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Last week, I had an appointment with the trainer at the Y after class, and Robert had a server crisis, so he went home to work and was coming back to pick me up. Finishing early, I decided to start walking home – the first three-quarters is down hill. The Y is set in the middle of Lowndes Hill Park, at the top of the highest hill in town, which was fortified during the Civil War. The trenches are still visible, but the hill is almost all woods.
Walking the wrong way on the one-way loop, so I wouldn’t miss Robert coming up, I had a close look at the trees and smaller plants, which we had watched leaf out and bloom all spring, but are hard to see from the car. There were good-size sassafras, and then, hanging down to picking level, a branch of ripe cherries. I picked a handful and walked along, in the bright sun and cool air, enjoying the view and spitting seeds.
Our local television station has declared this a “Summer of Sustainability.” They asked for contributions on what people do that is sustainable. I haven’t heard back from them, so here is what I sent.
Our sustainable living is not especially creative, it is just old-fashioned simple common sense that anyone can do, not trendy or radical, and inexpensive. We have lived this way all our married life – 30 years and two children, and we both worked full-time all that time.
Some of what we do:
No paper towels – reusable sponges
No paper napkins – cotton napkins that don’t need ironing, and last for decades (I still have our first set, although they’re getting worn and we use them for picnics)
No paper or plastic plates, cups, silverware
Wash and reuse sandwich and freezer bags
Canvas grocery bags – our first set is 15+ years old and just starting to wear out – the clerks are finally getting used to it and we’re glad
Use very few small electric appliances
Compost kitchen waste and weeds, gather larger yard trash for the Clarksburg compost pickup
Recycle paper, plastics, glass, metal cans
Give away rather than throwing out usable things we no longer need
Keep the thermostat down in the winter – 63 in the daytime and 50 at night – snuggling under a down comforter is cheaper, sustainable, and more fun than heating the whole house all night
Air-sealed the house; working on insulating, replacing windows and doors
No air-conditioning – open the windows
Hang the laundry to dry – sun-dried sheets and clothes smell wonderful – no need for scented fabric softeners, and clothes last longer
Buy cars with good gas mileage, and keep them for 8-10 years
Buy good simple clothes that don’t go out of style
No pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, antibacterial soap, phosphate detergents, or other products that poison the environment
Iron skillets – they last forever and no worries about chemical leaching into food or the environment when non-stick coatings are manufactured (or thrown away)
Use the library, buy used books
Eat locally grown food, and eat what’s in season – every month, you get a different set of choices, and fruits and vegetables become a real treat when they are fresh and picked ripe instead of hard and green so they can be shipped
Eat meat only once or twice a week – cornbread and beans is a WV tradition
Don’t use mixes, processed foods, frozen dinners – it’s easier than you think
Don’t water the lawn – we didn’t even in Texas where it goes brown in the summer – it always came back
Hand-mow the lawn – it is no harder than a push-mower – if you can’t do it in an hour or two a week, you have too much lawn; plant ground covers or a wildflower patch
Buy used furniture, call it antique, or good quality new and keep it forever (some of ours is in the 4th generation in our family)
Have only one TV
Rent instead of buy DVDs
Drink tapwater, and carry a reusable water bottle
Live near our jobs – we lived only 3 miles from our offices, rode our bicycles the last year we worked there, and now work from home
Gather wildflowers or flowers or branches from the yard instead of buying flowers flown in from South America, and grow houseplants for color in the winter
Pull up carpets and use a dust mop on wood floors instead of a vacuum – less work, less electricity, less manufacturing and landfilling of carpet
Buy old houses; you can’t get the same quality in a new one for the same price, and keeping an old house up uses fewer resources than building a new one
Borrow or rent things like extension ladders or power tools we don’t use often
Spend our money and time on trips, hiking, camping, classes, talking, cooking, making things, visiting friends instead of buying things, storing, and taking care of them
“The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight,” Obama said. “Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”
Republicans seized on the president’s approach as further evidence of what they say is his over-reliance on the government to solve the nation’s biggest challenges.
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said that “the White House may view this oil spill as an opportunity to push its agenda in Washington, but Americans are more concerned about what it plans to do to solve the crisis at hand.”
From the Washington Post report on the President’s address last night
I fail to see why saving the Gulf is the President’s problem, especially if a government solution is not the answer.
