Otters Don’t Pay Rent

Spencer here: This week, in between two jobs and two house-sitting gigs we managed to sneak off to explore more of Portland’s parks, specifically along the Columbia River. On a gorgeous sunny day, we finally discovered Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area. I have been hearing of these lakes for years, only to now understand what they are about and where they are within Portland. I love this small, unassuming, 205 acre, quiet place. After oogling over some amazing nature sculptures at the park’s terminus, we took a wide path, part of the 40 mile loop, which runs throughout metro Portland, and turned left into the woods. Immediately, it was calm, cool, shady and breezy. The smell of the cottonwoods hit us and I was very relaxed. Too bad if someone tried to make an air freshener out of that smell it would be like cat litter or gross bathroom candle. Anyway, while walking and enjoying my 64 minutes of freedom before another work shift, I was contemplating something I had watched on Youtube that morning by Mark Boyle, author of a book called The Money-less Man. In an interview, he was describing how humans are the only species on all of the Earth who have to pay money to live. He is quoted as saying “We don’t expect the birds or the fish or the otters to pay rent.” (What a noble plight “homeless people” take on in imitating other species! Literally, if someone does not have money, it is pretty impossible to find a place to “be” without some enforced statute of limitations.) While watching an actual otter cross the pond through binoculars, floating, eating, sniffing and genuinely enjoying the sun and good health, these thoughts resonated within me once again. (I remember several years back reading a book called The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen, about a similar character named Daniel Suelo of Utah. I became obsessed with the chance of running into him while traveling through Moab! He actually lives outside of Moab most of the time in hidden caves).

I have begun researching the concept of living without money more earnestly lately, as I am also reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s brilliant book Braiding Sweetgrass, (which Billy had read a few months ago). In one of her essays she writes about the “Gift Economy”. Unlike bartering, this concept is based in randomness and excludes obligation and expectation. It is akin to the river–a constant flow of giving and receiving. I guess I appreciate this, in that sometimes even volunteering can sometimes feel like an unbalanced proposition. Sure, there is an exchange that may seem beneficial, but in my experience, there is also high potential for abuse, as a structure for goods and services. I am not saying that helping, or work or effort is bad, I am only trying to expand the conversation to include all forms of exchange environments. I also am interested in a sense of purpose, more than I am in “work” as we define it these days. I am thinking of when we help a stranger because it is a kind thing to do, not because we will gain from it.

I have found a couple of amazing websites for more insight and information on a life without money, experiments and ways of life: “(Un)Certainties”, and  “Zero Currency”. Billy and I have contemplated living without money for a long while and have had lengthy conversations about what it would look like for us. I believe, (and have believed this for a long time), that as long as there is capitalism, there will be extortion of people, places and things, and motivation for people to abuse power and privilege. For example, as long as people can make money on oil, there will campaigns for ridiculous and dangerous pipelines through pristine wilderness. We are all in it, however, whether someone opts out or not, which is one of the criticisms both Suelo and Boyle have faced. Just because one opts out of the money system, one is still intricately involved with it, as by-products such as extra food, free clothing, free gear and hitch-hiking still involve some sort of participation. I don’t know the answer, but that doesn’t stop me from seeking it every day. Right now, I feel like I don’t have time for ‘work’, there is too much to do.

Billy here: The last few days we both have been thinking a lot about values of work and money, especially since we are both working for dollars again (more than we actually intended, in fact), and are both already feeling tired from getting over another bug.

A couple of years ago I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, whose subject is the making of art, the gift exchange, and how this creative gift exchange has changed since the spread of capitalism. A gift exchange requires movement, a flow, where something is given and something else is given in return, not necessarily right away or for direct exchange, but because a gift relationship has been nurtured. Something given, it feels to be common sense, should not be sold, but given again. There is a vital difference here. Something that is given away is imbued with a special feeling, an appreciation and sense of community. There is love in the gift.  All art, Hyde stated, is made out of this heart of giving, if it is true to the spirit of art. In contrast, money is easy to keep, to take inward and to feel protective over. In today’s world of capitalism, it is easy, dead easy, to close up and ask, “How can I make money off of this?” The question outside of a money system would have been, “How can I give people heart with my work?” I ask myself frequently about the usefulness of money in every capacity, not just in the creative world. It is not that money is inherently evil, as my sister says, it just is. It’s a form of energy, true, but it’s dangerous because it contains all the values of a culture, for better or for worse.

So everybody’s gotta pay rent right? It may be complicated, but even a few generations ago, the first people on this continent didn’t understand how anyone could possibly own land. How do we claim rights to water that has flowed before our grandparents were born, water that nurtures all living things? How do we claim rights to the soil that harbors more microorganisms than we can know in a lifetime? Even in feudal Europe, everyone, even peasants, had access to common resources such as water and firewood. In my humble opinion, to say that someone owes someone money just to have a place to live on Earth is downright bonkers. I hope that someday it goes in the same category as servitude, like serfdom. Now, of course, it has gotten complicated. Even the most well meaning person who wants to have a little piece of Earth to live on may go through the process of buying land and now owes a bank mortgage. So back to medieval feudalism…the church had one cardinal sin that I would have to stand behind, the sin of usury, which was to make money of off money, that is, the charging of interest. How things have changed! I would say that the very foundation of our modern capitalism now stands on usury!

The gift economy, in contrast, has been practiced in many traditional cultures as the exchange of goods and services which is offered in the spirit of mutual benefit and the upholding of reciprocal relationships. Ideally, no one is left out and the gift keeps moving, so the moochers and tyrants are hopefully nipped in the bud, for they cut off the flow.

Who has the most money in the world? The top four banks of China, getting rich off of factories that feed material consumption all over the world. Berkshire Hathaway, who started a multinational conglomerate holding company with stock in everything from Dairy Queen to IBM. What does a conglomerate holding company do except make money off of money, that is, off of other people’s work? Next on the list include the cutthroat bank J.P. Morgan and, of course, Exxon. I believe that the way the system is set up, it appears that banks give out energy that feeds the world, but in reality, it is the opposite, we are all working to feed the banks. They make billions, and we struggle to make rent on land they pretend to own.

Spence and I are not there yet, but the gift economy is something we want to move toward. I feel that our lifestyle of living lightly and with as little money as possible is very close to this ideal, but we still have one leg on each shore, so to speak. What is keeping me on money island? Is it that I want a place to have a piano? I think this is possible without money. Is it the feeling that we are valueless if we don’t have money? What makes you feel valuable? What does making a living mean to you? Does living mean making money? Or does living mean something else?

3 thoughts on “Otters Don’t Pay Rent

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