Community


Last month, a member of my fella’s family stopped by our house for an impromptu visit. I guided her to sit at an overstuffed chair in the livingroom, next to the heater. I gave her tea that we had mixed in-house with herbs from our garden, along with homemade biscuits slathered with jelly that I had made earlier from wild blueberries.

Old-country urban chic, yes/no? It started as a nice visit. But an hour later, our guest was yelling at us for using space heaters.

Fella and I attempted to explain our reasoning. There’s only two of us, and cats that sleep all day in the living room. We used space heaters to only heat the rooms of the house that are in use. For example, we used a heater in our bedroom only at night, and one in our rec room only when we were in there, watching a movie. We put on an extra layer of clothing if we get chilly, and I time my baking, so the heat from the oven is not wasted.

Our “normal living” electric bill in the winter went beyond $300 per month, with the furnace and fireplace. With space heating, the cost runs around $160. We save electricity and money, without impact on our lives. We feel like we’ve won something.

Even though our guest was comfortable in our home, heating only the spaces we used had somehow passed her personal threshold of acceptible living. Our unexpected guest ended up demanding that we turn our furnace on, for no other reason than it was there.

It’s interesting where people draw their lines for what is acceptable green living versus living like misers or in poverty. A lot of the “new” green living techniques were considered just living cheaply or with common sense where I grew up. I didn’t learn how to sew to be trendy. Likewise, I didn’t learn how to garden to save the earth.  I sewed to have clothes for school and party dresses that were much nicer than you could get at the discount store. My family gardened to stock up food for the winter.

This is not a yarn about “the good ol’ days.” I’m in my early 30’s. This was maybe 15 years ago. And as delighted I am to see people stumbling around, trying to learn how to live within their means and reduce/reuse/recycle in the everyday, I tend to stumble into these invisible boundaries regularily. It seems to be something different for everyone:

  • Darning holes in socks (& lingerie) vs. buying more.
  • Reinforcing jeans and patching vs. replacing.
  • Foraging vs. buying at grocery stores.
  • Space heating and layering clothing vs. central heating.
  • Making bread (or cheese, or yogurt) vs. buying prepared.
  • Canning seasonal food vs. buying as needed from the grocery store.
  • Owning a junky car vs. car payments.
  • Adopting a working pet vs. a useless pet.
  • Buying household items in thrift stores vs. buying “green” items new.
  • Mulching with leaves and straw vs. beauty bark or hauling off.

Strangely enough, people who are repulsed (or feel pity) by one item on this list usually celebrate something else I do on the same list. I’m not even what I think of as hardcore sufficient: freeganism, let it mellow, gray water recycling, etc. — which someone else probably thinks is business as usual.

It just goes to show that you can only live the best way that you can, and to take the preferences of others with tolerance and grace.

There’s a different view on everything out there.

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I have yet to embrace a 100-mile, seasonal diet.  In this charged, politically-correct environment I live in, this brings out the battle cries for a small amount of folks. And I’m okay with that.

On any major issue, the population usually breaks into 3 categories: 10% are fundamentalist believers, 10% are fundamentalist non-believers, and 80% fall into a nice little bell-curve between the first two stands.

Everyone has their axes to grind, and as the environment becomes a greater social issue, there will be more and more martyrs and blasphemers, and they will go to war, screaming for the end of crazy backwardsness.

And while they are doing that, I’m madly in love with a guy who fell for me back when I was a metropolitan girl, escaping anything that reminded me of my agricultural past. I had expensive clothes, expensive hair, useless pets, and a dream revolving around never seeing poultry or cowboy boots (known as “shit-kickers” where I grew up) again.

Except now I’m reverting back, or at least trying to find a happy medium, because it makes sense to me. My fella is part of the 80% on the green issues. He knows the environment-locavore-seasonal eating-recycling-green-everything is important, but it’s huge, it breaks a lot of his automatic routines, and the fundamentalists turn him off of the whole thing. One side is ignorant, the other arrogant, and he just wants to have a good life where he doesn’t screw everything up.

Standard marketing technique is to play on a subject’s fear and insecurities in order to win them over. But it is against human nature to accept and retain any emotion for a long period of time.

