The Senior High class I teach at my church met at our local coffee shop this morning, and we got on the topic of found fruit, which is a term that is often applied to the fruit that can be found and harvested for free in urban areas. For example, I have for years been harvesting apples and pears from behind one of the city community centres where there had been an orchard when the building was still a nurses’ residence for the local hospital. I also pick serviceberries and elderberries from various housing developments around the city, and there are places where I can also find wild grapes, red currants, rose hips, and raspberries. Then there are the various neighbours who have planted fruit trees but do not harvest them and let me pick grapes and cherries and whatever else. All this saves me a not inconsiderable amount of money, and it also lets me use what already grows around me and would otherwise go to waste.
Picking found fruit in this way seems very natural to me. My parents often took my brothers and me to collect windfall apples from the side of rural roads, apples that could not be eaten but were great for making applesauce. We also picked the berries that grew in the housing developments where we lived over the years. When I was first married, I discovered and began picking the wild grapes that grew near our apartment, and I was eventually joined by several of the other residents for the yearly harvest. Though I have moved from these places, I still return to them to gather fruit each year, and I am taking cuttings from some of these plants for my own garden.
Though this behaviour seems very normal to me, however, my students were clearly a little disconcerted with the idea. They wanted to know whether I had to pay people, which I never do, or get their permission, which I always do unless the fruit is on public land. They also wanted to know whether this kind of fruit might be more likely to carry bugs or diseases. The whole thing seemed a little inapropriate to them, something like sneaking into a movie theatre or hacking a computer. It might be possible, they seemed to imply, but surely there was something about it that was immoral if not actually illegal.
This response, now that I think about it, was a predictable one given our culture’s ideas about property. We have so internalized the notion that everything is and should be owned and that everything does and should cost something, that we are immediately wary when something appears to be unowned and available to be used freely. I have seen very similar responses to open source software, for example, or even to the neighbourly gesture to shovel a driveway. We assume that these things can only be free to hide another kind of cost. We assume that everything must have an owner, and that what is owned by one person would surely not be freely given to another except as a kind of advertisement or loss leader. What is freely given or freely found, we believe, will be of worse quality and will obligate us in other ways. We worry that the real owner of these things will appear and demand that we pay for them in one way or another.
We feel this way, unfortunately, because it is too often the case that what is free does indeed come at a hidden cost, but this should make it all the more necessary that we actively use those few things that are in fact freely found and freely given. To pick and use found fruit, or to use open source software, or to lend tools freely between neighbours, these become ways, not only to save money, but to maintain economies that do not circulate around money at all, but around the local community and the local environment. They become ways to value things apart from the dollar value that might be attached to them. They become ways to understand value differently, to reevaluate, to value more highly what is given and discovered without any value at all.