Conservation wisdom of my grandmothers

I was at dinner last night with Mike. When our waiter brought us two styrofoam boxes to pack up our leftovers, I could have kicked myself.

“If I’d just remembered to bring some tupperware in my purse….” I groaned.

Mike, of course, spent the rest of the evening telling me that the polar ice caps were going to melt away to nothing because of my neglect.

“We’re all going to die,” he teased me with his sullen expression as he loaded black beans and rice into the styrofoam container. “If only you’d brought tupperware. Global warming is all your fault.”

So instead of kicking myself, I kicked him.

I honestly don’t remember if either of my grandmothers carried plastic bags or empty food containers in their purses, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve been thinking lately — especially in the midst of this global recession — about how much more we could have learned from our Depression-era grandparents about real day-to-day conservation, if we’d only been paying attention.

My grandmothers were thrifty not just with money, but with resources. Yes, this made for old bank boxes full of pieces of string that were too short to be immediately useful but too long to simply throw away, and for cabinets dedicated to the collection of paper bags.

But it also meant that newspapers were for more than just reading in the morning — old newsprint could be used to wrap gifts, make children’s craft projects, line the kitchen table when carving pumpkins or watermelons, serve as kindling when lighting a fire, and more.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I followed in my grandmothers’ footsteps when I was a child — and became a hopeless pack-rat. I had such difficulty throwing anything away — sun-bleached construction paper, empty glue bottles, random pieces of yarn and ribbon, the last bit of an eraser — because I was convinced that I could find a use for everything, somewhere down the road, even if I had no idea what that might look like.

Modern America worships youth culture, coveting what’s hip and new to the point that tried-and-true wisdom is stodgy and wrinkles are embarrassing and ugly. But Native American, Japanese, and other traditions place a strong emphasis on honoring ancestors, and on asking guidance from those who have come before us.

New is not always better. Hip is not always wise. What is considered must-have and cutting-edge today may make use of state-of-the-art technology and design, but a lot of it is still made of cheap plastic — destined for landfills where growing mounds of garbage compete with increasing human populations just for livable space.

So many of my grandparents’ material possessions, from appliances to pieces of clothing, were considerably more expensive — or more “dear,” as my mother’s mother would say — than today’s equivalents are for us. Sweaters and mixing bowls were treated with more care, because they were not as easily replaced. Of course, these items were also made a lot better — hardier — than goods are today, but I’m wondering what our world might look like if we didn’t treat our possessions as so temporary, replaceable, disposable.

The world might look something like what we’ve been experiencing this last year or two — where we have to hold onto our possessions longer and get more use out of them, because we don’t have as much (or sometimes any) disposable income to buy replacements. We’re being forced to learn — often painfully — that we really can be quite happy, possibly even happier, with less.

Even though I’d already learned to save used gift wrap and have at least one drawer full of reusable plastic shopping bags (they’re great as trash bags or for picking up after the dog on walks), I’m finding more ways to be even more of a conservationist, both financially and environmentally. Like using baking soda instead of commercial cleansers when scrubbing the sink and replacing other cleaning products with home-made white vinegar mixes. Watering the plants with grey-water from the sink or tub. Repurposing an old, leaky garden hose as a soaker hose that conserves water and prolongs the useful life of the rubber.

And trying to get into the habit of carrying tupperware in my purse, instead of using styrofoam.

Yes, most of what I hoarded as a child was junk — leftover bits of cheap stuff that I never did find a use for. I’m still learning how to not amass so much disposable crap to begin with, to purchase only what I truly need, to re-use and repurpose what I can, to share what I no longer have a use for and to accept others’ still usable cast-offs as well.

I can’t ask my grandmothers how they would weather the current financial and resource crisis. My mother’s mother died in 1997, and my father’s mother died this past January, just a few months shy of her 103rd birthday. But the best advice they could give is already found in the lives they lived and the lessons of conservation they taught in their every day actions.

I wish I’d been paying more attention. And so I am more mindful of my own attitudes and behaviors, knowing that young eyes of the next generation are watching me and learning from the example of my own life. I just hope I can do justice to the wisdom of my grandmothers as it passes to those who follow.


