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A Summer Planting Trees is Transformational for University of Ottawa Student

Laura Miller, a junior at the University of Ottawa (Canada) discovered a passion for the natural environment working as a tree planter  last summer in Sudbury, Ontario. Planting over 87,000 trees inspired her to return this year to try it again.  

Laura was intrigued recently by a presentation given by Alan Logan, ND who discussed how nature impacts health. During this she more fully realized how spending time in nature was impacting her. I recently had the opportunity to ask Laura a few questions about her tree planting experience and how it helped her become more aware of the importance of being connected to nature for health and effectiveness. We also discuss how spending time in nature has shaped her choice for a career. Her story is one I hope will inspire other college students to reconnect to nature and discover careers that keep them connected to it.

What are you studying at the University of Ottawa, and have you decided on a career path?

Laura Miller "happily exhausted" after a day of planting trees Photo courtesy of Laura Miller

Laura Miller “happily exhausted” after a day of planting trees Photo courtesy Laura Miller

I am in second year of my Honours major in biology. My current academic vision is to go to vet school at the University of Guelph. I have always loved animals and have persuaded my parents to let me have almost every kind imaginable over the years. I currently work at a veterinary hospital as a vet assistant so this gives me valuable experience for vet school. However I am also a passionate outdoor enthusiast and am obsessed with every aspect of nature, so I am also looking at possible career paths where I would be able to interact with nature and help protect it, and promote its importance in our everyday lives. I guess right now my dream job would be to become a wildlife/exotic animal veterinarian, but I am just trying to keep my options open right now because I’m not really sure yet!

Describe the tree planting program where you worked last summer.

I searched which is a database of most tree planting companies in Canada.  I emailed my application to about 15 companies and chose A&M Reforestation near Sudbury, Ontario because they were the first to get back to me, and they had great safety training and very experienced staff. They also had great food! The season is roughly two months long, but depends on how fast people plant and the weather. In British Columbia the seasons can be up to 5-6 months long, which I hope to experience at least once. The first season is the hardest. You have to adapt to living in the bush and how to take care of your body so that you can plant thousands of trees everyday, which took me about a month before I actually started making any real money. I went back for a short summer plant in August and was 100% more successful; my best day then was 3,640 trees.

Why has this experience been so important for you? Was this a “transformational” experience in your life? Do you view yourself and the world differently than before?

My uniform

Laura Miller planting trees Photo courtesy Laura Miller

This has definitely been a transformational experience! I learned a lot of life lessons and the effects of hard physical labour and nature on the body. I think it would be an excellent environment for studying the effects of nature on our physical and mental health because we are completely removed from civilization. I recently listened to a presentation by Dr. Alan Logan on his new book Your Brain on Nature, and everything he mentioned about the effects of nature on us clicked perfectly into place with what I experienced tree planting. For example, tree bark releases certain chemicals that cause us to feel healthier and happier, and I was surrounded by trees 24/7 for two months. Despite the hard work everyone out there is so much happier and alive than back in the city where most people don’t even see pictures of forests every day.

I also experienced the effects of being completely removed from our digitized civilization. Besides our camp’s noises, there was no trace of city noise pollution; no traffic, no sirens, no jumbo jets. It didn’t take very long before it felt like all the noise in my head began to leak into to silence of my new surroundings. Leaving your social life behind for two months is hard. But while treeplanting we are completely removed from EVERYTHING for six out of seven days a week for eight weeks, except for an emergency satellite phone. Being dropped in the middle of nowhere 10 hours away, with no connection to home, with 60 strangers, definitely removed me from my comfort level. Those strangers turned into my best friends and I know I will be friends with many of them for life. It was so cleansing because life was so simple. We planted, ate, slept, and thought about life. I think the whole treeplanting experience was a sort of meditation.

