A paint and paper collage of a wrought iron fence over grass transitioning to tall sunflowers over rich brown soil.

University, Speaking by Phoebe Wagner

University, Speaking

By Phoebe Wagner

A paint and paper collage of a wrought iron fence over grass transitioning to tall sunflowers over rich brown soil.
Art by Nina Miller

First, we found someone to listen. We whispered to new hires and emeritus faculty, first-year students and graduate TAs, deans and presidents. And we failed. Yes, new housing towers joined the city skyline. A baseball field cut down too many trees. An Old Town revitalization project promised condos, windowed storefronts reflecting our spires, a rooftop bar. These places made a bad translation of what we wanted. Not a wider, taller, more decorative wrought-iron fence. We wanted no fence.

In all our whispering, we weren’t listening. We had a vision, our architectural imagination of ourselves, entwining with the city for what we thought would be better. But someone was already speaking to us. 

The gardener had worked our grounds so her kids wouldn’t have to take out so many student loans. Two bright and beautiful boys had studied late in our library, played frisbee on our lawns, posed for graduation pictures beneath our elms. Still the gardener tended our mulch beds, brought us flowering pots to hide our crumbling corners, moved our inside plants outside for some afternoon sun, kept our sidewalks clean and weeded. She pruned our rose bushes and taught the wisteria how to climb the new trellis. In our hazy summer slowness, when our lights dimmed early and our lawns stretched lonely, she hummed the latest piece from the civic choir. 

We followed her into the city through our grass clippings and flower petals. On Wednesdays, she met her wife for beers. On Thursdays, choir practice, still in her work boots that thudded clumps of us across the stage. On Fridays, she rode her motorcycle to work and went for a riverside ride afterward, sending pieces of us drifting across the city’s veins.

We fell into the trap of our fences. How would a gardener convince a dean, a president, a board of trustees? No, we needed a professor, a student at the very least. But as the years went, and she planted sunflowers in the back beds only eager summer interns and wrung-out research assistants walked by, as she prepared green spaces for winter, we began speaking to her.

She knew our ghosts and cobwebs, the corners where students tucked away their folded-paper fears, which bushes the cigarette stubs blew under. Even so, she came back, long after her grown children needed her job. She shoveled our sidewalks, returned frisbees from behind our hedges, smiled at the creaking of our elms. Sometimes, she’d sit back on her heels and sigh at our emptiness, our flowers and shade and paths left unappreciated for the best summer months. Our imaginings were just another whistling wind to enjoy. 

One spring, as she mulched the bed lining the backlot—what the president had recently renamed Tower Lawn, after a trustee—we whispered plans for a community garden. In the summers, nobody used this quad. Even in the fall term, when the intramural teams played volleyball here, they only used half the lawn. The grassy space faced downtown, and professors, deans, students walked through the decorative, pillared gate to go to lunches or coffee or the bar, but nobody came from the city. We could change that.

All summer, the gardener watched the grass unused, shorn down over and over by the mower. We whispered about how the birds would love it, how the butterflies and bees would be fed so much better by a community garden than a barren lawn.

The gardener started talking. Her wife agreed something better than grass could be imagined. The head groundskeeper liked the idea because he didn’t have enough space at his home for a garden (and he hated mowing). The math professor always eating lunch on the bench outside when the gardener watered the roses thought it would be good for the students to learn about food systems. The regular Wednesday bartender said they would take a plot since their apartment was only a few blocks away. The alto to her right wondered if the local library might run a kids’ program to teach gardening basics. The alto on her left had never been to campus.

The provost said no.

Gardens are messy. How would security keep track of who came onto campus and what they did? The Buildings and Grounds crew was already too busy; now they wanted a community garden to tend. Who would come to this garden, anyway?

This was why the gardener didn’t talk to the provost except at the holiday party. If this river were to run its course, then we needed a crack in the dam.

When the gardener told her summer student workers what happened, one asked if he could organize the community garden for his capstone research project. He’d grown up in the city and wondered why campus, the only large green space downtown, needed a fence around it.

The student received a grant from the city, and the local library ran a kids’ program about food systems, and the Riverside Apartments held a garden potluck, and people ate their lunch on benches the gardener’s wife built, and the gardener pulled weeds beside her Wednesday bartender, and students spread blankets on the remaining grass during orientation, and they tried to catch the last of the cherry tomatoes in their mouths.

These new gardeners carried more and more of us into the city, where we swirled in the roadside eddies or collected against churches. We trailed fingertips across the city. We wanted more, and so did the city. We had one crack, where we pressed against each other. One crack could grow.

When the summer storms came, we dropped our dead branches onto the tall fence. We leaned our tired trunks against the wrought iron. We battered away at the spiked posts. The gardener asked for the fence to be removed around the quad as the community garden became more popular. A professor who studied national borders helped a student group write a proposal for removing the fence and investing the saved maintenance funds in Little Free Libraries and miniature food pantries around town. The wilderness education students volunteered to build new walking paths with permeable materials once the fence fell, opening campus to dogwalkers and commuters. 

