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How to tread as lightly as we can...yes, how?

(this is quite a long post, but I hope you'll stay with it and give some feedback from questions at the bottom!)

Before New York -Rediscovering the Wilderness of 1609 by Peter Miller

This is the title page article that has beckoned me for several days now, from the September 2009 issue of National Geographic. I guess I'm predisposed to gravitating toward such an article because I'm a history nut, especially this sort of anthropological history, which takes an educated stab at what Manhattan looked like 400 years ago. By using a map made by the British Army dating back to the Revolutionary War, and by taking one animal, the beaver, which happened upon the banks of the Bronx River in 2007 after years of restoration, one ecologist and a huge team of people were able to weave together an ecosystem where the beaver both depended on and was depended upon for food, shelter, water, trees, and many other animals, insects and elements. The artist - well, ecologist, -who spawned this idea of finding out what Manhattan looked like before too many people came, was able to come up with a virtual look at a wild Manhattan - a lovely forest with animals and trees that once had potential to be a park on par with Yellowstone.

What stood out to me the most about this article was this thing called the Muir web. "Consider a beaver that lived at Times Square in 1609. If you grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and lifted him out of the web, you'd find lines connecting him to a slowly meandering stream, to the aspen trees he ate, and to the mud and twigs he used to build a lodge. Not only that, you'd also find lines to the bobcats, bears and wolves that depended on him as prey and to the frogs, fish, and aquatic plants that lived in the pond he helped to create. 'The beaver, it turns out, is a landscape architect, just like people...You need him to flood the forest, which kills the trees that attract the woodpeckers that knock out cavities that wood ducks use for shelter.' Lifting a beaver out of the web disrupts cores of other residents which demonstrates how important it can be to think about an ecosystem as a network."

After reading this I began to think about what it would be like if someone in my "network" were lifted up out of this particular ecosystem. Individually, I thought, we may not have too much of a physical impact. For example, if I were lifted up out of this ecosystem, the environmental impact might not make too much difference - the air conditioner would still hum, the water would still run, gas and electricity in my house would still be used. I don't drive all that much, but that would be slightly lessened...you get my drift here. The husband, wife, father, mother of a household contributes different things to the survival of that unit, be it food, money, shelter, keeping the house clean, laundry clean, whatever. Ok. That said, we all know the bigger impact of an individual loss is the emotional one, even when the fallout affects other aspects of one's life. So it's interesting for me to think the same way about an actual ecosystem, like that of Mannahatta (Lenape people's name for Manhattan meaning "island of many hills" according to NG) 400 years ago, as individual species slowly died off in favor of infrastructure, people, "progress", growth, etc...a smaller picture of what is going on worldwide today. So what here is the emotional impact of our environmental destruction? A tree, for example, may continue to grow in the worst smog, drought, or poor-soil environment, but will that tree be as strong and healthy as a similar tree in a clean-air, soil-rich, healthy environment? Of course not - though they both may continue to grow at a similar rate. The effects of the environment on that first tree may be unseen, perhaps the seeds may be altered in some way though, and that will affect the way the next tree grows from that seed. This perhaps is the psychological equivalent to a child growing up in a family that doesn't function well or doesn't love the child.

In the way that invasive, non-native species often take over a piece of land, choking out native species and all the intricate, woven lives that surround them, we too, as a people are doing this at an alarming rate, causing so many different kinds of impacts we cannot possibly foresee. So what can we do? People, for now at least, are here to stay. A non-native species is invasive, as we are. My only thought is to come up with some life guidelines for treading lightly on this earth we call home in order to have the least impact with the homes that each of us live in.

Tread lightly.
Use the earth you have wisely.
Use the conveniences you have wisely.
Love your children as though they are the very seeds you plant for survival.

