By Penny Rivlin
On Saturday 8th March, the team hosted a project event at the Friends Meeting House in Manchester. In a formal academic sense, project events provide an opportunity to publicly stage the ‘completion’ of the project – a moment to reflect upon, and share aspects of a research journey, its highlights and challenges, and ultimately present indications of findings to the academic community and other stakeholders. Whilst our event fundamentally conformed to this blueprint, it also evidenced the reciprocal and relational aspects of ‘doing’ a social research project. Here, I am referring to the investment and willingness of our diversely situated research respondents to share their stories – in this case, of ‘digging’ – with the academic community. But what became clear throughout the trajectory of the project is that our respondents’ perceived our project as a platform upon which they could communicate their digging-related experiences, aims and desires to wider constituencies than that of the ‘traditional’ researcher/researched relationship. All of our respondents are users and/or consumers of social media to varying extents; they blog, use Instagram, Audioboo, Flickr, Pinterest, and Youtube and comment on their digging stories across a range of time frames, from multiple daily, to weekly posts. They did not see their investments in our project as discrete, singular performances of self, but rather as connected, united selves in a common project, in which the cultural values of digging could be explored and disseminated via a ‘digital commons’. As such, we felt that our event should focus on our research participants, providing a space for collective engagement, connection and storytelling.
We invited all of our research participants and members of their projects, as well as other groups involved or interested in digging-related activities – that the event was fully subscribed is perhaps, in itself, a significant indicator of the circulation of cultural values of digging in the North West of England. Eleven of our fourteen case study respondents joined us; moreover, we were delighted that the event provided an opportunity to meet with other diggers from the Wigan Diggers’ and Moss Side Community Allotment projects. Of the team members co-hosting the event, the project’s Principal Investigator, Farida Vis has connections with all of the case study groups through her sustained investment in digging across a range of registers; co-investigators Erinma Ochu and Peter Jackson had connections with the wartime gardeners and Moss Side diggers respectively (due to other commitments, co-investigator Andrew Miles was unable to join us). In my role as Research Associate, I have been privileged to interview all the participants, so the event was a welcome opportunity to meet with them again, and for the team to meet, or re-connect with the diggers in person.
As a means of introducing and familiarizing the event collective with the aims and objectives of our research, Farida presented a slide-show and informal discussion of our case-studies,
highlighting the affiliations, thematic connections and (dis)continuities between them. The diggers’ feedback suggested that the presentation enabled them to situate themselves both in the wider context of the research framework and in relation to the other case studies. This generated a sense of connectivity, and, as one digger commented, of ‘digger unity’.
Situating herself as an embodied digger as well as researcher, Farida concluded her talk with a gift offering to the event attendees. Drawing on the theme of ‘gifting’ and reciprocity that cross-cuts the case studies as evidence and expression of cultural value, Farida had prepared gift bags containing recently potted strawberry ‘Maxim’ plants raised at her allotment in Manchester. She also included a packet of ‘Daniel’s Borlotti Beans’ seeds, explaining that these were, in turn, gifted to her some years ago by an elderly man who digs a neighbouring allotment. Having successfully nurtured Daniel’s beans for ten years, Farida offered these seeds as a ‘Manchester hardy’ plant, noting that Daniel would be happy to know that his beans are thriving across various gardens and yards in the North West! This token of thanks appeared to be well received, even amongst the Wigan Diggers’ – none of whom engage in embodied digging activities (as yet!); their attachments to ‘digging’ being rooted in the historical-political symbolism of Wigan born Gerrard Winstanley, and his involvement with the 17th century digger movement (see my earlier blogs on The Winstanley Festival for an overview).
Following Farida’s presentation, we invited the diggers to share and discuss their stories with the group. The practice of ‘storytelling’ presents a space in which individuals and groups ‘give voice’ to their own interests, priorities and ideas as unmediated accounts. Whilst several of the diggers are experienced public speakers, most are not; yet all were willing to contribute as both storytellers and listeners. So commenced a few hours of spontaneity, inquiry, humour and reflexivity, as contributors interacted, shared and constructed their own digging agendas in the moment. An interesting aspect from the perspective of our project was that whilst the storytellers re-energized some of the central priorities and themes formerly narrated in their interviews, they also raised other issues and ideas in response to each others’ stories – a kind of reciprocal engagement that prompted the construction and recognition of cultural values of digging in a shared space. For instance, across the three case studies, the theme of sharing (food, time, labour, space, knowledge, skills, culture) predominates, alongside putative desires for local, place-based community cohesion and connection (both online and embodied). The Moss Side Community diggers’ stories foregrounded the centrality of ‘caring, sharing and community’ as ethos and practice. Presently celebrating their self-construction of a community hub – ‘it’s for all the community, not just the diggers’ – they told us that where possible, they share food with local residents at free, regular garden events or in response to gluts. Last summer, sixty lettuces were placed on the doorsteps of neighbouring residents, demonstrating that the cultural values of digging – as gift giving – can potentially foster community cohesion and inclusivity (visit the Moss Side diggers’ at http://mosssidecommunityallotment.wordpress.com).
Yet it emerged that the groups are also concerned to connect with other ‘diggers’ at the level of the political and the affective (an ethic of care) beyond the remit of the local. The diggers raised the issue of visibility: how to access and connect with others who may feel marginalized within their proximal and wider communities, for instance, in the context of the festival, public event, and the everyday. Given their prime location at the heart of their residential community, the Moss Side Community diggers suggested that ‘word of mouth’ remains a valuable, and valued resource for engaging and relating with all local residents, and even more distant diggers in the region – an observation that was also affirmed by the Wigan Diggers’. In response, wartime gardener Andrew Oldham suggested that ‘social media is the new word of mouth’, serving as a primary means through which cultural values of digging can be shared, co-constructed and disseminated at both local, and global levels (the wartime gardeners website http://lifeonpigrow.blogspot.co.uk and the Wigan Diggers’ http://wigandiggersfestival.org attract international visitors, and the Oldham’s Facebook page converses with the international community).
An exciting contribution to our event involved the production of a pictorial representation of the Cultural Values of Digging story. We had commissioned a Manchester based artist, Lyndsey Winnington, to articulate our case-study diggeing stories via a ‘live’ illustration. Prior to the event, we discussed some of the central themes emerging from the research with Lyndsey, and she also explored their online self-representations, which she subsequently recorded as a ‘skeleton’ sketch on canvas. During the storytelling process, Lyndsey brought colour and life to the canvas, connecting the stories through the nature/culture metaphor of a ‘tree of life’, alongside an innovative, contemporaneous ‘tree of Wi-fi’ – effectively bringing another layer of interpretation to the project. Lyndsey worked diligently throughout the event, (heroically!) completing her artwork as the event came to a close. We see the illustration as a novel and accessible representation of the cultural values of digging as they are expressed and lived across a range of contexts. This work elicited a range of responses from viewers – albeit wholly positive and appreciative, and we would like to express our thanks to Lyndsey for her interest and investment in our project. You can view both the illustration and detailed snapshots at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31020216@N04/13062355745/in/photostream/.
As is the case with all social research projects, our own could not have proceeded without the investment and interest of our multiple research partners, and here, we wish to thank all stakeholders, but especially, the Wartime Gardeners, the Moss Side Community Allotment diggers and the Wigan Diggers’, for so generously giving of their time to our project.