Is scavenging like religion? Well, it jolts us out of the straight smooth streamlined world into another world where wonders manifest in gutters and where hunches come true. This separate scavenger-world looks like the ordinary world. And it exists within the ordinary world. We enter through the ordinary world into our world of chaos, uncertainty and surprise. In our scavenger-world, deals and freebies and finds feel like signals and signs. Like benefaction. Benediction. Divination. Questions answered. Secrets told. Rounding a corner in our scavenger-world can change everything. Awestruck, we say: Look at that! To us, finds feel like gifts and dispatches from someone, somewhere, who somehow knows all about us.
Scavenging is a calling, a vocation, and a vow. Just as when saddhus, nuns and monks take vows of silence, scavengers take vows of vigilance. Vows of patience, acceptance and adventure. We take vows of tolerance. We vow never to choose. We vow to almost never spend. We vow to never be seduced by marketing. To scavengers, these are all matters of the soul.
This is true for all kinds of scavengers. For full-time scavengers, whose entire lives are spent outside the comforts of consumer culture. But even part-time scavengers, even specialized scavengers, even on-again-off-again coupon clippers, know the buzz, the transubstantiation, of the find.
You’re sitting, standing, walking, riding, and —
Out of nowhere, or so it seems: the find.
Behold this strange sensation, which consumer culture with its processed, paved-over predictability has tried its best to take from us: the otherworldly, transcendental, epiphanic glory of the find….
This is the land of never-knowing. Scavengers live with uncertainty. The one thing that we know for sure is that we’ll never know what we will get or when or how or even if. We wonder: Is this happenstance? We are washed in the magic of the random.
(That’s an excerpt from our book, The Scavengers’ Manifesto.)
One of the creators of this blog (and one of the coauthors of The Scavengers’ Manifesto) likes to drag home broken electronic items — not just to pry them apart and see what’s wrong, but to understand on a physical level why each piece of equipment was made this way in the first place. Here’s his account of one such incident:
A few years back, I found an old early 1960s-era hi-fi stereo receiver in a Dumpster; unable to resist, he lugged it ten blocks to my house. As expected, when he plugged it in and attached it to his speakers and turntable, it didn’t work. The lights came on but no sound came out. So he unplugged everything, took it apart, and looked at the dysfunctional innards. As he puts it:
Now, I am no electrician. I do not have an engineering degree. I’ve never worked at a stereo component store, and I have no formal training in electronics. (Or informal training, for that matter.) But I knew that this stereo must have originally worked, and now didn’t; something had changed, something was wrong, and I felt I ought to be able to figure out what.
So I looked. I peered. I observed. I spent minutes, then hours, following wires from one side of the cabinet though labyrinthine connections to the other. I sniffed at fuses and welds to see if they smelled burned. I took out a magnifying glass and looked for tiny scorch marks that might indicate a bad connection. I tried to grok the entirety of how this machine was designed. If I push this button, then that closes the switch over here, which then sends a signal down this wire, which connects to this mysterious metal box; from there a yellow wire goes to this light and a blue wire connects to this other button….
I felt like I was having a conversation with the bespectacled hi-fi geek in the design department of a 1961 record-player company. Little by little I eliminated areas and systems and wires that couldn’t possibly be the problem. My ghostly mentor with thick lenses gazing over my shoulder, shaking his head in disapproval whenever I overlooked something, nodded in satisfaction whenever I grasped a subtle design point. So that’s why the fuse has to be between the capacitor and the power cord!
After four hours of this obsessive-compulsive hands-on reverse-engineering lesson, I had narrowed the problem down to a single green primitive integrated circuit board; the flaw was to be found there, I was sure of it. Not because I knew what the flaw was, but because it simply couldn’t be anywhere else. But the board looked perfectly intact; the connections seemed solid, nothing looked burned or melted. So I took out a flashlight and my strongest magnifying glass and inspected it inch by inch. And there, almost invisible, I saw it: a tiny metallic filament of what I later determined to be Christmas tree tinsel, which had apparently fluttered through the air vent on the stereo one long-ago winter day, landed across two pathways on the board, and created a short-circuit at a fatally crucial juncture. My suspicion was that the short-circuit was at first only intermittent or flickering, as the tinsel was still motile. But at some point — 1966? 1971? Who knows? — a combination of cigarette smoke and dust and moisture had essentially glued the tinsel in place, and the short circuit became permanent. The stereo stopped working, so it was put in a garage. And when Dad moved to the retirement condo, it went into the Dumpster.
In the end it was so simple: I took a pair of tweezers and carefully dislodged and lifted out the quarter-inch bit of sticky tinsel. I somehow knew, even before putting the whole thing back together and plugging it back in, that I had fixed it. And I was right. I pressed the On button and glorious stereophonic hi-fidelity music filled the room. And I could feel the presence of the previous owner and the manufacturer and the designer and everyone back to Michael Faraday and Alessandro Volta standing there with me, smiling.
That is the secret joy of scavenging.
