Tree-planting is Hell

The following is an excerpt from the film Baller to be released in the spring of 2022:

Davis steps forward, wobbling over the uneven ground, the bags very heavy for him, makes three uncertain strides and then throws the shovel into the ground, hitting a rock. The shovel bounces out and falls as Davis shakes his hand, numb from the impact.

TONY: Watch the ground. Got to keep your eyes open, Davis. There are rocks and roots everywhere. Got it?

Davis picks up the shovel, looks for what might be a better spot, but can only seem to see roots, rocks and stumps all around.

TONY (Pointing): There. Go!

Davis places the shovel’s tip on the ground and pushes down with his boot. He kicks down a couple of times and then wedges the earth open, stands up, reaches for a tree, and has it backwards, the top of the tree pointing down, and has to reach around with both hands, leaning the shovel against his leg, gets it the right way around and puts it in the ground, kicking it closed.

TONY: Too deep. Look.

Tony reaches down to the tree, half of it buried, and kicks the tree plug in properly. Davis steps forward again, three paces, and pushes the shovel in again. It goes in properly, and he digs out another tree, turns it around, drops it in, and kicks it closed.

TONY: Too shallow.

Davis looks at the tree more closely and realizes that it is high out of the ground, half of the dirt plug showing; the tree is already falling forward. DAVIS steps forward again, going around a stump.

TONY: Watch your line. You have to watch your line. (Pointing to the forest, a couple of hundred yards away) Find a reference point, stump, branch, whatever. Keep your line. Keep it straight. Go to the back and come back. Back and forth. Got it? Until you’ve planted your land.

DAVIS: My land?

TONY: The green tape – where you’ll stop. Allan is planting next to you. (Pause, watching Davis trying to plant again) Keep your trees three yards apart, all directions. Got it? The inspectors are looking for that. Three yards. I’ll tie off your boundary just down this hill. 

Tony nods curtly at Davis, who looks back, confused.

TONY: Trees in the ground, Davis. Time to make money. (He turns and jogs back to the road.) And don’t plant the road!

DAVIS: What road!?

Tony continues to jog away. Davis looks ahead to the forest. Adjusting the bag, raising the shovel high, he steps ahead three paces and throws the shovel in successfully, brings a tree out and drops it in. He goes ahead again and gets another one in. And another. And another.

DAVIS: Almost a whole dollar. Now we’re talking.

Davis seems to be getting the hang of it and then hits a root. Unfazed, he finds another spot and puts the tree in. He looks up. The forest doesn’t look any closer. He has to step over a series of ponds, planting the trees on little rises of moss and weedy grass. They don’t look like they could possibly survive. He continues ahead, swiping at the cloud of mosquitoes around his head, methodically planting all the way up and then gets to the edge where the ground is suddenly completely open and clear. Excited, he quickly plants a succession of trees in the ground and then looks into the woods, staring into the shadows, imagining he can see something moving. He freezes, half raising his shovel, and jumps back, and then realizes it is just a branch. He turns back cautiously to the planting and realizes that he can’t see where to go because he’s forgotten to tie off any tape and so can’t see his line. He tears off his bug hat and tries to jam it in his back bag. It falls to the ground, unbeknownst to him. He stumbles ahead, searching for the trees he’s already planted, trying to make sure that he doesn’t plant them too close. He unwraps the tape and ties off almost every time he plants a tree. The tape becomes tangled in his bags and unspools in a long line, turning into streamers in the wind. The mosquitoes have arrived in a thick cloud, all over his face, getting in his eyes and ears; one flies right into his mouth. He spits it out and waves angrily. He looks for his hat and can’t find it. He continues ahead and eventually makes it back to the landing and drops the bags on the ground. He counts through his bundles, swiping at the mosquitoes, spitting them out of his face, and realizes that he has planted 45 trees and looks at his watch. Almost two hours have passed. He lights a cigarette.

TONY (Arriving on his ATV, boxes of trees tied down on the back): No smoking on the block, Davis.

DAVIS: It keeps the bugs away.

TONY (Leaning forward on the ATV handlebars): What did I tell you about planting the road?

DAVIS: What road?

TONY: The cream in the back. You can’t plant that. I saw you, Davis. You got to take those trees out.

DAVIS: Take them out? That’s like half my trees.

TONY: It’s a fire road. We got to keep that clear. That’s the law. (Pause) How many you got in?

DAVIS: 45, I think.

TONY: You put 45 trees in the road?

DAVIS: No, total. That’s all of my trees.

TONY (Pause): Are you cut out for this, Davis? Yea or nay?

Davis stomps his cigarette out.

TONY (Leaving): Trees in the ground, Davis! That’s the name of the game.

Tony drives away. Davis puts the bags on and begins to plant again. He is planting slower now, looking almost in pain, as he climbs over the slash and stumps, meticulously tearing off strips of tape, marking his line. He comes to a swampy area where it looks like no trees could possibly be planted. He stops and stares, not knowing where to go. He tries to plant a tree but it just sinks deep into the muck and vanishes, drowned.

DAVIS: Fuck me.

He looks up to a distant ridge and sees another treeplanter, effortless in his work, moving across, planting tree after tree.

DAVIS (Watching and counting the trees as the figure plants): Seven trees? In like a minute. Who the fuck is that? (Squinting) Holy shit. Max? No. Is that really Max? No. The guy gets up late and he’s going to make ten times what I do.

Davis looks around again for a place to put a tree and kicks at the ground when a large snake leaps from the muddy grasses and launches itself, mouth wide at his leg. Davis jumps back and the snake swims across the muddy water and vanishes back into the grass. Davis waves his shovel through the muddy grass, trying to scare out any other snakes and, not seeing any, he drops a tree in the water and stomps it into the mucky water. He tries to jump the pool and falls terribly short and falls back in, completely soaking his boots. He lunges forward and falls in again. It isn’t until he takes the bags off that he can get out and drag the bags after him. He puts the bags on again and then realizes he has to defecate. He takes the bags completely off again and searches the ground intensely for animals before he pulls his pants down and then leans against a stump and squats. The mosquitoes buzz all around him. He swings at them, furiously trying to keep them away and then suddenly sees a massive beetle jumping right toward his ass. He swings at it and ends up hitting his own feces.

DAVIS (Wiping his hand violently on the ground): Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck!

He has no toilet paper and wipes his ass with moss and shreds of bark, ants and beetles falling off in clumps, and then scoops water from the stagnant pond and finishes with that. He puts the bags back on, takes the shovel and looks for a place for a tree. The rain has lessened. It is now more of a mist.

DAVIS: What’s next? The goddamn fucking puma?

He looks up, warily, squints and recoils, thinking there really is a bear ahead. He stumbles back and realizes that it is just a stump. He wildly waves at the mosquitoes and runs away, stops, runs around and comes back. The bugs are everywhere. He hides his face in his shirt.

DAVIS: Fuck!!!!


Davis, his face covered in dirt and mosquito bites, smokes a cigarette in the back of the crummy as they drive back to camp. Baz is beside him. They are silent for a long time.

BAZ: How many?

DAVIS: Three hundred and twenty.

BAZ: Shit. I thought I was fucked.