Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Journey to Green

I grew up during the 1970s.  My parents, who had been activists in the Civil Rights Movement, were in those years teachers at a liberal-progressive college in the small-town rural South.  Watergate and the first Earth Day and the early oil shocks are foundational memories for me.

Even more important to my world view, however, was my grandmother.  She was not a lefty--not political at all, really--but she cared deeply about the place where she lived.  Granny had lived through the Great Depression.  She had also been widowed twice by the time she was 40yo.  The two experiences combined to make her a very independent and resourceful woman.

Granny worked full time at the same department store for almost fifty years.  She went fishing and crabbing and clamming to feed us with the bounty of what surrounded us.  She had an enormous farm-garden in her backyard.  She had a compost pile and rain barrels set up around her house.  She brought home every plastic bag from her job and folded them carefully for reuse. She knitted ferociously.

Granny's sister raised animals (from chickens to rabbits to peacocks) in her yard (and snakes and huge spiders in her house), collected wild mushrooms and foraging greens, and crocheted ferociously.  The two of them were quite a pair.

So I grew up with liberal commitments to social justice, taught to me by my parents.  And I grew up with the influence of my grandmother's commitment to a life led simply and plainly using resources to their fullest.  But I never considered myself an environmentalist.

When I finished college, I moved into an apartment and began cooking for myself.  I had been a more-or-less vegetarian in college, simply because the meat was so poorly prepared in the cafeteria.  But reading Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet totally changed my thought process about choosing food.  She showed me that my daily choices were fundamentally linked to social justice--and even to Granny-style self-reliance.  Buying into industrial meat production seemed like using more than my fair share and simply wasting so much of the earth's abundance.

I still did not think of myself as an environmentalist.  I was in fact put off by the message of such environmental tracts as E - The Environmental Magazine with what I saw as its emphasis on a more pop-culture, consumer-driven image of life than I wanted to live.  I'm not sure this is a fair representation of the magazine then, much less now, but it was my reaction.  I put my efforts into the anti-war movement (responding to Gulf 1) and to the feminist and GLBT movements instead.  And I studied history as I slowly worked through graduate school.

When in 2001 I started spending all my time with David, I began to hear more about environmentalism from him.  I was still resistant, honestly.  I've always cared a lot more about humanity that about the planet, if I'm going to be honest--and so doing things right for society seemed more relevant to me.  Cleaning up a stream in order to allow native peoples to fish there safely was one thing--but making things pristine, apparently so middle class hikers could enjoy nature, did not.  The idea of preventing indigenous people from continuing to live in the rain forests of the Amazon--all in an effort to protect the environment--seemed wrong to me.

Of course, now I see how social justice and environmentalism go absolutely hand in hand.  I'm sure people back then understood that as well, but I did not.  On the other hand, what I did know is that David was deeply involved in both movements.  The other thing I knew is that my instincts towards plainness and towards social justice often meant the two of us were heading towards the same place of personal action.

David and I fell in love.  We eventually decided to have a child.  But I was reluctant to make that step until we had really confirmed that our dreams for the future were reconcilable.  Before we even started dating, David had told me he wanted four children.  I, meanwhile, had decided at the age of seven that I would have only one.  (And as any of you who know me realize, I am incredibly stubborn once I have made a decision.)

In an effort to convince David that 'onlies' are perfectly happy and normal people, I started reading up on raising only children.  One of the first books I ran across was Bill McKibben's Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families.  This book changed my life in the way few books have.

First, it tapped into the issues of deep importance to David and convinced him that our future was definitely going in the same direction childwise.  Within just a few months, we were staring at two little pink lines and dancing around the room.

Secondly, it transformed how I saw environmentalism.  It was scholarly (something I have a weakness for), non-materialistic, and full of emotional honesty.  McKibben introduced me to a world of green thinking that was rooted in both social justice and deep kindness.

Knowing that Bill McKibben has been such a powerful moral voice within the environmental movement since the year I graduated from college (from the same college from which he graduated!) makes it seem remarkable to me that I stumbled across his work through the back door of parenting choices.

