Land snorkeling is to nature as the Slow Food movement is to food; both require slowing down to savor the moment.
I was among a group of volunteers who would plant flowers in twelve big containers which would later be placed up and down Main Street in our small town. Arrangements were made with the boys’ reform school, a youth correctional institution, to have four of the students help us.
Founded in 1893, the state reform school was at one time self-sufficient with the students growing vegetables for their food and raising dairy and beef cattle on the grounds. As time went by, the agricultural programs became obsolete and the boys’ school, surrounded by a high fence topped with razor wire, became more of a prison, enclosed, shut-in. A barn, one of the few remaining buildings of the working farm, looms like a ghost behind the modern brick buildings housing the boys. But, like a current that ebbs and flows, the value of learning in nature is finding its way back into the mainstream. In recent years, a high tunnel was constructed on school grounds where the boys would plant flowers, vegetables, and corn. Our group equipped with containers, potting soil and plants, were to meet in the tunnel.
Except for some rather healthy-looking ragweed growing along the edges, the greenhouse was bereft of plants. All of us are gardeners and we lamented the lack of use. For whatever reason – lack of funding, a change in staff, security reasons – the tunnel was eerily empty except for our pots and plants. But, we had work to do. While waiting for the boys, we divvied up marigolds and zinnias, geraniums and nasturtiums, plants that would flow over the edges and others that would grow tall, placing an assortment next to each container filled of black soil.
Several teachers and uniformed security guards arrived with the boys. Each boy was dressed in the standard inmate issue of khaki pants and maroon polo shirts. After introductions, the woman in charge gave a brief primer on planting, handed out the trowels, and we set to work.
The boys took time to pick out just the right plant, gauging where to place it in the planter. They were all offered gloves. Several boys politely refused. One boy said as he dug the hole with his bare hands, “I like to feel the dirt.”
The boys were being deliberately slow and who could blame them? It was warm in the greenhouse and crickets chirped, reminding me of lazy childhood summer days when I would lie on the ground and watch clouds drifting overhead like daydreams. “Listen!” I said as I paused, holding a geranium, its roots dripping with soil. “Crickets!” A few of the boys glanced up at me, probably waiting for me to say more. I placed the geranium in the hole and wondered how these boys could dream without sunshine and blue sky, without the wind in their faces and the smell of the soil warming on a summer’s day.
One volunteer left early to pick up her grandchildren and another hurriedly left for a meeting. The rest of us busied ourselves with cleaning up while waiting for the boys to finish. I had groceries to get; the afternoon was waning; supper preparations were looming. I glanced at my watch.
One boy, the one who liked to get his hands dirty, spent most of his time working on just one container. I watched him as he held each plant, thoughtfully considering its placement. As I stooped to pick up the empty flower packs beside his pot, he pointed to a flower and said, “That’s my favorite!” I too-eagerly nodded while looking around for more plastic packs to pick up. He continued pointing at the flower until I noticed and took the time to really look.
There was something about that flower! It was common enough, a daisy-like flower with many radial petals. It was the color that was unusual, a pale violet hue which changed to a brilliant yellow-orange emanating from the pistils in the center. The flower reminded me of a star quilt made by members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. The hand-made colorful quilts are given away in ceremonies and bring honor to those who receive them.
I noticed the black dirt packed under the boy’s fingernails as he patted the soil one more time around the flower. He was slightly built with shiny straight brown hair that brushed his shoulders with every movement. A faint moustache shadowed his upper lip, marking the threshold to manhood. Then he looked at me. I smiled and silently thanked him.
A month later, the boys, under supervision, helped place the containers on Main Street. A friend told me the greenhouse had been weeded and planted. “And not only that, some of the boys went on a branding!” she said. I felt like applauding.
The feel of soil in your hands, seeing, really seeing a flower up close, listening to a cricket’s song, catching the wind and sun in your face…that’s the stuff where dreams can take root and grow, at any age and under any circumstance, if we just slow down and notice.
By Karen Stevenson
May 20, 2014