Scavengers & Detritus

Key Points:

  • Unusual data sets on our leftovers and detritus
  • Perennial scavengers: contemporary format, old technique
  • Forbearance and trash disappearing on a city night
  • Compare/contrast metro-wildland rummaging, hunting and ways of seeing/doing
  • The ancient heart of tracking to observe, hunt, forage and scavenge

Statistical Litter in the Miasma

Without anyone really noticing, the leading edge of Generation X turned 50 a couple years ago, while its trailing ranks are now exiting their 30s posthaste. Despite being smaller in number than the Baby Boomers, the 1965-1980 demographic leaves behind an epic wake of modern-day waste and wastelands. In the process, we’ve encouraged the growth of a corresponding cohort that extracts value from the leftovers.

The value of a thing changes as it is squeezed through a basic, primeval hierarchy: sought, acquired or created, delivered, consumed, cast off, picked up, reformed and consumed again as its value is reset. Eventually, rust and rot emerge to value what we did not. At our worst, Schopenhauer tried to warn us that humans, driven by blind and insatiable will, were metaphysically nothing more than aggressive molds spreading across the surface of an immense rock, which in turn spins unconvincingly in outer space. An exemplary manifestation of philosophical pessimism incarnate, Schopenhauer was a leveler of any aesthetic that wanted to elevate mankind substantially above the league of scavengers, as if our core motive was steeped in the bleak ideology of the cancer cell.

As a generation regards its demise and compost, it reflects upon a prism of collective forfeitures in the natural world. Ultimately the stream of generational consciousness is not just a timeline accruing or a wave of youth dissipating. Identity in a tribal arc esteems higher thought chock full of emotional energy. Distracted by such esoteric pursuits and a dizzying array of new technology, most ignore the accretion of an inelegant exhaust heap as it dislodges itself from the dregs of humanity.

In measuring Gen X’s cumulative outfall of synthetic, impactful trash—a blurry foundational murk spiked with casks of spent nuclear fuel rods destined for Yucca Mountain—they’re on the hook for a larger sheer tonnage of manufactured goods than their forebears. They are also far more detached from any basic connection to the Earth—as in other areas of life, technology often reduces the need for skill and feeling and creates such a distance between us and our origins that we are in danger of no longer sensing the beauty and flow of life as it once was.

[ Yucca Mountain: our remote crypt for radioactive hazmat ]

A bothersome branch of science recently told us that anyone participating in modern society shares partial joint ownership of an utterly trashed and uninhabited “Garbage Island” (Henderson Island)—whether they know it or not, both literally and symbolically. In a way, Garbage Island and the Pacific Garbage Patch are abstractly vital to understanding ourselves as a generation, and how we have dealt some hidden tragic blows to faraway places. On white sandy beaches and azure seas, Henderson’s 57 species of flowering plant can be found intermingled with 40 million pieces of plastic garbage, the highest density of trash ever recorded. A routine survey recently turned into a dismal, startling discovery on the 14.4-square-mile coral atoll, so isolated and inaccessible that UNESCO once declared it a World Heritage Site with a near-pristine island ecosystem. Now it’s besieged with 20 metric tons (mt) of fishing nets, razors, toothbrushes, lighters, water bottles, helmets, factory parts and toy soldiers. A circular ocean current, the South Pacific Gyre, brings in anything that’s suspended in a saltwater conveyor belt. Scientists say more than 3,500 new pieces of plastic waste wash ashore daily. Our waste problem is now its problem, but it’s still our problem. There’s no “away” in the throw-away. Digested and metabolized inside the seabirds, marine mammals and fish are a fraction of the 11 mt of plastic that ends up in the ocean each year. It never completely degrades, and bobs around for decades.

With byproducts of an industrious society roosting in every conceivable nook and the vapors overhead, we couldn’t stop there, and went into the previously desolate zone beyond the Earth. With the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, mankind began its journey to reach the stars. The first probe in space returned to Earth after only three short months, and it kicked off a series of launches that not only inspired people but also filled the formerly-uninviting region with large chunks of inert metal. During the first American space walk in 1965, astronaut Edward White lost a glove. For a month the glove orbited the Earth at a speed of 24,000 mph, becoming one of the first pieces of space debris. NASA didn’t fathom how the situation would snowball out of control from there, or how millions of objects would end up floating around the planet by 2017—defunct satellites, rocket boosters, flakes of paint, nuts and bolts and, thanks to the cosmonauts on the Mir space station, drifting blocks of frozen urine. A piece of space debris the size of a coin moves so fast that it imposes the destructive force of a school bus traveling at full speed.

