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Archive for the ‘Ear to the Earth Column’ Category

I have a friend who lives in Eden.  While I haul pricey bags of produce to my car, she complains about the persimmons and figs falling on her sidewalk.  The problem, you see, is that there are too many to eat so the walks get messy.

I worry about my kids getting hit by a car; her kids can run for blocks without crossing a single street.  This is because houses in her 70-acre development have small unfenced backyards which open onto car-free paths interconnecting the neighborhood.

I know perhaps a fifth of the people living in a two block radius of my house; she knows triple that number.  The more walkable a community, the more neighbors tend to know each other.

Storm culverts dot my street.  The paths behind my friend’s house are edged by charming streams filled with cattails and nesting birds.  So effective is this system that when surrounding neighborhoods flood, her streets are often dry.

On hot summer days our asphalt roads absorb heat and raise the temperature in town.  The streets in my friend’s neighborhood are tree-lined and unusually narrow, making her community up to 15 degrees cooler than surrounding urban areas.

Houses in her development, because of the narrower streets (less paving), very small lot sizes (less land purchased), natural water retention system (no storm drains), initially cost less than similarly sized houses elsewhere in her town.

Enough money was saved to enable the creation of wonderful community spaces including several parks, an artificial lake, a large sun-drenched garden area, a swimming pool, a daycare, and a big communal kitchen.

Not surprisingly, property in her development has increased in value far more than in the surrounding neighborhoods.  People love to live there.  Indeed, it is so pleasant, that folks from nearby developments come there to jog, walk their dogs, teach their kids to ride bikes, and sneak an occasional persimmon.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

It is important to note that the homes were sized and priced to be affordable for middle-class families.  The fact that the neighborhood is now highly desirable is a testament to good design rather than to a sky-high budget.

Is my friend a back-to-the-earth hippie living in a co-housing commune?  Not at all.  She works for chemical manufacturer, Monsanto, and her neighbors are regular people, living regular lives, with regular jobs.

You may wonder why builders are not falling over themselves to re-create this type of development elsewhere.  In large part it is because in most towns such development would not be allowed under current building and zoning codes.

The developers who built my friend’s neighborhood, called Village Homes in Davis, California, fought a long battle for exemptions from existing regulations.  For example, special permission was needed to build on smaller lots, at higher density, with narrower streets, and to use a natural water collection system.

There is a lot of inertia to changing ‘business as usual.’  Towns and builders believe that the regulations they have in place are working and it seems too risky to try anything else.

Yet by any number of measures, what we are building now is not working.  Our homes are not built to minimize heating and cooling costs, yet many people already have trouble affording heat and air-conditioning.  Most people live in car-dependent neighborhoods, yet the price of fuel is already a stretch.  Our cities and towns are not equipped to deal with the planet’s rising temperatures or to manage the regional effects of climate change such as increased precipitation, drought, and sea-level rise.  On that note, New England is predicted to experience a 74% increase in precipitation by the end of the century.

As the climate shifts under our feet, developments such as Village Homes are far better positioned than most to handle these upcoming changes.  Replace the figs and persimmons with blueberries and raspberries, and there is no reason we could not be creating this type of innovative development here in Maine.

With the redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create something better than business as usual.  The possibilities are not limited to residential areas.  All development at the base will need to address issues such as storm-water management, street width, energy use, landscaping, building materials, lot sizes, transportation options, walkability, bikeability, and wildlife habitat.

We can build spaces that people love to use, that do less damage to the environment, and that are cheaper to maintain, heat, and cool.  We can build spaces that are more resilient to the changes in weather patterns that have already begun to affect us.  This type of development would position Brunswick to thrive into the future, come what may.

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Recently my 12-year old asked me to sign her up for a weekly activity requiring a half hour car drive each way. I try the quick and easy rebuffs: she was plenty busy already, driving back and forth was expensive, the activity was expensive, when would she do her homework?

