You’re probably familiar with The Gleaners (Des glaneuses), Millet’s famous painting of women gleaning a field of grain after harvest. The women in the painting aren’t likely members of the farmer’s family and they aren’t helping with the harvest either. But they are valuable members of society fulfilling an important function: Making use of what’s been left behind. Glean literally means to gather grain or produce after a field has been harvested, but we also frequently use the term in reference to gathering relevant information. What’s being gathered is useful and has value.
The agricultural roots of gleaning go back thousands of years. After a harvesting a field, there were often consumable fruits, vegetables, or grains left behind. The practice of gleaning was meant to provide a means of subsistence for the poor. The agricultural application of gleaning is well represented in urban environments, too. In America, scoring freebies at the curb or going dumpster diving are two examples. Perhaps even garage sales – if the prices are giveaway – could be categorized as a form of gleaning.
Why do modern gleaners serve a useful purpose to society? Gleaners have the gift of seeing potential in what most of us walk by without a second glance. They keep all types of things – food, furniture, motors or clothing and more – out of landfills. Gleaners also reduce the impact on resources since the non-perishable items being reused don’t need to be recreated. Why the obsession with gleaning? One of my neighbors recently prepared to move out of her house. But rather than move her belongings, it appeared that all of her stuff was going straight to an enormous dumpster that had suddenly appeared in the back of her lot. Sofas, sports jerseys, and other household detritus soon filled the vessel to the top.
Later, in the bitter Midwestern cold and early darkness of December, I watched in horror as a man propped his bicycle against the dumpster and began rooting through the uppermost layer. Nothing was organized, of course. The glut of stuff was not at all inviting or enticing. And it was pitch black and dangerously cold. Yet, there was this man — gleaning. A few hours later, I noticed a family in a minivan park next to the dumpster. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve gone dumpster diving and curb surfing, but during warm weather and daylight. I’ve scored books of postage stamps, books, and perfectly clean, unused paper.
But dumpster diving in sub-zero temperatures and in the dark of night is more of an extreme sport. I also worried that dangerous household chemicals had been tossed in with the jerseys; rusty steak knives in with sofa cushions. And I wished that my neighbor had planned her move better, that she had sorted through the household items she didn’t need but that were still useful and given them to a charity that could resell them in a warm, well-lit store.
A few days later, the dumpster was still there, but recent gleaning had left a bit of a mess on the ground. Someone had pulled out a fish tank, covered it in a comforter, and placed it in a corner away from the dumpster. There was also a rolled up rug, unopened miniature candy bars, broken pieces of plastic, a TV, and a door-less refrigerator. One item in particular – a laminated child’s drawing left behind in the haste of a quick household move – I decided to keep. Along the top was the name of my neighbor’s eldest child written in the shaky hand of a child of five. He’s ten now. And the drawing is my keepsake.
There’s an intriguing documentary about gleaning’s role in French society available on Netflix. If you’re curious about the practice, check it out.
Any gleaning stories of your own?