Over the summer, I was picking raspberries with two friends of mine. I remarked about how I often travel the alleys in our city during the summer, picking berries from the various bushes behind garages and back yards. As I said this to them, I immediately thought about how I feel sort of anxious doing this quite natural activity. By mid-July, most of these bushes are literally loaded with raspberries and blackberries. A single, healthy bush produces enough berries for a family to snack on for several weeks. The abundance is sometimes mind blowing.
While most of these bushes are unattended to, and even completely forgotten to some extent, they constitute “private property.” When I stop and pick even a few berries, often there is an anxiety accompanying this act. I frequently look around and wonder about being perceived as stealing, never mind that the bulk of the berries end up dropping to the ground and are either eaten by animals or return to the soil untouched.
As a Buddhist, I have vowed to uphold the precept of not stealing. However, in a society so colonized and privatized, what is stealing?
I can rarely afford to purchase organic fruit, especially berries. They are outrageously expensive, even in conventional, big box supermarkets. In fact, even much of the pesticide covered “conventional” fruit is expensive and to some degree out of reach for poor and low income folks. At the same time, even in many urban areas, there are an abundance of fruit trees – especially in middle and upper class neighborhoods. While poor folks struggle to pay for a small bag of pesticide-ridden oranges that were picked weeks ago in someplace far off, middle and upper class folks not only can afford to purchase the organic fruit in the stores, but also often have fresh fruit right in their backyards for part of the summer at least.
I imagine a fair number of you might agree with the idea that wild fruit should be available to anyone who can pick it. But what about other human needs that have turned into products and services? What about ownership of land that was itself stolen from our indigenous friends and neighbors not so long ago? In this era of hyper privatization, a simple concept such as theft really isn’t all that simple.
Raspberries – Wikimedia Creative Commons