With more than a bit of adolescent attitude, she concludes, “You just don’t want to take the time to drive me.” I look at the clock. It’s past 7:00 PM, we haven’t eaten dinner and no one has finished their homework. There is never a perfect moment to get into the real nitty gritty of why and wherefore. Still, every now and again you have to try to give your kids an honest answer to their questions.

Yes, I tell her, (and her sister too, who has wandered into the kitchen) you’re partly right. It is true that I don’t cherish adding to the time I spend carting you around after school. But there is another reason I hesitate to drive more.

Every time we get in the car we contribute to climate change. By the end of this century–that is, you may still be around–conditions for life on earth are expected to be drastically different from what they are today.

I pause. It’s gloomy stuff, the state of the environment. In this column I generally try not to dwell too much on scientists’ pessimistic forecasts for the planet. After all, nobody, including me, really wants to hear it. Nobody wants to tell their kids about it. Nobody wants to read about it over morning coffee and a golden Frosty’s doughnut.

Yet, I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. I tell them that although no single bout of wild weather can be attributed to climate change, that nevertheless there appear to terrible changes already underway.

I tell them that they have just lived through the hottest years ever recorded (11 of the 12 warmest years were in the last 12 years).

I tell them about Hurricane Katrina. I tell them that in 2010 flooding submerged one fifth of the land surface of Pakistan, washing away 7,000 schools and 5,000 miles of roads. I tell them that extreme weather events such as these are becoming more frequent and stronger, just as predicted.

I tell them that ice in the poles is melting, not as fast as predicted but at rates that are alarmingly faster. I tell them that by the end of the century sea level could rise by 6 feet, or possibly a lot more, putting much of the world’s coastlines under water.

After a long pause, they ask if our house will be okay. On the surface, this question, in its innocent disregard either for the welfare of others or for the fact that if the world disintegrates around them it doesn’t matter if their house is okay, seems to reflect a child’s perspective. But really it’s what all of us adults are doing as well. We may expand our worries a little past the foundations of our own houses, but not much.

So, the winter was warm, so, we had an 80 degree day in March. If this is global warming, it might not be so bad for those of us living in Maine.

I ask them what good it will do to have a dry house high on a hill when everyone else is underwater. We’ve managed to conjure up a demon that will affect everyone, although, as always, wealthy countries have a larger margin of safety before hitting the bottom.

Well then, they say, shouldn’t we do something about it? I tell them they are already helping. I tell them they are contributing by not complaining about riding their bikes and walking whenever they can. They are helping by continuing to be delighted by bags of hand-me-downs rather than shopping trips. They are helping by eating local spinach rather than asking for processed foods from around the world.

Although this cheers them up a bit, they know as well as I do that eating a few leaves of spinach is not going to fix a whole lot. By the end of the conversation, they’re in tears and I’m confused. As does every parent, I want them to believe their futures are full of hope and promise. Yet at some point they also need to look with clear eyes at the world around them. Without this, where does the motivation come from to try to change the status quo? And without that motivation, how do we make anything better?

Our own family’s behavior is utterly riddled with inconsistencies. Save the planet by biking to school, but then drive to Sugarloaf to ski all weekend. Buy local greens at the farmer’s market and then wash them down with inexpensive Californian red wine, trucked from 3,000 miles away.

And yet, humans are uniquely able to live with inconsistency. I tell my kids what I tell myself. For today, pick one action where you can make an improvement. Maybe work on remembering to turn off the lights when you come downstairs. Nudge yourself. I’m a nudger.

But in my heart of hearts I’d like them to be world-changers, not nudgers, and I don’t know where to send them for training.

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Scientists in Norway have just announced the discovery of a non-toxic high-tech building material with a host of economic and environmental benefits. Homes made from this substance are expected to use 10-50% less energy for heating and cooling than homes made from traditional materials.

The new substance was discovered by a team working to identify chemicals that could absorb carbon dioxide, a major cause of climate change.

A pilot home built in 2005 was found to absorb nearly 50 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Projections show that if every house in Northern Europe was made from this material global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 5%. As a completely unexpected side benefit, the material also absorbed other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In every test the scientists ran, air quality was higher in and around the pilot home than in a traditional home.

