in practice the researcher follows hunches. things happen. things change. the unplanned character of ethnography is precisely its value.

judith oakley (2012: 48)

when a project is just getting started, we assemble concepts and conversations into a toybox. we lean into discomfort and uncertainty, and to borrow a phrase from donna haraway, we learn how to stay with the trouble. this includes troubling histories of native dispossession and racial exclusion, contemporary modes of displacement and social control, and the very role of the university and the researcher within this local social milieu.

a front-loaded research strategy that knows where it is going before it gets there…is hard to reconcile with…an ambulant spirit of uncertainty, confusion, speculation, curiosity, serendipity, happenstance or simply disorientation.

les roberts (2018: xii)


this project is under (re)construction.

anthropologist setha low, in her 2016 book spatializing culture: the ethnography of space and place, defines the social construction of space as “the transformations and contestations that occur through peoples’ social interactions, memories, feelings, imaginings and daily use—or lack thereof—that are made into places, scenes and actions that convey particular meanings” (68). “if we want to relearn how to care about each other, we will also have to relearn how to care about place,” argues jenny odell (2019: 180).

this project is also in (re)production.

additionally, low defines the social production of space as having four primary elements: “1) social history and development of the built environment; 2) political economy of space; 3) social production, reproduction, and resistance; 4) social control and spatial governmentality” (36).

fertile ground brings theories of social construction and social production together to examine the individual and community-based practices of meaning-making that inhere in rochester’s urban landscape within the context of its materiality, history, and political economy. to get at the social construction and social production of space in a place like rochester, we might engage in spatial anthropology or spatial ethnography. in spatial anthropology: excursions in liminal space, les roberts describes spatial anthropology as “the placing of oneself, critically and reflexively, within the space of contemporary landscapes (urban or otherwise), replete with the meanings and memories that are the accumulation of human activities” (2018: 4). we are here. we dwell here. here we are. “nothing is so simultaneously familiar and alien as that which has been present all along,” writes jenny odell (2019: 125). she continues, “snaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away–all just on the other side of the chain-link fence” (126).

two watering cans and two planters sit on a pad of concrete, viewed through a chain-link fence

what is it that we do, then? in these early stages, we stay curious and we go visiting.

visiting is not an easy practice; it demands the ability to find others actively interesting, even or especially others most people already claim to know all too completely, to ask questions that one’s interlocutors truly find interesting, to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity, to retune one’s ability to sense and respond…to go visiting, to venture off the beaten path to meet unexpected, non-natal kin, and to strike up conversations, to pose and respond to interesting questions, to propose together something unanticipated, to take up the unasked-for obligations to having met.

donna haraway (2016: 127-30)

odell insists, “if we are able to leave room for the encounters that will change us in ways we can’t yet see, we can also acknowledge that we are each a confluence of forces that exceed our own understanding” (137). the first stage is going visiting, sharing and collecting forces. in the coming months and years, fertile ground will also entail additional modes of engagement and data collection including archival research, participant observation, interviewing, community mapping, and photoethnography. these methods are ways of thinking and existing as much as ways of doing.