The Ant, the Grasshopper and the Silkworm

A dozen multilevel homes crowd a single block in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, jostling in the late afternoon rain of a summer day for a perch on Sherman Street. They face a sidewalk stained and slippery with indigo pulp under a tree whose limbs are laden with mulberries.

The fruit has attracted attention.

Five men and women convene under the mulberry tree as the rain fizzles and rush hour begins. None of them knows any of the others, but they’ve used an online mailing list to arrange today’s meeting. One of them, a petite woman with tightly-curled black hair, has brought a ten-foot stepladder, two aluminum poles, two plastic tarps, and one large bucket, all of which are strapped with bungee cords to a borrowed bike trailer.

The members of this gathering belong to The League of Urban Canners (LUrC), a cooperative whose mission statement includes making low-cost food easily available, building community and reducing waste. On a more practical level they’re a bunch of people taking unwanted fruit they find in people’s yards. LUrC has two hundred such harvest sites across Cambridge and neighboring Somerville, most of them privately-owned, but some of them on public property. Throughout the year LUrC oversees these sites, taking care of pruning, soil enhancement and pest management services, all free of charge. But it’s during the growing season that LUrC is most active, when they may organize as many as six or seven harvests each week.

LUrC recommends, but does not require, that a harvest be divided in a particular way: seventy percent goes to the canners; twenty percent is split amongst the harvesters. The number of harvesters allowed to join is usually limited to two to four people to keep it worthwhile for everyone—in a twenty pound harvest each participant will go home with one or two pounds of fruit after an hour of work. The property owner, if there is one, gets a tithe of the remaining ten percent. This may seem paltry compensation, but it’s usually a welcome windfall. Harvesting can be hard, hot and messy, even dangerous. The elderly are glad for the help, as are those too busy or too disinterested to do the work. Most of the fruit gathered by LUrC would otherwise be left to rot.

In LUrC, money never changes hands—only fruit. In 2012, the group gathered more than 4100 pounds of fruit, mostly apples, but also apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, pears, cherries, blueberries, crabapples, figs, grapes, black walnuts, raspberries, quince and mulberries, like the ones on Sherman Street.

After spreading tarps and placing ladders, the canners use customized metal poles to methodically knock ripe fruit from the trees. “I think the trick is to shake the branches with low amplitude and high frequency,” says the black-haired woman. Her name is Anne Callahan, and she’s the team leader this evening. As fruit rains down—soft, fragrant missiles that sometimes land in pockets, collars or cleavage—so, too, do sprays of water, soaking the workers. When berries no longer fall from a branch, the group lifts high the corners of the tarp, pushing the collected fruit inward so twigs, leaves and bugs can be removed before the berries are gently scooped from tarp, to hand, to bucket. When all the fruit has gone into the bucket, the canners set the ladder aside, drag the tarp to the next branch, move the ladder back onto the tarp, and begin the process again.

Callahan is the leader of this harvest, but the cooperative’s organizational structure is both flat and fluid. A team leader only holds the office for a few hours. The role is voluntary, but, “of all things to lead,” Callahan says gratefully, “you have the least responsibility.” As team leader, she’ll see when a site is ready for harvest and post a call for volunteers on the group’s mailing list. On the day of the harvest, she’ll get the necessary equipment from LUrC headquarters in Somerville. Once the harvest is complete, she’ll apportion the fruit and return the tools.

The third-floor walkup where Callahan lives is five blocks away from the mulberry tree she’s harvesting. The average resident of North Cambridge is young, white, single and childless, recently-graduated with an advanced degree, underpaid, but with a bright future. This describes Callahan accurately, if incompletely. It leaves out, for example, her melancholy green eyes, and her easy smile.

Farmers’ markets were more like flea markets in the part of Ohio where Callahan grew up; vendors, not farmers, resold shrink-wrapped produce of uncertain origin off the backs of trucks. When she went to college in rural Middlebury, Vermont, she discovered farmers’ markets could sell something other than what she found in the grocery store, and the person she was buying food from was, in fact, a farmer. He lived nearby, he loved what he was doing and he was there every week. From farmers like him she learned the difference between local, seasonal, ripe food and “a tomato shipped in from wherever in December.”

In 2011, Callahan moved to Cambridge get a master’s degree in art. Eager to learn about her new home, she signed up for anything and everything she could find. Eventually she heard about LUrC. One of the first events she went to was an “epic” 400 pound apple harvest. It wasn’t picking so many apples that made it memorable, but what the group did with them afterward: they made cider, pressing the apples and bottling their juice. One of the LUrCers had acquired a hundred-year-old cider press but no one knew how it worked. Eventually the group figured out how to use it, if inefficiently. Making cider turned into an all-day affair. “It was a ton of work,” says Callahan, “and it’s kind of stupid that we think this is a fun thing to do on a Saturday, trying to figure out this antique object. You can imagine some kid in the neighborhood coming up to us and saying, ‘You know you can buy a bottle of cider for two bucks, right?’ But when we got the sweet cider it was like, ‘Wow. This was worth it.’”

