Author Archives: Jacob Meyers

A Beautiful Spring and Explosive Summer at WCCW

Photos and text by Jacob Meyers, Prairie Conservation Nursery Coordinator

Pop. Pop. Pop. Scream. Laughter. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Crew members (left to right) Tammera Thurlby, Danielle Castillo, and Angela Jantzi harvesting Viola adunca on a hot summer day.

That may sound like a group of teenagers watching a horror movie while waiting for the popcorn to finish in the microwave. In reality, it was a scene that played out a couple weeks ago, as I and several nursery technicians spent the afternoon harvesting Viola (violet) seeds. The scream was mine: a seed pod caught me off guard when it unexpectedly exploded in my cup. The crew (rightfully so) hasn’t let me forget that a Viola seed pod scared me half to death. (In my defense, a spider had just crawled across my leg and I was a little bit on edge.)

It’s rarely a dull moment at WCCW these days. While most of the flowers finished blooming in early May, June and July have been full of exploding violet pods and which means there is a lot of work to be done! As my co-worker wrote a few weeks back, the early-blue violet (Viola adunca) is an extremely important prairie plant in the recovery of prairie landscapes, and to the Fritillary butterflies (Zerene FritillarySpeyeria zerene bremnerii – and the Great Spangled FritillarySpeyeria cybele pugetensis) in particular. At WCCW, we have two species of viola currently – the aforementioned early blue violet and the yellow violet (Viola praemorsa). The Viola adunca cultivated at WCCW is collected for seed to aid in the recovery of the Zerene fritillary (Speyeria zerene hippolyta) on the Oregon Coast.

Violets are commonly known to even the most inexperienced gardener. Heck, even people who don’t garden are familiar with the small, heart-shaped flowers that are typical of the genera. But what you may not know is that the Viola genus contains more than 500 species! The ones we grow at SPP are a bit hardier than your typical Viola. The species we cultivate are found in places where water is hard to come by—prairies, savannahs, sand dunes and on the edges of woodlands. Regardless of where they are found, Viola species serve as an important nectar source for pollinators.

Here are some pictures of the beautiful blooms we had at WCCW this year:

 

The early-blue violet (Viola adunca) is found across the cooler states and provinces of North America in coastal sand bluffs, prairies, and woods. Another of its common names is the sand violet.

 

There are 8 beds of Viola adunca at WCCW. The plants are six inches apart, which is a bit tighter than is typical for a seed farm or nursery, but allows us to cram in approximately 400 Violas in each bed!!

 

Viola praemorsa, or the canary violet, is far less common than its bluish-purple cousin. This violet is only found in western North American oak savannahs and oak woodlands.

 

This is a wide view of all the raised beds at WCCW. Viola praemorsa in the foreground, Viola adunca (purple flowers) beyond, and two beds of wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) all the way in the back. Strawberries are also an important pollinator plant in prairie habitat.

 

 

Scott Skaggs is the Grounds & Facilities Supervisor at WCCW and helps manage the Nursery Crew. In the photo above Scott is doing a little bit of spot weeding.

While very pretty, the beautiful flowers have a forthcoming message – it’s reproduction time! And after those beautiful signals go off and a little bit of magic (sexual reproduction via pollination), little baby plants (aka seeds) begin to emerge!! After baking in the sun for a number of days or weeks, Viola species all form capsules or “pods” that split open and disperse. Or as is the case in the species we grow at SPP – the pods explode like the one in my cup. The photos below show seed pods developing, and their processing after we harvest them.

 

In the above photo, a Viola adunca plant is starting the reproduction process. The seed pods are typically green colored and curled up like an umbrella when they first emerge. As the pods mature, their color whitens and the stems stands up straight in preparation for pod explosion.

 

A mature Viola adunca seed pod: notice the whiter coloring and erect stem; this is the perfect time to harvest the pods.

 

This photo shows what happens when Viola pods go unharvested. Most of the pods’ seed disperses about 5 feet in every direction during the explosion – some have been found up to 10 feet from their parent plants!!

 

Sometimes, however, the seed stays put. This isn’t great for the plant’s reproductive success rate; for people collecting seed, it’s a welcome sight!

 

Harvesting all of the seed pods ready at one time can take the entire WCCW crew anywhere from 3 to 5 or 6 hours. Depending on when during the collection season we’re harvesting, there can be a lot of pods to pick!

 

After harvesting, all of the pods go into bins where they can continue to dry out and “pop” for easy collection. Here is a bin of Viola praemorsa sitting on a window ledge to get a little extra sunlight.

 

A tule cloth on top keeps all the seeds from flying all over the office!

