Oyster diggers in Central London – Examples of nature use by low income households and their contribution to the households living
When travelling home from the last RESCuE workshop in Lisbon, I was still impressed by the diversity of the first findings all the colleagues had been reporting on socioeconomic practices of vulnerable households, which – in some cases – might contribute to developing resilience. One difference was striking me in particular, and it was about making use of land and nature. From Poland, Finland and Germany, there had been reports of gardening and breeding small animals, fruit and mushroom picking, collecting firewood in the forests, fishing, even herding. From Spain, Greece and Portugal, there was even some first evidence of families turning back to small agriculture. This was accompanied by considerations on the various functions performed by those practices: Improving family nourishment beyond the level feasible on the monetary income the families actually have, enable for savings on food expenditure, gaining goods which can be shared within our outside the family, or be fed into gift exchange, even sometimes might be sold for money. Moreover, those activities can be seen to give structure and sense to daily life. On the other hand, other colleagues reported that there were not much of such activities of vulnerable families in their countries, be it in rural or urban settings. There were several arguments for this: Being visibly engaged in collecting wood or picking berries, people would possibly fear stigmatization, as if they were so poor being forced to foraging. And gardening would be rejected as a middle class activity. Moreover, according to the privatization of public land in the 18th century, much commented by writers like Karl Marx and E.P. Thompson, there is not much public land to be used, and private land is often fenced in to prevent intruders and mark privacy. Keeping hens for eggs or poultry meat might be more expensive than to buy them in a supermarket, but the economic balance might shift if taken into account that poor people might have a lot of time on disposition. All in all, those activities could also more be seen or self-described as a hobby, which could contribute to resilience as a sense giving activity, but should not be seen as a useful economic practice. When we would observe men standing at coastal rocks fishing with a rod, others sitting aside a canal and fishing, this could be either hobby fishermen or polish workers more accustomed or less ashamed to those practices.
Of course, there is some fishery and gardening that are clearly hobbies: Fly fishing on salmons in the Scottish highlands, speedboat based offshore fishing on tunas, marlins and sharks, or setting up price winning gardens aside upper class cottages and manors. But, as might be crucial for non-industrial labour, there are practices that are more seen as a way of life than as a purposeful activity for income, and at any times not as labour understood as physical strain. You simply do it, because your fathers or mothers did it, or because it is expected that you do so – or you just came across it in your life and started to love it. But, without having to be labeled as labour, it might produce savings, living quality, and even income, thus exceeding just to be a senseful activity. We just might tend to underestimate it, as it is different to the role expectations of a modern working society, such as getting money for outbound work on somebody elses premises, or if not, produce goods for the market, or be dependent on transfer income.
My father and grandfather used to be in small creek rod fishing, and, although never spending too much time in it, were always bringing home more that our family could or wanted to use, which then then gave a basis for sharing with neighbours – or some gift exchange for sour crout, potatoes or some occasional transportation service. Years later I was at a conference in south of Ireland, arriving one day earlier and taking a walk, when I came to a shore bridge, where some elder men were rod fishing. Not wanting to intrude – silence is a key issue in rod fishing – I watched them from some distance, and talked to one of them when he finished and passed by. Looking at his catch, I saw two buckets, each crowded with about seven or eight fishes about the length of an underarm. He said he was a retired factory worker, coming here at least twice a week, saying this is his hobby, watching the waves, tides, birds and weather, not getting upon his wife’s nerves, smoking. Asked about what he’d be doing with all the fish, he said, cooking or frying some of them at home, giving some to the young neighbor guy picking him up with his car when driving home from work, and bringing the rest to a bar and restaurant in his hometown for some money and for covering his (of course very moderate, he added laughingly) drinking bill. I did not ask him for his income, his clothes were not easy to judge but cheap, and his fishing rod was more looking like the ones my grandpa made himself than those of the glitzy fishery shops for American tourists in the area. I wasn’t sure if he was actually poor, but he surely wasn’t rich.
