Recently, in the town where I live, a developer built a house. The house is modest by the standards of our area, a mix of closely-built historic, older homes in the village and spacious, expensive homes built on large plots in the hills and on what was formerly farmland, and before that, forest. Now that the house is finished, people show up every other weekend or so, an older couple and a small child, the granddaughter, I presume. The child happily runs and runs in circles across the newly planted lawn. Since there is usually no one at the house, I’m guessing they are second homeowners, common in our popular resort area. The lawn looks to be about three acres.
When the huge “for sale” sign popped up on the land a few years ago, complete with a neatly outlined grid of available parcels, my stomach turned. When the bulldozers appeared back in the woods where the first houses were built, my heart stopped. When the foundation was poured for this new house visible from the road, I was relieved the house wasn’t bigger. When I saw the lawn go in, I was disgusted.
According to the laws of our nation, it is not my business what other people do with “their” land. They need only follow the laws and regulations in place to guide the safe construction of buildings, the safe disposal of waste, and so forth.
I wish it were no longer necessary to point out that 3-acre lawns are an absurd waste of land, time, and fossil fuels. I wish this house wasn’t built smack-dab in the middle of the field across which the coyotes used to trot on their way to the state-conserved land on the other side of the road. We haven’t seen or heard the coyotes since the first house went in a couple of years ago.
I live in a house that someone built back in the 1800s on land that had been forested. The foundation was constructed using huge rocks dug out of the soil. Massive hunks of white marble cut from a quarry in town created my front steps, walkway, and fireplace hearth. Being in the village, I have a relatively small lawn. I mow it with a gas mower. The last two houses I lived in had 3-1/2- and 2-acre lawns, respectively. We mowed them with a John Deere sit-down mower. I enjoying riding around on that mower, and never gave the gasoline or emissions a second thought. Back in the good ol’ days.
Nearby, over the hill, in the same development of 3+ acre parcels, the builder is building himself a house as well. He’s writing about his project in our town’s newsletter. He’s also documenting the improvements he’s making to his old house in order to make it more appealing to potential buyers, who will also probably be second homeowners.
The builder’s column in our small-town newsletter angers me. It doesn’t seem appropriate for a builder to feed his business, the sale of his current house, and his ego through a community newsletter. I thought of writing a letter to the editor of the publication, but I decided, just this once, to take a break from my usual role as the complaining environmentalist. I thought of writing a counter-column celebrating nature and educating folks on climate change, but I don’t have time.
It occurred to me for the trillionth time that environmentalists are generally viewed by their opponents as being against something — because we often are, and with good reason. But our core beliefs and passions spring from being in defense of something — and that something is the natural world and all its creatures.
Last month, I drove back and forth to Baltimore from Massachusetts to attend a reunion of my college band. My son came with me, and it was a really fun road trip. I treasured that time in the car with him. I would have arranged for us to travel by train, but it was prohibitively expensive and the logistics were extremely inconvenient, given there is zero mass transit serving my town and we were picking up music equipment and extra people in New Jersey. I always feel guilty, now, driving long distances, but it is often the only, or the only practical choice.
I want to start another rock band, and play and sing, loudly.I want to scream at the universe through sore vocal chords, a premium microphone, and big speakers.
I read and listen to Derrick Jensen, dark prophet, author of many books about human destruction of nature, and founder of Deep Green Resistance. He is a proponent of bringing down civilization. I love reading his words and listening to him, because it feeds my lifelong fantasy of time-traveling to pre-agricultural and pre-industrial times, when humans lived in harmony with nature. Sure, they died young of diseases that are now easily cured with a shot in the arm; sure, they starved many winters. But the rivers ran clean and full of salmon. The grizzlies and wolves and big cats left many footprints across the land. Jensen reminds us that we can’t continue to live our lives of convenience — drive or fly long distances for things like vacations and college reunions, buy a new smart phone every other year, or take hot showers every day — and at the same time save nature.
I just took a hot shower. It felt great. I have to wash my hair every day or it looks bad. I’m craving a new phone, because I needa new phone to function in the work world I live in.
When climate change deniers attack environmentalists as hypocrites, they have a point. If we all actually started living the way humans need to live to save the planet, we’d be acting in a more authentic way. We would cut our personal carbon emissions.
But then, wouldn’t we leave a void where our marching feet and rallying selves and digitally conveyed voices used to be? Wouldn’t it be like leaving the weasels in charge of the henhouse? We’d be off in the woods with our flat hair attempting to start a fire with wet wood and poisoning ourselves with the wrong mushrooms (easier when we kill ourselves… saves time for corporate military operatives) while the evil tyrants dug another thousand fracking wells. It would just be too convenient for them.
Nor would our noble gestures make enough of a difference. The destruction of the planet would continue, unabated, driven by the majority, driven by capitalism, driven by people who don’t know any better, driven by the need to of parents who need to get their kids to school fully dressed and clean with Pokemon lunchboxes and the thing they begged you to buy in the over-lit, plastic-wrapped grocery store when you were at the end of your tether after a long day at work: juice boxes with tiny straws that choke seabirds and turtles.
So, after rethinking this scenario for the thousandth time, I consistently end up facing the same dilemma. Why should I live in a mud hut and never buy Spandex leggings or stream Netflix when the real destroyers of the planet will bring it down to its knees, anyway, from the comfort of their golf course in the tropics and with the money they’ve hidden in off-shore accounts?
Yes, I confess to committing many environmental sins in order to function in this society, like driving too much, ordering takeout now and then, and sometimes buying new clothes. I heat with oil and wood (but mostly freeze) because I can’t afford cleaner alternatives like air source heat pumps. The burden of built lies heavily on my soul.
But, wait. Halfway through the fourth episode of my third time around through Nashville, I ask myself: do I really need to function in this society at all? My son is grown. My dog would be perfectly happy in a mud hut with his stomach full of chipmunks. I pop open a plastic bag of chips (another evil indulgence). I’m undecided.
I take a sip of seltzer straight from the glass bottle and catch the eye of the wolf in the large framed print above my TV. Snow is falling all around her. White flakes blanket her thick, grey fur. Her dark eyes stare out at me. I stare back, abashed. I cherish her. My heart aches for her each and every day and for all the creatures who depend on a clean, healthy, diverse, intact environment to survive. Why can’t I find a way to honor her fully, in ways that really matter? In ways that change the world? Why can’t I be a woman who runs with the wolves?
I put down the bottle. I click off the TV. In my heart of hearts, I know I can do more. I should do more. I must do more.
One small thing I am doing in devotion to the monumental cause of saving nature and thereby ourselves, is a podcast called , named after my radio show that aired on for about four years. It’s online now — and will air again soon, if all goes well and the station is re-energized and studio space is found and paid for with donations from the community. It is exciting and inspiring to be back at the microphone and recorder again, and I am always seeking excited, inspiring people to join me in conversation. Please get in touch at . I look forward to doing more, with you.
Judy Eddy has worked for wildlife conservation and environmental protection organizations for most of her career. She was born and raised in New Jersey, spent five years “out West” communing with coyotes, and now resides in Massachusetts with her son and her big dog. Her podcast, Audible Café, was born out of her radio show of the same name that aired on WBCR-LP 97.7 FM Great Barrington for four years. In college, Judy had a weekly 3-hour show called “The Frank Zappa Hour.” A musician, writer, and nature lover, Judy welcomes your messages at firstname.lastname@example.org.