Most amazingly, using this material was estimated to add only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a new home. However, based on the material’s beneficial effects, including significantly reduced energy costs for homeowners, it was projected that building with it may increase a home’s value by up to 20%.

If you were thinking this story is too good to be true, you’d only be partly right. On the one hand, there is no newly discovered health-promoting, planet-saving, dirt-cheap, inexpensive building material. In this, you were correct.

On the other hand, you can have all the benefits above, plus many more, and for the same price, by simply planting some trees next to your house. Well placed trees and shrubs can indeed save 10-50% on heating and cooling costs. Just one mature tree can indeed absorb 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, along with a long list of other air and soil pollutants. A single large oak, for example, can pull 40,000 gallons of water per year out of the ground and discharge it into the air, reducing flooding and soggy lawns.

For communities, the impacts are even more striking. Tree-lined streets are 10-15 degrees cooler in the summer. Pavement on these streets lasts far longer and the streets are far less likely to flood. Urban tree canopy can reduce stormwater runoff by up to 7%, and when combined with other natural landscaping, by up to 65%. This results in huge cost savings for towns and significant improvements in water quality in nearby streams, lakes and aquifers.

If the environmental and economic benefits of trees are not enough, the social benefits are equally compelling.

Studies from blighted urban Chicago housing developments show that residents who could see trees from their windows had stronger ties to their neighbors and engaged in less physical violence against their children than those without trees. These studies are striking because the residents were largely homeless families who were randomly assigned to apartments as their names came to the top of long wait lists. In other words, the people with greener views were no different to begin with than those without.

Green views have also been shown to enhance healing in hospital patients and concentration among college students. Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had the fewest behavioral problems after being in green spaces with lots of trees when compared with any indoor activities, including sports, or outdoor activities in spaces lacking greenery, such as urban parking lots. This finding held true even for children who lived in green neighborhoods.

I’m intrigued by this last bit of data. It suggests that even if a child has trees outside her window and walks past trees to get to school, it may still matter that there are trees on the playground at recess. More natural settings may have more powerful healing effects than we realize.

This fall the town of Brunswick built a new school. Where possible, efforts were made to preserve older trees, and many new trees have been planted around the property, although none next to the children’s play areas.

Recently a little friend of mine who attends the new school told her mother how much she missed the playground at her old school. So they returned for a visit to the empty little playground, nestled into a grove of old pine trees.

With a huge smile on her face, the girl roamed about the play structures, sliding down slides, ducking under hideouts, trying out the swings. Many of these same features were present at the new space, so the mother asked her daughter what she’d missed so much.

It’s the trees, she replied.

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Each garden has its own personality, distinct oddities that make it unlike any other patch of ground in the world. My current garden amuses itself by sending me a mystery vine every summer. It’s always in a different spot, it’s always something from the squash family, and it’s never the same species.

One year enormous yellow flowers turned into hard green balls which slowly resolved into pumpkins. Another year, the vine climbed around a wire bin in the shady northeast corner of my garden and by season’s end dripped with tiny jewel-like decorative gourds.

Two summers ago, as I awaited the huge sexy flowers typical of squashes and gourds, I was startled by spikes of white flowers poking out along my vine: it was a wild cucumber.

Last year, however, I could find nothing. June came and went. Maybe I missed some offering to the garden gnomes. But then, in mid-July I saw it beginning to creep along between the house and the garage. Just before the leaves dissolved into black mush this fall, I harvested two perfect acorn squash. Last night I baked them for dinner with apples and a touch of butter and brown sugar.

I had not left space for this squash (it grew into a path and we stepped over it all summer), I had not purchased the seed, I had not planted the vine, nor had I watered or weeded. The squash, all on its own, planted itself, harvested its own sunlight and extracted its share of limited rainfall. It was free in every sense of the word: no labor, no money, no planning, no time.

