Gratitude, and the Upside of “Not Having”

This old family photo, taken one Thanksgiving about 70 years ago, is one of my favorites. Those were simple times when people didn’t have much, but I can feel everyone’s joy and gratitude spilling right out of the picture.

This past Sunday as I was riding my bicycle home from church, where the sermon was about gratitude, I came upon my favorite pine tree, a really pretty, towering specimen with long soft needles. Not only is it a beautiful tree; it also sheds regularly, providing me with great mulch for my yard. As is my habit, I grabbed handfuls of the pine needles that had collected in the gutter, and stuffed into my bicycle panniers as many as would fit.

Many Sundays as I’m riding to or from church along that long road, I see curbside treasure such as huge piles of leaves; furniture; plants; lumber; piles and piles of bamboo poles. Many times I have regretted not having a bicycle trailer. Then again, when I look back over the months and years that I have NOT been able to pick up stuff because I didn’t have a way to carry it home, it comes to me that if I had picked up all the stuff I thought I wanted, my house would be crammed with junk.

And when I look back, I can’t really remember all the stuff that was so great I just thought I absolutely needed it. One of my favorite quotes, by ultralight hiker Ray Jardine (of Ray-Way Tarp fame), comes to mind: “If you need it, but don’t have it … you don’t need it.” There are advantages to NOT being able to carry home everything.

Along with my haul of precious mulch, I also carried home plenty of gratitude. Our pastor had spoken about the “market gods” and how they fuel our desire for more, more, more — and how it never ends up being enough. My favorite antidote to that insatiable feeling is to deliberately feel gratitude in the moment. Gratitude turns whatever I have into more than enough.

Back when I lived in an RV, every little inch of space was a gift. Sometimes I’d free up a couple centimeters of space, and it would really feel like miles and miles of Texas! (I was living in Texas at the time, and would often break out into a joyous chorus of “Miles and Miles of Texas” when I’d discover some unused inch of space here or there in the RV.) This joy at a small thing is a huge feeling.

One time on a solo bicycle trip from Austin to New Mexico, I found myself at a roadside rest stop with leftover french fries from a diner lunch, and half a bottle of Gatorade from my afternoon snack stop. Plus a couple of Little Debbie snack cakes. Tasted like a five-star supper to me! Later as I crawled into my sleeping bag, with only a tarp underneath — no cushion from the concrete ground — I felt like a queen sinking into the finest featherbed.

By no means do I always feel this way. Oftentimes it’s the total opposite, in fact! I can be in luxurious circumstances, eating fancy food, having other people do everything for me, and still feel restless and unsatisfied. In fact, many times it actually ends up being easier for me to feel gratitude over simple things than over something luxurious and amazing. Maybe some sort of spoiled-brat reflex kicks in beyond a certain level of richness.

Gratitude is something I have to put conscious effort into at times, but it’s an investment that pays off in cascading dividends. I would really like for gratitude and appreciation to become more prevalent in USAmerican culture. I’d like to see us, as a people, have the ability to be more content with less. And that would be good for the planet also.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle …

Most of us are familiar with these 3 R’s of minimizing waste. Just now on the Sustainable Living & Alternative Health radio show on WMNF (Tampa FL), I heard two more R’s: REFUSE; and RETHINK. (As in Refuse disposable plastic bags at the supermarket checkout. And, further upstream, Rethink the whole design of things including the flow from production to disposal, so we “close the loop” and stop producing “waste”.) Ideally we humans will come around to eliminating entirely the concept of “waste,” since in nature everything is a resource.

One trick I’ve been doing lately with the recycling is to not put the bin out for collection every week unless it gets full (which it rarely does that quickly unless I have a party). By keeping it around for a couple or three weeks, I give myself a “reuse buffer” — an opportunity to retrieve containers that I end up thinking of a use for. One housemate’s microwave food containers ended up getting upcycled into caddies for art supplies and toiletries. Sometimes I’ve ended up using takeout dishes to mix paint.

