Natural versus Safe

This is going to be short since I have a lesson to teach, but it’s been on my mind for a while. As I’ve mentioned in various previous posts, not everything natural is safe and not everything created by science and technology is bad.

Case in point: lead. Lead is a completely earth-made, naturally occurring element that happens to be very toxic to people. People still managed to line their water pipes with it and slather it on their faces for centuries. We’ve just now begun to ban it from our cosmetics (which is rather scary it’s taken so long).

I definitely support living a more healthy lifestyle, which in many cases does mean adopting the use of more natural materials in daily life. But I’m also thankful science and technology have come up with ways to extract surfactants from plants to make soap so I don’t have to stand in the hot sun with ashes, urine, and/or animal fat trying to make lye soap.

I think it’s good to be somewhat flexible with goals like this. Trying to live more naturally in a modern society isn’t always easy, and it’s also not always practical nor healthy to go completely in one direction (toothpaste doesn’t occur in nature but it’s important for one’s dental health). My goal is health. I’ve seen family members who didn’t take care of their health suffer for it, many times painfully and for years, and I don’t want that for myself.

I’m not going to swear off using the microwave, but I have said goodbye to commercial deodorants, soaps, makeup, makeup removers, many home/bathroom cleaners, cologne, and more because I can make my own. I choose not to eat fast food because I prefer whole, natural, and unprocessed foods (except pizza. Give me ALLLLL the pizza. And ice cream, although I do often make my own vegan “nice” cream these days). I prefer to dress in sustainable, comfortable fabrics and try my best to shop from manufacturers who don’t mistreat people nor the planet.

But I’m not perfect. I bought a wedding dress because of how it looked, not who made it. I ordered my niece a game on Amazon for her birthday instead of making something.

It’s okay not to be perfect on the quest for a healthier life.

Science and technology are not the enemy. Perfection is.

Why I’m a Vegetarian

I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life and I’m often asked why. There’s a cute little story about how it all began, and I’ll follow it up with why I still am, after more than 20 years.

I grew up on a small farm in Maine. We had horses, rabbits, chickens, and a garden. I grew up eating meat but I never liked it very much, except for my grandmother’s delicious turkey soup. I didn’t like steaks or burgers at all. Once we got a flock of chickens I spent my afternoons playing in the yard with them. One chick in particular was my favorite – a beautiful Bantam hen I named Peeps because she was always making little peeping sounds. I’d come home from school, pick her up, climb the willow tree, and lounge in the branches, reading a book, with Peeps in the crook of my elbow. I would often give the chickens scraps of whatever I was eating. One day I made the connection between the fact chicken nuggets are made out of chickens – the very kind of chickens I was playing with each day. Chicken nuggets look nothing like living chickens – very few meat products resemble their roots – so although I’m somewhat embarrassed it took me so long to make the connection, I’m not surprised.

It took me about two months to completely give up meat and ensure my family respected my decision. I received cookbooks from my grandparents but my mother would continue to feed me chicken-and-rice baked dishes, telling me to “eat around the chicken,” although the entire thing was simmering in chicken broth. I remember during that time we visited a bison farm, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed a burger. Bison was the most delicious red meat I had ever tasted, but a few minutes later when a bison approached the fence and let me pet his nose, I knew no matter how delicious it was, I wasn’t going to eat it again.

This was the mid-90s when vegetarianism among teenagers was quite popular, and I would be lying if I didn’t say the choice was also partly social. I had friends I respected and admired who were already staunch vegetarians and as we talked about their choices it made sense to me. So, the last meat I ate was bacon at my grandmother’s house – because it smelled so good the morning she cooked it during a visit that summer – and I gave it up after that.

These days my body can’t process meat. If I eat a soup made with chicken broth, or have a bite of a party dip with chopped chicken, or even eat veggies cooked on the same griddle as meat, I find myself in the throes of gastric distress within a few hours. People often don’t believe that when I first explain, but science proves that when one foregoes meat for long enough, the body stops creating the enzymes necessary with which to digest meat. It’s been more than 20 years – those enzymes are long gone. Should I ever choose to eat meat again I’d need to introduce it slowly and carefully.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I fought with myself a couple years ago when I began traveling, especially to countries in which meat is extremely popular (especially South America). I wanted to be able to enjoy eating whatever the locals are eating without worrying about tummy troubles due to confusion over ingredients or shared cooking surfaces. I read recipes for meat dishes and considered ordering a chicken dish when I was in a restaurant.

