RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Pigging Out on Earth Day

For several years back in the last century, I took a pig to Earth Day in St. Louis. And, yes, we enjoyed it so much that we kept coming back.

For both of us -- me and the pig -- the experience of being at a festival in a downtown park was exhilarating and novel. We learned that city people are a hoot. They enjoy touching and looking at new things. Every time we went, somebody wanted to give the pig a massage. It was amazing how the pig fell into a relaxed heap when the masseuses found just the right spot.

I always got a massage, also, sitting in one of those chairs where you put your face on a cushion with a hole where your nose goes.

Then I started to wonder: How is it good for the earth when thousands of people drive to a park to drink lemonade made from imported lemons and sugar and to buy imported t-shirts with slogans on them and to parade about with a pig on a leash? Not very good, I'd say. For one thing, the park was a mess when we left, muddy and covered with litter. If all these people spent the same amount of time reducing, re-using and re-cycling, we could really say we've done something to save the Earth.

So, my present routine for Earth Day is much more in keeping with the spirit of the holiday. Because it is always one of the most beautiful days of the year, I take a walk. Sometimes I call a neighbor and we walk together.

It's like this: The Earth Day celebration at the park is where you talk about what you should be home doing. Like sharpening the blade on the push-type lawn mower so you won't have to start the gasoline one. Digging a plot in the lawn for plants so you'll have less to mow. Planting a garden along the driveway. Rigging up a rain barrel by the garage so you can water the garden with it.

On Earth Day, make a list of things you can do, personally, over the next few months and years. The list should be as simple as remembering to recycle instead of dragging things out to the trash. Using fluorescent light bulbs to replace old bulbs that have burned out. Buying a thriftier car when your old one dies. Riding your bike or public transportation twice as much as you did last year. Rigging up a switch to turn off appliances like TVs and microwaves that are always shining a little light.

Replacing your hot water heater, refrigerator and other appliances with more efficient ones when the old ones die is a simple strategy. Don't do it before they die, though. As much as one-third of the energy used by an appliance or vehicle in its lifetime is used during production. That means that it's a waste of resources to replace one before its time. But when it's time, go for the most energy-efficient one you can get.

In my opinion, the best thing anyone can do for the planet is to stay home. Traveling is an acceptable modern addiction, now that everyone's given up smoking and coffee and whiskey, and it's so easy and numbing to fly off here and there for pleasure, arrive, have lunch, and feel like we've accomplished something.

Staying home means entertaining yourself, maybe hanging out with your family -- yikes! -- or your neighbors. It means hearing your neighbors' stories and finding out what they need and what they want in the future. It means developing trust, even trusting the hippie in the trailer, the born-again Mom that says "Have a blessed day" or the old recluse with the flea-bitten dog.

I have artsy neighbors, bookish neighbors, athletic neighbors, neighbors with too many kids and old neighbors that love a visit now and then. Your neighborhood is just as interesting.

"A good community ... insures itself by trust, by good faith and good will, by mutual help," says the bard (Wendell Berry) "It depends on itself for many of its essential needs and is thus shaped, so to speak, from the inside -- unlike most modern populations that depend on distant purchases for everything and are thus shaped from the outside."

Sometimes my neighbors are a bit of a nuisance, I'll admit. Once in a while they ask me to do something I don't have time for or they insist that I take something home with me that I don't want. I have a pile of things by the door that I need to return, which reminds me of a special tradition -- the neighborhood holiday. Around here, we have one called "Return Your Neighbor's Stuff Day" the second Saturday in June. The slogan is something like, "if you return it, you'll know where it is next time you need it."

Anyway, good communities, and energy-saving homes, don't just happen by accident. They take consideration and attention. You can start solving the puzzle -- on Earth Day!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2007

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