I'm heading back over to England for another tour, and I need a cash infusion to get me there. So my mission is clear for the coming month, plant hard, return my mindstate to a liberated existence as opposed to a harrowed one, and emerge ready to bring that energy to the stage. Oh yes, and don't forget to bring back some good stories to tell.