MagazineJuly 2006Green Makeover

Green Makeover

A One-Week Crash Course in Living Green</h

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am a creature of habit. And many of those habits are bad. So it didn’t surprise me when the editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors called to ask me to undergo a “green makeover” and write about my experience. After all, I am the perfect subject for the experiment. I’m anything but green. My lifestyle to date can best be described as an obnoxious brown with hints of black. I like my potatoes fried, my Coke cold and my Big Mac hot. I’ve even started to spell the word through as thru because I spend so much time ordering my meals from the air-conditioned comfort of my car. The closest I’ve come to recycling is crushing my beer cans in order to stuff more of them into my garbage can. I take hot showers that are so long the steam cleans the walls of my bathroom. My most developed muscle? That would be my thumb. It does daily reps on the Thumbmaster that controls the TV I bought at Wal-Mart.

And eating organic? Let’s put it this way: I’ve smoked more organic products than I’ve eaten. Hey, it might cost more, but there aren’t as many of those pesky seeds.

Let’s face it – I’m Al Gore’s worst nightmare. I’m the guy pouring gas on the global warming fire. And the sad part is I am a self proclaimed, dyed-in-the-wool, donkey lovin’ Democrat. I’m a liberal who bemoans corporate imperialism, environmental degradation and the consumer mindset pushed by the neocons. But I don’t walk my talk. Sure, I was born shortly before the Summer of Love and since then I’ve voted for the right candidates, marched in a few protests and written my share of left-leaning editorials, but as far as my lifestyle goes I’m no different than the dreadlocked bliss bunny who drives a gas guzzling SUV with “All One” and “ITMFA” (Google it) bumper stickers. In other words, I am a Hippiecrit.

And I know I’m not alone. Admit it; there are those of you out there reading this that are, more or less, just like me. In the areas where we have little direct control – world affairs, for example – we rant and rave until we’re hoarse. But in the one thing we do have direct control over — how we live our lives in relation to the world – we are strangely mute. And to top it off, if you’re reading this publication you love the great outdoors as much as I do. I even moved to Asheville to be closer to the trailhead of some of the best hiking in the world. So we have an even greater motivation to live our lives so that we protect Mama Earth. And let’s not forget about the next generation. I’ve got two kids who deserve to inherit an earth replete with verdant trails, crystal clear streams and coastal cities like, say, New Orleans.

So with that in mind, I accepted the challenge and enlisted my family as well. If I’m going green my wife Anne and my daughters Grace (age six) and Ella (age four) are coming with me. The rules established by the check writer were simple: Examine my diet, energy consumption, transportation choices, lifestyle – really, everything I do – and strive to lessen my impact on the planet. Instead of watching the boob tube take a walk around the neighborhood; instead of food shopping at a standard grocery store choose an organic one or a local tailgate market; absolutely no driving; conserve water and electricity and cut down on the amount of waste I produce; and generally get my green on.

<stong>Green with envy

The first thing I needed was advice. So I consulted a former colleague Cecil Bothwell, the greenest guy I know. Bothwell once lived off the grid for 20 years until he took a job in Asheville and calculated that his commuting was burning more fossil fuels than he was saving (of course, he then moved to within walking distance of his new job). He also was the founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal Hearthstone. We shared an office for four years and in that time he amazed me with his preternatural ability to not produce ANY garbage, whereas I made enough trash to make Oscar the Grouch green with envy.

His advice was stunning in its simplicity. “First, get rid of your lawn.” he opined, offering instead that I should replace it with ground cover indigenous to the region that doesn’t require a power mower (or switch to one of those human propelled ones Wally pushed around in the opening credits of Leave it to Beaver). Power mowers and their fume belching cousins the weed eater and leaf blower, he explained, are responsible for a huge portion of our air pollution. He then asked if I had a dishwasher. I paused and blushed and nodded sheepishly. “Great,” he replied, adding, “With a family of four a dishwasher will use less water than you would at the sink – just remember to air dry when the wash cycle ends.”

“This is easy – no mowing, use a dishwasher – I’m digging this green stuff,” I replied with a smirk.

As for power consumption, Bothwell pointed out that any appliance in my house that has a remote is never really turned off unless it’s unplugged. The VCR and TV all draw power when in their sleep mode. And the cell phone charger I have plugged in 24/7, with or without a phone attached, also draws power. Same goes for a computer that isn’t manually turned off – all these things add up to increased energy consumption.

As for another water conservation tip, Bothwell introduced me to the joys of the gray water flush where I can take the kids’ bath water and use it to fill my toilet reservoir. “No sense paying to use clean water to flush away waste,” he noted.

Flush with the new knowledge of how to flush, I headed to Greenlife Grocery for sustenance and more advice. There I met with Misty Childs, the store’s director of marketing. My first impression of the place was that it was more than just eco-friendly — it was headquarters for a green cult. The place was packed with shoppers young and old, one and all carefully reading ingredient labels and swapping advice, confident in the knowledge that theirs is the One True Way. It scared the hell out of me. But then I realized that it was me who was brainwashed. I was the odd man out.

