Diggers United! The Cultural Values of Digging Project Event

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,

The Cultural Values Team with artist Lyndsey

The Cultural Values Team with artist Lyndsey

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/.

Illustration 2

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.

Cultural Values of Digging: Mid-project Update

By Penny Rivlin

Last Thursday marked the end of a government-sponsored national campaign, The Big Dig – a year-long initiative that aimed to promote a culture of ‘giving’ through urban community garden projects organized around food growing (see Big Dig website).  One of our four case studies, The Big Dig is representative of organized garden projects that aim to regenerate cities, spaces and communities.  Through our review of the existing literature, we know that there is nothing especially innovative about organized modes of participatory engagement via digging. What interests us about The Big Dig, however, are the ways in which it seeks to generate impact and value through attaching voluntarism to the idea of digging as gifting. Supporting the development of new and embryonic urban growing spaces, The Big Dig’s launch statement placed particular emphasis on capturing volunteers from constituencies that are ‘traditionally’ disengaged, as a means of improving local wellbeing and community connections, as well as reducing levels of of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Oriented to the conceptual coordinates of the Big Society ethos, this policy intervention is based on the premise that the giving of one’s time and labour via green gardening holds transformative potential for the self, the social, and local environments.  If recruitment to The Big Dig is considered as a measure of cultural values of digging across the UK, then the project’s closing summary indicates its (re)emergence: all targets for volunteer and social action opportunities were exceeded (albeit ‘traditionally’ disengaged recruits constituted a modest 1,900 people), suggesting that the values of gifting has some cultural purchase in contemporary Britain.

Our project explores the ways in which cultural values circulating around digging – as an orchestrating node for the mobilization of diverse agendas – traverse the realms of everyday life, activism and policy. It seeks to establish evidence of cultural values through attention to embodied enactments of digging as everyday life or way of life(style) practices; the role of, and the processes by which, different media technologies and practices are implicated; and mediations and uses of digging/land-use histories and heritage(s) for modes of ethical relating and value-making in the present. With an empirical focus on the North West, we are conducting three case studies of digging that have developed over the past three years.  Our Big Dig study examines the specificities of digging cultures and practices in an urban community allotment in Greater Manchester.  Employing in-depth interviewing with volunteers alongside textual analyses of the volunteers’ engagements with digital media platforms, we are evaluating the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in online and offline contexts.

Reproducing these methods across the two other case studies, we are examining the cultural significance of digging as a metaphor or symbolic connotator in contexts of heritagization; a wartime garden experiment, and a public event.  An example of an online-offline green-living experiment (Marres, 2009), the wartime garden study examines a hetero-nuclear family’s attachment to the WWII ‘dig for victory’ campaign, and their recreation of the gardening broadcaster Mr Middleton’s prescriptions for year-round food self-sufficiency. Whilst cognate wartime slogans have been articulated to a range of consumerist and political agendas in recent years, our interest in the wartime gardeners resides in their nostalgic re-valorization of a past moment of austerity and security as response to the present conjuncture of eco-austerity (Bramall, 2013). Charting and synchronising their experiences of wartime gardening across a wide range of social media platforms, the wartime gardeners reach out to all heterogeneous communities of diggers (many of whom can consume digging culture only at the level of fantasy), gifting online visitors with comprehensive planting schemes re-worked from Middleton’s original manuals; advice on accessing heritage seeds; and vintage themed food growing films and collages.  Here, we are beginning to understand the ways in which the discursivity of heritage digging informs the constitution of cultural values of (digital) sharing; anti-consumerism; resistance (to the commercialization of the food system and to new austerity); and to familial and community resilience.

In the context of the public event, we are similarly establishing evidence for cultural values of sharing, individual and community resilience, and collective resistance in relation to the heritage elements of digging. This case study focuses on the Wigan Diggers’ Festival – an annual, free event in central Wigan (2011-2013. See Festival website).  The Festival reinvigorates and celebrates the political agency of Wigan born radical Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76) and the Diggers’ movement (1649-51) as symbolic resource for the expression and dissemination of a collection of political ideals circulating around interrelated issues of social justice and the redistribution of land (the ‘commons’), and ‘common’ resources and services – now effectively ‘enclosed’ through privatization and deregulation.  Disembedding Winstanley from land rights and food growing issues, the Wigan Diggers’ harness the historicity of the 17th century diggers’ narrative to express dissent at current welfare austerity measures, neoliberal modes of governance, and for the reclamation and renewal of working class politics and values. Like The Big Dig and the wartime gardeners, the Festival actively disseminates its political ideals in online and offline contexts.  Drawing together virtual and embodied communities into ‘digging’ spaces and places, these case studies diversely express, shape, renew and enact cultural values of digging in dynamic and productive ways.

