Friday, March 11, 2011

Foraging and Gleaning, Gleaning and Foraging

Whether it's morels in Montana in June, chanterelles in Portland in October, blueberries in Massachusetts in August, or ginkgo nuts here in Japan in the fall, I love the act of setting out on foot with a purpose, the anticipation of finding something in a new or remembered place.

Sometimes we don't know where we are going, and certainly don't know what we will find. The other day we headed upriver on our bicycles, under the train trestle to the outskirts of town, and over the highway up into the hills. At the confluence of a bamboo grove, tiny shrine, and water tower we left our bikes and headed down a trail into the woods. The grove soon opened out onto a man-made grassy slope that seemed to rise almost vertically into the sky.

"Dam!" I said as I picked my way over the hump and scurried antelope-like over to a sluice with a sheet of sweeping water. A slide a littler me might have tried.

I looked down. At my feet was a vintage Fanta bottle. A twin to one I had found a few months back on another slope in another part of town. The same ribbed glass. Only this one had some spring in its neck and a matching violet beside.

Picking up the bottle made me think of the Agnes Varda documentary "The Gleaners and I" — you can watch the first four minutes here — and the act of stooping. Bending over to retrieve a treasure or edible morsel. An act at once iconic and rooted in our DNA.

But what's the difference, I wondered, between gleaning and foraging?

I hadn't really thought of it much until re-watching the beginning of the film.

Gleaning, I guess, goes hand in hand with agriculture and civilization. It's the picking up of the leftover potato or undersized corn cob or wheat ear of an already harvested or abandoned crop. It's often an act of survival. Varda's narrator makes the point that while gleaning was traditionally done severally with others, each gleans on his own" and, I would add, in his or her own way.

Foraging, on the hand, doesn't depend on domestication. It's done mostly in the wild or semi-wild. Out there. In the mountains or on the seashore. Away from the tended and cultivated. In forgotten or neglected or difficultly accessible places.

So I guess I gleaned the bottle, but foraged the plant from its insides? Or does foraging require that I eat the greens? I suppose I'd have to identify them first.

Anyway, when I got home I pulled the little plant out with chopsticks and gave the bottle a cursory wash, then stuck the plant back in the opening and set the gleaned thing next to its friend. Kind of fitting — Japanese and English standing there side-by-side.

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