THE SUN BEATS DOWN on a soggy 100-acre clearing in the flat Maryland woods a few miles southwest of Ocean City. Spring rains have left stagnant puddles in the tire ruts, and the bare dirt hummocks sink sickeningly under your boots. Giant windrows of brush, trees and debris 12 feet high have been bulldozed all the way to the scrub woods a quarter-mile away. It looks like World War I.

Everything is muddy: the tree planting crew of 14, their foreman, the four dogs who travel with this nomadic group, the pickup trucks and vans and Jeeps they live in, their water bottles, their soft drink cans, their sandwiches.

It is noon, and everyone is glad to take a break. They have been planting loblolly pine seedlings since sunup, separate and silent, lost in thought as they rhythmically swung their way down the long rows. Now they sit around munching the food they have fetched from their trucks, parked at the field's edge.

Mostly they wear jeans and T-shirts. Some are bare-chested in the heat. A beard here, a ponytail there, the accents of Texas, Florida and Ohio, the deep country, the city, the university. Someone has found a seven-inch leech and shows it around, as it stretches itself with ugly menace in a quart juice bottle covered with muddy fingerprints.

"That does it. I'm quitting," a woman worker says, staring at the leech. Everyone laughs. For these are the survivors, the cool hands who have made it through the five-month season of contract tree planting, and these veterans aren't about to quit until they have made the money they need to take off for the rest of the year. You get a bonus for finishing the gig.

"It's a special kind of person," Dave Timby says. He is a crew foreman for Superior Forestry Services of Leslie, Ark., probably the biggest tree-planting contractor in the East, operating from Maine and Florida to Minnesota and Texas. He stands, arms akimbo, blond ponytail sticking out from under his mud-spattered Superior plastic-billed cap, his worn L.L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoes ("I run through a pair a year; it's the toes that go") planted with grand indifference, the right one on a dirt-crusted hillock, the left one up to its instep in a soupy puddle of yellow water.

"A lot of 'em are here because of the recession, maybe half. But we have people who left other jobs to do this. Nurses. A nurse could work anywhere. We get steelworkers, carpenters, teachers, a foreign service graduate from Georgetown--he worked for Bobby Kennedy--a bar owner who sold his bar in Cincinnati to come along. Salesmen. Mechanics. A paper chemist. A helicopter pilot."

Timby, 34, who lives in the Florida Panhandle, has a master's degree in rehabilitation administration from Southern Illinois University. Two of his people are themselves experienced foremen who signed on as crewmen for extra bucks in this unusually long rain-delayed season. Timby keeps a light touch in his complicated role as coach, referee, quality control chief, salesman and big brother.

Working a six-day week during the season from late November through April, a person averages $6,000, on up to $10,000. There is a bonus of $600 to $2,500 for making it through the whole five months.

"You wouldn't believe the turnover," Timby says. "Last year I kept one in five through the season. This year it's one in two. I went through 11 people since Christmas."

Some can't hack it at all. "One guy did 11 trees . . . and he was gone. I gave him some Triscuits and a ride out to the road."

No one is quite sure how much it has to do with the unemployment situation, how much it's a rerun of the back-to-nature '60s. One planter from Colorado advertised he was starting an independent subcontracting firm. He got 600 applicants, accepted 100, had 60 show for work and wound up with 15 planters.

"They start in the South in winter and move north, lining up work as they come," says Sam Dyke, district manager for Glatfelter Pulp Wood Co., a customer for the planters on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "They camp on the property they're planting, or in a state campground. Men and women, all ages, 18 to 50. Some of them have kids. It's hard. You have to love to travel."

When people still had life styles, you would have called it that. Now it's just a way of getting to do what you want for half the year.

The hoedad looks like an ancient mattock except that it has a shaped ax handle and that its rounded blade, 8 inches long and 3 inches wide, is aluminum.

You lift it over your head and let it swing down, the blade driving deep into the ground. You pull a little, push a little and drop the tree seedling into the hole. Then you tamp it down with one foot while the other is already striding on to the next spot six feet away, and the hoedad is rising for another swack.

The whole thing takes about six seconds. In a typical 10-hour day a practiced tree planter can install 3,000 seedlings. A really good one can do 5,000, working sometimes in the car headlights, sometimes 18 days nonstop, in the rain, in winter cold that freezes your fingers, in bottomless mud that sucks your boots off.

You get 3 cents a tree.

It sounds crazy, but tree planting by hand has replaced machines to some degree. Years ago, the T-shaped two-handled dibble bar was used in a laborious process something like taking out miniature earth core samples. A machine with a crew of two could do the work of eight dibble-bar planters. Then in the '40s the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the hoedad and the rhythmic one-handed technique. Tree planting contractors like Superior have been on the scene only about 10 years. Last year it put 50 million seedlings into 80,000 acres.

"The machine's just too expensive now," says Timby. "With two men working it, it can do maybe 10,000 trees a day. I got two people can do the same thing. When I get four, eight people at it, that cuts your overhead in a big way."

Also, there are places where a machine can't go. Timby's crew has worked on mountainsides, in swamps, on boulder-studded moonscapes. When his workers saw the Glatfelter tracts they were delighted at how superbly prepared the land was. "Great!" they said. "It's all bulldozed! It's practically landscaped!"

What they were looking at was a wilderness of mud with scraggly heaps of tree stumps, acres of bare stubbled dirt streaked with mud holes and ditches.

This sight so excited the crew members that they tore through it in two hours, planting 16,000 trees on 30 acres.

