As flood waters overtake several small towns in Nebraska and cause mandatory water restrictions to be imposed on our capital city, it seems like a good time to reflect on choices I made last spring to grow my family’s commitment to green living.
E-GO. That’s actually the name of the mower. Does that “E” stand for Electric or Environmental? It must do double-duty. My cordless, electric lawn mower has exceeded all my expectations, and I confess they were pretty high. A few posts back I talked about hiring out care of my yard and how it had caused me to lose connection to the landscape.
Taking back mowing was the obvious solution but I couldn’t see myself hauling the gas mower back to the shop where I knew they’d rehabilitate it at considerable expense and I’d have to replace the bag the squirrels had feasted on after having consumed a nearly full bag of Kingsford charcoal (including the bag itself). This delay would be followed by some number of successful though hot and fume-filled mows after which I would face the dreaded NO-GO where the pull-start mower suddenly refuses to pull-start.
Research and reviews led me to the E-GO. The reviews were numerous, so numerous and so detailed and positive. Some reviewers had even posted video clips of them using their mower — a sort of, “I know you won’t believe what I am saying unless you can see it (and hear it)”.
I wanted to join this club of E-GO mowers. I couldn’t believe my luck — that very product carried in stock just down the road.
I chose the self-propelled model because my husband urged me to — “you shouldn’t have to injure yourself to mow” he reminded me. Oh. Yeah. Mowing is not penance. The first time I mowed, I felt almost giddy. The caregiver of my neighbor wandered over from the driveway to our south, “What’s that?” Of course she knew it was a mower but how could it be so quiet — like one of the reviews said, issuing the purr of a large box fan?
I actually watched for the grass to grow enough so that I could mow again. The battery held up impressively through each mowing of our considerable yard (by city standards).
My compost pile grew, layered with waste from the kitchen and some decent rains. My daughter dubbed the newly established compost pile “cute” and was sunk in reverie about the old compost pile from her childhood, towering, bound by chicken wire, and into which she and the neighbor boy would clamber and jump, jump, jump the same way my father and his younger brother stamped down shredded cabbage and brine for sour cabbage heads in the fall up in Kinney, Minnesota (a tiny town with a big distinction).
Those jumping boys from Kinney are on my mind right now as I continue transferring taped oral histories to digital files from two uncles and one aunt from Up North. Cabbage figured heavily in all their minds — nobody grew cabbage as large, round and firm as they did…a slurry of manure and water, poured by hand at the base of each plant, was the secret. Connection to the land was a matter of survival.
Ironically, adjacent to their home, the taconite mines growled and consumed the wooded north country. Its immigrant workers, my paternal grandfather among them, toiled long and brutal hours in an environment threaded with asbestos that led to their premature deaths. Intolerable pain, like that of many present-day coal miners, led to alcohol dependence rather than opioid addiction but the trajectory was somewhat similar.
During prohibition, my paternal grandmother made “moon” for him, the name given to bootleg alcohol distilled by the light of the moon, just as she labored over thick soups and humble bread and sarma by the panful. Plums from Oregon, fermented, boiled into mash and distilled in the basement (until the setup had to be relocated to evade detection) were as essential to my grandfather as food.
The wholesale plundering of natural resources with attendant health damage followed by mediation of that damage were normalized for my dad as a youngster. Perhaps this is why he greeted news of the massive flooding in Nebraska with less alarm than I thought was warranted. “All that snow from the mountains is melting,” he mused. Of course if that were the cause, we’d be accustomed to whole towns, bridges and dams being consumed by the spring melt. We aren’t.
Far from the coastal U.S., we in the heart of the nation are likewise experiencing weather extremes predicted by well-researched and commonly available models of the costly disruption of climate change. Unusually large and frequent snowfall and rain coupled with wildly variant temperatures wreaks its own havoc. The excess moisture of course comes from somewhere if the water cycle children are still taught about in elementary school is valid. A few years ago, I began to associate heavy snow with dislocation of polar bear habitat and this poem arose:
May Day / Christine Hope Davis
Did you notice snow
bank Minneapolis, and Philadelphia,
bury and re-bury and re-bury
Kansas City, sock New York’s canyons
of commerce, see it shrivel
the pink-fingered rhododendrons
that rim Asheville? Did you
notice it bruise the tulips in Omaha?