[ Stay fictional, future post-apocalyptic fantasy… ]

More than 50 years of space activity later, it’s a celestial landfill up there: 6,600 satellites have been launched with 3,600 remaining in orbit, and 1,000 of these are still active today. Although it’s difficult to observe exactly how many, most experts think there are 29,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 cm, 670,000 larger than 1 cm and more than 170 million larger than 1 mm. The debris has a total mass of more than 6,300 mt and can travel as fast as 35,000 mph. About 100 to 150 mt of it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere each year, with about 84% disintegrating before impact. While a Gravity-like scenario is unlikely, given the number of avoidance measures NASA is prepared for (the International Space Station is the “most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown”), the velocity and increasing number of space debris is dangerous. Scientists worry about the Kessler syndrome: a scenario where there is so much debris that it would be impossible to launch anything without a high risk of fragmentation. This chain-reaction could mean that our access to space would be lost.

Descending back to terra firma, the psychological landscape is vulnerable to crossover pollution from mistakes made in the tactile world. As a goal, most people agree we’d like to be happy or content enough to wake up without an alarm clock, expressing that we actually want to go out into our world. The situation described above stands to eliminate the urge. Clever ways to remediate and reabsorb tainted substances back into a useful or at least neutral/inert state are underway, and the long view is taking shape toward a less-toxic scheme as we live and learn how to cope with our untidiness or perish.

Our Scavenging Blueprint

Behaviorally, the human race owes a lot of what we are today to the inner scavenger. The evolution of scavenging is as fascinating as it is forgotten by most living in first-world, 21st-century comfort. Contrary to popular belief, in the 1950s Lewis Binford suggested that early humans were obtaining considerable meat via scavenging, not just hunting. To sum up what the two studies (linked above) expand upon: In 2010, several influential archeologists proposed that early Man was a keen scavenger that used stone tools to harvest meat off carcasses and to open bones. Males, in particular, specialized in long-distance running to compete with other scavengers in reaching carcasses. It has been suggested that such an adaptation ensured a food supply that made large brains possible. Further verification appears in Popular Archeology, fanning the concept that crows, raccoons, rats and insects are not too different than people, except in our format we avoid decaying matter enjoyed by the likes of bacteria, maggots and vultures. But inevitably it’s a scene where humans are also vulturine, rapacious and predatory.

The animal kingdom was built on scavenging and depends upon it. The earliest archaeological evidence of humans hunting and scavenging go back 2.2 million years. The first stone tool-making humans, known scientifically as Oldowan hominin, started to exhibit a number of physiological and ecological adaptations that required greater daily energy expenditures, including an increase in brain and body size, heavier investment in their offspring and significant home-range expansion. Demonstrating how these early humans acquired the extra energy they needed to sustain these shifts has been the subject of much debate among researchers. But scavenging was consistently conjured to augment whatever could not be supplied through hunting and gathering.

As a subconscious directive, the scavenging/rummaging act has simply changed formats to keep up with the times. In leaving lower primates in the dust we have foraged and extracted, fought and killed, and sifted through it all as scavengers, in order to assemble a vast industrial megastructure. Eventually the system nimbly tries to absorb what we have made useless, as finished products irreducibly head back into the infrastructure to be cast again as that which is to be scavenged, recycled, or disposed of forever in a hole. There will always be a question of “so, now what are we going to do with it?”

Scavengers & Detritus, Inc.

In the old days, scavenging was a pretty normal way of life. In modern American society and an age of abundance, scavengers are far fewer on a per-capita basis than in the third world. In most US states, there is an explosion of food and materials that goes to waste just outside the door. Very few Americans will stalk away from the store or restaurant for their sustenance. And yet, hidden in the empty spaces some ply the old virtues of enterprise and economy among that which many would call garbage, but what could more nobly be called the merits of the crow and raccoon as it exists in people.

Scavengers are often portrayed as marginal and as the poorest of the poor. This view lacks historical perspective. In both agrarian and industrialized societies, past and present, there is clear evidence that they are not always poor and that they play an important role in supplying raw materials for agriculture, artisans and industry. In fact, scavenging sometimes provides opportunities for individuals to obtain decent incomes and escape poverty. People at the bottom and people at the top; both are scavengers. One harkens back to basics, while the other appears outwardly fancy and sophisticated…yet virtually nothing has changed in our core modus operandi.

