Trading Circle

At every annual gathering and most of the larger regionals there emerges a Trading Circle, where people spread blankets or tarps on the ground and cover them with goods for trade. The place gets chosen gradually by the traders themselves; it is seldom provided for in the plans of the early Seed Campers. The ideal is that no money is ever exchanged; instead a good is exchanged for another good, or for a service. Tho it is called a “circle” the form it often takes is two parallel lines on opposite sides of a trail. Sometimes it takes the form of a grid of rectangles.

The goods on display often include:

camping equipment like flashlights and batteries, Swiss army knives, hatchets, tents or tarps,

books, magazines, and bumper stickers advocating liberal causes, eastern religion, or New Age medicine,

paraphernalia for smoking cannabis products, like glass and brass pipes, bongs, hookahs, pipe screens, or alligator clips decorated with feathers,

jewelry, especially necklaces and bracelets, and the materials to make them like beads and thread (there is a lot of trading of raw materials like this from one trader to another),

pretty rocks , like turquoise, agate, or polished granite, and lots of crystals, usually of clear quartz (there are some New Age theories going around about how crystals have powers to direct healing energy, and many a high holy’s walking stick is topped with a large crystal),

drums, ukuleles, and guitars, and sometimes more expensive instruments like fiddles, accordions, or saxophones,

and lots of clothes, sometimes utilitarian jeans and jackets, but more often tie-dyes and cotton prints from India, Guatemalan weaves, or batik dyed saris.

The goods on display can often be like a black market, things that are scarce and can’t be obtained in the kitchens, and are contrary to the health conscious morals of those who work in them – items like canned meat, packages of ramen, soda pop, and candy bars. Tobacco is also sometimes offered, but in recent years Nic@Nite with their free tobacco ideal has made this more difficult. One item frequently on display is Snickers bars, and Snickers alone; a Milky Way or a 3 Musketeers or anything else is not anywhere near as desirable. (Nobody knows any good reason for this; it’s just the way it is.)

Often it can be frustrating trying to trade. There are no hard and fast rules about what items will be accepted in trade for what; it is solely up to the individual desires of persons. If there is any soft rule, it is like for like: books for other books, rocks for rocks, clothes for clothes. Often the price of something in Babylon enters into people’s considerations; an expensive item will not be traded for a cheap one. But sometimes an object’s rarity at the gathering can bring something that requires more money in Babylon; a trader will not let a Snickers bar go easily. (Some people have tried to sabotage this by bringing large cases of Snickers bars and giving them away in the middle of the circle.)

But most of the time there is no telling if someone will be interested in what you have. And if that person isn’t, there is nothing you can do, except maybe trade with someone else for something this first person wants. Often when you ask, “What kind of things are you looking for?”, you get the answer, “I don’t know. What have you got?” This no-money environment can sometimes make you appreciate what money is good for on the outside. It is something that everybody accepts, and it is something that can be measured exactly and you can know whether or not you have enough of it. However marijuana can often be as good as money in terms of universal acceptance; lots of people’s wish list signs have on them “nugs”, short for nuggets, little cannabis buds.

Frequently a reason given for prohibiting money is that it “protects our Constitutional right to gather on public lands”, meaning that if money were exchanged the gathering would be a commercial event and not an event dedicated to free expression, which is protected by the First Amendment. However, Sec. 251.51 of Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines “commercial use or activity” as “any use or activity on National Forest System lands (a) where an entry or participation fee is charged, or (b) where the primary purpose is the sale of a good or service, and in either case, regardless of whether the use or activity is intended to produce a profit.” Money exchange as part of a secondary purpose could still occur without the gathering becoming a commercial event and subject to more regulations and restrictions.

But the aversion to money is more than legal. For many gatherers Trading Circle is materialism and commercialism creeping into the spiritual sanctuary. Contrary to the spirit of sharing and giving that the gathering is supposed to be based on, where no money is needed and everything one needs can be obtained for free, and where everyone offers the fruits of their labors out of love, these traders are demanding specific material things in exchange for what they offer. Many of the people who spend long hours working in kitchens disapprove of how many of them sit at their blankets all day. They regard the traders as parasites on the gathering, taking food and water but giving nothing in return. This place is also a favorite hangout for people looking for drugs. You often see people walking up and down the trail with signs around their necks that say, “Dose me”, in the hopes that someone will give them some LSD. Another thing you often see is a guy sitting by the side of the trail with a dope pipe tied to a string that is hung from the end of a stick held like it was a fishing pole. He gets a bite if you put a nug in his bowl.

And there are practical reasons. The traders usually want to set up on a heavily traveled trail because there they find the largest number of potential customers. When they are on both sides of the trail, there can be large numbers of people standing in the trail looking at the blankets, blocking the way for others passing thru. This can interfere with CALM people trying to get injured people thru, and people carrying large boxes of supplies to kitchens. There can be a greater than average concentration of dogs, some of them walking around unleashed and getting into fights with other dogs.

But like A-Camp, there are people who defend it. Some people like to just walk around and look at the variegated and colorful displays the same way one might go to an art museum. Musicians like the audience the place provides, and sometimes good jams happen there. And it is a place where one can find necessities that the communal giving system sometimes fails to provide. Often small children get practical experience in the principles of capitalistic investment by going in the morning with a small cheap item and after a series of trades come back with an expensive toy. And people like to haggle just for the hell of it. Trading Circle comes up at Vision Council as much as A-Camp, and as many times people fail to come up with solutions that satisfy everybody, so it also remains as an ever-controversial presence.

September 14th, 2016 by John Anderson