I was there to teach, to demonstrate how to care for apple trees, getting them ready for a season of growth, of new fruit. The young men gathered around me, curious about the sprayer I had brought, my long plastic gloves, my eye goggles.
Usually when I come to the youth prison, I bring coffee and food, and visit with one of two young men, listening to their stories, giving them a bit of direction and encouragement, trying to help them move on with their lives. Sometimes, I bring my guitar or a book. Sometimes, I bring my drum and listen to their worries and hope in a drumming circle, connecting with them in a deep, intimate way, the drum beats opening all of us up to our spiritual paths.
Today, though, I am the gardener, and so are they. They gather around a big work table in their greenhouse, all the shelves and plant tables filled to the brim with trays of their seedlings and cuttings. Eagerly, they show me what they’ve done, what they’ve planted, techniques they’ve learned to bring forth new life.
The chickens they’ve raised from eggs are now about to lay their own eggs. They tell me the stories of each of the hens, and how they’ve grown. The chickens are now a big part of their garden, eating scraps of lettuce, decimating slugs, and adding their nutrients back into the garden soil.
The circle of life is vibrant here, everyone involved in the daily routine of new life, hands on experiences with dirt, manure, sunlight, new plants, harvest, decay, renewal.
Their lives, too, nourished, weeded, fertilized, pruned and guided into healthy new growth, strengthened by the sunlight they are now letting into their lives, becoming strong, healthy men. I see smiles and bright eyes, as they tell me about their plants, their chickens, this place in the world they have made their own, a place of beauty and growth, of new life.
I talk about apples, how humans have tended them for thousands of years, continually improving them, new varieties, new techniques. There are stories of grafting, pruning, thinning, making living things thrive because of a person taking a little time to care.
I talk about disease and blight, of the need to prune out the parts of the plant that were harming the health of the rest of the tree, of adding lime to the soil, to help the tree thrive, to yield juicier fruit, growing stronger. Today, I’m attacking fungus and bugs, things that are hard to see, but still harm the tree. There were nods of understanding when I weave the care of apple trees into our lives and our dreams.
Eagerly, they watch me spray their trees, explaining each step, why I’m doing what I’m doing, helping to grow healthy trees, bring forth a bigger harvest, make this part of the world just a bit better. Their questions are thoughtful, to the point, raising issues I hadn’t thought about. Together, we explore new questions, new solutions. We are all students here.
They’re orchardists of their own lives, and the concepts of opening something up to more sunshine and fresh air. Thinning out disease and refocusing energy are familiar ideas.
These men are gardeners of their own lives. Their questions and our discussions about apples teach me about the real agriculture that is going on here, behind the fence that surrounds their home.
“I learned to take care of a garden. Now I can take care of my life,” a young man said not long ago to one of the teachers there.
That wisdom helped him in the weeding and pruning of his life.
His story, told while we are snacking on some of the vegetables they had grown, brings nods of understanding from the young men there, gathered around the table. It is a lesson they know well, a way of thinking that is part of the routine, part of what they do every day when they water and tend their plants, feed their chickens, and make plans for how their garden would grow in the coming summer, and the summer of their own precious lives.