A giving economy is where we take care of one another to benefit everyone. If we think of our campus and our community as a gift going in all directions, we are drawn into relationships now spanning two generations of The Grauer School.
A Giving Economy
We learned of the gift or giving economy many years ago from the Native Americans. We hoped we could have one at The Grauer School. No matter that we, as early Americans, rejected and abused them and their way of life. Maybe too late, but maybe we are coming around some.
It would be an economy not only based upon the currency of dollars demanded, but equally upon what we know we must give to have a healthy community—to take care of one another. Basic in what the indigenous Americans showed us, we would treat our land and assets like a tribe does: a regenerating micro-economy right on campus.
At first, the discovery of the concept of the gift economy only highlighted how far we were from such a campus. I was never sure we could live up to it. There has been much to unlearn. Now we are planning a trip to visit the Kumeyaay Indians, who live inland. They may have insights.
The Kumeyaay Indians lived in our area before us and believed in the spirit of all living things. That has been easy to embrace when we see a bobcat or family of quail, not so easy when a rattler slithers onto our deck.
Kumeyaay may have hunted, gathered, and farmed on our very land generations ago. Here is a hint about that: our campus coastal sage is thick, not uneven as it is in most natural settings—it is as though our land was once cleared and tilled and has now grown back. And why do they not live here or own this land when we believe they once did? I don’t know.
In their day, the Kumeyaay planted trees and fields of grain, and they grew squash, beans and corn, “the Native American trinity.” They gathered and grew medicinal herbs and plants, which we have labeled behind our school—please take a walk back there if you haven't yet. They dined on fresh fruits, berries, pine nuts and acorns.
Ethnobotanists say that these bounties tasted nothing like the mass-produced grocery store varieties: they were more complex and richer in flavor. With a little imagination, there is something inspiring about this as an image of independent schooling: Tribe-like, place-based, and outdoor oriented. We study our own land and learn how to grow there. What could make more sense?
Farming was regenerative back then, and soil was treated as a sacred commodity. Kumeyaay knew they could only benefit from the land to the extent the land benefitted from them.
I have never seen mention of native soil or campus wildlife in any of the scores of accreditation studies I have read, though gardening has gained steadily in popularity as a program in schools all over. Having a giving or gift economy meant we would have to treat the soil on campus just as well as it treats us, with gratitude, and to express that gratitude. Soil nourishes us, we consciously recognize that, and we nourish it back with aeration, cover crops, compost, rotations, etc. To have a gift economy means we teach our children about this nourishment, to be aware of what the soil is doing for us.
As our school gardening program has grown, I have learned that we are not working on plants so much as we are working on soil. Today, this is just exactly as we treat our most precious resource, our students, and not as something we add chemicals to, then extract from for personal gain. We are not creating students, or even creating learning, we can only create the fertile conditions for learning. Given that, students are natural learners. That analogy might not be for everyone, but it would be a gift economy.
Not just kids, it is not easy for any of us in this contemporary Western culture of ours to consider that the grass does not grow just for us. This is the “anthropocentric” viewpoint that could be our demise.
Once, when we were worried about water use, we almost swapped out the soil and grass for artificial, plastic turf, sometimes called Astroturf. When we heard about a field like that heating up and melting in Los Angeles, and thought about our gift economy, and also about the quail and rabbits that clean things up in the way they do around campus, we scrapped that plan. Now we are studying putting in a well or recycled water for irrigating the campus greenery more sustainably.
The Indians tried to teach us that a giving economy is not only for people or based on people. On our campus, the crows and robins have a fair time with our fallen peaches, as do other critters. I admit, we have set traps for the rats which devour our crops to no end, and multiply for it.
The monarch, with its orange wings laced with black lines adds delicate beauty to our campus. This species is severely threatened right now and dying off fast. We created a monarch butterfly way station because, if we don’t create a home for the monarchs, who will? We give them milkweed, they give us pollination. They give us beauty. Recognizing and supporting nature’s beauty is added value—that’s an element of the giving economy. We have owl boxes and chicken coops and vegetables and flowers coming up every season, focusing heavily on native plants.
Can a campus ignore all this while its students read about ecology in books? Here is the answer:
Our students ought best to study from nature, in nature, and not just about nature.
Gratitude and reciprocity flow from giving back: we honor grandparents and elders, as well as the impractical beauty that no one owns (like our native habitat corridor). I’m grateful to the Kumeyaay and I hope they would approve of our guardianship. We are not even halfway to a real gift economy, but the vision lures us always further.
When we think of our campus and our community as a gift going in all directions, rather than a thing someone sells and someone else buys, or as a transaction we make, or as a place for warehousing kids and books, we are drawn into relationships now spanning two generations of The Grauer School. Those indigenous to our nation’s lands taught that we must think seven generations if we are to understand how to honor our past benefactors and take better care of our future. So maybe our school is two-sevenths on our way. But we do not need to wait five more generations. If we are going to be stewards, or trustees, or leaders of our school, we will need to do at least this much: go out to the school quad. Get a sense of our ground. The sky. The four directions. Take a slow walk. Maybe taste a little bit of soil.
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