by Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

a circle of stacked handsEach December, I drag a tomato cage up to the street and stick it in the small strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the curb.

My son and I bag up socks and hats and scarves and gloves and attach them to the tomato cage with clothes pegs. He strings battery-powered Christmas lights through the cage, and attaches a sign, marker on cardboard: Take what you need, give what you can.

We call this our “Warm Things Tree.”

Our house is on a pedestrian thoroughfare — people walking up to the convenience store, the day labor joint, the barber shop: The three establishments that remain in an otherwise empty and boarded up strip mall. Over the years folks have asked me if I had an umbrella, gloves, a spare hat, when the weather turned rainy or cold as they walked.

“What if one person takes it all?” my son asks the first winter we put it up.

“Then we will assume they needed it all,” I say.

I am sitting by the window reading. A sparrow has seated himself on the wire of our Warm Things Tree, his feathers fluffed into an insulating halo. A yellow-bellied sapsucker methodically taps lines of holes in the bark of the neighbor’s tree in search of sap and burrowed insects.

There are a hundred ways to survive the winter.

This past fall, my son and I were in the forest. A flying V of geese flew overhead, migrating south for the winter. “They fly like that to conserve energy,” he said, watching them. “Wind resistance, you know?”

“Yes, and they each take turns at the front,” I added.

“And when one needs to drop down or take a break or falls behind, another always stays with him,” he told me. “I think that’s nice.”

I have always thought it was interesting that we think of brutality when we think of the natural world; as if competition and antagonism was an obvious part of phylogeny.

If you spend time in the forest you see as much evidence of mutualism as you do survival of the fittest. Bees and flowers. Ants and aphids. Lichens. It’s never, to me, felt dog eat dog out there. It feels very kind.

Beauty is harder to discern in my neighborhood than in the forest.

Our sidewalks are cracked and heaving under the weight of neglect; debris gathers at the edges of the stream in the park. Sticks, car parts, Doritos, bottles of Mad Dog. The vinyl on our homes is greying, our trash cans are left out on the curb all week.

Picture of a Warm Things Tree, with gloves, socks, and other necessities clothespinned to a tomato cage
Image courtesy of Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

But as hats and gloves disappear from the Warm Things Tree, new things show up.

A pair of pink toddler snow boots, a warm vest, a pair of socks. I am cutting wood in the driveway and look up to see a man on a rattling moped stop and take gloves for his wind-chapped hands, and then attach a bag of corn chips where the gloves had been.

Our misunderstanding of the forest so often extends to our charity.

Our country is one of the most charitable in the world: 95% of Americans give to a charity in some form each year. But our cultural notion is that charity is monolithic and moves only in one direction — from the hands of the haves to empty hands of the have-nots.

Overwhelmingly, the design of our charities and nonprofits denies any chance for reciprocity: Staff and volunteers are the sole arbiters of goodwill. At charities, people like those in my neighborhood are to be solely receivers of others’ blessings.

While the instinct to interact through charity is evidence, to me, of people’s longing for mutualism, charity is ultimately very myopic and sells our desires short.

In too many places, charity is a form of control and comes with heavy-handed qualifications, regulations, and orders. When we try to determine who is deserving of charity, we are losing an opportunity to move outside of very limited social confines and experience something deeper. Something more symbiotic.

But what charity truly fails to do is rearrange relationships or redistribute wealth . On the contrary, it upholds the dog-eat-dog divide as if it were our natural state. Charity seems to be the stuff of Darwin more than that of Kropotkin …. We are told that some of us are just more fit to give. Perhaps it’s natural selection, we think.

Moving away from charity and toward something more egalitarian requires giving up control that we have come to see as normal: A policing of others and a parceling out of altruism.

But, when we move beyond charity, we can see that there is no finite supply of goodwill and that our concerns should be less on who is deserving and more on the systems we have invested in that create such inequality.

“What if someone takes all the hats and then sells them?” my son asks.

“Well, I guess we will assume that there is a reason they needed to do that, too,” I answer, and dig my hand back into our bucket of clothes pegs.

Our Warm Things Tree is not radical by any means, nor is it charity. It is merely neighborly.

But it is also a part of something the people on my side of the tracks know how to do well: Take what we need, give what we can. It understands that were are all in need at times, and all can share at times, and that we are safest when we flock together.

My neighborhood is filled with examples of mutualism: from the Really, Really Free Market that we hold each Black Friday, to the free pantries being put up by our neighborhood association, to the mother who trades childcare with a neighbor, to the friend who gives haircuts in exchange for yard work.

These each are a way to take the hierarchy out of giving and live in a more unmediated, fulfilling way.

Each May, my friend invites the whole neighborhood over to watch the chimney swifts.

We gather in an empty lot with blankets and lay down to watch the sky. At dusk, they come. They sweep in and circle above our heads, a great fluttering cloud, the last of the day sparkling off their wings. They move together, turning gracefully.

A chimney swift never moves alone. A man passes a bottle of homemade wine, a child hands out sparklers. Flocking, murmuration.