When I landed my first actual professional job after grad school, it was not a berth for a practicing ( applied) anthropologist. I had to bend, twist, spindle, and mutilate it into one.
It was a library job. The city had applied for and received a large grant to create multicultural collections as a separate unique library. They were required to have a significant program component, and that was where I came in. I was about to live in exciting times; there would be no leisurely repose.
A friend always said, “When you don’t know where you are going, you really shouldn’t complain about where you wind up.” Concerning my new job and boss, it was true. Later I found out that my boss thought that I was a hopeless academic and would flounder around for six months. Then he’d fire me. To the people of the community, I was just a fresh librarian. Both were very wrong.
I had had some canny professors at Boston University and in grad school. They may have known that I was not meant for the Acadamy because they filled my head with ideas about “practice” – what could be done and developed using anthropology as a springboard.
Groundtruth. A fundamental of any field experience is to get to know your subject intimately, in my case, a community. I learned about the community and its history from the residents and learned what tied them together and divided them. It was glorious and everything I’d studied for.
After a while, I found a thread that I could pull on. I was standing on Julia Gelowtsky’s second-floor porch when I saw it. She was pointing out her garden, very Polish, and the surrounding gardens of her neighbors – all of different ethnic traditions. Julia described how the garden products differed, but how the neighbors shared. I had found something that differentiated groups in the community and bound them together: their gardens, culinary and horticultural traditions.
I planned a harvest festival for the entire community, celebrating the unique and the common. Two hundred people came. The evening was a blur of activity – eating, music, and laughter.
I was in that community for about seven and a half years. My boss never gave up on the hope that he’d find a way to fire me, and the community never stopped providing new ways to surprise me. In 1988 the Hidden Countryside – what we called our gardening project – was featured on the National Mall as a part of the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife.