Two Generations of Environmentalists

My Dad was an environmentalist, decades before the term was coined.

He was constantly yelling at one or more of his five children to shut the refrigerator door and turn off lights when nobody was in the room, and we rarely enjoyed the childhood pastime of running beneath a sprinkler.

But Dad was no hypocrite. He practiced what he preached.

When he shaved or washed his hands or face, he didn’t let the water run.  Instead he filled the sink with just enough water to complete his task. It was a habit from way back, when the farm he’d grown up on lacked an adequate water supply. There was a well on the farm and plumbing in the house, but if he, his mom, dad, or sister used too much water, the well ran dry. It might take a day or two for the spring-fed well to catch back up. Dad’s habit of bathing once a week, “whether he needed it or not,” was borne of the same water-well short supply.

Photo by NOAA

On the farm in the 1950’s, they lost power frequently. If a thunderstorm blew through, the farm might be without power for days at a time. Sometimes, like when a tornado in the next county up-rooted utility poles and flung them around like toothpicks, they lived many weeks without electricity. Out to the root cellar went perishables, where they hoped the food wouldn’t spoil before they could eat it. Into salt barrels with salt of questionable quality (usually left over from the last time the power had gone out) went meat from the deep-freeze. The wood cook stove still sufficed for baking bread and biscuits, cooking pancakes, and frying ham and eggs, just as it had in the days before electric co-ops sprang up along the countryside and wires were strung all over creation. That stove was hot to cook on in the summertime, but better than nothing. All the laid-up canning jars full of vegetables, tomatoes, jellies, jams and preserves served them well.

Power outages or no, the electric bill came like clockwork, once a month. On a largely subsistence-oriented farmstead, “cash money” was hard to come by. They, like most of their neighbors, usually bartered for material needs. What cash they earned came from the sale of crops at harvest time. The annual paycheck depended on factors like weather conditions throughout the growing season and current commodity prices. If they “wasted” electricity, they might not have enough money to pay the bill.

Dad learned the hard way to conserve resources and use them wisely. When he moved off the farm and into the city, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of water didn’t cause him to change his habits. Although electricity was comparatively cheaper and his paychecks came more frequently, he still acted as if its continued existence depended on frugal use of it.

“Wasting” electricity and water was something I learned early on not to do. Dad admonished me for the same things I admonish my children for, but for different reasons. Today we worry about depleting resources and diminishing supplies.

Come to think of it, in Dad’s day they worried about the same things.

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  1. We lived in the UK for a few years and I was really intrigued by the washing up bowl in the sink – everyone had a grotty old bowl which I wasn’t all that excited about having my dishes washed in, as usually it was lime-stained and faded and really sort of slimy – but everyone has them..when I asked the question, so why don’t you put the plug in the sink to wash the dishes, no one seemed to have an answer – it was just something everyone did. Like your Dad, it’s the habits your parents teach you – and sometimes you don’t even know why…well water is very expensive in London where we lived those few years back – and I guess somehow everyone ‘knew’ without really giving it a second’s thought that filling a small bowl to do a few dishes rather than filling a big sink, might save some pennies every month…so finally I got it, but I’ve not yet been converted, I use a little water in the big, shiny sink, and have a water and energy friendly dishwasher:)

    • I always joke that we have two dishwashers – me and my wife. The dishwasher quit working in our old house and my industrious wife took it apart, identified the part that needed replaced, replaced it, and put it back together. We tested it, made sure it worked, and never used it again. While it wasn’t working we’d gotten used to doing them by hand.

      I laughed at your “grotty old bowl,” because we do exactly that, except we use a shiny stainless steel bowl.

      Thank you for commenting!

  2. I to was fortunate to have a father like yours that grew up in the country. Wandering fields and meadows to gather berries or nuts in the fall and not “wasting” electricity or water is a way of life I grew up with. Thanks Dad.

  3. I think (hope?) my kids will write something like this about me when they grow up. (Although I do bath a little bit more)

    Nice post.

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