My grandfather was a pastor. He had to save everyone’s soul from the fire and brimstone of Judgement by 1962, when he believed the world would end. On 1/1/63, he realized that God gave us all more time, and we had to be saved by 1966, when fire would rain from the heavens, and…. By the time he was declaring our doom in 1984, no one was listening anymore. Everybody was still sinning, waiting for the conventional end of life to worry about tallying up.

We are living in a place where HBC and Walmart consider themselves local. Where Monsanto has decided to call itself “sustainable” and the words Green and Organic have no real meaning anymore (except in marketing and agendas). We have developed a new term, “greenwashing.”

It’s confusing to stay on top of the trends, the marketing, the research, the whole issue of changing the basics of everything to be what the majority determines to be environmentally sound. It doesn’t inspire learning and changing when the mobs that tell us we must do XYZ, or our children will inherit a cinder and humanity will be lost.  I can’t help but think of the radium water (toothpaste, creams, etc.) that were still promoted for good health even as recently as the 40’s. Do we really know what we are doing, or are we being as good-intentioned as the pilgrim who first planted a worm into the New World soil?

Recycling plastic was a huge leap in the environmental scene, not long ago. Now, the same petroleum products get to pollute several times before being buried.

It’s 1962 again. Or whenever the world is currently going to end. It’s okay, I took survivalist training as a kid. I know how to sauté slugs and chew aspen. I’ll make soap to barter for hides. It’ll be goo-ood living.

Seriously, I’m tired of the guilt-trips, hyped marketing and power-struggles and one-upmanship that is happening with the Green Revolution. No one older than 25 changes their life to be cool, people don’t scare into a new lifestyle, and you can’t guilt them into a lasting change either. No matter how many carrots you eat, if you want chocolate, you will not be sated. It’s not about will control. It’s finding satisfaction.

  • A smaller house means less cleaning and lower bills — perhaps additional money for movies or trips.
  • Buying a box of apples that are fresh and crisp off the tree is a treat that is tasty, and stocking up fresh means months of tasty apples from the box.
  • Dining by lantern for dinner is romantic.
  • Learning about worms, or experimenting with different compost systems, or trying to grow different things at different times, can be a fascinating study.
  • Just slowing down allows us to appreciate the things around us.

(It is shown that a recession in the U.S. actually makes us live better. People spend more time with children, there is less overeating, less stress, more hanging out with genuine friends.)

We really can have a good life, right now.

So, no. I don’t follow an inflexible rulebook regarding foods that I bring home. What we eat and why is a personal choice anyway. I figure, if we pursue a better life for ourselves, our friends, our family, our homes– if we are willing to learn about and appreciate our surroundings and how they occur, we’ll naturally find a sustainable way. I make the best choices I can, and seek better knowledge.

It’s enough to know that a banana, pineapple or orange has travelled so very far to be appreciated by me. And over time, these fruits became a treat rather than a ration.

After enjoying a fantastic bounty of bright red, fresh tomatoes (and canning them) this summer, the pale and grainy tomatoes at the store have lost their appeal.

My fella suggested we buy eggs at a different grocery store, because the eggs he was looking at were thin-shelled and he didn’t think they were quality. They were from Ohio. The eggs he thought were higher quality came from 3 hours away.

The changes happen automatically, not because we’re embracing any challenge or trendy green diet.

We just want to live better. To progress, not to be perfect.

Backyard Cherries

Backyard Cherries

Food Not Lawns by H.C. Flores seems to be one of those must-read books that every hip environmentalist seems to tout at some point. It’s been in print since the 70’s, so there’s gotta be something there to last all this time, right?

Flores is refreshingly upfront with her status as a fervent believer that we are destroying life on earth. She was an environmental pioneer and has done a lot for what this area calls the Green Movement (or Green Religion). Her book is written for others who are curious about what they can do to build community and become self-sustaining.

The book has persuasive environmental horror stories and a few mystical leanings that might be off-putting to some readers. Strangely enough, the way the book is structured makes the stories secondary to the actual items you can build or perform in order to lead a healthier, more sustainable life. There is a section about creating a grey water bog and pond system to water landscaping with plans that I thought were just brilliant.

