The practice of gleaning has been around forever, with some ancient cultures using it much like an early form of the welfare system. Then, as now, gleaning is the act of making something out of what someone else has left behind – something deemed too small, not profitable enough, or too much work to bother using. Google the word and you’re likely to see references to “dumpster diving” (a much less attractive description of virtually the same act), but you’ll also find links to food banks and humanitarian groups, and plenty of commentary reminding us that North Americans are so wealthy even our trash has value.
When I first became unemployed, I gave meaning to my days by accomplishing small tasks that were previously too inconvenient to tackle – one of which was finding out where and how to recycle household batteries. I’d been collecting them for more than a year, so we had quite a stash. A quick glance at the website for our county recycling center taught me how to bag them (did you know there is a wrong way to bag your used batteries?) and where to drop them off (beside, not in front of, a specific door on a specific side of the recycling center). So, I made the trek 10 miles down the road and, in addition to ridding ourselves of dozens of dead batteries, I discovered the joy of gleaning.
In the two months since unleashing my inner gleaner, I’ve enjoyed a steady stream of valuable finds. First there are the coupons that require just a bit of sorting and searching in order to find them – but the bin is only used for paper and the doors are on the side (picture sliding doors), so there’s no diving or digging through trash. I’ve walked away with several good, sturdy cardboard boxes – the kind made to hold fruits and vegetables, but either they weren’t used or they didn’t hold produce for long, because they’re in nearly perfect condition. I’ve found things like unopened packages of yard waste bags (you know, the large, nice, lined bags that some cities require for your grass clippings). Did I mention they were unopened? I’m guessing someone was cleaning out a garage or attic and reached the point they just wanted to be rid of everything.
Take another look at the pic I included with this post. Those are metal plant holders I found in the paper recycling bin. Once I got over the idiocy of someone putting these in the wrong bin, I then marveled at someone getting rid of these at all! But these and so many other great finds just underscore the statement above, that in North America we throw away so much that’s good and useful, simply because we can’t be bothered to deal with it.
I don’t talk about my gleaning with just anyone (well, until now), because I’m worried how it/I will be perceived. When I do talk about it, I’m quick to point out that all artists are gleaners – picking up ideas, inspiration, bits of stories and images from everyday life. Likewise, when I think about this blog – why I write and what I’m writing – I’m hopeful that others are gleaning something from all my over-sharing. Most of all, rather than worrying about being pitied because I set my table with what others have left behind, I’m trying to remember that even my trash would be viewed as treasure by some in our world.