My wife is an avid gardener at our second-home lake house, and has made a wonderful alliance with a neighbor who also loves to get her hands in the dirt.  

“I’ll come over and garden with you at your house tomorrow afternoon,” one of them will suggest to the other.

“Great,” is the typical reply, “and I’ll come and garden with you next weekend at your place.” 

My wife is also known among her gardening circle for her chainsaw — a small electric one I bought for her a while back, mostly so I wouldn’t feel guilty about not helping her saw down the invasive bushes that drive her crazy. Her 12-inch chainsaw is easy to charge, without the smelly gas and oil and noise of my old gas machine. It’s a lot lighter, and easier for her to handle. It won’t cut down our mature oaks, beeches, birches and maples, but it makes short work of all manner of saplings and bushes — especially compared with even her biggest hand clippers. 

When her gardening buddy has that kind of job — too much for a hand clipper but not worth calling in professional landscapers — my wife gets a call: Can you drop by this weekend? With your chainsaw? And my wife is happy to oblige. It’s nice to do a favor for a friend, and it makes sense — both environmentally and economically — to share one chainsaw rather than for the neighbor to go out and buy her own.  

The sharing of gardening duties — and the chainsaw — offers one of many examples of how our community spontaneously pools resources. We not only share our time and expertise and tools with each other, we also often combine forces to bargain for more buying power. 

Septic tank cleanouts are one of the most successful examples. A few years ago, a couple of neighbors agreed to get their septic tanks pumped out on the same day. They asked the company if they could have a discount since the truck would have to come only once, and not spend 30-45 minutes on the road each way. 

The septic company jumped at the idea, and gave the two homeowners each a substantial discount. The homeowners saved money, and the company got more business with fewer expenses. Its workers spent more of their day emptying septic tanks — what they are paid to do, and how the company makes its money — instead of driving back and forth to jobs spread out across the county. It was a win-win.

Since then, the septic company has made it known that homeowners from our lake will get a discount if they agree to let the company come when it has a truck in the area. Instead of making an appointment for a certain day and time, we sign up for septic cleaning and the company sends a truck and crew for two or three pump-outs instead of just a single job.

This approach, creating economies of scale, can work for many services, too, such as tree-cutting services or stone masons. Need your dock repaired, or a new swim raft constructed, or your lakefront stone wall repointed? Ask around to find neighbors who have the same needs. Call some service providers for estimates: If my neighbor and I both need your services, can you give us each a discount?

Make the three-way deal— you, your neighbor and the service provider — with the same discount for both service calls.

One note: this probably works best in more rural areas, and for communities like ours that are out of the way and not as quick or easy for service people to reach. 

Another note: I don’t expect the arborist to cut down two small trees on my property and three big ones on my neighbor’s land, and for the two of us to share the cost equally. I expect we’ll each get an invoice from the arborist, and each get the same agreed-upon discount, which is typically 10-20%, on our respective bills.

The economy-of-scale approach seems especially suitable for routine or seasonal services: spring and fall mowing and blowing, chimney sweeping, tree trimming and log splitting, stone masonry, driveway resurfacing, window washing, snow plowing, or cleaning the moss off roofs.

Closer to home, look for things your neighbors can do for you — loan tools, like my wife’s chain saw, or share their own skills and talents.

One neighboring house owned by an elderly couple has a large rock at the head of the driveway, next to the road. The couple’s young grand-daughter is obsessed with frogs. When the grandparents learned that another neighbor is a talented illustrator, the grandparents with the driveway persuaded the illustrator to paint a playful, fanciful image of bright green frogs on the large stone at the top of the driveway.

The grand-daughter squealed with delight. The grandparents beamed with satisfaction. The illustrator was proud that neighbors recognized her work and made it so locally visible. And the rest of us in the neighborhood pointed or laughed and appreciated the art work every time we drove or walked past.

In many ways, this sharing of resources and skills, and this pursuit of economies of scale, can be traced back not only to American pioneer communities, but has echoes to the beginning of civilization. Sharing — that was the reason human beings began gathering in the first place. You could do this for me, and I could do that for you. Together, we could do things more efficiently and effectively.

Sometimes we don’t need to make a deal; we just make a positive gesture, and our neighbors respond accordingly.

Here’s a good story about that.  A woman in another second-home community, not ours, had never spoken to her next-door neighbors because they put up political yard signs and flags that she found objectionable. She figured she had nothing in common with the neighbors; the political chasm was too big for them to be friendly with each other.

One winter weekend a storm kept the woman and her husband from getting to their house. Her regular snow plowing service would clear the driveway, but she had no one to shovel her extensive sidewalks. When she finally was able to drive up to the weekend house the next day, she figured she and her husband would have to shovel snow for hours just to get to their front door.

But when they eventually arrived, the woman and her husband were amazed to see that not only was the driveway plowed — they had expected that — but their sidewalks also were all cleared, to and from the garage, to and from the front door. Instead of shoveling for hours, she and her husband walked straight into the house, started a blaze in the fireplace, and sat down in front of it with a couple of glasses of wine to marvel at the winter wonderland and the miracle of the shoveling.

But who shoveled for them? She called their snowplow driver, assuming he had done it, to see how much extra she owed him. No, he said. It wasn’t him. He told them their next-door neighbor, the ones with the political signs, had done it for them.

She was surprised. No, stunned. Why would her neighbors do that for her? They knew how she felt about their politics. She would not have shoveled their walks for them. After hemming and hawing for a couple of hours, she baked a pie and took it over to the neighbors to say thanks.

The neighbors were gracious, and seemed very happy to have the pie. (Pie makes everybody happy.) Nobody mentioned the signs, or anything about politics. When the woman told the neighbors she had never expected them to shovel her driveway, they said, well, we didn’t want you to come up and have to shovel for hours.

We did it for you, they said, because that’s what neighbors do.

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