If we want to take environmental concerns seriously, most of us can start by emulating the habits of our elders. Few people threw things out the way we do today, and wastefulness is a huge part of the problem.
When I met the Delany Sisters, they were surprised that their small city – Mt. Vernon, N.Y. – was starting a new, vigorous recycling program. Why were they surprised? Because they’d been recycling (without calling it that) for years.
The term “carbon footprint” wasn’t widely in use then, but I guarantee that the Delany Sisters impact on the environment was extremely minimal. They were frugal, thoughtful people.
My mother grew up in deprivation during the Great Depression of the 1930s followed by World War Two-era rationing and, at 91, she still saves every piece of aluminum foil she lays her hands on. Because she didn’t always have enough to eat as a child, she will spend a half-hour carefully cutting away the “bad” parts of a rotten piece of fruit in order to salvage a small bit of it.
A few years ago I met Marion “Strong Medicine” Gould who became the subject of my oral history ‘Strong Medicine’ Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her awareness and consideration of the environment were essential to her world-view. This was a woman who collected wild plants to make salves. She was the matriarch of a Native American Tribe whose members will do almost anything to avoid cutting down a tree, and if they do, they will leave a gift to the spirits as a form of acknowledging the tree’s passing.
When I decided to try my hand at writing fiction, focusing on Florida in the early 1960s, the impact of humans on the fragile ecology was crucial to telling the story. Some reviewers noted that the Everglades is, in a sense, a main character in the second novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County. The classic battle of man versus nature is a primary theme. I was a newspaper reporter in Florida years ago, and it was the old-timers who understood how to live on the land with minimal impact. These were folks who lived a rough life among the mangroves and the manatees. They took only what they needed.
It’s time we listened to all of them and followed their example.