My father has been stealthily rescuing the planet. He'd refer to himself as a frugal New Englander trained to turn off lights and live by the mantra waste not, want not. He'd never call himself an environmentalist – a title reserved for hippies, Democrats, and the state of Vermont. I'd long ago branded myself the environmentalist of the family, based on my devout canvas-bag toting, enthusiasm for organic broccoli, and the ability to pronounce the names of evil toxins like "phthalates" (THA-layts).
As a kid, I ignored my dad's commitment to buying eggs from a nearby family, his annual opposition to store-bought Christmas gifts, and his infamous plea to persuade a local clothing store to hand over the loaner socks they would no longer be using. He finally came home triumphant one day, waving a pair of dingy white tube socks of two different lengths. "Girls!" he shouted, calling my mother, sister, and me into the kitchen to see the socks. He smiled like a Cheshire cat. "They were free!"
He converted to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) years before it became popular. "These bulbs will outlive me," I remember him saying with a far-off look in his eye. I complained that it took 15 minutes for the light to come on in the bathroom, and I didn't want to endure that for the rest of his life. It took me several more years and a couple of academic degrees to switch out my own bulbs, after I'd moved to California ("Vermont West") and wasn't home so often. It was the summer I fell in love with Al Gore and told my fiancé that I threw away neither aluminum foil nor zip-lock bags, and we'd never use wrapping paper. He raised both eyebrows at what I paid for dish soap, but I told him he'd thank me later. A year later, we got married and bought a Prius.
Recently, like the agonizingly slow-to-illuminate CFLs at my parents' house, a light switched on in my consciousness: I was not the environmental paragon of the family. My dad was. My coupon-clipping, "I'm no tree-hugger" father was the real deal, and I had only been mimicking a way of life espoused by reasonably educated people who loved recycling and traveled to Alaska and had at one point slapped a Save the Whales, Save the Humans, or "I don't eat anything with a face" sticker on their cars. I was an imposter armed with little more than my canvas totes and an impressive vocabulary of stuff that shouldn't be in shampoo.
My dad doesn't have a silicone-wrapped glass water bottle, or bamboo sheets, or fleece made out of soda bottles, and yet he's managed to harness the meaning of real stewardship: Live on less, wear your clothes until they wear out (I'm pretty sure half his shirts were purchased while Nixon was in office), catch your own dinner.
Growing up, I remember there were a few quotations tacked to the bulletin board in the kitchen. The one I remember most was from Wordsworth, and my dad quoted it often: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." I'm finally trying to take my dad's lead and live more simply, buy less instead of buying green. Six years later, my husband and I are now sharing that same Prius.
This past summer I visited my parents for a few weeks. While I was there, I watched my dad bring items he no longer needed to our church's basement (a low-tech Freecycle operation), take his own mug to the diner, pick chives from the garden, and dig quahogs to make into chowder he stored away for winter. With the air in the kitchen rustic and salty with the smell of clams, I told him he was part of the slow food movement.
He agreed to no such thing, arguing that the clams he dug himself simply tasted sweeter.