Sunday, September 13, 2009

Art of the Barter & Neighborliness

I've become a bit of a twirler - or maybe more of a Lazy Susan, since returning to the northland. I spend a lot of time doing slow 360's, looking all the way around at the views. Hay fields to the east of us, a big red barn to the northeast, straight north is an expansive pasture alternately dotted with fat black cows or munching horses. But my favorite view has always been facing slightly southwest from my garden. There, I would find the neighbor's beautiful palomino - a goldenrod coat with a wheat-colored mane and swishing tail. Even from a quarter mile away, you could see the strength in him and the lustre of his coat. He'd stand there against this gorgeous green backdrop and there were many times I'd straighten up from weeding and just gaze at him for a few minutes, watching him mill around.

One day while in the garden recently, I heard a low hum filtering over to our place and looked up to see our neighbor out there mowing the pasture. I thought for a moment and realized I hadn't seen the palomino for awhile. Sure enough, when our neighbor stopped by a day or so later, he told Mike he'd had to put down his treasured horse. Then he asked if we'd like to put our horses out there on his pasture. For as long as we want. He hated to see the sweet grass go to waste and he'd seen the abysmal "corral" where our poor creatures were ekeing out a living (more on the disappearing corral at a later date). Secretly, I think he also just misses seeing and hearing horses out there.

He and his wife are both hard workers, but are slowed by arthritic maladies that keep them from getting to do as much as they'd like of the laborious work around their property. "As long as you all don't mind helping out with a little weeding or wood stacking once in awhile, we can call it good," he said.

So, our horses have been happily grazing in their new digs for a few days, and on Wednesday, our kids will pop over to the neighbors to do a little weeding. The benefit to us in terms of quality of life and nutrition for the horses is immeasurable, and this arrangement cuts down the feed bill significantly. This will allow us to get the corral fixed up as we can, get some hay stockpiled for the winter and begin preparing our front pasture for seeding next year.

This is just one of the latest instances of "bartering" we've been engaged in around here. With those same neighbors, we swapped some of our green chilis for some of their zucchini. Mike is forever swapping tools and labor for that of our neighbors' across the street. Last week, I loaded down a friend with bags of tomatoes for canning, and this week, she gave us dozens of ears of corn to freeze. There's an odd satisfaction in bartering; I can't put my finger on what the specific appeal is, but for some reason it feels like a little victory.

But what's even more touching somehow, is the level of neighborliness that accompanies all of this bartering and sharing. Pasturing and lodging our horses far outstrips in monetary value what we'll be providing in spruce-up projects around our neighbors' home. But I know the value to them of not having those nagging projects go undone will be hard to measure. And, the value to our children of serving their neighbors with a little sweat equity is rolled in there, too.

Another neighbor loaded me up with jars and lids for canning yesterday, brushing off offers of return favors with a jesting, "Oh, if it all comes crashing down, I'll know where to find them - and they'll be filled with food." She knows I like to can, she knew those jars were going to sit unused at her house for a good long time. Why not give them away? Simple as that.

And what about the Harley-driving Dutch transplant neighbor with the heart of gold who brought his tractor down this spring and tilled our garden for us? And the same horse neighbor who used his brush hog to knock down the weeds in our front pasture? He was about to take the brush hog off his tractor for the season and he would knock the weeds for his old uncle that used to own our place, so why not?

Then there are the friends who taught Mike and me how to process pork last week after our pigs were butchered. The husband had been up since 2:30am picking sweet corn, but worked with us until 8 that evening, teaching us how to cut, sausage, brine and wrap the meat. And would only accept payment for the spices we used for the sausage, bacon and hams. He's the same guy who came and picked up the pigs in his horse trailer and hauled them to and from the butcher in a nearby town for us.

When Tanner's kidney disease diagnosis was finally made, I was visiting with the owners of our corner feed store about how we were hoping for good gardens in this and years to come so we could fill Tanner up with clean, healthy foods, keeping his kidneys from having to filter too much foreign or toxic junk. We were also discussing the severely salt-restricted diet he was on at the time till we got him past a rough patch getting his blood pressure regulated. The gruff old owner asked, "Does he like apples?" and when I answered yes, he promptly hauled two big boxes of apples out to the truck. "Just want to do something for the little guy," he said as he was walking by with a box, refusing my offer of payment.

This represents only a smidgeon of the neighborly deeds we've been treated to. There have been meals dropped off just because someone heard I was under the weather. A stocking full of gift cards and cash just before Christmas when someone presumably heard we'd cut our income by 3/4 and must have guessed the mounting medical bills were crushing, and Christmas and lots else looked grim. There's the teacher and friend who's giving Karlie and her best friend roping lessons every Thursday after Hulet Harmonizers. It never stops. And we have a strong sense it's because these are simply good people, some of whom love us, and some who are just made that way.

This environment of neighborliness has given us the courage as a family to feel that it's safe to just do little random acts of kindness ourselves. After living in a (beautiful little) cookie-cutter neighborhood in Gilbert, where you only wave at neighbors as they're pulling into garages and you certainly don't show up at their doors unannounced, it's wonderful to wander down the road on a family walk and drop off fresh eggs, proud 1st attempts at peach jam, or fresh pork roast, and know the recipients will simply appreciate it for what it is: good, old fashioned neighborliness.

So, while we'll keep reveling in the fun of figuring out what we can barter next, it's when I look across from my garden to that gorgeous green pasture and see our own horses there that I'll have that warm little glow that comes from knowing we're surrounded by great neighbors whose generous spirits are the greatest spoils of all.

Love from the farm,

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