Q: What do you do?

A: We Common

Met a guy named Arty (my grandfather’s name) on 9th Ave. My tricycle reminded him of a guy who used to be around the neighborhood with a cycle-powered grinding wheel for sharpening knives. Went around to restaurants – a small business. Brilliant. Arty panhandles around here, said he was trying to get some money together for a little something to warm himself up. Didn’t ask me for any dough. I liked him instantly.

Another day, I installed a PLACE TO HANG YOUR HAT ( a set of coat hooks) on a construction wall at 10th and 27th, and hung a pirate’s costume I had found on it. Nearby a guy was playing beautiful music on plastic buckets, broken glass, etc. When he saw what I was doing he jumped up and yelled, “yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! I like Art!” A street guy, it seemed, a fellow creative spirit. He proceeded to contribute a withered yellow rose to the installation, with great excitement. Hope I meet him again – fantastic energy and real talent. He said he always moves around. I commented this wasn’t the best spot for busking – not many passersby, but he said he likes to consider the background (the construction wall), and anyway “this is New York City, gotta keep moving!”

What are the Common Resources?

Common resources vary greatly from place to place, depending on local conditions and habits. There are many null resources (res nullius in ancient Roman law): things that have been abandoned or never belonged to anyone in the first place. Trash. Cans and bottles that can be redeemed for five cents each. Metal objects that can be sold to recyclers for melting down. Food. Clothing. Appliances. Tools. Furniture. Bicycles. Materials that can be repurposed or recombined to make something new. These resources are man-made items that have been discarded; part of the imbalanced waste-stream that is a byproduct of our consumer culture.

Met a concerned cyclist who made me reconsider what I was doing at that very moment: taking an old brake cable off of an abandoned bike (locked to a post) to replace the one I had lost. He was suspicious I was stealing parts from bikes that people still wanted. I told him I could understand his concern but just wanted to re-use what would otherwise go in a landfill. He had the good suggestion of doing what the city does once a year when they remove the abandoned bikes. They post notices on the bikes two weeks before cutting the locks, so people have a chance to move their bikes if they still want them. Seems like the responsible approach. Maybe we need a Neighborhood Junk Drawer where we can put our unwanted bike parts instead of letting them go to waste.

There are also many common natural resources available. On a global level, Elinor Ostrom talks about small groups self-organizing for regulated use of things like the fish of the sea, water reservoirs, and communal forests. Where we live there aren’t any communal forests, but garden-variety weeds are a common resource everywhere in lawns, parks, empty lots, sidewalk cracks, and forgotten spaces. Weeds are often misunderstood or undervalued: many are edible, or have beneficial health properties. Likewise, some weeds can be used as raw material for making games, tools, clothing, and shelter.

I was tapping London Plane trees to collect sap for making syrup in Cooper Park, in Brooklyn. I had determined by this time that it was better to hang out with my buckets while the sap ran rather than just leaving them, because the parks department and people in the neighborhood might have concerns to discuss with me. So while I was hanging out I read about a weed called Common Mullein, which Native Americans smoked to fix respiratory problems. I had collected some Mullein previously for drinking as an herbal tea. Tried smoking it then, in my tobacco pipe. Seemed pretty smooth I guess. Then I got bored of that and started picking up twigs and whittling a set of chessmen to go with the chessboard I had just found in a dumpster nearby. It’s very easy to enjoy yourself.

Even well-known plant resources occur frequently in wild or forgotten spaces. Fruit trees in New England, for example, are often passed over these days if they are not in a designated marketplace location (like an orchard with pick-your-own fruit opportunities). In the old days, apples, pears, and quinces were planted on the edges of pastures and crop fields and near farmhouses. Many of these trees are still producing fruit, but hardly anyone harvests it anymore.

Last fall I was playing basketball at the elementary school in Hampton, Connecticut with my brothers. Sometimes when we get together we all go down there and shoot around. By the parking lot we noticed some apples lying on the ground. Tried one. They were delicious; sweet, tart and very crisp. “Best apples of the year,” Brendan would later proclaim. We gathered what had fallen and shook the tree to get more. Filled up our shirtfront-sacks with them and went home to make applesauce and pie.

I remember meeting a guy named Lee (Li?) around 30th Street, while picking rose hips. He told me all about these wild berries he picks often in the Bronx, called Bronx berries. Something about how they came from the gardens of the rich Dutch people who lived up there. Blackberry–like, he says, very common and good. Picked a bucket in 20 minutes. He didn’t think they grew anywhere down this way. Hadn’t seen them. He was out cycling that day, a doctor down at NYU. Need to remember to look for those berries next summer in the Bronx! (In retrospect, I wonder if he meant mulberries?)

There are also resources that may be designated and used for one purpose, while ignoring other possible uses. Ornamental plants, shrubs and trees are an example. Landscapers and gardeners plant crabapples, roses, kale, cherries, birch, maple, and many other edible plants for their beauty. This visual/aesthetic use can be enjoyed at the same time as the evident taste/nourishment use if we find ways to manage these resources in common. Sharing multiple use resources with multiple users requires mutually respectful (neighborly) ways of self-managing. We are capable of communicating what is important for each of us to each other. We are capable of listening to what others value and accepting differences. We can work it out.

On Saturday a few of us got together and sang some rounds. Rounds are an interesting form. As Laura explained to us, they are usually composed of only one chord, so when people sing different notes because of the overlapping lines of text, they always combine to form different variations of the chord. So you get to be an individual and yet lend your voice to something greater than the sum of the parts. Like democracy! Or something. Later in the evening, some more people joined us for a foraging walk to collect rose hips and make syrup from them. The walk was great fun. About twelve of us were collecting together, a mad band of strange folk along the median on Houston Street, east of Norfolk Street, with the traffic whizzing by at terrific speeds. It was dark by this time, and very cold, and many of the hips in this particular area were a little past their prime. But we got a colander full of hips between us all. Back at the classroom, we made our syrup while people told stories about being wild, or being close to the wild things of the world, or about complexities found in sharing public space. Kristine told us about being stranded on a cliff face while climbing, and finding herself about a meter away from a swooping hawk. As she told it I could almost see its talons flashing. Then Bill told us about the time he was camping on an island and came back to find his entire tent underwater. And the icing on the cake was the wild ponies chewing on his feet the next night, once they had moved to higher ground.

In summary, there are many ways we can common in whatever limited common spaces we have. Two case studies of common resources found in New York City follow. Come on, let’s common on!

Case Study #1

A Common Resource of New York City:

Roses, and How to Preserve Them

Introduction: Roses are one of the most common ornamental plants in New York. They are planted all along the medians and parks of the West Side Highway, and in many other areas. Both the fruits and flowers of roses are edible. The flower petals can be included in salads or candied. The fruit (rose hips) can be eaten raw as a tasty nibble, or cooked down to make syrup or jam, or dried and used for tea. Rose petals are available during the summer and fall. Rose hips are available year round. They are thought of as a wilderness survival food often, because they stay on the rose bushes through the winter. Ornamental plants may be sprayed with pesticides and fungicides. Of course many commercially produced vegetables are also sprayed. If folks are scrupulous about these things, baking soda and vinegar are recommended for cleaning vegetables before eating. If people ask what we’re doing, we just tell them. We are sharing in a common resource, effectively reclaiming restricted, codified, enclosed public space for shared, common use. Think of it as stewardship, or pruning, if you like. We are participating in a close, local, human relationship to nature and to other people. In a word, you are commoning.

Recipe: Rose Hip Syrup/Jam. Collect hips before they dry out if using for syrup. A good mix of very firm and somewhat softer hips is a good idea. The firm ones have more pectin, the softer ones have more flavor. Wash our harvest in cold water (mix in vinegar or baking soda if we like for extra cleaning power). Put rose hips in a wide pan and add just a small amount of water to keep them from burning. Cook over medium heat for several minutes to soften them and release the juices. When soft, rub them through a screen or sieve. The goal is to keep the pulp and the juice, which we want to use, and to separate out the seeds. We can use our hands for this or a wooden spoon or whatever we have. Now take the pulp/juice mixture and measure it. Add ¾ cup of sugar for each cup of rose hip. Bring to a rapid steady boil, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Use a candy thermometer to check for doneness. It should reach 220 degrees Fahrenheit. Alternatively we can take a spoonful out and put it on a plate in the freezer for a minute or two and see if how it firms up. As it boils down it should become less liquid and more thick, like a syrup. To make it really gel you can add commercial pectin or mix in a pectin-rich fruit, such as crabapples (also widely available as an ornamental plant in NYC), or apples, or grapes. Rose hips will not gel firmly on their own. But keeping it pure rose hips as a thick honey-like syrup has always been satisfactory for us.