Scavengers of San Francisco: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

San Francisco is crowded, unstable, and by all global benchmarks a city of multiple hustles played on a matrix of lax law enforcement and accelerating populations of vagabond drifters, drug addicts and other unscheduled guests by land and sea. Much of the scavenging in SF is centered on recyclable collection and the thievery of higher-value recyclables, though there are freegans and industrious dumpster-diving hobbyists who also seek to exploit the parklands and open spaces. This marginal group possesses a day-to-day ethic for survival that elevates them above the strung-out beggars and paralyzed street schizos. Whether it was Baghdad by the Bay, New York, Miami or any other city, the most industrious scavengers go about their way in sobriety and without shame.

In the districts of San Francisco, we can toss out 10 used-up and busted small appliances, furniture or electronics on the eve of a bulk pickup. Then we see how all but three or four worthless bits of flotsam were spirited away by morning. In the pre-dawn hours the city’s carefully-consolidated garbage, recycling and compost bins are picked over by individuals who later haul perceived goods, bottles and cans to the county’s designated recycling centers (or black-market collectors around corners and under freeway overpasses) and turn trash into cash. The practice is illegal and inflates garbage-collection rates. (Additional links #1 and #2). And yet, this is widely considered a soft crime known for rarely attracting police scrutiny.

On bulk garbage nights, comically-overloaded old pickup trucks prowl the neighborhood for used televisions, broken toaster ovens and 1970s bathroom fixtures dislodged from the constant thrum of renovation and wealth-building. They’ll be back even when it isn’t bulk garbage night. As a result of their avid interest in taking away all manner of redeemable bottles, base metals and anything else that commands garage-sale prices in the underground economy, regular citizens subsidize the loss through higher garbage collection fees. The municipality’s sentiment is split between the irate (who believe a sturdy welfare program exists to obviate the need for illicit income streams and trespassing in the darkness) versus those who are resigned to the realities of dubious resource ownership involving nighttime alleyways and sidewalks (aware of things ripe for the picking on a curb, alone, packaged for removal, and out in the open).

We know the waste management company’s rate hikes would be smaller and less frequent if others would not steal all the cans and bottles from the bins. This material was supposed to fund the pick-up costs; instead it created a cottage industry that doesn’t abide the rules. And since we all recycle now, perhaps the 20th century relic and cash incentive known as “redemption rebate” (at five or ten cents per item) should go away or be modified to accommodate some sort of scavenger’s access, recognizing how subsistence-level living without total humiliation requires finding something meaningful to do while ensuring the residents’ usable fragments of waste are efficiently funneled to a central location.

Foraging and Tracking Afield, Untamed

City scavengers are grid-dependent and needy, while proficient rural scavengers request no aid and rise to the challenge of sustaining themselves in the wild for months or even years if necessary. Nature is the great teacher, and gives ecology its deeper meaning. Inside and beyond the strict needs of a survival situation, we are taught some precious lessons about living with the Earth. Living this way in the fullest is more than mere survival. It is more than the frenzy and desperation that passes for life in much of the modern world. To some, living with the Earth is an intimate belonging.

Most of our lives are far more complicated than those of our ancestors. But beneath our civilized façade we are strikingly the same when it comes to needs, instincts and drives. The main difference is that our senses are duller. But through tracking, foraging, hunting, scavenging and surviving in the wild we can retrieve much of the sensitivity that has been lost. It rarely occurs to us that there is a deeper meaning and wisdom in the artifacts and relics of remote, worn-out societies and cultures, yet we distance ourselves even further by looking at them superficially as museum exhibits. Within the dead cultures are timeless skills adapted from a variety of traditions, catalogued into stories about how to do and make things. American trackers, survivalists and forager-scavengers are based on Native American methods, partly because most people on this continent are more familiar with them.

Civilization has its problems, but also its advantages. Without giving up modern conveniences there are ways of thinking and experiencing “Earth living.” Not to suggest we abandon the modern world, but to live more fully within it. The Native American elders like Black Elk spoke long ago about this awareness given to all of us, pre-tarmac and power lines, where hidden in our hearts there are levels of awareness we have forgotten, waiting to be tapped. Survival and a natural reverence for life go together.

In the process of combing the wild for edibles, useful materials and signs of life, there’s a nearly-invisible marvel in seeing the way tracks can influence our setting and search. Few would really care to trace the raccoon through his nighttime wanderings, being parallel to rats with behavior that has repeatedly morphed within the human-built environment. Before disappearing back into the seclusion of the wilderness or subterranean city lair, a raccoon emerged from the ancient forest to fulfill its identity as a consummate forager. He ate from Tuesday’s junk pile, elderberries from the bush, and several crawfish from the creek behind the house. Not choosy, he will resort to scarfing down putrid, wretched stuff you wouldn’t even call food if he were hungry and desperate enough. As the raccoon tracks into our habitations to forage, we track him back out into the countryside to where he lies down to sleep, and see where there’s forage for humans and wily nocturnal omnivores alike. What does the raccoon pay attention to and what does it ignore behind the furry mask? We can sense a certain similarity even if their routine is alien to us: In order to track and get food when you’re hungry, weather conditions, time of day, lay of the land and state of mind all have to be considered.

