When I was a small girl in the Southern US, my Grandmother kept a sizable vegetable garden, a large number of chickens, a few cows, and several pigs. My memories of time in the garden and with the animals outnumber any others from those days. I befriended one of the chickens, actually a rooster, who would sit in my lap & allow me to pet him. And I helped slop the hogs many evenings, although I never got too close to them or the cows, for fear of being bitten or stepped on.
When it came time to harvest, some vegetables were canned or placed in my granny’s deep freeze, and some went to family members, neighbors, and friends. This sharing also took place when one of the animals was slaughtered. And folks were always bringing by free baskets of beans, corn, apples, berries, and jars of freshly made jam. I didn’t know I was witnessing a gift economy; that’s just the way things were done.
In a recent essay in Emergence Magazine, Robin Wall-Kimmerer, State University of NY Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology and the Founder and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, considers a similar gift economy as she’s picking Serviceberries, also called Juneberries. These unique fruits are enjoyed not only by her and her neighbors, but also many other citizens. It is a preferred browse of Deer and Moose, a vital source of early pollen for newly emerging insects, and host to a suite of butterfly larvae—like Tiger Swallowtails, Viceroys, Admirals, and Hairstreaks—and berry-feasting birds who rely on those calories in breeding season, she writes.
Kimmerer names the essential gifts received by the tree in return for this bounty of sweet berries, stating its economy is based upon reciprocity rather than accumulation, where wealth and security come from the quality of relationships, not from the illusion of self-sufficiency. Without gift relationships with bees and birds, Serviceberries would disappear from the planet. All flourishing is mutual, she sets forth.
Generosity is a major theme of the essay. In past posts including The Generosity of Plants and Wildflowers: Resilience, Beauty, & Grace, I have written about benefits of altruism in the plant world. And human studies show that generosity can boost immune function, reduce stress, improve mental health, and prolong life.
I am blessed to be a part of a gift economy with a small group of neighbors & friends, with whom I exchange garden veggies, nuts, farmers market picks, flowers, holiday goodies, and help with snow removal & cat sitting. They are always willing to lend a helping hand, and vice versa. But since childhood, I have seen less and less of this good-hearted reciprocity. I believe the inflation and short supply of goods and services (in the US) brought about by covid has resulted in a population consumed with thoughts of scarcity. But must fear prevent us from establishing a strong, loving community?
Kimmerer has the perfect antidote for this fear: naming the world as a gift. She explains: Conceiving of something as a gift changes your relationship to it in a profound way. She gives an example of a hat knitted by a beloved auntie vs. one bought at a store, saying that you’re much more likely to take better care of the hand-knitted one because it is knit of relationships. She continues, this is the power of gift thinking. I imagine if we acknowledged that everything we consume is the gift of Mother Earth, we would take better care of what we are given. To name the world as gift is to feel one’s membership in the web of reciprocity. It makes you happy—and it makes you accountable.
Reading Kimmerer’s essay makes me even more appreciative of those practices from my formative years, based on the infinitely renewable resource of kindness, which multiplies every time it is shared rather than depreciating with use, in her words. (To sample more of her writing, check out my post Does the Earth Love You?)
I hope your heart, like mine, has been opened by sharing in Kimmerer’s knowledge and ideas. May our inspiration and collective willingness to participate more fully in a gift economy be spurred to create a kinder world.
Blessings for Shared Abundance,
All flourishing is mutual. ~Robin Wall-Kimmerer
The content of this article is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult with a qualified health care professional before acting on any information presented herein. Any statements about the possible health benefits of any subject discussed have not been evaluated by medical professionals or the Food & Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or illness.