A friend of mine has a more polite name for what I do. She calls it “gleaning.” But the simple truth is, I am a scavenger. I scavenge all kinds of things. It’s a habit of mind, of process. I grew up this way. Often, it’s food I’m scavenging, but not always.
Last spring, Dennis and I were returning from town and had to stop at the light. He pointed to the truck ahead of us and said, “Looks like somebody tore down an old fence and is taking the wood to the dump.” I took a good look and got all excited.
“I can use that stuff,” I said. I want to build a retaining wall in the front yard, and when I saw those old cedar posts, I thought they would be perfect. “I wonder if he’d take it to our house instead of the dump.”
Dennis thought I was crazy. But I said it wouldn’t hurt to ask the man. If he gave it to us, he wouldn’t have to pay the dump fees. So we passed him on the hill, then turned into the dump and waited for him. He was an older man, and he looked wary when I motioned him over to the side of the road at the dump entrance, but he rolled his window down. I made my pitch, and he said he was going to use his free dump day to get rid of the wood. “Oh,” I said, utterly crestfallen.
“But if you’ll use it, I’d rather give it to you,” he added. So he followed us home, and he and Dennis unloaded the wood out by the greenhouse. We introduced ourselves, and I offered him gas money for going the extra ten miles out of his way, but he wouldn’t take it. He wanted to look at the greenhouse, so I offered him some of my beautiful romaine that was growing inside. And that’s the story of how I got a load of cedar posts for a bag of lettuce.
When I was a child, my mother and father struggled to make ends meet. It was a challenge to put food on the table for five people (and often we had uninvited guests, who were always made welcome), especially when there was no work for a logger in the rainy season. My father always put in a big garden, and my mother learned to can and freeze the produce because it was a way to make sure there’d be some food in the lean winters. Mama also scavenged fruit from abandoned orchards or backyard trees. She made applesauce, apple butter, and pear butter from fruit that nobody else wanted, and gallons of blackberry jelly. Once, someone gave her a pig’s head, and she made hogshead cheese from it. The thing scared me half to death when I came home and found it sitting on top of the washing machine in the laundry room. I remember being horrified by the very idea of making anything out of a head. Now, it makes me proud that she was so resourceful. As the youngest of ten children, she didn’t grow up learning how to cook or preserve or even to garden. She learned it all after she was married at the “old” age of 31. She learned the arts of scavenging, gardening, and preserving because she had to, because that was how she could provide for her family.
I don’t have to scavenge to put food on the table for my family, but I’m always on the lookout for things that nobody else wants, things I can put to use. I hate waste. I hate to see fruit falling off the trees and rotting on the ground because nobody wants to pick it and deal with it. It frustrates me to hear on the news that millions of people are hungry when I see food all around me that no one is gathering. Why aren’t hungry people out there picking this stuff, like my mama did? Where’s the gumption? I can hear Mama saying. I wonder too.
A few weeks ago, Dennis and I, and our son and his two children, went to the Northern California coast, where I grew up, to fish. While we were there, we picked blackberries, which were just ripening. The grandchildren were delighted to pick all the berries they could reach. Kaedynce (8) put hers in a bag for blackberry pancakes the next day, but Bryce (6), predictably, ate every single one he picked. Growing in the middle of one blackberry patch was an apple tree festooned with big, beautiful, green apples with blushing red cheeks. They looked like Gravensteins to me, my favorite pie apple. I have a Grav at home, but these apples were far ahead of those on my little tree. So in addition to the berries, we took home a couple dozen apples. If I lived there, I’d go back in September and pick as many apples as I could reach. Such flavor!
Two weeks ago, I made the 14 mile trip to town to pick fruit. There’s an apricot tree in a sidewalk square near the old Superior Court building, now occupied by another agency. I stopped by on Saturday and knocked on the door, just to make sure nobody would mind if picked, but I wasn’t really concerned that anyone would. It’s been a good fruit summer in the valley, and all the apricot trees have borne heavily. Apricots are lying on sidewalks all over town, and people are complaining about the mess. I got my ladder out of my car, set it up on the sidewalk, and picked a bag of apricots, but I couldn’t reach the really good ones. So the next week, Dennis and I went back to town, to the old court building and the old jail, where there is also an apricot tree. He set the ladder up, and we picked about 20 pounds of apricots, which I turned into 17 pints of jam.
I also spotted an apricot tree and apple tree, both loaded with fruit, on a strip of mowed grass that fronts the river. There are no houses or fencing along that piece, but it was obvious that someone was taking care of the land. I stopped at the neighboring house, introduced myself, and asked the resident, an older gentleman, if he knew who owned that strip of land. He gave me the owner’s name but said he didn’t know if the owner would mind if I picked fruit from his apricot tree. “But I have some plums,” the man said, “if you’d like to pick them. I hate to see them go to waste.”
He led me to the tree in his side yard. We chatted while I picked, and I learned that his name was Bob, and he had been the vice-principal at the high school, but had retired before my children attended there. He and his wife had planted the plum tree many years ago, a 30 ft. tall Santa Rosa plum that hung heavy with fruit. It was a hot day, and my shirt was damp with sweat when I finished.
I picked a bag of plums, thanked Bob, and said I would bring him back a jar of jam. He quite clearly wasn’t sure I really would, so it was fun to surprise him the following week with jam from his plums as well as blackberry jelly from my garden. He allowed me to pick more plums, and two days later, I was back with a jar of Chinese plum sauce as thanks for his generosity.
I’m always scavenging something, or gleaning, if you prefer. My gains are more than material. I make connections with like-minded people who aren’t happy with the culture of the disposable that permeates our technology-driven society. Often these are people a generation older than myself, folks who remember hard times and what had to be done to get through them. They hold a wisdom we’d do well to ponder and emulate.
This winter, when we’re eating plum and apricot jam on homemade bread and looking out at the new retaining wall, I’ll tell my grandkids these stories and hope that they absorb the lesson. Scavengers, hold your heads high. Some sweetness is only born of sweat.