The gift of preserves
There is more to the economy than transactions
The province of Saskatchewan is vast and covers almost half of the cultivated farmland in the country. It is a province marked by a settler culture of farming and harvesting. As such, many of us are familiar with the activity of harvesting various berries, fruits, or vegetables and turning them into some sort of preserve. A few of us might even have a certain friend who makes Saskatchewan renowned pickles or another who is known for their Saskatoon berry jam.
The process of preserve making is a lot of work, and a labour of love. To begin you must boil your jars so they are sterilized, and while doing so begin on that which will fill the jars. Afterwards, the entire filled jar will have to boil a second time and be left to rest and set. This is a process that can take hours.
If you have ever been on the receiving end of having been gifted a jar of this precious jam, only to then feel obliged to return the notion, you may have participated in what anthropologists call a gift economy.
Anthropologists describe gift economies as systems of exchange from which goods and services circulate without explicit expectation of compensation. Someone can gift another freely without expectation of anything in return, not even a “thanks.” Gift economies are not regulated from an overseeing body but derive from a collective sense of equity, reciprocity, and accountability. In the book Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein explains, “Gifts cement the mystical realization of participation in something greater than oneself which, yet, is not separate from oneself. The axioms of rational self-interest change because the self has expanded to include something of the other.”
The underpinning currency of these exchanges involve in some ways a dissolution of self in favour of mutuality. Gift economies encompass systems of social and moral agreements for indirect reciprocity. So, that feeling of having to return in kind the jam that was shared with you is part and parcel to gift economies.
Moreover, the world itself and its offerings can be understood as a gift. In fact, the words ecology and economy come from the same root, the Greek word ‘oikos,’ meaning ‘home’ or household. The common market economy that we’re used to and immersed in is certainly not the only model out there. In a small way, when we engage in the exchanges that occur between two ‘canners’ (someone who cans) at the end of harvest season, we participate in an alternative.
Market economies are often characterized by notions of scarcity with the end goal of maximizing return on private investments. The private owner of said investments is the sole benefactor of the accumulated return. For Eisenstein, he believes we have created a distorted economy which transforms what is beautiful and unique into money and currency which enables us to purchase things we don’t really need at the cost of destroying what we do.
Contrastingly, gift economies focus on the abundance of gifts from Earth, owned by no one and therefore meant to be shared. The act of sharing shapes relationships of goodwill and cements bonds to ensure the continuation of said relationships. Researchers have speculated on the challenges of implementing gift economies in urban sprawls, stating that while they might make sense in small and tight knit communities, larger areas where you may not know your neighbours pose a significant challenge.
However, that is also the power of the gift. Dropping the jar of jam or preserve on the door of a neighbour you do not know might begin a long-lasting relationship.
The next time you or someone you know begins the laborious process of making preserves, reflect on the fact that storing them in your pantry or in the bellies of your friends or unknown neighbour will combat hunger, but also have very different impacts.