By Thomas Mcintyre
Once upon a time…Do you, my dear reader, believe it is possible to live in a fairytale? This may seem like a strange question on a rural sociology blog, and indeed it is. It is not a question I thought seriously about before, though I confess I have been predisposed to curling up on a chair in front of the fire and entering the world of fairytales through a book or through my imagination… but to live in one! This seems rather preposterous, and you would be forgiven for wondering what this has to do with serious anthropological research. But like any good research, setting out into the unknown has raised some strange questions I have had to stew on. If you answer a tentative yes to the opening question, as I am now inclined to do, then would you entertain the thought of writing a fairytale thesis? After all, if the reality you are studying is a fairytale, then would it not only be appropriate that the written representation of this reality should also be a fairytale? Now, I suppose you would like me to explain what I mean by living a fairytale and writing a fairytale thesis, especially its academic justification and application. But first things first: my arrival to Romashki.
If you have read part 1 of this instalment, you will remember that I boarded a train in the Netherlands with a final destination of a village called Romashki in Ukraine. I was to live and study the lives of a very special family who had forsaken an established life in the city for the dream of creating their own alternative home in the countryside. The adventures of this journey to Ukraine are for another time, but importantly for this story, I arrived in Romashki in one piece. Despite a final harrowing drive, with a speed crazy Ukrainian called Max, and with a rather severe hangover from the Ukrainian cognac the night before, I could not but feel happy at the calmness and serenity of the rural setting we arrived to; away from the polluted concrete jungle of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and my old life. Taking a deep breath, and slowly exhaling, I thought to myself: ‘I have again entered the world of Romashki. This time I am no mere tourist. This time it will be my home’. The birds welcomed me with their song, the sun smiled on me sweetly, and by Jove: I realised I was where I wanted to be! I walked the familiar path down to the mud and straw (cob) house of the people I was to intertwine my life story with for almost four months – Pietro, Olga, and their daughter Ulyana – and, turning into their property, I saw them, they saw me, and the smiles on their faces assured me that I was safe, at home, and ready to live the dream of a life less ordinary.
Lovers in the sky
There are many impressions and experiences I now want to share with you, but, alas, there is not space for all. I will thus quite simply (not easy for an anthropologist) tell of how I was introduced to the ‘fairytale’ in Romashki. This event happened soon after I arrived, and was to colour the remainder of my stay. Barefoot and bare chested, Pietro with his 6 year beard and your narrator with his 6 week stubble walked up the tree lined path to the main road by the bus stop, a 15 minute walk. Surrounded by large fields as far as your eyes can see, this is another world than the little hidden village of Romashki with its little plots of land, its pockets of forest, and its canvass of colors. Here, like in the cornfields of Iowa, big combines come and harvest these fields of wheat, the only plant which is allowed to grow. With its sharp cutting blades turning in controlled anger, the screaming mechanical beast of the combine, with its stinking breathe of smoke, rapes the homogenous life beneath it. What is left behind is a monotonous landscape devoid of nutrients and life, with only a few patches of straw left over which the beast had failed to notice. But when we arrived this late afternoon, the beasts had gone, and all was quiet. There was a light drizzle, but warm as Pietro and I came to collect this left-over straw to use as a building material for the house, and as something ‘soft’ to sleep on. We each filled a large bag, and balancing them on our heads, began to walk back home; somewhat alike to an image I have of African woman carrying jars of water on their heads. The drizzle ended, and steam came up from the road. For some reason I felt the desire to stop and turn around. Looking back down the road we had taken, along the horizon, I saw one of the most extraordinary sights of my life: Two complete rainbows! I could not believe my eyes and could not speak a word. I just stared and stared in wonder and amazement. Like two beautiful and vibrant lovers spooning in heavens above, the sight evoked a profound sense of natural harmony and love in my heart. The two rainbows were one. Petro came up and stood silently beside me. Nothing was said for a while. Then he looked at me, smiling, and with a note of contentment said: “we live in a fairytale”. We put the bundles back on our heads and continued walking across the hills back to our little cob house in our little village by the little lake.
