The Art of Gardening and Liberating Literacies: A Literacy Narrative

Samuel Wale, “Vauxhall Gardens: The Grand Walk with the Orchestra Playing.”
The style of Le Nôtre can be studied in the existing gardens he laid out, in engravings from his plans, and in numerous descriptions of their arrangement. These show that he understood the laws of balance, variety, and contrast, as well as those of symmetry. But in looking at the plans it must be remembered that the gardens were never actually seen from a bird’s-eye point of view, that perspective would give the straight paths the appearance of converging, that trees and shurbs of varying height filled the geometric outlines of the “bosquets,” that light and shadow played in and out of the scene. — English Pleasure Gardens, Rose Standish Nicols.

I. Parterres (Beginnings)

I am in a salmon-colored room in North Seattle Community College, sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair, trying to pronounce my last name for a speech therapist. “Practice, practice, practice,” my mother says when we come home twice a week, defeated, her quiet desperation quickly entering into an inverse relationship with her intent. As her worry begins to take shape within each repetition, that very same act of repetition makes each use of the word “practice” indistinct, and this is precisely, I suspect, how charms and spells function. Yet I am impervious to her motherly incantations — she wants me to say my name, but I cannot, will not.

Wittgenstein: Whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must remain silent.

My silence confounds everyone, even myself.

I am in preschool — so three, maybe four years old, though my disability likely leads adults to believe I am much younger — and I’ve been mispronouncing my last name as “fine” for the past thirty minutes of my hour-long session. “Can you say ‘Peter is in the pool?’ my speech therapist asks. Yes I say, unexpectedly confident I can say his name. “Feter is in the fool.”

Peter is my father’s name, and I can’t say that either. “Peter is the fool.” “No,” she says, “that’s not quite right. Let’s keep practicing.”

I contort my mouth to try to make the shapes they ask of me, but cannot seem to find the boundaries of each speech sound. My speech is wild, unpruned. A pink oleander exploding out an unhinged mouth. Though the adults try to teach me shame, I sometimes delight in this unkempt garden that is growing in my mind and mouth. My mother tells me I speak a lot — more than most kids my age — but that my words don’t make sense.

In kindergarten I think I might have realized I wasn’t like the other kids as soon as that first day, when I had to introduce myself to my classmates, but couldn’t. They all had names, strong names they said with childish conviction: Victor, Henry, Lucy. There was Robert, with the polka dot bow tie, and Cindy, my first crush. Like a discrete identity, their names had beginnings and ends: boundaries. Some knew their last names and even used middle names when introducing themselves. Three whole distinct names. I couldn’t tell them even one of mine. While I was just Andrew at home, at school I was Andrew-that-kid-who-talks-funny. I was this clear and indistinct thing. A name divides space: it is the knife of meaning that slices being into self and other. Without names the world blurs.

For a short time, before I was able to tame my speech, I was nameless, yet my life was not entirely devoid of boundaries. My speech pathology demarcated a before and after disability, a long period in my life during which I felt powerless over the labels other people gave me. I was placed, by educators and by my parents, into the category of disabled. This is when I realized the inherent violence in the act of naming: we do not choose the names given to us; they cut us up like the first animals in Genesis. Suddenly separate, I recognized myself as disabled and recognized others as not-disabled, or able-bodied. There now a schism, the world cloven in two.

II. Discourses in Conflict

HHistorically, there have been two types of gardens that have dominated the Western world: the English garden and the French garden. The latter reached its apogee in the garden of Versailles, a sprawling but structured garden of some 800 ha. which includes 50 fountains, 200,000 trees, 620 water jets, and a five and a half km Grand Canal. The former may be best exemplified by the Kew Gardens, a part of the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, a 121 ha. collection of gardens that, unlike Versailles, mostly lack structure. One may, with the help of Google Maps Street View, take a virtual stroll through the Kew Gardens, and, because of the Gardens’ unruliness, one would be forgiven if they mistook the forest for the trees. If you were to stroll through the Kew Gardens you would be forgiven if you mistook the forest for the trees.