Traveling through the Soviet Union and through Russia and Ukrainia, in the 1980s supermarkets used to have at least half empty shelfs and for sure a lack of fresh vegetables, full shelfs but unaffordably high prices in the 1990s and later, but in all times you might always find some street vendors with a handful of tomatoes, grenade apples, mushrooms or self made pirogi for little money. Asking friends and colleagues, they introduced me into the so-called datcha economy: In the Brechnev era, short before the dusk of the Soviet empire, the informal sector had been producing at least 40%, some say even 60% of vegetables and other, mostly fresh and unprocessed foodstuffs of the country, mainly through the datcha system: A datcha usually is a tiny little wooden log house surrounded by a garden of 250 to, say, 800 square meters at the fringes of a town or in a small village, often run by a family’s grandma (babushka) or pensioners, sometimes inhabited by the whole family through the summer months, where every patch of soil is covered by potatoe plants, cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, st johns berries, strawberries and any imaginable kind of foodplants, cruised by hens, ducks, sometimes even a pig or a cow, with an outside kitchen, a well, a small yard, and some shacks. Even in 2006 Ukrainia, this system was fully working. I remember being invited by a family of six, consisting of a man around 40 working as a long distance truck driver for less than 150 € a month, but unemployed several months per year, his wife, working in public administration of a nearby small town for less than 100 € pm, mother in law with a 80 € pension, and three children at school age, one of them a boy about 16 years old, working a few days per months as a helping hand on informal construction sites. Almost all they ate throughout the year came from their own 800 sqm garden, including wine, preserved vegetables, fresh cheese, eggs, melons, just except sausages made by a nearby factory, seed oil, and industrially produced grey bread, which is cheap, available everywhere and of a good quality. This family was clearly vulnerable, poor housing (three small bedrooms for six), poorly paid and unsteady jobs if at all, poor to most of the current definitions (a fate they share with about 60% of the Ukrainian population) but at a rather good nourishment stage, having full activities, stable family life and social integration (of which their hospitality is a good indicator, if not that a handful of other neighbours just dropped in when they saw there were visitors) and did not have to spend much more than just time and work on what was on their table.
Thus, as western European consumerists we might tend to underestimate to which extent activities like gardening, small agriculture or foraging can indeed economically contribute to a family’s living, beyond giving them senseful activities in their daily lives. Of course, the resources involved have a lot to do with making purposeful use of land or nature, and knowing what to do. Both cannot be assumed for every poor, it might seem at least that these are facilities of a rural population with access to natural resources. Or?
Letting again my impressions from Lisbon pass through my mind when traveling home, I remember small trips with a local overground trains, sometimes passing by small patches of land squeezed in between or even enclosed by railroad tracks and high walls, densely planted with pumpkins, red and green peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and salad, sometimes cared by eldery men or women in shabby clothes, carrying water cans or other items. But it does not have to be official or informal gardening, which we know has been a crucial support of living for early 20th century working classes, like the plot gardeners or garden city movement are good examples for.
It was in spring 2014 when I visited London – or was it autumn 2013? When I crossed the river Thames at Tower Bridge, there was low tide, about 1.5 m or more below regular level (which could be estimated by seaweed growth on the embankment walls). The bank reinforcements were now footed by previously unseen sandbanks, on which seagulls and other birds sat, using the low tide for their own purposes. Looking from the north embankment to the south, I suddenly recognized a man walking just above one sandbank’s waterline. Aged well above 60, dark brown cord trousers, cheap green PVC boots up to the knees, a light brown worn out cotton hiker’s jacket hanging from the shoulders, open, with a red and green sweater, and a tweed flat cap on his head, in his hands a small shovel, a stick, looking like a tree branch of about 2 cm diameter with a cut fork at one end, and a pale green plastic bucket with holes in the bottom to let water rinse through. He paced along, stood still, drilled the stick into the ground, dug a bit with his shovel, and then threw a small lump of sand and something else into his bucket, which he then dived into the water and pulled out again. He repeated this procedure every few foot until he came to the end of the sandbank, turned round the bend and disappeared from my sight. Not to lose too much words about it, his look and behavior was exactly like that of the shellfish gatherers in northern Spain, País Vasco, Asturias, or Galicia who are searching the sandy firths of Spain’s northern coast at low tides – except the rubber boots, a preference for blue or other colours than brown, and the bucket, as the man’s Spanish colleagues would do this barefoot and with a bucket shape basket made from wire. Unfortunately I could not take a closer look at his prey, but the London authorities name the same classes of shellfish to populate the Thames estuary between West London and the North Sea: Oysters, Mussels, crabs of various kinds – which the London Authorities have warned not to eat due to environmental pollution. But there are not only techniques to get them, which is not so easy, as you have to read the life signs from the animals hidden in the sandy ground – little bubbles or movements, but also techniques to clean them through rinsing and keeping them in clean salt water for hours or days. No matter how effective and healthy this actually is, but our shellfish gatherer seems at least to have reached a reasonable age. Not sure if or how poor he actually is, but his physical and habitual appearance is very different, looking very different from any other images of London city dwellers, including working class, poor or homeless.
Those observations raise a lot of analytical issues, which surely have to be discussed more extensively, but the first impression is that there is some hidden richness in socioeconomic practices which might be called residual in the terms of Raymond Williams, but seem to be reemerging in times of hardship – or just become more visible when we simply look closer. Using natural resources does to support not seem to be limited to the countryside alone, it may come along as a cultural practice – hobby, tradition – with positive economic side effects, and it is surprisingly diverse, as natural conditions and resources are. When we look for resources which households with low income or in hardship might practically draw upon, successful combinations of nature use and knowledge might be quite relevant examples.
Markus Promberger, December 22, 2014