Category: Green Dreams
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.
Yesterday, the day after Earth Day, I had Fooey to thank for strong-arming me into volunteering for her class’s field trip to a nearby nature centre, which we’ve never visited before. And so I was outside on a warm and windy April afternoon, fully appreciating this beautiful planet we live on. My favourite part was netting a small fish and a water-bug in the swampy pond, and examining their interactions inside our group’s glass jar. It looked like the fish might eat the bug, but then the bug climbed onto the fish’s back for a ride. “Maybe the bug is going to eat the fish!” That was about as scientific as our little group got, which was, admittedly, not very, but the sun was warm and there was mud on our hands.
This morning on the walk to the school bus, CJ and I discovered the wet ground was absolutely crawling with snails in their shells (slugs?). You had to look to see them, and then you couldn’t stop seeing them. How quickly we turned into explorers, examining how the snails moved, the different colours of the shells, how tiny some were. We moved some off the sidewalk, out of the way of crunching feet.
This has been a slow month, quiet, the drip, drip, drip of waiting. I am not, as you probably already know, the most patient person on the planet. I do not fall easily into relaxation. I feel compelled to busy myself. I tend to measure a day’s success in the variety of tasks accomplished, words written, miles run. I’m a lucky woman to have my children to pull me closer to the ground, out into the woods, fishing creatures from a swampy pond, getting my hands dirty, dragging me away from the idea of accomplishment and into the messiness of wonder. And I see that the world is full of stories unfolding, each in its own time and rhythm. What am I here for, after all? It can’t be all about the accomplishments and goals.
So much on my mind today. I couldn’t shut it down, not even in yoga class this morning. The word I used to meditate as I held poses was “strength.” I want to be strong. I think I am strong. But sometimes I wonder, at what point does “strength” become “unwillingness to appear weak”? Is it better to grit through a difficult pose, or to give in to the desire to rest? Maybe sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other. I heavily favour the former, of course.
I do believe, however, that our greatest strengths are also our points of greatest frailty. So I have to be careful.
Let me tell you about yesterday. It was a pretty crappy day, if I may be frank. Writing time vanished as I had to take one daughter to a doctor’s appointment. Vanished some more due to errands and piano lessons. And then the truck slowly but surely started breaking down. Right in the middle of the fairly complicated back-and-forthing between school, piano lessons, school, birthday party. Three kids were directly counting on me to be in specific locations at specific times.
The truck refused to shift into reverse.
I was lucky. I realized what was happening. I’d parked on an incline and was able to roll out of the parking lot. I was able to call Kevin right away. He was able to book a carshare car right away. I was able to park at the next location in such a way that would prevent me from needing to reverse. And the next. And the next. And we were able to make it to the repair shop before the entire transmission shut down.
I never realized how frequently I use reverse, when driving. Maybe this is a life metaphor. We’re not meant to be stuck going forward at all times. We need to be able to back up, too.
The situation was stressful. I was worried the whole time and couldn’t find my “happy place,” shall we say. But I recognized, too, that the day was not nearly so crappy as it could have been. Kevin and I worked together as a team. We were only about ten minutes late for the second piano lesson. The truck did not need to be towed. The children adapted to the changing plans. We belong to a carshare!
Home at last, I felt so tired — not physically, but mentally. Fooey wanted to play an imagination game while I was hanging laundry. It was all I could do to manage the most banal responses.
It also happened that I was due to Skype in to a book club in Toronto at 9pm. Well. I made a pot of peppermint tea, brushed my hair, and sat down in my office. We made contact. But we couldn’t work the video. In the end, we decided just to chat. I looked at my own video smiling back at me (not sure whether they did the same), and we spoke for about forty-five minutes. My tiredness evaporated. Their questions were thoughtful, respectful, insightful. We talked about how daughters view their mothers. We talked about being mothers. We wondered, will mothers ever get cut some slack?
I hung up feeling so much better.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with the truck. The two eldest kids wonder: would this be a good time to become a car-free family? “I’ve been thinking about it, Mom, and it would make us be more eco-friendly and more organized….” I’m proud of the values we’ve instilled in them, but, oh, I like having that truck waiting for me on freezing dark mornings when I’m headed for a spin class.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with the book. The editing is so slow. One foot in front of the other. One small step and another and another. Many, if not most, of my writing days are shortened by other necessities that take priority.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with my applications for writing grants and midwifery and The Amazing Race (thanks for watching the video: we’ve had tons of excellent feedback already!).
I feel as if so much of my life is up in the air right now. Strength. I’m calling on strength as I hold this pose.
