The Gift Economy

I started this post in March last year.  For reasons I can’t remember, I got side-tracked and it never finished it.  But, now as I am looking back through my drafts folder, I realized that there’s important stuff in here – ideas I want to keep at the forefront of my own thoughts.  And so, I decided to pick-up where the original post left off.

Written in March 2017

This morning, my omelet was stuffed with delicious curry kraut compliments of our neighbors. We’ve also have a crock full of kimchi fermenting with cabbage, carrots, green onions, ginger and, thankfully daikon.  The daikon would have been replaced by lesser radishes, except that our neighbor overheard a conversation between Matt and I about the difficulty of finding daikon in our area (and our own not being ready yet), and picked us up some while on pilgrimage to the Asian market.

This week, I’ve been reading some materials that came compliments of a couple Master Gardeners who gave me copies of the new Permaculture North America Magazine, a gardening magazine with edible landscape stuff, and a news paper clipping about local Permaculture.

Earlier this week, I planted horseradish and blackberry plants from other friends.  I also recently received a standing invitation to dig up some blueberry volunteers from another friend. And yet another gardener friend gave me some hollyhock seeds for spring.

Friends have given us hundreds of fresh cut logs to use for growing Shiitake, helped us transport free lumber, let us take their pallets and spent beer grains for our animals, loaded us up with oyster mushrooms, dropped off good used fencing and gates, helped us build some of our projects, shared their excess harvests, donated an egg incubator to our duck farm, and so much more.

In fact, regularly receiving gifts of stuff we want and need, or offers of help, has kind of become normal to us. Not that we take it for granted…we don’t.  Even though this has been going on for a couple years now, it still feels like a miracle to be living like every day is our birthday.

We also try to share whatever excess we have too.  But not in the barter sense.  No one is doing accounting.  We aren’t keeping track.  When I have something someone needs, I give it to them.  When I have extra eggs or vegetables or find out new information that could be helpful, I share.  We’re all still participating in the real economy, but bit by bit, we’re becoming part of something different.

A few years ago, I wrote my first draft of novel about a modern woman who — disillusioned after reaching the peak of her career and finding life empty — discovers a parallel world where the human-like inhabitants live without money. This new world is built on participation with nature rather than exploitation of it. The principle of organization for that society was that everyone uses their talents and shares them freely to others who need them. There was no judgement of value, no concern over tit for tat.  It worked because communities are intimate and time is not tracked, except by nature’s course.

Nature also had a real voice in this world, not in words, but through telepathy. And, as a gardener, I can say with absolute certainly that telepathy with nature is real. No, I don’t hear my plants tell me they need water or an infusion of nitrogen, but I sense it with the intuition – the natural knowing – that comes from regular interaction with plant life.  At times, the communication is so clear, I do almost feel as if we are speaking.

As far-fetched as this parallel world might seem to many of us today, it really wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine it because I had seen it in my childhood.  My maternal grandmother and her neighbors and family all lived in a kind of gifting economy.  They were all money poor, but community rich.  They mowed each others lawns, shared plants, divided duties and exchanged services.

Even on the money front, when someone ran into trouble, others would come to the rescue – not with a loan, but with a monetary donation with no expectation of payback. Though, honestly,  pride would demand that labor be exchanged for donations of money, and the payback was always greater than the original gift. But, that is to be expected.  When someone comes to help in your time of need, gratitude and appreciation are the natural responses, and that begets excessive gifting as opportunities present themselves.

Fast-Forward to February 2018

Now, back to the present. I am re-reading my March 2017 entry today and realizing that the list of gifts that have come into our lives have increased exponentially.


Now instead of jars of ferments, friends are giving us 5 gallon buckets of them. Dump trucks of fire wood and Shiitake logs are dropped into our lives. A friend brings over his tractor and scrapes and shapes our driveway.  A beautiful locust bench appeared to grace our outdoor living room. Stunning works of wood art fill the landscape of our indoor lives. Expired, but still perfectly good seeds, overflow my seed suitcase. Friends store stacks of hay for us in their barn at no charge. Baked goods and self-care products show up at regular intervals. Theater seats, dinner invites, foraging excursions, vacation opportunities – all at no cost to us – add adventure to our existence.


I can keep going. But, then it might sound more like bragging instead of a celebration of the beautiful gift economy at work in our lives today.

Just for clarification, these really are gifts, not barter. We owe nothing in return. Of course, we too love to give away our surplus, our skills, things that have served a purpose but now will better serve others. So, there is a sort of built in congruity to a gift economy. However, if you started putting a dollar value on the things that you gift or receive, you would inevitably corrupt the transaction.

That’s because money is deceptive.  It obscures the real value in things. For example, a 22-year-old stock trader may make thousands of dollars on a transaction that took a few seconds to accomplish. Whereas a 65-year-old wood-working craftsman who spent a lifetime honing his or her skills, might spend hours transforming a piece of raw hardwood, grown for 65 years, into a work of art and make $40.

Rationally, we all know that the intrinsic value of a life-long learned skill, of resources that take nearly a life-time to grow, and of the intent in making art are so much greater than a transaction perpetrated by a novice and supported only by our temporary belief in artificial currency.  Yet our belief in money – which is nothing more than an idea we dreamed up and choose to pretend is real – allows us to hide those truths from ourselves and each other.

For a true gift economy to work, you must forget money or at least stop pretending that it is anything more than another tool. Instead, simply give what you can and honor what you receive. There can be no thoughts of money in true gifts.

Even if you, in fact, spend money to make or give a gift – like buying the clay and paying for kiln time to cure the pottery you gift to others – you must not value the dollars that go in as if they were never spent. We do live in a monied world, and there is no way to get around this in all of our gifts, so we must simply think of money as just another ingredient or component that we have to use in our expression of our gifts. Money is just like the seed that grows the pumpkin that goes in the pie you take to your neighborhood potluck.

Flask Personal Products

If you can do this, then similar to the way applying a little nurturing to a single pumpkin seed can yield you hundreds of pounds of delicious, nutritious food, you’ll find that the gift economy seems to make your minuscule contributions into rivers of real currency within your community and reaps you so much more than you have sown.

But here’s the real challenge. This is the place most people get stuck at and never take the leap necessary for the gift economy to really do it’s magic.

For a real gift economy to exist, you must

give with no expectation of receiving. 

You must give because you already have a deep sense of knowing that you have been given the gift of your life, the abundant resources available on this planet, and a chance to do something beautiful in your community. You must give freely because you are the living embodiment of nature’s gift economy and giving is your natural state of being.

When you realize you are in fact already the recipient of gifts you can never repay, a desire to give freely to others is born. When you truly learn that secret, the incredible gift of life flows to, in, and through you. It connects you with others. It changes the way you use resources, the way you value the products in your life, and reconnects you with the sense of meaning that you have been missing.

I personally took a roundabout trip to understanding nature’s gift economy — from seeing it in reality in my grandmother’s world, to living a life so far from it that I was lost for years, to imagining it as an alternate reality through the pages of my own fiction writing, and now to really feeling it and participating in with every act of our homestead life.

Based on my own experience, I know that it’s not likely that our global economies will suddenly reject their destructive belief in the fiction of money and transition to something so much more sensical like nature’s gift economy.  Yet, I do hope that each of us can come to recognize and appreciate the gifts we’ve been given and share our gifts freely with others.  And in doing so,  we can transform our communities and our relationships with nature and each other into something less exploitative and competitive and more supportive and beautiful.






4 Comments Add yours

  1. I love this! The idea of a gift economy is so compelling to me.


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