The Sustainable Living & Alternative Health radio show airs every Monday from 10:00-11:00 AM Eastern Standard Time. It’s actually two different shows, on alternating Mondays. Today is a Sustainable Living day. The show is superb and I recommend it to greenminded people everywhere who really want to push the envelope of what it means to be sustainable. You can listen to a recording of today’s show and other past shows; I believe they leave them up on the website for about a month. Several of my permaculture colleagues were on today, and they did an outstanding job conveying the essence of permaculture design and the permaculture movement.

Whatever It Takes

Whatever it takes to motivate me to stick with beneficial habits and minimize harmful ones, I’ll try it.

When I was younger and a lot more vain than I am now, “staying skinny” was a huge factor in motivating me to minimize my “junk food” intake (even though I have loved those sweet, salty, densely calorific “junk foods” from a young age).

As I’ve gotten older and not so obsessed with being thin, I’ve needed other motivators to sustain me. Even reducing my Riot food footprint wasn’t quite enough to keep me motivated to eschew those bad-for-me, bad-for-the-planet snacks.

A big motivator that’s emerged for me recently is DIGESTION. Yes, I’m giving away my age now! When I was young, I never understood why older folks were so preoccupied with their digestion. Now I get it. Healthy digestion is something you take for granted until/unless you don’t have it.

Oh, but those potato chips and cheeze nips do continue to call out my name. Then recently, I found a really strong motivation to quit eating mass-produced processed snacks: A key ingredient is plantation-produced palm oil, a commodity that’s chewing up rainforests and destroying animal habitat. Now finally I feel the call of the chip and the cheeze nip grow very faint, and ignore-able. (Though if I find a locally/sustainably produced equivalent, I’ll still bite!)

“There’s a Rang-Tan in My Bedroom”: In a mere ninety seconds, this animated film starting a homeless orangutan tells the story of how unsustainably-produced palm oil is destroying rainforests and wildlife habitat. This Greenpeace Canada film, narrated by Emma Thompson, is intended to spark a grassroots backlash against unsustainable plantation palm oil. Outstanding example of the power of story. I first saw this video via Facebook where people were sharing it to help it go viral.

Description and background of the “Rang-Tan in My Bedroom” film (which was created for Greenpeace by a creative firm called Mother).

I found the blurb about Mother and the “Rang-Tan” film on The Drum, a site “highlighting the best new creative work around the globe.”

Help Save the Bees

Bumblebees have been declared endangered, but we can all help save them.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that people could plant a garden or add a flowering tree or bush to yards and avoid using pesticide, to help increase the rusty-patched bumblebee population. Leaving some sections of the yard unmowed in summer and unraked in fall can also help since bumblebees need a good place to make their nests and spend the winter. People could also leave standing plant stems in gardens and flower beds in winter.”

Everyone can help! Even a potted plant on a balcony can help.

Informed Hope

Someone who really knows what he’s talking about — believes there is still HOPE. The earth is in a death spiral, and radical action is required — but we can do it.

Article by George Monbiot, the climate activist whose book HEAT: How To Stop the Planet from Burning inspired the Riot for Austerity movement and planted the seed for my book DEEP GREEN.

The way humanity got itself into this deadly predicament is that we allowed waste, greed, denial to become baked-in to our way of living. Now, we can make a turnaround so that what’s baked-in to our culture is thrift, sharing, modesty, humility, intolerance of waste.

Also: Humanitarian innovativeness. Compassion. Empathy. Care of all species. A cultural shift so these qualities become infused in every action, no matter how seemingly small. Day in and day out, like the “home front” mobilization of World War II, except that this shift needs to be self-imposed at the grassroots because the higher-ups lack the political will.

Deep-green troops, mobilize! Everything good you do adds up.

A Match Made in Heaven

In my recent post Why Stuff Goes Bad, I pointed out that nothing ever sits around unused for long. Nature won’t allow it. Nature doesn’t hoard; and nothing in nature is trash.