But, least you think that the “no free lunch” adage applies only to lunch, I have to tell you it applies to dinner too. It turns out there was a cost to my squash. It goes by the eye-glazing name of soil depletion. The squash took from the soil the nutrients it needed to grow–nutrients that will be gone from this patch of land for years to come unless someone returns them, perhaps via a handful of compost or some chicken droppings.

In the words of Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, “The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization.” Looking back on world history is more often than not a study of soil productivity. Where soils were deep and life-giving, people flourished, when soils were over-tapped and over-grazed, civilizations fell.

Indeed, when we consider what is necessary to support life on earth, productive soil is right up there near the top of the list, close to sunshine and water.

Healthy soil is a world unto itself: a mix of minerals, organic matter, insects, bacteria, fungi, and animals, that provides both the critical nutrients plants require as well access to water and air.

Soil formation begins with a pocket of minerals such as sand, glacial grit, or lava, worn fine enough for a rugged pioneer plant to sneak in a few roots. When the plant dies it returns some of the nutrients it used as well as adding organic matter. As the soil becomes richer, more plant species are able to survive.

Insects and animals appear, contributing their droppings and eventually their bodies to the gradually deepening soils. Its a beautiful natural process, but unfortunately rather slow: a single inch of topsoil is approximately five hundred years in the making.

The planet is now losing topsoil 10-20 times faster than it is being replenished. Much of this erosion is due to farming and grazing practices that leave bare soils exposed to wind and rain.

As topsoils are washed into our waterways and blown into dust storms, so are vast quantities of carbon released. Scientists estimate that there is three times more carbon locked in soil than there is currently in the atmosphere. This carbon is released as soils are disturbed, and may contribute up to 30% to global warming.

If there were vast swaths of untapped agricultural land just waiting in the wings, none of this might be a problem. But farmland is in scarce supply in many places. A few years ago South Korea tried to purchase a 99 year lease to half of Madagascar’s arable land. South Korea and Madagascar are 6,500 miles apart.

Virtually all human food calories come from the land. Global food production has kept pace with population growth largely because of reliance on chemical fertilizers. However, overuse of fertilizer, along with many other modern farming practices eventually destroy soil structure and the soil ecosystems that maintain it. The result is that food production per acre of land is declining.

Although most people pay no attention to it, good dirt is a resource sorely in need of protection. Practices that protect soil fertility, soil structure, and retain soil carbon include low or no-till methods, leaving some of the crop behind after harvest to hold soil in place, and planting cover crops, windbreaks, and vegetative buffers along waterways.

On my quarter acre square of the planet, I try to minimize the amount of organic matter that leaves our property. We compost our food scraps, pile up our oak leaves, and allow our grass clippings to disappear back into the lawn.

The area where my acorn squash grew used to be a compacted beat up piece of grass. A few years ago I put down a thick layer of partially decomposed oak leaves to kill the grass, and topped it with pine needles swept up from Brunswick streets. The result was a lovely rusty golden path between the structures, edged with a few ferns, and other plants–and no need for mowing. It was here that my squash chose to grow, perhaps a thank you for giving something back to the soils.

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A few days ago, in a dutiful contribution to the country’s economic recovery, I went out and bought something: a toasted coconut gelato. I decided that I’d rather savor dessert than save an extra few dollars. I came out happier than had I stayed home with my money. The gelato guys, for their part, preferred my cash to an unsold cup of gelato. Thus, the sale made them happier as well.

This “voluntary exchange” between buyers and sellers, in which both parties end up better off than they were before, is a key tenet of capitalism. It’s a simple, un-coerced, free-market swap of money for goods.

Who could argue with this efficient interaction, largely unsullied by government regulation (at least not in any obvious way)? Indeed, many economists, business people, and politicians believe that if more of our economy functioned on capitalist principals we would all be better off. The idea is that the less the government gets involved, the more people can go about their voluntary capitalist exchanges, sowing seeds of happiness and profit in their paths.

For a variety of complicated (and frequently erroneous) reasons it is often assumed that protecting the environment interferes with the above mentioned pursuit of money and well-being. There is something to this perspective. One of the government’s only tools for addressing environmental, social, or economic problems, is to pass new laws and create regulations. Unfortunately, new rules are often fraught with inefficiencies, weighed down with bureaucracy and spew forth a sea of unintended consequences in their wake.

