This Great Society - Writing

 

Illustration: Leah Albertson

Chris Nikkel: A High-Priced Man
Illustration: Leah Albertson

 
 

In the past the man was first;
in the future the system will be first.

Frederick Winslow Taylor,
Principles of Scientific Management

My last season as a treeplanter was spent camped at the side of a logging road near Vanderhoof—the geographic centre of British Columbia, as the sign says. Like many university students, I migrated to the forest to plant trees in clear-cuts every spring to earn money for tuition, but also to get out of the city. The bush job kept me in the wilderness for three months of the year—the wilderness had mostly been bulldozed by the time I arrived, but at least the heavy machinery used to take out the trees was gone.
          It was early May, and the spring winds still held an arctic chill keeping the mosquitoes away, and also freezing fingers stiff and arthritic. Our crew of 12 treeplanters was reforesting a clear-cut near the Nechako River, whose headwaters trickled at the foot of the Kenny Dam, just a few kilometres away. In the months since the loggers had taken the trees, the clear-cut had been plowed into long, straight trenches, starting at the logging road and ending where the machines had stopped cutting. Each trench-top was crested with sand and abnormally soft. As I walked along the top of the trench the sand eroded beneath my boots. My treeplanting shovel sank five inches into the trench when dropped from above—the six-inch lodgepole pine saplings we were contracted to plant sank into the earth just as easily.
          In spring, the snow on these trenches melts first, offering the planted pines a few days' advantage over the rhododendron, rose and berry bushes that bully the young trees later in the growing season. It’s elementary silviculture: the tree must beat its competitors to the sun if it wants to survive. But, like most treeplanters, I didn’t care about the science behind growing a tree—the delicate trenches were perfect for making big money, which was what was on my mind.
          Every treeplanter worked with a partner, for motivation, but also for protection if visited by a bear or moose. I was planting with Tim, an athlete from Saskatchewan and the fastest treeplanter on the crew. Tim was notoriously smooth and efficient. When he plunged a tree into the earth, his fingers hit the dirt like a swimmer plunging his hand into the water. His foot instinctively tapped the earth snug around the root-plug seconds later. Watching him plant trees was like reading poetry; every action accomplished two things at one time. The toe that closed the hole around the roots carried him forward to plant a tree in one fluid motion. The hand that planted the tree also tugged it straight. Tim’s shovel was never stationary, always piercing the dirt or rising above it, stamping the earth with trees like a mechanical printing press stamps paper: up and down, up and down, all day long. And on that cold May morning Tim was especially efficient. We finished planting our first four hundred saplings within an hour.
          "If we work until six," Tim said, looking at his watch, "we can put in 4,000." At 11 cents a tree, 400 trees made me 42 dollars before most people in the city had gotten up for breakfast. If we planted 4,000 of them, we’d almost pay for one university course in a single day.
          Driven by this goal, we filled our letter-carrier style treeplanting bags with another four-hundred trees. I believed we could hit Tim’s target. Or, I wanted to believe it. I had to believe it—with only a limited number of trees for the company to plant in the season, every day was a competition. It had been 40 years since this piece-work style payment had transformed treeplanting from a make-work initiative for prisoners to a profit-making industry. Beat-up pickups and make-shift equipment had been replaced by ergonomic shovels and off-the-lot crew-cabs with in-seat heaters and digital radio. Treeplanting had become efficient, and Tim and I were reaping the benefits of this transformation.

Frederick Winslow Taylor is often referred to as the father of the efficiency movement. A “speed-up” man, he became the corporate consultant, whose theories on productivity are known in the manufacturing world as Taylorism. Common labourers called him Speedy Taylor, which was not a nickname born out of affection.
          Taylor was born in 1856 and grew up in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a wealthy suburb outside of Philadelphia. He had poor eyesight, a gift for making lists and a knack for finding a better way of doing just about anything. When he was twelve years of age, Taylor’s parents toted him around Europe, making extended stays in Germany and France—long enough to learn the local languages—hiking in the Swiss Alps, gazing at the galleries in Paris and wide-eyeing the Crystal Palace in London. Little Fred squinted at the sites and collected data in a little notebook, keeping careful track of train schedules and making lists of his favourite sites. He referred to these favourites as “the best,” a classification that would become his life-long obsession.
          It was while working at a steel plant that Frederick Taylor began conducting his first efficiency experiments in the hope of speeding up the manufacturing line. Taylor bought a stopwatch with a second hand and hid it behind his clipboard. He jotted down notes throughout the day, passing on his findings to upper management along with a list of suggestions and improvements. These improvements made companies more money, and made owners happy, for the most part.
          Within a few years he tracked down an even better stopwatch—accurate to one-tenth of a second—and from his data began to construct lectures and write articles on his findings. He called himself an Efficiency Expert, and charged exorbitant daily rates for his services. Taylorism soon swept through manufacturing houses across America and as far away as Germany. In Russia, Lenin was counted as a fan of the Pennsylvanian efficiency man.

I was fully on board with Tim’s goal of planting 4,000 trees, but I wasn’t as efficient as he was at planting them. Watching me plant a sapling was not at all like watching a well-engineered machine. I tripped and stumbled through the clear-cut, my shovel ramming into rocks and pinging off my knees. By the time a tree was in the ground, I’d usually performed a clown-like array of extraneous motions that, over the course of a nine hour work day, made me more tired and infinitely slower at planting trees than someone like Tim.
          But since planting alongside such an efficient planter, I had begun to learn how to shave seconds off my bumbled technique. I concentrated daily on my front-crawl jab, plunging the sapling into the earth with greater and greater speed. Even my legs seemed to catch on to the new program, no longer stumbling over every stick and root. Day by day, I was becoming faster, and the proof was in my wages.
          Tim and I finished planting our next 400 trees faster than the first; in 46 minutes, according to Tim's watch. We headed out to plant another bag-full without a moment's rest, not saying a word as we crested the first ridge, marching across the clear-cut with growing resolve.
          I was determined not to fall behind. Sweat beaded on my forehead, dripping into my eyes with a salty burn. To my pleasant surprise, Tim had dirt smeared across his face, his brow wet with sweat—it seemed he was working as hard as I was. Behind each of us was a 300 metre trench dotted with lodgepole pine saplings, every tree a precise seven feet apart. In 90 years the trees would be harvested like a grain-crop grown in the prairies.
          But we had no time to dwell so far into the future and had no interest in doing so. We'd scarcely said a word to each other since the start of the day, nor had we stopped for a moment to look at the horizon of mountains and the lake that glistened in the sun below us—we were in some of the most remote wilderness in Canada, but it made little difference. If we met our goal we would make nearly 500 dollars, which, for poor university students such as ourselves, was pretty damn good money.

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