Digging-up local histories: The Wigan Diggers’ Festival

By Penny Rivlin

In line with the primary objectives of the project, we are thinking about the different ways in which digging as heritage is mobilized in the present moment in the UK.  We are exploring the connections between the symbolic and embodied/community enactments of digging as forms of civic participation at both the grassroots local level, and the ways in which these politics of digging are expressed and disseminated across social media platforms. In conditions of land and resource scarcity, neoliberal individualism and self-responsibilization, we are asking what kinds of cultural values are invoked through the appropriation of heritage cultures and politics, and the transformative possibilities – as well as the tensions and ambivalences – of digging for heterogeneous UK citizens and communities.

In the past few weeks the Cultural Values of Digging team have been digging up local histories through participant observation at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival in Wigan, North Manchester on Saturday, 7th September.  The first Diggers’ festival, in September, 2011, attended by Farida, involved a small-scale collective of ‘heritage diggers’ and supporters who marched through Wigan to Mesnes Field – an open land site subject to proposed development.  The central motif of the festival was to commemorate and celebrate the radical political agency of Wigan born Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76), leader of the 17th century Diggers movement, and it is worth pausing for a moment to consider Winstanley’s legacy.

Also known as the ‘True Levellers’, the Diggers constituted a community of what Winstanley termed ‘the common people of England’: a poor, property-less majority increasingly dispossessed of common or ‘waste’ land due to enclosures (a process now framed as privatization).  As John Gurney (2013) observes, Winstanley’s overarching aim focused on the ‘establishment of community’ via the sharing of the commons as a route to social equality and freedom.  Winstanley’s discursive conjunction of community and commons is exemplified in his radical call that:

[the] earth must be set free from intanglements of Lords and Landlords, and that it shall become a common Treasury to all, as it was first made and given to the sonnes of men (1649, cited in Gurney, 2013: 47).

In 1649, Winstanley and his supporters mobilized to action by digging in to an area of common land at George Hill (now St George’s Hill) in Surrey. Establishing a small commune, the Diggers’ cultivation of the land and their lived experience of Winstanley’s ethos – ‘working together and eating together’ – faced considerable, often violent opposition, resulting in their eventual eviction after just eighteen months. It is in this historical context that the Wigan Diggers’ Festival march to Mesnes Field can be situated.  Accompanied by local photographers, the Diggers’ performed a symbolic re-enactment of the 17th century Diggers’ occupation of the commons.  Wearing wide-brimmed cloth hats and performing public recitals of extracts from Winstanley’s writings, the Wigan Diggers’ dug in to the common ‘Treasury’ of Mesnes Field.

The subsequent festivals’ of 2011/12 have significantly expanded in response to growing local interest and sponsorship, local authority support, and an online presence (http://wigandiggersfestival.org/). However, the festival’s practice of drawing on history as heritage as a means of addressing issues of land ownership and usage and other conditions of resource scarcity in the present moment of austerity remains central to its organization and dissemination. As one of the festival organisers, Stephen Hall asserts, the primary aim of the festival is to ‘remind people of the significance of Winstanley and the Diggers and his relevance to present day politics … we want to encourage a re-born sense of community spirit amongst ordinary people everywhere’ (quoted in Hyland, 2012).  There are clear resonances here with Crouch and Parker’s (2003: 396) observation that contemporary uses of history as heritage work to ‘undermine current structures and practices and promote alternatives’.  From the perspective of the project, the festival presents interesting challenges to current structures and practices. First, through its re-visioning the 17th century diggers act of re-claiming the commons via a symbolic performance of digging, the festival harnesses digging as heritage as a political tool. Second, in capturing the re-enactment on film for dissemination on the festival website, it harnesses the transformative potential of a digital ‘commons’ to access a wider community.

Following their attendance at the recent Festival, Erinma and Andy have shared their observations and Festival stories with the rest of the team, which generated a rich and fruitful discussion.  Based on their insights; our engagement with the Gerrard Winstanley and 17th century diggers focused literature; and our content analysis of the Wigan Diggers’/Festival digital platforms, we are in the process of finalizing the methodological routes through which a range of heritage-oriented voices can be accessed and documented.  Erinma and Andy will be sharing their insights as Festival observers in future posts – please check back!

References

Crouch, D. and Parker, G. (2003) ‘Digging-up’ Utopia? Space, practice and land use heritage, Geoforum, 34(3): 395-408.

Gurney, J. (2013) Gerrard Winstanley: The Diggers Life and Legacy. London: Pluto Press.

Hyland, B. (2012) Wigan stakes its claim to be the home of Socialism, The Northerner Blog, The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/aug/31/unite-labour. Accessed 22/09/2013.

The Wigan Diggers Festival (no date) http://wigandiggersfestival.org/). Accessed 22/09/2013.