Good morning. Good rainy dark pre-solstice morning. So dark, the bus picked up AppleApple in what appeared to be the pre-dawn. At our house, at this time of year, everyone takes vitamin D and fish oil. Yes, I make my children take fish oil. Nobody objects. CJ actually came running for his fish oil this morning. Here he is, waiting patiently to ring his bell during his Christmas concert yesterday.
He’s not the only one in the family ready to ring some bells and make some noise.
At supper last night the conversation ranged. It started with the weather. Albus and friends had rescued their snow fort from the rain, but it was dwindling. “It’s going to be 11 degrees tomorrow,” he reported. “Why is this happening?” “Climate change?” I mentioned an article I’d read about giant plumes of methane gas bubbling out of the Arctic Sea. We talked about Canada’s government withdrawing from the Kyoto accord. We talked about the oil sands. We talked about the power of money. We talked about weather versus climate. AppleApple worried: what could she do?
My suggestion: start by sending a letter to our federal environment minister, Peter Kent, a former television journalist who in fact reported in great detail on the emerging science of climate change way back in 1984 (the internet is useful for so many things). I write a lot of letters. It’s one of the few things I can think of to do and I’ve been doing it since childhood. In fact, in 1987, aged twelve and in homeschool, I was upset and disturbed about the effects of greenhouse gases on our environment, and wrote to then-environment-minister, also in a Conservative government, Lucien Bouchard. I received in return a large package in the mail some little while later: glossy pages of activities and suggestions (turn off the tap when you brush your teeth!). No actual response to the questions raised in my letter. I was disgusted by the obvious waste, and the irony: the ministry of the environment producing glossy reams of paper, essentially propaganda. (My parents were peace activists, so yes, I knew about propaganda.)
And so, our dinner conversation turned to propaganda. We talked about how we humans like to fool ourselves. We like to comfort ourselves, and distract ourselves from news that would make us sad or worried. (Which would explain why celebrities are a bigger “news” draw than actual news.) And then the conversation got really funny. Albus didn’t get the concept: How could we fool ourselves?
Hm. Pretty sure you’re a master at it, Mister “It Was an Accident” Albus. We all admitted familiarity with that sickish feeling when you know you’ve done something wrong. Around the table, almost unanimously, we discovered that that feeling arises more often when we’ve done something wrong by accident, and less often when we’ve been deliberately bad. (Maybe when we do something deliberate we’ve already built up the rationale around why we’re doing it; we’ve already bought into the wrong-doing; cough-cough “ethical” oil sands cough-cough.)
AppleApple decided to research climate change–what we can do, what the government could be doing. She wants her ducks in order before she writes her letter. She wants INFORMATION and FACTS. Maybe we’ll all write letters (you, too?). Albus also suggested that we could have a protest. Hey, good idea, grandkid of activists. Protests are in the air. The Protestor was just named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
But as I watch cars stream past my house this morning, as I myself turn to my vehicle in the cold and the rain, as I consider how we are creatures of cultural habits and patterns (currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers), as I tap out these words … I wonder how to answer AppleApple’s anxious question: What can she do? Is there anything we can really do? Really? Beyond hope and pray and protest and write and try and hope some more? Life is so damn short. A second ago I was twelve; blink, and my daughter is nine–and what’s changed?
But that’s not how the conversation ended last night. Somehow, it ended with us going around the table taking turns trying to fake laugh. You should try this at home. In fact, you must. Don’t think about it too hard; just give it a shot. It will give you hope. Because even the most ridiculous half-hearted attempt will turn genuine in about two seconds when everyone else joins in.
**Notes on the rooms.
My office has nothing on its walls. And we’re using my old crappy furniture. But it’s serene, austere, and dare I say perfect as is. I may not change a thing. Yesterday as we worked to move and rearrange four different rooms, I found myself taking moments to sit in my great-aunt Alice’s rocking chair and look at the brick and the lights and the height, and to breathe.
AppleApple and Kevin created a bookshelf from the old costume bureau. An awesome repurposing project. I love that she has The Bible arranged beside other favourites like Bone, Misty of Chincoteague, and Children of War (the latter being a wonderful book that she keeps recommending her big brother read, as way of encouraging him to stop playing imaginary games with exploding bombs.)
The new bunk bed in the little kids’ room is a marvel of design. We found it on kijiji, and it’s not of the best material, but heck, it was available and in our price range. It’s a t-shape, and CJ sleeps in what amounts to a little cozy cave. On one end is a desk with shelves and a built-in light. Bureau drawers are built in to the other end, along with a set of deep shelves. I still can’t believe how different that room looks.