The difference between the French and English garden is not so much the presence or absence of structure, but the level or depth at which that structure functions. Let us call these two very different approaches to landscape design discourses, and let’s assume for a second that the actual earthy vegetal material that each garden contains is merely inert matter through which these discourses speak. Now we can begin to think about the intersection of meaning and power.

Theory is great, but academics are prone to forgetting those of us on the ground. So how does one deal with conflicting Discourses? How could I come to terms with my multitudinous self?

In first grade I learned how to make language bend; I became a con man. The con was simple: I’d take an ordinary tissue, put it behind my back, peel it apart its two layers, and shake down a kid or two for a quarter once they thought I had magically duplicated the cloven tissue behind my back. Remembering this odd scam of mine (which I readily admit may be fabricated, like all of our most salient memories), I realize now that both me and my victims had entered into an absurdly literal real-life version of one of Wittgenstein’s language games.

I call it a language game because the scam was, at its core, not so much a sleight of hand as it was a sleight of language: even my seven-year-old peers knew that what I did wasn’t magic, but they also knew they couldn’t argue with the basic proposition that there were now two tissues where once there was one. To unlock the game, one only had to understand the means of the measurement — one only had to understand the rules of language. Language folds in on itself like a room full of mirrors, cleaving us and distorting us in turn. But in this violent double movement there is also freedom.

I began to learn that while language could be a kind of prison, it was also a means of escape — both lock and key — the con and method with which to con. But the way out of the word prison was the same way one got in. I had to inhabit the wound of my name, had to be at the center of language in order to unwind it.

André Le Nôtre, the lead architect of the Palace of Versailles and its grounds, was gifted not only with the genius of design, but also the obsession of control. The way into a thing is, paradoxically, from inside, at its center. But mastery is also vertical. From his seat high above the garden, he saw each stem bend into its place.

In her essay “Love Letters,” former heroin addict and sex worker Megan Foss writes about getting clean and her long struggle to get off the streets of Contra Costa county — from hooking in seedy hotels and roaming the streets barefoot in search of dope — to what the reader can only assume is a drastically more comfortable world that she alludes to simply as the “mainstream,” a world that consists of “things like having a home and learning how to find a job and take care of yourself” — a world, you must understand, of almost unimaginable privilege to the junky.

From the streets to the suburbs, from prostitution to marriage: a story many of us know well, the disease of addiction so maddeningly common now that opioids have spread to the suburbs that there is very little in her story to stir the average reader. But Foss’s story isn’t primarily — isn’t even secondarily — about getting sober. It’s about language and power.

The difference between the junkie Megan Foss — known as Mickey in the essay — and the normie Megan Foss is that the newly clean Foss has a commanding possession of what some language philosophers and linguists call the “Dominant Discourse.” Like the psychoanalytical Symbolic realm, the Dominant Discourse is the jurisdiction of the ruling classes; it is a nexus where language — which becomes realer than reality itself — and power meet.

Junkies like Mickey might make sense when they talk, but that doesn’t mean they are using the right words. What separates the junky (or any Other for that matter) from the normie isn’t just the fact that normal people don’t recreationally use IV drugs, it’s that normies know all the right words, know that if “you simply speak with authority and big words,” people will give you what you want, no questions asked — at least that’s the understanding a heroin addict who’s spent her whole life on the streets might have of how normies interact in the world. The Megans of the world are fluent in the Dominant Discourse, and the other sub-discourses that they speak — teacher, mother, yogi, mutual fund investor, and so on — pair well with this Dominant Discourse, while the Mickies of the world mutter their way through life. You may be familiar with the trope of the junkie nodding off, lit cigarette in mouth, mid-sentence, their utterance trailing off in unintelligible mutter — tropes and stereotypes often hold the key to a much darker, ineffable reality.

