There’s a podcast out of Melbourne, Australia called “Greening the Apocalypse” that I enjoy. It’s part tongue-in-cheek comic banter and part earnest exploration of what being “green” means for people living in a modern metroplex. Back in July I was listening to an episode that featured David Holmgren who promotes the re-ruralization of suburbia as frugal hedonism. I like to think of Holmgren as the anti-Kunstler. After my complete failure at small scale incremental urban infill I’m highly receptive to less ambitious concepts that don’t involve interacting with the authorities much. This is my new model.
Of course, I was listening to this podcast while traveling by jet from San Francisco to Seattle. Then I took a freeway shuttle to a lake downtown where I hopped a 1961 de Havilland sea plane to Lopez Island up along the Canadian border. Hedonism? Yes. Green? No…
I had kindly been invited by friends to enjoy a summer adventure at their home. Their front yard was an acre and a half of meadow facing the village. A doe and her fawns were regular visitors. The back garden looked on to an ever changing waterfront worthy of a Hollywood film set. I was lucky enough to be around during a lunar eclipse and watched as Venus travelled beneath the shifting crescent. No photo can fully convey the beauty of this place. The house itself was modest and unremarkable, the product of a middle class that’s since been squeezed like a tube of toothpaste. Some families carry on, pushed slightly up rather than down.
The meals were pure summertime: corn on the cob, salmon, lamb, fresh berries, shellfish, and veggies of every kind. Fresh batches of friends and family arrived from the mainland in little waves and new dishes were prepared for the grill.
Each menu item had a provenance and a specific journey associated with it. The island is small. Small enough to ride a bicycle around its entirety, which plenty of people do. Small enough to lack a mass market. And it gets even smaller in winter when half the puny population disappears. It’s far enough from the mainland that locally grown food is competitive with food shipped in by ferries and tiny airplanes. You can pay a premium for frozen Lean Cuisine for the microwave, or you can pay a premium for local organic free range wild caught and grass fed. It’s a wash.
The most amazing aspect of this kind of grocery shopping came at the cash register. There’s often no attendant. Farmers are busy farming so it’s the honor system. Weigh your items. Check the price list. Make a note of your purchases in the ledger. Make your own change from the strong box. These are hard core Lutherans – in practice if not in Church. I thought this world had vanished with Eleanore Roosevelt.
Fish were plucked from nearby waters. Dungeness crab season had begun. Oysters and mussels were cultivated in the shallow estuaries by families who lived on site.
Need milk? Cheese? That farm is a bike ride away in the other direction. And there’s the till again. Self serve. Honor system.
This family takes waste reduction very seriously. Whenever possible reusable glass bottles and containers are brought back to the shop for refill rather than recycling. Disposable plastic bags and plastic wrap were phased out in favor of more durable reusable items.
Kitchen waste is composted and used to fertilize the garden. These techniques are in keeping with the family’s concern for the environment, but there’s another reason they strive to generate as little waste as possible. The island doesn’t provide trash collection so they’re responsible for bringing their garbage to the proper facility themselves.
The island’s population voted in favor of this system for a variety of reasons, some ethical, others economic. But every effort is made to prevent things from entering the landfill. All recyclables are sorted by individuals assisted by volunteers. Anything that could be used again by someone else is set aside and offered to the public. The dump serves as a meeting place for everyone to rub shoulders and engage in casual conversation.
I like to be as useful as possible when I’m a house guest so I made sure to do my share of the housework during my stay. (I want to be invited back!) So I was happy to do dishes and wash clothes as needed. So long as the sun was shining clothes could be dried outdoors after they got a second speed spin in a machine that pulls excess water from fabric. Clothes dry much faster. I was later informed that no matter how far out in the sticks you may live or how far away your neighbors might be, there are always complaints about the unsightliness of clothes lines. This family is planting a privacy hedge around the dreaded laundry lest the un-American Activities Board appear at the door with armed guards to forcibly remove the socks and pillow cases.
On my flight back home I pondered a few things. First, this living arrangement is predicated on money earned from a family business based in the Midwest. A couple of times a month for the last couple of decades flights have been taken back and forth from the west coast to Chicago and then on to a regional airport in Iowa to supplement the preferred telecommute. That’s the underlying physical reality that makes everything else possible. I’ve had earnest discussions about this with the family. It’s complicated. But they’re doing their part to Green the Apocalypse.
Second, as I looked down from my airplane window I could see hundreds of little forest fires burning up and down the Pacific coast. These are normal, natural, and a required part of the ecosystem in this part of the world. But they were precursors to the infinitely larger and more devastating fires that have just occurred this fall… and last fall. It’s possible to draw a wiggly line between my jet fuel exhaust and those massive fires. Mea culpa.
And third, I was busy reading “Building Home” about the late mortgage banker Howard Ahmanson who helped put millions of families into homes of their own in the post World War II era. It was a time when society was united in a common vision of the future. Americans rolled up their sleeves and went out and built the suburban world we now inhabit. That world is winding down and we need a new vision for how to move forward that accommodates a new reality. We’re not there yet.