Cultivating Reciprocity

Exploring the web of relations connecting people, nature, art, evolution, and the gift economy

They call all experience of the senses mystic, when the experience is considered / So an apple becomes mystic when I taste in it / the summer and the snows, the wild welter of earth / and the insistence of the sun

— from “Mystic,” D. H. Lawrence

Apples of the Eye

It’s only the first week of February, but I have apples on my mind. We are still in the dead of winter here in North Carolina though the days are lengthening. If recent history is any guide, many of our fruit trees will soon be budding. It is time to prune them, and among them are the heritage apple trees I planted last year.

These trees are special—they are rare and nearly-forgotten heirloom varieties with names like Kandil Sinap and Orleans Reinette. In the spirit of the Slow Food ‘Ark of Taste,’ we have opted for these obscure but venerable apple trees in an effort to re-connect with the flavors and character of the fruit before it became homogenized in the half-dozen or so generic, mass-market grocery store apple varieties. But these trees are special for another reason: They are grown with branches spur trained to a wire trellis. This method is called ‘espalier,’ and it has a history even older than most heritage apple varieties.

The idea behind espalier is similar to trellising grape vines for wine production, with which most people are familiar: rows of green vines bearing pendulous clusters of purple fruit dangle neatly from wires that lift them off the ground and keep them exposed to free-flowing air. Unlike grape vines, apple trees don’t require external support for their branches, though there are benefits to growing apples this way. One is that the severely pruned apple tree grows thicker, sturdier branches which yield large amounts of fruit relative to its constrained stature. Another is that this ‘sculpted’ tree grows in regular patterns and lines, guided by the wires or supports to which it is trained. In this way, there is the potential for a kind of collaborative, living art.

Espaliered fruit trees are said to have originated in the walled gardens of ancient Persia, and the Romans were familiar with the practice too. With the rise of walled castles and cities in Medieval Europe, espaliered fruit trees regained favor. As one can imagine, space—and particularly space for expansive fruit trees—was at a premium in these walled communities. Trees that could be trimmed and trained to grow in two dimensions along an existing wall or fence were a sound idea in these conditions, and must have provided some food security in siege or plague scenarios.

As cultivators no doubt realized, trees grown against a sunny wall benefit because the wall sinks heat and provides a kind of micro-climate for the tree, helping the fruit to ripen, a definite plus in the cooler climes of Medieval Europe. Another benefit to cultivating fruit trees in this way is that fruit picking and pruning becomes that much easier.

Even trees grown on dwarf root stock can grow to 15 or 20 feet in height and can spread out in all directions, making pruning and harvesting a challenge. But trees grown in regular, two-dimensional space with clusters of closely spaced fruit and a maximum height of eight feet bring these tasks within easy reach. The trade-off is that espalier training is relatively time-consuming and labor intensive, in the beginning at least, and trees grown this way take longer to begin producing fruit.

To me though, the extra time and effort required in espalier horticulture is an opportunity, not a drawback. It’s an opportunity to really understand the seasonal rhythms of growth and pause, and to experience first-hand how subtle differences in pruning and training techniques affect the development of the tree over time—from a finger-thin sapling to the sturdy adult tree. But opportunity also lies in the collaborative potential for creating beauty.

The human inputs of form and pattern specific to espalier horticulture, one might argue, represent a kind aesthetic thesis or proposition, one to which each tree responds with its own unique and organic answer. At the heart of this interaction there is a kind of aesthetic reciprocity—a relationship that encompasses the creative capacities of both grower and tree to produce a uniquely emergent form of beauty; a work of art that is greater than the sum its constituent creative parts and partners, as the case may be.

The term reciprocity, to my mind at least, implies a kind of dialogue between the human horticulturist and the more-than-human life-force of the tree. My ideas about reciprocity have been informed by a variety of sources, but especially the writings of David Abram, whose book The Spell of The Sensuous delves into the concept deeply. In it, Abram introduces the idea through an example of ‘perceiving’ a bowl, and goes on to unpack all that is involved in the process. Despite the biological inanimacy of the bowl, it has a phenomenological presence that is a subject in the reciprocal exchange of his perception of it. He concludes:

“When my body thus responds to the mute solicitation of another being, that being responds in turn, disclosing to my senses some new aspect or dimension that in turn invites further exploration. By this process my sensing body gradually attunes itself to the style of this other presence… In this manner, the simplest thing may become a world for me, as, conversely, the thing or being comes to take its place more deeply in my world.”

The systems thinker Fritjof Capra adds to my understanding of reciprocity in conceiving of the world as a living, emergent system, particularly through his discussion of cognition. In his book, The Web of Life, he writes, “In the emerging theory of living systems mind is not a thing, but a process. It is cognition, the process of knowing, and it is identified with the process of life itself. This is the essence of the Santiago theory of cognition, proposed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.”

