He knelt down by the fresh stump, his finger counting the rings.
“Thirty seven,” he said.
The group of young men talked about the tree that had stood in the small grove of pine trees in the prison yard. I asked them to look at the tree stump, and the story it told about the life of the tree, planted when this youth correctional camp first began, the tree a witness for all the young lives that had been transformed here.
They were astonished that tree trunks had rings, that the rings could tell the story of the tree, of winters and summers, good years, and lean, of the fertility of the soil, the amount of rain. Other young men reached out, too, touching the rough wood cut by the chainsaw, feeling the sawdust, the ooze of the pine pitch.
“Smell it, taste it if you want,” I said. “You can taste the freshness of pine.”
Only one man was brave enough to take me up on my offer, touching his finger to the fresh gob of pine pitch, his eyes widening when his tongue confirmed my opinion.
“This is where turpentine comes from,” I said.
His puzzled look told me he had no idea what I was talking about.
“Turpentine. Paint thinner. It comes from pine trees.”
He nodded, taking in the new concept, gaining a new appreciation of the trees. Until now they just offered shade, where young men could gather for a conversation, maybe a visit with family on a sunny day. Three times a day, on the way to chow, they passed by these trees.
These trees were just familiar things, ordinary pine trees, until we stopped to count the rings and stick fingers into pine tar.
We talked about the pine tree’s story, how it had thrived its first five years. Then, the other trees started to shade it and compete for nutrients. We looked, seeing how the growth slowed, the rings tight in its final years. History was being told in a new way.
We had spent the morning talking about plants and gardening, how to think about designing a place of beauty in the world, a place of quiet and growth, places of new beginnings. Their questions of their teachers showed their eagerness to learn new ways of nurturing a garden, to make something more beautiful through their work.
In the greenhouse, they had repotted young seedlings, making way for tender young roots to grow bigger, helping the coming summer’s vegetable garden prosper by their early spring work on the potting bench.
With cut down cardboard boxes and potting soil, and bits of plants cut from the teacher’s garden, they fashioned their visions of what their own gardens and yards would be. Pebbles and colored stones became rock walls and paths, and tiny paper cups were ponds and pools. Their dreams came to life. Proudly, they showed the rest of us how they wanted their homes would be, how they would bring beauty and nature into their lives.
While we made labels for seedlings, and chose the plants that needed repotting, several young men and I talked about our own lives and why we were gardeners, how that job fit into our lives, of pruning and weeding, and choosing the right soil and fertilizer for our journeys.
Looking at the stumps and the remaining trees, we talked about the planters of the trees, what they envisioned, how they planted the trees, what they wanted to accomplish. We talked about why we plant trees, and how we care for them.
When someone mentioned nurturing young lives, the young men silently nodded.
As rain moved in, we left the pine tree stump, and the rest of the pines, having new answers for how the trees came to be there in the prison yard, and how the remaining trees were going to grow. One man turned back, looking at the stump, his hand rising to his mouth for one more taste of the pine.
He smiled, and stood just a little taller.