Money: Love it or hate it, this stuff is an inescapable part of life around the world. I’ve used about 12 different currencies in my life thus far, but my favorite rate of exchange isn’t measured in dollars or decimals. It’s social capital.
As a student of anthropology in a ‘former life’ (university life feels that long ago sometimes…), I was fascinated by the concept of social capital. It was something I used every day, completely without realization. The concept of social capital is simple: social networks have value. Despite the monetary reference, the value of individual or collective social capital isn’t measured in coin. Even the World Bank acknowledges that “a single true measure is probably not possible, or perhaps even desirable.” I agree: although anthropologists might suggest otherwise, social capital has its greatest value when we are not scoring points or keeping a ‘I’ve done what for whom” tally. To try and measure the complexities of friendship, and boil down a lifetime of relationships into a number is to demean the value of our very souls.
What, you ask, does this have to do with farming? As with any undertaking in our lives, social capital is the underpinning of our cottage farm endeavors at Wensleydale Cottage.
I have posted previously on the importance of building relationships with your local food providers and really knowing the who, where, and how of what you consume. A wise farming friend of mine recently said something like this: “If you stopped shopping at Walmart tomorrow they wouldn’t even notice. But if you started buying your food from your local farmers tomorrow, they are not only putting food on your table but you are putting food on theirs.” Buying from people you know and trust elevates the act of eating from something animalistic we do simply to feed our natural appetites, to a social act. (Just ask Wendell Berry.) Many, many societies have a strong food culture. Food is an expression of family, identity, relationships, and love. Capitalism’s only food culture is one of consumption. (Please don’t dismiss me as some kind of ‘communist subversive’ and stop reading here. I love the country I live in and am grateful I have the opportunity to freely meet my wants and needs. But I don’t identify with capitalism as my personal culture. If I had to label my ‘cultural identity’ its slogan would say “family, faith, community.”)
But today I want to talk more personally. I want to recognize with gratitude the intricate, beautiful web that weaves me to by family, friends and neighbors. I remember once, 3,000 miles from my childhood home, and facing a particularly difficult time in my life, questioning why we ever decided as humans that moving away from our family network and trying to do everything entirely on our own was a good idea. This cottage farm experiment has blessed me with the opportunity to rebuild my family’s life on a new foundation; to value social capital above any measurable wealth.
This week, I have experienced the real value of human relationships in a poignant way as we have struggled to build a barn during a very, very wet and cold spring here in New York. We began with a structure on a pad. Trying to move the floor materials made the tractor sink, so we moved to a pole barn. 18 inches down, the auger hit a solid layer of shale. The already shallow holes filled with water and we were left with a sludgy, crooked mess. My family (including my mother, father, and their very stuck tractor) slogged fruitlessly through the mud to try and make progress.
At the very end of the end of my wits’ end, a friend called to relate to me her frustrating day. Discovering our ongoing difficulties with the build (months in and still not a beam in place), she called me later that afternoon and said simply “We’re all in the truck, we’re on our way.” Having known each other for less than a year, we were united by some commonalities but most of all I think, a desire to understand another person and develop a friendship made of something real. Although I barely knew her father, a man of 40 years construction experience, he was coming down with a family ‘work crew’ to help me out of my very literal muddy hole.
So down they all came (a 45 minute ride each way) and before you could say ‘batter boards’ our construction problems were solved, holes were dug, footings poured, and the end was in sight! I can count the money it saved us. I can log the time it saved us. I can feel the sanity it saved us! But most valuable of all, a person who was a virtual stranger only hours before became a contributor to our life’s social experience.
Some of our amazing work crew here this weekend, including the ever-charming head of the Wensleydale household.