Click here for more stories from No Impact Week.
So far this week:
Click here for more stories on Day 1: Consumption.
Welcome to Alamosa, Colorado, where the wind chill was -26 last night. My husband, Muck, and I are participating in the No Impact experiment during the coldest week of the year… so far.
Alamosa is located in the San Luis Valley (SLV) of South Central Colorado—four hours from a major airport—in a high-alpine valley surrounded by mountains. The small, rural community is supported primarily by agriculture, ranching, a four-year college, and a large social service and non-profit network. The six counties of the SLV are among the poorest in the nation. Both my husband and I were brought to the SLV as Americorps volunteers after college and worked at a local homeless shelter for two years. Muck is now a food bank network director, and I work as the Coordinator at our local Early Childhood Council.
The SLV is home to a diverse group of people. There is a surprisingly large contingent of transplants, like myself, who were brought here through long-term volunteerism. We maintain a close community. They tend to be focused on simple and green living, and are quite an inspirational group. The community is about half Hispanic and half White, with both Hispanic and White descendants of settlers from Latter Day Saints to Amish. Modern-day migrants include Mexican laborers who are working the fields, and a growing community of Guatemalans.
I don't sense resistance to living green as much as indifference. People are rather poor, so why would they make their lives harder by having one more thing to think about? However, due to the remoteness and isolation of our community there is a supportive and strong bartering and sharing network already going on.
My co-workers are mostly baby boomers, and for them green living is a change in mindset. Because they want to save money and resources it's a conversation they are willing to have. It comes down to remembering things like double-sided printing and replacing bottled water with glasses from the local thrift store. I've found that I really need to let go of some things so as not to be a caustic, nagging… well, you know.
So, for today, the first day, Muck and I made our list of things we want to buy this week. Our first decision was to cancel our Netflix subscription. Almost everything else on our list we can hold off purchasing, make do without or borrow—including a new pillow, a larger indoor clothes drying apparatus, and contact lenses.
Muck and I want to recharge our mindset. We feel like we’ve grown somewhat stagnant in our efforts at green living. However, there are many things that have become incorporated into our daily life, like “when it’s yellow, let it mellow” and bringing reusable grocery bags to the store; but we want to do more. That’s why one of the first things we agreed upon was riding our bikes to work. We have gotten out of the habit as the days grew colder, and really it’s only a 15-minute ride. But then, we checked the predicted temperature for tomorrow morning at 8am: -10.
Click here for more stories on Day 2: Trash.
All was going well, I had a bag to collect my trash, I’d ordered a pot of tea to share with a friend at the local coffeeshop, we had our mugs, and were ready to settle down to work. Then, as I was putting honey in my mug I knocked over the wooden stirrers and one fell on the floor. I hadn’t planned on using it, but as I picked it up to throw it out I realized it had to go in my bag.
“What a clumsy move,” I muttered to myself.
The day had been going well in spite of the bitterly cold bike ride to work, during which I was rather grumpy. Muck and I had prepared a place to keep all of this week’s garbage, and were separating it into three groups: Compost, Recyclables and Landfill. I’ll admit, since winter settled in, our compost pile in the backyard has been a little stagnant. But we cleaned out our bucket and put it to work again, starting with the tea leaves.
The Recyclables were being collected on the counter, but so far all we had was the can of beans we used to make burritos at lunch. In rural areas it can be difficult to recycle, simply for financial reasons. For instance, we cannot recycle our glass here in Alamosa. According to a friend, some rural communities sell their brown glass to Coors, who recycles it. But currently no one is buying any of the other colors, and it’s too expensive to have a processing plant. So, we try to purchase steel and aluminum when we can, then, to reuse the glass jars as storage. Lastly, we collect them to take with us when we leave town. My in-laws received a parting gift of several boxes of glass when they drove home last October.
Then came the outright trash: the stuff headed straight for the landfill. Muck forgot his reusable mug when he bought his latte and had to collect the paper cup, my accidental stirring stick, the two paper towels from the bathroom I used in a moment of forgetfulness, two small food packaging items, and junk mail. While the junk mail was the most annoying, when we took stock of our trash at the end of the day we were surprised to see that it was our compost that was the fullest.
