Man as scavenger

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Afarm couple in Colorado opened their fields last month to gleaners, giving away what was left of their harvest. Expecting about 5,000 people to show up, they were shocked when 40,000 arrived. This may be a sign of the times. As the economy plummets, we enter an environment ripe for scavengers. From field gleaners to garage-sale aficionados, they are everywhere and are coming from everywhere. I am one of them, a modern hunter-gatherer.

I cannot walk by a pen dropped on the street without checking it for ink, then slipping it into my pocket. There's something primal and deeply satisfying about searching for the manna of civilization. A dismal city landscape becomes a carnival of possibilities.

My bathtub came out of a house that was being torn down. The same for most of the windows and doors in my house. My collection of mismatched work gloves came from the street, along with countless screws and bolts I just had to pick up.

In some cases, scavenging is a matter of survival. Dump gleaners in India -- who will likely never see life outside a landfill -- collect about $280 million a year in salvageable materials from mountains of garbage. Around the world, this occupation is stigmatized and sometimes made illegal, which does nothing but drive scavengers deeper into poverty.

Meanwhile, scavengers across the nation are denuding cities of wire, screws, nails, copper pipe, manhole covers and even grave markers, taking them to the nearest salvage yard where they can easily pull $30 a day.

A 500-pound bronze statue of a miner was stolen this year from a park near Beverly Hills. Valued at $125,000, it was sold for $900 to a metal company, where supervisors became suspicious and held it for police.

In Los Angeles, more than 85% of the city's residents separate recyclables for trash day. In some neighborhoods, scavengers find themselves sharing the "territory" with several rivals. The city has a misdemeanor law against taking others' trash, but it's rarely enforced.

Scavenging has never been a noble art. May I suggest, however, that we lift scavenging out of the darkness and sing the praises of those who cull the world. With retirement funds freshly trashed and banks falling into black holes, it may be time for many of us to exercise our inner hunter-gatherer, the part of us with nimble fingers and rooting curiosity. Yard sale versus Wal-Mart? Come on, there is only so much convenience and overhead lighting one can stand.

I live in rural western Colorado. When I am looking for a quiet place to write, I sometimes go to the badlands near my house. A dirt road leads to an ad hoc shooting range, usually with no one there. A desk and a chair have been left out where people sit and steady their aim, picking off beer bottles or discarded appliances. I use the desk as a sort of office, opening my laptop and typing away in my own little patch of desolation.

I suppose it is a form of scavenging once-removed. The other day a Ford Explorer pulled up to my desk. The man who got out had a feathered 1970s hairstyle and a Sonny Bono mustache. We said hello, and right away he began scanning the ground, a boneyard of shotgun shells and empty bullet casings. He flicked a brass cap into his palm. I'd never seen him before, but I recognized him right away. He was a scavenger.

"You got a gold mine here," he said. "You could make a few hundred dollars just off the surface."

I asked how he intended to do this. He said he could dig three feet down and still find bullets, tens of thousands of them. He would dig them up and sell them for scrap. Even as the market fluctuates, there is always a price for good metal.

Did he need the money? Not really. He told me he was a transient worker, currently employed for good pay at a coal mine. How could he pass up a shooting range like this? I liked him right away, a fellow connoisseur of things left behind. As he showed me which kinds of bullets have what metal, he said, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Even a tired phrase like that sounded fresh and enthusiastic coming from his mouth.

What a wonderful way to see the world. Never mind saving the planet or even saving money. This is about doing what feels natural. A small number of anthropologists studying early hominids have triumphed scavenging as an evolutionary vector that led us to modern intelligence. Meanwhile, anthropologists on the man-the-hunter side of the argument see scavenging as a more primitive function, dirty perchance. They see the more upstanding hominids hauling kills to butchering camps, while us grubby scavengers were defending found carcasses from hyenas and vultures. No doubt early hominids did a little of both, a flexibility that we share today. That's got to do something for intelligence.

Nowadays you can hold a job and still be a respectable scavenger. Looking at me, you might not guess I'm one. I could be your respectable, middle-aged next-door neighbor. But I happen to know how to gently rest my hips on the edge of a dumpster and dip inside, grab what I'm after, then slip back into sidewalk traffic without a smudge. There were times in my life that I got most of my food out of trash cans, and lived well. In fact, I lived on the tips of my toes, my senses heightened, eyes sharpened for anything left lying about. I try to keep that skill honed. I stay on the lookout. I glance into every open trash can I pass.

The old habit may soon be a necessary way of life.

Craig Childs is the author, most recently, of "The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild."

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