A little green amongst the browns.
"I understand you're living green' ..." states Brooke, one of my son's friends.
So many images crowded my mind that I can hardly respond. I look at Brooke across the elegant white damask tablecloth on the terrace of the Seawatch Restaurant. The Maui setting sun spills across the Pacific Ocean framing beautiful, dark-haired Brooke. The undulating hills of Wailea Golf Club cascade down to sea.
We're attending my son's destination wedding. Here we are--40-plus friends and family, celebrating Jeff and Angela's wedding which had just taken place on Poolenalena Beach.
The irony of where this question is asked is not lost on me.
Juxtapose to this Hawaiian paradise, complete with heavily cultured and chemically sprayed grass, is the image of my humble Midwestern cottage overlooking my serene five-acre pond 1 1/2 hours from downtown Chicago. My cottage is surrounded by organic gardens gone awry, seemingly-uncared-for woods along two creeks, and swamp willows growing uncontrollably around the pond. Then there's the fact that I have chosen to omit a well and septic system for my rustic cottage.
My land. Where--instead of an elegant hotel room with a view of the ocean and an adjoining bathroom for long luxurious showers--a three-minute shower under the plastic of my $40 greenhouse is considered a luxury. Where water for drinking and cooking is imported from a neighbor in five-gallon containers. Where using three gallons of water a day or 21 gallons of water a week is considered a lot.
These images crowded my mind, clear and stark. Yet I feel at home and comfortable in both places, as if there were no difference in them at all.
How do I explain all these thoughts to Brooke? That I'm not a "feral cat" as my older sister feared when I sold my elegant home in Lake Oswego, Oregon and returned to "The Land" my late husband and I owned since 1973. That my dear friend Harry MacCormack, a retired professor at Oregon State University and co-founder of Oregon Tilth, helped me build a cottage during one month in the summer of 2000. That, even as rustic as it is, my cottage is a huge step up from the 9 x 12 outbuilding I had used for temporary shelter when visiting my property through the years ... and a much larger step up from the original tent I used. Two-thousand miles apart from Lake Oswego and 2,000 miles apart in terms of what is considered "conventional." If this is what Brooke considers "green," then green I am, and happily so.
"Ah ... " I stammer as I try to answer Brooke's question.
Speaking of conventional ... in Illinois I am surrounded by conventional farmers who consider my small organic acreage and my sustainable lifestyle as "freakish." They snicker ... make jokes and lack any sensibilities and sensitivity to anything that is different from them. I just smile. These are the same people whose right of passage every year was reconfirmed by former House Speaker "Deny" Hastert (the very personification of "agri-biz" both personally and congressionally) riding in his big antique fire truck during Paw Paw's Labor Day Parade, bestowing candy to the kids along the sidewalks of this town of 850 people.
"Ahmm ... "
But am I really living "green?" In comparison to the sea of brown that occurs when herbicides and pesticides are heavily sprayed on weeds and "bugs"--bad bugs as well as good bugs--I am definitely living "green." Let's face it, conventional farmers can not call themselves "green" when they spray insecticides and herbicides on their fields, no matter how green the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) corn and soybeans grow. And no matter how many wind turbines they erect.
But am I living green?
I still use too much gasoline for my mowing tractor. I still use too much gasoline for my farm truck. My 1991 Ford Explorer with an odometer reading of 362,000 miles gets more miles-per-gallon than a real farm truck and is definitely needed to fetch supplies and organic plants. I console myself with the fact my car sometimes gets 20 miles to the gallon. That's got to be better than a Chevy Silverado 3/4 ton truck that gets 12 mpg, but still ....
Of course I'm not really living "green"--especially in a rural area where one has to drive 45 minutes at the minimum to get to "civilization" to buy the necessary tractor parts or buy organic groceries. And though my cottage is self-sustainable with wood heat for the cast iron stove, the wood smoke doesn't exactly leave a small carbon footprint.
Vivacious, idealistic Brooke still waits for my answer as we eat the Kula Greens Salad of organic greens, vine-ripened tomatoes, and shaved Maui onions with herb vinaigrette. We look forward to the entrees we've opted from three choices:
* Broiled Chicken breast with roasted garlic mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, garden vegetables, and Burgundy Demi-Glace
* Filet Mignon of Beef Tenderloin with roasted garlic mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet Maui Onion Confit with a Burgundy DemiGlace
* Macadamia Crusted Island Fish, with Jasmine rice, garden vegetables, with a Lemongrass Butter Sauce.
Perhaps I'm being much too critical of myself. How many other 61-year-olds live with no well or septic, yet manage (quite easily I must say) to look "so cosmopolitan" as one visiting surprised suburbanite said.
How many other people grow "organically" in my area? A few now, thank goodness, but they aren't thought of very highly either. The organic farmers and gardeners "make" the adjoining conventional farmers use more caution than they want to when spraying their death-inducing chemicals.
These same "brown" farmers feel they have a macho duty to "feed the world," but in reality they've really been "systematically killing the world," at least according to Yvonne Frost, the venerable past executive director of Oregon Tilth, a premiere organic certifying organization.
I realize I'm a fly in their ointment--or to be fair to Brooke--I'm a little bit of "green" in their sea of "brown."
It's strange to the "browns" that I take my bath in the pond with Dr. Bonner's soap or in the greenhouse, all according to the seasons.
It's strange to the "browns' that I bury my waste in the ground where it instantly begins its organic composting process to improve the soil--so far from the natural world the "browns" have separated themselves.
It's strange to the "browns" that anyone would follow the seasons except how they do it. And they do it by getting out the plows and 16-row planters in the spring, heavily dousing the once-rich-microbial soil with their arsenal of 'cides and planting thousands of acres with GMO corn and soybeans. They buy GMO seeds because these magical seeds supposedly cut down the need for chemical spraying. Yet I haven't noticed conventional farmers spraying less.