In North Cambridge, the bucket of fruit is filling quickly. The collected mulberries vary in color from deep purple, to amaranth, to a greenish-white berry that, with its opalescent sheen and protruding black seeds, looks larval. Yet even the pallid, bug-like berries are aromatic and satisfying, if milder in flavor than their companions.

It’s surprising this tree stands unpicked and unloved when it has so much to offer: it’s long-lived, can grow as much as ten feet in twelve months and will bear fruit in its first year, a fruit that’s rich and sweet, as suitable as any berry for making pie, jam, jelly, wine, sorbet, ice cream, syrup or sauce, or simply picking and eating. Its leaves can be fed to livestock. It thrives in a variety of soil types and acidity levels and can tolerate the air pollution of a busy street. Yet few Americans consider the mulberry today.

For those who do, it’s usually only as a nuisance. Mulberries, when fully ripe, are so soft and water-laden that even the lightest touch will break their thin skins, allowing them to mold or ferment quickly in the summer’s heat. The tree’s fruits become bombs that explode indiscriminately underfoot, on sidewalks, cars and driveways, attracting birds and squirrels and—of particular concern in an urban setting—rats. This animal magnetism, along with the plant’s considerable vigor, means most people view it as a weed and damn it as an invasive species.

The mulberry’s public image wasn’t always so beleaguered. It was once a proud symbol of American industry and a promise of prosperity. The tree’s leaves are the sole food source of the domesticated silkworm, which is itself the sole source of silk; producing silk means producing mulberries. For the first three centuries of America’s existence, the government—first colonial, then federal—regularly passed laws and created incentives it hoped would create an American silk industry that rivaled that of the Far East. Twentieth century innovations rendered that aspiration irrelevant with the development of synthetic alternatives to silk, like nylon and rayon. Now, mulberry trees linger on throughout the country, relics of a pre-industrial era that attract little attention.

Whether they move by foot or car or bike, by scooter or skateboard, passersby mostly show no interest in the mulberry harvest. One woman, though, accompanied by three young girls, is curious. Callahan explains the gathering process, then suggests the children take some fruit. After tasting a mulberry, one of the girls pronounces it sweet. Later, another woman, walking her dog, notes, “That’s hard work you’re doing.” “It’s tasty work!” replies League member Sam Musher.

Musher, 34, is a school librarian living in Somerville, which has been her home since she moved there to get her master’s degree in education. She has no misty memories of making meals from scratch with her family. Her mother and grandmother were both “box-and-can” cooks who occasionally made matzah balls and other “quote-unquote ethnic food.”

Like Callahan, Musher developed a new perspective on food after she left home. During graduate school she found herself with the time and the desire to visit the nearby farmers’ market. Soon, she was shopping there weekly, buying more and more of her food from farmers rather than grocers. She drifted into eating seasonally and thinking about where her food came from. Seeing the people who grew her food week after week, talking to them about how they grew it and why they decided to use one approach over another made her feel connected, through food, to a broader community.

“Something about that life as I started to live it really grabbed me and felt like it made a lot of sense,” she says. “At some point not so long after that, I decided it would be a kick to not buy any produce all winter.” That’s when she taught herself to can. Despite some misgivings about the potential for food poisoning, she succeeded: “I did it, and it worked, and I’m not dead yet.”

After that initial success Musher began teaching others to can, in their home, at farmers’ markets, in classrooms. She says the process is mostly about reassuring people that canning won’t kill them. Her voice drops to a stage whisper: “It’s not hard! It’s really not hard!” She proves her point, rapidly rattling off the steps involved in canning: “At base, you cut up a bunch of vegetables or fruits, you put them in a pot, you heat them up. You put them in jars which are also warm and clean. You put some new lids on top of those jars, you dip those jars in water, you get the water to boil, and then you boil it for however long the recipe says to boil it for because the USDA has determined these things, so that means you don’t have to figure it out yourself. And that’s pretty much canning.”

In the fall of 2012, she learned about LUrC and gave a canning lesson to some of its members. Then she waited impatiently for the growing season to begin so she could start picking fruit herself.

If food in America is cheap and readily available to almost everyone, why are Musher and Callahan and more than 200 other members of LUrC going through the hassle of harvesting their own food? Why are they and countless other groups with a do-it-yourself ethos springing up across the country?

By almost any measure, faith in government today is abysmally low and The Great Recession of 2008 has led many to believe their country and their prospects are in decline. In the 1960s, disillusionment with government and modern life inspired some people to abandon the city for the countryside where they hoped to build self-sufficient homesteading communities that allowed them to disconnect from industrialization and reconnect to nature. Present-day urban homesteaders share many of those same values, but what’s noticeably different about recent trends is the direction they point: before, there were back-to-the-land hippies; now, there are back-to-the-city hipsters bringing traditional means of production out of the countryside and into the urban environment. Instead of running away, they’re fighting back, trying to regain control of a world that increasingly feels out of control.

