Clearing the air

By Shlomit Auciello | Sep 03, 2020
Photo by: Shlomit Auciello

Since I wrote my last column, two weeks ago, I have moved my life from a 1963 sq. ft. house in Rockland to the home of a longtime acquaintance. With help from other friends and the services of Knowlton Moving and Storage, we moved more than 1000 cubic feet of material possessions into a storage unit and another bunch of boxes and furniture to the two rooms where I now live.

Who needs all this stuff?

I am the custodian of the valued treasures of more than three generations, mostly from my mother's side. Some of what I am holding came over from Poland a hundred years ago with my great-grandmother, Libby Lask.

There is the couch my grandparents bought in New York in the 1930s and a couple of carved cabinets that Mom found at an estate auction in the late 1960s. They're heavy oak, probably made for a very formal dining dining room. They'll make great kitchen cabinets, for the time being, to store my pantry and larder.

Along with the big pieces, there are the dishes I grew up with and the ones the kids made in school, photo albums going back to my own childhood, art for the wall, gifts I cannot part with, books and books, and the collected tools of a person who has been working with food for more than 50 years, which includes more books.

In my seven-room house in Rockland, with its full, partly finished basement and large garage, my footprint was light and airy. In these two rooms, my cat and I take up a lot of space.

This week, in another local news outlet, I read a letter from a reader in Rockport who was concerned about carbon in the atmosphere.

“I thought things were getting bad when Lisa Jackson, Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency head, proclaimed carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas,” David Reed wrote.

Putting the issue at a personal level, he worried that he was “…destroying the planet! For a while the EPA was even threatening to issue big industrial polluters carbon dioxide fines or credits. You can be sure it wouldn’t have been long until that all trickled down to you and me. Imagine, being taxed for breathing.”

The letter goes on to place the source of our climate woes at the feet of “…the number of cows farting up the atmosphere…small potatoes compared to the rest of us 325 million Americans…”

If the only overload our planet's combined respiratory systems had to deal with came from the exhalations and expulsions of the bodily gasses of its inhabitants, Bill McKibben would be quietly teaching in Vermont and the number 350 would only mean we're recognizing the sesquicentennial of the trial of William Penn and William Mead, charged in London for disturbing the King's peace after holding a Quaker meeting in 1670.

Right now, as I stand at my computer I can hear the hum of its hard drive. The keyboard is lit by an electrical fixture. In the next room, a refrigerator whirs and a fan quietly exhausts the smell of a previous occupant's spilled laundry detergent to the great outdoors, where it can annoy birds and dragonflies. A few cars pass and, in the background a few streets away, a truck goes through its gears.

Somewhere in the distance a lawnmower adds its pollution to the planetary burden; an hour of mowing produces carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter equal to a 300 mile drive in an automobile.

The tools I use, the clothes I wear, all the trappings of an industrialized life, these all are part of commercial, recreational, manufacturing and distribution processes that burn carbon.

I was in my 20s when I became aware of voices calling for a reduction in the impact of human endeavor on this great earth that sustains us. Whether you believe it was given by God or came about in some more mundane fashion, this planet is a gift and a miracle. We are fools if we ignore its fragility.

The decisions we make now about how we feed, house and transport ourselves going forward will mean the difference between breathable air and a future of disease, between living as part of the earth or vainly trying to control it.

We are all attached to our history and the objects that give us comfort and safety. My 1000 or so cubic feet of books, dishes and furniture serve no present good, boxed up in a metal garage. But replacing them, some months from now when I find the small house of my dreams, would use up a lot of planetary health. It's a trade-off.

There's a big difference between the farting of cows and the impact of an industrial economy. Asking big polluters to reduce their part of our planet's stress shouldn't make any of us feel threatened. Far from asking for humans to be “taxed for breathing,” as Mr. Reed suggested in his letter, those of us who call for action on climate change are offering a path to help us all breathe more easily.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992.

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