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Gleaning

October 22, 2012

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As the days get short and the nighttime temperature plunges, the frenzy of harvesting and food preservation abates, and we home gardeners focus on preparing for winter.

But most gardeners also collect and treasure the last stragglers, the tiny zucchini struggling, a tomato and a couple of small peppers that lie among the blackened wreckage of the first killing frost, the malformed carrot that won’t pass muster for the storage bin, two onions whose necks didn’t seal (so they won’t keep), a handful of young green beans that popped forth from a few still-green plants.

We transition from reapers to gleaners. Toss those gleanings into a savory broth with a handful of fresh herbs and a cup or two of lentils, and they often add up to a tasty soup or stir-fry (though sometimes not).

Glean

“Glean” means “to gather what was left by the reapers.” We think of reapers as the primary economic, political, and social actors. They plan, plant, tend, and harvest the main crops. Gleaners follow behind or skirt the edges and gather what the reapers left or didn’t want.

To cite a common cliche, we live in disruptive times. The institutions we’ve been conditioned to trust and believe in seem to be crumbling, losing credibility, and changing at a such a breath-sucking pace we can’t keep up.

Bring on the gleaning skills!

A metaphor for life

The society I grew up in taught me that a well-integrated life requires a relatively smooth linear passage from the seeds of a stable, two-parent childhood and some level of formal, institutional learning (“education,” the more the better), to the harvest of long-term, secure-but-challenging employment that includes health insurance and the promise of a fat retirement account.

Along the way, I also learned that I’d be be expected to exercise a level of consumption (of purchased goods and paid-for services) to match my knowledge, income, and social status.

But I gradually came to understand that lives that appear to follow that expected trajectory have actually been assembled from a small measure of reaping and a large, continuously growing collection of gleanings.

Most of us experience life as a dynamic, chaotic flow. Yet at any moment, some seemingly random encounter can link into our network of experiences to produce or to promise a result we could never have planned or expected.

These seemingly random moments emerge from  events never intended to affect our lives, and that couldn’t yield much on their own—fragments of an overheard conversation, a scene from a TV show, a classified ad, a chance meeting with someone at a checkout counter. Yet they connect to produce a nourishing, life-sustaining psychological soup.

Yes, gleaning can involve the physical side of life: collecting and treasuring stuff that others no longer want or never wanted, often creatively repurposing it to suit our own lives—the recycled and refurbished clothing, tools and appliances, the cardboard and newspaper that mulch the vegetable patch, the works of art crafted from items salvaged from the scrap metal pile.

However, most of what builds a life isn’t physical, but psychological, interior and invisible: ideas, hopes, feelings, thoughts, questions.

The most important rule for a gleaned life: Put yourself in the path of a wide diversity of planter/reapers who produce their crops in fertile soil. Then pay close attention to what they either fail to harvest or don’t have any use for. Reach out and grab the fragments you connect with.

Edit your life! (Gleaning is not hoarding.)

The gleaned life requires disciplined editing. Don’t be afraid to reject or let stuff go. Gleaning is not about hoarding; it’s about discovering and combining aspects of experience that actually create opportunities and nourish you. Consign the rest to the compost pile or the trash bag.

And finally: Among both reapers and gleaners, the smartest intentionally select a few sorry-looking plants to leave behind, knowing the seeds they carry will sprout in spring and yield an untended harvest both planters and gleaners can reap.


Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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