Over the last three months, we have had demonstration after demonstration of catastrophes caused by our reliance on oil, gas, and coal to fuel our apparently insatiable desire for more stuff. The largest coal-mining disaster in more than a generation, more coal mining deaths, two Marcellus shale gas well explosions, the Gulf oil disaster. All above the constant background reports of streams killed – everything dead on 40 miles of Dunkard Creek last summer, a small boy’s mouth full of rotting teeth on the front page of the New York Times last summer, streams all over the coal fields with heavy metals, high salt, low life; all sorts of health and behavioral problems traced to lead, not from paint in the slums, but lingering from leaded gasoline a generation ago, to plastics, almost all coal-derived or petrochemicals, leaching into our food and water; black lung on the rise in the coalfields again; not to mention climate change, including a long and snowy winter, caused by a warmer Arctic, which will not be unusual in the future.
This week, we had another round of floods in the southern coal fields of West Virginia. Like the ones in the past, last month, last year, they are made much worse if not completely caused by strip-mining and mountain-top removal of the mountains above the streams. Now, the residents of those valleys expect the government, state and federal, to come help them rebuild. Those residents, by and large, are the same people who are opposed to the government, state and federal, regulating the coal industry. They are not alone. Most of the country seems to expect the federal and state governments to rescue and rebuild the Gulf of Mexico, the same most of the country that didn’t want off-shore drilling banned or regulated.
BP, Massey Energy, the oil and gas and coal industries in general, and our own greed, are responsible. When I graduated from college, about a third of our oil was foreign; now two-thirds is. We used far less electricity then, and only a quarter of us thought air-conditioning was a necessity; by 2007, almost three-quarters of us did. We have built huge houses, on average 2,300 square feet, up from 1,600 when I graduated from college, and we expect to keep those houses at 72 degrees or so, no matter how hot or cold outside. We have moved to places where air-conditioning is very nearly a necessity, and built houses and offices that made it so. A quarter of us now own two homes. Three-quarters of us drive to work, alone, and our average commuting time has almost doubled from 15 minutes to half an hour. We expect strawberries, tomatoes, and roses in the dead of winter, and fresh lettuce trucked across country. When the electricity goes off and it is below freezing outside, we think we have no choice but to let the food in the freezer spoil. Not to mention the electronics, the kitchen “small electrics”, the aluminum cans, the bottled water trucked across the country and the resulting plastic bottles,the dozens of sets of clothing, disposables of all sorts, and the chemicals and equipment to clean all that stuff.
We are not only the government, with the power, ultimately, to tell our legislators what we agree is against our best interests and banned or taxed, but we are also the consumers who decide what to buy, and the workers who decide where to work and how to do that work. Just as we know better than to run our gutters on to the neighbor’s property or along our own foundation, or to dump our trash in our yard or the neighbor’s, or spend more than we earn (or maybe we don’t), we should know by now that our way of life is unsustainable. We have banned DDT and leaded gasoline, we have cleaned up the flaming rivers, and the air in some of our cities. It is possible for us to change, and it is possible that our lives will be better for it, not just because we are not destroying the land we live on, but because stuff is not what makes us truly happy.
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel
Besides having three sets of company in three weeks, I developed writer’s block trying to express the sense of simultaneous time. Today is our 30th anniversary, so time to finish this post.
Last month, we went to Charleston to get our son, who took the Cardinal from Chicago. In the spring of 1981, I had taken the same train from Chicago to Charleston, to do research in West Virginia. I stayed at my brother’s house on Smith Creek that night, and that fall we had Thanksgiving there, because his daughter Kate had just been born the week before. Saturday, we went to her wedding. Kate’s mother, not much younger then than Kate now, was my maid of honor at our wedding, and Kate’s brother, now a tall ex-Marine and IT security guy, was an 18-month-old who stole the show.
Driving home, I noticed as we passed the Amma exit on I79 how long it had taken to come from Cross Lanes. The last time I saw my mother was at the Amma exit, just after Christmas the year Kate was born. We had spent our last night in West Virginia at my brother’s, and realized I had left my dulcimer, a wedding gift from our best man, at my parents’. Mother agreed to meet us at Amma with it. The last thing she said to me, a family joke from a line I had in a Brownie play when I was 6, was “Children are a burden.”
There is an old memory technique, going back at least to the Roman orators, of associating things to be remembered with places – the architectural details of a room, the houses along a well-known street. Without effort, places and ceremonies in our lives become layered with memories. A wedding, a train station, a country road, are layered with old memories and meanings, as well as the seeds of future weddings and journeys. Because my family has been in these hills for many generations, and the stories have been preserved and handed down, the layers go back to weddings where the groom rode four days to Winchester to bring back a wedding dress, and the hills hold memories from the first clearing of the forest to my mother’s college swimming parties, besides all my own.
Is now, a moving picture constructed in our heads from what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, feel, that different from then, a moving picture constructed in our heads from memory?