It was second semester of my sophomore year of college and I was starting to get nervous about where to go for in between my current and upcoming semester. Over the phone and miles away, my sister, “Lee”, and I were discussing my plans for the summer. I knew I didn’t want to live in my college town because jobs were scarce and I definitely did not want to move back into my parents house because mostly everyone from high school had moved away. Not to mention, there is nothing there to do socially besides become one with the trees. For some, this is a dream come true. For me, I love being eco-friendly, but I still needed to have some human contact besides working as a waitress in the middle of nowhere for tourists. Therefore, I only had one option, which was to live with one of my sisters. This broke my plan down further. Summer 2013 meant living in San Francisco, CA or Portland, OR. Seeing as my sister, Ashley, already had 2 roommates, I opted for Portland.
Since our family is just a bunch of nomads, I was not nervous about the act of moving. Rather, I was very excited. My sister had told me so much about Portland when we talked in between my exams and presentations and she had told me that it was very similar to home, but very different. Seeing as “home”, in the little town of Bethlehem, NH, had temperatures reaching -20 most winters, I wondered how on Earth could a place be similar if it wasn’t Alaska. I decided to fly out and spend the summer there despite my doubts and within my first week of my Portland summer vacation, I realized she was absolutely right!
That summer, I fell in love with Portland. I found the people in Portland are largely concerned with conservation of land, consumerism, as well as human and animal rights. For example, large companies out of Portland, such as REI and Keen shoes and attire close their doors on Black Friday to promote being active and not giving into consumerism. It may seem to be a small or unimportant on the larger scale to most people, but these are all values that my family revolved much of our lives around growing up.
This past May, I moved back to Portland to start my life here as a newly graduated graphic designer. While there are ample opportunities with major design companies on the east coast, I did not relate to their culture as well as I did in Portland. I believe that people back on the east coast assume that I live in Portland to live the life of a hipster or hippy. Frankly, though, I was raised with the same values that the community in Portland has over in the little town of Bethlehem in the White Mountains.
Bethlehem is the highest elevated town east of the Rocky Mountains, known for the cleanest air on the East Coast and some of the most icy winters. It is also home to a culture similar to Portlanders, where the importance of living off the land, not obsessively consuming, and not filling our landfills with what could have been avoided as waste. Bethlehem even has a law of exclusion of chain stores and restaurants– how’s that for shopping local?
Part of living in Bethlehem meant making very eco-friendly choices. Sometimes this was due to financial reasons. Most of the time, however, it was for moral reasons. Although our family did not revolve our lives around a particular religion, I would say that “living off the land” transformed our lives almost just the same as most families do with religion. You may be thinking that it is ridiculous to make such a comparison. However, in our family, we truly believe that you are what you consume.
Our family was always progressive in this manner. When we lived in the suburbs of Boston, for example, my father was one of the first in our neighborhood to create a garden. Not just any garden, mind you, but one with a compost, and one that provided vegetables and fruits that would nourish us for months to come. For my parents, this was another way to provide for us in a way that most parents would not make the time for. In addition, it cut down on the resources used to transport food to the grocery stores, which was important to my parents. As our garden grew, we continued to outgrow our small acre of property in Rhode Island and my parents decided to sell the house.
We later moved to “the little town of Bethlehem”. This was a small town in the White Mountains where there were strictly mountains with hillside farms, ski trails, and laws against chain businesses. Being 11, I didn’t really understand why we had moved to the middle of nowhere with wicked cold winters and a difficult lifestyle, or should I say, survival. To my parents, though, it was exactly where they wanted to raise their children. So, we packed up and moved with our two dogs to build our house on a good chunk of acreage.
Now, this wasn’t just any house. This was a house that my parents had saved up for, gone to New Hampshire just about every weekend to plan, and one that would end up being a nightmare for the next 5 years. However, in due time, it was entirely eco-friendly and became their perfect place to raise their kids.
