Click here for more stories from No Impact Week.
The week so far:
Click here for more stories on Day 1: Consumption.
Los Angeles, California
This is my hypothesis:
I will become more mindful about the small choices I make throughout any given day about how I am impacting the environment. I'm also worried that I'm going to end up neurotic about it.
I'm worried that I'm going to end up neurotic about it... mainly because I'm going to suck at it. Already, as I sit here writing this list, I'm panicking about the silliest things.
Like meat—every time I try to eat vegetarian, I rebound after two days and end up eating two steaks and a hamburger. I crave it even worse—which is ridiculous because I had the recent realization that at least two thirds of my meals are vegetarian. It's almost like the more I worry, the less effective I am.
And I look at the list of things to buy this week—new fences, wire for the seeds, etc ... My original plan was to get up tomorrow morning, pack up the fam so we could drive over to Home Depot to buy the damn things. And I feel horribly disappointed that I can't just go get them. I want them now.
But I will go to freecycle and see if anyone has them. And if they do—cool. And if not, I don't really need them.
Oh, the conflict.
And the holiday cards. I didn't send them out this year yet. I usually wait until the holidays are over, so it's time for me to complete this task, but I'm totally torn about it. All that paper and envelopes and money towards stamps...and time! I could easily create an online version, but that would be breaking with tradition. And then I think: how would I get a holiday card to my family who don't use email or Facebook?
Oh, the conflict.
Maybe I can do this after all. Well, at the very least, I can be one of those people Colin Beavan calls for "who wants to try."
I got this a few weeks ago when I was in the middle of reading the first few chapters of No Impact Man.
Just today, my husband dropped it by accident. It's cracked pretty badly, but not so much that I can't use it.
The me of last week would probably have thrown it out and bought a new one.
The me of experiment week knows it's against the rules.
The me of next week will keep it.
Gratitude: Day 1
As a teacher and a mother to a four-year-old daughter, I try to be conscientious about environmental issues. After I finished reading No Impact Man on Christmas, I was blown away by the realization that maybe I'm not trying hard enough. I stumbled upon No Impact Week just last week, and as I scrambled to prepare for the experiment—first by taking the survey—my suspicions were confirmed: The garbage is everywhere. Stuff is everywhere. TV is everywhere. Fortunately, it turns out that even after only one day of changing my shopping habits (namely by choosing not to), my family can change, too.
- My daughter saying, "I know what I could do instead of watching TV! I could help you cook dinner."
- Playing ball chase in the hallway with my hubby and daughter.
- 20-minute power walk in the rain. Stress decompress. Ahhhh.
- My daughter saying, "We could read a bunch of books!"
The fact that I made much more of an effort to make numbers 1-4 happen because of No Impact Week.
for more stories on Day 2: Trash.
Meditations on Pancakes, Muddy Waters and Cardboard Boxes
In my family, I'm the cook. I like this role. My husband does the fixing, the cleaning, the organizing, and I get to be the one to make the mess. And I'm a good cook—or at least, I've gotten better over the past few years with a lot of trial and error. But there are two things I, historically, have not been very good at making: rice and pancakes. I always burn them. The rice dilemma was solved by a birthday present from my aunt this past year—a rice cooker. Now we have rice at nearly every meal, and it's the fluffiest, most flavorful rice I've ever had. All I have to do is measure the rice and water, pour it in, and press a button. Voilà. Now I can cook rice.
Pancakes are another story. For the past few years, we've either eaten them out, or I've just bought them frozen. But, here I am, just having finished reading Colin Beavan's No Impact Man, and having chosen to take part in the experiment of No Impact Week, trying to figure out how to lessen the amount of trash I produce. I'm looking around me and I see frozen food, wrapped in plastic and cardboard boxes. It's ridiculous.
One of the sources of all this trash is frozen food, particularly pancakes. So as part of my quest (and I quote my husband) "to save the world one plastic bag at a time," I decided that I was going to make pancakes. With a mix. From a paper bag, an egg, water, oil, and a little yogurt. No plastic. No paper. I decided to cook them and then freeze them (in the bag I saved from the inside of a cereal box last week) so I wouldn't have to buy the expensive, mediocre, frozen ones. (By the way, the bag of pancake mix has been sitting in our cabinet for perhaps a year. Its expiration date is September 2010. And now, I quote my step-dad, "They just put those things on there to make you throw it out and buy another one." Indeed.)