But as I was reading, I started thinking about what it would really mean to implement some of these ideas at home. When fella and I bought our house, we planned on staying at least two years. With the housing market the way it is, we decided to stay for at least 5 years.

People don’t really buy houses to live in for 30 years anymore. In my area, many folks are resigned to a commute to work that can take over an hour, because there is no work close to home. People may have to move across the country for a job. The idea of staying in a home and paying off a 30-year mortgage is unthinkable right now. Because people move around, it’s also harder to build a real life community.

I know that I wouldn’t be able to sell my house if it was painted with milk paint, landscaped with gray water plumbing, and the lawn was removed. Living with these things requires a change in living, it requires specialty knowledge and maintenance. Would prospective buyers cringe at even my compost bins?

When I read about how neighbors should tear down their fences and plant a large garden on the shared space, I had to laugh. That would never happen in my neighborhood. It freaks them out when I offer them cherries from our tree. We need our territorial boundaries here.

We can each do our bit and take personal responsibility for our little carbon footprints. We can plant our gardens and compost our veggies. But as long as workers have to remain mobile (and things like gray water systems are anomalies), our self-sustaining, environmental actions have to be as mobile as we are.

Earlier this season, my friend Cine and I came across a disheartening sight: a once thriving community garden in hilltop had been abandoned.

We wandered around, digging at the various beds and weeds. Silver dollar plants and mallow dotted the area, joined by fennel, sorrel, poppy.

17 of the 20 raised beds had been abandoned. Strawberries, lavender, rosemary, thyme, volunteer tomatoes, and all types of tiny herb and vegetable plants were struggling to grow through tall grasses that had taken over the beds, most of which were hidden in the same grass that covered the pathways.

Only a few years ago, this community garden was an oasis in Hilltop. I could see the former glory with every handful of grass I ripped up as we wandered the lot.

The pathways were once thickly mulched with bark, the beds filled with Tagro. Four rain barrels collected rain from the roof of a locked shed. A large, expensive, metal, rotating compost bin was rusted, the black gold it contained leaking from a split seam that had buckled open on the bottom. PVC pipe was stacked by the shed, perfect lengths for making cloches over the beds. It was heartbreaking.

For Cine, plants are to be nurtured and cared for, so they can in turn give back to us in beauty and harvest. They connect us to nature.

For me, land is everything. It sustains mind and body, provides a sense of peace and a space for quiet. We should steward the land and grow the soil, especially when we find it in a concrete community.

It is hard to see a community waste a space land in a thoroughly urban area. Environmentally-conscious items like compost bins and rain barrels become nothing but refuse when they are not used.

We wanted to become involved. But no one knew who was in charge. We talked to the few others that had rehabilitated a box or two, and the few who were willing to talk to us told us the history of the lot and confirmed that there was no contact. Everyone was ninja-gardening.

After digging for a month to find out who legally owned this land, Cine found the owners and learned that the land gift to the community had a hefty caveat: the land was given free to the community for gardening, but if it was abandoned and there were no gardens, the land would revert back to the owners.

At that point, we decided to join our ninja-gardening community, and care for two boxes.

We found out that we weren’t the only ones. While we were researching and asking questions and pointing out this community garden, others also were becoming interested.

Someone came through and cut down all the grasses and weeds. Strawberry plants were pulled from one box and placed into a freshly-prepared bed. Someone else had taken the old compost pile and bagged it for anaerobic composting. Tomatoes, zucchini and corn were sprouting from various beds that had been cleaned and composted.

One of the issues for this lot is water. There is no connection to a water line. But nearly every rehabbed bed had a bucket nearby to catch the rain. We saw a few natural deep watering systems.

So who is in charge now? No one. And everyone. In the middle of what is notoriously the roughest area of Tacoma, the community is slowly rehabilitating and redeveloping an abandoned community garden to former glory. There is no steering committee, no steward, no list. Little signs are posted: “This is composting, please call me if you have questions,” “This is grain, not weeds.”

It is truly a community garden.