He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. —Psalm One, Verse Three
Solid observation may be that elusive key to the alchemy that men in prison so much long for. I have tremendous respect for the people who are sharp observers in life—not onlookers or spectators, but observers. I’m especially grateful to all those who bring the very best of what they observe home to their personal interactions. I can’t speak for how good or true this is for anybody else, but it works just fine for me. Whenever possible, I like to observe the many elements of the outdoors. I always hope that I’ll somehow grasp one ofthe lessons nature has to teach.
For instance, the ground just beneath my window is a scraggly patch of weeds, beaten down grass, and faded lichens. They are in a constant struggle to survive in an inhospitable sand and rock-filled depression created by torrents of rain that pour from the prison’s roof whenever a dark cloud breaks. This view is a frequent retreat for me. Whenever I feel the need to get away from the contentions of my indoor prison-dormitory world, this is the place that draws me. I like it best when the grass and weeds are swaying underneath deep puddles of rainwater. Submerged in that underwater realm, the faded lichens seem to somehow remember how to be green again. But it doesn’t last long. The gravel-like soil quickly drains, the sun beams away any remaining hint of moisture, and all is soon returned to a state of dull and dry. Still, while it lasts, without being able to touch, taste, smell, or hear it, I know that the air outside is carrying its fresh rain-washed newness on a light cool breeze that is softly rustling the foliage all around.
The microcosm of life beneath my window is part of a rough, and usually dusty, bare ribbon of yard that wraps around this squat single-level building. It extends itself about sixty feet outward from my window to a 15-foot-tall link fence that rises up ahead of me. All along the top of the fence is an ominous spiraling of razor-wire, and about halfway the distance between the fence and me, a lone washedout picnic table is planted in an almost lean-to fashion on the uneven ground. This scene is really not much to look at, but it’s often a hands-down winner in comparison to the dormitory’s crazy, crowded emptiness of card games, sitcoms, and loud profane complaints.
I don’t spend much of my personal time inside the dormitory or inside the fence. I employ a trick of focusing my vision and gently shuttering my mind: the process works in much the same way as blinders on a horse; once focused, the fence ceases to be an obstacle, and there is a cameo view displayed just outside the fence that starts to hold me captive. A couple of yards to the other side of the fence, two staggered columns of strong and stately oak trees line either side of an asphalt roadway that separates this institution, Webster Correctional, from her elder sister, Cheshire Correctional Institution. It’s eerie to me that the modest strip of tree-lined road that lies between Cheshire—an old battle axe of maximum security—and this modern minimum-security bloc somehow keeps an appearance of having been laid no more than six months ago, even though I know it’s been there for many years. It seems always to be so clear of debris—in spite of more than a dozen oaks bordering it—I have begun to wonder if it’s not quietly swept each night as the prisoners sleep.
Though this is a brighter and broader picture than the one that’s on the inside of the fence, it still doesn’t present any spectacular vistas for me. Just beyond the spotless road, after an all too brief 12-yard expanse of sweet-clover and dandelion-dotted grasses, my near-pastoral view is abruptly back-dropped by the looming redbrick wall of Cheshire Correctional. The trunks of the oak trees soar even higher, though, than Cheshire’s fifty-year-old towered wall, and the generous overhang oftheir branches and foliage soften the harder edges of that prison’s brooding presence as the gaps between their leaves reveal glimpses of an achingly blue sky beyond. Their canopy of foliage also provides an inviting oasis of mottled shadiness that offsets the bright sunshine that blazes onto the grass below. Perhaps it’s because that particular grass just happens to be on the inaccessible side of a prison fence, but it always impresses me as the richest, thickest, greenest, and most luscious expanse of grass I’ve ever seen anywhere. Then, whenever I lift my eyes upward, from the grass and beyond the treetops, I see a majestic cloud-swept sky rolling out above me like a sun-drenched dunescape etched in shades of blue, softest white, and dove’s gray. Because the dimensions of my view are confined to the linear angles of a flat, square window, I am limited to about a half-mile panorama to my left or right, but I sometimes press my face hard against the pane, at one far angle or the other, and I’m able to take in just a little more. With that ‘just-right’ trick of focus, the steel fence ahead disappears, and I am aware only of the bigger picture.
Then, with my headphones filtering the sounds of Handel’s “Water Music” into my ears, the very real and brash incongruities of the prison dormitory behind me are effectively filtered out. I could be standing at the window of any fine country home, looking out on the back service road of its modest but graceful estate. It’s a timeout for reflection in a restful space—a space of peace, where no sense of powerlessness or question of lack of freedom is permitted. I try to visit that space often, with my friends.
My friends come from all round. Some of them have made their homes nearby and visit with me regularly. Others come less frequently, from farther away, and tend most often to bring their whole families. The young ones love to run in the grass and play in and around the trees. The elders are always more watchful and divide their time between enjoying a treat or meal and keeping a sharp eye out for any dangers that might threaten the young ones—particularly with respect to the asphalt road where an occasional vehicle may sometimes pass through. They are all a joy to me whenever they come.
There is no “typical” day here because there seems always to be something unique and wonderful going on. During a few moments out of one not uncommon afternoon in late summer, at the window with my friends, a light rain shower ended, and the sun promptly returned in all of its radiance. Sparkling prisms of moisture lent the grass and leaves a shimmering cast, and I’m certain that there was a rainbow suspended in a light receding mist. A happy scattering of squirrels were dispersed throughout my field of vision. Mostly they were crouched low in the grass, seeking . and searching for all those things that squirrels find interesting. Occasionally, one popped up here or there, like a random tin target popping up and down in a ten-for-a-quarter carnie shoot, and stood on its hind legs, with his S-curled tail doing that little squirrel thing that they do, as he held what was perhaps an acorn between his front paws. Meanwhile, others leapt to and from the trees, secreting or retrieving their special treasures in and from the many crevices there.
A gaggle of Canadian geese had flown in with the returning sunshine and were foraging, vigorously, in small groups beneath the oaks. In the midst of one group, underneath a spacious oak to my right, two matrons sparked a tension-filled moment when they began raucously waving and pointing accusing beaks at each other over some geese-ly dispute. The matter was quickly resolved, however, and each of the erstwhile antagonists went on her way appeased. At the base of the same oak, two groundhogs, of a family that lives here in our cul de sac, were posed attentively on hind legs. Near them stood one of their neighbors, a squirrel, who with his squirrel mates, makes his home in the branches and foliage of the oaken canopy above us. Standing as closely by as they all were, one would think that they surely should have registered some scant interest in the geese episode, but they hadn’t; the groundhogs were adult sentries who were busy surveying the terrain with all the customary vigilance they employ whenever the adolescent groundhogs are above ground and at play—as several of them were at that time. As for the squirrel, he simply couldn’t have cared less; skittering away up the tree, he was immediately followed by another who then engaged him in an alternating tag- game, up, down and around the tree’s trunk. All of these, the geese, squirrels, groundhogs, sparrows, deer, raven, and many more, are my friends and frequent visitors. Still, through the falls, winters, and springs, as well as the summers, it’s the trees who are my constant companions—both day and night.
Beneath bitter whisks of candle-fly winds,
Brilliant cranberry and pumpkin-pie crust foliage
Falls, conclusively, before somber gray shame.
Indiscreetly aging uncles,
Caught standing stark in their nakedness,
Tremble under cover ofsparse white mounds.
Cold comfort, laced hard and sparkling
Against gnarly outstretched limbs,
Reaching stiffly toward a distant sun.
I have heard that great trees, wherever they may be, are repositories of much knowledge. Indeed, scientists in various fields of study have been able to gather large amounts of anthropological and other valuable environmental data from trees all over our world. By investigating the deposits imbedded within layers that sometimes represent hundreds of years through which the tree has weathered, survived, thrived and served the inhabitants of its particular environment, we are able to learn a story of community.
The lovely and stately oaks, here, with their profusions of green leaves dancing in the breezes as their great branches reach toward the sky and sun, speak powerfully of their own stories of endurance and service. Directly in front of my special window, however, stands a different brother oak. He gives no shade, has no leaves, and drops no acorns. He stands solidly amongst his brothers—stark naked in the summertime. Even though he is stripped bare, the raven does come daily to post watch from his upper limbs. Seeing him standing here in this verdant place, upright with the others, it’s easy, at first, to think—to hope—that perhaps he is just sleeping through a season of rest and that he will return mighty and green next year with his brethren. But, upon closer observation, even through the distance, a certain air of decay becomes apparent: The branches are flaking in places. The trunk, though straight and seemingly strong, wears a veil of unhealthy ashen whiteness upon it; a squirrel runs through, occasionally, but never lingers. It is encroachingly clear that the once fruitful Brother Oak is dead; his roots have ceased to draw from the welisprings of life, and the worms, unseen, devour him from within. One wishes for him that he might, at least, soon be granted the dignity of the firewood pile. I glance at him there before me each day as I contemplate the teeming environment oflife and living that goes on around him; then I turn and go on with my life amongst my brothers here in the bustling prison environment on the inside ofthe fence.
No matter what’s going on, whenever it begins to rain, I try to get to my special window. Every time the overflow starts to pour from the roof, it dislodges even more of the scarce grit and gravel in which my little denizens stand. Over and over it pours on them, but I never get to actually see their roots. I guess they must have them sunken too deeply.
Another fall, winter and spring has passed. I don’t have access to my special window anymore. I’ve been moved to an area where my living quarters has no window. Just before I was moved, though, at the end of last summer, some freaky activity in the treetops caused me to do a doubletake. From the corner of my eye, I saw several strangely helmeted men in white jumpsuits moving about amongst the boughs of the trees. They were suspended in harvester’s baskets, and with methodic ease, they were using handheld power saws to trim away excess overhang and broken branches from the trees. Two of them were working deftly at the naked limbs of the fruitless Brother Oak. Once they had cut away all of his branches, they proceeded to bring down his trunk; slice by slice, they cut and carried it away until only a bare stump was left. Then, with a jackhammer-like drilling instrument, even the bare stump was drilled down to the smallest scraps of chips and dust. By the time they had finished, all of the workers had returned to ground level too. They gathered their tools, tossed the last of the cut branches into the backs of their trucks and climbed into the cabs to drive away. Two of them, however, were still on the ground, one of them standing at the backend of the huge truck and the other approaching the place where Brother Oak had lately stood. A large white hose was stretched between the two workers. One end of the hose was attached to the backend of the truck where the second worker was standing, while the other end was being carried towards the late Brother Oak’s removal site. As the first man reached the site where the chips and dust lay scattered, the second used both his hands to pull back a lever that immediately caused the large hose to begin to tremor and shake as it drew away every visible particle of the lost oaks remains. That done, the two workers went purposefully back to their truck, which was the last that remained of three. I watched as they, then, came again to the now vacuumed site and covered it over with a wheelbarrow-full of dirt. I was heavily aware that, from this day forward, all who had not known Brother Oak would, now, never know him. Perhaps his remains went on to feed a family fire in a different community—or maybe they were mulched for pulp products. Certainly, everything must be of some good purpose in the world.