The ancient, honorable practice of gleaning |

The ancient, honorable practice of gleaning

Zechariah Matthews displays his harvest.
Marilyn Gleason / Post Independent contributor |

The peach tree at the gas station at the edge of New Castle had a bumper crop two years ago. I hadn’t noticed the proud, tidy tree spreading over the little island of green at the filling station entrance until bunches of my favorite fruit clung thickly to every twig.

The boughs grew so heavily laden that I feared they would break under the weight of the swelling peaches. One afternoon after gassing up, I spent the better part of an hour thinning the hard green fruit. I hoped that later I would reap the fruits of my labor by picking a bag to eat or to preserve. I enjoyed the irony of one-stop shopping for gas and carbon-free food.

How many gas stations have their own peach tree?

In Ed’s old Webster’s dictionary, definition number one of glean is “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers.”

Gleaning is an ancient tradition, spelled out in the Bible’s agricultural poor-laws. The Mosaic law enjoins: “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. xix. 9, 10).

Sustainable Settings on the historic Thompson Creek Ranch hosted a gleaning day two weeks ago, inviting all comers to bring a bag and pick the garden clean before the snow flies. The not-for-profit, 244-acre ranch explores avenues for sustainability through whole-systems strategies in agriculture, land stewardship, green development and microenterprise. That’s a fancy way of saying they tend the ranch the way it has been since the 1880s, letting it teach them and their students the old wisdom of self-sufficiency.

These days in my part of the world, plenty gets left behind. Settlers recognized the floodplain of the Colorado River from the Grand Hogback to Grand Junction as a great place to farm. Warm days, cool nights and hard winter freezes make it an ideal climate for apples and stone fruits and concord grapes.

The summer I moved to New Castle was a revelation. As I took my old dog Jaxon on daily walks around my new neighborhood, I began to notice apple trees. Everywhere. Also cherries, plums, pears, peaches and grapevines. I made a habit of sampling the dozen or more apple trees on my typical four-block walk. By fall I had chosen my favorites.

Many orchards still survive in the area, having escaped the scrape of the bulldozer. Fall comes and goes with rosy, snapping-crisp apples clinging to the trees; in the winter they turn brown but hold on as the leaves crinkle and fall away from them.

On Colby Farm we try to keep up with our honeycrisp and Golden Delicious apples. Late-ripening Arkansas black twig are due for harvest this week before that hard freeze arrives. I admit, a dozen venerable old apple trees in the old lower orchard are out of control and more than we can manage. But the fruit doesn’t go to waste. Nancy Limbach sends a crew of gleaners to pick them clean for the orphaned bear cubs and other ursine boarders at her Pauline S. Schneegas wildlife rescue operation near Silt, and Ed takes the tax writeoff.

Later last summer I came back for more gas and to check on “my” peach tree, and instead I found a stump. I was stunned. At the cash register inside I learned the owner didn’t like the fruit dropping on the ground or attracting people to pick it.

Ed saw it as a missed opportunity. “They could have handed out bags and let their customers take a few juicy peaches home when the time came. It would have been a PR coup.”

If I were queen, I’d issue an edict placing all healthy fruit trees under my royal protection.

My neighbors in town are accomplished gleaners. In addition to growing a fine kitchen garden and raising prize-winning 4-H chickens and ducks, they’ve staked out all the once-valued, now-neglected fruit trees in town.

I called Jennifer to tell her we have a plethora of Golden Delicious hanging on our four trees, and could she help? The next day she arrived with her three darling blonde children and the dog. Jennifer picked boxes of apples while Adam and Sarah and Zechariah picked grapes, gathered walnuts from the ground and ate concords straight from the vine that taste just like Welch’s juice. The dogs got in a fight.

Before they roared away to make applesauce and grape juice, Jennifer dropped a box of pears at my feet she’d picked earlier in the day, and offered to lend me her tiller to put the garden to bed for the long winter.

Marilyn Gleason gleans food and meaning from her farm in Peach Valley. Send her your comments and ideas at

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