a wooden spoon from Haiti
value: a family’s “favorite wooden spoon,” made by an anonymous Haitian*, and sold cheap at an import store. It became the basis for another essay on value, and has become part of this one.

On wooden spoons, wares, value, & money

Ideally, I’d sell wooden spoons and bowls directly, person to person. Buyers could handle things, see some of the process, chat, sign up for a class, build relationships — and burn less fossil fuel…. In the meantime, however, most folks start by looking for a price. How do I determine what’s right and fair? Scott and Helen Nearing famously reduced their economy to a simple equation: 4 hours a day for “bread labor” (which included selling produce from their farm, among other cash activities), 4 hours a day for “cultural labor” and the rest for cooking, eating, sleeping, cleaning, etc. Similarly, I can give about half of every day to earning money. I know how much cash I need to make in a year, so I divide for my hourly rate. My magic number is somewhere between $20 and $40 per hour, but in fact, most of my prices are pretty arbitrary, based on who’s buying, what I think I can get, how much I care about the piece, and how long I have to make the sale. With more luck, it all works out. (So far, so good….)

For me, the value of wares oscillates, not between two poles so much as between two wholly different scales. The first scale is Village Value; it rules, because it follows the laws of nature. Then there’s the currently dominant consumer economy which, because it works against nature, must either destroy it — or die. 

So I try (as best I can, w/in the confines of “the economy”) to live by village rules: no clock, no timecard, everything you do takes work and it all feeds you, whether with food or beauty. To price things, I have to calculate how much money I need and how much time I have to earn it. But, since it’s all work and all pleasure, I somehow have to calculate what I spend taking care of kids, marriage, homestead, garden, and community. In the village, every one of these has equal importance; it’s not scale with a top and a bottom, but a circle. 

My wife and I have had pretty good success applying village principles at home: we and our two teenage sons live well and happily below the US poverty line, and have more time and freedom than most folks. My wife grows a lot of food in the garden, makes the best bread, tends a flock of laying hens, raises meat birds, etc. I built our home, maintain it and the rest of the infrastructure, help in the garden, and earn the cash. We are lucky enough to live in a state that provides decent health insurance at no cost to poor folk. (If we earn over the income limit, the insurance line item either exceeds our food expenses, or we pay a lot to get very little coverage.) We do what we can to minimize the environmental damage we incur — tho it’s no where near “sustainable.” (The only cultures that were truly sustainable (IMO) didn’t burn fossil fuels, didn’t separate art and science, etc. ad nauseam…). 

In the marketplace, I sell both books and wooden wares, both of which I think of as beautiful, utilitarian objects that should be affordable to anyone. But while I work quite quickly, a one-off, hand-made bowl necessarily costs more than one of thousands of identical, mass-produced books. Most things on my rack represent about an hour’s work, give or take a half hour. If I were an electrician, I could charge an hour minimum and a hundred dollar spoon would be normal. However, most people eat off metal or plastic spoons they get for free or close to it. What if people saw wooden spoons in the same category as their phones? A lot of folks think it’s normal or even necessary to spend $1,000 on a phone that they’ll replace in a year or two, as well as $100 or more a month in user fees. $100 for a wooden spoon or bowl that could last a lifetime would be cheap in comparison. If I put a hundred dollar price tag on a spoon or a bowl, however, it enters a different category — especially if I depend on environmentally costly internet and next-day delivery systems to do the work of getting wares into peoples’ actual hands. It becomes a “non-necessary” consumable. It’s no longer just a spoon, but a piece of modern, “usable art,” a fetish or worse, a fad. 

There is, I hope, an alternative:

Perhaps a wooden spoon can serve as an object lesson, a story, an example, a reminder of the village we’ve lost — and a marker of the way back. But in order to do that, I can’t just carve the spoon and put it up for sale: I have to have a conversation, a relationship, an understanding with the person on the other end of the transaction. I have to be able to give them the whole story, the whole gift, not just the spoon or the bowl. 