We humans try to stockpile stuff in “nature-proof” containers, and that’ll work for a time but not forever. Prime example: Paint cans rust. The lids can even rust right through! And once the lids get rusty you have to be super careful opening the cans because rust-flakes fall into the paint. A little bit is no big deal but it’s not something I would want much of.

In my garage are a number of cans of paint left by the previous owners. Most are just small cans of the house colors, for touch-up painting. But yesterday I discovered I also had THREE GALLONS of white paint. Three full cans. And since it had been sitting around for awhile, the lids were rusty.

What prompted me to inventory my garage paint-shelf yesterday was that a friend who’s fixing up her storm-damaged house needed white paint. I expected to find maybe a gallon if I was lucky. Three gallons will probably be enough for her whole project.

It’s a match made in heaven! Two thrifty gals, both passionate about reuse and recycling, help each other out. The one with three full cans of unused paint (which are on the verge of “going bad” due to rusting lids) gets to clear space in her garage; the one working hard to fix up her home on a shoestring budget gets free paint.

Yep, a match made in heaven! Though it may seem like a small thing, both sides are thrilled. It would have been heartbreaking if all that paint had ended up getting ruined without ever being used.

(Not to mention, the disposal would have required special care, probably a trip to the dump or household chemicals drop-off station or something.)

How about you, have you had a “match made in heaven” lately, or noticed one in the world around you?

Weaning Ourselves Off Of Lawn Chemicals

Eliminating the use of lawn fertilizers near waterways should be a no-brainer. Fertilizers are a prime contributor to algal blooms, including red tide, which are deadly to wildlife and dangerous to humans. For the same reason, it should be a no-brainer that people would want to stop using pesticides and herbicides for residential lawns. As much as some people like their manicured green lawns, does the use of chemicals justify the mass die-offs of fish, birds, and other wildlife; and the pollution of our precious water supply?

The thing is, people who love their lawns can still have them! But, for the good of our rivers and lakes and oceans, we need to make some changes. We can choose more hardy, drought-tolerant grass species, and quit using chemicals for vanity agriculture. It would help if we’d let go of the culturally indoctrinated compulsion for the “perfect” uniformly green lawn, which I see as the green-colored equivalent of Snow White’s beautiful but poisonous red apple. We also really need to tackle the various regulations (municipal regulations, HOA rules, etc.) that pretty much FORCE people to have lawns in many parts of the USA.

Besides laying off the chemicals, lawn-lovers can also help our wildlife and waterways by planting a “filtration strip” of vegetation along the edges of their yards. This buffer of vegetation helps retain silt, water, and nutrients on property rather than let them run off into the storm-drain systems and bodies of water. Besides being good for the environment, a border of vegetation looks nicer than a plain flat grass edge, and it can reduce or eliminate the need for fussy edging and blowing.

Further Reading:

Local Laws Ban Front-Yard Food Gardens: “Zoning, supporters contend, is intended to prevent conflicts and nuisances from arising. … But sometimes, as in the case of the prohibitions on edible gardens … zoning itself becomes the nuisance and the source of conflict. …Estimates of water savings vary, but most sources agree that fruit and vegetable gardens use less water than would a lawn in a comparable space. Those who want to live more sustainably often choose to grow some of their own food and find ways both to reduce their reliance on commercially bought food and lower their water use. Swapping out a lawn for an edible garden can help achieve both goals.”

Eco-friendly lawn alternatives: “On a gallon-for-gallon basis, power mowers are far more polluting than cars. …[L]awn-mower engines, per gallon of gas, contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions than 2006 cars. Water runoff pollution is another downside: To keep turf perma-green and weedfree requires a cocktail of fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides applied regularly via the irrigation system. …Every region and every ecology in this country has its own regionally native sods, which, with very little mowing or cutting, grow naturally as a turf.”

• Doing a search for “eco-friendly lawns,” I found this company that offers a “No-Mow Lawn Grass Seed”, which looks to be waterwise and not need chemicals.