And then I went to the grocery store and saw the meat products sitting in the coolers and I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take raw flesh and turn it into something edible. Today, I’m not only a vegetarian because I care about animals, but also because I care about my health, and – probably most importantly – because I don’t believe it is my place to take the life of another living being. Of course, the response to that is often, “plants are alive! Plants have feelings too!” Well, yes, that’s true. But I personally have no moral issue pulling a carrot from the ground and eating it.

I could not take the life of an animal – cow, chicken, turkey, goat, sheep, deer, mouse, caribou – with my own hands. I have absolutely no problem with people who choose to do so, and I actually believe strongly in the ability to hunt. I think hunting is a fantastic way to enjoy healthy, fresh meat with which to feed your family, and I much prefer hunting to the industrialized “agriculture” system on which this country currently runs. But I couldn’t do it myself – I don’t even kill spiders or bugs in the house. I put them in my hands and set them free outside. Who am I to decide who lives and dies?

I’m a vegetarian because I believe in treating life with respect – all life. I do my absolute best to never waste food: we freeze our vegetable scraps to create stock and have begun composting on a small scale in our condo. Unless food is clearly and truly spoiled I can find a way to use it or preserve it (soups are awesome for cleaning out the veggie drawer and even giving stale bread a new life). I’m respecting my body by feeding it what feels good. I’m respecting animals by not eating them. I’m respecting the planet as a whole by not supporting industrialized “farming” and not throwing food away.

My life as a vegetarian hasn’t always been healthy and wasn’t nearly always so easy, even for me, to understand. That’ll come in another post. It’s important to make an educated choice to become vegetarian. It’s not difficult but it does involve some effort in terms of nutrition – and that’s why I often offer recipes here too.

Why Should I Care?

I’m not having kids, so why do I care about the future?

That’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s true. People often say they’re concerned about the world their children are going to grow up in…yet they don’t seem concerned about the world TODAY. I’ve had conversations with people who say climate change issues are so far away we shouldn’t worry about it today. Well, if we don’t worry about it today, who’s going to worry?

Travis and I have been reading and watching a LOT about climate change, pollution, and garbage lately. We’ve watched An Inconvenient Truth and Before the Flood. We’ve been reading Green Barbarians, Silent Spring, The Zero-Waste Lifestyle, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and more. We’ve been talking about these issues amongst ourselves for a couple years, but not with the urgency and action we have now. Digging deeper into an earth-conscious lifestyle has been a great focus for us. We’re making better choices and also spending our time learning. We’re focused less on gathering knowledge and more on taking action – using less water, re-using vegetable scraps, and making homemade cleaners.

But we’ll both be dead within 100 years, and we aren’t having children. When we leave, we’re leaving the planet with our lasting contributions being only how WE treated the earth while we inhabited it. And perhaps that’s why we care. We aren’t leaving the responsibility of choice up to any future generations or children. We know, at the end of our days, what matters to us is how WE treat the earth.

This matters to us because we’re learning more about how we are, truly, all stardust. Diving into the combined science and history of the planet, of the universe and its enormity, and the minuscule amount of time in which humans have been here really hammers home the reality that we’re destroying the planet that gave us life. Nature has, of course, run into issues of overpopulation, weather pattern changes, and more, but – always – with time, nature can recover and correct. With the introduction of human industry and invention, we’ve done great things, but we’re also attacking the planet at unrecoverable rates. Our brain power is allowing us to create materials and chemicals nature can’t break down and reuse.

I know making small changes in my personal life won’t save the planet entirely, but I can’t in good conscience make choices that damage the planet further. We are simply visitors here on earth and it’s too easy to forget that in a world where anything you can imagine you may want can be delivered to you almost instantaneously, via drone, car, plane, or courier. We forget what goes into creating what we “want,” or, perhaps more accurately, we simply don’t see what’s behind the scenes. In a grocery store, a chicken breast looks NOTHING like a chicken clucking around on a farm. How much has to happen to that chicken between the farm and grocery store? We don’t see it, but it happens, somehow. What about a cotton plant becoming a t-shirt? I’ve never even seen cotton formed into thread, much less into cloth to be cut and sewn into a garment.

I care because I’m here. I’m not trying to save the planet for my children. I want to treat it kindly while I’m here. And I want to continue to enjoy the natural gifts of the earth while I’m here. It doesn’t add up to me to love being outside more than anything, and then create tons of garbage to simply sit in the ground or poison our oceans. I need to know for myself that I opted out of the system and got more in tune with nature.