We had taken a few moments to cleanse the fridge of some old food and realized that we weren’t eating the food we had purchased and made, letting it go to waste. This caused an immediate discussion about our food intentions for the week. By not consuming our food we were wasting it, and by going to the grocery store when we wanted something instead of when we needed something, we were consuming without necessity. One look in our cupboards told us that we didn’t really need much and so we decided to eat from what we already have. Our grocery list consists of five items, three of which are fresh.
There is so much more that we could write about, like how Muck cut up some old, unused t-shirts to make cleaning rags, how I cut up a ripped pair of flannel jammie pants to make panty-liners for my underwear and so on. But really, the best victory of the day happened when I sat down to write this blog and thought of that obnoxious wooden stirring stick that I knocked over. I immediately retrieved it from the trash and cut out a picture from a magazine and made my husband a humorous bookmark. I hope he likes it.
Click here for more stories on Day 3: Transportation.
We thought this one would be easy. We live less than 10 minutes from our jobs downtown, we go on runs by the Rio Grande from our house and we walk our dog down the road. But, we completely forgot about the frigid temperatures in the morning.
Yesterday I felt tough. This morning, after closing the door on my thumb because my gloved hands were so clumsy (are you noticing a pattern here?) I may have started tearing up. This was a problem because then my right eyelashes froze together. No joke. It was -1. I asked Muck to consider if maybe this was neither the most practical nor healthy way to get to work. I mean, we couldn’t even wear our bike helmets because our hats were too bulky, and there was nothing that would get me to take off my hat. Muck looked at me sideways, probably with a little smirk, but I couldn’t tell because his balaclava was pulled up over his nose, and said, “But look how tough you are!”
That made me mad. So I tried another argument:"Well this clearly isn’t good for our relationship because I kind of hate you right now.” I think he might have laughed at that point, but again, the balaclava. So I continued. “In fact I’ve decided I’m not doing this tomorrow, for the sake of our relationship.” At that point, he just peddled ahead of me, and I steamed for a few more moments until we got to my office. By then, the prospect of warmth cheered me, so I apologized and said we would talk about it on the ride home.
Alamosa, like most rural towns, does not have much of a public transportation system. There is no subway, bus, or metro. Most people drive places. However, according to a study I once read the average commute to work for our county is 10 minutes, whereas in more affluent counties of Colorado, like Elbert and Douglas, the average commute is almost triple that. It seems that with wealth comes a desire to live farther from the source of your wealth. I find this ironic.
The options for our commute are carpool, walk, bicycle, and car. It is a little ridiculous to carpool because almost all of our co-workers would have to pass our offices to pick us up, thus doubling the driving time. Walking takes a little too long, but sometimes is a nice choice. So, when the weather is nice (6 months of the year) we bike. Up until yesterday, we had been driving.
On the bike ride home I was not feeling nearly so full of resentment for agreeing to the No Impact Project, but I was cold—even with my ski pants, down coat, wool mittens, baklava, and fun hat. Muck commented on how tough we were, but I wasn’t feeling tough. Just resigned to feeling miserable. I like the heat in our car, even though it takes the same amount to time to drive as it does bike.
And with the car I can wear cute skirts with tights and fun shoes, even in winter. I can also carry whatever bag I want to work. On the bike, I can’t do any of that, as I learned this morning when my tote bag kept bumping into the front tire, actually getting caught once. But, I think I’ll persist. Maybe I’ll be tougher, maybe stronger—definitely temporarily colder; I really won’t feel like bragging about it or sharing the joys of oil-free commuting though, because I’ve now admitted to anyone who reads this how (let's be honest) I would rather take the car.
I think I will drive to work next week if it’s as cold. But this is good for me because I will resume biking much sooner than I would if I had not tried it this week. Plus, we get to savor views of the mountains and the river like we never would in the car, and neither of us miss the stress of driving, even on our short commute.
Click here for more stories on Day 4: Food.