Which is why I love Brunswick’s pay-per-bag garbage program: it’s completely capitalist in spirit and at the same time it does a spectacular job of helping the environment.

As most readers know, pay-per-bag refers to a system in which citizens pay to purchase each garbage bag they use. The more garbage a household generates, the more bags they use, and the more they pay.

Those who have whittled their garbage down to two cans a year, pay almost nothing. Yes, I do know several families who have achieved this feat. And yes, when I visit their houses, I find myself constantly peering around and making suspicious comments such as, “OK, what do you do with your toothpaste tubes?” and, “Where are you hiding the packaging for that new pot?”

Back in the old days, garbage collection was funded by tax revenue. Two families with the same taxes would, in effect, pay the same for garbage collection, even if one household lugged out six cans a week brimming with greasy pizza boxes, and the other had enlisted Harry Potter to shrink their weekly garbage into a dense pea-sized lump (which, I’ve concluded, is the only way to get to two bags a year).

Without delving into economic jargon or quibbling about the details, having the amount homeowners pay for garbage be independent of the amount of garbage they actually use is closer to a socialist system than a capitalist one. Light users subsidize heavy users, all for the greater common good of getting the garbage collected. It is not a voluntary exchange of money for services: everyone pays irrespective of the services received.

Yet, it is also a system subject to the unintended consequences that inevitably crop up when markets are run by regulations rather than a free exchange of goods and services. Importantly, the motivation citizens might have to throw out less–an action clearly beneficial for the environment as well as for the life of the landfill and consequently the town’s bottom line–is largely removed. When everyone pays the same amount, there is limited motivation for individuals to toss less stuff.

Enter good old capitalist pay-per-bag in January of 2007. The town of Brunswick charges $1.00 for large bags and just $0.50 for bags about half the size. For some, absorbing this cost represents a financial challenge, for most others it’s a small nudge to figure out how to produce less garbage. The less we throw out, the more we save.

And throw out less we certainly did. Before pay-per-bag, Brunswick residents tossed out approximately 6-7,000 tons of garbage a year. Today, we are down to just 4,000 tons a year: nearly a 40% drop.

This tremendous decrease in trash volume was not only attributable to the pay-per-bag program. At the same time the new rules were implemented, Brunswick also switched to single stream recycling (in which all recyclables can be put in one container) and increased the types of materials that could be collected for recycling.

The town has just passed the five-year anniversary of pay-per-bag’s inception. During this time the reduction in trash tonnage has added over 2 years to the estimated life of the landfill. The longer the landfill lasts, the longer the town has before it has to take on the high costs associated with closing it, and with finding a new place for our garbage. This is a huge cost-saver for the town.

For most people, protecting the environment frequently does not appear to be aligned with their own self interests. At the same time it’s clear that we all depend on a healthy environment for basic needs such as our food supply, and clean water and air. Using free market forces to link environmental protection with
individual self interest, is one of our most powerful tools for moving forward.

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A toucan is a toucan, right? And if a toucan landed on a nearby fence post, it would not be particularly hard to identify. “There’s a toucan!” you would shout giddily. No need to go running for the bird book.

By Elena Newmark, age 16

However, if you happen to be in Costa Rica when this toucan appears, you’ll find that when you smugly paw through the bird book to confirm your sighting (“Ha! Toucan! I knew it!”) there are, in fact, six different kinds of toucans. Unless you have an excellent memory for details, you have little chance of correctly identifying the critter.

I know this to be true because it happened to me last spring on a trip to the aforementioned tropical country.

Here in New England, if you see a small blue bird, flitting about like a chip of sapphire, there’s no messing around: it’s an Indigo Bunting. In Costa Rica, there are piles of brilliant blue birds to confuse you. Here, every hummingbird is a Ruby-throated. In Costa Rica, a hummingbird could sit on top of your binoculars laughing its head off and you still might not be able to identify it. This also happened to me. Costa Rica is home to 50 different species of hummingbirds.