I have a a pen pal in Toronto who I met online because we share interests in ovens, fire, food, and community. We both recognize the loss of village vallue, and we’re both engaged in the work of re-building. She’s bought some spoons from me, and I’ve always been happy to sell them to her very cheap, because she uses them, gives them away so others can enjoy using them — and because she and her husband have gifted me many valuable stories. Tho we’ve never met in person, I think we have a shared understanding of beauty. For her, and for the village, I can accept responsibility for the oil drilled, spilled, and burnt, and the resulting debt to nature — because the exchange feeds us (maybe me more than her) in ways that our own villages can’t (yet) — and because I trust that we are similarly engaged in the challenge of trying to repay unpayable debts. 

When she got the last shipment, she wrote and said she felt she’d underpaid. I was working on this essay, and sent her a draft, and a note: 

“I gave you what I’m thinking of as the “village price” — because I count you as a member of my village, an elder of the tribe, someone whose friendship and stories I value more than money. [But] if you want a simplistic reduction of the whole pricing thing, what I think would be a “fair” (ish) price (gift exchange) would be the cash equivalent of about 4 hours of your time (or your annual budget?) —give or take an hour. ”

Her first response was a much larger amount of cash from paypal, which instantly raised in me all kinds of anxiety about fairness and fetishism. Then she wrote a note of her own: 

“Your story exactly solved my problem. I sent you a random amount of money just now. Another gift — not equivalent to anything, but giving me the chance to express my joy at what you sent…” and to “exclaim about something good.”

The transaction doesn’t end with this exchange, and it certainly doesn’t end with the money. We begin, and continue — with gifts. There remains (in me, at least), a good kind of anxiety about how to maintain the feelings of joy, fairness, and friendship. Such an exchange takes more time and conversation than most folks can make for a spoon or a bowl. And the current economic paradigm sure doesn’t support it. But I hope the story might help to clarify my pricing challenge, which is not just “making a living” but returning the gifts that life and planet have given to all of us…  

To better understand the magic price point, I think we have to consider the magic: a Japanese netsuke carver named Masatoshi followed his father into the trade. “When you work,” his father told him, “you must not think, ‘How much time should I spend on this?’ or ‘What price should I ask for that?’ If you harbor such thoughts, you will cheapen your work.” Magic, good or bad, happens because the mind takes its shape from the thoughts we entertain. Thoughts of money make the mind into a cash register. One of the beauties of good work is how it empties the mind. That’s what makes room for the beauty. Yamaoku Tesshu, a 19th century Samurai and calligrapher, said “look into things near at hand and examine your heart…. We must look after each other without regard to our own welfare, kill selfish desires, bravely face all enemies, and keep a stainless mind….” Beauty favors a stainless mind. A mind possessed by money makes only profits. And lest you think I’m fixed on a “Japanese way,” my father’s father, a Jewish doctor, told his son, “never work for money.” So, because my father wanted to learn about the world, write and make things, he learned to fit his needs to a small income and had an extraodinary career that started in the white house press corps, and ended in a family business making beautiful household pottery. In between, he wrote novels, traveled, did some union and community organizing and prison activism, as well as sculpting — and always, stories, written and told. My artist mother (tho divorced from my father) lived by similar values, wrote 13 books, raised two sons, skipped college, earned a Masters degree, painted, made beautiful things (some of which ended up in fancy collections), worked as a therapist, and travelled the world. 

Ironically, however, profit-driven consumer culture tends to ignore the complexity of artists’ actual lives, makes them into freaks and weirdos, denigrates most of them, but fetishizes some of their “products” and rewards a few by paying fantastic prices — usually only after they die, but sometimes even as they live (because, I think, a fetish allowed to live on the margins of society minimizes the threat of people and values that don’t put money first). 

Magic still wins tho, because what shapes the mind shapes the world. (Starhawk says magic is simply “the ability to change consciousness at will.”) The power of art to shape minds and worlds all began with the old definition of the word, which originally meant to “fit together,” and just indicated a basic instinct that everybody had. Farmers, teachers, parents, carpenters, dancers, you name it…all work required art; the better the fit, the better the art, the greater the beauty. Art recognizes beauty as a language we share in common with all creation. Beauty speaks the world into existence: you, me and everthing else. We all sing back: sun, sky, rain, flowers, grass, trees, critters, rocks and earth — a chorus of beauty. All value comes out of that chorus. And that’s what I really want to talk about. It’s what I want to give to people who buy a spoon or a bowl. From that perspective, the most important thing about price is that it doesn’t withhold beauty from anyone, rich or poor.  