One of the most exciting things about living where we do is local food options. We have friends on our street who have chickens, a couple about five miles up the road who raise grass-fed beef, and a woman in the next town over who sells goat milk and cheese. Now I realize that all of these are animal products, but, with the daily average temperature hovering somewhere around zero it’s difficult to find fresh local greens and veggies. Even most greenhouses are out of commission at this time of year.
Muck and I expanded our garden this past summer and were able to preserve several pounds of kale, spinach, chard, cauliflower, potatoes, and basil in the form of pesto. We also were finally able to get a decent crop of tomatoes to grow, enough that we could can tomato soup, my favorite wintertime dinner! Tomatoes are notoriously difficult to grow in our climate, due to the cool evenings and lack of humidity, especially if you aren’t planning on using chemical fertilizers. Our little freezer is so full we had to put a moratorium on adding any frozen products!
A few years ago, a large group of farmers, gardeners, ranchers, and interested citizens got together and formed the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition. Some of the main goals for the coalition have been to educate the San Luis Valley community about the benefits and pleasures of local food as well as increase access to local foods for both consumer and producer.
As one of the largest potato producing areas in the country you would think it would be easy to find local potatoes in everyone’s kitchen. Unfortunately, that is not the case. At the three chain grocery stores, and one locally owned store, you can purchase predominantly Idaho potatoes. One manager has been responsive to requests and began carrying Colorado potatoes. But the easiest way to acquire local potatoes is at the farmer’s market, which runs from July through October. The rest of the year, you have to know someone (which is pretty easy around here) or grow your own.
The slow food movement has been, well, slow to take off here in Alamosa due to its focus on wealthier consumers, and one of the biggest conversations at the Local Foods Coalition table has been the poverty pervasive to this area. Local food can be more expensive and harder to access. Social determinants of health in the U.S. show that access to and education about healthy food is largely determined by income. Typically, the higher your income, the better access you have and healthier choices you make— so you're generally healthier and take fewer trips to the doctor. But we believe local food should be a right for everyone.
Local food doesn’t have to be more expensive or located in a grocery store out of reach for people without cars or access to public transportation. In conjunction with the Alamosa Community Gardens and Greenhouse, the Local Foods Coalition is sponsoring a “Garden-in-a-Box” program where families can be nominated to receive all the tools, soil, compost, seeds and mentoring advice needed to grow a decent sized raised bed. Through a grant from LiveWell Colorado, a Grow Dome was purchased for the La Puente Homeless Shelter. The Grow Dome now provides fresh greens year-round for the guests at the Shelter.
Through Muck’s work at the Food Bank Network of the SLV, which helps support the Community Gardens, access to local and healthy food choices has increased tremendously. Whether it’s veggies from the community gardens, a canning and preserving workshop, gleaning trips to farmer’s fields, or strong partnerships with grocery stores, customers at the food bank have more fresh and healthy options than ever.
Affordable cooking with local foods can be done, but usually you replace the lesser cost with more preparation time. We grew tomatoes; we harvested, cooked and froze them months ago. This morning I took the jar of tomato soup out of the freezer to defrost while we were at work. When we got home I added some local goat milk (which we had to pick up from the drop-off site) and Muck made bread from wheat grown nearby.
Not everything was local (like the baking powder and yeast) but it was delicious, there was no waste, and it just felt good.
Click here for more stories on Day 5: Energy.
Dear Wood Stove,
How are you? I’m warm, thanks to you.
In the winter, my favorite time of the day is when I get to come home, build a fire inside of you and sit on the couch slowly warming in the same way my mother taught me to heat milk on the stove: slowly.
The house is cold when we get home, and though the dog is there to greet us, it feels empty without your heat. I’ll admit—Muck usually builds your fire, while I get distracted by reading old newspapers from my father that we use to start your fire. We recycle his intellectual pursuits to heat our cozy home—and it takes twice as long to get going when I start you because I’m catching up on news from 2009.
When we first met I was excited at the prospect of this new love and afraid that you might be a bit too much to handle. Heating only with wood? Where do we get the wood? How do we get the wood legally? What do we cut it down with? How do we know which wood to take? How do we get the wood home? What happens in the morning when it’s really cold outside and the fire has died? Will I be OK with being temporarily cold in my house? Are we being kind to the earth?