A Costa Rican jungle is biodiversity in action. The biodiversity of a region refers to the number of different types of life forms it contains, from the smallest microbes and insects to the tallest trees and biggest predators.

The tiny country of Costa Rica, at approximately half the size of Maine, is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Fully 10% of all existing bird species live there or pass through on migratory routes. The forests and surrounding oceans brim with an astounding variety of plants, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

On the country’s Pacific coast, the lowland rainforest of Corcovado has one of the densest concentrations of different species on the planet. We spent three days trekking through this jungle and indeed the place was crawling, creeping, and exploding with life. Snakes slithered from our footsteps, peccaries snorted in the underbrush, monkeys threw sticks, tapirs roamed the beaches, scarlet macaws screamed through the dawn, ticks chomped, and plants dripped into our path.

Despite the apparent health of ecosystems such as this, the planet today is losing species at an astounding rate. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a collaboration between hundreds of governmental and non-governmental organizations worldwide, estimates the current rate of extinctions to be 1,000-10,000 times more than it would be naturally. Human activities such as habitat destruction, agricultural practices, introduction of invasive species, and over-harvesting of resources, are the primary driving forces.

Renowned Pulitzer-Prize winning biologist E.O. Wilson has written that significant loss of biodiversity poses threats to the fabric of life which equal or surpass even those posed by climate change. Many scientists believe we are standing on the brink of the sixth great mass extinction in the history of the planet Earth. The last mass extinction, probably caused by a meteorite strike, occurred 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. Rebuilding biodiversity after such an event can take millions of years.

Why does biodiversity have such profound implications for the ability of life to survive? Change is inevitable in any living system: climate patterns shift, diseases appear, new species turn up while others drop out. Ecosystems rely on biodiversity to remain productive and healthy throughout these changes.

When I was a teenager a freak wind storm caused major damage to every one of the line of gorgeous cherry trees planted along my city street. My mother wondered why they picked a variety so prone to wind damage. In actuality, the problem was the planting of a large number of the same tree. One year there may be ferocious wind, the next year terrible drought or a beetle that eats only ash trees. A mix of plantings increases the odds that some trees will survive and thrive.

When Dutch Elm Disease struck the United States around the middle of the last century, many communities lost more than half of their urban street trees. In part because of this legacy foresters now recommend planting a large variety of species to prevent losses of the same magnitude from unforeseen future stressors.

It is also true that the greater the variety within each species, the greater the chance that some individuals of that species will be able to weather adversities and pass their strengths along to their children. The fewer individuals left of a given species, the less health and vigor is seen in the entire population.

The planet’s environment is being altered at a staggering rate at the same time that our actions are dramatically diminishing the variety of lifeforms, thereby also reducing the ability of plants and animals to adapt to change.

This loss of diversity isn’t just a problem for peccaries in the rainforest: it poses threats to the health of the agricultural crops that we depend on for food, our ability to discover new treatments for disease, and the functioning of the natural systems that regulate carbon, oxygen and water.

Many cutting-edge techniques such as genetic engineering, in which desirable traits from one organism are transferred into another organism, rely on nature to invent the desirable traits in the first place. Modern science draws constantly from the vast pool of chemicals manufactured by the world’s plant and animal life to devise new medicines.

Even at the horizons of human inventiveness, we still depend on the natural variability that comes from a rich and diverse pool of species with many individuals flitting through the trees, creeping along the ground, and growing out of the cracks.

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Gold Leaf and Butterflies

I’m standing in the basement of a century-old three story brick apartment building in Boston. The space measures forty by sixty feet, or about the same area as a good-sized house. This particular basement is filled with stuff, packed in so tightly that it is difficult to move a ShopVac around the piles.

My parents moved into this building over 40 years ago. My Danish mother, an art conservator by training, whom we all suspected was really a pirate, had a workshop down in the basement. She would disappear for days at a time, building furniture, restoring artworks, puffing away on her pipe, and bartering with Siberian yak traders, who would pass that way from time to time.

