By Tom Lawson Mad Gardener LLC

Stone statue of a female figure partially hidden in an evergreen hedge, looking out onto a garden in fall. The garden is allowed to remain untouched with fallen leaves resting on top of everything creating a habitat for wild things to thrive. Boxwood topiary scattered throughout the growth suggest roaming creatures.
Landscapes tell a story. The stone statue of a female figure partially hidden in an evergreen hedge is looking out onto a garden in fall. The garden is allowed to remain untouched with fallen leaves resting on top of everything creating a habitat for wild things to thrive. The Boxwood topiary scattered throughout the growth suggest roaming creatures. Photo Credit: author

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways of creating connection and understanding. The beginnings of landscape design created gathering space to not only tell stories, but landscapes frequently told a story, about the people that inhabited the space. Today we are telling the stories of our clients, creating the space for them to live out their story, their lived experience. I usually begin my design process with a questionnaire that my clients fill out, which begins to tell the story of who they are and how they will continue to evolve in their space. Story reveals purpose in the landscape, for healing, for play, for sanctuary. We listen, and we then create designs that align with their needs and intensions. Listening to someone else’s story is my greatest tool for understanding the experience of someone different from me. Learning about someone’s lived experience is a powerful tool for understanding and creating connection, which can lead to empathy and healing. One of the primary directives in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts is to listen to the stories, and hope to understand the lived experience of others, so that we can make better choices for all.

Blue metal outdoor dining set in gravel under the shade of a large tree. Green vegetation in the background
Landscapes create space for people to live their lives and create their story. Photo Credit: author

June is LGBTQIA+ Pride Month and as part of APLDWA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee, I would like to take this moment to acknowledge that I am a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Some might think, DUH! But this brings up an opportunity to discuss some of the core concepts of DEI as well as demonstrate the power of telling our story. Being a member of a marginalized community is not a label, it is a lived experience. In telling my own story, I hope not only to acknowledging my experience, but to provide space for others to tell their stories. Acknowledgement can begin a healing process. Acknowledgement becomes listening and that opens the doorway to understanding and acceptance.

Acknowledgment is another tool in DEI efforts. Until I started to write this, I didn’t realize the emotional power of acknowledgment, of telling my story. Memories and trauma that I have experienced in the past came flooding back into my awareness, buried as a survival technique that has a numbing effect. It can sometimes be painful to tell my story, not wanting to relive it or feel those feelings again. It is painful to recall the stories of bullying, threats, and taunts. My stories of hearing “Faggot” or “Queer” on the playground when I was young are painful, made even more so when hearing those same words years later, on a construction site, while renovating my own home. To this day, I still “scan” the room, construction site, or supply yard for “safety”. It is a failsafe that has become so ingrained in my behavior I sometimes don’t even notice that I do it. There is a subtle fight or flight response of survival. Can I relax and be myself? Not always. This is a common experience of people in marginalized communities.

Small, aged cherub statue sitting in a cracked concrete birdbath with bed of seedlings and debris
What story does this Cherub tell? Photo Credit: author

My story is a combination of privilege and adversity, as most stories are. The concept of intersectionality was first introduced in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (professor of Law at UCLA Law School), to describe how individual characteristics like race, gender, and class would overlap and ‘intersect’ creating the unique experience of that individual. My story is mostly privilege. I am a cis-gendered, white, gay man. Even with the bullying, my story is mostly privilege. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. When I moved to NYC at the age of 23, I expressed concerns to some fellow LGBTQ friends about my fears of being able to “Make it” in NYC. “Don’t worry, you’re young, white, male, and cute. You’ll be fine.” I didn’t know that as privilege. I also didn’t realize how difficult it could be if I had not been young, white, male, or cute. I have come to understand that what I didn’t have to endure from society defines my privilege.