So, there I was at the stovetop, pouring the mix onto the cast iron skillet, when I had the realization that I was spacing out and my pancakes were burning. That's why I'm not good at making pancakes. Unlike the other dishes I make—soups, casseroles, even burgers, where you can throw it together, put on the heat, set the timer and know that you're done—pancakes need attention. You have to watch closely. You have to keep your eyes open for the bubbles and the browning crust. You cannot be distracted.
Otherwise, this happens:
So, I cleared all other thoughts from my mind and started to focus on the pancakes, and only the pancakes. I had slow blues—Muddy Waters and James Cotton—playing in the background, and I felt my breath slowing down. It takes a while for them to cook. The bubbling comes slowly, but when it does come, you cannot miss the opportunity to flip them. I watched the pancakes, waiting and breathing, waiting and breathing. I had the sudden realization that I was meditating on them. I was focused, and I was patient. I felt so utterly calm.
I ended up with these:
Yes. Yes, they are perfect pancakes. No cardboard box. No plastic. Made by hand. By me.
Then again, when I served them to my family, my daughter said: "I like the pancakes that have black all over them." As it turns out, perfection is a relative concept, after all.
Still, now I know how to make pancakes—I have come to the realization that all you need is a slow, deep breath and some good ol' Muddy Waters. Realizations like this don't come out of a cardboard box.
No Impact Day One Recap: Trash Day
On Sunday, I ended up with three containers of trash—I would say about a third of it will head to the compost, a third will be recycled, and a third will end up in the dump. The thing is, I mostly stayed home, and I only collected my own trash (not my family's). I feel like on any given work day I produce much more than this. Even today, I went into work and I repeatedly and automatically forgot to either air dry or use my handkerchief after washing my hands. I just went for the paper towel. Breaking habits is hard.
Gratitude: Day 2
I'm trying to be grateful, but instead, I'm mostly worried. This is what I worry about today: Not the necessarily the little plastic wrapper around my crackers as much as I just found out that two of my closest family friends—mother and son—were diagnosed cancer in the past six months.
I spoke to her on the phone today. "No matter what you do, you can't protect your kids," she said. "As much as you try, as much as you want to, you just can't." Her voice cracks. She starts to cry. I think of my daughter. "He's only forty, you know?" And then she stopped. "But he's going to be okay." There's so much uncertainty in her voice.
We talked about angels—my parents, her parents, the other ones we've lost. We wish that they exist. We wish that they are out there, somewhere.
But then, I come home, pull up to my driveway and find two plastic bags, both filled with flyers for stores, soliciting business on my doorstep (even though we have a no soliciting sign).
It's just garbage, in the guise of advertising, thrown haphazardly onto my property. I don't know how the two connect—my friends who have cancer and these mounds of rain-soaked paper wrapped in plastic. I don't know that they do. But I know that they both make me angry. I know that this anger makes me want to protect something.
So I will. Somehow. But I must also stop and think about gratitude. The experiment demands it.
So, here's my list for today:
- My daughter asked for "Bunch O' Book" time instead of watching TV.
- I really like palm trees.
- It turned out that the chicken sausage I had planned on cooking for dinner went bad, so I ended up cooking a vegetarian meal composed of scrambled cheesy eggs, yams, sauteed beet greens and homemade mac n' cheese. My husband toasted himself a pancake from the day before and declared that this was the "best meal" I'd made in a while. "I love brinner!" he said. (Breakfast for dinner). So, I am grateful for brinner and successful vegetarian meals.
- The fact that my cat purrs really loudly.
- I have a lot of people in my life whom I love very much—and whom I worry about. That's always on the list.
for more stories about Day 3: Transporation.
This one is definitely the hardest for me. I live in the Los Angeles area. According to , the Walkability Score of my neighborhood is 52/100. That's right. An F. There's no way I would pass that student on to the next class.
But I try. My only resolution for 2011 is to exercise everyday for at least 20 minutes. It can be running, yoga, pilates, hooping, jumping jacks in the living room—whatever—but the form of exercise that I'm looking forward to is walking. And, as part of the No Impact Experiment, I figure it's a nice way to get off the grid for at least 20 minutes (if not more), to use the energy in my legs instead of sucking it out of a battery or other power source.