The environment and the Law of Return

I had been thinking of offering a list today of my favorite “green” folks on Twitter, until I got this message from’s GreenScope:

The law of karma gets restated in a hundred different ways. In environmental terms, it’s simple: whatever you do will literally come back to you. So look for cleaning products that can go safely into the water supply system. Baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice work on almost anything and are completely biodegradable.

I’d written previously about green cleaning products — and yes, baking soda, white vinegar and lemon juice make for some excellent “mean green clean.” Apart from the elimination of toxic chemicals from your home environment (commercial cleaners are full of the stuff) and the fact that make-at-home cleaners are also friendlier to your wallet, it’s absolutely true that homemade green cleaning products are easier on our landfills and water treatment centers.

Instant karma’s gonna get you.
—John Lennon

We do reap what we sow. The impact of our chemically-dependent — for lack of a better term — lifestyles is showing up in our waterways and fish populations, in everything from algae blooms to reduced fertility rates. And I don’t have a comprehensive list of all of the chemicals and other materials that waste water treatment facilities are able to filter out, but I don’t imagine they’re able to scrub the water of absolutely everything.

In Wicca and other branches of Neo-Paganism, the Law of Three states that whatever you send out into the world will come back to you three-fold. This admonition is aimed against the practice of questionable spells — usually curses and the like — but can also be effectively applied to day-to-day living.

Do I want to treat the Earth with respect, and then have this same consideration returned to me three-fold? Yes, please. Do I want to trash the planet and then have three times that level of destruction visited upon me? Not so much, no.

There’s a split in the scientific community over whether global warming is a reality — which I don’t understand. There’s also a split amongst those who recognize that climate change is indeed happening, between those who attribute environmental impact to human beings and those who believe it’s a natural, cyclical phenomenon.

I’m in the “yes, climate change is real, and humans have contributed to it,” camp. And I believe we are dealing now with the consequences of the quick rise of industry and technology from generations past (alongside rampant consumption of natural resources) with no heed given to environmental impact — and that future generations will continue to deal with those problems as well as with whatever additional damage we do today. The results of the solutions that we come up with now may not really be felt until after our lifetimes, but that’s the environmental legacy we leave for those who come after us.

Karma can be a bitch, but it can also be a blessing. You get back from it what you put into it. We just have to figure out what kind of environmental return we want to have visited — perhaps even three-fold — upon our descendants.

Meditation rocks

In 1992, a Native American shaman recommended that I gather several pounds of stones and put them into a bag — and then hold this bag in my lap when I meditated. This was to ground me — literally — and to help get me out of my head and into my body, to more consciously and deeply feel my connection to the Earth.

It was a great suggestion, and not just because I went overboard with it. The shaman had suggested I collect about five or six pounds of stones. Instead, I gathered close to twenty pounds of river rocks into a pillow case, and meditated with them in my lap for several years.

I’m not quite sure when I fell out of that habit, but I gradually started meditating without my bag of rocks — and after a while just stopped meditating. I’ve made numerous attempts since then to get back into regular practice. Looking back, I see that the only times I really got back into a routine meditation practice for any length of time was when stones were involved.

For example, I made myself a string of prayer beads in 2000. I went to Bangles and Beads in Carytown (Richmond, Virginia) for fifty-four labradorite beads and one carved jade bead to act as the guru bead. I spent several hours stringing the beads, knotting the silk cord between each one. After the guru bead went on, I attached a silver charm — an ankh — instead of a tassel.

(To learn more about stringing prayer beads, read Bead Here Now, which I wrote for Spirituality & Health.)

Meditating with that mala in my hands — whether counting the beads in mantra repetition or just feeling the cool, smooth weight of the beads against my skin — always sets me straight. But I sometimes get out of the habit of reaching for them.

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed that I’ve wanted turquoise or other polished stone in my hands when I sit in meditation. But that wasn’t enough. I knew what I needed.

I took an old purse over to my boyfriend’s house, and I collected about ten pounds of river rocks.

If you want to meditate on the planet and on the environment, I don’t know any better way to get in touch with the Earth than to literally have a piece of it with you. Rocks are older than we are, and these same stones that aid my meditation now will be around long after I’m gone. But for the time being, they are my partners in prayer, my companions of contemplation — and probably some other keen turns of alliterative phrase, too.

To be really hokey…. Meditation rocks with my meditation rocks. 😉