Living Local - a day for possibilities

Randy Udall
Guest speaker Randy Udall, an energy expert and activist from Colorado, stressed the urgency of the energy crisis and the importance of immediate action and long-term perspective. Photos by Susan Safford

By Pat Waring - May 3, 2007

For anyone who is dismayed about global warming, discouraged about the options for fixing the problem, and disheartened that it often seems the Vineyard has lost its rural essence, Saturday's Living Local event at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury was brightly reassuring. It was a day of hope, of ideals, of education, and enjoyment too.

Put together by the Vineyard Energy Project, Vineyard Conservation Society, and Island Grown Initiative, with a number of local sponsors, the carefully planned and well-attended event offered a look at many ways Vineyarders can take steps towards a more sustainable future, becoming more self-reliant while less destructive to the environment.

Jack Wallace and Charlie Pikor
Jack Wallace and Charlie Pikor root for their teammates while waiting to launch their own solar vehicles onto the track.

"Possibility" was the message and it came through loud and clear: in the words of scheduled speakers, the wealth of exhibitors on rural living and environmentally friendly technology, and the exuberance of the dozens of children outdoors, cheering on their solar-powered model cars, confidently demonstrating in no uncertain terms that there is another, better way.

Guest speaker Randy Udall, an energy expert from Colorado and John Abrams of South Mountain Co., a veteran environmental and energy activist on the Island, set the tone with their inspiring and challenging talks to an overflow crowd in the front meeting room. By the time the main hall was opened audience members were totally ready and anxious to explore the many tools and ideas offered there.

"Every human being now is inhaling a portion of the emissions of all people who have come before," said Mr. Udall, explaining that greenhouse gases are such a dangerous threat because they endure so long. Warning that global warming could lead to extensive land loss and species annihilation if preventive action is not taken soon, he said that human activity is greatly responsible for the crisis: "We're cannibalizing the climate on which we depend."

John Abrams
John Abrams called for "bold and outrageous initiative," a sense of freedom, and great patience in facing the looming energy challenges.

Mr. Udall said change demands a shift in cultural thinking, a challenge for a society that has considered North America to be blessed with abundance of every kind and has not had to worry about energy consumption. Just as civilizations through history have had their own identity, Americans, he said, have become the oil people. He said that renewable energy sources must be tapped and predicted that in time "all over the United States we will be planting wind turbines as if they were trees."

"How are you going to go forward? Fifty, 100, 200, years from now...what are you going to run on?" Mr. Udall questioned, stressing that the dilemma is an ethical one, that we are responsible for future generations, and must take a long view.

Bella El-Deiry
Bella El-Deiry visits the pit stop table to make some last-minute adjustments to her solar car, The Cruiser.

Recalling work by the Vineyard Energy Resource Group 30 years ago, Mr. Abrams emphasized the urgency of today's crisis and said humans must use their great capabilities to change things. "As a culture, we've got big work to do," he said. "The planet will surely endure, but our effort, as humans, is to determine if we want to live comfortably and cooperatively on it, or not."

"The next few decades will not be for the faint of heart, but rather for the bold and the outrageous," said Mr. Abrams, explaining that to meet the challenges ahead we must give ourselves freedom to "joyously invent." "It is our responsibility; this is our watch. It's the only chance we get."

Mr. Abrams echoed Mr. Udall's call for a shift in perspective, a new understanding of time, and our duty to look to the future, to become like cathedral builders, "people who can think beyond their own lifetimes," and meanwhile to work towards a sustainable local economy.

"I'm convinced that we will have the ability to overcome the staggering problems and tackle the tremendous opportunities we are faced with if we can combine bold and outrageous initiative with the sense of freedom that we felt in the sixties with the patience of the cathedral builders," he said. "Together, I sense that we may be able to invent a future we can all embrace. And in the end, it's all about making a path to home, digging in, and building the community - the cathedral - that we want."

An enthusiastic and fascinated crowd was on hand to cheer the solar racers on.

Making it real

While the speakers delivered ideals, information, and suggestions, the exhibitors made it all real. Some 30 vendors, consultants, and displays showed visitors new, exciting possibilities for everything from heating hot water to insulating a house, and a myriad ideas for procuring and producing home-grown food.

Father-and-son plumbers William and Bruce Haynes along with Eric Lowe outlined the benefits of solar hot water systems. Photos and charts tempted homeowners to harness the sun's energy for laundry, showers, and even heating a swimming pool. Cape Light Compact representatives offered sign-up sheets for home energy audits, lists of energy conservation ideas and "Energy Star" certified appliances, and sold a variety of low energy-use light bulbs.

