introducing fallow time: dispatches from a field suspended
fallow period, n. a period in which a fieldworker does no fieldwork
this is an anxious time.
this is a scary time.
this is a time of disruption and exposure and grief.
the field has ruptured.
i didn’t really imagine i would be writing in any kind of serious way about this research project online yet, but with the in-person components of my fieldwork indefinitely suspended due to COVID-19, i am at once slowed down and thrust into modes of analysis and writing that at times feel premature. however, since i have been trying to work in the spirit of sharing and creating out of provisional and “unabashedly unfinished” (jackson 2013: 19) work, i’ve decided to carve out a little plot here for process and processing. i’m going to cultivate some starts, soft shoots of short-form writing, photoessay, and artistic intervention.
these modes of creation have various ends, one of which is to render visible forms of labor that have been canceled, postponed, or would otherwise have gone unremarked upon. another is to render the fruits of ongoing work accessible more quickly than i could via my ‘normal’ channels of academic writing (books and articles), some of which have been slowed or paused, because “to continue as usual right now would be untenable and unethical.”
i have been reading and re-reading an op-ed from the new york times by bonnie tsui from june 21, 2019. it’s called “you are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything,” and it is about fallow time. in agriculture, fallow ground is land that is plowed but left unseeded during the growing season. this happens when a field has been removed from crop rotation. “fallow time,” tsui argues, “is necessary to grow everything from actual crops to figurative ones, like books and children. to do the work, we need to rest, to read, to reconnect. it is the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.”
when the virus bloomed and social isolation became the norm where i am and where i work, in my fieldsite, the researcher in me whispered “there is data here–go get it,” and i resisted. i am not interested in disaster ethnography. i will not pivot my whole project as a way to think about the spatial politics of pandemic. the questions i was interested in before the world changed are still interesting questions and they will remain so in the aftermath of the current disaster, which promises to be brutal and longlasting.* in the same ways that i am always trying to resist anthropology’s siren song of extraction, i am unwilling to be opportunistic in this moment. the reality is that i am here, on research leave but with research funds frozen “until further notice” and all in-person contact halted, with only one phd student and no undergraduates, no courses to move online, no children to homeschool–though i do have aging parents to check in on from thousands of miles away and relationships to maintain and a cat to care for–and so while many others have descended head-long into mission time, much of my existing work has dissolved into a receding horizon. but, in the moments when clouds of anxiety and despair have parted, this has opened up time to think. as tsui argues, “not everyone, of course, can leave the assembly line at will,” and i am immensely grateful for those currently weathering this unimaginable storm on the front lines. they are world-savers.
things happen when one slows down. last week my therapist asked me rhetorically “what grows in the quiet?” i’m curious about this too. fallow time is both a kind of rest and a kind of play. “i’m talking about an active refueling that can seem at odds with our fetishization of productivity,” tsui contends. writing in this space in this way allows me to play around with genre, form, subs(is)tance, visuals, methods, and process in new ways, within an arena in which i create the rules (and, importantly, set the schedule). “fallow time is part of the work cycle, not outside of it,” says tsui. it is a cultivation of “the white space for complex thinking and writing.” it is also a time to breathe, especially when that most basic of life-sustaining functions is threatened.
welcome to the fallow time of fertile ground. this is a multi-modal invitation for thinking, feeling, dreaming, grieving, existing, resting, and experimenting. it is an effort to collapse some social distance in a time of immense precarity.
please, take gentle care,
* i am under no illusions that the project will be the same going forward. as deborah lupton recently argued, “we’re all COVID researchers now.”