I did have barriers and doors that were closed to me. Being LGBTQIA+ denied me entrance through certain doorways. When I was an actor in the 80’s, you did not reveal your sexuality, I was not able to truly be myself in interviews. Social and economic class were other barriers I ran into. Later, when I was working as a massage therapist in NYC and the Hamptons, I had access to very powerful people. Access to a point, I was still the “help”. In the Hamptons Gay dating scene, I would be asked “What do you do for a living?” The conversation ended quickly because I was not a lawyer, banker, or stockbroker. I didn’t attend an ivy league school, nor did I have generational wealth or connections to rely upon. But the barriers I had were minimal compared to other people from marginalized communities and that is privilege. Our stories have the power to reveal our privilege and our understanding of what others must endure that we don’t.

My adversity came into sharp focus when I moved to NYC at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Through the 80’s I saw how the government and society ignored what we were going through, demonized, and marginalized us as pariahs. When confronted with this, it was natural to isolate within my own community for safety and for nurturing. This is something that is reflected in our society over and over, marginalized communities stay with our own. Reaching out is difficult and can be dangerous, depending on the circumstance. This is another example of how and why I developed the ability to “scan for safety”. I still remember walking down the street where I lived in Chelsea, the Gay neighborhood in NYC, and having a beer bottle thrown at my head from a speeding car, hearing the word “Faggot”, again. I was lucky, they had terrible aim. I learned how to keep an eye out for bigots and survive.

Left: The author in the garden pruning a large shrub. Right: Looking at a wooden bench & chairs with a table made with stone top and wood log base. Vegetation in the foreground, privet hedge as a backdrop
Left: Caring for my garden gave me comfort. Photo Credit: Friend of Author
Right: The garden is a safe space from the outside world. Photo Credit: author

Another part of my story is about recovery. I am a survivor of abuse, more than just the bullying. I medicated my pain with addictions. I spent many hours in the 12 step rooms listening to other stories and telling mine. Those rooms are designed the way they are for a reason. Telling your story and listening to others tell theirs helps us empathize, helps us feel what we may be ignoring and helps us find common ground for healing. As difficult as I perceived my story to be, I heard many that were much more difficult, filled with a full spectrum of what true adversity can be. Through the telling of the stories, it opened a pathway to dignity. The dignity that comes from being heard and your pain acknowledged. It breaks down the barriers of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual identity.

My recovery also brought me to gardening and eventually to landscape design. I made a deep connection to working in the garden. I was able to get my hands on a property that had a long story to tell, and I learned to listen to the plants, connect with them and take care of them. In the garden, there was connection to other living things, and it felt safe. As landscape designers we can create safe places for our clients to live out their story.

For a time, I resented the barriers and closed doors that I experienced, especially from members of my own community. I have come to realize that these barriers also gave me the gift of empathy. I can put myself in another person’s shoes, listen to their story and understand, even if only a small piece, of what they have experienced. There are many doors in our society that are closed to members of marginalized communities. To me, opening those doors or breaking down the barriers is the essence of DEI efforts, and I must acknowledge “what I don’t know”, in order to understand the journey of another person. Listening to another’s story is a path forward, to empathy, to understanding, to dignity, and to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Left: Large natural material sculpture of a creature chasing children who are hiding in a pot on a pedestal. Right: Tall wooden welcome pole, with carvings of a heron and frog
Left: Heronswood seasonal sculptures telling a story of Slapu chasing children in the forest without parental permission. Halloween-2022. Photo Credit: author
Right: Welcome pole at Heronswood Artist: Brian Perry. Photo Credit: author

In an effort to promote a more diverse range of storytelling within our organization, the DEI Committee is partnering with the Program Committee to produce a special event at Heronswood Garden in September. Heronswood is the only Botanical Garden in the USA to be solely owned by an indigenous tribe. We will hear the story from Dr. Ross Bayton of the “Links between plant collecting and colonialism in the Pacific Northwest and how that has shaped our collective understanding of plants and gardens.” We will also hear the story, told by Debby Purser, of the how the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, “through new design interventions, is weaving indigenous history and contemporary life back into Heronswood”. So, be on the look out for the announcement of this great event. Come listen to the story, it’s good medicine.