Digging for Resilience

By Penny Rivlin

This week the Cultural Values of Digging team held a meeting to discuss the primary emergent themes arising from work conducted on three of our four case studies.  We have been reviewing academic literature and relevant policy documents that engages with ‘digging’ across different scales and registers.  In addition, we have conducted close textual analyses of a range of different social media platforms that are used by diversely situated actors associated with our case studies.  This evidence, and our preliminary observations were condensed into three richly detailed case study reports, which provided the spur for our discussion at the meeting.

We have identified a broad range of primary themes and sub-themes specific to each case study; however our present objective is oriented towards identification of central themes that cross-cut the different cases. Although our case studies operate at different social scales and mobilize a range of social actors, organizations and historical resources associated with digging, we were interested in the affinities between, and suggestions of shared cultural values that traverse the data generated from social media networks. We will be pursuing some of these thematics in future blogposts; for now, I want to comment on the notion of resilience in relation to digging.

Only one of our case studies – The Big Dig – explicitly harnessed the concept of resilience; its articulation was more nuanced in the others, which I will explore in later posts.  In our analysis of featured gardens on the Big Dig website, and of the social media platforms of a community allotment in Greater Manchester, we noticed that several differently situated volunteers drew on a discourse of resilience to explain their individual motivations for, and collective experiences of digging in an organized community garden project. Diggers’ referred to the ways in which enactments of digging contribute to embodied resilience: ‘getting fitter’, ‘being in the fresh air’, ‘eating good food that you’ve grown’, ‘getting outside’, ‘hanging out at the allotment at the weekend’. These narratives suggest that digging serves as an antidote to our (increasing) consumption of indoor activities and technologies.  But there is also evidence of putative desires for community resilience in conditions of uncertainty and austerity: ‘we’re becoming stronger as a community’; ‘we don’t know what we’re facing, let’s pull together to build a community hub’ (on the site); ‘it’s about working together as a community, helping each other’; ‘we’ve grown free food for our community- brilliant!’. Here, digging serves as an edifice upon which cultural values of sharing, caring and civic participation can be built and consolidated.

The embodied resilience(s) of digging might therefore counteract the sedentary, technologized, potentially alienating aspects of everyday life, bringing forth shared cultural values for communal connections and community bonding.


Digging as ‘Abundance’

By Penny Rivlin

Next week the Cultural Values of Digging team will be meeting to finalize our research interviewing schedule, and in particular, to clarify and polish our case study Topic Guides. As planned, we will then be in a position to enter the social ‘field’; collecting evidence of the emergence (or indeed the absence, or consolidation) of the cultural values of digging in the North West of England.

In preparation, we have been researching our case studies in relation to the existing literature; to activity on social media sites; and to self-representations of digging through different media (e.g. self-produced/narrated films; auto- and self-directed photography; usage of historical resources for contemporary agendas).  Through a close reading of these texts and resources, we have identified a number of interrelated – and competing – themes that will inform our approach to the construction of the interview guides, and our conceptual framework for the cultural values of digging. In the past few days, we have observed a recurrent theme across the case studies of the wartime gardeners and The Big Dig organized garden projects – that of abundance.

There is a wealth of literature that engages with digging across a range of socio-cultural, historical, environmental, ecological, radical-political and utilitarian scales and registers; however, the notion of digging as abundance is comparatively unexplored. Given its rehearsal in two of our case studies, it seems that abundance – considered (at least) as an effect of, if not a spur to the formation of cultural values of digging – might warrant attention. For example, whilst the wartime gardeners often frame their digging and food related activities through a lens of (eco)austerity, their publication of a swathe of lush, elegantly photographed images of gluts of homegrown fruit and vegetables speak more resoundingly of abundance than of austerity. Likewise, their images of cooking-in-action showcase the fruits of their labour as transformed into abundant preserves, pickles, chutneys, and canned food (the latter practiced as a ‘wartime’ experiment to reduced reliance on the freezer) as a means of extending this moment of post-summer harvest abundance into the less fertile months ahead.

Abundance is also articulated on the Facebook pages of an urban community allotment in the Greater Manchester area. In just less than two years, this community of volunteer diggers’ transformed a quarter acre of unused ‘waste’ land from head-high brambles into a verdant patch of richly productive land that supplies its members with an extensive range of organic foods. Volunteers regularly post images of harvested organic food on their Facebook pages, repeatedly labeling the images as, quite simply, ‘Abundance’. Moreover, this community regularly shares their abundant produce with non-volunteer residents of their local community: ‘feeding the community – it’s what we’re all about’. As such, digging emerges as a node through which abundance can be realized in ordinary, everyday settings in austere times; both in terms of the production and consumption of good food, and as enriched social ‘giving’ relationships at the level of the local.