We rubbed against the city. Our fingers entwined. Parents pushed strollers between our flower beds. Longboarders glided along our curves. Children sledded down our hills. Joggers passed between us. We traced the lines of each other’s palms, but we still wanted more.

When our flourishing environmental science program needed a bigger building, we whispered about buying a place by the waterfront and grumbled against the big, bright windowed building design that would never be sustainable amidst the rising heat, the worsening storms. The city hummed that meant more bus lines to make sure the students could access the waterfront building.

The board of trustees grumbled. The deans questioned. The president hemmed and hawed. The college experience they were charged with marketing required a quiet, private campus—nothing to fear. What would the parents say when they came to visit? A manicured border, a fence that no longer existed except in their minds—what might the students learn out in the city? 

The city swirled through the mayor’s office, ruffling campaign posters and building plans, whirled into councils, rumbling about tax breaks, free marketing, economic revitalization, beautification pledges. Butterflies to flowers, we began to pollinate. 

We whispered to the college’s wilderness program to propose more bike lanes. The city made a walking path from the environmental science building to the Riverwalk. And once the students could bus to the river and wander through the grass onto the sidewalk off the campus, as we cuddled up with the city, our fingers in each other’s hair, the students proposed a fall music series, and another community garden, and they protested campus security driving people away from napping on benches. Professors held classes in the new coffee shops, and the groundskeepers had their morning planning meetings at the bagel shop across the street, and the city created a free audit system for locals to take classes, and the STEM programs partnered with the local hospital for a weeklong science festival, and the gardener’s Wednesday bartender opened their own brewery where the gardener met her wife every Friday after her motorcycle ride.

The provost who said no, who’d continued saying no, retired, warning on the way out the door that students would stop coming. As fewer and fewer students attended traditional colleges, they would choose the big, endlessly sprawling campuses or the small, spired closed campuses. Nobody went to college spread over a town. Either the town belonged entirely to the college, or the campus kept itself separate from the city. 

But our city held us tight when the storms came. Sometimes with thunder, sometimes with recessions. The city hummed to not be afraid when students couldn’t come to us because of sickness or flooding or money. The city always had its own children who wanted to learn. The children who had pulled weeds in our community gardens, had sledded down our hills, had played catch beneath our oaks, they sat in our libraries, classrooms, labs and heard us whispering.

These children helped the homesick students call our grounds, our city home. They showed them the best spots to sit by the river and think, the fastest bike path to the movie theater, the cafe that gave free coffee to students studying late, the restaurants where nobody would stare no matter how loud they laughed, the park with the best fall colors, the park with the best spring blossoms. The students stuck together, and even the provost could not have dismissed their numbers.

The gardener retired, and we gave our best blooms that summer. She still came to sit on the benches when the summer flowers flourished, watching the bees at work. She helped with organizing the community gardens for planting and harvesting, until it made her short of breath and her back sore. She still brought out a chair, even though the other gardeners didn’t know her anymore, but they called her the Gardening Grandma and asked how to store seeds or how to prune the tomatoes. 

When the tornados took out whole towns, when floods washed away homes, when heat threatened families—the students left us, for a while, carrying pieces of us to their own towns. We knew what to do. We whispered of connections across time and space to our new deans and new professors, just as bits of our dirt and grass and roots clung to clothes and books and blankets. 

Students talked of different classes like civic engagement, community organizing, disaster preparedness, practical activism. They asked to organize a better credit-exchange system with the community college at the other end of the city so they could take welding and construction courses. Students and professors organized for online classes when they needed to stay home for a semester to rebuild their towns.

And when the storming and flooding finally split our walls, collapsed our roofs, washed our basements, the city caught us up. The local library, the diners, the coffee shops, the community center, the churches, the hospitals, the parks became classrooms, were remembered for the classrooms they always had been. 

The city held us tight until we forget we were ever separated. Tattoos on skin, we became. 

Our students come to us for the classrooms. Writers meet in the bookstore and the library; artists in the tattoo parlor and the museum; biologists in the hospital and the field station; sociologists in the mutual aid center and the clinic; psychologists in the counseling hub and the lab. Now, we stretch our arms wider as the citizens see what needs doing and lead the students to new projects. We grow.

The gardener lost her home in one of the floods, so she and her wife live above the brewery, where her bartender’s grandchildren ferment all types of things. They teach classes, and the gardener likes to open her upstairs window and listen, just as she’d pause on campus while pulling weeds, on those sunny days when the professors would take their students outside.  


Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic, living and writing at the intersection of speculative fiction and environmentalism. She is the editor of three solarpunk anthologies, including Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation. Wagner is an assistant professor of creative writing at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter at @pheebs_w.

Join us on Thursday, July 28 at 12pm for a conversation with author Phoebe Wagner and Punya Mishra, associate dean of scholarship and innovation at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. 

Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore how we might reimagine and reorganize our communities in the face of transformative change.