Think back to your grandparents, or maybe your great-grandparents and the stories they used to tell you. Chances are they were full of self-sufficiency, gardens, canning, farms, and neighbors. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about neighbor so-and-so or about the family that used to live at the “old ‘Last Name’” farm. Think about how many times you traveled with them only to find out they knew someone at your destination. This is what I would call, community; something that our current society lacks significantly.
Shannon Hayes (author of Radical Homemakers) has researched the topic of community and come to the conclusion that money has divided us. When people left their homes to work all day, they made more money. When they made more money, they bought bigger houses with more stuff in them. Eventually, after much buying and stuffing, we found ourselves in a suburban desert, as far as the eye can see. Each home has its standard family with 2.5 children and a dog. Each home has its own set of power tools, appliances, lawn equipment, two vehicles, and more. Everyone has pristine landscaping and lush green lawns and none of them ever talk to one another, ever. Oh sure, there is the occasional over the fence chat, but there is no community. People don’t work together; they work independently and judge one another from afar.
Thankfully, in recent years, we have seen a re-invigoration of community starting in the most humble of places, the garden. Once the gardening began it quickly spread to the local farmer’s markets and we can now say that farmer’s markets are catching fire all over the United States. People are flocking to them to buy produce grown by their friends and neighbors. This has helped the situation greatly, but there is much more work to be done. Building community is about more than buying things from one another, in fact, with money being part of the transaction, many people are more likely to treat market vendors like big corporations. Many times I have seen people upset that produce isn’t picture-perfect, or that prices are higher than corporate grocery stores. The mentality of “money is king” is quickly dissuading vendors from continuing to sell. Many of them pack up shop and refuse to come back because of customers’ demands.
When a customer has money and you have a product, the customer is in the position of power. There are typically two types of customers: those that think you “need” their money and those that think you are “stealing” their money. Both grip their cash tightly and have a sense of entitlement when it comes to the transaction at hand. However, if that money were to disappear, it would put the producer and the customer on level ground. Everything becomes worth something when there is no money involved.
For example, I know how to make pottery; I think my work is pretty nice and it is functional. However, if I sell them for money, they are considered a luxury item and no one buys them because bowls are cheaper at corporate superstores. However, remove the money (which removes corporate superstores) and I make an extremely valuable, unique product. Everyone needs something to hold their food. I could easily trade away my wares for things that I need, like food, clothing, or services. In this example, I, and the people I trade with, are on equal ground. They have something I need, I have something they need. We trade, both parties are happy, we have mutual respect for one another and we go home with a sense of pride and accomplishment. This is a healthy transaction. However, most vendors at farmer’s markets work extremely hard to produce something, sell it for less than it’s worth, struggle to make ends meet, and eventually give up. Then, their customers just say “Well, they weren’t good business people”.
As anyone can see, this is a problem. So, I’m proposing a solution, and a simple one at that. Learn to barter and trade again. Bartering and trading is a recently lost art; chances are some of your grandparents can still do it, but generations since then have never had to do any of that past childhood (we all traded toys and cards). This can be incredibly simple, useful and it will help us build our communities again.
Anything can be used to barter. Do you have a scrap car in your yard? Trade the parts away to neighbors who need them. Can you fix mechanical things? You’re in luck! Chances are almost every single person in your neighborhood would rather give you things than change their own oil. Can you make unique items like candles, clothes, or pottery? There is a never-ending need for these types of items and they can be traded away at a high value because of the amount of work and supplies required to make them. Can you grow food? This is by far the easiest to barter, everyone needs to eat. There is a very high chance that there are people in your neighborhood who have tasted real, garden-fresh food and I can almost guarantee that they crave it. Find those people and don’t let them go.
These people, called “neighbors”, are not just people to be used to get what you need; there needs to be a sense of community and togetherness for this all to work. Relationships need to be nurtured and connections need to be made. The easiest way to do this is to give something to someone when they move into a neighborhood, or when you move in. Go to your closest neighbors and introduce yourself, invite them over, or extend them an invitation to come over whenever they like. This is the easiest way to start a connection. Let them know your schedule and consider giving them a gift for accepting you into the neighborhood. This can be something as simple as a jar of homemade jam or a few tomatoes from your garden. Build these connections with people and you will have on open door to turn to when you need it.
