Why I go Tree Planting

It is 5:30am and I’m loading the last of my luggage in the boot of the Volvo. Dawn has not yet broken and I feel like a horse in the field as heavy streams of condensation surge from my mouth in the cold morning air. Last night I turned down going out and instead readied the 1988 blue beast for the journey ahead. I turn on the ignition and she roars to life, breaking the misty silence in the quiet suburban street. Once upon a time I would have rolled out on a Friday night straight after uni, but full-time work takes its toll and I much prefer the early morning starts these days. As I cruise through the town on my way to pick up the crew, I reflect on the week gone. I’ve been feeling good this term and I’m lucky to work in a country with rolling hills and native wildlife greeting me every day on my way into school. Yet, somehow, I need this; I need to be on the road on the early hours of the morning. I need to feel like I am contributing in a substantial way to the future of this planet. I need to know I can push my body so I feel muscles I never knew existed. I need to know there is something out there bigger than me. Some purpose to our existence beyond survival. 

The weekend will give me this. All of it. 

I turn into my mate’s street and the headlights swipe across the cityscape and something flashes ahead of me. She’s outside and ready, right on 6:00am. I greet Sam with a hug and we catch up while I help her load the luggage. Under the light of the street lamps, Mark emerges from the darkened sidewalk. He has never met Sam before yet they click instantly. I don’t even pause to consider how incredible this is, the connection that always seems to occur between people committed to a cause beyond themselves. Guess I am just used to it now. 

The Volvo hums as it reaches a comfortable speed on the freeway. Our journey has begun. The destination is only two hours from the city, but the time results in shared music, philosophical conversation and appreciation for our surroundings. As we stop in the service station, I happily indulge in a healthy breakfast burrito, a novelty in roadside cuisine but fast becoming the norm. This is one part of the trip that has changed since I ’d been in the past; I welcome it, though. After morning coffee, the smiles appear,  and we embrace the rays of the morning sun through the windscreen. The chat becomes more exuberant and the music more upbeat. 

WELCOME TO BENALLA, the town sign greets me, and I am pleased to see the entrance has not changed. As we cross the bridge I relax into the day, another year, another great weekend. Turn left at the KFC, my inner voice reminds me, though it is no longer needed. As we pull in to the scout hall, the advance party greets us with cereal and delighted smiles. Lewis, Bianca and Adele seem fresh and ready. I look around to suss out the rest of the crew that has come this year. Good, it seems the university students are still at it, and the Monash Biological Society has turned up. The legacy continues and I’m proud of them. I head straight to the kitchen and pour myself a cuppa. Inevitably, there is someone there to chat with. In such close quarters you are forced to get to know people, and I love it. Mainly because everyone is happy and open, here.

I rock up to the event tent and sign in, admiring the gorgeous scenery around us. Today we’re in Winton Wetlands and we change  according to the year but are always embraced by the beauty that is country Victoria. The system is still the same, the girls behind the fold-up table prefer it that way. Hard copies are easier to maintain in the field. We kit up, it’s a fresh morning and the winds are picking up. Today’s safety brief goes through the conditions and the big man informs us that our healthy and safety is their number one priority. Should the slightest hint of rain come we are to head into the cars and take shelter. It is too windy to risk being out there in the rain. Of course the briefing also includes a few terrible jokes and a warm thank you to everyone who is attending. This site is special, too;  we’re working on land that might have cultural artefacts of indigenous and European heritage. We are instructed to leave them should we find any. 

I make sure to grab a mattock and head out with the mattock crew. “Aptly named Matt” is introduced as the new Head of the Mattock Team.

“Dig a little bowl around the plants,” he says in a country drawl, “As the summer sets in we’ll be watering, and the bowls will help keep the plants going”. 

This care and attention to detail is what draws me in every time. We’re working in rows of 3 and will be zig zagging up the mountain, following a rip line of a tractor. The tractor has dug the ground in lines, so the roots can penetrate deep into the ground. This year the rip line is shallower to lower the risk of damaging artefacts. Each plant has had a small area around it sprayed and we use the mattocks to scalp the land of any leftover weed seed. 