When we first arrived, the house was still being built. While my dad was doing electrical work in the house and carpentry in the bottom and top floors, my mom planned out the massive garden, which they worked with the University of New Hampshire to get their soil just right. My parents also planted a field of Christmas trees, to watch them grow over the years. With the stone wall falling apart and broken in most areas, they used the rocks from the garden, hauled them up the hill, and laid each stone down to rebuilt their great wall. In addition, they re-built the original gate to the old farm land that was rotting away to bring to life the land that was once a brilliant farm land. With all these little projects being completed, they were proud of their accomplishments. It was not so much the house that became their haven, but their land. It continued to look more and more beautiful, in a natural way and were now able to amplify their lifestyle of living off the land in good time.
As if my father needed another project, he took on one major one– solar panels. These solar panels were not for our house, though. The house that we had built was conservative. Heated with both wood fires and passive solar heat from our floor to roof windows, little energy was used in our home. Furthermore, the energy that was used was extremely tracked. We had a limit to our showers with a timer and we were not allowed to spend more than one hour on any form of technology. Again, we used our resources wisely. These solar panels were for his beloved chickens which he had hand built chicken coops for, played music for, and sang to often. While he sometimes hated these “pain in the ass chickens”, we all know his little secret– he LOVED them. Months later, after the hand-dug trenches were finished, the pipes were placed, and the wires were pulled, our family would also come to love the fact that we were truly living off the land with an organic protein food source. Yet again, my father’s life motto lived up to its potential– “if you’re going to do something, do it right the first time”. As we adapted into the north country life, we continued to explore this motto more.
Doing it right the first time is a large concept, which we found to heavily revolve around doing what is best for not just us, but for our community and making sure that we did just that from the get-go. When you surround yourself with people of similar values and practices, it is easier to not cut corners. Our neighbor farmers truly cared about the animals they were slaughtering, the elderly neighbors cared about the impact they personally had on the landfill waste, and my school would not pass you into middle school unless you passed “outdoor education”. The lifestyle here was truly different, but all in good ways.The level of care for our community’s impact on the environment was enormous, as it should be.
This level of care I see even more so in Portland. There are community compost bins in the downtown city areas. You are to sort your recycled items appropriately and are reprimanded for littering. No city is perfect, but I am proud to be a member of a community where we are not consumed by our immediate lives and, as a culture, do the right thing, the first time.
While in college, it was difficult to live this lifestyle. You are surrounded by people from vastly different lives, with some student groups coming from states that didn’t even recycle or people who have never even heard of a compost. As my college career came to an end, I was happy to also close the door to many of the habits my overall college experience had lead me to practice. Many of these were due to financial restrictions or lack or resources.
Now, however, those times are over. I have a wonderful job that allows me to provide the lifestyle that reflects the morals and values my parents had worked their whole lives to instill in me. The time has come to take those seriously and practice them accordingly. There are no longer extreme financial restrictions (other than student loans–womp, womp), and my schedule is consistent enough whereas I can implement taking the necessary time to do it right and do it right the first time.
This year, my sister and I have decided to really reduce our waste. There are two parts to this goal. Living in an apartment, without land, could be seen as a restriction. However, I’m willing to accept it as a challenge. My goal for this upcoming spring is to create an apartment garden on our balcony. What’s most exciting about this is I will know exactly what goes into my produce! I am excited to reduce our waste by using a compost bin and see how less often we have to bring our trash to the dumpsters. Throughout the summer, I think that my habits of eating better will also improve because I have good faith that my garden will bloom, meaning I will have lots of fresh produce! They say you are what you eat and therefore, I have faith that my health will also be better than it has been this past year. (Fingers crossed!). Consuming food has a plan and so does consuming goods.
My second goal is to be more conscious of what I purchase for my closet, home decor, and pantry. One change we have already made in our household is to stop using plastic bags for packing our lunches. With a creative mind, you can store food in anything. However, our new favorite way is using glass jars that we can upcycle from products that we’ve previously used, such as salsa jars and spaghetti sauce jars. The term, “if you break it, you buy Not only are they great for freezing soups, but it’s also cheaper. When we are cutting costs on silly items, such as plastic baggies, we are able to support companies that share the same morals as us.