Could you make out my claws
thrashing North even as I spun sugar
snow on descent, even
as my belly cried seal
Piles of it flaked
off my back as I balanced on my puck
of ice. You cursed every inch I could not
spare. And I, loving ice, watched
bergs subside month by month, watched them rise
in swollen clouds. What remained
but to plunge the half ton of me into the front many fronts,
and brandish my own body an arctic flag
in the face of my enemy?
I know enough
to die trying.
My lone, rechargeable, electric mower is not going to make any appreciable difference and yet I was following the choice of a neighbor and I tend to believe the words of Albert Einstein, spoken in 1953, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” He wasn’t talking about climate change of course, but of the horrors uncovered in the wake of the Holocaust. Consider how radical his statement was. In the wake of so much “doing” of evil, he argued that it was inaction by so many that we had to fear most, inaction that made the world most dangerous. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed this in his Letter from Birmingham Jail ten years later, a letter in which he excoriates the majority of white liberals for their complacency and “donothingness” regarding the civil rights movement.
How different is complacency about climate change than that displayed in either of these critical passages of (in)humanity? How costly is donothingness for us in this century?
Long before Einstein was born, an English clergyman, Sydney Smith, born in 1771 said, “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little – do what you can.”
A young woman, Vera Günther, from Bochum, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany has a few things to say about “doing what you can” in her talk, “Why it is Better to Do Something Small.” She argues humbly and compellingly that each small step takes you to the next small step and the next and each of these enlarges the original idea, and tends to draw more people into the process of addressing a problem far too big for one person, however passionate, to solve.
This week, I listened to the deflation of a friend, a dedicated friend whose concerted activism I admire, who not only works diligently to align her own choices with a sustainable planet, but to educate and advocate with many, many others locally and with state and national elected leaders. She shared a passage in Justice on Earth, edited by Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Nordstrom, that had left her feeling demoralized:
“Many…have led the way in their communities by purchasing renewable energy, replacing lightbulbs, weatherizing buildings, and installing solar panels. These are important steps to demonstrate how to reduce carbon omissions, but while they are necessary, generally they are insufficient for exemplifying prophetic moral imagination. This is because they do not require us to change our relationships of privilege and power to other people…They hint at but do not directly speak the language of morality.”
It is good to be challenged by these words of Pamela Sparr who is an intersectional activist. They help me consider what Günther sought in her activism — how do I forge bridges among people who haven’t been connected before, how do I keep looking for ways to deepen the difference I can make, to use my privilege for the common good, to surrender what I thought I needed in order to offer all that I can?
Sparr’s words, like Dr. King’s words remind us that there is more that can be done and those of us with privilege have a critical role to play, that the work of activism gets harder when we start to carve into the bone of our own privilege. It is tempting to look at all of this through the lens of “either/or” rather than “both/and”. Either you are living out a prophetic moral imperative with requisite sacrifice, or you are doing nothing.
I realize I cannot change the way my friend’s spirit took in Sparr’s words. That work belongs to her, however I can imagine Sparr applauding the substantial activism and dedication of my friend and even encouraging me in my own dopey small steps, my 60+ readers, the links I hope at least some of those readers click on to grow in their understanding, my divestment, my public actions/rallies, my letters to the editor and to public officials, my table talks, my walking when and where I can, my canvassing, my self-study, and my rechargeable mower, even as she invites me to go deeper still.
Going forward, I hope I can exhibit the resilience, courage and loving self-examination that all of this requires for the very long haul. I hope I will have models for this transformation. I hope I will not be alone on the journey.
Maybe I can think of discouragement as a luxury. Not a burden. A luxury I can choose to let go.