We have discovered the answers to all of these questions over the last three winters, and are still learning more. Yes, we can heat only with wood, at least while we are home. You get the wood from the forest, or purchase it from someone clearing trees (not what we want to do). You buy a permit for $10 per cord (a 4x4x8 foot pile of wood) in order to get it legally.
To cut down and then block the wood we need a chainsaw, or a hand saw which takes much longer and then an axe to chop it. We get the wood home by borrowing someone’s truck. In the mornings, when it’s really cold, we start a fire. Otherwise, as Bill McKibben says, “we heat with wool.”
We are being as kind to the earth as we are able. By only removing standing deadwood from the forest, we are not clear-cutting. Becoming 100 percent committed to heating our home with wood has made us much more aware of what we use and how we use it. As with eating local foods, you trade cost for more of your time. But that extra awareness is incredibly valuable.
Dearest wood stove, I love the way you talk. When a fire is just beginning to warm you up you are cranky like me in the morning. You stiffly creak and stretch like old bones and muscles. Once warm, the thermodynamic powers you possess cause the fan to spin, spreading your love around our house. When you cool, you stretch and contract like our dog, soft, snugly and warm. Sometimes, unlike our dog, you bite. Both Muck and I have little scars on our hands from when we accidentally touched you. But still we love the way you convert our sweat and dead trees into a feeling, both physical and emotional.
We love how cozy you make our home, your boxy appearance, and smiling windows. A furry black dog spread out across the couch; tea in the rocking chair with streams of morning light; weekend afternoons with a good book; games and conversations with friends; and a glass of wine in the evening. We are grateful for these memories.
Click here for more stories on Day 6: Water.
In the desert climate of the San Luis Valley, water is precious. The Rio Grande begins in our mountains, and we see it daily. It's pulsing late-winter/spring flow slows to a trickle in summer, knowing that its water still has so far to go.
To prevent waste in our house we are trying to harvest our water. We have a large 25-gallon bucket to collect extra water in the shower. We haven’t started this yet because I forgot to clean out the bucket (it’s full of leaves), but the goal is to use that water to flush our toilet “when it’s brown.” We also are turning off the water between getting wet and rinsing off, so that we suds up with the water off. It’s a bit chilly, but it makes the shower go faster too.
In college I worked for a wilderness education organization for leading backpacking and canoeing trips. During that time I did not shower. I took small baths that mostly consisted of wiping visible parts down with a small towel and very cold water. Usually, by the third day, I would braid my hair and then ignore it for the rest of the trip, covering it with a bandana around Day 5. Those mini-baths took care of most of the B.O., though my clothes smelled horrendous. My hair, however, was soft, shiny —terribly oily—and happy! No more dandruff or itchy scalp.
After my first summer of leading trips I never went back to daily showers. Back in high school I’d even gotten into the two-a-day habit during cross-country running season: one shower after the morning run, one shower after the evening run. To this day, I shower about two times a week. Not only is my naturally dry skin much happier, but also I use fewer products and less water and have more time since I don’t have to shower every day. (Plus, people always are impressed with how well I clean up on shower day! So if you like compliments, this is the way to go!). It’s a lifestyle that takes some adjustment, especially since it goes against our society’s expectations, but also because overwashed skin cells adjust by overproducing oil.
Changing your body’s habits takes time. It also helps living in a dryer climate: While visiting more humid climates in the summer we both try to washcloth-bathe in order to not offend tolerant relatives.
An ongoing debate we’ve been having regards the usage of our dishwasher. We’ve heard that, when loaded to capacity with the water and power saver on, it can use less water than washing by hand, especially when there is a huge pile of dishes by the sink. We’ve experimented with the two tub method of washing (one tub of soapy water, one tub of clean to rinse), but with the large pile that accumulates between working adults and friends coming over, the water dirties quickly. We’d love to hear what others have tried, especially if someone can put to rest the dishwasher thumbs-up or thumbs-down debate.