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.


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