I have the problem I imagine that you have. I consume more than my fair share. I consume because it’s convenient—think, heating our large house in town; I consume because it’s socially the right thing—think a nice haircut; and I consume because I want to—think, the right shoes for each activity. So what’s my problem? That even knowing I consume more than my fair share, I still do it.
My solution? The mindset I’ve adopted to survive. But the mindset is self-serving. Maybe the mindset is the problem.
But my mindset gives me joy, I tell myself.
If I listen to that justification, I still see I have a problem. Other people’s solutions give them joy, too—and their pleasure may come from driving huge cars, eating lots of meat, wasting leftovers, and leaving the door open when the air conditioner is on.
Well, I tell myself, at least my solution reminds me to consume less.
Weak solution, but there it is.
I’m a recently retired professor of forest biology. I researched how the insides (anatomy) and outsides (form) of a tree related to its survival during challenges (drought, ice, and wind). My husband, dog, and I live about half the week in a comfortable house in the sunny or rainy town of Corvallis, Oregon. On the horizon rises Marys Peak two thousand feet above the rest of the nearest hills. Beyond Marys Peak in the folds of the Coast Range is a steep valley with an off-grid log cabin where we spend the other half of the week.
The house in town is where I’m knit socially and economically to the community. I have friendships, a book club, writers’ groups, neighbors, social media, and access to my kids in person or through media. I do errands, pay bills, make purchases. But the cabin is where most of my flashes of light recharge my soul. Insides, outsides, facing challenges—like a tree: at the cabin, I am alive.
At the cabin, an idea sweeps over me. Smirking, I jump in. The ideas are some furtherance of what I did and what I was in those years before I moved to the house in town, where career and family-making pushed my essence far from my attention.
When I was young, I was the family member who did the plant IDs. Five decades later, I fulfill a youthful whim of learning the names of all the flowering plants on the land where I live. And a new idea flings itself at me: to record the first flowering dates for these 327 species. And, because I see which species are native, which ones aren’t, and which non-natives are moving fast in our meadows, I get a new idea. Meadows are rare habitat in this area—but valuable to so many of the organisms are here. My idea is to control these encroaching weeds—remove them or at least slow them down. That smirk again.
My brother Charlie did animal IDs. For him, and now me, I get a game camera that’s activated by motion or heat. I strap it to a tree. Every visit, I rush to download the photos of those I share this land with elk, bobcats, and white-faced shambling bears. Cougars with muscular backs and enormous paws. Possums. Raccoons. Birds stare into the camera’s lens.
At the university, I taught about creeks like ours, which are habitat and food sources for such an array of native species. I taught how the water rushes too fast, cutting the creeks into troughs and preventing water from storing in the banks then seeping out, cool, in the summer. (Blame the homesteaders who pulled the wood from the creeks.) I taught how important conifer wood is to these creeks because it helps make that varied habitat again when it falls in. But poor logging (blame the homesteaders again) could result in stands that are mostly alder, whose fallen trunks decays too fast to do the creek any good. At the cabin, an idea strikes: work with the watershed council to restore the riparian area.
Back in high school, I had sheep. I spun and wove. While wading through a stand of nettles, I remember the fairy tales of damsels had to make shirts from nettles—and the idea strikes. I will give this fiber I try. It doesn’t matter what I make. I want my patience and fingers and eyes to have an experience that so many ancestors have had that I have never considered.
Let’s pick blackberries, huckleberries; make syrup from these native maples. Let’s take a bough and debark it to hang a weaving from. This morning, let’s pull native cucumber vines off a young tree so they can grow faster, shade out the invasives sooner. It’s hot this afternoon; let’s walk through the soothing water, over rocks, through sinking sand. It’s chill tonight; let’s put an eggplant in the woodstove and make babaganoush.
Back in town, I do the support for these projects. I buy notebooks and field guides, footwear for the jobs. I write proposals with the watershed council, research how to make nettle yarn, maple syrup, how to make spiles (spouts) from elderberries. (That project didn’t work so well!)(although that project didn’t work very well). I order the game camera, then look up how to make it work when all I get is elk butts and bobcat ears. I read about the life cycles of the two types of lamprey and the two types of salmon in our creek so I can watch them live, see them spawn. . I do all that, buy all that in town, then take all that to the cabin. Where I use all that.
But some days, the guilt of consumption looms over me, if I let it—like Marys Peak above Corvallis on a clear day.
And I want to shake my fist—but at what? At the guilt—which is borne of me? At our civilization—which I contribute to? But those purchases are my entry tickets into a deeper part of nature. Those gewgaws let me walk the paths that my heart imagined–but my ignorance veiled and my circumstances obstructed.
But soon, I smirk again. A reconciliation sweeps over me. I exchanged some consumption for the chance to be present, appreciative, and aware. I chose to stare up at Marys Peak, not look away. To be glad for clear skies and not hope for the fog to keep the truth muddled.
I lived long in that foggy bottom. I remember a rare snowy morning when I forced the kids to ride their bikes to school. Finally, my young daughter stopped us. “This may be working for you,” she informed me through a flurry, “but it is not working for me!” She was right. I drove the kids that day and more often after that. I consumed—but with awareness of the exchange we’d made.
I consume more than my fair share. My solution is a mindset that is the best I can do and still live. My solution is imperfect. Many expectations and practices of our civilizations need to change. I am one person giving gratitude for what I take. I am mindful of what I buy, how much I use, and its benefits.
I am a taker.
In exchange for this admission, I can live with the knowledge of that Marys Peak of excess consumption. I do not bow my head, hope for the continued fog to avoid knowledge of that peak looming over us. What I take I use well. I fill myself with wonder. I share it with my husband at the cabin, with my community in town. My solution is imperfect. I live.