A plum job

By Rosie Walford

Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

Just recently, I was paid two jars of jam for a morning's work. Accustomed as I am to a consultant's daily rate, this was something of a downfall in monetary terms. Yet it was one of life's most delightful deals.

As plums were spilling off trees on to pavements and lawns, the call for the Great Plum Drive went out: on a particular Thursday if you supplied one supermarket bag full of plums, one dozen empty washed jars or offered two hours of jam-making work at the community hall, you'd be paid with a jar of plum jam. Though I'm no big fan of jam, this was an experiment in reciprocity that seemed worth a try. Could everybody win?

The local hall was abuzz. Children splashed in the washing bins where plums were being checked in. At one table, eight strangers were chopping and chatting in a productive flow. At another trestle of gas burners, sugar was being measured and steaming pots stirred in a more erratic, excitable way.

I've always felt a rush of happiness when picking ripe fruit. I thought it was just me.

But repeatedly on this day, I heard people praising fabulous old trees and marvelling at the fruity abundance our neighbourhood yields. Apart from being lovely to be around, such gratitude is a well-established immune booster and antidote to stress. For this I gave thanks, and then felt better still.

It was surprisingly interesting to cook with strangers. These weren't necessarily people I'd otherwise mix with - they didn't look like me - yet over stoning and stirring, conversations were easy and unusually profound. Rather as we rediscover the qualities of family during a power cut, each trestle table of jam-workers made new, unlikely bonds.

A friendly community definitely increases the quality of life. I grew up in London, exchanging abuse with strangers through car windscreens, keeping what I owned to myself. Here, people feel safe to let their children roam and lend newcomers their car. If you've ever witnessed someone's random act of kindness, you've probably also felt moved to act with generosity yourself. Similarly, I'm finding that the more we experience the norms of a trusting community, the more we are open, relaxed and likely to reciprocate. This virtuous circle makes for a life of pleasant surprises, a priceless environment of safety and support.

Few of us Plum Drivers had learned the art of preserving at mother's knee. But Maureen, Head of Jam Production, was briefed to share her 70 years of jam-alchemy with all. Her transfer of practical wisdom to us young ones felt quite indigenous, and important too - those trees will probably flood us with plums so long as our climate stays in shape.

Once I'd grasped the basics I imagined variations - adding cinnamon? Herbs? Creative imagination alight, I realised this kitchen labour was actually developing my craft skills and requiring aesthetic judgments. I was "delighting customers" and producing something of genuine social worth. This, I think, is how we yearn to feel about our day's work - valuing the time spent, for its own sake.

By contrast, much paid work is only extrinsically valuable - as a means to obtain other values, not as an end in itself. Bill Torbert, famous for his framework on transforming organisations, noted that "any time we spend making, managing or spending money - when we are not simultaneously doing good work or weaving healthy friendships - is not intrinsically valuable time". Certainly, every moment we spend in this way reduces the amount of intrinsically valuable time in our life.

Indeed, I see coaching clients daily who are hungry for fulfillment as they climb multinational business hierarchies. However briefly, this tiny, local food initiative was encapsulating some of the positive delights that get lost in a mass-produced world.
Of course, being less oil-dependent, local production is low energy, doing its bit for climate change. It builds a community's resilience to shock, should the amount of available cheap energy decrease. It reduces overdependence on distant corporations, and keeps each place unique.

If a community should produce locally those things which it can, then food seems a more natural place to start than, say, producing computers or frying pans.

Cities can enjoy the delights of fruitful community around local food too. This week I received a notice from Ooooby (Out Of Our Own Back Yards) website, calling Grey Lynn gardeners to turn their surplus vegetables into cash at the farmers' market stall - the love for local veg is growing.

Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Towns movement, writes of his vision of "an abundant future: one which is energy-lean, time-rich, less stressful, healthier and happier".

As the warm jars were labelled and distributed among providers of plums, jars and stirring, the Plum Drive community had a sweet little taster of what might be to come.

Rosie Walford coaches individuals and leadership teams to make positive creative shifts, using the outdoors as thinking space. thebigstretch.com.

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