Medeiros Appliance and R.D. Crane were on hand, selling energy-efficient dehumidifiers and air conditioners to customers who had already dropped off their energy-hog models for a rebate. Volunteers updated browsers about the Island Plan, an optimistic project aiming to create a vision for the Vineyard's future. Pellet stoves were on display, efficient foam insulation, locally milled lumber, and an array of wind-power and alternative energy information. In front of the hall visitors strolled among a variety of vehicles, their engines humming and chugging along fueled by biodiesel.

Nan Doty
Solar car race organizer Nan Doty announced the rules as competitors waited for the start.

A number of booths pointed the way to eating local, farm-grown food and offered both purchase and do-it-yourself-ideas. Rebecca Gilbert handed out brochures for gardening classes at her Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark. Along with various rural-arts workshops for children and adults, the farm now offers an ingenious "rent-a-hen" program. Homeowners can rent not only a portable chicken coop but also a flock of laying hens as well to enjoy the experience of home egg production.

"We're not on the fringe anymore," said Ms. Gilbert, pleased with the enthusiastic turnout. "We're getting to be more in the middle, and that's good."

Alice Early furnished information about joining the Whippoorwill Farm CSA program to support the farm while reaping a season's-worth of fresh produce. Debby Athearn explained the growing process at her family's Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. Although the fields are not yet officially certified organic, she said, many organic soil-building and pesticide-free practices are underway.

zero emissions solar cart
This zero emissions solar cart, along with a display of vehicles using bio-diesel fuel, attracted even the youngest visitors.

The informative Farm Institute booth was a hub from which children fanned out surveying people about their breakfasts and whether they included local food. Melinda deFeo, an institute staffer, gathered children and adults for a role-play demonstration using papier-mâché tomatoes and a cutout truck to show the distances produce travels to market.

Under a big, green "Living Local General Store" banner, Cronig's Market was doing a brisk business in Island-produced foods - honey, granola, pesto, pickles, bread - along with environmentally correct cleaning supplies. Clarissa Allen and her crew had a table heaped with cozy blankets and yarn from Allen Farm sheep. Freezers held meat from several farms. At the hall's far end, SBS's booth held a profusion of garden supplies from compost and seeds to praying mantis eggs and ladybugs to keep the garden insect-free. Oscar, the young son of owner Liz Packer, displayed his organic eggs for sale.

Lucy Thompson
Lucy Thompson showed her "Lucy's Wooly Wonders," yarn and fleece from her family's Thompson Farm where she tends the sheep.

Food, fun, and solar cars

Like any good festival, eating and socializing were main attractions. Some said it was a lot like the fair in many ways. Neighbors chatted about the issues and displays, children and a few dogs ran happily about, hungry folks feasted on food by Elizabeth Germain and Daniele Dominick. The menu used locally and regionally grown food with delicious results - a tangy beet, quinoa, and greens salad; a hearty lamb and root vegetable stew, chicken salad, winter squash muffins.

As noontime neared the bevy of youngsters who had been preparing for the solar car race headed for the track. Island middle school students brought their model vehicles first for judging then for a race along a straight track. The competitors spent the morning putting finishing touches on their contraptions, and then meeting with judges who awarded prizes based on design, merit, and knowledge.

Solar cars
Solar cars warm up for the big race.

"It's amazing what they can do," said Paul Karasik, one of the judges. "They use the same materials and yet no two cars look alike.

Tension was high as groups of ambitious youngsters set their cars on the track, then allowed the sun, which luckily was shining just enough to provide energy, to propel them along. Adult observers were captivated and amazed, applauding and cheering with every race.

According to Nan Doty, a whopping 160 youngsters signed up for the event, and there were 35 volunteer judges. Ms. Doty visits classrooms under the auspices of the Vineyard Energy Project and Cape Light Compact to educate students about solar energy and related subjects. Further fruits of this project were the imaginative drawings by students depicting alternative energy and sustainable living, which were displayed in the hall.

"We feel like a small vanguard sometimes," said Mr. Udall when asked at day's end whether there is sufficient concern about environmental threats to make a real difference. He said that dramatic environmental changes and challenges are coming and that he believes there are many groups throughout the country poised to respond. "Energy is going to absolutely dominate every aspect of our lives going ahead," he said. "We'll have a higher quality of living, but we'll measure it in a very different way."