Growing Right combines two sister modes of documentation that are deeply similar, but don’t always come together.
Our fieldwork combines techniques in ethnography culled from cultural anthropology and, especially, public-sector folklife documentation, with oral history interviewing styles, concerns and ethics.
Ethnographic fieldwork is usually deeply descriptive in nature, and involves a wide variety of attentions to both cultural “texts,” “performers,” and their environments and contexts. Public folklorists, in particular, pay attention to expressive culture. The Growing Right Project would fall under the broad arc of occupational folklife studies — pioneered, in part, by leading American folklorists of the labor movement, like Archie Green. Ethnographers often have their audio recorders rolling; but they’re often as concerned about process, context, and event as they are about the “narrative” of the interview itself. Our walking/driving and process interviews are deeply inflected by ethnographic methodology, and the concerns and committments of community-based folklife and occupational folklife work, in particular.
Oral History, on the other hand, is often conducted in a studio setting, and centers itself on a narrator and her spoken narrative. The usual mode of an oral history interview is a life history; but oral histories can also focus on a narrator’s life as it intersects with a particular topic, movement, theme, or event. Interviewing a teacher about her lifelong involvement in the Civil Rights Movement might produce a very different interview that interviewing that same teacher about changes in science education since the 1950’s. (But also: maybe not!) Oral historians tend to want to control the environments and contexts of our interview to get as “clean” a sound recording as possible; like folklorists (but not necessarily like ethnographers and anthropologists), oral historians think of the archive as an endpoint — or at least as a stop along the way to public presentation and interpretation, and/or (as we do) application in various media forms and exhibition contexts.
Here at Growing Right, we do both. We believe, pretty ardently, that the mandate of environmental humanities and life in the Anthropocene demands a more ecological look not only at the “green” stuff of life, but at our humanities practices themselves. We ask — what might it look like to infuse a more “ecological,” contexts-inflected perspective into oral history praxis? We’re excited to apply folklife documentation’s historic concern with performance, context, setting, environment and surround to our practice, because — not just for, but especially for histories of the food and farm movement — “ecology,” place and environment matter. So we’re experimenting to see: how can our sit-down oral history interviews themselves engage with and document context, place, the here & now? How can additional ethnographic documentation — walking and driving interviews, process interviews — register and help share out something of the complex ecologies in which ecological farmers strive to consciously live and work? … even if it makes our recordings a little noiser, a little more wrought with cicadas, just a bit less pristine?