I watched an interesting show on the Knowledge Network last night, The Gleaners. A French film maker went around filming people who made use of what other people throw away. This one man, even though he had the money to buy food, has been living on what he finds thrown out in garbage bins because he believes it is unconscionable to waste food. He claims he hasn’t been sick in 10 years! That’s healthier than I can claim and I haven’t eaten out of the garbage once! I must be doing it all wrong … Anyways, this kind of dumpster diving – kind of desperate sounding – is called gleaning – much more noble – and has a long history in France. In fact there are laws upholding the rights of gleaners, or “those who pick up what’s been left behind”. One prosperous orchard owner encouraged gleaning, stating that on his property, 10 tonnes of apples will be left behind after the harvest is over. 10 tonnes!! He allows gleaners — whom he registers first — to pick what’s been left behind. It seems reasonable enough but there are other owners, especially of vineyards, who won’t allow gleaning, and good fruit is left to waste on the vine or on the ground.

The word, gleaners, of course brings to mind Millet’s famous painting, The Gleaners. This painting often provokes a kind of romantic admiration for a simpler life, living off the land’s bounty, in harmony with nature. The women in the painting are, however, gleaners – they are peasants living in poverty and picking up bits of grain with their fingers that have been left behind by the harvesters. This is a hard life; their bent backs attest to that as do the bunched up fingers of one of the gleaners as she strains to pick up the smallest grain.

Paintings from the tomb of Unsu New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, reign of Hatshepsut or Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BC) © R.M.N./Les frères Chuzeville

Here’s a depiction of gleaners in ancient Egypt. In the middle row on the far left you see two women bent over. The one in the front looks suspiciously like she’s setting fire to the loin-cloth of the labourer in front of her. What could be mistaken for flames are actually wheat heads – I’m not a farmer! whatever you call those bits of the stalk where the grain is. Or it could be corn. The woman behind her is carefully picking up grain off the ground. They are following behind the men with the sickles who are harvesting the crop.

In my comfortable, urban life, it’s easy to forget how precious food is and how generations before us worked hard for their subsistence. I don’t personally believe in God but I do believe in gratitude. My husband and I bow our heads in prayer before every meal. It just doesn’t seem right to accept food without first giving thanks.

Top image: The Gleaners, by Jean-Francois Millet. Collection of the Musee d’Orsay.