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Jane Kang poaching Rusten Hogness

Over centuries gleaners have regularly descended upon freshly harvested fields to gather the food that was left behind, making the most of excess in times of harvest and plenty. In recent times the effects of legislation has turned gleaning into a form of stealing with gleaners now forced to obtain special permission from landowners before they can gather food from their fields. This activity that was deemed as charitable in The Bible and the Qu’ran, now implies a kind of collective transgression with participants operating at the periphery of social bounds and ordering.

The multimedia website “Gleaning Stories, Gleaning Change”, produced by science writer Rusten Hogness, hosts ethnographic vignettes about contemporary gleaning practices in Northern California. These collected stories highlight how gleaning is socially significant by being what Susan Harding calls “a democratic, individualized practice”, in its ability to produce gatherings of disparate participants, partaking in the same collaborative experience. Donna Haraway also highlights the transgressive nature of gleaning in the context of today’s globalized and stratified agricultural worlds by saying “it puts contemporary urban people into a special kind of direct contact with some of the other biological species that make us human – in this case, food plants”.

Crucially, what arises from this collective experience of social gathering and ordered transgression is what Helen Moglen calls the ability to “give meaning to that which has been discarded as excess and ignored”. Lately the act of gleaning has broadened to take on a second meaning—a practice to describe collecting information bit by bit and often with difficulty. It was in both these senses—the spirit of gleaning as an act that rearticulates meaning and as a way to assemble disparate fragments of information—that artists and anthropologists at the Multispecies Salon collaborated in writing culture as they gleaned texts, images and ideas from galleries after the artworks were packed up and shipped home.

Gleaning Stories website

Further reading

Resource Gleaning, From Earlier Times to the Information Age (2005)  by William Bostock

Food Recycling Law A Hit In San Francisco in  Morning Edition (2009) by David Gorn

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009) by Tristram Stuart

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) by Barbara Kingsolver

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a companion to the book