Edited by Laura Pritchett, 209 pages, University of Oklahoma Press, 2009
The kids had been traveling all day and were bone tired, but their mom, eager for a little adventure and a chance for some hands-on pedagogy, was having none of their whining. “You want to fail home school?” Winona LaDuke asked her children. “Then get in the car.”
It was with those words that I found myself dumpster diving with the well-known Anishinaabe writer-activist and her unruly brood. For LaDuke, the foray into the bakery trash cans and Trader Joe’s backdoor bins was a chance to explore the gleaner subculture of the hippy town of Santa Cruz, CA. For her kids, it was a crash course in the affluence, inequality, and waste of our consumer society. For me, it was just an opportunity to load up on some still delicious day-old bread and jars of yummy mango salsa.
After a few hours of surreptitiously collecting several bags of discarded but edible food, I think the lesson for LaDuke and her children was clear: In this land of abundance, where people still somehow go hungry, it is nothing short of a sin to send things to waste.
This is also the takeaway message of Laura Pritchett’s collection of essays and remembrances from people who have become pros in the art of scavenging. For many of the writers in the collection, gleaning isn’t a necessity, but rather a choice, a kind of political protest against profligacy. Pritchett’s scavengers – for whom “Goodwill is too commercial” – see everything as fair game: car parts, furniture, clothing, building supplies, even roadkill (just don’t tell the dinner guests). They also gather humor, making this book a rarity among environmental titles.
Many of the gleaners who contributed articles to the collection are self-conscious rebels: Scavenging is a strike against a system where “the rules make no sense.” But reading these articles, I couldn’t help but think that in this season of layoffs and bankruptcies, gleaning might be poised to go mainstream. After all, the gleaners’ core values of thrift and frugality are finally making a comeback – which is why this slim volume is a perfect book for the new era of scarcity.