The concept of cognition described here complements Maturana and Varela’s (two Chilean cognitive scientists) ground-breaking theory of autopoeisis—a process of self-creation inherent in all living beings. In this respect, cognition is a form of natural ‘sense,’ an expression of being-ness, that is at the root of all life.

Considering espalier in this light, the Japanese art of bonsai also comes to mind. In bonsai, small trees are meticulously pruned and shaped to produce art within the living scope of the tree. Bonsai has its own particular traditions and rules governing its practice, and historically it is closely related to Zen Buddhism and the Buddhist aesthetic principle of Wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is based on the idea of beauty through impermanence, transience and imperfection—not in spite of these conditions.

A subject such as a tree that grows over time, changes with the seasons, and eventually succumbs to death and decay embodies these Wabi-sabi qualities, and may manifest this particular type of beauty, whether in regard to bonsai or espalier.

David Nash is a British artist who practices another such kind of creative relationship with his artistic subjects. He is renowned for his work as a ‘wood’ artist, and his works range from static sculptures like Cracking Box to dynamic work such as Wooden Boulder and Ash Dome, though all have at their heart the vernacular of wood. Through this, Nash’s works offer statements on change in the natural world, specificity of place, and the imperfect yet beautiful essence of wood itself. As Nash attests in Roger Deakin’s wonderful Wildwood, “The problem with wood is it’s already beautiful…How do you make it more beautiful?”

Ash Dome is one of Nash’s most well-known works. It is a living sculpture begun in 1977 and formed of 22 ash saplings planted in a circle 30 feet in diameter. Nash’s intent at the outset was for the saplings to grow together in a living latticework to eventually form a dome over the space they enclose. In the early years of the project, he applied techniques from hedgecraft to graft onto and shape the branches of the ash trees. Later he made bends in the trunks by cutting them almost all the way through and then dressing the wounds. Deakin thus characterizes Nash’s relationship with the trees of Ash Dome:

“As in any collaboration, the trees have their own ideas, and Nash must continually work his hedgerow skills to influence them as the sculptor, or choreographer. He admires and enjoys the sense of purpose in each tree, its stroppiness. Again, it is a question of resistance, of arm-wrestling the muscular trees. ‘The tree has a purpose, and it will always keep trying to fulfil its purpose whatever happens,’ says Nash.”

If the relationship described here between artist and trees sounds more adversarial than reciprocal, consider Deakin’s conclusion: “But Nash has no desire for rigid control; it is the unpredictability of growth that interests him…”

Feeding Whose Desires?

Whether or not our relationships with them can be deemed reciprocal, humans have a long history of training trees and plants to grow according to our purposes, whether literally through hedgecraft, espalier or bonsai, or more figuratively through our domestication and selection for qualities we find desirable, such as sweet fruit or disease resistance. But in another very real sense, plants and trees have been training us throughout history, in a reciprocal dance that calls into question such notions as free choice, self-hood, and human primacy.

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World makes just such a claim for the reciprocal and intertwined relationship among humans and plants. In this popular work, Pollan takes a close look at the histories and driving forces between humanity’s relationship with plants, focusing on four in particular: the apple, the tulip, the potato, and cannabis.

Pollan asks us to reconsider our human relationship to a particular desire that each one of these plants satisfies within us—sweetness, beauty, control, and intoxication, respectively. In this light, he inverts and reframes the “grammar” of human agency and control, effectively de-centering us from a narrative in which we’ve always considered ourselves the subjects. He writes, “All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.”

Key to understanding this decentered narrative is the subtitle of the book, “A Plant’s-Eye View of the World,” which suggests the ‘gene’s eye’ or ‘gene-centered view’ of evolution put forth by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. In essence, according to Dawkins’ theory, genes represent units of selection throughout evolution, and the organisms and phenotypes they represent are merely vehicles or containers.

As Dawkins put it, “We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.” The implications of such a radical departure from the historical narrative of human free will and agency, to one in which we are essentially behavioral and existential hostages to our genes, are indeed astonishing.

Seen in this light, our desires—reflected in the plants that have co-evolved with us to satisfy them—represent a similar inversion or re-framing of agency and desire. When we act to satisfy these desires, say by eating an apple that appeals to our sense of sweetness, whose needs are ultimately being met through the act and its consequences? As it turns out, we are acting in the interests of the apple, if they can be termed such, as much as we are quenching our own thirst for sweetness. By spreading its seed directly or indirectly, we ensure the apple’s continued existence. On this Pollan writes:

“Many of the activities humans like to think they undertake for their own good purposes—inventing agriculture, outlawing certain plants, writing books in praise of others—are mere contingencies as far as nature is concerned. Our desires are simply more grist for evolution’s mill… Our grammar might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject. That’s why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.”

