Monday, 20 October 2014

A Sociology of the Seasons?

By Dr Andy Zieleniec

As a sociologist of culture or a cultural sociologist I am interested in the various ways in which we make and represent meaning to ourselves and to others. How we create and share and reflect on the present connected to the past and predicting, hoping and aspiring to some vision of the future. We do this within social contexts in which our material and physical environments also impact and influence our understanding of the social processes, forms and structures that affect our experiences of being in the world. 

An intrinsic part of this is how we interact with others: when and where, in what ways and why we do so. In many instances this relates to social environments and circumstances in which we act and interact in appropriate and acceptable ways conducive to the life worlds we inhabit and/or the stage of the life course we are in (family, work, leisure, etc.). As such, the places and spaces as well as the types and forms of social interaction available to us are not only to some extent prescribed but also assume and reflect aspects of power, status, access, availability, as well as other human traits – greed, ambition, lust, love, want, leisure, pleasure.

I have been thinking recently about the paradox of modern existence that means we experience life in predominantly human made environments (all those buildings, transportation networks and vehicles, all that concrete, glass, steel and tarmac) immersed within a battery communication technologies that allow us global connections and information but which at the same time increasingly insulate us from nature and from natural rhythms such as climate and the seasons.

As modern individuals living predominantly urban existences in (post?) modern, (post?) industrialised societies our relationship with nature and with weather and climate has changed the way in which we perceive and experience our sensual and embodied selves within and through our subjective experience of everyday life. We take advantage of the possibilities of warmer weather to make use of outside spaces and for a range of activities that are only made possible and more enjoyable by seasonal variations in climate.

I for one have made as much use of the spring and summer and with the exceptional and long, dry and warm September that has extended it, to engage in a range of outside activities and alfresco experiences (horse riding, mountain climbing, sea kayaking, coastal and forest walks, paddling and swimming in rivers and seas, boats trips, long lazy days out in the park, picnics, garden parties, late into the night parties around a blazing fire).
Autumn (the season of rain and wind, cold mornings and nights, mist and mushrooms, the beginning of Daylight Saving Time as the clocks go back) has come as a bit of a shock to the system. Whilst autumn reflects the end of some things it is also a season of new beginnings (not least the start of the new academic year). Whilst I can reflect ruefully on the need for warmer clothes (gone are the shorts and sandals, back are the socks and boots) there is also a recognition of the diurnal change/shift in chosen and available social activities oriented around and within inside as opposed to outside spaces and places.  This change in dress, behaviour, activity and place is also a reflection on how our individual and social behaviours are still affected but our climate and by the natural rhythms and cycles of seasons.     

This sense of connection to the seasons is something which our ancestors and others around the globe were and still are intimately connected with and many rituals, festivities and cultural activities revolve around or are associated with specific seasons and times of the year. For example, from my part of the world, the Celtic festival of Samhain (the Celtic New Year) celebrated around the 31st October, was associated with fires, rites and rituals, fetes and festivities marking the betwixt and between the living world and the world of ancestors and the dead (now our Halloween). Imbolc came at lambing time, around 31 January and was celebrated as the beginning of the end of winter (now our New Years Eve). Beltain was another fire festival celebrated around 1st May, and whilst Samhain was associated with the onset of winter and retiring indoors from harsh weather Beltain was the celebration of abundant fertility as spring burst forth, a time for feasts and fairs, fun and frolics. Lughnasadh was a summer festival lasting for as long as two weeks either side of the day itself, which fell around 31 July and celebrated the plenty of summer amid preparation for Harvest.

Most of these festivals were not only intimately connected to the season and cycles of nature they were also social and communal celebrations of solidarity and culture. We used to live more closely with and be aware of our connection to and relationship with the turning of the planet and the impacts of the change of seasons. This was all the more true when we were more closely aware of our dependence on the earth and its productive capacity. Now we are at the end of summer this is also a time of celebration and of bounty and the various Harvest Festivals, the Harvest Moon, the autumn equinox are all symbols and recognition of a change of season as well as a reaping of the benefits of summer growth and productivity. It has been a particularly good year for wild fruits, berries and nuts and if you had noticed the squirrels on campus have and are especially active at the moment.

