A Personal Response to Global Climate Change

In late July, I set out for western Washington to celebrate Dad's 90th birthday with my family. It was a gorgeous day when Red and I pulled out of Cody: sunny, blue skies, and the temperature in the mid-seventies, unusually cool. As we headed north and west across Montana, the temperature soared into the high 90s, and forest-fire smoke hazed the views.

At eight-thirty that night when we stopped in Missoula, the temperature was 94 degrees F. The full moon rose in an eerie sky tinged orange by smoke. As I stretched out atop my sleeping bag in Red's topper, I checked the temperature for Olympia, our destination: the next day's high was forecast as 96 degrees, unusually hot. 

I thought about global climate change as I drifted toward sleep, and made a resolution to make changes in my daily life to contribute less CO2 and other greenhouse gases to our planet's atmosphere. No matter that our leaders seem determined to fiddle while the world burns, I want to take what responsibility I can for providing a positive example. I'm going to be the change I'd like to see… 

Starting with my travels. I love hitting the road in Red and wandering the West. I watch the landscapes as I go, thinking about geology and botany and the myriad interconnections that animate this planet. "Windshield time" is creative time for me. 

By sleeping in Red's topper instead of staying in motels as I go, I save money and also energy (no A/C, no washing of bedding and towels each day, less water heated and treated, and so on). But Red burns gasoline and I use the interstate highway system, with its high speed limits (and drivers who routinely drive much faster than the limit). So I resolved to slow down. 

Gas mileage and speed are inversely linked above your vehicle's optimum speed, usually between 55 and 60 miles per hour. The faster you drive above that optimum, the more your gas mileage decreases.

For example, if your vehicle gets 33 miles per gallon at 55 mph, by the time you go 80, your mileage drops to around 20 mpg (here's a graph illustrating the relationship), making it 28 percent less efficient, with a corresponding increase of CO2 to the atmosphere. Run your vehicle's air conditioner, and the mileage drops even more steeply. 

The next day, all the way across the rest of Montana, Idaho's Panhandle, and the hazy heat of eastern Washington, I drove five miles under the posted speed limit. I still got to Olympia in time for dinner–delicious fresh Chinook salmon my brother had caught. And I filled Red's gas tank less often. 

The time with Dad and my family was sweet. We celebrated his birthday with another great dinner and a delicious cake, plus a family gathering to hear my sister-in-law, Lucy, play cello with the Olympia Symphony at their annual outdoor concert on the state capitol grounds.

Duane Roland, my eldest niece's husband, in the front with Heather, middle left looking down, and their two younger boys, Liam (looking at his dad) and Colin (head hidden), between them. Dad (with the sun-hat) is behind them, trying to figure out where I am so he can look toward the camera (he's legally blind), and my brother, Bill, in the ball-cap beside him is looking at the symphony program. Lucy is in the tent with the orchestra.

It was also stressful and hectic. Dad's health is failing, and he wanted me to take over managing his finances (Lucy handles his day-to-day care). So I did paperwork, made calls, and filled out forms (online when I could to save paper and energy). By the time I set out for the long drive home on Monday, I was tired. Still, I resisted the temptation to rush. 

I headed north to Bellingham to visit my youngest niece, Alice, and her boyfriend Dan and their two dogs, Riley and Jaxon. Red and I took the back route on two-lane roads instead of the congested I-5 corridor through Seattle, which yielded a lovely drive up Hood Canal, and gave Red her first ferry ride between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island. 

Our ferry making the crossing.

The next morning, I headed east, taking the winding and two-lane North Cascades Highway and then following Highway 2 across eastern Washington instead of the faster interstate route (I-5 to I-90 east). The alternate route took only an hour longer (9 hours instead of 8) and saved me half a tank of gas. Plus I got to admire mountain wildflowers in the North Cascades. 

Western red columbine, valerian, senecio, and other wildflowers crowd an avalanche chute in the North Cascades. 

I still made it to Missoula in time to take a long walk and stretch out the road-kinks before retiring to Red's topper for the night. 

Back at home, I worked on another part of my personal response to global climate change: Readying my restored mid-Century Modern house and yard to sell. I'm downsizing and thus shrinking my use of Earth's non-sustainable resources.

In renovating what was a very dilapidated house, my contractor, Jeff Durham, and I have saved everything we could, re-homed what we couldn't, and used new materials as efficiently as possible. The house is now much more energy-efficient than it was when we started, and the yard, my personal project, needs less water and almost no pesticides (I've used careful spot applications of herbicide to kill some persistent invasive weeds). 

While Jeff worked on renovating the final bathroom, I hauled and spread 80 wheelbarrow-loads of pit-run, local gravel to finish the paths and sitting areas in the back and side yards. This "hardscape" reduces the lawn area, reducing the resource use, and also makes the yard an inviting place to stroll and sit. Eighty wheelbarrow-loads is enough gravel to fill Jeff's dump trailer one and a half times, or about 5,600 pounds of gravel–close to three tons.

Filling the first wheelbarrow load. Seventy-nine more to go…. 

I worked from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, with a break on Saturday to meet a writing deadline. (Once I get going on a yard project, I have a hard time stopping. And Jeff needed the trailer back by Monday.) I was partway through when my friend Kate and her two small daughters stopped by for a visit.

