Sustainable by Necessity: Traditional Lifestyles in the Modern Environmental Crisis
Throughout my life, I have had the extreme good fortune of having a close relationship with my paternal grandmother. She is one of the kindest, most caring individuals I have ever known, and I owe her so much–for practically raising me, for helping me out in multiple ways, and for just being a guiding spirit by her simple presence in my life.
But even more fortunate for me, my grandmother grew up on what you may as well call a “farm” in Waynesboro, Virginia, which is (well…”was” may be more accurate nowadays) a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was born in the mid-1920s and lived at home with a big old Appalachian family until she married my grandfather in the ’40s.
I mention all of these biographical tidbits (sorry to reveal your age, grandma!) to provide the context and background for my main point. Having grown up in this sort of an environment, my grandmother has enriched my life with countless stories of what life was like for her and her family in a time without the modern conveniences we rely on and take for granted–including electricity!!! Yes, people actually survived, even thrived without that wonderful force that magically comes out of the wall outlets when you plug something in, that brightens your room when you flick a switch, or that makes driving a little bit safer with traffic lights and so forth.
But I digress. From my childhood up to my last visit, I frequently sit with her as she reminisces, for she has some outrageous and amazing stories to share. My interest has grown ever keener, though, as I have become more involved in environmentalism and have tried to live as sustainably as possible. So I have prodded her to open up her mental treasure trove of memories and dig out lovely items for me again and again…which always proves as enjoyable for her as it does for me.
Why does any of this matter to you, dear (green) reader? Because many of those knee-slappin’ stories from the home-place contain absolute jewels of sustainability, things that glimmer like emeralds (you know, the green gems) waiting for us modern treasure hunters to pick up and put to use. Here are a few things I found most useful, hilarious, and/or praiseworthy:
- For the most part, my grandmother’s family produced all of their own food. They had cows and pigs and chickens and what have you, along with the usual (and unusual–it was the country, after all!) pets. There was a fruitful family garden, which served for all the seasons thanks to canning and preserving–that is, not freezing or refrigerating, but old-fashioned canning and preserving. There was plenty of wild stuff to use for foodstuffs, too, such as apples and pears and berries. They did buy a few things that they could not grow or make–coffee, sugar, salt, flour, etc.–but overall they pretty much fed themselves…and it was a big family.
- No electricity meant no refrigerator or freezer, but they kept perishables good with a rather ingenious, yet utterly simple, device called a “spring box.” This was a box that stayed submerged in the stream nearby, with a rope securing it to the bank. Since the water was always relatively cool, the box served as a refrigerator and helped milk, butter, and so forth from spoiling. The cellar was good, too, as a cool place for veggies and fruits.
- They even managed to make some of their own clothes. My grandmother informs me, with evident chagrin, that they were mostly the family drawers, so no designer dresses or anything like that. She even shared, with evident chagrin, that she once made a dress for my aunt out of a feedbag…and she swears that “it looked good!” Talk about reduce, reuse, recycle: Feed the chickens, clothe the kids!!!
- Forget low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads. Try outhouses and baths in a tub full of stream water (heated on the stove if you were lucky) that had been lugged up to the house.
Nowadays, folks living like my grandmother and her family used to likely would be on the “cutting edge” of sustainability, reducing their footprint and conserving natural resources in ways that few of us could imagine. They might be featured in an environmental magazine or a TV special, looking so ultra chic in their homemade drawers and feedbag dresses.
Yet they were simply getting by. They had no choice but to live sustainably; to do otherwise would be not only wasteful but impossible. Getting by on scant financial income in a rural, fairly poor area, they had to conserve and provide for themselves as much as possible if they were to survive.
My grandmother’s family, like so many other families in the past, were sustainable by necessity.
I do not want to romanticize the past as some “Golden Age of Green.” Life was hard, no bones about it, and getting by often meant grueling work day in and day out, from well before sunrise to well after dark. It was the age of walking to school five miles uphill both ways…in the snow. It was the age of sticking newspaper, rags, and anything else into the spaces in the walls to keep the winter chill out.
Moreover, there were a whole lot of unsustainable practices back in the “good ol’ days,” things we are trying to undo and clean up after today and for a long time to come.
Still, in our age of conveniences, where life is made much easier and yet much more complicated in many ways, we are getting dangerously close to a point of no return when it comes to avoiding global catastrophe. Whether you focus on the oil crisis, global warming, species and habitat loss, or population problems, I doubt there is much doubt left about how serious conditions are getting on planet Earth.
So I think that we, too, are at a point where we must become sustainable by necessity. The reasons for us are different than those for my grandmother, but the end result is the same. We have to stop living like we have a blank check or a limitless credit card and start living instead as if our resources are scarce, precious, and quickly lost without some real ingenuity and self-control.
And I think we would do well to look back to our wise elders, to steep ourselves in their stories, to share in their lives and learn from what they have to give us. Not only would we do well, but I think we would do a great thing for these precious elders by reaching out to them, embracing them in our hearts, and thanking them for the good things they have done for us.
Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons