When I first met twenty-nine-year-old Zaac sitting in Wesleyan’s student center, I noticed he was still wearing a bike helmet, though his bike was nowhere to be seen. His shoes were makeshift—it looked as though he wrapped the bottom of Christmas socks with duct tape. On his back, he wore a bag wrapped in bungee cord. His left pant leg was patched and dangling next to it was an empty water bottle. I later found out that he had biked three hours from New Haven to Middletown, which probably explained the empty bottle. He looked rugged, self-sufficient.
But in the student center he looked weird. Despite Wesleyan’s hippie reputation, none of the students looked anything like him. People passing by wore North Face and Jansport backpacks—no bungee cords. They wore boots or shoes or sandals—all store-bought, not homemade. However, if Zaac felt uncomfortable visiting Wesleyan in his outfit, I couldn’t tell.
Although it may look like it, he didn’t forget to do his laundry that day. He isn’t homeless or uneducated. In fact, he graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in computer engineering. He’s not working a full-time job, but not because he can’t find one. He doesn’t want a job, just like he doesn’t want regular clothes or a car. Instead, he prefers to sew his own clothes and ride a bike. “I can spend money in the retail economy,” he said to me later, “but why bother? It’s a pricey lifestyle.”
To outsiders, Zaac might look odd, if not pretentious. The way he’s dressed suggests that he finds wearing store-bought clothes wasteful. He tells me that we have a choice between living in or out of the traditional retail economy. What’s implicit is that those of us without duct-taped socks and bungee cord backpacks live within it, whereas he lives outside of it. And he’s not alone.
Zaac is what many people call a freegan, a free vegan. The word is a bit of a misnomer, because not all freegans are vegans, though Zaac is. All freegans, however, do try to live free of money. It’s an unusual goal, but not an altogether uncommon one. In New York City alone, there are more than five hundred active freegans.
But while most freegans have a save-the-world mentality—their lifestyle is a boycott of consumerism and waste—Zaac is a freegan primarily for himself. “I don’t want to need to work at a place that’s not fulfilling,” he says. “Even if it’s comfortable, it can be a suffocating commitment.” By sustaining himself off of free things, he feels he can subvert typical income-oriented living. He instead leads wild foraging tours for money, which pays for everything he can’t avoid buying.
Trying to not spend money, as well as being creative, has led many freegans to be dubbed “dumpster divers,” a label Zaac doesn’t mind. Zaac discovered dumpstering in high school, when he and his friends decided to build a treehouse. “We went to the store to get nails,” he said, “but along the way, we found that there were so many construction sites all around, it just made more sense to get nails from there instead. They would’ve been wasted. No one was going to use them.” Dumpstering was a way for them to reuse what others threw away.
While it’s one thing to dumpster for old nails, it’s another to dumpster for food. Zaac tells me that he and his friend Steven regularly go food dumpstering at an organic shop. This Easter, he’s not surprised by the food he finds, since he has done it many times before. As he shines his flashlight around the store’s pitch-black garbage room, there are boxes and boxes of food—not mixed in trash bags—but stacked and clearly organized. If the lights were on, it would look more like a storage room.
“Here we have some Clementines,” he says in the video he’s taking of his findings. (He likes to keep track.) He points his flashlight at a stack of cardboard boxes. They look like they haven’t been touched. “How many do you think we have, Steven?”
From the dark, his friend says, “I can’t see, but these boxes are usually pretty heavy.” He lifts it and grunts. “This box is about twenty pounds, maybe more.”
Zaac shines the flashlight to the left, where there are a dozen loaves of bread, some packaged tortillas (“which is nice because they have a longer shelf life than bread, despite what the expiration date says”), sixty boxes of jelly beans, and five pounds of bagels. He shines the flashlight down; there are fifteen pounds of onions, ten containers of hummus, oranges, organic rice cakes, and gluten-free cookies. To the right, there are organic medicinal supplements (“$44 a jar”), pizza dough, cheese, more bread, organic bananas, organic pears, organic apples, papayas, and grapes.
It’s a lot of food to bring home, but my question is: what of the health hazards? A box of strawberries only lasts three to four days—and that’s if they’re refrigerated. Strawberries in a dumpster, however clean, would definitely expire by the time dumpster divers find them. That goes for any fruit or vegetable. But Zaac says that in his many years of dumpstering, he hasn’t faced that problem yet. After dumpstering, he cuts off the bad parts of produce and makes a large stew that he reheats and eats for a week.