Case Study #2

A Common Resource of New York City:

Ornamental Kale, and How to Preserve It

Introduction: Ornamental kale is the name for a group of colorful cultivars of Brassica Oleracea, var. Acephala. Commonly used in winter landscaping for its color in NYC and elsewhere, but also grown by farmers for culinary purposes. Kale is the closest relative of wild cabbage, which grows in Europe and Northern Africa, and has a very long tradition of use. It developed into many of our favorite vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, and of course kales. All these vegetables, including the ornamental varieties, are very nutritious. Anecdotally, kale and cabbage are said to contain as much vitamin C as do citrus fruits. Also vitamin K, beta carotene, calcium, iron, lutein, and sulforaphane, which has anticancer properties. Ornamental plants in New York City may be sprayed with pesticides and fungicides, but kale is less likely to have been sprayed since it is a winter vegetable and pests are not such a problem that time of year. Besides, many commercial vegetables available in markets have also been sprayed. If folks are scrupulous about these things, baking soda and vinegar are recommended for cleaning vegetables before eating. Ornamental kales are available from September to March roughly in NYC, depending on landscaping regimes of the different businesses and city agencies that plant them. If people ask what we’re doing, we just tell them. We are sharing in a common resource, effectively reclaiming restricted, codified, enclosed public space for shared, common use. Think of it as stewardship, or pruning, if you like. We are participating in a close, local, human relationship to nature and to other people. In a word, we are commoning.

Recipe: Ornamental Kale Sauerkraut. Collect leaves before they brown or wilt, larger, outer leaves first. If we collect from a variety of plantings we can fill our baskets without disrespecting anyone’s display, and, more to the point, we can allow the plants to continue growing for future forays and for other foragers. Wash our harvest in cold water (mix in a little vinegar or baking soda if we like for extra cleaning power). Chop kale fine and pack in a large jar, Tupperware container, or for a big batch, a five gallon food-grade plastic bucket works great. Layer the kale with plenty of salt and any other veggies and herbs you like. Our friends in Siberia use dill leaf or seed, anise seed, bay leaf, and grated carrots in their sauerkraut. Our grandma made a great coleslaw variation with onion, green bell pepper, celery seed, and black pepper. A version similar to kimchi would include garlic, ginger, and red pepper. Press firmly the whole business to the bottom of the jar and weigh it down with a smaller jar full of water (capped) inside the big jar. Or use any other press strategy we can think of for the container we’re working with (for a big bucket a dinner plate with an old milkjug of water as a weight works great). The goal is to keep the kraut submerged in its brine as it ferments. Over the next 24 hours, the salt and pressure will draw moisture out of the veggies, making a natural brine for the kraut to soak and ferment in. Let it sit on the counter for a week checking regularly for taste and texture and mixing it around so it ferments evenly. It should remain somewhat crisp and crunchy and always submerged. Any bits that stray up above the brine level will dry out and could possibly form mold. Just discard them. During this week, leave the cap of the big jar loose so that air can escape. When it tastes ready, refrigerate as we use it. It will keep for many months. Or we could can it in sterile jars and a boiling water bath for long-term shelf storage. Follow the instructions that come with the jars (Ball jars and Mason jars are often sitting around in attics and basements – ask grandma if she has any extras). Eat it as a side dish, with hotdogs, as a soup ingredient, as a filling for crepes and savory pastries, etc.


What we’ve been reading:

A great book on Sauerkraut and other fermented foods is Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation. Chelsea Green: 2003.

Hertzberg/Vaughan/Greene. Putting Food By. Bantam: 1973. Goes through various ways of preserving food for later use.

Lee Peterson. Edible Wild Plants. Houghton Mifflin: 1977. Best field guide on the subject we know of.

Euell Gibbons. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. McKay: 1962. The classic text on wild foods.

Cadillac Man. Land of the Lost Souls. Bloomsbury: 2009. This is a first-hand account of homeless life on the streets of New York City; stories and conversations recorded in Cadillac Man’s notebooks.

Elinor Ostrom. Governing the Commons. Cambridge: 1990. Introduces a bottom-up model for common pool resource self-management based on empirical field research, as an alternative to the external regulation of resources by authorities. Very compelling and engaging writing.

Susan J. Buck. The Global Commons: an Introduction. Island Press: 1998. Not particularly beautiful writing, but great content about the history and current state of affairs in Antarctica, the high seas, the deep sea bed, the atmosphere, and outer space.

John Hanson Mitchell. Trespassing: an Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land. Counterpoint: 1999. Great discussion of the history and present state of a piece of land in Massachusetts under various owners and stewards based on a research methodology of walking the land, observing, and talking to neighbors, strangers, friends, as well as archival research.

Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. Touchstone: 1990. Some beautiful writing about solitude and wilderness, including some especially touching moments of communion with plants and animals.

Christine Harold. Ourspace. U. of Minnesota: 2007. Discussion of corporate brand culture and various ways of subverting or resisting it, with an emphasis on creative commons and open content/open source.

John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. So good.