Monday, April 20, 2015

The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Nine: What Does An Environmentalist Do For Vacation?

It's hard to take time off from environmentalism. Is it okay to forget about your carbon footprint for a couple of weeks each year? Souvenirs are just pre-trash, aren't they? How many motel towels would you have to hang up and reuse to offset all the energy those places use?

Early on in Saving the Planet & Stuff, Michael and Nora describe their different takes on getting away from it all.

     "I've been to some terrific malls when we've been on vacation. Huge ones."
     Walt dropped the newspaper onto his lap, took his glasses off, and looked across the room at Michael. "You go to malls while you're on vacation?"
     The indignation in Walt's voice brought a grin to Michael's face. "Sure. Doesn't everybody?"
     "You shop while you're on vacation?" Walt asked, sounding horrified.
     Mostly they just walked around in malls in the evenings or on rainy days, but Walt's reaction was more than Michael could resist. Air conditioners, sixty-five-mile-an hour speed limits, malls … was there anything that didn't tick this guy off?
     "Well, sure," he told Walt. "What if Abercrombie & Fitch runs a sale and you're out of town? That's the beauty of malls. They have the same stores all over the country. You never miss a thing."
     Walt laughed, shook his head, and appeared ready to go back to reading his paper. Michael, however, didn't give up easily.
     "So, what do you guys do while you're on vacation?" he asked just to try to keep the conversation going.
     "Now our vacations are usually planned around visiting our grandchildren," Nora explained for Walt. "But when our sons were living with us, we used to do things like stay on a farm for a couple of weeks and work with the farmer and her family. Once we stayed on an island that could only be reached by boat. That was a great vacation. Let's see. What other things did we do? Well, one summer we went out west and volunteered at a school on a Native American reservation. Then there was the year we did a tour of the birthplaces of our favorite authors—Henry David Thoreau … Rachel Carson … Wendell Berry—have you read any of their work, Michael?"
     Since Michael never remembered authors' names, he could truthfully say, "I don't know. Maybe …"
     "They're nature writers," Walt said, his voice indicating he wasn't taken in by Michael's evasiveness. "I'm sure we've got some copies of their books around here somewhere. If you read a few chapters, maybe it would refresh your memory."
     "We took turns reading them out loud in the car that year," Nora recalled, smiling. "That was another great trip."
     Michael tried to picture the scene: Younger versions of Walt and Nora would be sitting in the front of a car, probably the same car they still drove, with a couple of kids comatose from boredom in the backseat while Nora read from a very thick book.
     "The buttercups in the meadow were my only neighbors. And fine neighbors they were! Sometimes, while visiting with an acquaintance in the polluted, nasty town, I have thought of my old friends the buttercups and longed to be with them. They never have a harsh word to say of another, be he buttercup or man, nor do they take from another, living totally on what they get from the sky—sun and rain. And perhaps some nutrients from the earth. Oh, but if only we could be as simple as the buttercups."
     I'm definitely going to start treating my parents better, Michael promised himself. They're nowhere near as bad as they could be.
The older Nora looks forward to a few months off so she can travel to Iceland. Why?

     "In Iceland they're working on converting their transportation system to hydrogen power," she explained eagerly. "They'll have filling stations where you can buy hydrogen gas to run electric motors in cars. It will be clean. It will be quiet. It will be made from their own natural resources—hydrogen extracted from the steam in their geysers and the water all around them. Imagine that, Michael. An entire country doing something no one else is doing. It will be like stepping into a movie or a book, and in our lifetimes we can do it."
     "I usually don't want to do something no one else is doing, but maybe going to Iceland would be like going into an alternative universe," Michael said. "Which could be really neat. Especially since you could leave whenever you wanted to—or when your vacation was over, whichever came first."

Remember, this book was originally published in 2003. I couldn't predict that Iceland would become one of the coolest places to visit this year. It probably isn't because of the hydrogen fuel, though. My sister-in-law said she went because of cheap air fare.

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