As I dig my blade into the ground the impact travels up my arm, awakening old muscle memory. I smile as I get stuck into the area lifting, striking and pulling the dirt toward me. I look around as more holes are dug. It is a good turn out this weekend. Over 40 people, and we’re all keen. Most of the crew are planting, which is the most time-consuming part. Lewis and Sam pass me furiously chatting politics; they always bring interesting conversation. A few people join in, but I don’t indulge. This is the first weekend I’ve come out and I intend to wear myself to the bone. 

The day warms up and we work in the glorious sunshine. As we reach the top of the hill I look out at the lush greenery, marvelling at its beauty. Despite having been bending over and mattocking for the last couple of hours, I’m not tired. The fresh country air and sense of peace is invigorating, as is the cold wind that lashes my jacket. I’m glad that I have prepared well. One year I didn’t. If it weren’t for a ex-Biological Society president and avid tree-planting advocate, Ben, I would have suffered during a particularly rainy weekend. These are the memories that bring me back year after year. Select experiences that only ever occur when you’ve removed yourself from all other distractions, and embrace special moments with a few people.  

Lunch is called and we trek down to the camp where Chris, Helen and Shiaan have prepared a fire. This year it is a gas fire,  as the cultural heritage site prohibits the usual open firepit. Despite this, the tea tastes just as good – and the fruit cake just as sweet. As I gaze across the wetlands a tall shape appears in the corner of my eye. I turn around and there, wearing safety attire and an equally vibrant beanie, is the giant that gave the briefing at the start of the day. He turns and I give him a big smile. 

“Chanaka.” The warmth and radiance leaps forward from Andie as he goes to give me a handshake. Both him and his predecessor Ray give off this incredible energy, where you feel like you are one of the most important people on this planet. Both are great men, inspiring the younger generation not only through tree planting, but by serving the community as a foster parent and teacher, respectively. We exchange a few words, but I let him get back to it. The man is busy on tree planting days.

Lunch is always an incredible experience. Every time we are surrounded by breathtaking scenery including lakes, hill tops, meadows, near creeks and other fantastic locations. You almost need to experience it silently. But that is hard, mainly because lunch is an opportunity to talk with the other volunteers. Almost always someone brings something to share, whether it is chocolate, biscuits, hummus or any manner of delicious food. This year my homemade parsley pesto is a hit. 

After lunch we get stuck into it again. Tired muscles scream as I raise my mattock again ready for another round. Just need to get warm again. I remember when we used to challenge each other to work the fastest, quickly losing count of how many holes we’d dug. I pause to chat to a pair from Iceland, Hans and Hofi, who are among the many tourists that end up here. They, like me, genuinely believe that this experience is priceless. I would say that I am impressed by the tenacity of these tourists, and I am, but it’s also obvious that the reward of volunteering is an unstoppable allure. These two are just a few of the wonderful people who have experienced it. The world and their souls thank them for it. 

The day produces more great conversations, incredible sites and delicious food as we pause for afternoon tea. At the end of the day, Sally and I walk down toward the muster point and chat. She’s been coming for years too, though I only got to know her in the last few. She’s brought up a crew from the Melbourne Bushwalking Club. We chat about how we’ve witnessed Chris and Helen’s granddaughter grow from a quiet 7-year-old to an outgoing teenager. It takes a great kid to spend several weekends volunteering with her grandparents every year. Another testament to why I am devoted to this project: the quality of the individuals who make the weekends come together. 

We’ve got around an hour and a half ‘til dinner. Mark and the crew are keen to go for a drive to check out the scenery before dinner. The old car roars to life once again, and we meander down the bends of the flat wetland. The wagon kicks up dirt and kangaroos watch us as we drive past. Before we’d left we were warned about large mobs of kangaroos crossing the road, and I can see why. Their grey figures blend perfectly into the Australian bush. Despite the rocky road and potholes, the Volvo holds up well and we barely feel the ground underneath. 

