How to Barter for Everything

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Mark with some of his bartering buddies.

Over the past 20 years, my husband Mark and I have bartered
everything from a two-week vacation in a mountain cabin to
a hernia operation for Mark. Trading our time, labor, and
skills seems so much more intimate and humane then selling
ourselves on the free market for money (worth much less, I
must admit). So that’s why we moved here, to northern New
Mexico, where people still maintain a diverse enough
lifestyle to keep bartering alive.

Back in the early ’70s, when we started out in Placitas,
New Mexico, a small Hispanic village at the north end of
the Sandia Mountains, we didn’t have many skills to offer
in trade. What we did have was a desire to live a simpler
life in a community more in touch with its
environment–the antidote to our lives as suburban
children of the ’50s. Placitas provided a community with
200-year ties to the land, where people tended their
gardens and orchards, raised chickens and goats, and took
care of their own needs as best they could. Surviving on
part-time jobs in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city 25
miles away, we rented a 100-yearold house in the village,
turned over a garden plot, and began our apprenticeship in
subsistence living.

When our roof started leaking like a sieve, our landlord
traded us a month’s rent to fix it. To figure out how to
fix it in the future, we took care of our friend Tom’s kids
in exchange for his expertise. When the leech lines blocked
up, we bartered another month’s rent. I’ll never forget
those days in the middle of January, digging through the
frozen ground to replace old tar-paper pipe with PVC. We
even had Mark’s 20-year-old cousin, Marian (who was
visiting from New York), out there with us, picking and
shoveling away.

While learning the joys of house repair, Mark and I were
initiated into the rites of the acequia, or irrigation
system. A mayordomo controlled the water rights,
determining how much and on which days you could irrigate
your garden and orchard. On the day you needed to irrigate,
you had to track him down in order to request the water.
Then you had to make sure that your neighbor, after seeing
the water come down the ditch, didn’t decide to irrigate
his own garden as well. Finally, you had to direct the
water once it got to the garden so that it didn’t run
straight through the lettuce and drown it, missing the corn

Lacking an orchard, we soon worked out a deal with our
neighbor down the road to irrigate her orchard in return
for as much fruit as we could pick. Anne’s orchard was
substantial: peaches, sweet and sour cherries, three kinds
of plums, four kinds of apples, apricots, and pears. With
one-and-a-half water rights, she was entitled to a lot of
water, and it took us an entire day each week to manage it
(or attempt to manage it, I should say). Every Monday was a
battle with the gophers. We would open up the first
compuerta (head gate), and then watch the water disappear
down a gopher hole before it ever touched a tree. No sooner
did we plug that hole than the water disappeared down a
second, thwarting us again. After spending all morning
chasing the water around in order to find and fill gopher
holes, we’d sit back and rest, only to find a whole row of
pears completely bereft of water. Then we would begin
again. It was still a good trade, however, judging by the
amount of fruit we ate–dried, canned, and frozen.

We also used bartering to build a new house. After a few
years, our 100-year-old rented adobe began to lose its
initial charm. Three major roof repairs, a blocked septic
tank, and constant dirt drifting down from the ceiling
(flat-roofed adobe houses are often covered with two feet
of dirt between the ceiling and the tarred roof, acting as
insulation) convinced us it was time to build our own house
and put to use all the building skills we had acquired.
Placitas is an original Spanish land grant, and most of the
land in the village is part of the San Antonio de Las
Huertas grant, not for sale. Although our landlord, an
Anglo from Albuquerque, owned a beautiful piece of land
adjacent to the house, he refused to sell it. We finally
settled on five acres, a mile from the village, located off
a forest access road leading into the Sandia Mountains. A
few other families had already built there, and water and
electricity were available if you could pay the price to
sink a well and extend the underground wire.
(Unfortunately, electric companies and well diggers aren’t
all that interested in barter.)

Once we found the money to pay them, though, it was time
for some real trading, which meant working on all our
friends’ houses while they helped us on ours. This included
filing cement block, laying adobes, installing window
frames, running wire, fitting pipes, cutting vigas (wooden
beams that support the ceiling), pouring bond beams,
plastering, laying brick floors, and installing wood
stoves. Our friend Tom proved invaluable. He and his family
lived in a valley above the village where they worked
constantly on their dome, a dwelling built of colorful
junked car-tops, always in need of repair. I think we
actually paid Tom wages for a while, but for the most part
we traded labor, adobe for adobe (he was building an adobe
addition to the dome), nail for nail. When we got to the
bond beam, the layer of cement that sits on top of the
adobe walls to hold the roof beams, we recruited several
other home builders to haul the buckets of cement up our
walls, as we would theirs.

