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`Hour dogging' in Montana

By Hallett Stromholt / September 15, 1988



WE called them ``hour dogs'' because they woke the camp up in the dark to get out on the line before anyone else and get the jump on time and wages planting trees. How many mornings had I thought of the proverb, he who blesses ``with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him.'' As I lay in my sleeping bag, feeling as though I'd been hit by a truck the day before from the rigors of planting trees in the rock and rough country of high mountains, they snapped branches for kindling, rattled pots and pans, laughed, and one actually sang.

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Their noise signified that we (they called us ``the late crew'') had less than an hour to get up, be out on the line by 6:45 a.m., swinging the heavy hoedads into hard soil, roots, subsurface rock, to make a deep hole where a fresh tree might have a chance where loggers 20 years ago had cleaned out everything.

It was our valley's forte, this tree planting, and every spring we fanned out from the Huerfano in Colorado to wherever our computers had won us a bid with the Forest Service. It was one of the things many of us did for our home and children, besides the jobs we invented, our cottage industries, for there is little formal employment in our area. It was on the job in Montana that I found out about ``hour dogging.''

We good-humoredly let the ``hour dogs''do it. After all, we had 150,000 trees to plant, and the sooner done, the sooner home. But they were annoying, our own people, coming in in the evening with 12 hours to record in the book to our humble ``10s.''

And what's more, they had their own clubby humor. All day long they'd yell back and forth ``I'm in!'' Meaning: They had just planted a tree at the required depth, no J-roots, no rocks, an 18-inch scalp around the tree, which wasn't easy. To the late crew, even midmorning or after lunch they'd say, ``You in, yet?'' even though you'd planted hundreds. And at lunch they seemed relaxed, in bonne forme, talking as at a picnic, while we'd eat and faze out for a snooze.

One day toward the end of the contract, after hot weather, when you had to sleep out of your bag for the sunburn on arms and shoulders, I decided to get up early and work in the cool, get my ``10,'' and quit in the afternoon. It was an effort. But once I had ``crossed over'' from the soft sleeping to upright on the hard ground outside my tent, I was surprised how painless it was.

Something cool in the lightening air invigorated my lungs, challenged my memory with - what was it? thoughts of youth fishing at a lake with my father...? or was it the smell of hay and manure and the light dew at the farm? I was really awake to something. It was beautiful silky air. I made my tea and honey, swallowed presoaked granola, grabbed my hoedad, gloves, tree bag, harness, and walked down the road to the gulley we were planting.

Seven of the early crew were already lined up, hoedads flashing in the first rays of sun down on the Montana plain. They were quiet. I was surprised. There were no catcalls when they saw me. One of them said, ``Did you see that fawn down by that tree, Hal?'' I went down to look. There it was. On the way back up to the line I saw a turkey creep off into the brush.

I settled in and began swinging. It didn't hurt as much as I thought, the jarring, without that hour's sleep. One, the one who sings, I saw his lips moving in meditation ever so slightly; was he praying during this hour? I spotted a hawk coming into its nest from the night, carrying something.

I worried about the fawn for a while as I worked, then turning to reach a tree from my bag saw its mother in the lightened tree line below. I got warmed up, in a bold and relaxed rhythm of work. The morning air had given me something to think about. I had hidden treasure for the whole day.

My thoughts were pierced, not by the screaming of a hawk, but something similar. ``Hey, Robo! You in yet?'' It was the earliest of the ``late crew'' coming now to work with us, getting a friendly heckle by the singer. Now I saw what the ``hour doggers'' were defending: How could anyone have slept through the hour that had just passed? Why, it would take them the whole day to catch up with us.