Yesterday I walked for 46 minutes—20 minutes uphill, 26 minutes downhill. It took a bit longer coming down because I started eyeing all this garbage trailed on lawns, sidewalks, driveways. I usually see it and just walk right by, but this experiment has got me thinking. And it started to disgust me. So I started to pick it up.
Gratitude: Day 3
- I have a job that I really enjoy.
- Pilates springboards are pretty damn cool. First time using one today.
- Awkward school photos. Kids aren't meant to hold their hands neatly by their sides.
- Dr. Bronner's Castile soap—just started using it this week—the whole house smells like lavender.
for more stories on Day 4: Food.
This is day of the No Impact Experiment that I've been looking forward to most—thinking about my food—but I feel like I'm kind of cheating because after reading Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Barbara Kingsolver about three years ago, I changed everything about how my family eats.
Most of the food that I ate on my list was from the farmers market (go me!) Still, I look at my list, and I see coffee that was canned in Italy (about 6,400 miles, not counting its country of origin, which is not stated on the label), a few things like oatmeal from heaven only knows. But I also feel like I'm a bit of a cheat because I live in California where it's easier to eat locally year round.
My big question mark came when I went out to lunch with a work colleague. The good news is we split a sandwich (goat cheese + veggies), and I had lentil tomato soup. But the problem remains that I have no idea about where it all came from. I feel better about the fact that it was all vegetarian (yay me!), and the restaurant, Novel Cafe, uses a lot of organic ingredients and tries to support ethical practices (by working with the non-profit ). (Go them!)
In the meantime, I just have to continue to try.
This is what's on the menu tonight:
- Roasted chicken (from farmers market) with potatoes, celery and onion (from farmers market)
- Lentil soup with celery, onions and peppers (from farmers market)
Did I mention that I love the farmers market?
Gratitude: Day 4
- Playing toe-people during breakfast.
- My yoga teacher, Christy Marsden and all of the lessons she has taught me and continues to teach me.
- Cardboard puppet shows put on by my daughter while I cook dinner.
- The Beatles, and hearing my daughter sing along to them. The fact that she knows all the words.
- Really good days, like today. Sometimes, a day can just surprise you!
for more stories on Day 5: Energy.
This day, most certainly, is a difficult one for me. I walk around the house and I see plugs and outlets and lightbulbs. I spend my days driving; I use the computer and my smart phone constantly; I cook in my kitchen, where all the appliances are plugged in all the time.
During the heavy storms last week, the power went out, and the first thing I did was grab my phone to post a status update. The second thing I did was light some candles. The third thing I did was log onto my computer because I couldn't think of anything else to do in the dark besides, perhaps, just sit there and enjoy the silence. The outage lasted only twenty minutes, and I spent the whole time relying on battery power.
Lame, I know.
I started thinking today about energy and electricity and oil and sunlight and heat and power and fuel. I started looking for it. And I started to see it, here and there, in the the sunlight and the shadows.
When I first received a copy of No Impact Man, I scanned the online reviews. I remember one random commentator (who obviously had not read the book), who had the nerve to comment on Colin Beavan's experiment: "What did he do? Stop breathing?"
Stop breathing. As though that's the point. As though the only way for us to save ourselves is to asphyxiate ourselves—or to decide that we have no other choice. What I've come to understand is that this program is about unplugging and logging off and all of that, but it's also about being mindful about how we use the energy—because unfortunately, we will still use it in one way or another.
But when the car is parked, we have to use our legs. When the TV is off, we have to listen to one another. When the lights are off, we have to use look deeper, perhaps even inside ourselves. We have to breathe more, not less. It's not about holding our breaths; it's about deciding how to use our breath appropriately.
The sun's going down, now. Once it does, my intention tonight is to try, try, try to unplug, log off, shut down. No lights. No computer. No TV. No phone. (My hand started to tremble a little as I wrote that.)
It's going to be hard. Really hard. I won't blog or twitter or update or anything. One night. I can do it. I think.
Gratitude: Day 5
I wrote this last night by candlelight, as part of my "off the grid" evening.
