Gift Economy

Bee Fields Farm sits on 13 acres on top of a beautiful hill in Wilton, New Hampshire in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by pastures and fields. When we moved to the 1760 old cape house,  I didn’t know yet what I wanted to grow on this land. During the first winter, I started taking Rosemary Gladstar’s course “The Science and Art of Herbalism” and thus started my journey into the world of herbal medicine.

During that first winter, I learned about the healing capacities of many plants that I already recognized such as thyme, sage, and rosemary but I was also introduced to plants that were new to me. One of these plants was Mullein, which is a native plant here in New Hampshire. Mullein leaves, I learned, were smoked by the Native Americans. The soft velvety leaves help soothe the lungs and expel mucus in inflamed brochettes. The flowers of the second year in the plant’s life cycle help soothe ear pains and, when combined with garlic, can heal ear infections.

As spring arrived the garden surprised me with an abundance of Mullein leaves in the lower fields. To me, it felt like a gift given to me by the land as if it knew that I needed them which filled me with joy and gratitude.  Surely, I could go on-line and order dried Mullein leaves from an organic dried herb supplier such as Mt Rose Herbs but receiving it as a gift made me feel like a bond was created between the land and me. Like any bond, this one is something that cannot be quantified and has no price. Priceless Mullein leaves.

In his book “Sacred Economy” Charles Eisenstein writes about gift economy:

“Money and measure are indeed closely intertwined. Money originated, in fact, as a measure: standardized quantities of commodities and then metals. The age of money has coincided with the program of reductionism and objectivity, which sought through science to attain mastery over the world. What can be measured can be mastered, as we imply when we claim to have taken the measure of a man. The immeasurable was excluded from science — “consign it to the flames,” Hume said — and from economics as well. Thus it has come to pass that standard of living has diverged from the quality of life. The former is a quantifiable standard; the latter is not.”

Some things that we can't quantify are things like: care, love, relationships, and community. All of those things are essential for human life and personal well-being. All are infinite things. You can not talk about economic growth or shortage in the market when you are talking about them in the same way as you would talk about any quantifiable commodity. Because quantifiable commodities are finite and limited, it might make us feel anxious. A culture that encourages competition and separation ensues. Will I have enough? When my needs are given as gifts that are free of attachments, a bond is made in which you feel grateful for the care, work and generosity of the “giver” be it a human, animal or plant.

Many times I am asked; are you the owner of Bee Fields Farm? Every time this question comes up, I find myself stopping to think about it. Something in me rejects the idea of ownership over natural resources. Land, water, lakes, and shoreline should be a shared gift. Only in a market economy could they be considered as someone’s property.

From a market economy perspective yes, the deed of the farm is signed by Elad and myself. But when I look out of my window and see the branches of the Copper Beech dancing in the wind, I remember that somebody else once lived in this house and planted this tree. I know that Alexander Milken who built the old cape in 1760 was a sheepherder and hundreds of years before him Native Americans were foraging the woods on the hill. I have a direct link to these people and to the people that will come after me through the land. What they did here influences me and the way I take care of the land will impact whoever follows. There is a feeling of gratitude to my predecessor and a feeling of responsibility toward the people that will come after me.

But it’s not only the human that calls this land home; it is also the animals and native plants with whom we share it. Part of the individuality of a farm is asking “what does the land want to happen here?” From a gift economic perspective, the land is a gift and we are called upon to respect and honor whatever is given to us. What kind of plants can grow on a windy rocky mountainside in New Hampshire? Surely not the same plants that grow on a rich flat soil of a riverbank. Respecting the land entails growing different crops and using growing methods that will comply with the unique features of the land. Things such as planning your beds to match the contour of the hill and avoiding the use of cultivation with tractors are factors that must be part of your thought process when you intend to change the natural structure of the land, something that agriculture fundamentally does.

Another attribute of the gift economy is that since it is not finite the more you share it, the richer you get. Calendula flowers are a great example of this principle. They bloom from July until the first frost in the Fall. We, in Bee Fields Farm, pick the Calendula flowers every day during the summer only to wake up the next morning to a bed of Calendula flowers blooming in orange and yellow. What a generous plant.

I invite people to come to sit in the garden during the growing season when the garden is colorful and filled with butterflies and birds. I offer free garden tours once a month during the summer so people can share with us the beauty of the land and the stories that the plants that grow here tell us. Whether its a group of children screaming with delight while climbing the Copper Beech or a group of adults taking a tour of the garden immersed in the colors, tastes, and aromas of its plants, sharing the garden does not reduce anything from its value, on the contrary, it brings it to life.

This does not mean that we must abandon the market economy altogether. Gift economy can help us transform the mundane to the sacred. It can allow us to move from a material quantified world to a world filled with beauty and mystery. From isolation into a community in its widest meaning. Once you recognize the gift in all living beings you recognize the gift in life itself.

Choosing to take part in a gift economy means to give generously without expecting anything in return and to trust that what you need will be given to you. This last part may not be directly from the person to whom you gave, but in a way that reinforces the interconnectedness of all beings. In our heart we are all needing the same; care, love, community.

Being part of a gift economy does not mean that you should go out there and give out your money and belongings. You might start by recognizing that everything that you have was given to you as a gift and that although many of the things that you have did come with a price tag on it, that price tag does not reflect its true value. For example, the turkey that you are going to enjoy for your Thanksgiving meal might have a number in dollars as its price but that price does not reflect the value of its life. That is also true for the life of each fruit or vegetable that is on your plate. A feeling of reverence and gratitude to the simple things that sustain our life creates in us the experience that we are part of a whole, a tapestry of beings.

A second step is to make the choice to give gifts that were handmade with love and care. Of course, it is best if you are able to make the gifts yourself, but buying from local artisans will not only support the local economy and strengthen your community but it might also reward you with a new friend.

The third and final step is giving to strangers. Your skills are not your own to hold close to your chest. They are gifts that you were either blessed to be born with or were given the opportunity to develop. Either way, they are there to be shared. You can do that through a timeshare bank or through volunteering in your community. You might give your smile and greetings to a person you pass on the street. The important thing is not the monetary value of what you give but that you watched, you saw the need, and you opened your heart with generosity.

At the end of this journey who gets the real gift the “giver” or the “receiver”?