Birmingham’s Urban Harvest project has been widely publicised. As the Urban Harvesters write in the city’s Friends of the Earth website:
Birmingham FOE member, Nigel Baker, has teamed up with the woman behind ‘Edible Erdington’, Eleanor Hoad, to launch Urban Harvest – the UK’s first scheme to turn surplus garden fruit into secondary produce as a commercial venture.
Urban Harvest is set up as a not-for-profit social enterprise that aims to show how a business can be economically viable whilst still retaining core environmental and social principles.
Urban Harvest grew from a project called ‘Prepare’, run by Eleanor as Artist in Residence in Erdington for Birmingham City Council. After noticing how much fruit goes to waste in the city’s gardens, Eleanor began to view Birmingham as a scattered orchard. She knocked on doors and offered to harvest surplus fruit with a group of volunteers. Erdington residents were very receptive to the idea, with many people feeling guilty about all their fruit going to waste every year. She made a fruit press, turning fruit into fresh juice, as well as giving it away as pickles, jams, dried fruit or fresh at a Kingstanding school and events in Erdington.
I worked closely with writer and activist Jeremy Seabrook for some years and he sent the following reflection – poetic prose? – in 2001:
UNPICKED FRUIT IN THE ORCHARDS OF NEGLECT
By mid October, the ripe plums have exploded on the grass, with the wasps weaving their invisible skeins over the decaying fruit. Now, the pears, too, brown and rotted by the rain, return their uneaten flesh to the earth. The apples do not fall so quickly; among the fading leaves, they are red, green and gold globes of light in the late sunshine. Some even linger on the branches after the leaves have fallen to ornament the approaching winter. Similarly, the blackberries have become mildewed, while the purple black beads of elderberries, together with the coarse sweet chestnut shells and the spindly umbrellas of field mushrooms remain unharvested in woods and fields.
This annual wasted harvest of free resources goes uncommented. Like the gleaners who used to follow the corn cutting, the hunters of rabbits displaced by the reapers, the collection of fruit from gnarled trees and abandoned orchards – these are archaic activities, not to be taken seriously. Even less noted are the sloes, sour wild damsons, crab-apples and hazelnuts, no longer even noticed, the ‘scenery’ of a countryside which has itself become another item of consumption by urban society.
It is not that such things have been eliminated from our diet. At the same time as fruit rots on the trees, from the supermarket shelves you can buy perfect apples, luscious clusters of blackberries, pale mushrooms, yellow pears packed in snug individual nests, outsize plums from Spain.
It seems that things are no longer perceived to have value unless they are traded in the market. The forlorn harvests of the British countryside are a metaphor for the market economy. Things that are freely available do not figure in any economic accounting system, and for that reason are despised and rejected. The economic system itself sanctifies the commodities it blesses by its pricing system.
If this represented only the modest waste represented by the indifference to the natural bounty of free harvests, it would be bad enough. But the lugubrious incuriosity which makes us gaze upon a world, which, after all, still provides us with nourishment, is only a symptom of a far greater transformation of humanity. Children, when invited to pluck an apple from a tree will not do so, because they do not know that apples grow on trees; just as they will not eat potatoes grown in the earth which is full of worms, when chips from a frozen packet are the mainstay of their diet.
The passivity of people confronted with the decay of ungathered produce is paralleled in every other area of our daily experience. Nothing exists unless it has passed through the market. Human resources, too, must become industrialised before they are acknowledged: big companies, government bureaucracies, now have departments of Human Resources, replacing what used to be known as ‘personnel’. These have nothing to do with the resourcefulness of people. They are a means of reshaping our capacities, the free gifts of our competence and power to cherish and bear one another up in times of adversity with market-determined professions and pseudo-skills. The onlookers gazing passively at a mugging in the street, imagining it to be part of a tv film, or not knowing what to do at the scene of an emergency, the inability to hear the screams through the paper-thin walls, to discern the cries for help of the strange and eccentric, to monitor the silent deaths in the closed flats until the smell of decay prompts the call to the police – this is the neglect of the human harvests which mimic the ungarnered riches of the natural world.
The strength of the market seems to have drained away our human powers. We are all diminished and humbled in the presence of commodities. The showcases, shop windows, the theatrical displays of merchandise, the elaborate window-dressing of the global market exercise a mesmeric power over our hearts and imaginations, draw our attention irresistibly by their mysterious lustre.
And for a very good reason. For locked into them, by the same strange alchemy which makes us look with indifference upon the decay of natural goods, lie the immobilised capacities, the unwanted powers, the frozen ability to do and make and create for ourselves and for one another, the thwarted possibility of all the basic needs which can be answered without the maladroit mediation of market-transactions.
Only what costs has value. The very concept of value for money is the ideological illusion which holds us in thrall. Money measures only market value; and market value and human values are everywhere at odds. This is, of course, no new thing. Markets have always been – in all societies – places that pit the cunning of sellers against the ingenuity of buyers. The best produce at the front of the stall, inferior goods served if the purchaser is not watchful, the unfair weight, the adulterated food, the admixture of foreign matter to basic necessities – all these are familiar. Only when institutionalised into the monstrosity of a global market, deception itself becomes not only on a vast scale, but deceit itself is the object of elaborate concealment: the vast engines of publicity, advertising and marketing become purification rituals, whereby all the shining goods on display become cleansed of the sweat, blood and pain which go into their production. The scale and totalising extent of the market eclipses and undermines our faith in ourselves by means of its dazzling supply of goods and services. We all become starvelings of a global market, looking to the very process that robs us of our own powers to answer our own deepest needs and those of our neighbours.
This is why its expansion and growth is limitless. We are perpetually invaded, our skills and abilities are perpetually confiscated, appropriated and sold back to us in an ever-deepening and closed circle of dependency; so that we come to forget even what self-provisioning, self-determination means. We leaf lugubriously through supplements advising us how to spend it, because in the end we no longer know what we want, unable to define our own needs, but must wait for prompting from elsewhere to suggest to us what we might buy next.
Which brings us back to the wasted harvests of a contrived and illusory scarcity. We don’t even notice the spoiled fruit – those items that used to be the object of such careful husbanding and conservation, when every autumn fruit was preserved, jam was made, pickles and preserves stored up the nutrients of summer; but are drawn instead to the Christmas displays of wanton and redundant abundance in the shopping malls. And the granaries and storehouses of our human wisdom are left to the rats and pests in the same way that the fruits of the earth are abandoned to the wasps and the worms on the overgrown orchard floor.