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.