 

In this photo most of the pods have already exploded and left behind their seed on the bin floor. These are Viola praemorsa seed which is quite a bit larger (at least 2-3x larger) than Viola adunca seed.

 

After going through several rounds of sifting with professional grade sieves all that remains is A LOT of Viola adunca seed. It has been a tremendously successful season at WCCW. We anticipate easily surpassing our goal of 2-3 pounds!

 

This picture illustrates just how small Viola adunca seed actually is! The small size is another reason why harvesting seed mechanically or after the pods explode is nearly impossible!!

Looking through these pictures one might be able to deduce that the task of harvesting viola seed can be monotonous, and quite time consuming. As technician Tammera Thurlby told me, “I harvested so many viola seeds/pods that when I close my eyes it’s all I can see.” But beyond helping the Fritillary butterflies prairie habitat here in the Pacific Northwest, the caring for and cultivation of violas at WCCW also produces something that might be harder to see – an opportunity for the technicians to grow and heal themselves. “My life has been a lot of taking, so it’s nice to be able to give back,” said Ms. Thurlby.

“Give back to what?” I asked.

“To everything. Helping save an endangered species, doing something positive and constructive with my life rather than destructive,” she replied.

Her words reminded me of what I heard from a technician at Stafford Creek, Michael Gorski; he said to a group of partners, “A lot of what they’re [SPP] growing is people. They’re saving lives – opening the master key for life.”

Little Viola seeds turn into plants with beautiful flowers, which in turn may feed an endangered butterfly; but you never know what kind of seed you are planting in any given moment or interaction when working with people.

Technician Tammera Thurlby holds up a tiny Viola adunca seed pod during a day of harvesting this past summer.

Reducing Recidivism, Part 2: Barriers Beyond Bars

By SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator Jacob Meyers

Last week, I published Reducing Recidivism, Part 1: Why Forgiveness is Key. I chronicled the minor hurdle of putting pen to paper and writing a blog, and how this led to some deeper insight into the challenges of combating recidivism. What follows are more or less my original thoughts on recidivism after attending a summit to address this glaring issue:

On September 21st, five Evergreen students piled into a Prius and slowly started making their way through the traffic on I-5. Normally they would be working in various prisons on various programs, but today they were on their way to Seattle for a shared activity.

Along with two others who would join them at the Jackson Federal Building, this group of individuals work for Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP). They were in Seattle to attend a summit on recidivism. Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism was an event sponsored by the Seattle Federal Executive Board to bring together providers, federal, state, and local agencies working in the reentry field.

The first speaker was the Vice Chair of the Seattle Federal Executive Board, Pritz Navaratnasingam. After some thanks and a short welcome, the second keynote speaker was introduced: Steve Sinclair. Sinclair, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, also serves as Co-Director of SPP. According to him, 31.4% of offenders released in 2013 were readmitted within 3 years. Individuals releasing after their 1st incarceration recidivate at half the rate compared to those releasing after multiple prison terms. Too many people are returning to prison, and the more times a person is in prison, the more likely they are to keep coming back.

Steve Sinclair addressing the summit on September 21, 2017. Photo taken from the Washington State Department of Corrections Facebook Page.

Looking at the national picture, the numbers become even more startling. A study by the National Institute of Justice tracked the release of 404,638 individuals from 30 states found the following:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.

Additionally, about half (49.7%) of prisoners released violated parole or probation or were arrested for a new offense that led to imprisonment within 3 years of release.

If you’re like me, you might be shaking your head, left wondering how these numbers can be true. Fortunately, the Community Services Panel at the Recidivism Summit helped to shed some light on the difficulties one faces upon re-entry. One major factor is mental health. Out of 3.5 million people currently on parole, half of them have substance abuse problems or a mental health diagnosis according to the panel. To compound the problem, oftentimes men and women are not given enough medication upon release – frequently only having a few days or a week supply of potentially critical medication. Transportation can also be a problem. 30 days of bus passes can fly by very quickly when meeting regularly with parole officers, trying to find a job, healthcare, or acquire identification.

One of the biggest obstacles of all can be the stigma surrounding incarceration. Many employers simply won’t hire previously-incarcerated individuals, and many landlords won’t offer housing to people with criminal records. The stigma of incarceration by itself can probably go a long ways to explaining why some people resort back to their old ways of crime and drug use. Mr. Sinclair summed it up succinctly, “It’s not what you do in prison, but how you transition out of prison.”

Finally, during the Employment Panel, John Page offered this insight:

“You can’t have conversations about employment or re-entry without having conversations about race and education.”