For me, grocery shopping had always been a drudge, a bothersome task that needed to be done in the most expeditious way possible. And for good reason: Today’s mega-grocery store is an impersonal place where the bottom line is corporate allegiance and cost cutting. The folks at Greenlife, on the other hand, were actually enjoying grocery shopping. There was a sense of empowerment in that the choices they were making were not only good for them, but good for all of us.

I also, however, noticed that there is a price to pay for going green. Organic apples cost a little more. Organic milk costs a lot more. When I pointed out the noticeable price differences and how it might dissuade a working family from making the green leap, Misty’s response stuck with me throughout the week: “What is the value of your health? How expensive is that fast food hamburger that is so cheap to buy when you add in the cost of heart bypass surgery? What is the cost to our environment of the chemicals that are commonly used in factory farming? What is the cost of the healthcare for the farm workers exposed to these chemicals? We believe that, like so many other things in the American economy, the ‘total cost’ of our food is greatly understated when you factor in these considerations.”

Maybe, I thought, there’s a reason our money is green. If anything it can serve as a reminder every time we part with some of it. And trust me, once you’ve tasted how pure and rich organic milk is you’ll never go back to the hormone laced moo juice, cost be damned. The same applied to everything I bought at Greenlife. It’s pretty amazing how flavorful food can be without artificial flavors.

Still, I wanted to get even more green with my food dollar, and that meant taking it right to the farmer. It was easier than I thought. They came to me. I walked from my home to the parking lot of a local bakery where the West Asheville Farmer’s Market sets up every Wednesday afternoon. When a tent overhead is part of the overhead the cost of organic food can be lower than you think. Here was a bounty of organic goods from artichokes to soap – all produced locally. But don’t expect a fancy government-issued organic stamp on the Swiss chard. One farmer, my neighbor Joan Chesick from Green Goddess Farms, propped up a sign in front of her stall that read: “We were organic before you had to pay to be certified. Now we can’t say we’re organic unless we’re certified. Crazy world!” As a small farmer she can’t afford the certification fee, and the fine for a violation is $10,000 per offense. So she’s dropped the organic label and communicates the quality and purity of her produce the old fashioned way: The farmer who grew it tells you about it. Face to face. And I can take her word for it. She’s my neighbor.

Of Bikes and Birds

Much to my surprise, turning off the TV was easy. The kids never complained. In fact, we actually conversed. Our entertainment came in long walks and quiet time spent reading aloud. We’d raided the bulk food isle at Greenlife and discovered the joys of baking from scratch. We slowed our lives down. Although young, my girls understood we were living differently, and, more importantly, they understood why.

Grace, who’s in kindergarten, loved our walks to and from school. They became a private moment we shared undistracted by the task of driving. And I discovered that walking can be joyful even without boots, pack and a compass. But a man can’t live on foot alone. Occasionally, I needed to venture downtown. For some trips I had a chauffeur. The guy wore a crisp uniform, opened the door for me, and let me out where I requested­-and all for under a dollar per trip. My limo was a stretch model called a bus, conveniently operated throughout town by the good folks at Asheville Transit. Mastering the bus schedule and routes, however, took some time. My first trip found me at the wrong side of a busy street. When the bus arrived going the opposite direction, and turned before I could cross traffic, I realized that Kermit was right: “It ain’t easy being green.” But my orders were strict, and with driving taboo I set off to score some peddle power. As a mountain biking Mecca, Asheville boasts a bevy of bike shops. And seeking some transportation independence I naturally sought out Liberty Bikes. Sitting precariously on my first bike in 20 years (nope, I’m not kidding), the bike technician eyeballed me and asked if I needed any tips. I declined with all the macho pride I could muster. He in turn fitted me with a helmet.

It was a decision I would come to appreciate. On my first ride I learned that the old adage is wrong. It isn’t “just like riding a bike.” I also learned that I live in the mountains. And most of the roads in Asheville go uphill, no matter what route you take. The most depressing lesson came during rush hour. Some drivers, it seems, hate bikes and the people that ride them. Despite following the rules of the road, sticking to the side of the lane and using all appropriate hand signals, a few drivers glared at me with an animosity rarely seen outside of professional wrestling. And one truck-driving cretin gunned his engine and flipped me the bird.

“I’m doing this for you and the planet!” I screamed. But he couldn’t hear me so I flipped him the bird. Being green doesn’t mean you have to be a wimp, I figured.

When the week ended I concluded that going green is going to take more than just seven days. In fact, if I do it right it will take my whole life. But I’ll have help. A few days after the end of the week Anne cooked up some French fries with dinner. I instinctively grabbed the ketchup and commenced pouring. My daughter Ella, with four solid years of living behind her and a lifetime ahead of her, snatched the condiment from my hand, declaring, “That’s not organic!”

I looked down, realized she was right, and smiled.

Brian Sarzynski is a writer and documentary filmmaker who makes his home in Asheville, N.C. Today, that home is a little greener. He can be reached at [email protected]</em>

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