Taking the slow road on Earth Day

Okay, I know it’s a bit of an oxymoron — driving on Earth Day. But if we assume the drive is necessary, can it be a mindful celebration of nature?

Driving into the city, I have a choice: Take the busy highway and then the congested main street, or make the journey on the slower parkway that meanders along the water, but gets me to the same destination. Today the road less traveled is clearly the better choice.

It’s mid-afternoon with a light rain falling. The road twists and turns, following nature’s path, not mine. Suddenly I am fully awake to my experience. This is not the time for rote driving; rather, the road grabs my attention and demands that I give it its due.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that any time we use an instrument or a machine, we change. We become something else that is a blend of self and machine. He suggests reciting this verse before driving, to make the experience more mindful:

Before starting the car,

I know where I’m going.

The car and I are one.

If the car goes fast, I go fast.

imageI settle into a steady rhythm as I respond to the organic curves in the road. There are stretches where I can go faster, but being forced to take my time around the curves makes keeping a slower, steady pace more fluid. On the main roads, I would have been speeding up just to stop. Here on the parkway, pauses are fewer, the motion is smoother, and I feel calmer as I drive.

I notice places in the creek where trees have fallen and boulders have piled up, chaotic spots that are reminders of wild winter weather. At the same time, Spring is announcing itself with a full-on burst of color. The bright yellow-green of new growth and the intense magenta of redbud trees flash around every turn. I realize what a gift it is to have this way of coming home.

Thoreau wrote that, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” During the thirty minutes I’ve spent on the parkway, it’s been impossible to think about work or worries for very long. Nature has taken over my attention, if only for a little while.

Celebrating Earth Day by driving might not be what environmentalists had in mind when they inaugurated the occasion back in 1970. But before we can care for the environment, we have to notice it, and a mindful Earth Day drive has a way of stirring close observation and appreciation for all that surrounds us.


Spring recharge

We take for granted that our phones and other devices have to be recharged every day or every week. If we don’t do it, we lose the ability to communicate or do our work. The same is true of our minds and bodies, but because we don’t totally shut down, we don’t sense the same urgency to recharge.

April is coming to a close and it’s starting to feel like spring. What can we do to refresh ourselves? The weather teases us, with a few warm days followed by a really cold one; the pollen is challenging some of us to keep our heads clear; flowers are blooming, yet we’re still wearing winter jackets; kids are getting restless in school, but they have two months to go – we can answer that uncertainty and unsettledness by learning what serves us well and making changes in our routines.

Here’s what my spring recharge looks like:

Rediscovering nature – Sustainability is a buzzword all year long, but Earth Day still serves as an opportunity to get people outdoors. A few days ago, I went on a Nature Conservancy hike at Great Falls Park in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac Gorge. As many times as I have been there, I never fail to be awestruck when I see the falls with all their power and beauty. Vultures, cormorants and herons were soaring over the gorge as the river rushed over the rocks. In the park we saw the first spring wildflowers, and I learned that the flowers of redbud trees are edible (salad garnish!) It doesn’t take a whole day to do something in nature: in the May issue of Yoga Journal, there are ideas for connecting with nature in a minute, an hour, a day or a week.Great Falls NP_1

Fresher, lighter food – The warm, comforting foods of winter will soon be a memory. Florida fruit is starting to appear in my grocery store, and I love tracking the progress of the blueberries for sale: first Florida, then Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey and later in summer, Michigan. Spring and summer will mean more local food, more raw or lightly-cooked food, more fruits and vegetables. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a book about the best basic foods including best fruit (guava, watermelon and kiwi), best vegetables (kale, spinach and collard greens) and best beans (soybeans, pinto beans and chickpeas). Think of the combinations!photo

Cleaner spaces – Our homes suffer over the winter too. They’re closed up with stale air; dirt and toxins have accumulated; and closets are cluttered with heavy coats, sweaters and boots. Last week I cleaned out my coat closet, and I can’t stop admiring its organization and empty space. (We’ll see how long that lasts!)

A clearer head — Working on mind clutter is valuable too. Could you possibly let go of activities that are draining you and wearing you out? Sometimes I realize that just the process by which I’m doing something is too complicated, that there is a simpler way that uses less energy. Often it’s because I’m trying to control something too much. But by letting go of some control, the process becomes easier, and I am freer in a way. Recommitting to a meditative practice helps me figure this out.

Reuniting with friends and family – Feeling other people’s energy can be a great way to recharge. Spring is the perfect time to connect with people who stimulate and challenge you, support you and nourish you. It’s the time when we start planning family reunions and summer picnics. Maybe it’s a time to commit to putting out more love, and less fear and judgment; to look for the beauty in people that mirrors springtime’s beauty.

Great Falls NP ChickweedI don’t think there is any season that nourishes the spirit, or gives us more reason to feel hope and optimism as spring does. As the writer and abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote, “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.

Earth Day 2012…

…and it’s raining a steady, drenching rain. It is cold and miserable, yet nourishing to our plants and soil, which were snow-deprived all winter. It’s a good day to sit inside and think about what the day means and how I can do my part to make my piece of the Earth a healthier place.

When Earth Day started 40 years ago, it was in response to an an oil spill, and it ignited a new focus on environmental activism and political action. Much of the Earth Day messaging has been about energy use, clean air and water, and more recently, climate change. The theme for Earth Day last year was “A Billion Acts of Green”, and currently the counter on the EDN web site shows over 999 million acts of green submitted by visitors to the site.

The theme for the Earth Day Network this year is “Mobilize the Earth”, calling on people worldwide to unite their words and actions to create a sustainable future. “A Billion Acts of Green” and “Mobilize the Earth” speak to the idea that small actions can add up to a large impact, and that it will take all of us together to make the world a better place to live and grow.

So I’ve been thinking about what acts of green I can add to my life. I already recycle as much of my trash as I can, freecycle some unwanted items and donate others, try to use gadgets as long as possible before buying new ones, responsibly recycle my electronics, use an electric lawn mower, combine errands in the car when possible, and respond to appeals from Clean Water Action and other environmental groups. What’s left?

  • Being more mindful of water use. My local water company says that 70 gallons is the typical daily per person water usage in our area. My household is a little lower than that, but it’s still vastly greater than people use in other countries. Millions of people in the world don’t have access to a reliable source of clean water at all.
  • Riding my bike instead of driving. Last summer I bought a pannier for my bicycle, determined that I was going to start riding to the grocery store. I did it exactly once before the weather got cold. (I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to riding in cold weather). I am going to set a goal of substituting the bike for the car once a week this spring and summer. This has the added benefit of being exercise too!
  • Making “meatless Mondays” a habit. We’ve been gradually incorporating this idea in our house and 2012 could be the year to solidify it. The meatless Monday trend has the benefit of being good for the environment (lots of CO2 comes from cattle), saving water (it takes a lot more water to raise animals for meat than it does to grow plants) and making us healthier too. The Meatless Mondays web site has lots of great recipe ideas and other tips on how to incorporate this idea into your life.
  • Volunteering. Yes, I belong to environmental organizations, write letters occasionally, and send them money sometimes. But I used to do more, such as cleaning up my local stream and volunteering for environmental organizations. I can do that again.

I read back over the steps I’m proposing to take, and I see how intertwined my well-being is with that of the Earth. Eating less meat, exercising more and being connected to my community will all benefit me while I am getting “greener”. My individual future is inextricably linked to the future of my world. As Aldo Leopold once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”