Lying on my bed of straw that night I thought about the rainbows and about what Pietro meant when he said: “we live in a fairytale”. Romashki was most definitely a fairytale place, and the simple life of walking barefoot into the fields to collect straw by hand, and then carrying it on our heads, to then stand around a table outside and eat a dinner made from vegetables from the garden was a very romantic image of the countryside which could easily come out of a fairytale. I also felt like I was doing the whole fairytale ethnography thing: I was in a distant land, in a semi isolated village, in a small community who spoke a foreign language, doing full deep participant research into people who I thought were very different from me. There were no evil witches carrying poisonous red apples, or dwarfs or talking rabbits, but instead there were old women wearing head scarves, offering me tasty grapes from the vines in their garden, and a world of impressions and wonders beyond the ordinary. With these thoughts in mind, I looked out over the semi open walls of the hay barn which was my abode, and catching a last look at the star spangled sky, fall asleep with the moonlight on my face.
Justification for a fairytale thesis: Methodology and theoretical framework
My idea had always been to approach my research from a narrative perspective. By this I meant that the lens through which I intended to view the world was to be that of a narrator looking for the stories which we construct about the world around us to give it meaning. To accomplish this, my kaleidoscope which was my lens had two settings which I tried to employ. The first setting is called in academic jargon the Actor Orientated Approach (AOA), which as the name implies advocates focusing research on the actors involved – the way people create and restrain their own possibilities in life (agency) – rather than an approach which focuses on how external factors such as institutions and political economy restrain this agency. I employed aspects of the AOA because I wanted to explore the unique reality of the alternative life my subjects were living: what this possibility for a life was, how they constructed it, and how it was being expressed in day to day life. When Pietro said they lived in a fairytale, I had to take this possibility seriously. As I spent more time with the Raevskis they mentioned the fairytale again and again, from different angles, and as I sank deeper into their world, I began to look at their lives more as a fairytale. I was careful to come up for air to remain critical to what I was experiencing, but I realised that to take the actors seriously as advocated in the AOA, I would have to enter into this fairytale reality.
The second setting on my kaleidoscope is called the Actor Network Theory (ANT). ANT is not so much a theory as a method for looking at the world around us as being made up of interrelated actants (human and non-human actors) which are defined, and only have meaning, in relationship to each other. The classical example is that of a gun: the gun has no meaning without a bullet, or a person to pull the trigger, or something to aim at. Everything is connected, and any one element only has meaning in relation to another element. In terms of my research this approach is important because it breaks down the artificial divide between nature and people. In the reality I believed I was part of, this divide did not exist. Not just the people were important, but also the plants and animals around them; the sun, moon and stars above them; and the invisible energy inside and around all living life. Plants and people and animals speak the same language, and their roles (meaning) are defined by their relationship to each other. To represent this I give voice to plants and animals in my story, just like in a fairytale. There is a talking sunflower, a cheeky squirrel, and a water fairy: all have their role to play in my story. Everything is connected and special. Everything is one.
Academic you say?
I now take it you have a little to chew over. You are probably still wondering what it means to live a fairytale life, and may still be highly critical to whether this is possible or not. You may also wonder about whether this is even academic! The first two questions I will tackle further in part three of this series in which will outline my research questions and how I am answering them in the thesis I am currently writing. But the third question deserves consideration now: ‘is this academic?’ My reply: Yes! In this story I am attempting to tap into the wonder and beauty of an alternative world being lived by a family in a village called Romashki. This is a world of feelings and emotions, irrational at times, and impossible to grasp in concrete words. In trying as truthfully as possible to (re)present the reality I experienced, I believe it cannot be captured in any other textual way than through the allegory, metaphors and poetry of the narrative. It just so happens that the reality I entered was perceived as a fairytale by the people I studied, and thus it did not seem a far stretch of the imagination to then employ the fairytale as the window for you, the all important audience, into this world. I would be most pleased if you could leave a comment about this fairytale so I can further reflect on the world I am writing about.
To be continued…