The seedlings are a year old when moistened and planted, about two feet long, whiskery with hair roots and half as thick as a pencil. Planters tend to use locally grown stock, and Glatfelter's comes from Maryland firms and state nurseries. In 20 years they will measure maybe 10 inches in diameter at chest height. Glatfelter can cut them for pulp or hold on another 10 or 20 years to produce lumber. So far, most of the tree planting business comes from paper pulp companies, but housing is moving up as the recession ends. This year the firm planted 750,000 seedlings on 1,200 acres. In fact, Timby's people replanted a newly harvested section whose trees were started in the company's first season, 30 years ago.

A company field inspector works with the crews for quality control. Steve Ditmer is Glatfelter's man on this operation. "Some guys are martinets and always go through the foreman," Timby says. "But Steve knows everybody and just talks to 'em direct." There is a language of problems: leaners, J-roots (where the root tip doubles over in the hole because it's too long), spacing. A planter moving too fast will stretch out beyond the six feet; a tired worker will underspace. Some people can't seem to keep in a straight line. Occasionally frazzled planters get into disputes or fights, and Timby moves in fast. The only fight on this job was a dog fight.

Early on, you run into cheaters who simply bury a bundle of 50 seedlings and claim it. By now, those people have been weeded out.

"There's a lot of honor involved with tree planting."

This is Millie Phillips' fourth year of planting. She lives with her cat and dog in an Ozark cabin. On the road she lives in her Jeep ("I raised it from a pup, bought it 13 years ago") and camper trailer. She is 40, looks 30, graduated from Arkansas Tech in 1969.

"My aptitude tests in college showed high on outdoor skills and botany, so they said I'd make a good forester's wife," she says with an ironic smile. "They didn't have women foresters, of course. I couldn't take shop because I was a woman."

The only time she has been hassled as a planter was when she served as crew leader. Many of the crews include women.

She likes being able to spend seven months of the year studying botany, experimenting with wild edibles, making baskets. During the rains, she taught her friends basketry, and now there are six other basket weavers around the camp. When this tract is done, and Timby moves on to Maine with the crew's last gaspers, she'll visit her sister in New Jersey and then head home to plant her own garden.

"It's a hard life. I don't like to go over 4,000. Five thousand leaves you tired the next day. A good week is 21-24,000. You eat a lot of cheese sandwiches. You eat standing up and spend your nights packing your tree bags. Your boots stick in the mud, and your back hurts, and your fingers get frozen stiff. But then it's the next morning and you're driving through the woods and the sun's just coming up and the birds are singing . . ."

"I like a family crew," says Richard Thomas, 23, a bearded, tattooed West Virginia steelworker who got tired of "walking through the plant for a quarter-mile without seeing a door so you could tell if it was raining out." He and Jack Robinson, 31, from Leadville, Colo., each have a wife and two children along. "My last group had 15 wives and 12 children under 4. Some crews are all single men."

Robinson, like Thomas a foreman who stayed on to plant, has a marketing degree from University of Wisconsin, used to be a gold miner and then a landscaper. Half the year he lives on the west coast of Mexico, raising the children bilingually. They are too young for school. For 10 years he and his family have roamed Latin America from Tierra del Fuego to the Andes to Guatemala. This summer this born-again Christian may take his 30-foot Airstream to Key West because he thinks Mexico is too full of communists.

"I had my own subcontracting group of planters. I figure I've planted three-quarters of a million trees myself in five years. When you get going in that rhythm you can think a whole thought through. Long long thoughts. How I'll make a living selling oysters in Key West."

Roger Stephens, 38, from Cincinnati, was a tree surgeon whose lucrative cosmetic work in the suburbs dried up. For 12 years he had an office job. "Never again," he mutters. He plays a guitar and wishes this outfit had more music, "not that we sit around the campfire having breakfast."

Rick Fortney, 32, carries his cigarettes in the crown of his hat and wears a NOW T-shirt. He's along because "there are no jobs in Cincinnati."

Brian Clauss of Virginia is part of a land co-op that also operates as a planting co-op, subcontracting to work for Superior so the group can buy a farm together in the Shenandoahs. At one point the co-op had a school bus with a wood-burning stove from which it ran a meal plan for the workers.

Timby points out Sam Shaner in the distance, bearded and shirtless, face closed in meditation as he works down the row. "Sam was a steelworker. He only did a few hundred trees his first day, but he got each one right. Later he speeded up. You'd think it was his own land he was planting on. Never have to worry about Sam."

This is the key to the planter contracting system: You develop a cadre of professional, skilled workers. In the old days, Timby says, they used convict labor or locals, and you had to train a new bunch in each town.

What hurts most?

"Your back," says Stephens.

"Your arms," says Timby.

"My left knee," says Fourtney.

The worst things are getting poked in the eye by sticks and twisting your ankle. Mosquitoes. Rattlesnakes. A monster leech. You work in rain and snow, though a company rule lets you off if it's below 25 degrees. "That's because it endangers the hair roots, not the people. People can be replaced." The leather tree bags, like mail carrier sacks, become part of your body, and you find when you're walking through a crowd in town that you tend to leave a foot-wide space on either side of you.

Not that much time is spent in town. Days off are mostly for shopping, the laundry, a shower at a motel. Joseph Zolkowski has an easy chair in his Step-Van home, a mattress and sleeping bag at the back, a portable stove, cartons of food, a copy of "Hawaii," a gnarled tree limb that supports the netting that gives him privacy. The right side of the windshield is punched out. A bunch of bananas rests on the dashboard.

"I was on the phone and I had to ask someone what town I was in," says Millie Phillips. "You work so hard you don't know what's going on. 'What time is it?' 'Wednesday.' But in a couple weeks I'll be back in Arkansas sitting on my porch and looking at my garden and I'll have the whole year ahead of me to do what I want. Maybe I'm crazy."