These are so general and I would love to hear what each of you have to say about this. Aside from the extremes like Low-Impact Man, what thoughts can you come up with that contribute to a general life set of guidelines for creating the least impact while still living where you are (meaning, I don't think too many people are willing to live in a Manhattan apartment without using electricity like Low-Impact Man)? And also, what are you doing that is "extreme" or out of the norm for where you live - or anywhere, for that matter?


by the way, if you want to see what NYC looked like from some random street 400 years ago, visit the Mannahatta Project here.


Michelle said...

Beautifully written Genny...I came back tonight to re-read this post in the peaceful silence of a houseful of sleeping boys!

For us, we try every day to do our very best to tread lightly...to leave as little trace as possible. Some people condemn us because we have three children, but to them we say the world needs our children! Adam's nickname is "Captain Planet." He picks up (and brings home ;-) trash, recycling items wrongly put in trash cans, and compost. Okay it's a little gross sometimes to have him bringing in other people's "trash" to dispose of properly at our home, but I'm just so proud of him, and of us for teaching him these values.

We're far from perfect and make many mistakes. I think the simple act of becoming more mindful of each "thing" you touch; whether it be something you buy, grow, or make, and think about where it will end up, is a powerful first step.

nicola said...

wow. what a powerful, well thought post. i have had something else mentally demanding going on this evening, that i feel a bit too overwhelmed to reply properly, but i do want to say...
i feel like i live in an eco bubble. people around me take the environmental crisis seriously. there are numerous resources locally to take advantage of. where it diverges is for me is that i also live in an area of wealth (at least those who are eco conscious often have the money to put behind it).

anyway, i believe that every penny counts toward a dollar. every small thing each individual can do to help the earth adds up in a positive way.

sorry i am not more thoughtful tonight. excellent post.

by the way, my email is italy_nicola@yahoo.com! :)


kyndale said...

Hi Genny,

Wow, great post and very thought provoking. A lot to think about. It was interesting that in a college course I took on natural history, we took a neighborhood and thought about how long it would take for nature to take it back if all the people were removed. What the neighborhood would look like. Have you ever seen an abandoned building and parking lot? It's amazing how fast the weeds start growing, literally taking it back.

I think a lot about what a place would look like if people were not in the space.

I am constantly thinking about how my life impacts the earth. Sometimes it's hard because I look around and I know that others don't do the same. But, I can only do what I can do. It all depends on where you live. When I was living in SF, people were so much more aware of the environment. I feel like an outcast here in Nevada..But I consider it a challenge.

apples said...

Was just reading through my late copy of Mothering and saw your letter regarding crafty mamas...thought I recognized the name and checked my email to be sure!
Small world eh?!

leaning apple mama said...

genny...i have been reading this post over and over. what do we do to tread lightly?! we try our hardest to limit our consumption of everything. we have mostly hand me downs and thrifted items in our house. we grow our own food. i am trying to eliminate plastic from our lives in as many place as possible which is so frustratingly impossible. we are trying to teach our children about such things as trash and recycling and reusing and passing on. treading lightly seems so impossible sometimes but compared to a lot of people we are light as a feather. uh-oh i just heard my little babe...okay i may come back to this...*pennie*

Heather said...

I am almost speechless from this post. I want to write something powerful that we do as a family to try and lessen our impact, but I think that the emotional part of myself is overcome by your words.

Everything that you write here is so true, and yet I feel desperate to find an "answer" to the impact that we all have on the earth we inhabit.

For us, treading lightly means trying to leave as much of a zero footprint as possible. I take my cues from the local farmers market that insists that everything inside of it leaves no trace. There is no trash, no waste. Only compost and recyclables are allowed.

I think that one huge aspect of treading lightly is to fight for policies and organizations whose goal is to begin to restore the earth, the land, and to try and balance the impact that we all have.

I too wonder about the impact of having a third child, but after reading this article, I realize that one more loved, cared about, and passionately reared babe can only help to foster a greater sense of peace in the world.

Thank you for writing this, and for putting your feelings and amazing words into the world.