Since Western philosophy’s “linguistic turn” sometime in the middle of the twentieth-century (scholars debate pointlessly over when these sorts of epistemological shifts — read: intellectual trends — occur), theories of language have slowly eroded the denotative foundations of words. Throughout a long lineage of structuralist and post-structuralist philosophers, beginning with Sausurre’s differential semiotics and continuing on through Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, philosophers have moved away from examining the meaning of words to examining how they are used in groups and between real people.

Now — within the last couple of decades — in the twilight of this linguistic epoch, just as Western philosophy is completing its turn away from the linguistic and back again toward the material, a field of study that has been come to be known as discourse analysis has fully permeated nearly every discipline in the humanities.

“Drinkstone Park” Thomas Gainsborough, 1747

III. Climbing the Stairs of Versailles

Seemingly aware of the prosaic elements of garden design, the famous English landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown is purported to have said about the vicissitudes of his design: “Here I put a comma, there, when it’s necessary to cut the view, I put a parenthesis; there I end it with a period and start on another theme.” The central conceit of the English landscape garden was that it looked natural, effortless, a part of rather than apart from the natural world.

The French garden tricked its inhabitants in an entirely different way from its English counterparts. In contrast to the English Pleasure Garden, the French garden tried to demonstrate the mathematical beauty inherent in the natural world: in it, we may observe the forces of harmony, balance, hierarchy, scale and proportion. The French garden designer and architect Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond, who designed Saint Petersburg in 1715, was one of the first to codify the “French style” in his book The Theory and Practice of Gardening. The following four maxims, Le Blond says, are important to consider when designing a garden: “First to make Art give place to Nature; secondly, never to cloud and darken a garden too much. “Thirdly,” Le Blond continues, “not to lay it too open; and fourthly, to always make it look bigger than it really is.” The Garden of Versailles certainly exhibits the first two principles, but it is the last two that are most evident in its design: goose-feet radiate in fractals and labyrinthine paths proceed in fits and starts, creating the illusion of a space that is paradoxically both closed and much more spacious than it really is. All garden designs, just like all prose styles, are performative: they create the mere illusion of order.

Eventually in middle school I began to acquire a whole taxonomy of disorder with which I began to describe and think about myself: I had a learning disability, which I believed was a species of cognitive disability, which itself was a subspecies of “retard,” something I had been called as a child and a young adult. These words were more than just words, however; they were ideological containers, the Althusserian names to which I responded when I was hailed. They were the epithets I and others used to cut the world into the shape of my body.

The discourse of the French Garden relies on various structures to tame with artifice the excesses of nature. One could say that hypotaxis, with its hierarchical subordination, is the best linguistic analogy. Early in The Theory and Practice of Gardening, Le Blond says that a good garden must be kept with the greatest “Delicacy and Neatness,” and that one can expect to find “Regularity” and good Order” there. Then he gives us a list of features such as, “Parterres, Groves,, and Grass-Plots, set off with Portico’s, and Cabinets of Arbor-work, Figures, Fountains, Cascades, &C;’” to say that even as Le Blond stresses the need to subordinate nature to structure he is overruled by the untidy parataxis of nature would be to belabor the point. Nature is always paratactic, an endless set of equal parts in an infinitely long list of being.

The taxonomy of disability, like any other taxonomy, went from abstract to specific, from high-level order to lower-level order, and each level of order exerted different kinds of pressures on my person. Think of each level, each abstract and concrete noun as a kind of container, a small rectangular box. A word prison. Think of both the essential and accidental qualities of my being listed in hypotaxis. Think of each label as a garden, as an attempt to apply order and structure to my unruly nature. Think of these structures as the parterre, the goose-feet leading to the Basssin D’Apollon of my amygdala. Think of me as prisoner in the word garden, a mind paradoxically closed and infinite, contained and wide open.