“At least for me,” he says, “the chances of food poisoning are cut drastically because I don’t use animal products.”
Back at Wesleyan, Zaac leads forty people on a wild foraging tour paid by Wesleyan student farmers. When Zaac isn’t dumpstering, wild foraging is how he finds food. He walks between a hill and the road, stopping the group periodically to show everyone just how much food there really is to find. Where most people see a beech tree, Zaac sees a black-stemmed polypore growing in the trunk. Where most people see grass, he sees an assortment of foods, ready for cooking: pungent field garlic stalks and their tiny bulbs, chickweed which he recommends for stir-fry and soup, the bamboo-like Japanese knotweed which tastes sour underneath its thick skin. There’s also wild oregano, the heart-shaped wood sorrel, cleavers, clovers, and violets. Without walking more than a third of a mile, Zaac has dozens of foods available to him. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Every time he points something out, the group circles around him. He kneels down, pulls out a clump of plant, and passes it around. As he describes the taste, the meaning of its Latin name, and how to cook it, a sense of wonder comes over the group.
The idea is enchanting. We are seduced into imagining ourselves as freegans who don’t do anything but gather our own food. We’d drop out of college and, like hunter-gatherers, form groups and travel into forests to find meals. We’d come back home with ingredients for nettle salad, blackberry jam, and dandelion wine. We might share our food with other freegans, or perhaps go back to the bartering system. I’ll give you a pound of stinging nettles for a half a pound of morels. Between finding and trading food, there’d be no need for a nine-to-five job.
But a freegan lifestyle isn’t as easy as it looks. We’d have to learn how to identify plants, as well as how to cook. Many of us have never sewed before, so we’d have to learn to do that too. Both cooking and sewing are time consuming. Even quitting a job, which sound liberating, might force us to give up our cars, gym memberships, or air conditioning. If we don’t quit our job, would we have time to learn about what plants are edible and what plants aren’t?
One person in the group asks, “Is there an easy way to determine if a plant is edible?”
Zaac answers, “If you can’t identify it, you can’t eat it.”
Not knowing what you’re doing when foraging in the wild is dangerous. There are over a thousand documented poisonous plants growing in North America. In 2011, the age of smartphones and tablet PCs, Zaac still relies on hand drawn keys to distinguish between different plant species. He’s especially careful with mushrooms, one of the most dangerous wild edibles. Though he’s trained to recognize different species, he doesn’t experiment with a mushroom unless it’s on his key. “I use the best field guides to define the mushrooms in the Connecticut area as thoroughly as possible.”
While mushroom-related fatalities are rare, they do occur. Amanita phalloides—or the death cap—looks a lot like Volvariella volvacea, except it’s deadly. An amateur freegan wouldn’t know the difference. Many immigrants from countries without the death cap fall for the deceptive trap: its cap color and size, along with the white cup around the base of the stalk, all look like its edible counterpart. Immigrants, children, and even dogs have died from death caps in New York, California, and Oregon. There are other deadly mushrooms too. For example, the four deadly white species of mushrooms that herbalists call the Destroying Angels. In the past thirty years, seventeen people have died and thousands have been hospitalized from these and other poisonous mushrooms.
Yet despite how dangerous, time-consuming, and inconvenient wild foraging is, there’s still something attractive about the idea. Forty Wesleyan students show up this time to Zaac’s tour to learn about finding edible weeds, even though they already have comprehensive meal plans. The last two times Zaac led tours at Wesleyan, they were just as popular. Even in New York, Zaac is able to lead regular wild foraging tours; ten to thirty people show up each time he leads one.
His tours are almost suspiciously popular. That he is making profit by showing people how to live a free lifestyle is hypocritical; it begs the question of whether it’s really possible to live without money. If everyone he introduced to freeganism started making their own clothes and finding their own food, he’d have no business. It’s also ironic that he’s introducing us to the very lifestyle our ancestors gave up. It’s nothing new, it’s primitive.
Nevertheless, the freegan movement is appealing, because it offers a proven alternative. Our ancestors foraged successfully for thousands of years. However, they eventually thought it easier to settle down and grow food instead, leading to mass-scale and industrial agriculture. Freeganism solves the same problem, but in reverse. Food grown industrially is no longer easier to get, because we have to work full-time jobs to pay for it. In some ways, it has become easier and more liberating to look for food than to buy it. The allure of freeganism seems to speak to the universality of not just wanting free food, but wanting freedom, too.