The side path connecting front yard to back yard.

As the girls foot-propelled their Stryder bikes around by the east-side path, I heard Iris, all of four years old, say, "Let's follow the fairy path!" And then when she came around the corner into the backyard, she gasped: "Mama, Susan made us a fairyland!" 

The backyard fairyland, complete with bridge for bikes large and small… 

That may be the best yard-design compliment I've ever gotten.

Now the backyard is complete but for a bit of rock-work on the dry stream-bed, that final bathroom is light and bright and beautiful, and I'm contemplating what belongings I really need to keep and what I can give away and sell as I trade this wonderfully restored house and yard for something much smaller.

Glass blocks now break up the shower wall, adding natural light. A glass vessel sink on a simple steel counter brings the colors of the outdoors into everyday life. 

My resolve is to continue to learn how to live more lightly on this Earth, and free my time to write and weed, speaking up for the planet and the species we share it with–working to restore beauty and health for us all. Being the change I'd like to see…

The front yard, complete with climate-friendly and colorful pollinator garden replacing part of the resource-intensive lawn.

Clothes: Shelter for Woman Alone

I live in a small house (725 square feet) that I helped design and build, approving every detail. It is wholly my house, the first one I’ve ever had designed just for me.

Even my clothes closet is small. Although it takes up one wall of my bedroom, it measures just an inch shy of two feet deep and six feet, three inches wide, which equals just over 12 square feet of floor space–no walk-in closet, this one. My dresser, a re-purposed set of cherry wood bookshelves from the big house, just fits inside. 

I like clothes. No, I’ll be honest, I love clothes. I have an affection for fabric and cut, for drape and detail, for the way a great outfit can make me feel invincible, and how the swish of a skirt or the fit of a pair of jeans makes me smile simply because it’s fun to wear them. 

I live in a small house by choice–I prefer small spaces. If designed well, they feel comfortable, nest-like.

My late love, Richard, preferred expansive spaces; he delighted in entertaining, the more people the better. In the house he designed and built for us, which was almost exactly four times the size of this one, my office was by far the smallest room. It was my hide-out. 

My office at Terraphilia, the big house. 

I enjoyed the big house. But when it came time for me to build just for me, building small seemed sustainable to me on all sorts of levels, including use of resources (I used as many repurposed and recycled materials as possible), energy use, and conservation of cash.

The latter is especially important, because as a freelance writer and restorer of nature, I don’t earn much. I could probably make a better living as a greeter at Walmart. Except that I wouldn’t last half an hour–I couldn’t abide either the corporate culture or the prevalence of plastic items.

I’ve done pretty well at conserving my cash in the nearly four years since Richard died. I have a budget, and I’m good about sticking to it–it’s not really a hardship, because in general, what makes me happy doesn’t involve spending much money. 

Except clothes. 

Jeans, jersey, rayon, lace, silk–all in my closet…

I’ve bought what for me is a lot of clothes in the past four years. Most of them I haven’t kept–they’ve been gifted to friends or family, been consigned at a local shop, or returned to the store if unworn. I’m slowly building a small wardrobe that really suits me, but it’s taken a lot of experimentation to get there. 

That’s frustrated the frugal part of me. On the surface, I have good reasons: All through Richard’s brain cancer journey and my mom’s death in the same year Richard died, I didn’t buy clothes. Then there were two years of spending nights and weekends on finish carpentry and other building and landscaping work, which tends to be hard even on the most serviceable of jeans, t-shirts and hoodies. 

And then there’s the fact that my taste in clothes has changed since I was half of a pair who happily lived in each other’s pockets, held hands wherever we went, and often inadvertently picked clothes in similar colors.

All of that is logical. But it doesn’t completely explain why I couldn’t rein in my clothes-buying.

Last week, my friend Kerry Nelson, owner of Ploughboy Local Market, gave me a gift certificate to my favorite local clothing store for my birthday. (The store, Yolo, happens to be owned by another friend and former neighbor, Loni Walton.) 

I held onto that gift certificate for exactly 24 hours. As I was walking home with the drapy bamboo rayon t-shirt (black, because black goes with everything) and fabulously swishy organic cotton and Lycra skirt to go with it, I realized why I’ve had this need for clothes. 

They’re my shield in a world that was torn wide open the morning of November 27, 2011, when the love of my life and my companion of 29 years died. Richard was my buffer in many ways. He was not only physically larger than I am (6 feet tall and a well-muscled 180 pounds), he was also gregarious where I am not by nature (I can be, but it’s learned behavior–although I love people, en masse, they wear me out). 

Now I’m Woman Alone. Without Richard’s comforting bulk to insulate me, I feel naked. Clothes serve as my shelter, my bulwark against the constant stimulation of people. 

Once I saw that, I also knew that I was done buying new clothes. I have what I need, and I like what I have.

And tonight, as I watch Earth’s shadow slowly darken the brilliant face of the harvest moon out my kitchen window, I am struck by how happy I am. Perhaps it took a total eclipse of the moon to let me see that. 

Out of darkness comes light–if we’re lucky, patient and paying attention. I know the truth of that from the experience of losing Richard. And tonight, the dance of the earth and its moon remind me.