The local John Howard Society ran a contest recently, inviting incarcerated writers to submit thoughts on ?resiliency?. I grinned at that. Webster calls resiliency, ?the ability of an object to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched or squashed.? In former times it has gone by the monickers: grit, guts, or mettle. Few communities are more practiced at that ?bounce-back? than the one behind bars.
Prison is the exclusive collection of those bent, stretched or squashed in almost every way. If prison is a disease, its symptoms are substance abuse, suicide, clinical depression, divorce, assault, sex-addiction, and bankruptcy. Yet, prisoners survive, and some even thrive, in the hate-factory of incarceration. How? This contest provided the perfect excuse to find out. Besides, I needed the prize money; my phone card has a voracious appetite.
The past year has visited many changes upon Canadian prisons. One of the big ones affecting this prison is the changes to our garden program. For eighteen years, the garden provided eligible prisoners a space to salve their regrets in the healing loam of mother earth. But in prison, people are not the only things that get bent, stretched or squashed. Last fall, the Powers That Be locked the garden down, then bulldozed it. While circling in the yard one evening, I stopped to survey the plot that had once served both men and bird as an oasis of solitude. What a wretched sight. Soil that once produced fruitage for local food banks and prisoner?s families, now serves as a boneyard for construction debris and wind-gathered water-bottles. The village of garlic stalks, mint leaves, and rose beds has been overrun by crabgrass and rodent dens. It felt like standing at the grave marker of a best friend.
In my lament, something captured my attention; a familiar green hue. I stared, trying to make sense of the sight. A leaf ? no, two. No, three ? in a row. I know those leaves, I thought. They are? ?Blackberry,? I burst out, loud enough for passing prisoners to shake there head in pity at my obvious dimentia. ?For decades, guards, wardens, and grounds staff here have waged war on these spirited bushes. The guards hate the way the plant?s thorny arms gash and puncture when they probe its depths searching for contraband. The warden hates the potent home-brew its berries are infamous for. The grounds-crew’s boss hates the briar?s indestructibility. On warden?s orders, he has pick-axed, chain-sawed, roto-tilled, blowtorched, strip-mined, and DDT?ed that bush. Every time, it ?springs back quickly into shape?. If there ever was an icon for prison resiliency, it is this prison?s blackberries. Tell me, ol? bramble, how do you keep on going? How does a bush that feeds solely on convict urine and sewer rat excrement continue to suck up hate and give only sweetness in return? I had to know. The answer might feed more than my phone card.
After an evening in the company of Encyclop?dia Britannica, I now know the Blackberry?s secret. It?s the roots ??roots that stretch deep and far. The reason they can?t kill the prison?s blackberry bush is that the bush? isn?t in the prison. Its home is under the fence and across the road, on the neighbouring farmer?s property. The shoots that break ground inside the razor wire are an extension of a large family; a family that is free in the truest sense. Prisoners know that secret too. The ones that recover most quickly from distress are those that stay well connected to their people on the other side of the fence.
Another trick blackberry roots use is that they branch out, connecting with other, different plants. Those who have tried to uproot blackberries quickly find out that the roots break off deep in the ground. Those roots are entwined with other plants that act as an anchor; plants that hold on tighter than the wrenching gardener does. Within weeks, the blackberry bush is back ??in full bloom. This also works for people. ?Widening out? in association with others ? even those very different from us ? gives the best chance at re-sprouting when powerful forces dislodge us. It sure has worked for me.
The most surprising thing I learned about the plant?s roots involves its pedigree. To most, the blackberry briar looks menacing ? all razor-sharp thorns and tangle. Even its fruit is an acquired taste. But the blackberry knows something that few others do. This unnerving hedge is actually of the genus Rosaceae. The blackberry bush is really a rose in disguise. Like the blackberry, prisoners need to remember their roots. We aren?t just criminals, addicts, convicts, or numbers. We are also children, parents, husbands, and wives. We are siblings, cousins, grandchildren, grandparents, and best friends. Our genus is the human family. That truth has saved many a prisoner?s life when powerful forces were squashing them out of shape.
A famous man once said, ?Wisdom is proved righteous by its works.? I am thinking of that today as I remember the Herculean efforts ?made to break the back of that bush. I wonder when the Powers That Be will ever figure out that the bush they can?t kill makes a killer jelly without rival. Maybe there?s a story in that.