Gleaning, gleaning, gleaning

Posted on September 21, 2011


Once an integral part of daily life, gleaning has recently seen a resurgence.  My grandmother gleaned wool from the hedgerows in the second world war. The wool, shed by the sheep when scratching themselves on the coarse, thorny thickets, was a rare and valuable resource.  While my grandmother needed to glean for wool that was otherwise in short supply, for me, gleaning is all about pleasure, surprise and unpredictability.  There is an undeniable delight in coming upon edible jewels when wandering in a park or along a beach.

Today we wandered up to West Ham Park.  It was once a district farm and still produces flowers for the London market.  The Park is full of mature trees including all sorts of fruit and nut trees.  We were particularly excited to find three giant chestnut trees in the midst of a carpet of fallen chestnuts.We gathered as many as we could fit in our pockets and are looking forward to roasting them in the oven soon.

Surprisingly, we seemed to be the only ones taking advantage of the chestnut bounty.

Last month we came across Leigh-on-Sea, a little town at one of the mouths to the Thames Estuary.  As well as having a strong seafood tradition, Leigh-on-Sea is also a wonderful place to glean.  Right along the Estuary, the town has retained a park which is full of fruit trees of all types.  The place is popular with the locals who use the park to walk their dogs and generally take in the fabulous view of the estuary.

Our experience was delightful but also disturbing. The most magnificent mulberry tree stands right next to the path down into the town.  This summer it was laden with the most succulent mulberries I have ever seen or tasted.  We came across the tree on the first day we visited the village.  Three weeks later we were back but this time with a suitable container to pick mulberries.

We filled our box, laughing as we stretched for the precious fruit.  Many people passing stopped to watch and to ask us what we were doing.  No-one seemed to know that it was a mulberry tree, or what mulberries were.  We offered people a taste, and everyone who took the plunge was amazed at the flavour and the sweetness of the fruit. So many people who stopped knew the tree but had never tried the fruit.

The UK seems full of gleaning opportunities and I can’t quite work out why more people do not take advantage of such a natural harvest. What stops people from taking risks in the public realm?  Is it a concern that they may be breaking the law?  Or that they may poison themselves if they try something which they cannot immediately identify? Is it that the public realm is seen as a place where ownership, boundaries and rules are slightly unclear?  Do people perhaps think it is impolite to take things from public land?   Perhaps we are all self-regulating in the hope that we will collectively regulate crowd behaviour.  Do people think for example, that harvesting from public land will lead to an ‘avalanche’ of people exploiting the public realm in a mercenary way?

I do know that after the people, who stopped to watch us in our mulberry adventures, tasted the harvest their faces lit up with glee.  The possibility of picking fruit from a magnificent old tree on the main street clearly touched some childlike potential within those brave enough to stop, ask, and taste.

If we encouraged gleaning, we might, like the cities of Seville and Valencia, plant out our parks and avenues with edible plants, even providing the public with ways and means of picking seasonally.  What would that take?  How would councils and park authorities manage the excess – the rotting produce?  What effect would an edible landscapes strategy have on wildlife and on vermin?

I don’t know that we have the answers to all of these questions but I don’t think we should give up trying to explore the complexity of edible landscapes and their relationship to the gleaning public.  Here’s to mulberry pie and roasted chestnuts!