I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past six years as a wild food forager, organic gardener, and localvore are the lessons of abundance and scarcity, and the interplay between the two. Crops fail, others boom, patches of mushrooms are discovered and never found again. You never know what a year will be like on your homestead, or what the season will be like for foraging. You’ll never know when you go somewhere new what you will find–if anything. You have something really great happen one year–like a huge patch of wild berries turned into jam–and then the next two years, the berry patch isn’t producing because the weather early in the season was too cold or there was a late frost. Or the sap runs abundantly one year, or in the next, its gone. When you do find something exciting, or something you like is in abundance, taking the time to preserve it is an important step. And when the seasons change, as they inevitably do, scarcity sets in, and the stores you’ve put by, the jars of food you’ve canned, become an important part of your daily life. Through these lessons over the years, I’d like to say that I’m beginning to understand abundance and scarcity–and through these lessons, I realize how valuable of concepts they are to help shift our broader cultural consciousness.
On the Nature of Abundance
The “abundance” principle thriving at our grocery stores creates some problems within the modern human mind, to say the least. When you always have access to something, like strawberries, those things become commonplace, everyday, routine. The strawberry that is always abundant and available loses its magic, any sacredness it has. That strawberry also has little to no value. It further loses this sacredness and value because all you have to do to get your (now tasteless) strawberries is to go to the store and put a plastic container of strawberries in your cart. You aren’t connected to the strawberry, you didn’t plant the plants, you didn’t watch them flower, grow, ripen. You haven’t had the bliss of putting that first strawberry of the season in your mouth. You certainly aren’t thinking about drought or famine or pesticides or who picked it under which conditions or any other concerns about that strawberry. The cost of the strawberry and the look of the strawberry are the only problems. The taste isn’t even a factor when you pick it off the shelf in most cases. The strawberry is just another good to be consumed. Never, at any other time in human history, were people so disconnected from the contexts in which their food is produced and grown. Food always being abundant in the grocery store masks the circumstances in which it is produced, masks the manner of the production, masks anything out of balance that might be problematic. It also disconnects us from the seasons and cycles of our landscapes. But the most deep problem, I believe, is that we assume its always going to be there, like magic, when we want it, and if its not perfect, we can throw it away and get more. And because we can get all of it anytime we like, its not really sacred anymore; the act of eating and communing isn’t a sacred act.
If food isn’t valued or sacred, it ends up going to waste. The food waste data on this country (and many industrialized nations) is appalling: in the US, up to 40% of the food produced in this country is wasted at some step: in the fields, in the factories, at the supermarkets, at home. Waste happens all along the system, from homes to restaurants, from corporate food policies, to grocery stores. Most of it is not composted or returned to the cycle of nutrients, but is thrown away. If food waste could be gotten under control, that’s 40% less land we would need, less pesticides, less fossil fuel…less of everything (even assuming an industrialized food model). And we have many hungry people here and elsewhere that could benefit from that food. I think part of the way we can get food waste under control is by people growing a bit more of their own, which introduces the concepts of abundance and scarcity and also increases the value of the food to them because they have put hard work into growing it. The principle of waste doesn’t just apply to food–we are inundated with “stuff” in this culture; cheap stuff that wears out quickly and stuff that encourages us to produce more waste. This, also, is a problem of abundance–too much stuff = too little value.
Furthermore, supermarket abundance isn’t real abundance. Its abundance propped up by fossil fuel, which is really only condensed, trapped energy from the sun under pressure and transformation for 10’s of 1000’s of years. And this is a critical distinction to make–abundance in our immediate landscapes is different than perceived supermarket abundance. Fossil fuel abundance isn’t the land producing extensively; its the factory farms producing a shoddy, likely GMO, and likely pesticide ridden thing that masquerades as abundant food.
What does abundance in the land (as opposed to the grocery store) look like? Last year, we had one of the most abundant apple harvests that anyone here in Michigan can remember. The trees were literally so full of fruit that they were breaking under the weight of their branches. Most people I saw on the streets in my nearby town bitterly complained about the apples falling in their front yards. They piled them up in heaps on the curb with their fall leaves. And then those same people would go out to to the store and buy jars of applesauce and little bags of apples that were more “perfect” than the ones that fell off the trees in the backyard. The permies in the area, of course, had huge pressing parties. I’d like to think the apple harvest last year had something to do with our yearly Wassail rites, but I digress…This year, the apple harvest in this area was literally non-existent. Apples, hawthorns, crabapples, most other tree fruit crops largely failed to produce any harvest, even a meager one. And when you depend on wild apples for applesauce and pressing into cider, you begin to understand the meaning of scarcity.
