Grandparents, a legacy of green

Since Sunday is Grandparents Day, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to point out that in all likelihood, your grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents and on back…were a lot greener than you. (Not that it's a competition.)

Of course, they didn’t call themselves green or eco-friendly in those days. They might said they were “poor,” “thrifty,” or just plain “sensible.” But their respect for the Earth, the cycles of life, and saving, were ingrained, especially for those people raised in the country.

Pick up a copy of Little Heathens, Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, and you’ll be amazed at how many of the eco-ideas we're talking about in 2009, were part of everyday life 70-90 years ago.

Whether eating locally and seasonally, saving every scrap of paper for re-use, going to bed early so as not to waste precious oil or later, electricity, sleeping under the warmest quilts to avoid running the woodstove at night, repairing a hole in a kettle or using a perfume bottle as a level, it’s fascinating to read how these people “made-do,” and found a use for everything. Kalish even talks about using the ultrathin membrane that lines the inside of an eggshell to painlessly extract a splinter!

Yes, those days were hard, but these particular activities were just a part of life and didn't carry negative connotations. People didn’t have TV to tell them that they had to buy band aids (if they had the money), or expensive, chemical laden cleaners. “Vinegar, salt, peroxide, and baking soda constituted a large part of our stock of drugs, and with the addition of Bon Ami and wood ashes, our household cleaning supplies as well,” Kalish says. 

Recycling was second nature. "We reused all bottles, paper bags, jars and tin cans." And she adds, “We were taught that if you bought something it should last forever—or as close to forever as we could contrive.”

Contrast that with the last couple of generations when waste was suddenly equated with wealth. We were taught by marketers that using tissue instead of handkerchiefs was a symbol that we had arrived. Why have a milkman visit each morning to replace empty milk bottles with full ones when you can buy it in throwaway jugs and cartons? What do you mean I can't have fresh tomatoes in January? We could afford to buy the same object again and again, often imported from thousands of miles away, and in our race to live a life free of old-fashioned constraints, we never considered the consequences.

So this Grandparents Day, if you’re lucky enough to have living grandparents, ask them about their day-to-day lives when they were young. See what “eco-secrets” they hold. And if you are not blessed with a living relative from several generations back, pick up a copy of Little Heathens or another book that will inspire you and from which you will learn that everything old is new again.

Lynn Colwell and Corey Colwell-Lipson are a mother-daughter team and co-authors of Celebrate Green! Creating Eco-Savvy Holidays, Celebrations and Traditions for the Whole Family, available at

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