Digging Up Mucky Carrots

By Penny Rivlin

Last Tuesday I invited my teenage daughter and her friends to help me prepare a bonfire night supper. Earlier in the day, I had harvested parsnips, beetroot and carrots from my plot, and had left them in the trug by the kitchen sink, ready for washing.  Returning home from school, my daughter spied the supper harvest, joking that the carrots and parsnips resembled the animal fodder we see in the neighbouring fields on our walks. Whilst the beetroot was pleasingly round and unblemished, the carrots and parsnips were large, knarled and clod coated – aesthetically very different from the clean, uniform shape and size of those delivered to our local supermarket. Of course, for the diggers among us, this kind of ‘earthy’ aesthetic is both expected and even desired.  As Eden et al. (2008) have observed, for some consumers, the presence of dirt and the non-uniform presentation of homegrown and organically grown vegetables works as a symbolic marker of its ‘ethical’, pro-environmental status and provenance.  ‘Mucky carrots’ therefore confer ethical value to both the producer and the consumer. Or as Thompson and Coskuner-Balli (2007) argue, in the context of community supported agriculture the experience of digging up locally grown, seasonal veg brings forth feelings of ‘enchantment’ in the digger that cannot be reproduced in the ‘organic’ and ‘ethical food’ aisles of the supermarket. There are interesting affinities here between Thompson and Coskuner-Balli’s notion of enchantment, and the processes of ‘visceral learning’ advanced by Rebecca Sandover (outlined by Peter Jackson in an earlier post). The concept of visceral learning encompasses the embodied and affective dimensions of digging, as both an individual and a shared experience.

In part, feelings of enchantment through visceral learning arise from the performance of digging labour itself: both embodied and sensory, engagements with the outdoors, earth and ‘dirt’ engender reconnections with food, the embodied self, and ‘natural’ environments in both rural and urban green spaces. Whilst digging for self and others is often onerous and time intensive, in the challenging conditions of an unstable, intensely competitive labour market (and increasingly denuded welfare state conditions), digging offers opportunities for experiences of unalienated labour, the products and benefits of which are principally delivered to the digger (and digging communities).

Expressions of digging for enchantment are evident in the self-representations of two of our case studies – the wartime gardeners and Big Dig allotment volunteers.  As I observed in my earlier post, ‘Digging for Abundance’, these diggers’ pictorially showcase their homegrown food on social media sites with evident pride and esteem.  As one Big Dig volunteer comments in response to a recently dug (mucky) harvest: ‘It doesn’t get much better than this’. Similarly, in a celebratory facebook entry, the wartime gardeners recently posted an image of their home-canned green beans, sharing their pleasure in consuming ‘a taste of summer’ as the winter nights close in.

Returning to my bonfire supper, a rather different version of enchantment emerged as my daughter’s friends gathered to prepare my homegrown veg for roasting. None were diggers’ or from digger families, approaching the ‘misshapen’ mucky carrots and parsnips with amazement and some trepidation (to my my daughter’s amusement). Whilst one girl felt unable to handle the veg, the others tackled the peeling and chopping with enthusiasm, such that her initial reluctance soon dissolved. The vegetables, they joked, had a ‘fairy story’ character – they were well suited to the giant’s table in the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. It might be fun, they mused, if they could organize a school veg-growing project for a communal ‘giant’s supper’ next bonfire night.  In this moment of visceral learning and (imagined) digging as enchantment, pathways were forged to future possibilities of digging and community connection in unanticipated ways. We might, therefore, fruitfully think of ‘enchantment’ as a cultural value that is attached to, and constituted through digging at the levels of both fantasy and embodied practice.

References

Eden, S., Bear, C. and Walker, G. (2008) ‘Mucky Carrots and Other Proxies: Problematising the Knowledge-fix for Sustainable and Ethical Consumption’, Geoforum, 39(2): 1044-1057.

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

Thompson, C.J. and Coskuner-Balli, G. (2007) ‘Enchanting Ethical Consumption: The Case of Community Supported Agriculture’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 7(3): 275-303.

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