Treeplanting was the best and worst experience of my life, often at the same time. You will hear this exact phrase from just about anyone who has done it. It is because of the good times, but also I think because of how alive living out there makes you feel. As soon as I came home I had better study habits, more energy, more motivation, and better time management. I felt like this for about four months before city life finally got to me again and I lost a bit of the enthusiasm I had gained from the summer. I found this interesting because maybe spending extended periods of time in nature can hold you over for a time before you can get back outside.

How did this experience impact your career aspirations?

Enjoying the view of nature Photo courtesy Laura Miller

Enjoying the view of nature Photo courtesy Laura Miller

I really want to go into a helping profession, so this and my love of animals point towards veterinary medicine. Before planting I knew I wanted to be a vet but I didn’t know where I wanted to go with it. Over the past year I now want to become a DVM so I can either work in the field of ethology, which is essentially the study of animal behaviour in their natural surroundings, or be a wildlife/conservation vet. I hope to work outdoors or be studying nature, as I hate sitting behind a desk for any length of time. I attribute part of this to planting, because out in the bush we are never still and I experienced how alive nature makes you feel. I was high on life. So vet school is still in the cards, but now a more environmental/conservation career is also a possibility. Nature only has us to protect it from human destruction. It bothers me when people refer to environmentalists as annoying, because really everyone should be an environmentalist to an extent; the environment is never just “someone else’s problem.” It is everyone’s concern because we are all affected by changes in nature. Planting reminded me that everyone needs to play an active role in protecting nature. I find I am less wasteful now and look for more natural products because in the bush you don’t waste and we tried to use biodegradable products. I am currently researching career options in similar fields of work to Dr. Logan because I would love to continue his kind of research. I think very soon the benefits of spending time in nature will have a substantial place in our routine healthcare.

Describe how you adapted back to city life after being in nature for two months.

I noticed many things upon returning to the city: the air felt thick, the water tasted gross, and there was just so much stimulation everywhere I turned it felt much harder to calm my mind. Even now, after almost a year, I still notice how different the water is compared to up North. Our water there comes from a lake or river and is filtered by UV light and reverse osmosis; it is the cleanest water we had ever drank. The water here now tastes like chemicals to me. I wonder if this also has an effect on our energy levels, with our bodies having to filter all those extra toxins. Another big thing that hit me hard was my back. About two days after I stopped planting I had major muscle soreness in my upper back, which is funny because I hardly had any pain while planting, but as soon as I sat still for a couple days and not using my muscles they got very sore. So now I’m just forced to stay more active so my muscles don’t hurt! I know for many people it’s the opposite; muscles hurt so they don’t exercise. Of course the first few weeks of planting were the most physically grueling time of my life, but once your body adapts you never want to sit down. And up North I learned that your body can adapt to pretty much anything (but unfortunately bug bites never get any less unpleasant).

Tree planting bags Photo courtesy Laura Miller

Tree planting bags Photo courtesy Laura Miller

It was really an amazing transition to experience. I noticed how the buzz of city noise seemed to increase the static in my mind, instead of being attentive to every sound you hear up north. You become much less sensitized in the city because of noise, constant stimulation, and pollution, and in turn because of all this noise I think people become less sensitized towards themselves and what their bodies are telling them. I didn’t realize this until I spent two months in the woods, so it is hard for people who don’t get out into nature to realize that they may not be as healthy as they could be. Spending time away from the city in the woods helped me realize this. Since I returned I have a greater urge to escape to a forest or to a park with trees. Grass isn’t good enough, as Dr. Logan mentions in his book. It seems to me, just from my experiences with different nature settings, that a slightly dense forest is the perfect human habitat. Thousands of years ago this would have provided us with the perfect hunting environment: hiding places but also lookouts, shade, shelter from the elements, perhaps food, and the feel-good chemicals released from the bark of some trees. I don’t have any of my own scientific research to back up my theory, but I would love to study this connection more! Maybe if we discovered the perfect “human habitat” we could begin modeling our architecture and other everyday designs based on this, so more people could experience nature more often and benefit from the many health benefits now proven from spending time in nature.

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