The other big obstacle is learning to ask. People aren’t used to trading physical things and services in this digital age. We’ve all been taught that money is the only thing worth getting and that we need a lot of it, so we have to slowly introduce the idea of trading to our neighbors if they are not already familiar with it. The easiest way to do this is to tell your neighbors your ideas and what you do. Pull them aside or hang out around a campfire and explain why you are pursuing this way of life and what you plan to do. They could be sympathetic towards your plan and want to join you!
For example, I gave homemade jam to our neighbors and found out that they love garden produce and homemade baked goods. I can do both of those things and they have a riding lawnmower that would really make mowing our three acres a lot easier. All I need to do is offer the trade. I explained our plans for a permaculture landscape and building a food forest on our back two acres and they were thrilled. They were sympathetic to my ideas of becoming self-sufficient and they even made some recommendations for local services that might help us out. Now that they have, in turn, improved our lives with their companionship and their recommendations, I plan on repaying them with a basket of baked goods as a thank you.
That’s really all it takes. Two hours of my time has granted me an open invitation to the neighbors when I need them, and they want to introduce us to all the neighbors they know! Once you get the ball rolling, it’s really easy to build a community of people that you can rely on.
Now I know some of you will be thinking that you don’t do anything worthwhile and I’ll tell you with that attitude you won’t get anywhere. I can guarantee you that you know how to do something that people near you can’t do. I thought making candles was a dumb skill to have, turns out it’s quite valuable even though nobody needs candles to see or light their way much these days. I also thought knowing how to cook was only good for me and my partner, but I got two recliners by cooking a gourmet meal for a friend. Granted, the friendship did help, but two recliners for a dinner? That’s quite a deal!
If you are convinced you don’t do anything that’s tradable, I would encourage you to learn to grow food and then start learning other tradable skills. The first goal is to be able to take care of yourself and that’s why learning to grow food is so important. This home-grown produce will also be a great currency to start trading with. Once you’ve got the hang of it, start branching out and learning new skills. The most valuable skill, besides food, would probably be mechanical work. After that, making items that people can use, or items they want but don’t necessarily want to spend money on, is a good place to expand into. You could even consider trading services. If you like mowing lawns, do that for some fresh produce. If you are handy with power tools, build someone a deck in barter for items or services you need. Consider harvesting unused fruit from a neighbor’s tree and send them a few jars on the finished product in return. There are really endless opportunities for people to work with one another.
There are other benefits as well that come with this style of living. If everyone gets fresh produce and baked goods from each other, their health will rise and the neighborhood will be happy and productive. Other, less handy neighbors, will save money on buying power tools or machines for themselves because they barter with another person to build things. That same neighbor that spends money on tools or machines doesn’t have to spend money on food or household items and saves money as well. There is no reason why a cul-de-sac of twenty-five people should own twenty-five lawn mowers when there are only ten acres shared among them. One or two people could easily handle that amount of grass and profit from the service while the others never have to spend the money on the machine, upkeep, and gas. This also cuts down the amount of pollution, noise, and general irritation that comes from owning mechanical things. If neighborhoods really wanted to be extreme, they could designate skills to the people who do those best and share the cost and profit equally without the need for constant bargaining. This may sound farfetched, but in a community of respectful and friendly neighbors, it should be easily possible.
I’m not asking that you go out today and start a hippie commune with all your neighbors, although you can if you like. I’m merely asking that in this age of separation, fences, and individuality, go talk to your neighbors. Build relationships in person and not only on the internet. Participate in a farmer’s market, ask your neighbor to mow your lawn in exchange for something, or plant a fruit tree on your property line and share the fruit with the adjoining neighbor. Plan a community potluck and host it at your place. Be friendly, offer to help, take food when someone is sick. The smallest gestures can build lasting relationships with those around you and they will be there when you need them. We call this building community; our grandparents called it good manners. We need to reclaim our skills, learn to rely on one another and cast aside our constant suspicions of people whom we do not know that live fifty feet from our front door. If we take money out of our lives, we will fill the void with something much more valuable. On your deathbed, you won’t remember how much a coupon saved you on that ottoman, and your last thought won’t be how happy you were that you had your own lawnmower; it will be about the people that enriched your life and made it worth living. That is the true value.