Unequal Exchange: Reciprocity and the Land
Over the past three years I’ve been courting the spirits of the wetland park near my home. This park is one of the most betwixt and between places I know. Humans have shaped parts of it for their own use, and dedicated other parts primarily to the use of plants and animals. The feral space is bordered on all sides by busy roads and apartment complexes. The most frequently used trailhead is in the parking lot of a retail chain store. Massive electrical towers stand on huge concrete structures in the midst of the grasses, seasonal standing water, and small trees. A gravel path traverses the park, forming a few big loops with a few meandering side trails that dead end in stands of trees and boggy ground. The roar of traffic and the hum of powerlines make music with the calls of redwing blackbirds and wild geese. The paths are much used by humans, but the spirits of the place are, for the most part, uninterested in us. Or at least, mostly uninterested in me.
The first several times I visited, I marveled at the beauty of this pocket of near wildness in the midst of busy suburbia, but I felt no welcome. I didn’t feel hostility, either. Rather, I felt the disinterest of an ecosystem going about its business, and maybe a touch of annoyance when I tried to reach out and have a conversation with some of the stones and trees. But I was allowed in, so I kept going back. I took nothing on those walks: not a feather or a shiny pebble, not a leaf or a seedhead from a winter plant. The spirits made it very clear the resources there were for the wild creatures, not for me; so I focused on being a good guest. When I saw trash, I picked it up if I was able. This went on for a year and a half.
Then one day as I was walking I suddenly felt the heavy, eerie sensation of being watched. It was the first time I felt any spirits of the place voluntarily paying attention to me. I stopped in my tracks and looked all around to see if a human was nearby, but I was, for once, alone on the path. I said hello to whoever was watching, told them I was listening if they wanted to communicate, and resumed walking. The sensation of being watched persisted and as I walked up a slight rise and came upon a side path. I felt a strong push to follow it.
It led alongside a deep indentation in the land which in winter is full of water, but on that late summer day it was dry. Beyond the edge of the sometimes-pond, the path ended in a shallow bowl of land under the limbs of several small, shrubby trees. In the middle of this place, invisible from the main path, I found a scattered assortment of trash. “So that’s what you want,” I thought, and gathered it all up, stuffing small bits into a conveniently empty (and dirty) plastic cup. I carried it out and deposited it in the first trash can I saw.
This happened two more times on my walk, though the whole loop I walked was only about a mile in length.
After that, I tried to remember to bring a plastic bag on all my walks, folded up in a pocket until needed. I was still never able to gather up all the trash I saw - much to my dismay - but I understood that this was the smallest service I could give to this place that brought me so much joy just by being itself.
Earlier this year, two years after I started getting to know the wetlands, I was allowed to take a few small bits of soil from a few places on the path for some secret shenanigans - after I picked up not one, but two grocery bags full of trash left by other humans. It was the only time I asked anything of the place, other than to be allowed entry until yesterday.
From this point on you’ll have to bear with me a little: I’ll share some details whose significance won’t be clear until the end of the story.
Yesterday, I felt very strongly that I needed to go for a walk at the wetlands. I hesitated because I also had excruciating cramps. I convinced myself to go, however, by reminding myself how often a brisk walk actually makes cramps go away. So I put my driver’s license in one back pocket, my phone in the other (in case I needed a photo, you know), and drove to the trailhead at the busy retail parking lot.
My cramps did not go away. They remained incredibly painful throughout the walk. It was also very cold, and very windy, the kind of wind you have to lean hard into if you want to walk against it. I didn’t enjoy the walk very much, but I kept going because I compelled to. By the time I got back to my car all I could think about was getting home, putting on sweats, taking some more ibuprofen, and crawling in bed with a heating pad. I couldn’t get the car started fast enough.
Once I got home, I made a beeline for the ibuprofen without taking off my shoes or my hat. I poured some to take the ibuprofen with. I went to the bathroom. Then, finally, I went to take off my shoes and put my keys and license back in my purse.
Only my license wasn’t in my pocket.
I wanted to rest more than anything. But I did not want to have to deal with the DMV to replace my license. So I anxiously drove back to the parking lot. My license wasn’t on the ground by where I had parked. I went into the store in case someone had found it and turned it in: no luck. So I steeled myself to retrace my steps in the cold, and wind, and discomfort. At the trailhead I paused. I knew, considering how powerful the wind was, my license might be anywhere by this point. It had been at least a half hour since I dropped it, and possibly much longer, depending on where on the path it fell out of my pocket.
So, feeling a little desperate, I started talking to the spirits around me. It was something like “Hey everyone. I know you don’t owe me anything. I know me picking up trash is literally the least I can do, since it’s there in the first place because of other humans. And I’ll totally keep picking it up even if you don’t help me today. But if you all could maybe point me in the right direction, and help me see my license when I get close to it, I would be super grateful.”
After my quiet request I started walking down the path. About 100 yards along the trail I felt a strong tug off to my right, several feet off the path, where a clump of small shrubs stood in a wonky between the path and the parking lot. And there, on the ground at the base of one of those little shrubs, was my license.
I’m pretty sure I yelled “HOLY SHIT THANK YOU!” when I saw it. I am also pretty sure there were other people nearby who were startled by my outburst. But I didn’t care. My license could have been carried anywhere by that wind, including into the middle of the busy street close to the park, or into the creek running alongside the path for half of the walk. It could have ended up in a tangle of blackberries where I’d never have seen it.
If I thought the spirits of those shrubs liked cookies, I’d bake them several dozen. (Note: cookies are bad for wildlife. Don’t use them as offerings.) As it is, I’ll just be extra sure I remember to take bags with me on every walk so I can pick up trash. And if the spirits there want anything else, I’m their girl.
It was a stressful day and I wasn’t at all pleased with my own carelessness. But I was humbled and touched by the help I received. The Land doesn’t owe me anything. If I’m being honest, I think the Land and the spirits of all the stones, plants, and animals of that place have every right to never, ever communicate with any human who comes around. But my efforts to be a friend to that place were rewarded yesterday, and that’s incredible. Spirits don’t owe us anything, but for some reason they are often incredibly gracious, and I’m really grateful.
And to me this is how reciprocity really works. It isn’t insert offering, get a prize. It isn’t transactional. It is, instead, living in community with all people - the ones you can see and the ones you can’t, the human ones and the not human ones. It is asking, what do I owe to my community? Then giving what is needed by the community, out of love, without expectation. And as we give from our hearts, because it’s the right thing to do, our needs are also met.
This may sound like being some kind of martyr, but it’s not. Because the act of giving with love is a reward in and of itself. When we are giving our best from our hearts, we have the deep and beautiful satisfaction of building right relationship. The exchange is unequal, but not the way a lot of humans might think. No matter how much we give to the Land, to the Gods, to the spirits, we can't ever give as much as we receive.
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