Azra Momin said...

Thank you for the very interesting post, Genny. I wish I was more low-impact than I am. Sometimes I really wish I could live on a farm, one with Nature, but that's not realistic. What is realistic is taking advantage of opportunities to take as little away from Nature as possible, and give back as much as possible.

One thing that saddens me most is how much we take our environment for granted. I often wonder what our chidren will be left with. I try to avoid plastic whenever I can, and reuse whatever I can. The amount of consumable junk available in North America is astounding, but sadly, other countries are catching on.

Truly, children are the very seeds we plant for survival. We can do our part by choosing natural ways for them - natural parenting methods, cloth diapering, real food, not bottled mush, homemade toys...and like you said, loving them like our life depended on it.

Because it does.

vchelle said...

I really, really enjoyed reading this post and believe whole heartedly that this incredible Universe we live in is very systematically engineered! I don't take it for granted and everytime I see a tree cut down for "development" and see the pink/beige threads of life inside that tree, it's almost like I can feel the tree crying..slowly dying. I made a conscious effort to buy my home in a place that really values nature and that they cut down as less as possible. They built my house around the trees! I wouldn't stand for nothing less.

I know there are things that I can do better or more to keep our planet health so that it doesn't have to work so hard and I know that I'm making my way to the "betterness."

Thank you so much for visiting Operation You and I'm trying so hard to get around more but since the onset of grad school and work, mom and wifey roles, it's challenging but know that I appreciate you and will come by as much as I can. I love your deep thoughts and feel your compassion and passion!

P.S. Sounds like a killer deodorant you got there.. Please send me the receipe!

gennysent said...

Thank you so much for so many thoughtful comments. I think this touched a nerve because most of us have become aware of the impact that each of us as individuals contribute to the earth and how together it can cause a huge change...unfortunately right now, we have to reverse that change soon or our children and grandchildren may end up paying dearly in the future...There are enough like-minded people that I hope we see a huge slowdown, stall, and reversal of all we have done in the past 100 years to get to where we are. I just wanted to point out some of the main things you all brought up...

-leaving little trace of us!
-teaching our children good habits (picking up trash - others as well as our own),
-creating little trash by being aware of what we buy, and using a compost instead of trash for compost-able items (Michelle)
-recycle (obvious I know, but I STILL know people who don't even recycle)
-every small thing you do adds up (as Nicola put it "every penny counts toward a dollar") so don't discount even the smallest thing - if all of us do that, it becomes a much bigger impact!
-instead of being discouraged, see the negative aspects of this as a challenge! (Kyndale)
-reuse or pass on household and personal items,
-grow your own food,
-eliminate plastic or at least be aware of reducing it by not purchasing plastic items (Pennie)
-work towards being a zero-waste household...only compost-able and recyclable items allowed,
-support policies and organizations whose goal is to restore the earth and land,
-teach our children all that we know and tell them all that is important so that they can continue this goal of restoration! (Heather)
-choose natural parenting methods for our children, cloth diapers, homemade toys (Azra)

Surely this is a short list and some of it we've heard before. But seeing that many of us are moms, we are in a unique position to positively influence our children. I've heard so many new ways of thinking and doing from moms! Our children learn by watching. My son was the influence I needed to hang up a line to dry my clothes as well as starting a compost. Now he talks about taking out the compost, something I knew nothing about until I was a junior in college.

Thank you again for so many wonderful, thought-filled responses...please add more to this list if you'd like!

nicola said...

lovely summary. interestingly, i wrote a blog post last night (that i saved and am not sure i will post or not) similar to this, but from the frustrated perspective of how confusing it is to be earth minded, sometimes. in the end, i think we need to use our common sense, use less in general, and reuse what we can. i just can't find my way to saying that all plastics are bad, for example. i don't think they should be eliminated (there are have been so many benefits to plastic in the medical field, for example), but i think reduction is critical.

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