Reciprocity as Ethic

Reciprocity is a process that is present throughout much of the natural world, and as we have seen, in the realms of aesthetics, phenomenology and evolutionary biology. One area in which it is lacking is the modern system of globalized neoliberal economics, a system of artificial scarcity that currently threatens the welfare of the planet and many of its people and creatures.

In a wonderfully lyrical essay entitled “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance,” Robin Wall Kimmerer invites us to look closely at both natural and human economies based on reciprocal exchange, and to consider replacing current economic systems of artificial scarcity with a ‘gifting economy’ born out of natural abundance.

Kimmerer, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist, begins by musing on the natural abundance of a neighbor’s serviceberry tree and the life it sustains. She proceeds to unpack the significance of the Potawatomi name for the tree, Bozakmin, explaining that ‘min,’ the part of the word that means ‘berry,’ also shares its etymology with the word for ‘gift.’ From gifts the notion of gratitude follows naturally, and it is in this spirit that a web of reciprocal relationships unfolds and is sustained over time.

Over the course of the essay, Kimmerer offers examples from human cultures and natural systems alike that speak to the power and wisdom of so-called ‘gifting’ economies. In relation to the serviceberry tree, she mentions that its life is enabled by the ‘gift’ materials of sunlight, water, and air, which provide it with life and berries that it in turn gifts to the pollinators, who reciprocate with the gift of movement that enables the pollination of the tree. So it goes throughout the natural world.

But many human cultures, indigenous ones especially, have also practiced and continue to practice gift-sustained economies. In one example, Kimmerer relates the story of an anthropologist working in the rainforest of Brazil. The anthropologist asks a hunter who has just made a large kill—far in excess of the amount of meat he and his family could reasonably consume—how he plans to store the meat. The hunter, who is puzzled at the idea of storing the meat away for his own consumption, responds by throwing a feast for his community in which the entire kill is quickly eaten. When the anthropologist again quizzes him on why he hasn’t saved any for himself, the hunter responds, “Store my meat? I store my meat in the belly of my brother.”

The anecdote illustrates the mechanics of a functioning economy of abundance and the role of social capital as it is distributed to benefit a community, rather than hoarded away to benefit an individual. Essential to this story also are the elements of gift and gratitude. The hunter’s kill is a gift from nature not only to him but to his community, and the feast is an expression of gratitude for the natural abundance as much as it is an exchange of power or status.

Kimmerer succinctly describes the human practice of the gift economy thus:

“The currency of exchange is gratitude and relationship rather than money. It includes a system of social and moral agreements for indirect reciprocity. So, the hunter who shared the feast with you could well anticipate that you would share from a full fishnet or offer your labor in repairing a boat.”

Toward the end of the essay the author elaborates on her own participation in such a relationship. Receiving an invitation from her orchardist neighbor to pick serviceberries for free, Kimmerer accepts and proceeds to parse the exchange of social capital as it ripples through the circumstances of this particular gift economy.

There is the gratitude and goodwill of the community members that is the direct effect of such a gesture but there are other tangible returns on this outlay of social capital for the business owner too. These include raising public awareness of agricultural issues, educational outreach, and building a base of customers who will return to pay for goods the next time around. Ultimately, the orchardist who gives the gift and the community that receives it all benefit and are stronger and more connected because of it.

At the global level, the consequences of the scarcity economy are actual scarcity in the natural ‘gifts’ of clean water and fertile soil, to name a few, along with the overarching threat of climate change. With the planet’s natural capital used up, the scarcity economy will have nothing to offer even its few remaining beneficiaries.

Kimmerer concludes, “Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”


Reciprocity, it would seem, is a fundamental dynamic that comes into play at almost every level of reality. And yet a recognition of reciprocity and its supreme importance in our relationships seems to constitute a massive blind spot in modern life.

In much of American life in particular, reciprocity and a sense of interrelationship are conspicuously absent. Many of us have grown up in a society that raises us to be consumers first and foremost, and in which almost every relationship is one-way and transactional.

Perhaps because of this, authentic community life has withered away to a large extent, leaving us with the mistaken notion that our independence and individual impulses and desires are of paramount importance, and that we are somehow stronger for our independence from each other.

On the contrary, the networks of mutual dependence and interrelationship that exist in the natural world and which persist in some still-functional human communities and societies are not a bug but a feature in the grand program of life. And for human communities to persist in any kind of livable future, it is imperative that we re-establish reciprocity in our relationships with each other and the natural world.

Simply put, we must de-center ourselves in our relationships and in our worlds by shifting the perspective in our grammar from “I” to “we.”

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