Ever since a middle school assembly, I’ve been passionate about the environment. I remember very little about the presentation itself, except the feeling of shock that the world was going to hell in a handbasket and none of the grownups I knew seemed very alarmed.
After reading 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth in high school, I pestered my parents to install a water-saving faucet in the shower. I badgered classmates for contributions to buy an acre of rainforest in the Amazon.
In college I joined an environmental group. Let’s just say that the University of South Carolina in 1992 was not exactly a hotbed of political activism. Hootie and the Blowfish, yes. Reusable coffee mugs, not so much. Though I met like-minded souls (who turned into lifelong friends), I got frustrated with our lack of progress, quit the group, and dated a musician instead.
When I went back to college after having my first child I tried to start an anti-nuclear weapons group. No one came to the first meeting. I drove to Washington DC with my toddler to protest the WTO. A weird dude from the Lyndon LaRouche movement hit on me. I got frustrated and turned my attention to home ownership, realtor.com, and granite countertops instead.
It wasn’t until I became established in my yoga practice that my focus shifted from trying to make somebody else do the right thing to making myself do the right thing. Other people, whether they are a two-year old or Exxon, tend not to listen. Whereas before I felt small and powerless up against the multinational companies and political forces that, implicitly or otherwise, support environmental destruction, I began to realize just how powerful I am. Every time I purchase a sweatshirt from China, a conventional mango from Guatemala, or petroleum-based lip balm, I am saying yes to global warming, unsustainable farming techniques, and unsound oil-drilling practices. These were facts which I always knew, but were convenient to forget. The yogic practice of satya, or truthfulness, required me to acknowledge my own contributions to the mess.
Realizing how much my own comforts depend on an immoral system is both difficult and liberating. Difficult, because it means if I want to live in accordance with my values I have to give up a lot. Liberating, because unlike showing up at a rally, I know my actions are meaningful. It’s both easier and rewarding to change my consumption patterns than it is to change the government’s fuel emission standards. Don’t misunderstand me: I still believe protests and rallies are an important part of democracy. But to paraphrase Gandhi: if you want to change the world, start with yourself.
Which brings me to apple butter. This past spring I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which details how the author and her family eat only local food for one year. Kingsolver has a lot more money and acreage than I do, but I wondered what the urban version of her story would look like. I grow a decent proportion of my produce here in West Philly, but I’ll never fit an apple orchard in my backyard. However I can stock up on local produce from the farmer’s market and preserve it for the winter.
So far this year I’ve canned 43 pints of tomatoes, 13 pints of peach jam, 7 pints of blueberry jam, 7 pints of roasted red peppers, 4 quarts of pickles and 36 pints of apple butter. It probably took over 60 hours (I didn’t keep track). I could have gone to Aldi and bought cheap jams and canned tomatoes for far less than I spent on canning supplies and produce. But every morning, when I have homemade apple butter on my oatmeal instead of raisins from Aldi, that is one less serving of raisins that were trucked across the country from California. And over a lifetime, I have to believe that it makes a difference.
The more I continue on this path of yoga, the more I see it is not big dramatic shifts that bring me closer to my ideals, but a series of baby steps. What I thought was too much effort five years ago now seems reasonable. 36 pints of apple butter? No biggie. This gives me hope that the things in my life which now seem impossible will one day be possible.