Concrete Jungle

Urban foragers harvest fruit for charity
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The story of Adam, Eve, and the irresistible piece of fruit makes perfect sense to me. I once tried to get a young man to pluck fresh hazelnuts from a tree arching over the tiger enclosure at the zoo in Rome (he wouldn’t, but he married me nevertheless a few months later). I have also watched one of the most educated women I know beg her tall, husky husband to collect a persimmon on a high branch near their house in Lake Claire (he reluctantly submitted to her entreaties).

I have stripped blueberry bushes along the Appalachian Trail, gathered fat blackberries along countless sidewalks, and, more than once, collected beach plums, sour cherries, and muscadines with and without manly help. When I met Craig Durkin and Aubrey Daniels, I immediately recognized kindred spirits. They are the young cofounders of a local organization called Concrete Jungle, which harvests fruit and nuts from ignored, untended trees and donates a substantial portion of the yield to help feed the homeless.

“Some years are better than others; fruit trees are cyclical,” concedes Durkin, who spends most weekends between May and October in the hot sun collecting forgotten fruit on public, commercial, and residential properties with a bunch of like-minded friends. This year, Concrete Jungle expects to pick thousands of pounds of apples, blackberries, blueberries, crabapples, figs, flying dragon fruit (a small, hardy citrus), mulberries, muscadines, peaches, pears, pecans, persimmons, plums, prickly pears, and serviceberries. The latter, also known as saskatoon berries, grow in abundance on attractive small trees planted by Trees Atlanta in and around the park surrounding the Carter Center. (As to the places Concrete Jungle gathers fruit: “We go to great lengths to get permission for everywhere we pick that’s not foraged from the side of the road,” says Durkin. “With the scope of available abundance, we’re not desperate enough to sneak onto land without consent.”)

I recently joined Durkin and Daniels along Freedom Parkway, where they showed up with blue tarps, buckets, coolers, and a small group of friends. “Today, we pick mulberries and serviceberries,” they told me, heading for the trees they keep track of using a map published on their website. We progressed on the landscape, shaking and combing the trees and popping succulent fruit in our mouths, our T-shirts and hats splotched with purple stains. Passersby and neighbors stopped to ask questions (“Can you really eat that?”) and went away with answers and a new taste in their mouths.

When not dodging sunburns and stinging caterpillars along the streets of Atlanta, Durkin and Daniels set up a small table at festivals and conferences to recruit volunteers as well as growers willing to share their harvests. They reach out to property owners overwhelmed by their backyard gardens and orchards and can foresee a future when herbs and vegetables will be a significant part of the program.

Concrete Jungle likes to donate to organizations such as Open Door Community, Crossroads, Clifton Sanctuary Ministry, and the United Methodist Children’s Home in Avondale, where chefs welcome some of the “weird stuff” Durkin and Daniels bring in. Making jelly out of inky, stemmy mulberries or using juicy serviceberries in pies or cobblers brings delicious variety into the diet of a population used to being fed bagels and doughnuts.

Once you start looking, free fruit is everywhere. “All trees are fruit trees,” one of the arborists for Trees Atlanta reminded me during an arboretum conference recently held at the organization’s stunningly attractive Kendeda Center in Reynoldstown, a neighborhood with a large “living library of trees,” many of them bearing edible fruit. Plans for the BeltLine call for miles of linear arboretum, with specific sections highlighting diverse growing environments and rare native trees. The segment near Murphy’s Crossing in the Capitol View neighborhood will feature many plantings of black walnuts, papaws, American hazelnuts, and persimmons.

When in doubt, a gourmet foraging in the wild must err on the side of caution. As for me, I am already thinking about redbud flowers (guaranteed edible), ginkgo nuts (one female tree on my street drops smelly shells all over the sidewalk), pine pollen, and other treats found in the Garden of Eden I call home. Reach Concrete Jungle at concrete-jungle.org.

Photograph by Emily Dryden

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