Vauxhall Garden, a seventeenth-century English Pleasure Garden, featured long promenades for strolls, the trees high enough above one’s head to keep out the increasing levels of urban noise pollution. Instead of intricate parterres, there were tall trees ordered in loosely geometric patterns — rectangular boxes, more or less; instead of the orangery there were open-air theaters full of lions, fortune tellers, ventriloquists, monkeys, dogs, and other curiosities. One could find, along with the entertainment, alders, birches, beeches, elms, junipers, maples, oaks, poplars, and so on. Originally the gardens were exclusive and cost-prohibitive for the average Londoner, but eventually the other from without found its way within and Vauxhall Gardens became so plagued by crime that watchmen guarded the grounds at night.

But it cannot be said that there are different types of order going on here, as complex structural patterns are to be found in both gardens; rather, they are executed differently. One is the order of the hedge trimmer, the other the order of the nightstick.

There were many meetings with teachers and family. Unfamiliar labels were tossed around: Dyslexia, Learning Disability, Reading Disability, and finally, when all the experts ran out of ideas, Learning Disability Otherwise Unspecified. I remember the way those words felt in my mouth: hard as rocks. Especially dyslexia: there were too many exotic consonants, too many sharp edges. I wanted, if just for a second, to bathe in the double vowels of “normal.” I wanted to be a part of the mainstream and the dominant discourse.

I spent years being ferried from one side of the school building to the other, in and out of the mainstream, back and forth from classrooms with children my age to classrooms with a whole bunch of differently-abled folks. Like a junkie who keeps relapsing, I was desperate to no longer have to inhabit a normalcy that was lasting, that wasn’t precarious or provisional. When the bell rang between periods, I wanted to file into the crowded hallways a get sucked downstream by a powerful and narcotizing current: the anonymity that comes with being unremarkable, with being “mainstream.”

We tend to think of literacy in pretty reductive and antiquated terms. Even today, in the midst of Gutenburg-level shifts in literacy brought on by increasingly sophisticated forms of digital media, we think that literacy is simply about being able to read and write. Many scholars — Deborah Brandt for instance — disagree. It makes no sense, they argue, to limit the definition this way. There are many different kinds of literacies: digital literacies, print literacies, visual literacies, and so on. How can we continue to think about literacy in this country in terms of being able to speak, write, and read in English when computer programming languages are in some ways becoming the de facto literacy of the moneyed and powerful? We must make room for many literacies, including those that can help save us.

Literacy, according to Gee, is the mastery of a secondary discourse. “We can also talk about a literacy being liberating (‘powerful’)” Gee says, and literacy can be powerful when and if,

…it can be used as a “meta-language” or a “meta-Discourse” (a set of meta-words, meta-values, meta-beliefs) for the critique of other literacies and the way they constitute us as persons and situate us in society (174).

I was skeptical of this claim of Gee’s at first because I didn’t see how such abstract theory could materially benefit those at the margins of language.

But then I saw the potential for liberating literacy in my own life. What Gee is saying, in essence, is that some discourses can be used to critique others if we build the logic and language of that discourse into the one we are critiquing. A community education class could be taught on short-term predatory loans in underprivileged communities where there is a large concentration of payday loan centers, for example. The secondary discourse of finance would give those in the payday loan discourse a way to reflect on the values and practices of that payday loan discourse, and hence they would have a “meta-language” with which to critique it.

Discourses involve more than just communication; they are communication plus ways of being (and I would add, ways of knowing). There were different epistemologies at work in my special education classes and in my regular classes. At first it seemed I had learning disabilities that impacted my ability to read and write proficiently (here comes that old sclerotic notion of literacy again), so I had to spend a lot of time in my special education classes doing those things.

In special ed., the text was approached as an obstacle. It required heuristics. Practices such as reading out loud, sounding out words, reading for gist, and so on, received greater emphasis in these classes than my “mainstream” classes. We did not read for higher-order interpretation, or in order to create vocabulary lists, as I did in my mainstream classes. In those classes, the text was also a problem, but one that was to be approached by analysis. We were not tested on reading strategies but on interpretation. What could be “known” about the text was not shared between discourses, even though we read the same things. While in mainstream classes the text was a hermeneutic obstacle the text was a physical obstacle in special ed., it was something to be grappled with using learning strategies unique to the disability discourse and its truth-values were determined by different epistemological standards. These two discourses — the Dominant Discourse I learned in my regular classes and the disability discourse I learned in my special education classes — even then, felt incommensurate. Even then I felt the two very different Discourses and their accompanying structures exerting different kind of pressures on my body. They seemed to pull me in different directions, to split my mind in two.

