Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cultural Diversity

To glean, in the strictest reading of the word, is to gather grain left behind by reapers. The Gleaners, above, is a painting by Jean-Francois Millet. The Gleaners and I is a documentary by Agnes Varda. As described in the New York Times in 2000, Varda "crisscrossed the French countryside with a hand-held digital video camera and a small production crew, in search of people who scavenge in potato fields, apple orchards and vineyards, as well as in urban markets and curbside trash depositories. Some are motivated by desperate need, others by disgust at the wastefulness all around them and others by an almost mystical desire to make works of art out of things -- castoff dolls, old refrigerators, windshield wipers -- that have been thrown away without a second thought."
     Yesterday, when I went for my walk, I took a trash bag with me, specifically to collect candy wrappers, as on the days following Halloween, this form of litter is particularly prominent. I do not put myself in the category of a gleaner in this sense, as I am not collecting for reuse but for appropriate disposal. Nonetheless, two women saw me pick something up, and one said, "You're picking up leaves. Why?" Which prompted me to explain, and them to exclaim, and they were visiting from New York, touring the Frank Lloyd Wright homes and so forth. I gave them some tips on where to eat and what to see in my town and in Chicago, and we parted ways.
     Now we come to the gleaning part of the story, and eventually to the cultural diversity. In my town, we have many ginko trees. I'm not going to get into a big research project about ginkos, but I do see from Wikipedia that they are an ancient form (around at the time of the dinosaurs), and the oldest ones are in Asia--China, Korea, and Japan. It does have an unusual and beautiful leaf.

Ginko trees come in male and female varieties. And in the fall, the female variety produces what the experts call a seed but what to me looks like a fruit.

That is an idealized portrait, I think. As they age and fall to the ground, which they do as autumn progresses and just before people step on them, they look more like this.

The odor of the mashed glop on the sidewalk is intensely musky, but that does not quite capture it. Some people say "stinko ginko." I wish I were better at describing odors, and right now, I wish I were better at describing that odor.
     About a month ago, my neighbor who has a large ginko tree on her side lawn told me that every fall, an Asian man knocks on her door and asks if he can collect the dropped ginko seeds. Of course, she always says yes because she is happy to have them gone before they all get smashed on her sidewalk and tracked into her house on people's shoe bottoms, perfuming her life.
     "What does he want them for?" I asked.
     "I don't know," she said. "They make some kind of food from it."
     Some blog reader will now tell me that they've known about this for years, and where have I been all my life, but that was the first I'd heard of it. Oh, I know that I could in one instant google to find out precisely what kind of food someone would make from those astonishingly fragrant seeds, and how they would go about it, and what fragrances would be wafting through the house as they did, and what the end result would be. But I'll just leave that task to someone else.
     In the meantime, twice since my neighbor told me about this (but never before that), while I was out walking, I saw an Asian woman (the same one twice), stooped down near a ginko tree, a small paper bag beside her, picking carefully through the grass and leaves, gleaning ginko seeds.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post!

I guess we are still Hunters and Gatherers.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks. I guess we are.

Jim Poznak said...

One person's trash is another's treasure.

Susan Messer said...

True. I'm trying to think if one person's treasure is another person's trash, and I guess it works that way too.

Anonymous said...

And "One man's ceiling is another man's floor". Paul Simon.