Drying Out

There are days when I wonder why we even bother trying to live in a way that produces less waste. Does it really matter, I sometimes ask myself, if I don’t buy the bag of chips or the new hair clip or whatever else it is I want so badly? Almost everything in our culture – from the aisles lined with spiffily packaged food to the promise of the American Dream – tells me that the answer is no. In fact, there are days when not buying my kid crackers seems downright ridiculous.

But more and more, what’s absurd isn’t my cart of rye flour and raisins in muslin bags. What’s absurd are those bursting aisles of boxes and bags and cans and jars that seem less like a source of sustenance and more like a clean and well lit landfill. I don’t see the food anymore, just the waste.

The rushing river of consumerism moves so quickly, with so much force, that when we are caught in it, it is almost impossible to tell how carried away we’ve become. Without making this commitment to living without plastic for even a few months, it would have been close to impossible for me to sit on the banks, watching all the cool stuff get swept by.

I feel, sometimes, like one of the addicts I used to nurse at the hospital. Just as I start drying out from that rushing river you might call Modern Consumer Culture, I start asking what’s one small hit/bag of chips going to do? I’m ready to jump back into the current, to get swept away again.

Because of that vow, I am discovering ways to drown out the all-pervasive voice of culture and advertising and a whole lifetime of pretty much getting what I want. And I look at that bag of chips and ask two new questions: How was the earth harmed to make this? How will the earth be harmed when I throw it away?

I can’t always articulate an answer, but the gist of it steers me back to the bulk food aisle, or home to do some knitting, or for a walk on the land. Like any addict, I sometimes ask the higher power for help. The moment passes. And I feel relieved to be sitting out the deluge, drying out little by little.


May this (and every) small act

build in my heart and spill forth,

transforming my hands and mind

into tools of service.

May it grow

like the dry river in springtime,

fed by waters that can no longer be contained.

Let it begin humbly

and become strong.

May it lead to more and larger acts,

until this good work is done.

The night still,

the moon rising.

Good Hair (for the earth)

So, here’s One Small Change I’ll be making this month (see yesterday’s post for details): I’m going to stop using commercial shampoo and conditioner. See, small! I’ve been buying shampoo in bulk for a while, but am too cheap to buy the really pure, really expensive kind. I did a little research at this site that does cosmetic safety reviews, and my “natural” shampoo rated a 6 out of 10, i.e. moderately toxic. Yuck. There’s a child in the house and I’m still using parabens? Double yuck. What’s bad for us is doubtlessly bad for the earth. Between the petroleum and chemicals that go into making most body care products, even so called organic ones, I know this is one area where I can do better.

Now, perhaps you are looking carefully at this picture and thinking, girl, good luck cause your hair’s a mess. All I’m saying is maybe we’d been camping for a while, or maybe this was my baking soda shampoo phase. Who can remember. Either way, I’m sure there’s an explanation. Moving on to the next level of DIY body care, I mixed up a batch of this shampoo from Rosemary Gladstar’s book Herbs for Natural Beauty:

8 oz strong herbal tea.

3 oz liquid castile soap.

1/4 tsp jojoba oil

ten drops essential oil.

For the tea I used rosemary and yerba de la negrita, a local plant renowned as a hair rinse. Nettles or a mallow family plant would also be great. If I was fair haired I might have used chamomile instead of rosemary. The results, so far, are heavenly. My hair feels clean and light, while retaining the natural oils most shampoo strips away. For conditioner I use a blend of 3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar in 3 cups water. The vinegar smell washes out completely, and the results are, again, surprisingly wonderful and nourishing.

Like many of the small and large changes we’ve been making these days, what at first seems like a sacrifice ends up feeling like an indulgence. Which is the beauty of all these changes. We are making them for the earth, yes, but also for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Which is really all one and the same, no?

Update 2011: Just wanted to add that this is still going, and that what I found worked best in the end was using a baking soda rinse (3 tbsp baking soda mixed with a pint or so of water), then the castile shampoo, then the vinegar rinse.

Why Bother?

Anybody else feeling a bit dismayed about the poor showing of the carbon spewing USA over there in Copenhagen? I sputter, sometimes, while listening to the news, with its moments of both inspiration and doom. How can our country so blatantly disregard its responsibilities, blithely neglecting the well being of humanity? An interview on Democracy Now with a 15 year old climate ambassador from the Maldives stopped me cold the other day. “Would you commit murder?” he asked. “On the basis that you know what you’re doing is wrong and you can see that the victim is begging for mercy and for you to stop what you’re doing, yeah, would you commit murder?” He goes on to point out that the excesses of many countries, and the individual inhabitants of those countries, is destroying the homes and lives of people all over the world.

