By Cris Roberts
Trask River High School Teacher, Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility
Sometimes, in the middle of my hurry-scurry work day, a moment in time stands absolutely still as I make a deeper connection with the youth at Oregon Youth Authority’s Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility.
This particular chilly, foggy morning, after being given all the necessary instructions, two of the eager, hardworking youth were capably, reliably, and efficiently covering one of our garden pathways with sturdy, flattened cardboard boxes, then manning wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of thick, dark, Hemlock bark to cover it five inches deep.
Together they took ownership of this project and it showed in their successful results on this ecologically-sound method of battling weeds in a garden.
Usually when I work with the youth, I rarely stand in one place longer than the time it would take me to double-tie my own truant tennis shoelaces. Today, however, I slowed down to listen to one of these emerging men share about pathways he liked to create in developing 3D imaging; use of light, contrasts, and color to draw the viewers’ eyes to focus on the important details; kind of like a roadmap. He loves to talk about this part of himself and I rarely gift him with enough time to share his heart. Today I could. Today I did.
I couldn’t pass up one of my visual analogies that frequently show up right in front of my eyes in this garden with these youth. The personal paths they are walking look different than yours or mine. The contrasts of bark and foliage they sometimes see have a scary look, an untidy look, or a confusing look. Sometimes they can’t trust the permanence or perfection of the path they are walking.
Behavioral and emotional rehabilitation and treatment can appear overwhelming and impossible. Sometimes, even with good instruction, they still can’t focus on the task at hand because, well, sometimes life can drain the focus right out of a fellow, making it near impossible to complete what may seem like a simple task.
The light may hit their path in such a way that it exposes faults or, on a better day, beauty. At times on their path, they must do hard work, and other times they can rock back on their heels, hands relaxed and resting in their pockets, and take in the sight and feel the wonder of a job well done.
At still other times on that same path, the bark is scuffed up by someone else out of carelessness or ill intent, again exposing those underlying pieces of cardboard. The toughest weeds might still be able to shove their way through that well-laid pathway, requiring them to repeat treatment over again. The irony of this topic struck me when one of the youth reminded me of the name of their on-site treatment program: “Pathways.”
I looked at that path today with the dark, rich, reddish-brown Hemlock bark providing a splendid contrast to the deep green Cayenne pepper foliage, the butter yellow and tangerine orange of the late fall nasturtium blooms, and the yellow and orange bee blossoms of our seed dahlia that was present in the garden eight-plus years ago when Evelynn VonFeldt, Pam George, and I first arrived on the scene as fledgling Master Gardener OYA volunteers.
I was proud of these boys. I was proud that with all the preoccupation of their own internal pathways, they could focus and accomplish this task. This pathway may not be impermeable or stand up to the tougher weeds of the garden any more than their own personal pathways can stay maintenance-free of their weedy life events. But they are trying, and I see in their pathways an opportunity for a clearer way to walk.
As we turned around to leave that part of the garden, they both tested the depth of bark by padding through a soft layer laid down by their hands and their hard work. I felt an awe and quiet come over us and I could imagine Native Americans respectfully walking the deep, spongy, silent paths of years gone by; Duffy-down on old growth forest floors. A healing, peace-filled pathway deserving of notice. Deserving of respect.
Cris Roberts is a longtime Master Gardener who has taught gardening to youth at Tillamook YCF for eight years — three as a volunteer, and five as the Adult Agriculture Career Coordinator through the Tillamook School District. This essay first appeared in “The Thymes,” the Tillamook County Master Gardener Association newsletter.