You can buy vigas at wood yards in town, or you can do
things the hard way and cut them down yourself. We did it
the hard way, but we bartered for the person to run the
chain saw and fell the trees exactly where she called it on
the forest floor. My friend Jackie, an ornery, independent
woman who learned her timbering skills working for the
Forest Service and on her own 30 acres, cut us 40 vigas (20
for us, 20 for Tom) in two exhausting, all-day trips to the
cutting site on the far side of the mountains. In return,
Mark and I spent two weekends helping her tear down a
mountain cabin she had bid on (its 99-year forest lease had
expired) for material for the house she was building. She
even gave us half of the oak flooring as a bonus.

The acquisition of all these house-building skills was
leading up to the granddaddy of all trades–the birth
of our number one son. We really didn’t need a complication
of that magnitude in the midst of building a house, but I
wasn’t getting any younger. Having a kid also meant I
couldn’t work as much on the house and for a living (I
worked as a seasonal employee of the Forest Service as fire
lookout and patrol), but common-sense considerations such
as these don’t necessarily stop anyone from having babies.
I hooked up with a maternity center, where midwives
supervised my prenatal care, and where I planned to have
the baby when the time came. Fortunately, one of the
doctors who supported the maternity center by being on call
for hospital deliveries was a friend of ours. I’d gone to
college with his wife, and Mark and I used to baby-sit
their kids at their house in Albuquerque. When I ended up
in the hospital with a Cesarean section, my doctor friend,
who’d already been up all night with other screaming
mothers, accepted repairs on his house for the safe
delivery of our son, Jakob. I only wish the hospital had
been so kind.

We eventually moved into our house in Placitas and found
the time to acquire additional skills for barter. Jackie,
my tree-felling friend, had been leading hikes in the
Sandia Mountains for the continuing education program at
the local university. When her full-time job with the
Forest Service prevented her from offering the hikes
anymore, she turned them over to me. After a few years I
began teaching cross-country ski classes as well. I met all
kinds of people in my classes and bartered with them for
their services–massages from Rose, baby-sitting from
Carol (Max, our second son, had come along by then), and a
hernia operation for Mark (that was two year’s worth of
hikes and ski trips with the doctor and his wife).

Over the years our bartering became even more diverse as
our lives increased in complexity. We started a
guide–book business, publishing books that I wrote
about hiking, backpacking, and cross-country skiing in New
Mexico. After I learned to typeset the books on the
computer, I bartered for the use of my neighbor’s laser
printer with articles for her local newspaper. I got my
friend, Barbara, a talented graphic artist to design the
cover of one of my books for a huge philodendron plant that
had taken over our greenhouse. Mark began making sculpted
boxes based on traditional boxes that held figurines of
religious santos (or saints). Only instead of placing
saints inside, he made figurines of famous artists by
attaching photos of their faces to sculpted bodies. These
pieces were sold in galleries, and Mark traded Barbara his
Vincent Van Gogh box for a beautiful stained-glass
lampshade. He also traded his Tolstoy box to our
photographer friend Alan for a print from his prestigious collection. To
complete our art collection, we traded for two lithographs
from Miki, several pastels, an oil from John, and drawings
from Jim. Other trades included a pair of metal-edged skis
for refinishing a dresser; an 11-day stay at a cabin in
southern Colorado for a built–in book cabinet; and
guide books for earrings.

In 1991, we even traded houses. Fed up with Placitas’
change from a small, rural community to an upper
middle-class suburb of Albuquerque, Mark and I decided it
was time to move farther north, where the type of life we
originally sought in Placitas still existed in more remote
Hispanic villages. In anticipation of that move, we traded
houses with a family who wanted to attend school in
Albuquerque, and whose house on a llano (flat ground above
a river) at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
provided us with irrigated land and a community that still
grew its own food, cut its firewood, and was connected to a
sense of what was important. At the end of the trade, we
sold our house in Placitas (a heartbreaking, albeit
necessary experience) and moved to a small village not far
from the llano, where we continued to write books, make
boxes, grow a vegetable garden and a big field of garlic,
and best of all, barter.

Our neighbors immediately offered their time, products, and
hearts to us — apricots for peas and squash, plums for milk
and eggs, friendship and trust for our commitment to their
way of life. We feel connected to our new home, and to the
people whose families have been here for hundreds of years.
Being a part of the way they live, being able to trade the
fruits of our labor for their generosity and kindness,
connects us to a life worth living. The intimacy that
barter brings, the attention to what you offer and what you
receive in return, makes life richer and more meaningful.
No matter how tied you are to today’s complex market
economy, where money is often the measure of your worth,
you can always find something to trade.