On sheds and snowflakes

Snowflake Study. By Smithsonian Institution, Flickr Commons.

Snowflake Study. By Smithsonian Institution, Flickr Commons.

Today, and probably for one day only, the shed at our community allotment is officially tidy. We spent two hours untangling the heaps of string and fleece and nets and pegs, sweeping the murky corners and surveying the spots least likely to let the rain in, before filing everything away in our new containers. Should the trowels go in the top drawer, where they’re easiest to get at, or in the bottom drawer, where they’re less likely to topple the whole thing over? Should we keep the woodworking tools separate from the gardening tools? What’s this thing for anyway? File under ‘miscellaneous’…

It was looking like another of those days when we had chosen “the wrong weather” for the allotment. We had to fight our way in because the padlock on the gate was frozen solid. The pipes must have suffered a similar fate, as we had no running water and subsequently (and far more seriously) no tea. There was a blanket of frost over our little empire, crunching beneath our feet on the pathways between our veg beds and adding yet more frills to the curly kale. Our strawberry pots had grown furry rims of ice crystals and our battered vinehouse had clothed itself in secrecy. The lingering fog added a final ethereal note to our surroundings. But, in any weather, our allotment is food for thought.

“Oh for a thousand hands, a thousand cameras to preserve more of this exquisite beauty, so lavishly scattered over the earth.” [Wilson A. Bentley]

On 15th January 1885, Wilson Bentley took the first ever photograph of a snow crystal. His father and brother thought that his time would be better spent working on the family farm, doing what was expected of him, but snowflakes were Wilson’s obsession. He was captivated by the infinite variety of snow crystals, each one shaped by the unique journey it takes as it falls to earth. He was determined to capture and celebrate these fleeting moments, and he eventually managed to create a method of photographing them. He went on to take more than 5,000 photographs of snow crystals, creating a unique scientific resource in the process. He said that 15th January 1885 was the best day of his life, because that’s the day he knew it was possible.

It’s in our nature to try and make sense of things, often by cataloguing or classifying. In local authorities, we seem to spend much of our time putting things in boxes – putting like with like, changing the labels, shuffling things into an ever decreasing number of compartments. The task of re-organising is much easier if everything is exactly the same, or if you have duplicates of just a small number of variations. That way, you know how many things you have room for. You know what tools you have, and how many. You know, for example, how many staff you can fit in your re-structured service.

In this way, you can easily arrive at a concise inventory of generic things, and lose everything unique in the process. Because where do you put the things that you don’t understand? Where do you keep your miscellany?

In a meeting a few nights ago, someone said to me: “I don’t know how you do it. You get so much done. You must really compartmentalize everything in your head.” It bothered me at the time – and it still does – because I don’t think that we achieve things through compartmentalization, through keeping things apart. I’m happy to put my trowels in a drawer (even in a drawer that’s different from the one I suggested), but I’m not so happy to be filed away in the same manner. And I wouldn’t expect other people to be either. I believe that we get things done by making connections, and by recognising that we aren’t all the same.

people+connections+relationships+(all sorts of technology) = neighbourhood empowerment

[Huddersfield Social Equation v2, best devised and understood
after 2 pints of Black Goose mild or 2 gin and tonics]

Being a Timebanking member has helped me to understand how much we can achieve by valuing what each person has to offer. In Newsome, we are building new and stronger relationships by encouraging people to ask for (and to offer) help. It takes time, and trust. Eventually you see that by admitting you can’t do something on your own, you are creating an opportunity for someone else to help. The someone else might be one of the people in your neighbourhood who are most at risk from isolation, who by getting involved in Timebanking can also become involved in community life. It creates confidence and possibilities in a way that traditional service delivery structures never could.

I know that there is no such thing as a generic member of staff, and no such thing as a generic ‘customer’. We are people – not roles. We bring the sum of our histories with us, and each part of our lives informs all other parts. So how much more could we achieve, given the opportunity to use all of our skills and experiences in our work, and not just the bits in the pre-defined box? How useful could we be to each other, given the chance?

Being part of a community allotment has not only helped me to grow my own food – it’s helped me to think. It’s helped me to run neighbourhood media workshops and to develop shared online spaces that council officers, voluntary organisations and residents can contribute to. I’ve seen the strength of starting with what people are interested in and working together to find out how we can help each other to make something happen. I’ve tried to apply those same principles in all my work. It has been an organic process, in more ways than one. A process that couldn’t easily be shoved in a box.

“What shape is a snowflake?

Snowflake-shaped.”

[Ian Stewart, “What Shape is a Snowflake?”]

By working with individuals, on a very local level, you get to hear and understand people’s unique stories and experiences (sometimes whilst sitting in a leaky shed). It’s only by listening carefully and continuously that you might begin to see patterns, start to work out different ways of doing things. You might get a sense of the underlying conditions that are necessary to connect people, even if you can’t predict exactly where things will lead. You can’t make people fit into a template, any more than you can tell a snowflake what shape it should be.

127 years ago today, Wilson Bentley held his breath, careful not to melt the snow crystal resting on his microscope slide before he completed the exposure. No two snow crystals are alike. And every snowflake that fell before 1885 will never be seen again.

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4 Responses to On sheds and snowflakes

  1. Phil Jewitt says:

    A fascinating and inspiring piece of writing. Restructures happen. They bruise and knives sometimes get put into the fork draw. But the meal can still be eaten. As an outsider looking in on your last two posts, wherever you end up I think you will find your thing. It is clear you do, and will continue to make your difference.

  2. Beautiful writing. I am also fascinated to read a bit more about your work.
    If only we had more of such community-building in more places.
    I always look with great curiosity at any allotments I happen to pass. I have always had the impression that they are places where people are part of a community but can also express their individuality in what they grow – and in how they make, decorate and keep their sheds! I’ve often thought it would be fascinating to record allotments and allotment people in photographs, drawings and paintings.
    Tea is a great drink. If I lived nearby, I’d bring some cake to go with the tea – and, just for you, I might draw some atoms in icing on it 🙂

  3. Pingback: On sheds and snowflakes | 72 Prufrocks | weeklyblogclub

  4. Pingback: From life to writing via snowflakes and ice | weeklyblogclub

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