We cross a large dip in the road and push past a narrow pass. Large gums loom overhead daring us to go forward. As we breach the forest, a vast clearing opens up to a farm. Sally’s large 4WD pulls up behind us and we all get out, silently drinking in the quiet border between civilisation and the wild. I could stay here for the rest of the evening. The serenity of the place is all encompassing. Yet we decide to head back before dusk truly sets in and the kangaroos take over. Besides, moments like these are not uncommon on a tree planting weekend.

We get to the scout hall and, unsurprisingly, Lewis, Adele and Bianca are looking for a ball. Some sort of sport is unavoidable when they’re involved. One weekend I remember taking the crew to a basketball court at the local high school, some local kids flagging us down and pointing us in the right direction. On the way back I turned up “Sound of Da Police” full bore as we cruised through the main town, with Lewis and his mate spitting along word for word. Yes, tree planting can be gangsta.

A ball is found, and we start a game of soccer. Somehow, we always manage to be full of energy despite the long day. The polished wooden halls have seen many a crazy activity. The basketball hoop in the corner has seen some spectacular failed dunks. To this day, I vividly remember my mate Annika trying to jump on some mattresses and slipping backwards in a spectacular fall, which does an injustice to her natural athleticism. I remember Ben kicking a ball so hard it flattened someone he barely knew. Yet we’re tough bunch; they got right back up. You ain’t going to make it this far unless you can handle some rough and tumble. 

We head off to dinner after a shower in the Scout Hall. As we serve the steamy hot dinner onto our plates our stomachs rumble and mouths water. The mist from the food envelops my face; a blanket of warmth making me feel even more snug in my fresh clothes and hoody. Food is so much better when you’ve truly worked for it. 

This year the spread is incredible, cooked by Andie’s wife Annette; healthy and delicious.  We devour our meals amongst hearty chatter. The elation of accomplishment is evident in the high spirits, with not one person is slouched in exhaustion. A wry smile appears on my face as I reminisce on how we used to play footsies under the table as uni students. I used to love watching people, trying to work out who was doing what. 

Ding! ding! ding! Andie’s form unravels from the table and stands above us all. “Thanks again everyone for another great day…” The usual speech ensues, thank yous to the attendees, the cooks, the wonderful people who work tirelessly year round to collect seed and prepare the plants, the people who prepare the ground and organize landholders to give out their land, the landholders themselves for recognising the mutual benefit of tree planting, the scouts and guide for lending us out their halls, and to a host of other wonderful humans that bring these events together. At least that’s what I hear; he actually mainly focuses on thanking the tree planters who have come up for the weekend, making sure we know how much we’re appreciated by the Regent Honeyeater Team.  We’ve planted 1500 trees, a little fewer than usual because we had to put tree guards on them. Not bad for a day’s work, particularly when you consider that at least 90% of these trees will be successful. 

Just before we leave, Andie reminds us about Bush Dancing in the Scout Hall. Yep, the day is not over. As we trundle into the hall Carol is there setting up her equipment. She’s a professional and works in the city, teaching bush and period dancing. Next to her is a lady in an elegant floor-length green dress, richly ornamented with gold lining. Her name’s Claire and she’s one of Carol’s associates, another keen bush dancer fired up and ready to commit to the role. I wish Paul could have made it this year. He normally comes and his immaculate sense of style and ridiculous dancing ability would have complemented her nicely. He and I came up one year by ourselves, back when I was in the Monash Biological Society Committee and firmly believed at least one member should attend all weekends. The dance begins and you’d think after 8 years I’d be over it, but the music is so upbeat and the eager faces those here for the first time draws me in. My first time here, I was afraid to approach two girls who seemed glued to each others’ hips. It’s weird to think that just last year I attended Sarah’s engagement and Imogen is now one of my closest mates.

Naturally, we crash hard on the mattresses provided by the Regent Honeyeater Crew that night, our bodies appreciating the labour they’d been designed for. But I do remember one tree planting weekend when we got little sleep. It had rained heavily and we’d been forced to evacuate. We took a tour of the town, intrigued by a car park that had turned into a  flat layer of water a metre deep, the trees between the parking spots sticking out, patiently waiting until the waters subsided. The big homie Blake’s photo of us on the day remains an iconic image. In the photo, we’re perched under the flood safe banner strung up by emergency services. I am proudly wearing the Monash Biological Society hoodie, which I have to this day. Of course, the next morning resulted in Sarah, Imogen and Ben swimming in the little lake behind the scout hall, which had ballooned out to flood the enormous river red gums surrounding it. The rest of us looked on in bemusement, not daring to indulge when tree roots, hidden branches and other possible dangers lurked in the flood waters. I’ve mentioned you’ve got to be somewhat tough to go out tree-planting, but flat-out crazy is optional.

