History

All right! The National Geographics are gone, picked up by a nice young man from Illinois, and I just sold my radial arm saw to a neighbor who is moving to the country. He says he can take a lot of my old building materials too – hinges, rolls of Romex, fiberglass batts, and so on and so on filling my basement – and either use them or donate them to the Habitat for Humanity in his new neighborhood. He also told me of an organization not terribly far from my house that will take building materials for reuse. I can load up my van with whatever my neighbor can’t use, take it to this place, and these usable things will find a new home. This makes me happy – I can’t stand it when things go to waste. But it sometimes puzzles me – where does this compulsion to rescue usable things come from?

I grew up in the Midwest in a house built in the 1880s by my grandfather, who sailed to America from Germany to flee the Revolutions of 1848. In 1913, just before the First World War, my father was born in the upstairs bedroom and, though I burst forth at the local hospital, I lived in the house until I went off to college. Now, there was a park catty-corner from the house that my father had donated to the city in memory of his father, the German immigrant. We kids spent a lot of time in that park, playing on the swings, building huts in the tall grass down at the bottom of the hill, trying to smoke cigars in the lilac bushes. I think this park may hold a clue to my packrattery, for engraved in a massive limestone step at its entry was my grandfather’s motto: “Avoid waste, vice, tobacco and booze, and you will have health, honor and plenty.”

Perhaps simply reading this motto all summer long throughout my childhood really burned the message into my brain, but maybe these sentiments are bred into my bones in some deeper way. Surely the immigrant families in the late 1800s had to make do with what they had and my father, born during a time of world turmoil, living through the Great Depression in the 20s and fighting in WW2, must have had a deep sense of the fragility of material prosperity. But, my father did prosper and I grew up without want.

I think about this history and am struck by how the lives of my parents and grandparents formed me. I have a glass of wine now and then, but basically, I live by my grandfather’s motto. Now it’s become clear that avoiding waste isn’t just a personal peculiarity – it’s got to become a way of life for everyone if we are not to destroy our planet.

So, saving everything under the sun and now feeling the need to get rid of much of it doesn’t really relate to saving the planet. Still, I’m not tossing things out on the curb for the garbage collector. Now that environmentalism is enjoying a resurgence of interest (thank you, Al Gore), maybe, just maybe, more people will start to approach their material accumulations and consumption habits with a wider understanding of the consequences of continued waste and a greater willingness to contribute to a solution.

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