Parenting choices led me further down the environmental path.  I made the choice to have a homebirth with a midwife because it was a self-reliant low-resource option.  We used cloth diapers because they felt luxurious compared to a plastic bottom, but also because they are lasting and use fewer resources.  (In fact, our son's old diapers are still being used by others, a full decade later.)  The luxury and ease of cloth diapers led me to start using cloth menstrual pads, and then to start using cloth bathroom wipes.  We breastfed because it was the natural thing to do, because it was healthier for mother and baby, because it was both cheaper and easier than formula feeding, and because it seemed like the responsible use of the resources we have. We coslept--which avoided the crib.  We carried our baby in a cotton sling rather than a complex large stroller.  The idea of simple plainness motivated many of my choices--but by this point I was recognizing that being plain and being green often went hand in hand.

There was one more step that totally pushed me over and made me into a card-carrying environmentalist.  I'll share that story tomorrow.

*  *  *

Thanks to Erin for raising such a fabulous issue for this month's APLS carnival.  What a lovely time of year to play over our pasts and see what led us to where we are today.


Kyce at Old Recipe for a New World said...

Just clarifying: What do you mean by cloth bathroom wipes? In lieu of TP? How does that work on a practical level? I'm intrigued...

The Raven said...

Yep. There is more about our transition here: http://thepurloinedletter.blogspot.com/2007/06/paper.html

We have stacks of little flannel cloths in a basket in the bathroom, as well as a little nylon bag where we collect the wipes after use. We use ours all the time but some folks only use theirs for pee.

There is no smell from the collection bag even after many days. We wash about every week or ten days--in a hot wash with a cold rinse. Hanging them to dry makes them even more absorbent.

Incidentally, we keep paper for company--and when parents and in-laws are coming, we even hide our basket sometimes...

My son is looking over my shoulder and saying, "I hate paper. Cloth is so soft. Paper is rough and almost gives me a rash now."

Kyce said...

What an Aha moment for me. Just when I think I've gotten as green as I can be, the world cracks open with a new revelation! We are currently cloth diapering our babe, and have all the gear ready to go. It's amazing how many things in our culture seem essential, and are so...not. Thanks for sharing your journey and in turn helping me along mine.

The Raven said...

It is quite flattering to know this blog might open something up to someone. A tremendous number of our family's decisions have started the exact same way: I read something on a blog that made me be able to see other choices. A wonderful benefit of the blog world.

If you're washing diapers anyway, this will be a very easy change for you! Just throw the adult wipes in with them in the wash.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I love this story! What an interesting and unique perspective you provide. Now off to read "Part 2!"

mrs green said...

What a great story. I must check out the book about raising a single child - as we have an only child too. I love and totally resonate with your parenting journey; we did exactly the same - homebirth, co slept, breastfed etc and I'd never really thought of it as being 'green' but yes, I guess it was!

You sound such a thoughtful and caring person; someone who takes nothing for granted and leaves no stone unturned - I admire that.

THanks for sharing your story with us!

Warm wishes
Rae (mrs green @myzerowaste.com)

Green Me Alison said...

I can definitely identify with much of what you've experienced. My grandparents (on both sides) were also very influenced by living through the Great Depression and always stressed the importance of living lightly off the land. I recall reading about your switch to cloth and I want to do it (some times I use my son's wipes for pee), but I've been putting it off. I don't have a surger to make my own and I've been too cheap to my wipes. A friend made the ones we do have and she has offered to lend me her machine. Perhaps that is a New Years Resolution for me! Thanks for sharing your story!

Cherie said...

What an amazine woman your grandmother must have been! Thanks for sharing your story and being an inspiration to others.

Steph @ Greening Families said...

I had the same reaction as mrs. green - our babies were birthed at home, breastfed, in our arms or in a sling, etc. but I never thought of those choices as green choices. They were just what we thought was best for our children.

In the long run, all our green decisions are what we think is best for our children, however, so there is really no difference between the two. Thanks for helping me to see our choices from another angle.

Lisa Sharp said...

What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing

Also I'm hosting this months carnival and would love if you could join in. :)


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