I'm reading a book now that several of you here have recommended, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, which is especially interesting in light of our current conversation on art and the marketplace.
Kimmerer references Lewis Hyde's important work on the distinction between market and gift economies (The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World) -- but she comes to his ideas from an unusual direction, discussing the difference between these two ways of thinking from a botanical and ecological perspective rather than an artistic one. Strawberries are one example she gives of the gift economy operating in botanical form: the small, sweet wild strawberries she gathered freely from the fields when she was a child, a wild gift from the bounty of Mother Earth, as opposed to larger, less tasty strawberries farmed as monocrops, packaged in plastic, and shipped around the globe to be sold at supermarkets in every season.
"It's funny," she notes, "how the nature of an object -- let's say a strawberry or a pair of socks -- is changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity. The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy. I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the lightly exchanged 'thank yous' with the clerk. I have paid money for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. I don't write a thank-you note to JCPenny.
"But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift? That changes everything. A gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank-you note. I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious granddaughter I'll wear them when she visits even if I don't like them. When it's her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return. As Lewis Hyde notes, 'It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.' Wild strawberries fit the definition of a gift, but grocery store berries do not. It's the relationship between producer and consumer that changes everything."
"I'm a plant scientist and I want to be clear," Kimmerer continues, "but I'm also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor. When I speak of the gift of berries, I do not mean that Fragaria virginiana has been up all night making a present just for me, strategizing to find out exactly what I'd like on a summer morning. So far as we know, that does not happen, but as a scientist I am well aware of how little we do know. The plant has in fact been up all night assembling little packets of sugar and seeds and fragrance and color, because when it does so its evolutionary fitness is increased. When it is successful in enticing an animal such as me to disperse its fruit, its genes for making yumminess are passed on to the ensuing generations with a higher frequency than those of the plant whose berries were inferior. The berries made by the plant shape the behaviors of the dispersers and have adaptive consequences.
"What I mean of course is that our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.
"In the old times, when people's lives were so directly tied to the land, it was easy to know the world as a gift. When fall came, the skies would darken with flocks of geese, honking 'Here we are.' It reminds the people of the [Potowatomi] Creation story, when the geese came to save Skywoman [the first human]. The people are hungry, winter is coming, and the geese fill the marshes with food. It is a gift and the people receive it with thanksgiving, love and respect.
"But when food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don't feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return -- that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full. Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; that is a theft.
"How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers -- the living world could not bear our weight -- but even in a market economy, can we behave 'as if' the living world were a gift?
"There are those who will try to sell the gifts...but refusal to participate is a moral choice. Water is a gift for all, not meant to be bought and sold. Don't buy it. When food has been wrenched from the earth, depleting the soil and poisoning our relatives in the name of higher yields, don't buy it.
"In material fact, wild strawberries belong only to themselves. The exchange relationships we choose determine whether we share them as a common gift or sell them as a private commodity. A great deal rests on that choice. For the greater part of human history, and in places in the world today, common resources were the rule. But some invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just one story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.
"One of these stories sustains the living systems on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become."
In the Mythic Arts field, we are all storytellers -- whether we work with words or paint or clay or sound or the movement of our bodies and the breath in our throats. And as storytellers, it behooves us think about the kinds of stories we're telling -- as well as about the ways we tell them, the ways we receive them, and the ways we pass them on to keep the gift in motion. There is no simple means of exempting our art from the strictures of the market economy while we live in a market-centered world, not if we depend on our work to pay the rent and put food on the table. But, as Kimmerer notes, our relationship to things, whether strawberries or stories, is transformed by our choice of perspective. When we come to "know the world as a gift," then we also come to know art as a gift, moving from hand to hand to hand, creating relationships "of gratitude and reciprocity."
And that, as Kimmerer says so sweetly and succinctly, changes everything.
Photographs: These pictures were taken up on the moor at the Wallabrook -- next to the Scorhill stone circle, and close to our village. The large river stone with the hole in it, known as the Tolmen Stone, was believed to cure various ailments (arthritis and infertility in particular) in any who passed through it; it was also prescribed as a purification ritual for unfaithful wives. The single-slab clapper bridge nearby dates at least to the Elizabethan era (when we have the first record of it) and probably much earlier. The photo of me, Howard, and Tilly was taken by Helen Mason (thank you, Helen); the rest are mine.
Words: The passage quoted above is from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2014); all rights reserved by the author.