Pick yer Own: building community through DIY urban harvesting

This past summer, my housemates and I harvested and processed hundreds of pounds of apples, pears, olives and persimmons all from within a few blocks of our house. Urban harvesting has numerous overlapping positive aspects: it nurtures community and encourages talking to your neighbors, it promotes consumption of locally grown, non-fossil fuel tainted food, it is do-it-yourself (DIY) so you learn new skills, it gives you a valuable connection to the earth and its natural cycles which people in cities often lack, and it permits you to experiment with distribution outside of the market system.

Harvesting

It is hard to believe how much fruit one small tree can produce! The first step is identifying fruit trees near your house. In our neighborhood, there are many fruit trees that are not harvested because the people living in the house with the tree don’t do the work. You can walk around and make a map in your head or on paper when the fruit is ripe and note which trees seem to get harvested and which don’t.

Then comes the exciting, but perhaps uncomfortable part: you have to talk to your neighbors and ask if you can harvest their tree. We left a note with our phone number or visited if we already knew the neighbor. It seems that neighbors talk to each other less and less in the modern world, and that’s too bad. Perhaps it is the rise of internet and car culture — a culture of isolation and loneliness. When I was growing up, I knew people maybe within a block or two of my parent’s house. Since then, I’ve sometimes lived somewhere and not even known the person next door! Meeting neighbors moves the idea of “building community” from just a slogan to reality. Communities where people know each other can organize to resist hierarchical power structures and build voluntary, non-market based alternatives.

When our house asked to pick our neighbor’s trees, they always said yes — sometimes with great excitement. The neighbors were usually happy to have someone use the food and picking fruit trees avoids a rotting mess when the fruit falls to the ground.

Picking itself was exciting and a good house activity. We stood on garage roofs and used tall ladders and cloth bags over our shoulders. Once when I was picking alone, the ladder collapsed and I had to jump into the upper branches of a tree to avoid falling. Luckily, a friend biked by soon afterwards and re-set the ladder for me. Thus, I suggest picking with a friend in case something goes wrong.

The real fun begins once the fruit is picked. The first thing you learn is that fruit ripens all at once. So harvesting isn’t like going to a grocery store and only getting what you need at that time. When you harvest, you either have nothing, or way too much of a particular thing. Our ancestors knew what foods were in season at what times like the back of their hands, but in a world with fruit shipped around by airplane, we get fooled into eating like the seasons don’t exist.

Once you start to notice what is in season in your area, you may begin to adjust what you eat and seek out locally grown food in season. Eating like this drastically decreases the amount of fossil fuels required to keep you fed. Noticing these things adds richness and connection to your life experience just as living a mechanical life disconnected from the earth and its cycles can strip meaning away.

Preserving and distributing

When you harvest vastly more of a particular fruit than you can eat — which you will because trees make so much fruit — you can either preserve it or distribute the excess. At one point last summer, we had several hundred pounds of pears that all ripened within a week or two — it was a great test of our creativity.

Preserving foods opens lots of DIY opportunities. Last summer, we dried huge quantities of pears and apples. We used a store-bought fruit drier someone gave us — this summer I’m going to build a solar one.

My housemates also made some of the pears into juice which they are currently fermenting into hard cider. We hope that once they learn what they’re doing, our house can make lots of apple and pear cider and eventually (after the revolution) trade it for things we need like bike tires, etc.

My mother has always home-canned huge quantities of fruits and vegetables each summer so I hope to get her to teach me these skills so our house can add canning as an option for preserving fruit we harvest.

The other way to deal with a bountiful harvest is to give the food away. This raises another opportunity for building community and developing alternatives to the market-based distribution systems that exist under capitalism. Our house kept a basket of fruit near the front door so that all visitors took fruit home with them. And we brought fruit with us when we went calling elsewhere.

I also brought fruit with me to give away for free at critical mass bike rides. What if lots of folks brought stuff with them to critical mass, music shows, or other public events to give away? We could build informal, spontaneous “really free markets” every time we gathered for raw food, baked goods, home-manufactured items, and even services. Maybe someone would bring apples, another dumpstered bread, someone else bike tools to fix bikes, and someone else clippers to cut hair. One alternative to the mainstream economy is to build worker-run collectives, but another is to create a gift economy to allow us all to gradually drop out of the capitalist system.

We did all of the harvesting and moving of food either on foot or by bike so our food was not only organic, it was also as fossil fuel free as we could make it. Moving a 16 foot ladder on a bike cart is not only possible — it is fun and intense!

These days, you can get organic and fair trade food, but it is almost impossible to get fossil fuel free food! Figuring out how to grow, distribute and eat fossil fuel free food is the next frontier, because when it comes down to it, burning fossil fuels is killing us. Organic goes part of the way, of course, since a main ingredient in conventionally farmed food is chemical fertilizers, which cannot be made without fossil fuels. But eating organic avocados imported from Chile in January misses the point of “organic” — eating now shouldn’t destroy the environment’s ability to grow food for our grandchildren.

Part of harvesting food is dealing with “imperfect” fruit. In the grocery stores, they don’t sell fruit where part of it is rotting or where it has worm holes. Markets usually don’t even sell organic food with worms or rot — they throw out whatever isn’t “perfect”. However, when you harvest organic food, you quickly realize that some or maybe even most of the fruit has imperfections.

Our house would sort the fruit as soon as we harvested it. The more-perfect looking, large fruit was for eating plain or giving away. The smaller fruits or ones with rot or worms was for drying or juicing. It takes a little time to cut out the rotten or worm-eaten parts, but life isn’t a race. That time is for talking to friends or being present with yourself and the universe.

Epilogue

The reason we harvested other people’s trees was because we have a very small house lot — even after planting every square inch with gardens and trees, we wanted access to more home-grown food. The fact that you, personally, live in an apartment or in a rented house without fruit trees doesn’t mean you can’t be an urban harvester.

It would be easy for cities to plant many more urban fruit trees to supply local food needs, except, naturally, for the law. Most cities make it illegal to plant fruit trees on the parking strip — the little strip of useless grass between the sidewalk and the street on millions of miles of urban streets. The idea behind the law is that urban fruit trees would be messy — the assumption is that no one would pick the fruit and that it would thus fall to the ground and rot.

These laws are stupid. Why are modern people so afraid of messy things? Life is messy from birth to death and decay — get used to it! A few of the trees we harvested were “illegal” fruit trees on the parking strip. This spring, we’re going to plant a few “illegal” fruit trees on our parking strip. We’re likely to “get away with it” since we’re planning to harvest them and keep the area clean. What if millions of people planted urban trees on parking strips and other unused land?

Or better yet, what if the silly laws were eliminated and cities planted fruit trees on all available parking strips, perhaps with the formation of neighborhood harvest committees or by hiring local youth over the summer to tend, harvest and distribute the fruit?

Happy harvesting!