Human beings are scavengers by nature, right down to our DNA, according to this excerpt from The Scavengers’ Manifesto:
Long before there was a theory of evolution, Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers arranged all living creatures into what was later called the scala naturae, or the “ladder of creation,” which categorized animals on a hierarchical scale. Mankind was of course at the top, with other mammals just below, then birds and fish and so forth, with worms and snakes and other creatures that crawled on the ground at the bottom. Inherent in this view was the assumption that some creatures were “better” than others, or more sophisticated, or more advanced. And although the exact details of this worldview slowly shifted over the subsequent centuries, the underlying principle remained: that the various species on Earth weren’t merely different from each other, but possessed inherent inferiority or superiority according to various scales of moral or physical measurement. This basic philosophy persisted pretty much unchallenged until 1859, when Darwin published his epochal On the Origin of Species. To this day, the general populace assumes that Darwin’s main conclusion was simply this: If you go far enough back, all species are related to each other, and humans are therefore descended from the same ancestors as are monkeys and apes. And while this was indeed one of Darwin’s main points, he proved another point which was in some ways even more revolutionary. Darwin provided evidence that evolution was not the same thing as “progress,” that things do not always evolve to become stronger, smarter, faster or bigger. As he explained it, evolution is not about improving as time went on, but rather merely adapting to changing environments. Sometimes that leads to species becoming smaller, or slower and — yes — even dumber. Prehistoric armadillos and sloths in South America were absolutely huge: as big as Volkswagens. But when they encountered predatory felines migrating down from the newly connected North America, the larger, more lumbering species were decimated, and over time they evolved to become the comparatively smaller (and more nimble) creatures we see today. Conversely, the original ancestors of horses stood only eight inches tall and were approximately the size of chihuahuas. Now they’re among the largest mammals. The Archaeopteryx dinosaur species, which later evolved to become birds, started out with fairly large brains and were probably “smarter” than their descendants. But brains are heavy and require a lot of energy to run, and if you want to specialize in flight, a brain is only going to weigh you down. At some crucial evolutionary juncture, it became more advantageous for these “flying lizards” to be able to remain airborne longer than it was was for them to be a little bit smarter but much heavier. And so, over the millennia, birds became “birdbrains”: great at flying, but terrible at thinking. The flip side of that story is of course our own, in which primitive monkeys with brains the size of walnuts evolved to become the huge-brained Homo sapiens. So the notion that evolution was always progressing “forward” toward some eventual goal of physical perfection was tossed out the window. And if that’s the case, there’s no way to legitimately claim that the species alive today are any better (or worse) than the long-extinct species that existed millions of years ago. Furthermore, Darwin also showed the absurdity in trying to claim that any existing species is “more advanced” or “more sophisticated” than any other existing species. Each type has merely adapted to survive in its own environment — nothing more, nothing less. If you haughtily imagine that you’re more evolutionarily advanced than a goldfish because you can solve quadratic equations and it can’t, then try switching places with the goldfish and see how long you can survive underwater in a murky backyard pond. The point is that, yes, the goldfish can’t do what you can do, but neither can you do what the goldfish does. The main result of Darwin’s illusion-shattering masterwork was to smash the ancient Greeks’ ladder of creation. We are not on the top rung, nor are snakes on the bottom rung. In fact, there are no rungs. Life is not a hierarchical system. Darwin displaced humans from their self-defined position as the pinnacle of creation. And it was this that so upset the Victorians along with almost everyone since. It’s not simply that we are descended from apes, and are animals ourselves; it’s that our species is not really any more special than any other species. This idea is pretty hard for humans to handle. We need to feel special. We need to feel superior to other creatures. Even many scientifically minded modern evolutionists, who freely accept that we’re related to monkeys, and that Homo sapiens are merely a type of intelligent ape, still assume deep down inside that although we are animals, we’re the gosh-darned best animals of all. What’s the connection between all this and scavenging? Well, if we can’t make moral judgments about the superiority or inferiority of animal physiognomy, then we can’t make moral judgments about animal behavior either. Predation is no more “advanced,” no “better,” than grazing or scavenging, any more than flying is any more “advanced” or “better” than walking or swimming (or thinking). They’re just different ways of being — nothing more, nothing less. Our social histories, our cultures, and our prejudices tell us that there is a hierarchy of dietary behaviors, with predation at the top and scavenging somewhere near the bottom. But evolutionary theory begs to differ. There is no scientific basis to our low opinion of scavenging. Evolutionary theory says it’s just as silly to scoff at scavenging as it is to scoff at a zebra’s stripes.
Are you a scavenger? We are. And we think there’s a lot more of us out there than anybody realizes.
Scavenging is the first and only blog devoted exclusively to the concept of the scavenger. And we’ll also explore the philosophy of scavenging as a lifestyle (or a hobby), and the critical role it plays in the world at large.
So send us your tales of scavenging, your greatest triumphs and most bitter regrets. And start thinking of yourself as a scavenger first, above all else.