Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Detour Number One – The On-Campus Undergrad Years

In 1971 I was off to college in a not-too-distant city under stress, with a country torn apart by the war going on. But I soon found out that being a somewhat green student was one thing that required hardly any thought or effort.

With “The Summer of Love” still in the air it was possible to get by on most days with a wardrobe consisting of a couple of pairs of jeans (the more worn and covered in patches the better), a half dozen peasant blouses, and several pairs of leather footwear that could be repaired if the heels wore down. For warm weather outdoor studying, the outfit became denim cut-offs and a top made by tying together two bandanas. Jeans were worn tight in those days, necessitating a bit of diligence to ensure that they would still fit. There were dress requirements for certain occasions, so a couple of more formal outfits were also necessary. But the typical small closet and dorm room chest of drawers proved more than adequate.

There was no IKEA. Bookcases of boards and concrete block were the fashion, but my dad would have none of that for his daughter. My budget-restricted family knew how to recycle before the word was invented. My dad and I scrounged the local auctions for a bookcase that we refinished (and which I still have today), he fabricated a table out of a mammoth cable spool and a plywood top (parts from work), and cobbled together a lamp of various salvaged items residing in our basement. I must have made quite a fashion statement when I arrived on the scene, but no one else had provided any furniture, and the other three suitemates were also on a budget. So together we scoured the campus upperclassmen’s sales for the rest of our needs, including one very uncomfortable Victorian couch which turned out to be a valuable antique (sold to a parent, at a profit, at year’s end).

Our electrical use was minimal. We had a stereo, a radio, and some desk lamps. Alarm clocks were wind-up (and ticked very loudly). We did have an illegal device for making hot water for tea. Only a few students had TVs. Computers, microwaves and dorm fridges were part of the distant future. There was not much we could do about the inefficient heating system or the leaky single-paned windows. But we conserved energy as we could, by remembering to turn off the lights.

As for actually recycling… I do recall a movement to recycle the paper on campus, but not any way to recycle bottles or cans (and no bottle deposits in CT until 1978). On the upside, because of the draft, the drinking age was 18 during most of these years, so beer was served openly at campus functions, in large measure Hull’s Export (brewed in New Haven despite the name) which was dispensed from kegs. There was far less packaging. Nothing was shrink-wrapped, and most courses relied on books that you could resell at the end of the semester or packets that you read at the library. And on move-out day the piles of stuff were much smaller than they are now.

Only upperclassmen on the wealthy side had cars. There was no organized network of shuttle buses. So you largely relied on your feet or a bicycle to get around campus. And if you wanted to go somewhere like Boston or New York you walked to one of two bus depots or Union Station to catch your choice of transport.

I found my dream campus job – helping to care for objects housed in Yale’s Mabel Brady Garvan Furniture Study. I shined pewter, worked my feather duster and catalogued wood samples in this quiet sanctuary. And it was here I cultivated a love of design and first learned of the Shakers and their sustainable lifestyle.

Now for the food part. In the 70s the Culinary Institute of America was situated in a mansion on the outskirts of the Yale campus. Many of its students worked in the Yale dining halls where food was abundant, and quite tasty. Students ate breakfast. Meat was served at every meal. Eventually, the administration yielded to demands for meatless choices, and the health food option came into being. On weekday evenings, a vegetarian selection was offered in one line at the freshman dining hall, Commons. It was a feel-good experience to dine there. You would trek over with like-minded friends to partake of rice and beans (pretty much the same menu every day). The food was rather tan and tasteless; there were only a few hard-core regular patrons. For those who dabbled, it was a bit like doing penance for all the cheeseburgers you had eaten on the days in between visits. But it was a step in the right direction, a precursor of Alice Waters and the Yale Sustainable Food Movement, several decades in the future.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The journey begins

Welcome to my blog!

I've been on the road to greenness for quite a while now, but have taken many detours on the way to where I am today. You might say that my trip began on the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970, when I attended a teach-in at my suburban Boston high school. Subsequent actions included my first editorial (in the student underground newspaper), research papers on air pollution and a brief correspondence with the mayor of Boston, lobbying for a recycling program in town, urging everyone I knew to ride a bike or use public transportation more, and wearing the appropriate button calling for an end to nuclear power.

The concept of climate change was far in the future, the fish we ate was abundant and came from Gloucester or Cape Cod, DDT had been exposed in Silent Spring and would soon be banned, and the rivers were getting cleaner. Garlic and most of our produce still came from the USA (if you count California, a far distant place where Levis were made.) Steroids were not part of the food system, and antibiotics were for sick people, or animals, not a prophylactic so livestock could be raised in confinement. Cars were dirty, but most families had just one. People lived a short distance from where they worked or needed to go. I (and most everyone I knew) had not yet flown on a plane. The enemies of the planet were corporate America and the government which did not contain their greed. Boycotts and marches were the usual forms of protest, black ink on cheap paper the means of rallying the masses. Things looked a little grim, but hope was in the air.