The Gleaners and I

Foraging dandelion blossoms.

This was originally written as a guest post on Free Range Chicken.

“My mother’d say, “Pick everything up so nothing gets wasted.” – from The Gleaners an I

I recently stumbled upon “The Gleaners and I,” a documentary that I first saw several years ago about the ancient tradition of gleaning, or rummaging for unwanted stuff. In the film, Agnes Varda follows many different types of people as they glean a variety of different things: primarily food that has been tossed away by farmers, city dwellers, and so forth, as well as objects, furniture, and whatnot that is used by people for their subsistence or turned into art. Through the film, the filmmaker herself is revealed as a gleaner of sorts: a gleaner of gleaners. And in gleaning these stories and experiences, she asks a lot of interesting questions about how we assign value to food and objects within a culture of commodification and over-commodification. Is commercial value meaningful, or arbitrary and shallow? What is beautiful? What is waste?

The story that is most poignant to me as an eater and a gardener is the first one that takes us to a potato field where tons of perfectly good, edible potatoes have been cast aside to rot as waste because they are too big, too small, or misshapen. The value placed on the potatoes that make it to market is purely aesthetic–they are unblemished and therefore deemed beautiful and commercially viable. It has nothing to do with nutritional value or taste.

Foraging early spring wild edibles in the pathways at my community garden. That’s my plot behind me.

As a gardener, I have hands on experience with food. I have a hand in its development and I see its progress from seed to harvest. I know what food looks like, feels like, and tastes like. Through this process, I am given an insight into what good food is and how to define it. Through the experience of being a producer, I become an educated consumer, and at times, the lessons of the garden have helped me to redefine “value” outside of the parameters of commodity in general. Beauty is messy, mangled, and imperfect. Some of the best things in life are free. My yearly income has absolutely no bearing on my value as a person. The fact that I can grow my own food is a skill that I can use for the rest of my life. Its value is limitless.

Watching this film again was a good reminder of these lessons that gardening has taught me. It was a reassertion of where I’ve been, who I am, and the life I have created for myself. It was a gift.

What life lessons has being a gardener taught you?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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15 thoughts on “The Gleaners and I

  1. Gardening has taught me you can turn ugly veggies into beautiful food. That a tomato full of cracks that came from your own garden 10 minutes ago will make the best sandwich you ever put in your mouth. Gardening has taught me to love my food in a way I never loved it before – as a passion, an act – more than sitting down at a table ever could.

  2. Gardening has taught me to appreciate food more, to live more in harmony with the seasons, to slow down and enjoy the small moments of life (like seeing the first few seeds sprout in spring ar picking that first juicy tomato!)

  3. I concur with the rest of the comments here but the one thing that gardening has taught me is how to enjoy spending time outside. That gardeners have to be one of the friendliest bunch of hobbiests/professionals out there. From the amateur gardener on the allotment to the professional seed company, they are all happy to stop and talk about what they are growing and pass on the hints and tips to you.

    Gardening sites tun local communities into thriving hubs and bring such fulfilment to those that use them or share the produce/flowers.

    It’s taught me how to be better organised, recycle more/hoard more things and eat healthier more seasonal crops. Every year I learn something new and have to battle with a slight change of season. It keeps you on your toes and introduces you to new friends.

    I bloody love gardening.

  4. I am not a religious person, but gardening has taught me about renewal. In the spring of our lives we grow avidly towards the light, in the summer of our lives we grow into our own, in the fall of our lives we start to slow down and in the winter of our lives…we die…or do we…life starts again in the spring. I’m not trying to be mystic, but gardening has taught me the rythmn of life. So, if I don’t go, plant and gardeners do.

  5. Gardening has taught me how to recognize and value what I call “real food”. When I began to harvest my apartment balcony garden a year ago I was completely blown away by the quality of the food I had grown! EVERYTHING was tastier, jucier and fresher. All of a sudden it felt like what I was buying at the supermarket was a nutritional rip-off.

  6. Before I started growing my own food, I didn’t think twice about wasting food, about letting it go bad in the refrig and throwing it out. There is something about starting with a tiny seed and watching it grow that makes you want to enjoy every last bite, and to share it with others. Breaks my heart to see it wasted.

  7. Gardening has helped me overcome my perfectionism. Gardens are messy, beautiful affairs, and the chaotic diversity makes them even better. I can try my hardest to rake the soil so even, and plant the rows so prettily, but nature will come in and disorder everything right properly. A garden cannot by its nature be perfect, and I’ve given up (mostly) on trying to make it so. Interestingly, this has transferred to other parts of my life where I have let go of my perfectionism to a large degree!

  8. I have learned how to work at something & hang in with it. Gardening doesn’t have to be difficult, but if I get lazy & don’t put in the time & effort, the plants suffer & the hard work of spring is lost.

    I have also learned to love my gardener’s pedicure! The dirt embedded in my toenails & callouses is a symbol of what I value. Pretty toes are nice, but the tomatoes, herbs & flowers are better.

  9. Um… how to drill holes in the bottoms of bins? How to get my hopes up? I really haven’t gotten much out of it yet. As of right now, I’ve killed everything I’ve put in the “ground” with the exception of the accidentally sprouted garlic I planted this week.

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