Do you ever have a year that just seems to last forever? On Monday I turn 29, and all I can think is, What took so long? There have been a lot of big changes in my life this past year, and even though I’m getting older, in a lot of ways I’m still pretty green.
Each year, during the week leading up to my birthday, I stop and take stock of how my life has changed. (Wasn’t 27-year-old Ali so adorably innocent and fresh-faced? Ha!) Ever since my initiation into the Ancient Order of Druids in America, part of my yearly birthday practice involves paying special attention to the ecologically-conscious changes I’ve made to my lifestyle over the past year, and taking a moment to look closely and honestly at how I’m doing.
So how am I doing? Just as in previous years, it’s a mixed bag.
I’ve made some important Big Deal changes that have helped me “go greener” in many ways:
- I had a “green” wedding. And it was on a pretty tight budget, too. But we sacrificed things like elaborate floral displays and a huge guest list, and focused on shelling out the extra dough for organic, locally grown food and a wedding wardrobe made of organic cotton and hemp. We even paid a carbon offset to balance out the environmental cost of our guests’ transportation. Plus, merging households meant reducing our carbon footprint by combining our utilities and other daily needs, and new evidence suggests that number of households has a larger influence on climate change than just the raw number of people on the planet.
- We moved. From an old two-story, poorly-insulated row house in Pittsburgh to a bright, energy-efficient one-bedroom apartment in Seattle. Not only did this mean drastic downsizing (we donated about two-thirds of our furniture and half of our books and clothes), but thanks to the differences in local climate and urban infrastructure we use less energy to heat, cool and light our new place, and what energy we do use comes from renewable hydroelectricity instead of the ubiquitous coal mining of Pennsylvania. Plus, Seattle has a city-wide composting program, so we didn’t have to give up our love of compost just because we no longer have a yard of our own. Turns out, large-scale infrastructure makes a big difference in how effectively we can “go green.”
- I work from home full-time. Technically, I was working from home last year, too, but I was working for somebody else and that meant I still had to make occasional business trips (often on airplanes — ugh!). This year, I made the transition to working for myself full-time, which has meant far less travel. When I need a change of pace, I pick up and head down the street to the local coffee house. (I’m living in Seattle now. Did I mention that?) Even Jeff has been able to make some changes: though he no longer telecommutes, he’s able to bike to work. Biking almost 15 miles a day round trip is not only good for the earth, but great for his health.
- I live my ecological values every day through my creative work. Which is probably the best part of working for myself. Besides writing here, I also became the Wild Earth Feature Editor for Aontacht Magazine last fall and this May, I began co-hosting Faith, Fern & Compass, a podcast dedicated to exploring nature spirituality in the digital age through environmentalism, art, politics, community and interfaith conversation. Some of this work brings in dollars and cents, and some just earns me good karma points. By rethinking my relationship with money and focusing on “low productivity” work that emphasizes care and craftsmanship, I was able to go green financially and environmentally and step out of the anxiety-ridden rat race of worrying about every paycheck. I finally get to earn a (modest) living doing work that aligns with my life-long passion for the earth and my deeper values of ecological balance. (And it only took about 29 years!)
- I volunteer as a naturalist. This is something I would have started doing years ago if it had ever occurred to me, but I’ve always been very much an introvert and maybe even a bit anti-social. It took moving to a new city on the other side of the continent to jar me into such disorientation that I felt compelled to go out and connect not just with the land itself, but with the other humans who shared it with me. During my first week in Seattle, I interviewed with Parks & Rec and signed up to become a volunteer naturalist. After six weeks of training this spring, I now spend many of my weekends manning education stations in local urban green spaces, and leading programs for school kids during the week. I can’t think of anything as fun and fulfilling as teaching the next generation why good stewardship and environmental awareness is so vital to our planet.
- I keep a naturalist journal. Something I’ve been wanting to do for years, our move into a new ecosystem on the opposite side of the continent finally gave me the excuse I needed to break out the watercolor pencils and give it a try. It’s not as thorough or well-kept as Eli’s phenology journal, but even with my poor drawing skills and tendency to smudge my already-awful handwriting into something nearly unreadable, it’s worth the effort. Drawing has become for me a kind of meditative engagement with the natural world around me, even during times when I’m feeling overwhelmed by big life changes. Maybe sitting quietly for an hour or two sketching birds in the frontyard doesn’t seem all that green on a grand scale, but turns out that scientific literacy alone isn’t what convinces people to go green. Staying grounded in sacred relationship with the natural world helps give me the strength and focus I need to make those important changes.
- I stopped shampooing my hair and using tampons. Wait! Where are you going?! Come back, seriously, it’s not as gross as it sounds. I recently made the switch to a DivaCup, cutting my moon-time related trash down to pretty much nothing (and it’s way more comfortable, too, not to mention far cheaper than a box of feminine products month after month). Also, after weeks of equivocating, I finally joined the really-poorly-named “No ‘Poo” movement and switched from chemical-laden, plastic-packaged commercial shampoo to a homemade blend of baking soda and apple cider vinegar that’s gentle, natural and (with the right blend of essential oils) smells wonderful. Believe it or not, my hair looks the best it ever has and the homemade mix is far kinder to this sensitive Irish girl’s scalp. Being able to cut down on plastic in the bathroom is a huge step in our overall reduction in household plastics, an on-going initiative inspired in large part by our dear friend (and NUP staff writer) Cat Chapin-Bishop.
So a lot of progress over the past twelve months!
Still, there are a plenty of places where I haven’t lived up to my own hopes for a greener way of life. Moving to a new city, it’s been a struggle to adjust to an unfamiliar region, with its slightly different seasons that affect the availability of local, organic foods. More often than not, Jeff and I have fallen back on cheap and convenient non-organic foods from the local grocery store instead of putting in the time and effort to seek out co-ops and farmers markets. Both of us use lots of computer technology and mobile devices in our work, which have their own environmental (and ethical) consequences that we can’t ignore, as much as we might enjoy the latest gadgets and what they let us do. Working as a volunteer naturalist, I see how deeply entrenched the anthropocentric worldview is in how we understand the study and care of nature, and teaching school kids means I have to deliver that message as part of the curriculum whether I officially agree with it or not. And, despite all my time in training to become a naturalist, sometimes the facts and studies and science can drown out my feeling of connection to this new land where I live — especially since, perhaps my biggest disappointment of all, we no longer live within walking distance of a park.
There’s always room for improvement. So I guess I already have my list of things I want to start working on for next year. What’s on your list?