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04 May, 2009

Modern Gathering: Part One

I have this fuzzy recollection of an anthro class in which we learned that !Kung people of the Kalahari maintained a phenomenal memory of where resources were. One example was that a family might know where a water-rich root grew, and keep that knowledge for years until it became necessary. The implication was that we middle class American kids ought not to feel so superior, and should recognize that 'primitive' cultures had knowledge that was every bit as useful and sophisitricated in their domain as was our knowledge of algebra. That mastery of solar navigation and the atlatl was every bit as important as being able to command technological marvels like the electronic typewryter.

Meanwhile, I was answering the questions that would hone the skills of the modern gatherer. When and where did the free-food-heavy happy hours ripen? Where could you pee or get bus change with no cost? Which yards held the untended fruit trees?

Years have passed in which I've gathered food and furniture, trash and treasure, and learned the lessons I needed to avail myself of the free fruits of modern life. Learn the neighborhood and its resources, be they apple trees or rich-to-the-point-of-foolishness households that toss good goods. Identify the Overflow, the perfectly good stuff stripped of value by our society, and free for the taking. Find the "commons," the between spaces and untended grounds that yield wild foods and firewood. Cruise at twilight before Large Trash Pick-up Day (just snagged a fine charcoal grill that way--there were so many that this Beggar could be a Chooser).

We may be facing hard times, and I'm sure there are more competitors out there than there used to be, but gathering has only gotten easier over time, and even the dire downturn of 2008 hurt trustafarians far more than foragers in this country. Freecycle and craigslist allow me to forage virtually before dropping a dime on gas. Municipalities seeking to sort waste and minimize landfill volume mean that most dumps have a place where you can shop for free stuff (like some dressers we've owned, or our shop-vac) or loads of compost and mulch. The steady march of Consumerism has so deadened the minds of Gen X and beyond that they are blind to the resources before them, while mine eyes have seen keener each season the glory of the overflow.

And if you were to consider as occupying some grey ground between gathering and market rate the judicious spending of coin at yard and estate sales, thrift stores, and luckless or witless ebay and craigslist sellers, then the resource catchment for the modern forager is so much the wider. For that matter, turning the gathered good into cash only makes sense. [Esoterica discarded by a former employer continues to re-fill my ebay account now and then, and more than one foraged furniture find (refurbished) has cycled back to the population via virtual and meat-space sales.]

Having the right awareness--the eye for hidden treasure and the shamelessness to pick it up--is crucial, but having the proper tools for the job helps as well. My fleet includes a Jetta (capable of carrying far larger things than you would expect, like good-sized banana trees, or box after box after box of books) and an F150 pick-up (for anything larger). Hand pruners, trowel, and shovel, friends of any archaeologist, also prove useful in liberating plants from soil about to be bulldozed or otherwise insulted.

The gatherer must also be prepared with the right receptacle: paper bags (mushrooms), plastic bags from little zip-locks (seeds) to big tough garbage bags (shrubs and sundry stuff), milk crates (even sundryer stuff), and of course the old reliable 5-gallon bucket. Most of these receptacles, the smart reader will have already noticed, can themselves be gotten at no cost.

Not being much of a parts gatherer myself, wire cutters and wrenches do not form a regular part of my retinue, but there are those who swear by them. I suppose there are those who mark maps or take GPS points, or write detailed notes, and it is possible I'd be more successful if I did so myself. But there is part of me that wants to do this relying just on memory, drawing on my inner !Kung.

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