Never mind the GMO seeds are sterile and you must buy more from Monsanto every year.
There is always some bug or weed the farmers are obsessing about--and who can blame them? If I planted a thousand acres of one type of plant, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. I would be half crazy for fear that something--insects, hail, heat, too much rain, not enough rain--something would ruin everything I had planted. In order to protect my thousand-acre-single-commodity-investment I would grab at anything anyone talked me into.
My mind has wandered. Brooke is still waiting for my answer.
I can't get the "brown's-view-of-the-season" out of my head. The next time we see the farmers is in autumn--harvest time. Out once again their gigantic hulk-like reaping machines appear, along with huge semi-trucks. Every self-respecting farmer has to have at least one semi with his name painted on the cab door.
The country roads are once again usurped by sprawling, creeping monster machines who demand the entire roadway. How old-fashioned of me to yearn for a small John Deere, Farmall or Case tractor that can so easily pull off the road to let a line of cars go by.
Car drivers know we only have to patiently put up with these mechanical behemoths a few weeks in spring and a few weeks in the fall, and then it's over. After all, in this part of the country these conventional "browns" with the gigantic tractors are the norm. The "or-GAN-ic" farmers (as they like to call us) are freaks.
"Who am I to talk?" I think to myself as I look at Brooke. My living "green" is so flawed ... so, perhaps, I shouldn't throw criticism around. Yet I know there is nothing--no thing--on my land and in my soil that will hurt the natural order of things. And that's a comforting feeling--not only to me--but to all the creatures, plants, and trees on my land.
Harry says, "It doesn't matter where you do it, just so you do it." Harry is referring to the unceasing work/love of living with nature--working with the seasons, working with the soil. Amending the soil with healthy compost and keeping it's "tilth" (the quality of cultivated soil) loamy and teeming with earthworms, healthy fungi and bacteria. This includes having beneficial plants and trees for the good bugs to live in (an Insectory). Even if it means letting the "brown-hated" milkweed plant sprout up in your garden for the monarch butterfly. It means allowing the roadside ditches to grow into pheasant-rich places to live. It means showing the connection between healthy soil producing healthy food, which in turn, produces healthy people.
I conjure up how I would be living on my organic land if I were home right now instead of enjoying this Maui moment; how this autumn evening looks and feels at my humble cottage. The night would be cool and crisp, with a full moon rising. The pond shimmers in the moonlight; a barn owl hoots in the cottonwood tree near Willow Creek. The pond is ringed by the cottonwoods, already bare of leaf. Underneath the tall cottonwoods, colorful mulberry and wild black cherry trees line the edge of the pond. The breeze isn't warm and caressing like Maui, but Midwesterners like me are thankful for the 60-degree weather. The breeze is invigorating and wistful as only autumn in the Midwest can be. We know what is coming.
If I were inside my cottage I would be washing dishes. I heat up water on my stove and pour the boiling water over the dirty dishes in the dishpan. Every time I wash my dishes, it feels like a timeless act, not something strange or freakish, but something completely ... right.
I think of the piles of wood I have under tarp--oak in one pile with a lot of "overnighters." Mulberry, walnut, cherry, some apple and elm in another pile. Small apple and walnut branches for kindling under another tarp--all dry and cured. Having a good-sized dry wood pile is an incredible feeling. I'm not connected to any grid with my heating supply, so come what may, I can heat with wood and light with candles. I can put my homemade cabbage/sausage soup on the woodstove and eat well.
The woodstove and flue are cleaned. Sand has been added to the bottom of the stove as an added protection against hot fires. Stove cement is used to close up any holes in the woodstove making it more air-tight. The final act in this yearly preparation is the application of high-heat black stove paint. Now it's all ready for its first fire, but that will have to wait until the Indian summer weather is suddenly blown out by a cold north wind.
As I picture myself sitting in the lawn chair (soon to be put away) overlooking the pond on this quiet autumn eve, I know what most people don't. My way of living "green" is satisfying. I love each season--the summer when watering my gardens with pond water and swimming in the pond defines my life. I love the winter with a hot oak fire in the wood stove radiating out such cozy warmth as I bathe near the stove, and put on a clean flannel nightgown. The curling up with a good book--ah! There is nothing better. Living "green"--my way--is a deeply satisfying life.
I chuckle as I think of a favorite saying sent to me by a friend: "Today's mighty oak is just yesterday's nut that held its ground." If I'm a "freak," so be it. I can at least consider myself a "green freak!"
I'm happy with how I've chosen to live amongst the conventional "browns" who use unsustainable practices with 'cide written on everything they spray on their plants, into their soils, into the air and into our water.
The more I live "green"--and I'm still striving to do more, like building a straw bale home on my land--the less harm will come to the earth. This earth ... my Earth.
The Maui sunset has turned into a quiet darkness. I look across the candlelit table as the Macadamia Crusted Island Fish--mouthwatering MahiMahi--is placed in front of me.
"Yes, Brooke, I'm living 'green.'"
Brook nods her head, "I think that's so cool." She smiles.
I smile, too.
Jane (Archer) Heim is a writer and lifelong activist for sustainable living and organic growing. She is author of The Directory of Working Women (1978-1982), What to Do When the Stock Market Falls (1996), and Car Living Your Way: Stories and Practical Tips from Those Who Have Been Down the Road (2001). Ms. Heim originated and developed the Organic Education center for Oregon Tilth in partnership with the City of Lake Oswego, Oregon. She presently lives and writes in the Midwest in her cottage overlooking her pond at Willow Creek Organic Farm.