The building had three apartments; my folks lived on one floor, and there were renters on the other two. For most of my family’s tenure, another somewhat fuzzy pirate-type, named Larry, lived on the first floor.

There were certain ways in which Larry and my mom understood each other perfectly. They were both incredible craftspeople who could make anything with their hands. They understood materials and they hated the poor quality of modern goods and the rampant waste of modern society.

And so, they both saved and collected things. Walking along the street, they would spot an old well-made rolling chair on someone’s garbage pile. Into the basement it would go. A decent lamp in need of re-wiring? The basement. Sales on acid-free paper, book-binding cloth and other curious items with unfathomable future uses? The basement. Viking longboats, in good condition? Yeah, the basement.

Larry spent a lot of time in underbelly of the building. He turned one corner into a sound-proof music room, he brought in table saws and drill presses, he strung lights, sinks and deer’s heads from the ceiling and had wild parties. Although he himself moved out of the building a while back, his stuff never got around to following along. Apparently, he has nowhere to put it.

When my mom passed away a few years ago the basement fell under a mysterious enchantment and faded from our memories. Oddly, I didn’t even see it when I was passing through to put out the garbage for my dad or grab a shovel to clear some snow.

But last month, during a visit to Boston, I was zipping obliviously through the basement on some minor errand when a curious thing happened. The magical haze of cobwebs and dust, which was slowly obscuring all traces of the bustling civilization that had once flourished down there, cleared for an instant. I realized that someone had to deal with the stuff in the basement.

I know I keep saying the basement was full of “stuff.” If only. “Stuff” is badly made, often intentionally manufactured to break, wear out, or become obsolete relatively quickly, thereby requiring the purchase of yet more stuff. It’s what most of us buy most of the time.

This basement, however, is largely filled with real things. Things that were built to last, things that were salvaged from a past when raw materials, such as metal and wood, were valued enough to be used carefully.

On this spring day I’m in the basement to meet Larry so we can begin the clearing process. Right on time, he strolls down the stairs.

We roam around, feeling lost and nostalgic, identifying what is his and what was my mom’s. I look at his pile, steadily growing as he pulls things from the rubble. “They don’t make chairs like this anymore,” he says as he hesitates before putting three old rolling chairs in the give away pile.

Nevertheless, he takes rusted fans (I can fix this up), old PVC pipe (I’ll make cubbies out of this), boxes of mixed screws and bolts. He agrees to get the bulk of his stash out by July. It would easily fill a few small moving trucks.

I open a box marked by my mother as “træuld.” The Danish translates delightfully as “tree wool.” Sure enough, in the box are long spaghetti-thin aromatic cedar wood tendrils, curled in tight springy ringlets, the packing materials from some ancient shipment of old country goods. I wonder if it’s been saved all these years for some higher purpose than to become kindling in my wood stove.

As I roam, I think about trash-pickers the world round, who re-melt bent nails to make new ones, who tie together broken string to make fishing nets, who expose themselves and their children to terrible toxins as they disassemble our old computers and cell phones to recover precious metals.

To honor this spirit, to honor my mother and Larry, who believed in using things up, all the way, to honor this basement chock full of the world’s irreplaceable finite resources, I know I will need to find homes for most everything in here.

Someday, when things are scarcer than they are now, we will want back all of our well made rolling chairs, our stainless steel sinks, our Christmas lights, our acid-free paper. I will not be the one who throws it in the landfill.

I pick up another slim box nearly pancaked with age. My mother’s neat handwriting on the side says: Gold Leaf and Butterflies. I expect nothing less as I open it.

In one bag is a heavy pack of gold leaf, the real thing, squares of the thinnest imaginable layers of gold, thinner than paper, a pirate’s treasure glowing from between dull layers of brown tissue. Sometimes, you see, a person needs gold leaf.

Next to this bag are tiny ziplocs with butterfly wings, the real things, collected over a lifetime of stopping by the roadside to pick up the pieces of humankind’s collisions with the natural world.

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