I care because I’m here.


Perpetual Poverty and the Privilege of Sustainability

During our walk yesterday Travis and I talked about perpetual poverty – the unfortunate cycle of how those living in poverty have such a difficult time planning for the future, saving, and growing their money.

I grew up in just such a situation.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m awaiting the arrival of Hillbilly Elegy from the library. I’m very curious to read about another person’s “escape” and their background – and what it’s like to go back to visit. I’m currently reading my way back through the Little House on the Prairie books and enjoying the stories of a simpler life when, for the most part, you built, hunted, gathered, made, or traded for what you needed – or you went without.

I thought of today’s fast world: fast cars, fast planes, fast food, fast money, fast fashion. So much of everything is “disposable” – but where does it all end up? What’s the quality of life like for someone making a product you use once or twice and discard? Why do we eat vegetables that have been trucked or flown halfway around the world, just so we can enjoy the taste of a watermelon in winter?

Then I considered whether the ability to choose a sustainable life is borne out of privilege, or whether it can be done on a budget.

You see, perpetual poverty and sustainability are connected. The people who are living paycheck to paycheck, or maybe not even able to make the paycheck last until the next one, are the ones who could truly benefit from a more sustainable life. For example, the rain boots I mentioned in the post about need versus want are an example of me living a fast life. I chose to purchase inexpensive rain boots because, when I first purchased a pair a few years back, I didn’t have enough extra money for a higher-quality pair. This inexpensive pair of rain boots lasted me maybe two years. Then I had to purchase another $30 pair, lasting me another two years. Last year, another $30 pair and they’ve already sprung a leak. That’s $90 I spent on rain boots – when I could have spent perhaps $80 on one good pair that would have lasted me these five years and probably another five years.

Often, it’s nearly impossible for someone struggling financially to consider the actual value versus the cost of something they need and/or want. It can be extremely difficult to put money aside when it feels like the bills keep coming in and money keeps pouring out. I know – I’ve been there. I’ve had to go without plenty of times, and I was unable to put enough aside to purchase a sustainable, quality option.

Looking at sustainability, I want to treat the planet with kindness. I don’t want to contribute to the standard┬áTHREE POUNDS A DAY of garbage the average American produces. All those leaky rain boots? Trash – whereas one quality pair would have generated zero garbage.

And then it hit me: is living a sustainable lifestyle a choice only the privileged can make?

As I pare down and build up my minimalist wardrobe, I’ve been replacing ill-fitting or worn-out garments with higher-quality alternatives. For the first time in my adult life I’ve paid full price for quality items with a lifetime guarantee and made with sustainable business practices. I’m actively seeking out long-term options for typical “throwaway” items like shower caps and cotton balls (yes, they do make a machine-washable, waterproof shower cap, and organic cotton reusable cosmetic rounds). I’m looking at what happens to my clothing when I no longer need it. I’m choosing slow clothing over fast fashion, and quality over quantity. I really don’t need a wardrobe full of dress pants when I have a pair that truly fits well and will last for years. A solid blue sweater is timeless and it’s got a lifetime guarantee from LL Bean.

Then I think back to Little House on the Prairie. Pioneers lived a sustainable life because they had to. There was no choice. There was no garbage dump to which you could haul your trash, no store to go purchase a new dress, no Amazon to deliver the next gadget to your door. You used what you had. Granted, they maybe could have planted a few (LOT!) more trees to help replace the ones they cut down, but overall, pioneer life was considerably more sustainable than modern life. Pioneers didn’t need wealth to choose sustainability – only a strong sense of adventure and the willingness to work. Today, though, most of us don’t have the ability to grow our own food, sew our own clothing, or build our own homes. We exchange our time for money to pay someone else to do it all for us.

It’s time to cut out the middle man and get back to doing things for ourselves. I believe the best way to live more sustainably is by doing more yourself and relying less on others. The more I can do myself, the less I need financial means to live in a way that respects the planets and those living on it: less fuel burned bringing my food to me if I can grow it myself, less waste from packaging from purchased products, less money spent purchasing a finished good when I can locally-source materials and make it myself.

Stay tuned as we continue on our journey to sustainability. It’s not an easy choice – I know it’s hard work to do things yourself – but I believe it’s rewarding to see the (occasionally literal) fruits of your labor.