Page, a community facilitator at the Fair Work Center (a non-profit dedicated to helping workers achieve fair employment), has over 20 years of experience working on issues of race and social justice, stressed that education is a major factor in determining who ends up in prison in the first place. Unfortunately, U.S. public schools have been failing minority students for quite sometime. And recent research shows that in many school districts, the gap between white students and their black peers is significant (Reardon et al., 2017). In Seattle Public Schools, black students test more than 3-and-a-half grade levels behind white students (Seattle Times).

With all of these challenges, it becomes a little more apparent as to why recidivism rates are so high. Upon leaving Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism, I was left with several thoughts circulating through my head:

  1. As a society, we’re still not doing enough to mitigate recidivism.
  2. There is a critical window upon initial release from incarceration, a short time in which most people “make it or break it”.
  3. With more than 50 organizations and well over 100 individuals attending, Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism was inspirational mainly in showing that there are countless individuals working tirelessly to reshape how we as a society think about incarnation and re-entry.
  4. The work we do at SPP is extremely important in not only providing technical skills and job experience before release, but also by imparting the value of education, curiosity, and critical thinking.

It’s a daunting situation, but it’s a challenge that must be met. Thankfully, I have great company and inspiring allies. I am sticking with it.

On December 13th, 2017, Conservation Nursery technicians at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and I are preparing 70 some trays for sowing. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Technicians Shabazz Malekk, Terral Lewis, Aaron Bander, Bui Hung (left to right) and I are discussing our sowing plan for the day on December 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Shabazz Malekk, Aaron Bander, and I are determining the number of seeds to sow in each plug on December 13, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

SPP Graduate Research Assistants outside of the Jackson Federal Building in Seattle, WA on September 21, 2017. From left to right: Amanda Mintz, Keegan Curry, Bethany Shepler, Sadie Gilliom, Jessica Brown, Alexandra James, and Jacob Meyers.

Reducing Recidivism, Part 1: Why Forgiveness is Key

by SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator Jacob Meyers

Jackson Federal Building ballroom. Photo taken from Washington Department of Corrections Facebook Page.

Many months ago, I attended eye-opening summit on recidivism. At the time, I was inspired. I was inspired by my coworkers, whom I was just getting to know and learning how much we had in common. I was inspired by all of the individuals from many different communities and counties, countless organizations and government agencies, and all working in some shape or capacity to reduce recidivism. And I was inspired by a formally incarcerated individual, Tarra Simmons, who had recently learned she was not going to be allowed to take the BAR despite graduating with honors from Seattle University’s law school, but was determined to continue fighting for that right. (She would subsequently get that right a few months later in November, 2017)

As a part of being a program coordinator for SPP, we are asked to write a few blogs every year. Writing about the summit, I thought, was the perfect opportunity. So I did. It took me a while, but I came up with a draft and shared it with my supervisor. He gave me some feedback.

At SPP’s Climate Symposium on October 18, 2017, I am facilitating a workshop with inmates at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. My original blog still a work in process… Photo credit: Ricky Osborne

I never followed up to make the corrections or move the process forward. I kept putting it off and prioritizing other things. Before I knew it, it was January and I was meeting with my supervisor to review how I am doing in the position. The blog came up, and I couldn’t deny I had dropped the proverbial ball. I felt bad about it, like I was a somewhat of failure. Pretty much every one of my coworkers had written a blog in that time. A few wrote multiple!

However, to my supervisor’s credit, he didn’t overly lambast me or make me feel worse. He acknowledged that I had dropped the ball, and I could tell he was disappointed. But, he told me, “Well, we’re here now. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to move forward?”

Since then, a few things came in focus for me. This journey—while humbling—pales in comparison to the journeys and hardships our post-release incarcerated population must traverse. Additionally, redemption of any kind must involve some type of forgiveness. Usually when we make a mistake it costs other people something and we must ask forgiveness from them. Yet, often even more challenging, we must forgive ourselves to be able to move forward. My supervisor forgave my shortcoming and in turn afforded me redemption through a second chance and new strategy to get this blog done. In turn, I was able to put my own insecurities aside – my feelings of failure and inadequacy – and find the modicum of courage to get this done.

Overall, when reflecting on my time at SPP, the recidivism summit back in September, and the minor challenges of writing this blog, I know we as a society must do better to truly forgive our incarcerated population. To forgive their transgressions and shortcomings and allow them the possibility of redemption. I know it may seem silly to compare writing a blog to a criminal offense. But if I can attach so much worth and self-value to something so small (as many of us do), imagine the emotional and psychological journey incarcerated people might go through during their stay in prison and upon reentry?

Very methodically compacting soil during a day of sowing on December 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

On December 13th, 2017, Aaron Bander (left) and I are discussing how the sowing process is going or possibly upcoming college football games. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Next week, I will post my original reflections on the recidivism summit.