One way to reassert personal autonomy in the face of perceived corporate dominance is to opt out. Callahan sees harvesting and canning as a path to independence. By becoming even partly self-sufficient, she distances herself from a system of food production she calls “soulless and broken.” For her, buying packaged food from a grocery store is an “alienating, bizarre experience” she would rather avoid, dealing directly with her food instead. She wants to evade an ideology that requires her to do work she doesn’t enjoy, to earn money she doesn’t need, to be spent on food she doesn’t want. In those ways, she is philosophically aligned with the back-to-the-landers.

Callahan is conflicted about her decision to withdraw from mainstream society, however: she wants to belong to a community, yet being part of the dominant culture means doing the same thing everyone else is doing, including things as seemingly meaningless as going to the grocery store. Her choice not to participate isolates her. LUrC is a way for her to regain a lost sense of community from people who share her values.

The decisions Musher makes are also about community, though less about opting out and more about provoking change. When she shops at a farmers’ market, she’s voting with her wallet. Farmers continuously face agricultural and economic problems that have no easy answers, but Musher knows from her weekly conversations with the people growing her food that they’re committed to finding solutions that fit with her priorities. Convinced that supporting local food and local business is better for her, better for her community and better for the world, she has become a staunch urban homesteader: “I am frequently a stubborn, all-or-nothing person,” she admits. Preserving food is one of the ways in which she is able to live year-round in a way she finds ideologically satisfying.

Musher concedes that promoting the alternative economy of sustainable agriculture is a luxury limited to those who can afford to do so: buying fresh produce at the farmers’ market is more expensive than buying fast food; growing enough food to feed a family requires more land and more time than most people have; and, in purely economic terms, what the LUrCers do is inefficient. If Callahan earns $20 an hour and making a jar of jam takes an hour of her time, time she could use to work instead, the jar effectively costs her $20, considerably more than it would cost at the store. Financially, it isn’t viable. “Fuck viable,” she says, bristling momentarily. “Everything has to be freakin’ viable all the time. But,” she admits, deflated, “if you have three children, which I don’t, things need to be viable. So there must be some other joy in it, right?” That joy seems to be based on hard work.

Musher sees her almost unconscious need for physical labor as a reaction to days too often filled with more abstract work: “I think the things missing in my life are things that are in general missing in most people’s lives. Most of the people who do things like this have pretty intellectual kinds of jobs. We’re mostly sitting at desks doing brain things.” Callahan is employed as a book designer, which means most of her days are, in fact, spent sitting at a desk doing brain things, a situation she calls emblematic of the life of a knowledge worker. A good day on the job is one where she gets a mockup of a book before it’s printed, a rare opportunity for tactile interaction with her work: “You get the shape and the heft and the feeling of the book. You’re holding it, and flipping through pages and seeing how it feels, making sure the paper weight is right, seeing if it’s too light or too heavy.” She finds the time she spends outdoors working hard, harvesting fruit, to be similarly rewarding, but recognizes that “it’s a luxury to look at working outside as a joyous activity.”

Hard work wasn’t optional for Callahan’s grandparents, who “emigrated from Italy with nothing, with truly nothing.” Growing food was obvious and necessary to them, as was preserving it. Their decisions about what to eat were based on survival, not aesthetics. Musher’s great grandmother grew up on an apple orchard where food preservation was equally vital but, by the time Musher and Callahan were born, canning was something their family matriarchs only reminisced about. Changes in technology and customs meant those skills were no longer necessary, and so that cultural knowledge vanished. Now the knowledge and traditions that used from come from community often come only through subcultures and YouTube.

Callahan’s grandmother doesn’t understand why Anne spends her time taking food from other people’s property. Her grandparents did everything they could to ensure their descendants wouldn’t have to work as hard as they had—and now Callahan is trying to live the kind of life her grandmother happily left behind. Callahan brings up Marx’s ideas about the worker’s estrangement from her own labor as a way to explain what she means when she says the work she gets paid to do is alienating. Harvesting and preserving food, on the other hand, are direct, tangible actions that connect her to the products of her labor and the people she shares that labor with. For her, a meaningful relationship to food begins with meaningful labor: “That’s how I want to spend my days on earth. I’d rather be harvesting a mulberry tree in the rain than spending that hour writing emails.”

After gathering twenty pounds of fruit in two hours the volunteers disperse, hands stained and clothes sodden. On this, her first time as team leader, Callahan mistakenly thinks it her obligation to preserve all of the fruit before distributing it, so she rides home alone to can the entire bucket of mulberries. She won’t finish until three in the morning but she’ll be back on her bike by nine; she has heard there’s a cherry tree a few blocks away, waiting to be picked.

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