So why the bike? Does Zaac enjoy biking three hours from New Haven to Wesleyan and then another three hours back? Like foraging, biking is symbolic of freedom. When he was at the University of Connecticut, he and his friends shared a car—the only time in his life he’d surrendered to owning one. At the time, he figured carpooling with four other people compensated for how wasteful it was to drive a car himself. Little did he know, his car would leave him faced with a difficult decision. When they were picking an apartment at the end of their junior year, they had to choose between one that was much closer to the school and another that was fifteen miles away, but would cost $100 less every month.
Because they had a car, they picked the cheaper apartment. Immediately, Zaac regretted it. If it weren’t for the car, he says, there’s no way he would have picked an apartment fifteen miles away. “I realized having a car is uncomfortable,” he says, “because for fifteen miles, I’m sitting in a steel box and I have to worry about traffic, the police, getting a ticket, or my car breaking down. If I was on a bike, I wouldn’t have to worry about any of that.”
After college, he made sure to find an apartment that was a mile away from his job. He got rid of his car for good and made himself a bike. “It’s been better,” he says. “But sometimes, I think even a bike is too fast. There’s a lot I’d see if I wasn’t on the road—like mushroom species yet to be discovered with a discerning eye.”
Back on the tour, Zaac—still wearing his bike helmet—rustles through the foliage behind Wesleyan’s gym.
He tells us about a phallus-shaped plant that’s currently out of season. He shows us mullein, which is good for allergies. He feeds us red clover, cherished by the Irish as a cure-all. And he tells us that mugworth is a plant that causes vivid dreams if someone smells the aroma while sleeping. He hasn’t tried it himself.
“What’s this?” asks a girl, pointing at what looks like a weed.
Zaac bends down. People circle around him, as he pulls the plant out. He pinches it in half and smells the goo with his eyes closed. “Hm…” he says. Just as we are convinced he knows everything, he tosses it. “I’m not sure. I could probably find it in a field guide.” He can’t identify it, so we don’t try it.
We follow the road and Wesleyan is up ahead. The sun is setting and the tour is ending. Though he doesn’t say it to the group, Zaac had hoped to finish much earlier. He didn’t want to bike home in the dark.
Today, Zaac lives 65 miles away from Wesleyan at the Wassaic Community Farm, on the New York side of the Connecticut border. He lives among other freegans who dumpster, forage, and grow food too. Once a year, he compiles statistics of what he finds in dumpsters to find patterns. Whenever he finds something valuable while biking, he sells it. And twice a week, he heads to south Bronx with vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms to distribute to the needy.
While Zaac enjoys his lifestyle, it’s not for everyone. Zaac doesn’t lead foraging tours to recruit freegans. Though he disagrees with how most people live, he doesn’t care which lifestyle they ultimately choose. Instead, he’s happy to lead interested people on tours to make what little money he needs. Most people can’t imagine spending three to seven hours a day biking. Zaac would travel three times faster if he drove, but he doesn’t see it as an inconvenience at all. Others would probably disagree.
It is early morning. Zaac is standing next to his bike. He takes out his video phone, one of the only modern conveniences he can’t live without, and he starts recording.
The video is shaky. The camera shows crunchy leaves and thick tree roots covering the ground around the Wassaic Community Farm. His feet are outlined against the leaves, his colorful duct-taped Christmas socks demanding attention. The camera zooms and focuses on his bike handles. They are wrapped tightly with rubber, clearly homemade. Resting on the left bike handle is a small pouch. He says in the footage, “So here’s the thing I just constructed with an eyeglass case and homemade rubber bands. I made this contraption so that I can video while bicycling.”
The video cuts off and suddenly he’s riding his bike. The camera is fastened onto his bike handle, the lens facing upwards. The footage shows a white morning sky, with tree branches and telephone lines passing quickly as he covers distance. His head is in the middle of the screen with his signature bike helmet strapped tightly. The wind makes it difficult to hear as he yells, “I’m probably riding at about thirty miles per hour at the moment!”
“Yesterday I bicycled to Middletown, Connecticut to lead a foraging tour there,” he pants, the sky above him getting brighter. “And right now,” he shouts, “I’m heading north to lead another one!”