I tried to make myself clear, but the teachers just weren’t listening. I decided to try other outlets. In my eighth-grade English class we were given an assignment to write a poem and bring it to class the next day to share. I had never written a “real” poem before because that is just not what kids in special ed were expected to do back then. I sat at my computer, entranced by the cursor’s dance. That summer was the summer of “Shine on you Crazy Diamond,” so I took some lyrics from that song and poeticized Syd Barrett’s schizophrenia, thinking him to be some kindred soul — “Shine on you crazy diamond…” is, I think, exactly how the poem began. It too felt like a garden except it felt more in the style of the pleasure garden than the absolutist monarchical control of the French garden. The words were ordered but not imprisoned, and as I began to read poetry both in and out of school I discovered word gardens of all varieties, and those I loved most included language that resisted the pressure of structure, that evaded the arbitrary order imposed on it, whose meaning was simultaneously closed and infinitely open, at once, like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or the stream-of-consciousness sections of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where language, removed from grammatical and syntactical pressure, seemed to undergo fundamental changes as it was put under the pressure of formal constraints. I found other ways of meaning, such as metaphor, repetition, symmetry, asymmetry, and euphony, and I found these meaning-making tools to be more appealing to my mind. Most importantly, I found them to present other ways of knowing — ways of knowing and thinking about the world that were sometimes quite different from the ones I had been presented in my disability and academic discourses.

Through the exercise of writing and reading I began to think about my subjectivity differently. I found that there was power in being able to tell my story and catharsis in reading stories that were similar to it. While I didn’t yet have the tools necessary for Gee’s liberating literacy, I was forming a nascent practice of it in my own life. I found literacy to be empowering in a way that it wasn’t when I was in elementary school, because I was finally granted a voice — or rather, I gave myself the right to have a voice. It wasn’t even that I was good — I was downright terrible at writing at first. The poem that I read for the class the next day wasn’t remarkable, and even I have long since forgotten it. But the formation as a poet and writer marked my crossing an important threshold, a boundary I had never expected to cross.

In eighth grade, after years in special education classes, I was allowed to test out of the program. I would enter high school as a “normal” student. I wasn’t required to show my homework to anyone before I turned it into the teacher. I didn’t have to organize my backpack if I didn’t want to — things they made me do in special ed. And, I began to realize, that impulse I felt as a kindergartener that while language was conning me I could also use it to con, that impulse was truer now than ever. I could con the world. All that was needed was to arrange the words on the page, one after the other, so that they formed patterns of goose-feet, figure-eights, loops. All I needed was to become a gardener of my own mind.

A couple of years after I graduated from high school, I applied to Western Washington University, a small state school in the upper northwest corner of Washington state, convinced they wouldn’t have me. But the school accepted me, and again I was thrust into another world. I began to develop the critical distance necessary to think about my experience in elementary school and high school. Initially, I wasn’t such a good fit for college. For one thing, I hadn’t developed the same study habits that others had, because my study habits were more suitable to my disability discourse. I simply needed more time to process information than my peers seemed to need. While this feeling of maladaptation once led me to feel like an imposter when I succeeded in spite of it and like an idiot when I failed, it began to cause me to think differently about my past. This epiphany of maladaptation is, according to Gee, one way to meta-knowledge. When our discourses are in conflict, when we are put in a position, “where we are unable to accommodate or adapt, we become consciously aware of what we are trying to do or are being called upon to do” (169). In other words, it’s this very maladaptation that can cause one to see the systemic properties, the social, cultural, epistemological (and so on) practices of a discourse. A square wood block doesn’t easily fit into a hole, but by trying to cram it in the hole one can see the circular shape of the hole more clearly than if one had used a circular woodblock.

