By Peter Jackson
I’ve just read a PhD thesis which explores the idea of ‘visceral learning’ in the context of a study of two allotments in rural Somerset. The author, Rebecca Sandover (a geographer from Exeter University), argues that there is too much emphasis in academia on the cognitive processes of ‘knowing’ and not enough on the embodied processes of ‘doing’.
Rebecca explores this idea through a study of growing practices on the two allotments including an ‘auto-ethnography’ of her own experiences of growing fruit and veg on her own allotment in Somerton. It’s here that she advances the concept of ‘visceral learning’, focusing on the feelings and embodied knowledge that are evoked through her sensory engagement with the plot (clearing the ground, digging, planting, growing, weeding, harvesting, cooking and eating). She also got local school children involved in a community ‘cook-in’, preparing and cooking produce that had been grown on the site. While most of the children enjoyed the experience, some were less tolerant of holey carrots and some were squeamish about eating squash.
The study encourages us to pay more attention to these visceral feelings (reminding us that ‘visceral’ refers literally to the gut). What is it about particular tastes and textures that provoke such strong feelings of desire or disgust? Do foods that are grown and cooked with a personal investment of time and love actually taste better than those that come from more distant and disembodied sources?
The thesis left me wondering whether this kind of visceral learning – gained by sharing practical tips among growers, being outdoors in the wind and rain, battling the weeds and slugs, and sharing a successful harvest with friends and neighbours – might yield a different understanding of the cultural values of digging than the kind of ‘armchair’ knowledge that we might get from more conventional approaches.