While I wish our leaders would Do the Right Thing, that doesn’t stop me from choosing to find my way to that place personally. Wendell Berry writes that we have a moral imperative to acknowledge what he calls the crisis of character that is at the root of climate change. “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear,” he says, “then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

For each of us, that effort will be unique. What matters is that we begin it, in both small and large ways. That we take every conceivable step towards a life in which we cease choosing our own comfort and ease over the basic survival of our fellow man. For us, this means choosing simplicity in all of its blessed abundance. It means returning to the basics of homemade food, used clothes and housewares, local foods, and reducing our use of energy and oil in every way we can. In many ways this is the beginning of a new life for us, one that is both transformative and restorative. As citizens, re-orienting our daily lives to such a compass will help steer our nation and world into a sustainable future.

::Check out the Hopenahgen website for a bit of the silver lining of the climate talks, that is, the millions of people from every corner of the globe sharing their hope and transforming it into collective action.

Fierce Hope

We spent Thanksgiving with my folks at their house on the edge of the mountains. Watching my parents with their first grandchild, my daughter, made me hope with all the power in my body that my own grandchildren know a world as beautiful as the one we live in. And that they can look forward to sharing the ponderosas and magpies, the rivers and coyotes and the smell of sage with their descendants.

But all that fierce hope isn’t going to bring future about. Did you hear the news last week that climate change is “accelerating beyond expectation” while the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening has fallen from 80% to 72%? We can hope all we want that this situation gets turned around, but without personal action to feed that hope we can easily succumb to the dangerous side of hope: complacency.

Hoping that the UN or scientists or the president or environmentalists will do the right thing and steer humanity back into a sustainable balance, is, well, hopeless. We can’t just hope that a better day is coming. We’ve got to make sure that is does. It’s up to us to face the abyss (yep, it’s bleak out there), and then lift our hands to act anyways.

It’s up to us to reclaim our humanity, to do everything in our power and sometimes more to live in balance. We must choose, over and over and over, to be careful about what we buy and eat and throw away and even what we do, so that the least harm is inflicted on the planet. And then we can hope. Hope with our whole hearts that all that will make a difference.

If I’m lucky enough to meet my daughter’s children, or their children, I want to be able to tell them that I lived with them in mind. That I bled, sweat, and cried to change my unsustainable ways. I’ll tell them how my hope that all that work would pay off was what got me out of bed each day, looking for the simplest, most effective and heartfelt solution I could find to the daunting task at hand.

For suggestions on small and large things you might invest your hope in click here.

The Personal is Political

Thoughts on Symbolic Action: Part One

“WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?”

So begins Derrick Jensen’s provocative article on personal versus political action in a recent issue of Orion Magazine.

Maybe Jensen’s call to large-scale action is actually filled with subliminal messages that inspire personal change, because since I read it and began a mental argument with it I’ve taken the plunge into actively reducing my footprint. Have I ever for a minute thought that my efforts, so enormous to me yet impossibly miniscule to the planet, would actually make a difference beyond the walls of my home? Not really. But the funny thing is, they do.

Our decision might be symbolic in that it is a mere drop in the churning ocean of politics, economics, and social inequalities that contribute to the systematic destruction of the planet. But like the oak groves that can’t be blown over because of their intertwined roots, our small action is strong because it is linked to all the actions that came before, and all that will come after. It has its origins in the work of the thousands of individuals – be they peacemakers, defenders of nature, fighters for social justice, or parents and teachers – whose convictions changed their own lives and grew outward from there.

No matter how insignificant I might feel some days, I am not alone. You’re here with me, too, after all. And countless others, across the planet and stretching back into history, when so many other great struggles were triumphed over. I agree wholeheartedly that we all need to do much, much more than we are. For me, though, the challenge isn’t to transform “the system” but our smallness in the face of it. Despair and isolation are what we really need to rise up against. Hope and imagination, and faith in their power to overcome the most powerful odds, those are the seeds of symbolic action. Once that seed begins growing in our hearts we are well on the way to changing our lives, and the world we inhabit.

What we then feel led to do, in our communities and beyond, well, we can take that path when our feet reach it. For now I’m like so many others, just walking. I’ve left the land of my complacency, and set out with no other aim but to find the way to my own truth, and maybe even a better world. And from there, who knows. Total system overhaul, we can hope.

So, Mr. Jensen. Good points but here’s your major mistake (to paraphrase Margaret Mead): Doubting that a small group of ass-kickers can change the world. Haven’t you heard that that’s the only thing that ever has?

And how dare you underestimate the power of composting.