On Fridays, I garden. I drive down the road to a community garden, ready for a morning of planting, weeding and, often, harvesting.
I join a group of young men, and we set to work. Together, we tackle our list of chores and get the jobs done. I work up a good sweat, my muscles get tired, and we add a few smudges of dirt to our faces. We laugh, sharing the simple joys of a day in the garden.
We take a break and look at what we’ve accomplished. Every week brings new projects, and fresh results.
We surround ourselves with all the elements of a healthy garden. We make sure we use substantial and complex soil, rich fertilizer, fresh air, sunshine, water, and tender care. Each plant gets its own place in the garden, and is encouraged to flourish. If there is a need for water or fertilizer or a little pruning, we are quick to respond, doing our work in nurturing and care taking.
The plants look great, but we’ve really been growing healthy young men.
And these young men flourish. They get the attention and care they need. They find their place in our work, and are encouraged to send their roots down into the soil. They open themselves to the warmth and sunshine we all share. They are hungry for this work, and eagerly take on their roles in raising chickens, planting seeds, in the designing and building of raised beds, compost bins, and trellises. They learn to plan their projects, to plant and harvest. Over the fire, they cook a meal from the vegetables they have grown, tasting and savoring what their hands have grown in the dirt, nourishing themselves with what they have grown.
They become connected to the earth, and the food that they eat. The garden sunshine brightens their lives and feeds their souls. They build community in their work and by their conversations around the campfire.
For many of them, this is their first experience at growing things, and in being caretakers. They become gardeners, not just of their community garden, but of their own lives. In their work, they make the connection between this work and the work they are doing to rebuild their lives, growing into healthy young men.
We do this work behind a prison fence, yet there are freedoms here these young men have never had. They grow here, encouraged to find themselves, and to see themselves as more than men scarred by the traumas and poisons of troubled, directionless childhoods. This is a place of new beginnings, new opportunities. Old wounds are healed and they can move ahead, becoming healthy men.
I treasure the simple moments, the quiet, one-on-one time with a young man, as we plant a flower box, or weed the potatoes, slice some tomatoes, or pick and shell some beans. Just a couple of gardeners, but so much more goes on here, more than the eye can see.
Sometimes, we sit around the campfire, cooking some food, toasting a marshmallow or roasting a hot dog, or just reflecting on what we’ve done in the garden. Soon, stories are being told, experiences shared, observations made. Guys being their true selves, deepening their friendships, and talking about their growing strengths and talents. They are farmers talking about their crops, and how they are making some improvements, tending their crops, growing their lives.
I’m the old man in this crowd, the guy with the gray hair, who just shows up and offers a helping hand, maybe a word or two of advice. I like to be quiet, taking it all in, letting them take the lead in whatever we are working on, watching them ask their questions and talk out the solutions, finding answers.
They need to be in charge here, the gardeners of their own garden. Part of our harvest is growing strong leaders, people who can take charge of their own lives, and make their own way in life.
They come up to me, wanting me to notice their work. They ask me questions, seeking my advice, and not just about gardening.
They are hungry young men, hungry for attention, for someone to affirm them, and recognize them for the goodness they hold inside of themselves. I show up, say good morning, and ask them how they are doing. We work together, as farmers and as life long learners of how to live a good, productive life. The other adults at the garden do that too, and the young men respond with smiles, their eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.
We take time to measure our harvest, counting and weighing our produce, admiring the beauty and abundance of what the boys have grown.
Yet, there is more to the harvest than all the tomatoes and corn, chicken eggs and dried herbs. I count the smiles and the looks of pride and confidence I see in their faces. These young men have grown this summer in so many ways than what we see in their vegetables and flowers.
Their strength and their resilience shine in their faces today, and their newfound abilities to grow their own lives is the real essence of the harvest of our garden.
–Neal Lemery 9/14/2015