The morning breaks and I recall many a breakfast watching the world go by outside the scout hall. Sally sits down under the Old Oak,which has stood there for who knows how many years. I join her and trade some homemade pesto for rice crackers. We chat idly as the sun warms us, preparing for the final day. 

We all eventually head out and reach the planting site. Sunday always feels more relaxed and the feeling is compounded as lambs frivolously play in the paddocks around us.  At the site, there are not enough mattocks, so I switch to planting. An important job to do at least once. You learn the proper way to release a plant from its pot without ruining the soil around it. A kind lady comes up and briefs me on the specific technique. Her smile indicates that she’s enjoying the experience just as much as me and I gratefully receive her suggestions. You never stop learning on tree planting weekends, always bettering yourself in some way before you leave. 

As I press in a eucalypt tree so the soil packs firmly enough around the roots, so no air pockets get in, I pause. 

The delicate branches seem too small to hold the leaves, desperately trying to soak in more sun and photosynthesise. It hardly seems possible that this small gentle plant, carefully raised and transported, delicately handled and chosen for this exact spot after meticulous planning, watched over and protected from the elements and kangaroos by a tree guard, will grow to be a giant. It will grow over 5 metres high and host thousands of insects, butterflies, bees and a host of key contributors to the ecosystem. Its strong branches will provide homes to possums, sugar gliders, the rare antechinus and the ravenous phascogales. The tall trunk will help hold nest boxes for displaced wildlife, until it gets old enough to host hollows of its own, although that will be at least another 50 years. As with all great achievements, it will take time and a lot of work by the little plant. I hope this prodigy achieves its potential. 

In response to popular demand, we head over to the seed nursery after planting is done. Andie walks us through 10 acres of beautifully maintained plantings. All rare species are carefully labelled to ensure genetic diversity and proper seed collection. By maintaining it this way, Andie explains they can get higher yields than scrambling around to remnant populations, the vibrant flowers of the Hardenbergia accentuating his point. There’s another reason too: some of the remnant plants represented here have lost their source populations since. I suppose even out here you have to act quickly to stop something from being lost forever. 

The last point of call is lunch. I am yet again amazed by the quality of the healthy food Annette has provided. As I eat my delicious vegetarian burger, I can’t help think about this one time my mate Tessa’s little red hatchback got halfway up the hill, then started to roll back. Her three passengers got out and helped push it up the steep gradient on the second go. She sold that car recently. Wuxley may be gone but that little red car with the hundreds of plastic crabs on the dashboard has created a story that will never be forgotten. Much like most of the stories we create when tree planting.

I go round to everyone and shake their hands for the last time this weekend. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Peter, another of the key figures of the project, and make sure I see him. I mention I’ve got another Youtube episode coming up and he replies with, “The Butterfly Effect, right?” I have not seen the man in a year, yet he remembers from one conversation that this project is important to me. I confirm his email and promise to keep him updated on my travels and am convinced he will genuinely follow up. If you want to know what genuine means, just talk to the people that turn up to these tree planting weekends. As I say my goodbyes I look at Andie one last time, still not decided whether I’ll come back for the last weekend. 

He grins as wide as the Opera house, completely non-judgmental. He isn’t worried, he’s just glad I’ve come this time, a true gladness. An inner joy that comes from years of whole-hearted giving and practicing kindness. One that comes from fostering children and organizing genuinely wonderful people. One that comes from being actively grateful to everything that is good in this world. One that doesn’t get burdened by what isn’t but what can be done. One that is brought about from creating thousands of hectares of homes for animals that can’t fight for themselves. The joy that springs from a light in the darkness of our times. 

“Catch you later Andie.”

I’ve decided. I’ll be back.