- Sunset walks
- Bunch o' books
- The people in my life who support my crazy whims
(hubby, friends, family.)
for more stories on Day 6: Water.
The other day, while she was splashing in the bathtub, my daughter said to me, “Is water magic?”
“What? Why?” I said. It was the day before No Impact Day Six, with its focus on water, and I was a little creeped out by her four-year-old ability to read minds.
“Is water magic?” she repeated, demanding to know.
“Well, yes,” I said. “Yes it is.”
“How is it magic?”
“Well, we can drink it and cook with it and it makes plants grow and us grow and everything healthy and strong.”
“No. That’s not why.” Oh, the contrariness of a child.
“No?” I asked. "Then why is it magic?”
“I’m not sure,” she concluded, after thinking about it for a moment. “It just is.”
She’s right. Water is magic. I didn’t do well in high school chemistry class, but I do remember something about molecules and atoms and their function as a universal solvent. Even if I don't fully understand it, I do respect it. Having grown up in Chicago where I learned to use Lake Michigan as a guide for my inner compass, awareness of water is ingrained in me. After living in Los Angeles for ten years, I still turn east to find the water.
I thought this one would be easy. I completed the , thinking, I’m going to ace this one. Over the past few years, we’ve replaced a good 90 percent of our lawn with native and perennial plants. We have low-flow toilets. I timed myself in the shower: three minutes 30 seconds, flat. We turn the water off when we brush our teeth, and all that good stuff.
As I was taking the water survey, I was surprised by the questions about my food choices, my driving habits, and my recycling. What did this have to do with water? Still, I thought, no problem – I shop at farmers markets, my family all drives hybrids, and we recycle everything!
Instead, it told me:
Congratulations! You've completed the calculator, here are your results:
Your total household water use is 4,588.75 gallons per day.
Your individual water use is 1,147.19 gallons per day.
In comparison, the average American uses 1,190.5 gallons of water per day.
Say what?! My hubby and I sat there perplexed, racking our brains for how we could waste so much. The fact of the matter is, water is everywhere. It seeps into every aspect of our lives. I knew its importance, but I don't think I ever realized this fact before. It’s necessary to produce our food, move our cars, make our clothes, and keep us clean and living and healthy. The recent downpour in L.A. over the past few weeks, for which we were so grateful, leaked into our house and led to water damage in our closets that was so bad that we have to have the walls ripped out and renovated next week.
It’s necessary and yet so elusive at the same time.
After my daughter gets out of the bathtub, she has a revelation.
“Mommy! I realized why water is magic!”
“Really?” I ask, eager to hear her newfound knowledge. “Why?"
“Because it turns girls into mermaids. That’s why.”
Ah. The old mermaid theory. If only it were that easy.
Gratitude: Day 6
I asked my hubby to help me think about gratitude and what we should be grateful for together.
"What are you grateful for?" I asked.
"Clean drinking water," he said.
"Okay," I said. "That's good. But it doesn't necessarily have to be No-Impact-themed or anything."'
"I know," he said. "But I really am grateful to have clean drinking water."
So, in the spirit of today's focus (with more on it tomorrow), I'll say that the five things I'm grateful for today are:
1. Clean drinking water.
2. My morning walk in the fresh air with one of my best friends.
3. Homemade veggie burgers. So much better than out of the box.
4. Standing in my front yard talking to my most wonderful neighbors.
5. Brussels sprouts. Even though, historically, I've hated Brussels sprouts, I bought them at the farmers market on Sunday in an effort to be open to new experiences. But then, every time I opened the fridge this week, I pretended not to see them. I'd open the muslin bag and then close it, stuffing them back under the arugula and celery. Finally, tonight, as we were running low on options per the no-shopping pledge, I threw them in the oven with olive oil, salt and pepper. Result? Freakin' awesome. We ate them all up. We're having them again tomorrow.
By the way, when I asked my hubby to tell me what else he's grateful for, he said, "I'm always grateful for you and M."
I'm always grateful for him, too.
for more stories on Day 7: Giving Back.
