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On being an Urban Scavenger

Most mornings, I walk in my intown Atlanta neighborhood. It’s mid-May now, and trees with full, leafy, green foliage shade my walk. I usually go either up to Moreland Avenue, a busy thoroughfare with commuters heading in to town between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. Or I head downhill to Hemlock, a quiet street with no sidewalks that ends with a roundabout that we Georgians have taken some getting used to but now pull into with fairly little stress. From Hemlock I go up a short street that joins it to Woodland, lined with bungalows and shady yards.

This morning, I went down my street towards Hemlock and turned left, and immediately encountered what I usually do in mid-May: an enormous mulberry tree. More to the point, the fruit from that tree. I could see the stain on the asphalt from a good ways off, a deep purple-black shadow in a kind of half circle extending past the middle of the road.

I had come prepared. I took out my plastic bag with its twist-tie and a couple of half paper towels and began to pick up berries. They were almost all large, ripe, juicy-looking.

Mulberries look a little like blackberries, but they are elongated, not round, and each berry has a tiny stem still attached. When ripe, they are sweet. I searched carefully in the grass between the fence behind the tree grew and the curb, picking up the ones that looked as though they had just fallen. I picked up some that had fallen on the asphalt, rolling them into my hand, handling them as lightly as possible, for they’re very delicate.

In seconds, I had about half a cup. I gently wrapped them in the paper towels and carefully put them into the plastic bag, securing it with the twist-tie. I then eased them into my pocket and was on my way.

I’ve been an urban scavenger for years, ever since I first noticed the purple-black stain on the street from that tree. The two-story new house that now spreads over that lot was not there; a small 1940s bungalow with improbably blue-painted awnings and a trampoline in the back yard preceded it. It had a for-sale sign in the yard for several weeks. Then one morning, I saw a middle-aged woman standing on the tiny deck in back smoking a cigarette and quietly looking out over the back yard. The moving truck was already parked in front. A few days later, the small house was demolished. But the mulberry tree remained.

No one from either the earlier house or the present one has ever, so far as I know, gathered any of the mulberries. The tree has grown taller and bigger, and each May, it drops more and more mulberries that stain the street and are crushed by passing car tires and the occasional walker, like me. Despite the abundance of this sweet fruit, extravagantly available for the taking, no one picks it up. Is it because picking up and cleaning the berries looks daunting, selecting the ones still whole from those smashed beyond recovery? Is it the dread of anything that is wild, not certified safe to eat by being wrapped in clear packaging and sold in a supermarket, or even in a basket in a health food store? So many have that dread: my partner’s mother will not buy a whole butternut squash at Kroger’s if there is a plastic-wrapped package of the same kind of squash cut into neat cubes. Or is it simply that the berries are free for the taking, no charge, no middleman, just the tree and the road and the picker and eater; so simple, maybe too simple. There must be a catch somewhere. Simpler to buy. After all, we know what’s in the store is safe to eat, don’t we?

I continued on my walk, down Hemlock, up the little connecting street whose name I don’t remember, to Woodland, and then back in the direction of home. Pretty bungalows, nice shrubs. A lantana like mine making a good start; ferns in one yard; roses behind an abelia hedge in another. And on the corner of one yard, a blackberry bush. With several large, ripe blackberries just asking to be picked.

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