My step-mother figured out how to make a comfy couch out of the guest futon under Albus’s bed. We’ve had the darn thing for about a decade and never knew it was possible. Neither Kevin nor I could understand her explanation (apparently it was very simple.) We’ve decided she operates on a higher level than us. My dad also loaned his muscles and back to the moving. It wouldn’t have gotten done without their help. I’ve gone all wimpy now that I’m running. I keep telling Kevin, I’m a runner, not a weight-lifter. I don’t want to injure myself.
Yet to be done today: painting, or at least prepping for painting; cleaning; and our living-room. I stole that beautiful wooden cabinet for my office from the living-room, and somehow that had a domino effect of toppling the entire room into a disaster zone. You know it’s a disaster zone if the smallest members of your family tell you: “This room is a mess!” Uh, yeah. We’re making use of kijiji to source a few more items. Kijiji is my new favourite virtual place. I’ve been inspired to post a few items for sale, too. If I get organized, I’ll post the entire contents of our attic. My inspiration, in part, came from this blog on the zero-waste home. (And no, we’re nowhere near zero. But hope springs eternal.)
Yesterday morning, I carried my three-year-old to nursery school, nearly one kilometre away, in the rain. Why? Well, he wasn’t in a walking mood, that’s why he was on my back. But the reason I was walking was bare bones basic: I didn’t have a car at my disposal; Kevin had an early appointment to which he needed to drive. About six months ago, as part of our family’s Green Dream plan, we downsized to one vehicle. Are we a greener family than before? Yes, mostly because having fewer options forces us to make different choices.
Such as carrying a kid on my back in the rain to nursery school.
Listen, if I could have driven, I would have. I’d been up early swimming, I’d gotten four kids fed and organized and three of them out the door. That left one little guy, and he couldn’t get to school by himself. I wanted my quick restorative morning nap. It was too wet to fire up the bike stroller. If there had been a vehicle in the driveway, would I have chosen to walk? Not a chance. So the omission of the vehicle itself is feeding into the success of our Green Dreams. It’s so easy to take the easy route when it’s easily available.
Sometimes, I’m grumpy about it. If you see a bedraggled woman, surrounded by a pile of kids in raincoats, shaking her fist at you as you drive by, think of me. In fact, hey, that is me! And yes, I just cursed you and your car for blocking my family’s passage across the street. Or maybe just for being inside a warm dry moving vehicle. Sorry. It’s wet out here. And we’re moving so slowly.
I am not a naturally patient person, but do subscribe to the notion that by walking (or biking) rather than whisking along inside the sealed world of the car, I am experiencing life differently. Out here, I know the weather. I know the seasons. I know the geography. Plus, I have to leave on time, or I’ll definitely be late. There is no such thing as breaking the speed limit when walking with four children.
But here’s my confession: you’ll still see me in a car pretty frequently these days (maybe that was you shaking your fist at me.) We do have ONE after all and I can’t imagine life without it. Well, I can, but life would include a whole lot less soccer. There are no direct bus lines to either of the two sports facilities that draw members of our family upwards of nine times a week. One is 5.5km away, the other is 9km. In other words, not terribly far, and probably biking distance (though not for short legs on tiny bicycles); but in addition to there being no direct bus routes, there is also no safe bike path to either place (not to mention, as the season changes, we’d be biking after dark.)
It’s one thing to complain about this, but another to ask: Would we choose to bike or ride public transit if it were an option? And truthfully, I think we would not. Not unless we had to. Because we’re usually in a hurry. We’re dropping one kid here, and racing to get another there. We’re cutting corners, juggling schedules, trying to cheat time. Having a car allows us to schedule our lives in a way that cannot be transposed into a car-free life.
So, I’m resigned to carrying some Green Guilt. In fact, our family’s increasingly busy sports schedule also means we consume more water than we used to. I’m telling you. The laundry. Wash those socks as quickly as possible! I hang everything to dry, with the exception of giant loads of towels, which tend to go in the drier. But still. Green, it ain’t.
Maybe it was the Green Guilt over the car and the sports that led me to introduce our latest experiment: we’ve gone vegetarian at home. We are neither buying nor cooking meat (with the exception of seafood, on occasion). The kids are missing ham on their sandwiches, and I am constantly brainstorming ways to get more protein into all of us (like starting the day with eggs for breakfast). And if a grandparent invites us for a meal that includes meat, we’re happy to eat it up. But at home, we’re meat-free. It’s been about a month, and I’m sticking to it, despite the odd complaint, because a meatless diet is one sure-fire way to shrink a family’s ecological footprint. And we’ve got such a big (sweaty) one. We’ve got to try.
Even if it means grumpy walks in the rain. And children fantasizing about summer sausage.