In an effort to take part in the seventh day of No Impact Week, Giving Back, I searched to find some kind of event or activity I could do that would be appropriate for my four-year-old to take part in as well. Alas, I couldn’t find anything. Instead, I took lead and had the thought that maybe we could go clean a public place: a beach or a park or even a street, something that would help my daughter take part in the challenge and would be a lesson in giving back.
After the water challenge on Friday, I decided that I’d like it relate to water, since I felt like I had kind of failed the challenge. I didn’t want to drive to the beach because I didn’t want to waste gas (or, as it turns out the water that’s required to produce the gas that fuels my car). Then I had the idealistic brainstorm: we live less than a mile away from the L.A. River. I envisioned us with our gloves and bags collecting mounds of trash with superhero capes blowing in the breeze as the newly-liberated, clean water flowed down and down to the ocean. Yes: We would clean the L.A. River.
At first, various friends and neighbors tried to warn me away from the endeavor (Watch out for transients! It’s too dirty! Oh no - too dangerous!). Fortunately, we live next door to an equally idealistic neighbor, Tessa, who walks every day down by the river. To quote my daughter, "Tessa knows all about birds and the ducks!"
We’ve lived here for ten years, and we’ve always talked about joining her. But for one reason or another, we’ve never made it happen. When I asked her opinion on where I should take my daughter, she jumped at the chance to take us. We set a date: Saturday morning, 11 a.m.
So on Saturday morning, Tessa, my husband, my daughter, and I convened on our front steps, bundled up—stroller and all—to walk into the crisp January air. In Los Angeles, that feels like everyone else’s autumn. There we were, on our way to the river.
But of course, it wasn’t going to be easy. Not much ever is. The first challenge we encountered was just getting there. We, quite literally, had to jump hurdles to get to Griffith Park, which the river runs through. We faced: sidewalks that drop off nearly two feet so that our stroller couldn’t make it without all of us lifting it over; a dangerous, single file sidewalk with cars fresh off the freeway screeching and zooming past us; construction barriers in the middle of this same sidewalk that marked a car accident that had occurred sometime in the past few weeks; and a hurdle of the blocked off horse trails. We had to lift the stroller over the fence in order to access the path. Just getting to Griffith Park alone was the opposite of user friendly. Thankfully there were three of us to maneuver the landscape. If I had been alone – a mom simply wanting to walk her kid to the park – it would have been impossible.
We took the horse trail down to a tunnel that led us down a dark path to the river.
Oh wait – the horse trail. Can’t forget about that. It was right next to the freeway. It was loud. There was trash everywhere. Ah, nature in L.A.
We made it down the horse trail, through the tunnel, to the site of our pilgrimage: the L.A. River. My daughter saw it, became instantly excited, and ran to the fence. “STOP!” I yelled.
Our first greeting was rusted barbed wire that was positioned three-feet high, right at her eye level.
We continued to walk on the now concrete path, underneath transformers with the cars on the freeway still blasting by. In our effort to talk to one another, I found we were all yelling over the din. I asked my daughter if she thought it was pretty. She nodded. “It’s kind of stinky though,” she said. “It smells like poopoo.” I laughed first and then had the thought again: “This is nature?”
We walked further down, back toward the bridge over which we had come, and Tessa led us down the concrete wall to the river itself.
I would very much like to write this: We arrived. It was extraordinary. It was Shangri-la, found in LA. It was a bit dirty, but the birds were singing, and we were weeping, and then we cleaned up all the garbage, and all was well with the world.
Nope. That’s not what happened.
It’s a strange place, this L.A. River of ours. It’s lined with concrete, but in this little area, it has a natural bottom that allows the trees to grow. It’s January, so the water is fairly high. There are trees and plants and, yes, birds of all kinds, but it’s also trashed – really trashed – and it’s one of the saddest and most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
We sit down and look around. Tessa starts to name all of the birds: herons, mallards, American widgeons, great white egrets, cormorants, blackbirds, buffleheads, stilts, and coots. Green herons sit in trees. Brewer’s blackbirds swarm over our heads. The mallards wade in for the special food we’ve brought. The stilts wobble over too, on their precarious, thin red legs, their funny little chirps drowning out the freeway behind us. Tessa describes how these black-necked stilts can pick up their babies under their wings and walk around with them. Unlike songbirds, who get fed by the mother birds, river birds are born knowing how to forage for bugs and such. But the poor little stilts get really tired. They walk around eating, and then they start to stagger. That’s when the mama and papa birds pick them up under their wings, the tiny grey legs sticking out from underneath.