Digging for Victory

By Peter Jackson

As part of our current project on ‘The cultural values of digging’, we’ve noticed a recent resurgence of interest in C H Middleton’s popular war-time books and radio broadcasts (“In Your Garden”), part of a wave of war-time nostalgia that is encapsulated in phrases like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and ‘Make Do and Mend’.  Through simple advice and easy-to-follow instructions, Middleton encouraged people to become more self-sufficient at a critical time when less than one-third of the nation’s food supply was grown in Britain.

We’ve also been following Andrew and Carol Oldham’s attempt to recreate a war-time garden, as described on their website (http://lifeonpigrow.blogspot.co.uk). Turning back the clock to 1943, the Oldhams make a direct connection between war-time austerity and the current economic downturn, suggesting that growing our own fruit and vegetables will improve the nation’s health and promote a more sustainable lifestyle.  While there has been a lot of media interest in their war-time garden, including coverage in The Guardian, the Oldhams are not alone.  Moving to France in 2004, Trevor Hunt set about following C H Middleton’s monthly gardening advice, blogging about his experience at http://wartimegardening.co.uk/. Nor is all of this war-time nostalgia food-related – we’ve also noticed a Dig for Victory clothing store (http://digforvictoryclothing.com/) and numerous other commercial ventures that use this powerful metaphor.

Middleton’s radio broadcasts reached an audience of 3.5 million, supporting the Government’s mission of supplying ‘fresh food for the family’ through a system of universal ‘orderly cropping’.  It seems, though, that the actual physical labour required to deliver this objective was initially overlooked by the Ministry of Agriculture, its advice on ‘How to Dig’ not being issued until 1941 as No.20 in a series of 26 leaflets.  More ‘visceral learning’ may have been required (which was the subject of a previous blog on this site).

Growing Communities with The Big Dig

By Penny Rivlin

This week, the team have been engaging with a nationwide digging initiative, The Big Dig, that aimed to promote and foster urban-based community digging projects.  A year long-funded project, launched in September 2012, The Big Dig was supported by funding from the Social Action Fund (managed by the Social Investment Business on behalf of the Cabinet Office), and was coordinated nationally by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.  Funding for The Big Dig was prompted and facilitated by the Giving White Paper (see its one-year evaluation, HM Government, 2012) – an initiative that seeks to address social challenges through ‘giving’. Predicated on the assumption ‘that people want to live in better-connected communities in which more people are working together for the common good’ the White Paper aims to ‘broaden the culture of giving’, such that giving acquires the status of an embedded ‘social norm’ for present and future generations (ibid: 5).  Situated in this institutional context, The Big Dig differs from our other case studies in terms of its close connections with national modes of governance/policy.

Although participating Big Dig cities and towns are directed by different partnership NGO bodies, they are united by an underlying ethos oriented to community-building (as evidenced in The Big Dig strapline ‘growing food together’), and inclusivity.  This premise is based on encouraging and engaging a target of 10,000 volunteers, and, crucially, people ‘from deprived areas who do not traditionally volunteer’ (see http://www.bigdig.org.uk/aim/). In this sense, The Big Dig’s community growing projects aim to respond to and ameliorate wider issues of social disenfranchisement.

The Big Dig has established projects in 27 UK cities and towns. Volunteers receive training in a wide repertoire of food growing and associated skills, ranging from rudimentary to more advanced growing; organic gardening; cooking; permaculture; bee-keeping; green woodworking; food and resource waste reduction, as well as other strategies for instituting environmentally sustainable everyday practices.  Through these modalities of self and community empowerment, The Big Dig seeks to provide access to fresh, seasonal, local and healthy food – in turn fostering sustainable community bonds, sustainable selves and local networks of ‘pride’ that work to ‘reduce anti-social behaviour’ (http://www.bigdig.org.uk/aim/). Moreover, many Big Dig communities have employed various social media platforms as a means of communicating digging activities, ostensibly sharing their ideas, failures and successes with local and national members and visitors. Thus, like the wartime gardeners and the Wigan Diggers, Big Dig volunteers contribute to the construction of ‘virtual’, as well as local-embodied communities of diggers.

In line with our focus on digging cultures in the North West of England, we shall be examining the specificities of digging cultures and practices in a Big Dig gardening site in Greater Manchester.  We will be exploring the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of the emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in relation to the key themes of the Cultural Values of Digging project. In addition to our consideration of the Big Dig in relation to its own aims and objective, we will be thinking about The Big Dig as a response to processes of individualization and self-responsibilization, and as evidence of an emergent ‘structure of feeling’ (Williams, 1977) for citizen-led action that is oriented to a qualitatively different experience of the social-environment nexus.


The Big Dig (no date) [online] Available at: http://www.bigdig.org.uk/. Accessed 7 October 2013.

HM Government (2012) Giving White Paper: One Year On. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/78916/17541-WP-Update-Version-2.pdf Accessed 7 October 2013.

Williams, R. (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.