What we need

What we need

The morning air is cold, and birds chatter as they warm up in light that filters into the garden from the east. Though I know I’ll be shedding layers soon, I’m glad I threw on an extra sweatshirt before I headed out the door. The soil is chilly and I can only work for about ten minutes at a time before my fingers are too numb to grasp the roots of the weeds I’m pulling around the edge of the bed we’re prepping for planting. In between shifts, I stand up straight and look at the remnants of last year’s Huss Project Farm as they transition into another spring.

While my hands warm up, my thoughts turn from what needs to be done today in this tiny corner of our city—the blueberries and chokeberries weeded, a plan made for the tractor tire beds, the pollinator perennials rescued from beneath the shadow of winter cover crops—to the bigger picture. I have the luxury of laboring for free on this Saturday morning, but many of our neighbors struggle to find the sustainable work that would permit such pleasures. We have been, and remain, largely a manufacturing town, and we have dutifully followed the trend of the growing pay gap between the top brass and the floor laborers, so that even a full-time job with benefits is a stretch for feeding, clothing, sheltering, and educating a family.

In 2008, the workers at one of our largest manufacturers in Three Rivers went on an 87-day strike to protest the company’s intentions to cut many workers’ wages from $28 an hour to $18 an hour, despite the company’s profitability. In the end, the workers lost. It felt like everybody lost—including our downtown fair trade store, which felt the effects of the strike immediately—except CEO Dick Dauch, who received an $8.5 million bonus. However, this past March, a story appeared in the paper about how the company had realized that lower wages meant higher turnover and lower productivity—who didn’t see that one coming?—and they’ve decided to raise hourly pay for laborers significantly. This is good news, but it begs the question: why couldn’t the company just do the generous thing in the first place, instead of fomenting a culture of scarcity for their workers and fragility in our community as a whole?

And yet that sense of scarcity is still subjective. I don’t support the company’s actions in 2008, which embodied a bold normalizing of greed, but the strike did expose our collective poverty of imagination as a community, and that’s worth wrestling with. In Three Rivers, Michigan, where the cost of living is extremely low compared to other parts of the country, I do believe it’s possible to imagine a life of simple abundance on $18 an hour, especially if we can let go of the one-size-fits-all American Dream and reclaim our capacity for creativity. I think of my great aunts—one biological, one honorary—who spent much of their adult lives sharing a house, hobbies, vacations, utility bills, not just for the cost savings, but for the relational richness it brought to their lives in the absence of a romantic partner. I think of friends who share homes with their parents or grown siblings. And not everyone is cut out to share living space with someone else, but I would bet my bottom dollar that more of us are suited to it than the number of us currently giving it a try.

Beyond sharing a house, there are creative possibilities for economic practices that re-contextualize our systems of exchange to be about far more than just money. My husband Rob and I have enjoyed bartering with friends in a variety of ways, and various skill-sharing networks are using technology to encourage the exchange of time and talents in specific geographic areas. Residents of a nearby group home visit our fair trade store and exchange all manner of things—artwork, tea, candy, poetry, conversation—for a cup of coffee and a hospitable place to sit awhile. A local group of unlikely activists has begun offering their time and tools in exchange for more well-tended parks for their own households and their neighbors. There is a monetary side to all of these things to be sure, but if we accept Wendell Berry’s definition of home economy—“the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of nature”—then money is not at the center. Rather, nature is the measure, and not just the trees and animals and insects and soil. We ourselves are nature, made of dust and breath, finding our way in this wild world toward the things that make life viable and worthwhile.

Back in the garden, I’m struck again by the infinite, beautiful complexity of this network of mutual exchange. In other parts of the world and for other people, this abundance of land would be hard to come by, but thanks largely to the financial and moral support of a whole network of people, we have the privilege of tending a portion of four acres, paid in full, to grow food for ourselves and our neighbors. Money may be scarce in Three Rivers, but we have other resources in spades: housing stock, water, land, trees, wildlife, cultural and economic diversity, contemplative communities. Even the pigeons living in the chimney of the vacant building are contributing members of our local economy, whistling their gentle, warbling songs while I work and fertilizing the garden as they flit to and fro from the four-story mouth of the stack. The tiny yellow onion sets donated by a local farmer sparkle in their orange mesh bag as the sunlight begins to spill over into the bed of the pickup truck. I shift the bag over to the shady side and they whisper excitedly to each other about what they want to be when they grow up.

This morning is just what I needed.