All value begins (and ends) in the dirt. “All flesh is grass.” If you look up that phrase, Wikipedia will send you to the Old Testament of the Christian faith, but in truth, it’s merely the common observation that all life feeds life: grass feeds cattle, cattle feed us, we feed the grass (of course, the circle is smaller if you skip the burger and shake). We give back to life — to beauty — when our bodies die and become food for all the beasts and bugs that make the dirt — if, that is, we don’t sequester our flesh in a concrete box…. 

You can’t buy or sell value, you can only exchange it. A good trade is an exchange of beauty for beauty. When money was made of shells — for instance, when Europeans arrived in what is now New York — the local currency was wampum, made from shell, and used to exchange not only goods, but stories and meaning as well. The whole society also gave everyone free access to land, food, shelter, and clothing — and an education that provided the skills, knowledge, and courage to thrive in an often harsh landscape. Many things could kill you — weather, wild animals, disease, accidents — but you didn’t need money in order to eat and live. The indigenous economy was all about gifts. Food was a gift. Land and material were gifts. And the human labor that converted shells into wampum, or wood into bowls and spoons was also a gift. Value wasn’t something that you added to “raw material.” Value, like life, was given. And everything was alive — trees, critters, earth, air, water, rock… But the Europeans saw the wampum as “just money,” and applied skills and technology to manufacture it quickly, in large quantities. The resulting inflation was not only bad for business, it also further devalued the cultural, story-telling and relationship-building qualities of the medium. When the medium was converted to money, the message was reduced to profit. Indigenous culture and the village gift exchange lost power, lost curency, lost meaning.

What’s the meaning of wooden wares? What’s the value of a wooden spoon? I asked this question once in a class, and heard a marvelous story from one of the students about his family’s “favorite spoon”: he’d bought it cheap from an “import plaza,” w/a tag that said “made in Haiti*.” He said (roughly) that “it’s our favorite: we’ve had it forever, it was cheap, handmade, and we use it for everything.”

An offhand comment? Perhaps, but it means so much: “our favorite” says (to me) “our most valuable spoon.” Where does such value come from? Does it come from a famous name artist? A sky-high price tag? Exceptional rarity? NO! It comes from the opposites of those things: it’s cheap and common — just another spoon in an import store, hand-made, by an anonymous person just trying to make a living — someone probably more like us than different. Second, it’s useful for everything; it doesn’t just hang on the wall. And everyone likes it. It was a completely spontaneous comment about what constitutes value, which is not dollars, but life, love, joy, and connection.

These values underly all value; without them — without spoons to eat with, and things to eat; without flowers and the bees that pollinate the fruit; without worms to feed the roots of the grass that feeds the cow, that feeds us —  without such small, daily beauty — we would live lives of terrible poverty. Or we would not live at all…

We understand this only by participating in it — by growing and eating food, building our houses, and carving our spoons and bowls — for ourselves, and for others — because one can’t participate alone — because beauty, skill, and knowledge must all be passed on, from eye to hand, from hand to heart, to anothers’ hand — from parent to child and from teacher to student. And while we may all eat with our own individual, private spoons, we all ultimately take our nourishment from one vessel, shaped out of earth, cooked by the heat of the sun, cooled by the breezes, and celebrated as part of a shared story…

These are the roots of culture. So a spoon begins with a tree, and the tree takes us back into a garden that we must not only share, but cultivate and fertilize — with our own bodies and lives.

Here’s another story: 

An American businessman who owns a hat factory goes on vacation to a foreign country. At a peasant market he finds a guy selling beautiful hand-made hats. He offers to buy the entire stock. The peasant says, “but then I won’t have any hats for the people who need them, and I’ll have to work more.” The businessman says, “but you’ll have enough money to hire people to make hats for you. I’ll buy all you can make, and you’ll be rich. Then you won’t have to work.” The peasant smiles and says, “but I make enough selling a few hats to my neighbors. I work a little bit, and the rest of the time I spend with my family and my friends, at home, in the garden, and in the village. I don’t think I want to be rich.”

* Haiti: the only place where black African slaves managed to overthrow their “masters” and establish a free democracy…a spoon holds a world of stories. 

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