We look over towards the river and see an osprey dive into the water to pull out a giant fish.
“It’s like National Geographic down here,” my husband says.
My daughter asks if she can touch the water, and I start to shake my head, my maternal instincts screaming a “Hell, no!” Tessa explains, though, that it’s all reclaimed water flushed out by the city. “You can’t drink it,” she says. “But it’s actually pretty clean.”
“The first three days of the rain, forget it, though,” she continues. “It’s orange. The rain washes in all of the toxins from the street. It’s all the gunk that accumulates in the streets during the summer. On those days, I come down here, and I think the ducks must be just dying.”
We sit there for a while.
Then, my daughter asks, “Aren’t we going to clean up the river?”
Right. Our giving back part. I was too busy taking it all in.
And then I realize, it’s actually pretty clean, at least on our side of the river. I haven’t really seen much trash, except for cigarette butts and little pieces of Styrofoam. I don’t know what we’re going to do in order to give back. There’s trash in the river, to be sure – but it’s all on the other side of the rushing water, none of which we will be able to get to. I see shopping carts and balloons and paper and cans and, of course, hundreds of ripped plastic bags.
“We have to clean, Mommy,” my daughter insists. “That’s why we’re here.”
We start to scour our little patch of river for trash. We walk up and down the banks, and as we do, we discover many things – cracked credit cards and pieces of plastic and nails and screws and feathers and a padlock and more cigarette butts and a seashell and, and most chilling of all, a bullet.
Tessa shows us the microcosms of moss and holly that have grown into the square patches of dirt in the concrete.
“I love this place for its tenacity,” she says.
That’s the word. The best word to describe it: tenacity.
Tessa shows us the killdeer and explains how the adults position themselves between their babies and the predator, and then they act like they’re dying so that the predator tries to attack them instead. “They’re basically risking their lives for their babies,” Tessa says.
In other words, these killdeer will do anything to secure their future, their existence. There’s an instinct there, one that each of us was born with – that as part of our existence, we must work hard, harder than anything, avoid unnecessary suffering, and protect our children from such suffering. We’ve lost our instincts, I think. Why are we killing ourselves? Shouldn’t we know better?
We stay there for almost three hours, picking at bits and pieces of garbage, throwing them into our bag. I yearn to be in the middle of the rushing water sweeping the river clean of the terrible refuse that surrounds the beautiful birds. I’d need a superhero cape to get there.
On the way back home, we decide to clean the horse trail, since our venture down to the river yielded little returns.
“We’re cleaning up the whole wide world for mother earth,” my daughter says to me.
Tessa describes this riverbed as a “little universe.” It’s such a tiny universe, this broken river that lives near our house, and yet it does contain so much – of our livelihoods, of our health, of our hope. I want to clean it so much more than I can.
for more stories on Day 8: Eco-Sabbath
Good morning, world!
Day 8: Gratitude
1. Going to bed at 8:30, falling asleep at 9, and waking up at 5:40 completely well-rested. Note to self: Must do this more often.
2. Adding to gratitude list from Saturday night, I can't believe I forgot the amazing bananas foster, made by Sequential Matt. YUM.
3. Talking to new people at the playground, and those new people's little green and yellow friends.
4. Cooking dinner with my step-dad, Ray: Meatloaf made with grass-fed beef from the farmers' market, my new favorite thing, Krazy Ketchup (it's all veggies!) and bread crumbs made with the crusts of my daughter's sandwiches. (Don't worry, I cut them off before she licked them.)
5. Eco-sabbath days, even though they're more exhausting than they sound.
No Impact Week with YES! Magazine
I am one of those people who wants to make a change, but I often feels frustrated, thinking that my actions might not have any effect. No Impact Week allows me to contribute, as best I can, to the collective effort of how we regard each other as neighbors on this fragile planet. I'm in constant wonder about the words and choices and smiles and questions that tie us to each other, and how we can use that desire to connect to make a positive impact on the environment. I know that we need a sweeping level of change to occur, but I also know that progress can be made incrementally, one action at a time.
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