June 20, 5:45 a.m.
Today is the summer solstice. Through the tiny crack in the frosted covering of my cell's window I can see little bits of pink in the sky. It's all I'll see of the sunrise, and later it will be all I'll see of the sunset. Usually I would try to spend this entire day outside . . . but how do I celebrate the longest day of the year in a place like this? I have such a limited relationship with the earth these days -- with weather, temperature, light and darkness, cycles and season. Our time outside is short, our glimpses of the outdoors are constricted and brief, our cell lights are off for daytime "quiet time" but are on all night, our unit is air conditioned. I've been plucked right out of nature and dumped into a zone of extreme alienation.
I am still connected to the seasons in one important, albeit kind of backwards, way. The solstice falls at a significant time in my sentence: in two days I will be exactly halfway through the time I expect to serve. From that day onwards I'll no longer count the months I've put behind me with a celebration on the 14th (my sentencing day) but instead I'll be counting down the months left to go and celebrating every third of the month, which is my December release date. So as the days get shorter and you all prepare to say goodbye to the freedom of long, warm days, my sentence will be getting shorter and I'll be preparing to be free once again. It's comforting to think of things this way, to feel like even in this institutional, in-between place the movement of sun and earth through space-time is still relevant to my daily life.
I'm back again in my cell, looking out the window crack once again. I can see the treetops over the wall and they're blowing in the breeze. There are a couple of sluggish clouds in the sky. It looks muggy and I've heard that it's very hot.
Vanier doesn't care that it's the solstice, apparently, because we didn't get yard today. Lately we've been going out almost every day, it's much better than it was during the early days of my sentence. Still, yard is a very limited version of "outside" because we can't see over or through the grey cinder block walls. There's air, wind and sky, the smell of cut grass or manure sometimes, the occasional bird or birdsong, and a few bugs here or there. For some reason I find it unsettling that I don't know how to orient myself away from the complex and the highway and towards the woodlot that I know lies just beyond the outermost fence. I don't like that I don't know how far the nearest river is or even in which direction. It makes me feel ungrounded.
But today is muggy and hot, so maybe we'll get a nice storm later . . . that would make up for being forced to spend the longest day of the year indoors. Even the concrete walls and sealed, frosted windows can't keep out a good storm. The couple we've had since I've been in here were a welcome reminder that I am still part of a living, breathing planet. That feeling is not something I'm likely to take for granted ever again.
I miss rivers, and the woods, and the rain, and the moon and the stars -- I miss the night! By the time I get out of here I won't have been outside in the dark for almost 11 months. I miss the bigness of the world, how far away the horizon is, how much there is to see. I miss life that isn't human. These are the deprivations that tug at my soul; this is the only separation that really, really hurts. The small amount of space I can use to put up pictures in my cell is filled with pictures of nature: photos of a squirrel and an owl from Ottawa, a Toronto ravine in the spring, sunlight shining through the trees in an english woodlot, a sunflower; a beautiful watercolour of the Guelph arboretum. There are no photos of friends or family, none of the amazing street protests in Montreal -- although people do send those things and I keep them in an envelope. I can stay in touch with people through letters and calls and visits, and I've found some ways to stay involved in organizing and to be productive, but there is just no real way to stay connected to nature. So I look at the pictures, and remember.
If, like me, you love the outdoors . . . if you still marvel at the amazingness of the stars, would rather watch clouds and birds rather than TV, and prefer bikes to cars . . . if you love to walk barefoot in the woods and sit beside rivers, and feel infinitely better in the wind and rain than in the air conditioning and fluorescent lights . . . then jail will take away a big part of who you are. It's something to think about and to be prepared for, because while it's not intolerable it's certainly not easy.
The flip side, of course, is that I appreciate the natural world even more now. I've spent a lot of my adult life fighting for wild spaces in one way or another -- it's part of the reason I'm here in jail. Now that I know what it feels like when those spaces are taken away, when there's nowhere natural to go, I'm just going to fight even harder when I get out.
I'm back at the desk in my cell, finishing this post while I wait for the sun to set. It's been a nice one to write -- it's always good to reflect on what's important -- and I think it was a pretty good way to spend the solstice, all things considered.
To wrap up, I want to tell you about a tree I've befriended. Sometimes on the way to a visit we stop off at unit three to pick up a medium security inmate. There's a window in the hallway there that I would stand beside all day if I could because it looks out onto a huge, beautiful oak tree. I've been reading about oak trees recently, and why they have never been domesticated despite their tasty and nutritious acorns that have been both a staple and a fallback food for humans for thousands of years. The author defines plant domestication as "growing a plant and thereby, consciously or unconsciously, causing it to change genetically from its wild ancestor in ways making it more useful to human consumers." Domestication of oak trees would involve selecting for "mutant" trees -- those that produce a high proportion of acorns without the bitter tannins that need to be ground or leached out before they can be eaten. Three reasons are given for humans' failure to accomplish this:
1) Slow growth. It takes 10 years or more for an acorn to grow into a productive tree;
2) By burying acorns, squirrels disperse them far and wide, and when they forget to dig them up, some will grow. Because of all that wild, unmanaged planting going on, humans would have an incredibly difficult time selecting only for the trees we want;
3) Acorn bitterness is controlled by many different genes as opposed to a single dominant one. Getting rid of a trait with diverse genetic causes is very difficult, so most acorns on any given tree would be bitter despite humans' best efforts to manipulate them.
I see an analogy to effective resistance here. Slow and steady growth, wide and unmanaged spread of ideas ensuring that some take root, decentralized movements and diversity of tactics . . . I think the mighty oak might have a lesson for us! I like to think about this kind of thing as I admire the tall, ever wild tree outside the window. At the moment it's surrounded by concrete and fencing but it will have never succumbed to human domination.
I hope it lives to see this jail crumble to dust.
This blog post was originaly published on bored but not broken.
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