August 5, 2010

The Gleaners

I recently watched the wonderful documentary "The Gleaners and I" by French film maker Agnès Varda, and was introduced to an activity eons old, and still going strong. Gleaning is the practice of collecting food from fields, orchards, and vineyards after the official harvest has ended.

Gleaning is mentioned in the Bible, Koran, and Torah, which all support it for the poor and hungry. It was an activity traditionally conducted by the poor, but today many get involved to help minimize the incredible waste that comes with increasing wealth and industrialization.

Varda's 2000 film documents a wide variety of gleaners in rural France. She shows several paintings of gleaners including the one above. I recognized it as the painting that hung in my home when I was in elementary school. I always loved the simplicity and earthiness of this scene, but was not aware of its more controversial components.

French artist Jean-François Millet composed The Gleaners in 1857. When he unveiled it that year it was immediately unpopular with the middle and upper classes. They did not want to be reminded that their wealth was gained by the labour and sacrifice of the common folks. They must have also viewed the vast lifestyle gap depicted as rather distasteful.

Millet's painting celebrates the common people - they are the focus of his work. The three women stoop to their difficult work of gleaning wheat left over after the farm workers finished. Behind the women is a cart piled with the golden harvest. The fortunate landowner watches from his horse on the right.

The painting was completed at a time that French gleaning laws were being made more restrictive. Naturally, the peasants revolted, and the laws were eventually reinstated. They are still on the books today.

One hundred and fifty-three years after Millet's painting was displayed in the Salon, the income gap is wider than ever, and massive waste continues. However, peasant revolts aren't as popular this day and age. I think it has something to do with television and processed food.

Still, gleaning is as popular as ever, and is no longer restricted to the poor. Modern day gleaners are more commonly referred to as freegans, binners, dumpster divers, scroungers, food rescuers, or food salvagers.

There are also many talented artists that glean found objects for their work. Varda considered herself a gleaner of images.

Do a web search for gleaners in your area and something is sure to come up. Both Sooke and Victoria have urban fruit tree gleaning programs that split the haul between the home owner, the pickers, and food banks or other community organizations.

The practice of gleaning is certainly older than any of the religious texts that mention, and protect, it. Converting waste to useful purposes has been around in one form or another for as long as there have been humans. There is a reason that it still exists - because it makes sense to reduce waste.

It is natural that we should maximize on all resources available as global population rises, and as the rich continue to get richer, and the poor, poorer. We need to look out for one another, and gleaning is one efficient way of achieving this without spending vast amounts of money.

Gleaning is about not buying anything - stepping outside of the mainstream money system, and using the power of free. Which reminds me that blackberry season is just beginning...

Good gleaning to you.

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