Sunday, June 24, 2007

Goin' Green

Back in good ol’ 1970, when I was 12, the environment issue seemed to be front and center. NASA photographs sent back to Houston from manned space flights had shown “spaceship” earth suspended in the black vacuum of outer space like a glowing blue and white marble. We earthlings felt small. We felt like our planet was an ark containing all the precious life that was to be found in the galaxy and that our little ark was itself precious and fragile. The movement to protect the earth from human destruction was one more grass roots concern fomented in the idealistic decade of the 1960’s.

Pretty soon governments caught on to this populist attitude. The Mayor of San Francisco declared a public holiday on March 21 and the first national recognition of Earth Day occurred on April 22nd. Over 20 million Americans turned out for the event and within a year even the United Nations had jumped on the bandwagon with its own environmental proclamation.

This was powerful stuff for us teenagers just learning about the world, social opinion, and the power of motivated masses of citizenry. We collected newspapers for recycling and trees were planted with the proceeds. We earned Boy Scout merit badges in environmental citizenship. A friend and I even logged 300 miles earning a bicycling merit badge. We picked up trash. We participated in Park Service projects repairing walking trails and foot bridges. After the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, cars began to get a little smaller and thermostats got turned down in the winter and up in the summer. National interstate speed limits dipped to 55 miles per hour.

Then the movement died out. Kicked the bucket. Flat disappeared. Only a few radical lefties carried on the torch. Where did the 20 million go? Well pundits and politicians can do their post mortem speculation forever, but the result was devastating. Those battleship sized station wagons from 1970 were simply replaced by the gasoholic SUV as vehicle of choice and the thrifty four cylinder engine gave way to the muscular Hemi in the family sedan. Who needs thrifty when you can afford serious power as you cruise to private school and the country club with your freckle faced cargo?

But now it’s 2007 and the radical left is becoming radical chic. Even evangelicals give a hoot about spotted owls and reversing glacial melt is now a multi-party campaign platform. Hybrid engines are cool and recognizing the interconnection between the sustainability of human life and the sustainability of all other life on spaceship earth is talked up by more than just a few nutty professors and liberal theologians.

I don’t know where everybody went, but welcome back.

So not being one to fall behind some neophyte wave of sanctimonious, green converts, I had to jump back into action. When the ancient and puttering riding lawn mower that I inherited when we bought our house finally expired, I grabbed the chance to act.

It seemed every year that with just a bit of tweaking, a new belt, spark plug or battery, the old fossil-fueled fossil could be manipulated into running just a little longer. For three seasons that old thing would grunt and groan and then eventually crank up and I would ride off into the pollen with a yeehaw and a prayer. But every year it seemed that the little roll of stomach lap that flopped over my belt got a little bigger. And beyond that, the tweaking was getting more and more expensive all the time. So when I’d replaced everything on the ignition and wiring diagram and the engine still wouldn’t turn over, it was time for the venerated veteran riding mower to join the mothball fleet.

But what to replace it with?

At first I thought of sheep or goats. Alas, they eat the grass right down to the root and would probably eat the house too. Rabbits? No, even a seventh grader with a C in math can figure out their astoundingly prolific reproduction rate. A cow? Nope, there’s a leash law and besides, the wife drinks only no-fat vanilla two pump decaf lattes. The kids go for Gatorade.

I wasn’t about to pay full price for a new walk-behind mower either, self propelled or not. I mean, let’s face it; lawn mower technology hasn’t changed since Toro came out with the low torque engine in 1974. I remember it because of the acres and acres across which I pushed one that summer. The real value of a $200 walk behind lawnmower in terms of manufacturing costs and technological research is about $47.50 plus gas.

Never one to miss a teaching opportunity, I enticed my 8 year old to go along to some yard sales. Maybe there was an old mower that could be had for a bargain. No such luck. Overpriced, rusted out, and un-startable junk awaited us at every house and my evil first grade teacher’s evil twin, who seemed to be operating every yard sale cash register, had a strict no haggle policy. But the kid had fun running his fingers over all the stuff and that was fine until he started finding things he wanted like a unicycle or a Shriner’s sword or a World War II helmet. I grew tired of saying no.

Finally, we found it. It was an aluminum handle, regulation push mower. Yep, one of those old people powered mowers with four, twisting blades parallel to the ground, set in a cylinder that turned with the wheels. Yep, a push mower. It rolled smoothly. It was quiet. It was non-violent, non-polluting, non-invasive and even the kids could use it. It was great! My little boy laughed, “What’s that thing?” I told him then showed him and he immediately wanted to try it. Fifteen dollars later the new mower was ours.

Back home, the grass was waiting and it was long too since the old mower had reposed in its immobile, collapsed state for several weeks. Junior grabbed the handle that came up to his cheek bone and started to push, but in the tall, thick fescue he got no forward progress. He tried a different section of the yard, then another section. The sun was high. He was thirsty. He quit.

My next oldest boy came out of the house. “What are you doing?” Then, looking at the mower he said, “What’s that do?” I told him it mows the grass when you push it. “You mean, when YOU push it,” he retorted with a smirk as he swung a leg across the seat of his bicycle. “I’m out of here.” Strike two.

Then my oldest son came flying out of the house, eager to prove his mature sense of responsibility. “Woah, Dad. Can I try it? This is great. It’s awesome conditioning for football! And guess what. I can cut the grass with this and you can pay me!”

I awoke from that comment, head spinning, lying flat on my back in the grass with our dog licking my face. As I picked myself up, my last best hope, my namesake, my oldest and most mature son was pushing the mower in a zig zag across the yard. “Hey, you need to go in a straight line and then turn back on your path to return,” I called out.

“No, Dad, I’m writing my name in the grass! See the letters? Cool, huh?”

I started to comment about how writing your name in the grass didn’t actually achieve the desired result of getting the yard mowed in any kind of an organized manner. But there were blaring tunes thumping out of his Ipod and I knew that trying to explain anything to him was a waste of time. Anyway, his enthusiasm lasted about fifteen minutes at which point a single bead of sweat appeared on his manly brow and he shuffled inside the house to slurp up some kind of sports drink.

Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do so I waited until about 5:30 when the candle power of the sun had diminished. Then I went outside, picked up the handle of the mower, glad that there was nothing to crank, and began to push. It was amazing. No gas tank or oil level to check. No sparkplug to clean. No battery. No grinding, mechanical droning. No noxious fumes. I felt like Sonny Jurgenson dropping back for a victorious, 50 yard, end zone pass on the power of his one good knee. Or Babe Ruth hobbling around the bases one final time. Or the guy in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who raises his head up from the cart of deceased, plague victims and claims: “I’m not quite dead yet.”

Then neighbors began to pass by in cars or on foot, every one of them with a wise comment. “Hey old man, what happened to the guy who lives here?” “My great granddad had one of those; he donated it to a museum.” I thought I’d heard them all but then a car pulled up at the intersection by our house and a complete stranger leaned out the window. “Can I buy some of your carbon credits?” he asked with a smile.

Carbon credits. Now there’s a concept we didn’t have on Earth Day 1970. Maybe that’s where interest in spaceship earth went: Wall Street. That’s it. Let’s commoditize environmental initiative. Let’s give an incentive for the average guy to remain interested in the environment. Attention deficient America can’t sustain the interest of 20 million people in a free pizza offer, much less environmental protection. There’s got to be some value incentive!

Well carbon credits may not motivate my kids to cut the grass with dad’s curious, antiquated, pre-nuclear relic, but at least I feel better about spaceship earth. Hope, like fescue, springs eternal.