When I realized I was the square- and not the circle-shaped woodblock I began to think about my learning disability in terms of their concepts, as being a part of discourse — as a part of the secondary discourses of disability and academia. I started to question the objective truth of my disability, or at least the quality or nature of its truth. How much of it was real and how much constructed? Did I even have a learning disability? (Cleansing our language of prejudice, we have now moved on to learning difference, but I didn’t begin to hear that term or use it until I started teaching) If so, why didn’t it show up in tests? But I also began to think about how I functioned as a subject in a larger system. Mostly, however — and this is really serving it softly — I realized it was ok to be different. To talk differently, to think differently. As Foss says near the end of “Love Letters,” if we speak authentically and “if it doesn’t sound authentic, the problem is with the way the world listens and not the way I speak” (32). There was no problem with the way I spoke, because “problem” is the wrong word. There was, however, a problem with with how I thought about my problem, about my history. This is how I started to begin to think more critically about my discourses.

IV. Liberating Literacies

I have been told to make myself clear — clarity in the context of academic writing being the mastery and execution of certain compositional conventions legitimized by the academy. Until I reached college, I felt oppressed by my teachers forcing me to clarify and structure my thoughts in arbitrary ways — I failed numerous five paragraph essays — a particularly oppressive garden design, something an idle Louis VIV would dream up to torture his subjects — because I felt my thinking could not be captured by the form, so I wrote them differently. In college, however, I acquiesced. I received A’s on all my upper-division papers and began to have papers accepted at national conferences — I had finally gained acceptance into the academic discourse, a secondary discourse which for so long was in tension with my disability discourse. My disability discourse was, in turn, in conflict with able-bodied primary discourse; I can now see how each structure subsumes the other, how they stack like Matryoshka dolls. This clarity was the beginning of a liberating literacy.

But, to simply excise the ghosts of our past is not enough — we must change as the result of a liberating literacy. I had to not only come to terms with my perception that I was different, I had to also begin to appreciate the beauty in both structure and disorder.

I have always been more drawn to the sprawling disorder of the pleasure garden than to French gardens. I’ve been to Versaille: it’s perfection is perfectly boring. Give me a garden overbrimming in the parataxis of being over one tightly wound with parterres anyway.

Rhythm, symmetry, and most of all balance: these are just as important to the mind and one’s self-knowledge as they are to the garden. Through the liberating literacies I was exposed to in college I gained meta-knowledge of the discourses to which I am a subject. In one sense, meta-knowledge is what makes possible self-reflexivity, and in another sense, it is the condition for epistemological transcendence; while Aristotle’s Metaphysics were the works he wrote after his discourses on physics, they also go beyond his earlier works because they comment on and reflect on them. This latter understanding of the word is captured in the movement one makes when at Versailles when moving from the parterre up the Palace steps and into the Palace. Conversely, Le Blond tells us, “there should always be a descent from the Building to the Garden, of three steps at least…from the Head of these Steps you have a general View of the Garden, or of the great Part of it, which yields a most agreeable Prospect.” In other words, full appreciation of the garden’s structure requires the viewer to be on an elevated plane, to have, in a sense, meta-knowledge of that garden, to see how its artificial superstructures impose themselves on the natural beauty of the plants in order to create a new aesthetic. While I was in the labyrinthine structures of my learning disability discourse, and even when I exited that discourse and entering my academic discourse, I was not yet able to study them objectively or see myself within their structures. It wasn’t until I kept walking, past the gates of the garden and up the Palace steps, that I could both understand and appreciate the beauty of my mind’s forest.

“Holywells Park, Ipswich.” Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1750

Works Consulted

-Foss, Meghan. “Love Letters.”

-Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

-Le Blond, Alexander. The Theory and Practice of Gardening. London: Bernard Lintot, 1728. Web. 10 September 2015.

-Rodriguez, Richard. “Going Home Again.”

-Standish, Rose Nichols. English Pleasure Gardens. 1902. Miami: HardPress, 2014. Print.