These and many other questions are just the beginning of awareness that was inherent in elders such as the mythical Stalking Wolf, who reportedly instilled his wisdom in one modern American master of tracking: Tom Brown. Despite Brown’s contributions to the art, science and spiritual pursuits of tracking and survival, here is no evidence that “Stalking Wolf” ever existed, though he remains as a metaphorical construct.

Like Brown, countless kids grew up on the edge of untamed wildernesses like the Pine Barrens, where the backwoods were still pristine and some people (Pineys) lived off the land. This was the kind of place where a boy could develop a passion for the wild and exploration that during childhood transcends other endeavors. Some long to learn more than just the superficial information that modern life provides. In their bones they want to know how to survive, how to track and locate, how to read the flora and fauna, how to be aware. In the forests we’ve seen how children instinctually behave atavistically and have no problem entertaining themselves to a point of complete absorption, learning and observing.

Only in the complete submersion of awareness does the hunter, forager or scavenger begin to see where there are clandestine signs and roadways worn into the scenery. The trails, runs, pushdowns, beds, lays, feeding areas, water areas, escape routes and hides make up the “signs” found throughout the animal biomes. As the critical reasoning deepens we see how not all parts of a landscape contain life-sustaining features, sharpening the basic faculty that keeps us from looking for deer in the middle of the ocean. For example, the hunter observes how wildlife concentrates in or around a deep forest. A deep forest has poor ground cover due to the upper canopy of treetops blocking out the sun. Poor ground cover means there’s very little diversity in the vegetation and not much refuge. So too the middle of a field may contain great diversity of vegetation but no cover whatsoever. What the hunter looks for is the kind of landscape that sits between forest and field, or between waterways and fields—fringe areas full of life. This one ordinary aspect of tracking expands the basic awareness level and makes excursions into the wild more productive. Tracking teaches us to observe the landscape as a whole, and directs us to where sustenance can be found.

An animal, just like a human, is an instrument played by the landscape. When we search and track, we learn about a life. Each track becomes a word and each trail a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter of an animal’s life. We get to know what it eats, where it sleeps, where it hides, and when it drinks. We intimately learn its likes and dislikes, its interactions with others, and the very world it lives in and travels through. And though issuing from a practical knowledge, tracking subsequently opens a doorway to understanding the animals and landscape spiritually.

Foraging arises from tracking: tracing signs and impressions left by animals and plants as they grow and crisscross the countryside. The hunt, for anything, began with a track that reached back to another time, a distant time, to the dawning of life. An ancient track, found lying on what was once the primordial shore, wrapped in the medium we call a fossil but which native Americans call a “talking stone,” brings us together in the mystery of the track.

Tracking teaches survival, awareness, the way of the Earth and the philosophy Buddhists call “oneness.” A track is a guide to something unknown in the near future, and which draws back to the legacy of previous movement. In this manner the tracking and foraging reaches a lofty, spiritual echelon.

The Atavistic Purity of Scavenging

The hunter or fisherman often comes home empty-handed, but the forager, although he may fail to find the particular item (valuable garbage, commodity scrap metals, plants, herbs, or wild game) can more easily load his knapsack with useful materials, wholesome and palatable food, and other necessities. His quarry will change as the seasons advance, plying the fields and forests that might furnish something good to eat. So can the cities and suburbs, in their own degraded way; for starters, many backyard and alleyway weeds are edible. It costs nothing but the labor of gathering and preparing it, and for a lot of people it goes past the necessity of being economical, and into genuine interest or a source of recreation.

The skilled forager approaches the task with a satisfying sense of love for the wild, even if he’s forced to prepare an unpleasant-tasting mess that relieves not even half the hunger. Scavengers remain flexible, grow adept at quickly substituting one thing for another, and learn to appreciate new flavors. They are non-reactionary in scenarios that polite, pretentious society might call disgusting. Nothing is relegated to the category of an “acquired taste” — all tastes are acquired tastes beyond human milk (which is innate).

