by Sarah Hirsch
My entire childhood was spent in the Southern United States, a place aptly named the Bible Belt. At least three times a week, I attended church: twice on Sundays, once Wednesday nights, and occasionally for a Thursday bible-study in a congregation member’s home. As I grew older and began to question my spirituality, my attendance at the gigantic United Methodist church began to drop, but I was able to hang onto one of the most important principles I obtained while an active member—the importance of becoming immersed in a community so that it may flourish. My mother, who I now know identifies herself as agnostic, prioritized the church in my and my brother’s childhoods so that we would walk away with the experience of a loving, connected community, regardless of what we would confirm as our religious beliefs in adulthood. While we were young, probably no older than elementary school, she took on a leadership role in an area of the church’s contribution to the community through agriculture in a dying practice of gleaning—the collection of leftover fruits and vegetables leftover from a farm’s harvest. Because Harry and I were still young, the activity was also mandatory for us, and although I did not always enjoy the obligation, it was absolutely essential in the construction of who I am today.
Early mornings and damp conditions were an extremely unattractive prospect as an adolescent being pried from my warm, dry bed. Regardless, Mom pulled me and Harry into the kitchen for a quick breakfast and heavy clothes before loading us into the car and heading for the cornfields. In a group of about twenty members of all ages, including other children brought against their wishes, we made our way through the thickets of corn, grabbing any ears missed in the earlier harvest. We stuffed the corn into large, black trash-bags which overflowed by our return to the car. The cold, drizzling rain made us children even more disagreeable. After we stripped away the layers of soaked-through jackets and leggings, we again climbed into the car and were treated with watery hot chocolate on our ride to the church. Located in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, the church was surrounded by a population experiencing desperate hunger and need. We unloaded the corn from the cars into the church gymnasium, and sat in a circle shucking it, careful to remove as much of the silk from the ears as our quick fingers could manage. The corn continued on its journey to Stewpot, a local soup kitchen dedicated to the hungry citizens of Jackson, where it made it was thankfully able to provide nourishment to people rather than rot in that cold, empty field. Although I was young, I remember vividly grasping the concept of waste as we took the “leftovers” from a field that would lie dormant until it was cleared in the spring.
Pecans trees are abundant in many parts of Mississippi, and in one venture of gleaning, we were allowed to gather pecans from a farm south of Jackson. It may have been early fall—I remember the leaves crunching beneath our feet—but it was warm enough to play freely. My brother had now become good friends with some other mischievous boys whose mother and mine also hit it off. I strolled and picked pecans with the women while the boys disappeared into the fantasy always created within woodlands. A good amount of time passed—we could hear the boys playing so knew they weren’t far off—and they returned before long, covered head to toe in mud. We all had a good laugh over their silliness, and our industrious mothers decided to utilize the huge garbage bags as protectors for the car seats. They tore a hole in the tops of the bags and on each of the sides, and then pulled them over each boy’s head to wear until we got home. During the hour-long drive, the mud began to dry, and the boys screamed and cried that they itched under the garbage bags. We skipped going back to the church that day in favor of returning home for a fresh change of clothes. The pecans did make their way to the church, ultimately, and I always hoped they’d been turned into pies.
In all of our experiences with gleaning various foods, without a doubt, the most difficult to harvest were turnips. The tricky root vegetables held their grip on the earth with unrelenting force; although pulling with all of my energy, I was only able to get a few out. The adults had better success with the purple and white orbs—seemingly innocent, but undeniably sinister. Again, we found ourselves in an unpleasantly cold and damp terrain, and I was entirely unpleased with the situation. Turnips are a staple in Southern cuisine, though, and in reflection, I believe that these may have been one of the most appreciated items that we were able to donate to the community. In many households, braised turnip greens are found at every Sunday table, and I hope that they were able to provide many people with the warmth of sentimentality that comes along with a deliciously familiar meal.
The last gleaning trip that I can remember was by far the most pleasant; in stark contrast to the turnip harvest, our trip to a local blueberry farm was incredibly painless and fruitful. The joyful farmer, happy to have someone to relieve him of his overly abundant crop, joked with the children as he pointed to the scale and insisted that he wouldn’t let us off the property until we gained five pounds. We did our best to accomplish just that. Walking through the bushes, I grabbed branches from their source and pulled it toward my basket, allowing the berries to drop in bunches. Every time it filled, I returned to the boxes that held the overall harvest, dropped the berries in, and returned for more. As I worked, I ate my weight in berries; my hands and mouth were dyed blue when we departed. This specific harvest left a very significant imprint on my memory: as we drove away, I noticed we weren’t heading to church, and instead we arrived at the headquarters of a local children’s shelter. I helped my mother unload the boxes and boxes of blueberries, all the while contemplating the small bodies that they would ultimately nourish.
As an adult, I occasionally describe my experience with gleaning, but I have not met anyone with similar knowledge of the practice or experience with it. It’s impossible to emphasize how much I appreciate its influence on me: it provoked within me, even at a young age, the understanding that our bodies are nourished from foods that grow from the earth. The comprehension that it is a personal responsibility that I must undertake to participate in my community. Appreciation of the work that actually goes into each step of a single meal—from the growing of the foods, to their harvest and shipment, and ultimately, their readiness to be eaten. In my adulthood, especially as a new parent, I have encountered many skeptics of the church and its influence on children. Its ability to integrate citizens within the community is undeniable, though, and I can only hope that I will be able to provide my own children with the same experiences that my mother made available to me and my brother.