We are perhaps less connected and aware as we become dependent and expectant on the constancy of choice of products provided by supermarkets and other retailers. Most are us as products of modernity live increasingly isolated and individuated lives where we are relatively oblivious, desensitised or view nature as an inconvenience, as when storms, rain, wind, impose and impact on our daily lives and routines. The impact of industrialisation, urbanisation and the enclosure movement forced many people from a rural connection to the land as demographic changes have now resulted in the majority of UK, European and US populations living in towns and cities: a process that is now being repeated in the global south. This has inevitably changed our relationship to and awareness of the natural world and seasonal change.

However, many still do have an awareness and understanding of how our behaviours, social interactions and cultural consciousness is reflected in and shaped by climactic and seasonal events and for us there is a need and desire to keep in touch with the turning of the earth through, literally, a turning of the earth. I speak as a long standing, enthusiastic and active, if not especially skilful, gardener who enjoys getting hands deep in soil and compost, digging over and enriching the soil, planting seeds and watching them grow, nurturing the process until blooms, fruit and vegetables are hopefully the happy outcome (as in these images). 

I am aware and appreciative that I am lucky to have a small garden to grow things in and that for many this may be seen as a luxury or a only a far off dream only available for a middle class home-owning waged class. However, there is a long history of working class engagement with gardening and growing things, whether for the table of for pleasure. This did not end with the demise of traditional rural occupations or because of the threat and demise of much social housing which included in their plans a front and back garden.
The recent publication of a number of books (Willes, 2014; Foley, 2014; Burchardt, 2011) traces and explores the long term commitment to and enjoyment of gardening as a working class leisure practice that provides some alleviation from modern urban existence. This need to connect with the land and with nature is reflected not only in the need for private gardens, urban public parks, country parks and rural recreations but also with spaces and places for cultivating and interacting with older and slower rhythms and tempos different from the 24/7 365 fast pace of our modern life. Despite the threat to allotment provision from land developers and cash strapped councils that results in more or less of a postcode lottery of provision gardening for pleasure and for necessity in cyclical periods of austerity remains popular. As Crouch and Ward (1997) have argued allotment gardening represents a form and expression of social interaction and engagement that creates and embeds social solidarity through a shared experience which can have potentially radical effects (McKay, 2011) beyond the garden fence (Reynolds, 2009). 

But how does this relate to a sociology of culture or a cultural sociologist? Culture, as Raymond Williams famously said (1976, Keywords) is one of the most complex words in the English language. In its earliest usage it meant the tending of crops or animals and is in part the usage I have emphasised above. Culture also means the growing or nurturing of minds and the development of intellectual endeavours. This is akin perhaps to the cultivation of a garden or allotment and perhaps if an intellectual seed is planted it will grow and flourish into a critical and enquiring mind. Culture is also a way of being or of life and gardening can certainly be understood as both a commitment to and orientation to the world as well as a (sub)cultural activity involving practices shared amongst a group exhibiting solidarity and self-help. The final definition of culture described by Williams is as products, things of intellectuals, artists, writers. As cultural producers there is certainly a plethora of products and artefacts associated with gardening and cultivation as well as gardening being a creative activity in itself which produces positive physical, mental and social benefits from the ground up, so to speak.  

My example of gardening whether at home, in windowsill pots, raised beds or on allotments is one which highlights and emphasises how social activities and interactions can be and still are associated with particular seasons and with climate and weather.

A sociology of the seasons or a seasonal sociology would be one which recognises the continuing interlinking of individuals, groups, industries and business, as well as particular behaviours and activities with longer, natural and slower rhythms and cycles and how one can influence the other in a reciprocal way. It would potentially provide an analysis that could consider how and why different a certain nostalgia around outside children and adults recreation and play is married to concerns about supposedly modern, unhealthy, sedentary inside pastimes as well as the decline of community. Such a seasonal sociology could perhaps explore this continuing fascination with inside and outside, home and away, nature/culture dichotomies etc. in our everyday lives.
Foley, C. (2014) Of Cabbages and Kings: The History of Allotments Frances Lincoln, London
Crouch, D.  and Ward, C. (1997) The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham
McKay, G. (2011) Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the GardenFrances Lincoln, London
Reynolds, R. (2009) On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries Bloomsbury Publishing, London
Willes, M. (2014) The Gardens of the British Working Class Yale University Press
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords Fontana, Glasgow

1 comment:

Andy Zieleniec said...

As an amendment or update on the value as well as threat to the 'public gardening' and the custodianship of the earth see:

Landmark legal victory for allotments over redevelopment

Farm Terrace plot-holders in Watford quash decision by Eric Pickles to turn site into housing and car park

Esther Addley
Friday 31 October 2014

The Guardian