The strawberry in an abundant year is different. This year, I had a prolific strawberry harvest out of my little strawberry spiral I planted two years ago. The strawberries didn’t do much their first or second years. This year…magic happened. The strawberries crawled over the spiral path and it was lost. They bloomed, and bloomed, and finally burst forth with delicious fruit. These were the best strawberries I have ever eaten, the most incredible food I could ever have imagined. I harvested and canned almost 50 lbs…and then friends came over, harvested, and canned themselves. Other friends wanted plants for themselves, and the strawberries were so abundant that they took 100’s of plants without making a dent in my patch. Then in the fall, they fruited again and I had a few handfuls before the frost made everything die back earlier this month. The little patch is now covered in snow, and I now have jars and jars of strawberry jam, strawberry rhubarb jam, and strawberry vanilla jam. I appreciate the abundance of the strawberry, and recognize that it will once again be scarce. So I value it and make the most of it when it is around!
The lesson of scarcity is a critical one, and one we’ve completely lost in modern consumerist society. Consumerist society, with its grocery stores full of perfect(ly chemical ridden) produce is season-less and context-less. In my lifetime, the grocery stores have nearly always been abundant. Strawberries are always in season in my grocery store. Tomatoes and peppers are always available. I can pretty much have whatever I want, when I want it, and as much as I want, provided I can shell out the cash. If something I want isn’t on the shelf, it will be back in only a few days’ time, if I even have to wait that long. And the food is context-less because I rarely know where it came from, perhaps a state or country of origin, but literally nothing else. In other words, consumerist society has pushed us to believe that everything is always abundant. This is not how it really is on my homestead, in the places I forage or the lands that I walk. This is not how it really is at all, nor how it has been for most of human history.
Scarcity is a lived experience of so many around the world, including plenty in this country, but for those with privilege, its possible they have never experienced it. Scarcity also takes many forms–it can be scarcity in resources to pay for food, scarcity in the food itself, scarcity in other life’s necessities. And its not always pretty, but it certainly does have lessons to teach. In the foraging and organic gardening world, scarcity is what makes things special, magical, and full of value. It is scarcity that allows me to savor every bite of the strawberry jam I made, because my strawberries taste better than anyone else’s, and my jam is better than I can buy, and I only have a limited quantity of it.
Scarcity teaches us value. I found zero chicken of the woods mushrooms that were in the condition to eat this year–but my parents found some, and the few bags of them they gave me are prized, important. I will savor every bite. We had few black raspberries or blackberries this year, so again, the stores I had from the year before are valuable, sacred, and eaten with reverence and respect. It is only when you do not have something, or you lose something, that you really understand its value. When I was a kid, my parents didn’t let me eat crappy sugary cereals. Once a year, my sister and I could pick out any cereal we wanted. That cereal was valued, important, special, cause we only got it once a year. While my parents did this to promote health, it taught us a valuable lesson–that of scarcity. They made the act of eating a sugary cereal a special thing, not a commonplace occurrence.
I think about the drought going on now through most of the west, especially in California. Water is another limited resource that we often take granted, and I think when you lose it and it becomes scarce, you learn to value it. I learn this same lesson about water and electricity every time our power goes out–the well is powered by electricity; if there is no electricity, there is no water. When the power went out for 7 days last November, I very much appreciated it when it turned back on. In many ways, the lack of water is much harder to deal with than the lack of electricity! These scarcities, temporary or more long-term, teach lessons that are hopefully longstanding–that all resources on this earth are precious, valued, and limited.
This is, I think, the most important lesson that scarcity has to teach us. Scarcity teaches us about limitations. Despite the way that humanity is acting towards this planet, the planet is finite, precious, limited, magical, valuable. When you understand the limitations and what scarcity does, it teaches us to be mindful and aware. It gives us a sense of appreciation for what we do have. If we can get into this mindful mindset taught to us through the experience of scarcity, we can apply this mindset broadly in our lives and come to the understanding that everything is precious, valued, magical. We can realize that every action has consequences, every thing we buy is something that should be considered for the long term. We can can monitor everything that goes into the trash, or hopefully stop having trash at all.
I think if we can better understand the nature of scarcity, and experience it in our lives willfully, it allows us to make better choices. We can live simply, better, within our limits, and without so much stuff. And that is of benefit to ourselves, our communities, and our world.