Stand up for what you stand on

Resource preservation: Household and garden practices impact our ponds. All the south shore great ponds are especially vulnerable because of limited tidal exchange. Of the full tidal ponds, Lagoon Pond has had problems due to the large amount of development in the watershed and also somewhat poor tidal flushing. Everything goes somewhere. — File photo by Susan Safford


As you look at your home, its grounds and structures, what kind of investment in maintenance are you looking at? How are things going to hold up, not only during your own natural tenancy, but also over the life of the property?

In observance of the first Earth Day, 40 years ago today, a small band of Island miscreants gathered roadside trash and delivered it to the front steps of the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown. In due course various representatives of John Law processed them and the affair ended up in court. It would be laughable to know the youthful miscreants’ identities (those with good memories do!), as they are today pillars of our community.

However, the message of Earth Day (one day out of 365 days when we become piously concerned about the home planet), intended to provoke thought, then as now continues to be ignored and elicits arrests rather than change. It is both complicated and vast, or must be reduced to very simple concepts.

Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seat belts, lots of room in coach, and really good food.

But all that is changing. Paul Hawken, the entrepreneur and ecologist, said in a commencement address: “Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation…but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last 30 years can refute that statement.

“Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades. This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.”

Important today is modeling the behaviors that are desirable in that new operating system; and in terms of the personal sphere, our homes and gardens, what we do may make a large difference in our own life and health, even if we feel that it is only a drop in the bucket in the context of society at large.

The prospect of change from the familiar to the unknown is unsettling. There is a great deal of debate, much of it likely manufactured, about such issues as climate disruption, the existence of acid rain, and the future of energy and peak oil. It is designed to sow confusion about the need to make any changes and encourages clinging to the old “business as usual” paradigm.

This is the habit of thought that has been likened to the Titanic steaming along toward the iceberg, secure in the knowledge it was unsinkable. Small, individually based lifestyle changes are termed “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Cultivating thinking in terms of sustainability is sensible. As you look at your home, its grounds and structures, what kind of investment in maintenance are you looking at? How are things going to hold up, not only during your own natural tenancy, but also over the life of the property? Have you arranged the various elements in simple, easy-to-maintain fashion? Does maintenance place you and your family in contact with toxic substances? Are systems thought out so you can do it yourself, or do you need to hire experts? Training oneself to think sustainably extends to the financial sphere. Can you continue a certain lifestyle if the rosy future it is based on fails to materialize?

Make KISS your mantra: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Think hurricane aftermath that lasts for months, not days. The privilege of cheap energy has endowed us with the equivalent of dozens of personal slaves, and contemplating life without “them” is so unthinkable. How would your place function if “they” became non-existent or unaffordable? Plan the scale of your house and grounds to maintenance you and your partner or children can carry out.

My own idea is that food comes first: live in a fashion or place where you can grow yourself something to eat. Plan your property so it contains an organic garden that could produce vegetables. If home is an apartment, survey your deck or balcony. If your yard can only hold one tree, make it a fruit tree.

Stand up for what you stand on.

Abigail Higgins writes the bi-weekly Garden Notes column for The Times.