I’d grown up in the woods of New England, and almost from the time I could talk, I knew what the voices of bare trees sound like in winter, how it feels to hold a toad in your hand, and the exact shade of cinnamon oak leaves turn before they fall from the tree. But for most of the years of my adult life, I have lived in a small city, with one scraggly locust tree to keep me company, and an apartment so small it was hard to turn around without banging an elbow against a wall. Not that those years were awful: my husband and I raised our daughter in that house, somehow wedged as many as fourteen people around our holiday table there, and enjoyed being within walking distance of good music, good coffee, and good books.
Still, after so many years away from the home of my heart, I was more than thrilled when we scraped together enough money to buy our current home, a ramshackle old farmhouse on the edge of hundreds of acres of wooded hills.
The woods, on the other hand, were not well served by this homecoming. However much I love them, the truth is, my life in the city–with access to public transportation, in a smaller home with better insulation, and with most of what we needed within walking distance–was kinder to the planet than the life we live now. Our current home has room for a garden, deer that cross the yard in the moonlight… and almost no insulation, drafty windows, and an inefficient hot water heater. Ironically, just at the time that my husband’s and my feelings of connection to nature deepened most dramatically, our ecological footprint had become a dinosaur track.
Also, while the sight of the Big Dipper against a velvet black sky made me shiver with delight, and while my breath caught in my throat at the sight of a deer or a bear at close quarters, I also knew enough to notice things in the woods I either had not been aware of as a child, or which had not been issues back then: invasive species, logging scars, wooly adelgids on the hemlocks. At the same time, I’ve become aware of so many larger threats to the health of forests I love, from the obscenity which is Appalachian mountaintop removal mining, to fracking for natural gas in the Northeast, and of course carbon emissions and man-made climate change.
So many overwhelming problems. And it seemed to me, when I went into my beloved woods with the observant eyes of an adult, the signs of change were all around me.
What’s an earth-worshiping tree-hugger to do?
I tried despair for a while. That wasn’t much fun. Every time I walked in the woods, I felt sad, bitter, or guilty.
I tried cynicism. That was even worse–as if I were cracking jokes at the deathbed of someone I loved, pretending I didn’t care.
Eventually, I tried change. And that has helped a lot.
I don’t mean I’ve changed the human world, let alone the planet. I’ve changed myself. Small changes at first… and then, interestingly enough, larger changes began to bud off of the small ones. Each change made another change easier; and with each change, I became both more knowledgeable and more hopeful, both about my own ability to reform my way of life, and about the potential for humanity to turn this boat around.
“What if we acted like the earth really mattered?” I asked myself. What if, instead of despairing over my inability to change the behavior of billions of people on the planet–or even, most usefully, millions of Americans!–I instead simply tried to live in as much harmony with my own values of love for the natural world as I knew how to do?
I began with plastic.
Nasty stuff, plastic. Made from petrochemicals, highly polluting to produce, merely downcyclable and not, as is commonly thought, recyclable at all, and likely to persist in forms that will be harmful to living things for geological stretches of time.
All right. I admit it–it was the video of the dead albatross chicks that got me. (Don’t watch, unless you want it to get you, too.) But it’s the knowledge of the impact of plastic on the life at the base of the food chain–the plankton that produces half of our planet’s oxygen, and on all the animals that eat either plastic or plastic-contaminated creatures–that is the lasting motivator for me.
I just can’t see it–that bag of potato chips, that bottle of flavored water, or that candy bar wrapper, in exchange for a moment’s convenience for me will become something that harms living creatures for 500,000 years or more. I reached the point where I had to say no; I had to stop.
On June 1, 2010, I began a personal experiment with eliminating all single-use plastic and as much other new plastic packaging and products as I could from my life. Within a month, my husband Peter had joined me.
As of today, April 4, 2011, we have produced between us 23 lbs, 15 oz. of plastic waste in all forms between us. We have been managing to keep our production of plastic waste to something under 20% of the national average, and I hope to reduce that figure still further next year.
That’s not all, however. That’s not even the important bit.
Managing our plastic waste has put us in touch with the possibility of relying more on whole, not processed foods. Through our growing pleasure in whole foods, we’ve become aware of the destructive practices of factory farming in this country, and how they damage local farms and economies, compromise the health of the soil, pollute the water… and do not provide the very food security they pretend to offer us. We’ve learned about resources to support local agriculture, and begun learning some of the skills we need to find, grow, and preserve food in a way that is kinder to the planet. (It turns out to be delicious, too.)
We’ve reclaimed practices our grandparents considered simple common sense, around our energy use, what we do by hand, and how we manage our money. In fact, our entire lifestyle has gradually swung in a direction I might call “eco-frugal,” and we are the happier for it. We eat like foodies, conserve like it’s the Great Depression, can and bake and brew and plant… and still manage fifty-hour work weeks, time for community, and time with friends.
At this point, we’re doing what we do for love as much as for the planet. Asking the question, “What if we acted like the earth really mattered?” has led to home-baked bread, pickle swaps with friends, watching the flight of geese in a cloudless sky, and savoring the smell of line-dried sheets on our beds at night.
And, yes, there have been more letters to the editor, to politicians and policy-makers than ever before, too. The big problems are still there, and they still demand attention.
But somehow, it’s not depressing when it’s fueled by love. We’ve learned to do many things differently… and it turns out, more satisfyingly. We have touched the earth; the changes to our lives feel like prayer, feel like wholeness.
In this space, in the months to come, I’ll share the details of what we’ve learned–and what we’re still struggling with.
I hope you will consider your own small changes–and maybe large ones–in honor of our living world.