Meanwhile, there are staple foods and luxury foods in polished products lining the shelves of a hypermarket near you, and the scene above fades away, made irrelevant in the modern swaddle. A few billion people claim they prefer to buy their fruit and vegetables (among the many grocery categories) from a supermarket for reasons of sanitation and cleanliness, which to the consummate forager looks like one of the more illogical prejudices of all. The devitalized and days-old produce found on most supermarket shelves has been raised in an ordinary monoculture (including the dirt), manured with God-knows-what, and sprayed with poisons a list of which would read like a toxicology textbook. After being harvested by distant migrant workers, it’s handled by processors and distributors and store employees and picked over by hordes of customers.

By contrast, the scavenging forager abides a separate code and admires wild food growing in the clean, uncultivated fields and woods—having never been touched by human hands until they came along to claim it. No artificial inputs with sources of pollution took place around it. Nature’s own methods had instead perfected and maintained the fertility that produced it and no poisonous sprays came nearby it; in this wild way it has never been dirty.

Despite the widespread adoption of conservation measures, one has to wonder what kind of capacity foraging life could withstand, given the current swarm of people on the planet. What methods could we devise to allay the fear that an increased interest (either voluntarily or by force of catastrophe) would result in the depletion or extinction of any of our valuable plants or wildlife in an age of rampant overpopulation?

The Tainted Grid and a Secret Vocation by the Sea

Most Americans won’t have to realize how starving mouths eat with reverent awareness. Euell Gibbons understood this elevated connection better than most. Often mistaken for a survivalist, Gibbons was more modestly an advocate of nutritious-but-neglected plants. He understood the minutiae of coastal and maritime scavenging as a special niche, full of meaning. He was the modern, knowledgeable scavenger-forager displaying his appreciative acceptance of the hidden bounty so graciously offered in a new and deeper way.

Foraging for refuse is seen as inglorious, but there is an art in it, much as there is a lost art in gathering what is abundantly available by scouring the nearby beaches for wild vegetables, herbs and other unusual ingredients to work with. People devise new recipes from the old ways, whether we’re in nature or the filthy, decrepit city. Along the ocean fringe a fascinating experiment lies among the edible seaweeds with their offering of essential minerals. The collection, preparation and enjoyment of nature’s bounty lends credence to our existence. This is why most sacred rites of higher religions involve ceremonial eating and drinking. The modern scavenger achieves communion with the land and sea in the grateful reception of the free gift of food that has never been assembled for gain or sold at a profit, lifting their efforts from an irksome task to a fine art. When done correctly the taste, texture and aroma fuses a sacrament that nourishes the soul as well as the body. When someone goes foraging in the mysterious zone between civilization and the wild, and between the tides, he is not raiding an alien or hostile territory; he is returning to his ancient home and a noble one.

But aren’t these shores all taken up by commercialization and development, ports, resorts and boardwalks, or otherwise ruined by industrial, residential and agricultural pollution? Not all of it. For the seaside forager alone there are 54,000 miles of shoreline in the United States and Canada, another 26,000 if we add Alaska. Add to these all the studded coasts of islands and the nearby shores of Mexico, and the figure rises to 150,000 miles of saltwater shoreline that is largely accessible. Subtract all that civilization has rendered unfit for the kind of foraging advocated here, and there is still a length of tidal shoreline that would reach more than five times around the world. On the US west coast there are still thousands of uninhabited miles of spectacularly beautiful shores where mountain, forest and sea compete for your attention. In southern California, one can find desert scenery and marine landscapes side by side, with shorelines loaded with many edible creatures. Perhaps not in the filthy port of Long Beach, but it’s still out there in the protected spaces. We must ensure that we do not overpopulate and destroy these remaining pockets.

How different things are when a person sets out to really live in contact with nature, gleaning as many needs from natural sources as possible. Alas, 90% or more of Americans have no desire and will never attempt to live off the land for a time. Food is elemental, and when an off-grid individual is given such immediate and compelling reasons to learn nature’s secrets, they will throw themselves into the study with surprising enthusiasm because their next meal may depend upon it. Gathering even a small portion of one’s food from the wild not only brings new and useful knowledge, but changes attitudes. A child who participates in food-gathering in such a basic and original way will never be indifferent to food again. That is the magic of wild foraging. To gain maximum benefit from this activity, it must be approached with the right spirit. We are left, then, to not imagine ourselves engaged as acquisitive raiders in the conquest of nature, as we see all over the cities, but to see nature as a friend with whom we can and must cooperate. This is part of a prehistoric inheritance, seasoned with respect and humility.

The foraging and scavenging vocation isn’t a lost art or a new invention. It has been practiced in America for thousands of years. A renewed fascination begins with the simplest notion:

“The best things in life are free.”