Thoughts from an English major and transformative Taurus

I believe that actions speak louder than words, but that's not to underestimate the power of words. I would go so far as to think that changing language - the word, its meaning, or your understanding of it - is an action in itself.

Today's word, inspired by the dreaded activity of moving in: materialism.

Materialism was once a dirty word for me. It brings consumerism to mind, taking pleasure in owning loads of unnecessary objects, all of which take from nature, some of which rob people instead of allowing them to profit. The dirty word materialist doesn't care about that, because shiny toys matter the most. Being raised in a Christian household and having read the gospels as a kid, I grew up with an awareness that the material shouldn't matter. I wasn't ready to give up all my worldly possessions and become a nun, but a longstanding teaching of Christianity is that the spiritual world and the physical world are separate things. The goal is to give up the material in favor of the spiritual. So, when I became an environmentalist, that ethic translated over to living sustainably. Not having piles of stuff in my possession meant I was a good person, having a lot of stuff meant I was a bad person.

I started exploring astrology at an early age too, and I was dismayed to learn that Taurus, my sign, is supposed to be the materialistic sign. That made me mad. Hmmph! I said, What do you know, astrology? You're not science OR religion, you don't get to tell me who I am! But that word got stuck on my mind, and I often felt like I was doomed to be materialistic. Until astrology redeemed itself when I discovered that Taurus is also supposed to be powerfully creative, to the point where a bull, once enlightened, can transform into a butterfly. That's a big change.

So I started thinking of materialism as a good word. I remembered a biblical passage that had confused me as a kid, in which materialists were criticized as people who obsess over trash rather than devoting their lives to God. Since we learned in school that picking up trash was a good thing, I thought it was weird that this passage suggested it was a bad thing. The good materialist values everything. That means instead of being a spendthrift, you spend all the more wisely. It means you can take pleasure in stuff without having it - just appreciate the stuff being sold at stores until there's something worth taking pleasure in buying. Litter makes a good materialist sad because it's degrading to both nature and to the object, which somebody made with their hands or with machines that require hands at some point. Good materialists don't love lots of food, but love rich food and drink that's finely produced by fine people who keep sustainable ethics in mind.

My stepsister, who is also a Taurus, has the same attitude about material things that I do: we absolutely can't stand having too much stuff. This is because we are conscious of every single thing we have. Every pair of socks takes up space in our consciousness, and when we have more than we can keep track of, we actually worry. (Socks have been the bane of my consciousness for a long time.) We're struck with nausea if we fill up trash bags and bring them to the dump. Donating or recycling old things makes us feel a little better, but not if we can't envision every single one of those objects having a productive future. The gifts we appreciate the most are immaterial or have a long history, and a long future ahead of them, of being used. We need everything to have its own space, but hate taking up too much space. We love beauty, art, good food and drink, comfort, books, toys, and games, but loving all that stuff takes thought and energy. We need room in our brains and spirits to fit stuff besides, well, stuff. That's why we get so exhausted at Christmas, which in our family centers around getting lots of unasked for stuff. We're bulls that have developed sensitive antennae. Good materialists.


On cars

A story from NPR discussing the domestic auto industry and the challenges of making eco-friendly cars. The discussion boards continue the conversation. It's basically about the convergence of industry, policy, and consumer preference.

When I went to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which essentially is a rural area because everything is spread out, it was necessary to have a vehicle to get from place to place if you expected to get there in a reasonable amount of time. In the suburban sprawl where I grew up, people find vehicles necessary not because of distance, but because of time constraints. All the necessities, including restaurants and recreational sites, tend to be less than three miles away (that's <3, how cute!). Three miles is doable for walking or biking, but most people will not spend an hour making a grocery run by bike or on foot if they can spend 20 minutes and be able to carry more in their cars. Plus, if Kid X has karate on one side of town that starts at the same time as Kid Y's soccer on the other side of town, a car becomes handy. Also, I remember how much walking around wore me out as a kid, having to take more steps and everything, and it would be a shame to wear a kid out before a game or lesson. My town does not have public transportation and has scarce bike lanes; some of the surrounding towns don't even have sidewalks in non-residential areas. All of this makes it difficult to leave the car at home even if your schedule is flexible enough. (Coincidentally, I've been leaving it at home anyway - but I'm on break and have all the time in the world.)

My Uncle Joe had a stroke of brilliance. Since most families in the suburbs own two cars, he said, it would be efficient to have one short-range electric car and one conventional car. The short-range would be for running errands, maybe driving to work if it's close enough. The long-range would be for trips that the short-range car couldn't make. At the same time, we should be making the switch to renewable energy so that when we plug the electric cars in, they're not using dirty energy to charge up. Congress, Barack Obama, Nobel Prize committee, are you listening?



Tattoos stay with you for life. If you get a tattoo at age 20, you might live until you're 90, and thus have the tattoo for 70 years.

The reason I bring this up is that I was looking at pictures of some amazing tattoos, done by P. Syrjälä at the Art for Life Tattoo Studio in Finland, and a lot of them are of animals. The most popular tattoo of 2008, at least at his studio, seems to be the tiger. I wouldn't be surprised if that were the overall trend, since the tiger was voted man's favorite animal in 2004.

I'd like to eat-- er, I mean thank the academy.
The tiger is an iconic species for conservation. Because people love tigers so much, they can act as the poster species for conservation efforts that focus on biodiversity in general. Tigers, wolves, and eagles are important, but so are the more unsightly (or unseen) creatures like plankton, fungi, and insects. With most conservation efforts, the money people donate to save tigers goes not only to saving tigers, but to saving their prey, their prey's prey, and fauna that provides a habitat for them.

There's a lot of interesting information on tigers, their biology, their cultural significance, and their conservation status on Wikipedia. Here's a site about tigers brought to you by the Woodland Park Zoo.
Not only is this amazing art, it's covering up an old tattoo.
I was marveling at these tattoos because wouldn't it be crazy if an animal, a significant poster animal, went extinct during our lifetimes? Three subspecies of tiger have already gone extinct in the past century. If the rest went extinct, we'd have people going around with tattoos of the animal that originally were tributes, but became memorials. It's a tad morbid. Mass extinctions do tend to be a downer, but there are ways you can prevent mass extinctions in your own backyard.
Please do, and while you're at it, can I have some of that venison?
I think wearing a big, beautiful picture on your skin is a good way to attract attention to conservation issues. The National Park Service, to which I'm applying for an internship this summer, has a uniform policy that employees have to cover their tattoos. I'll be more than happy to comply for the sake of the opportunity. Not everybody likes tattoos, and I wouldn't want to alienate anyone from visiting the parks. However, as the tools of the tattoo trade (and the tattoo removal trade) become more advanced, more and more people of our generation are choosing to get tattoos. As more people get them, the idea that they are inherently unprofessional will probably go away. It's already starting to in some workplaces.

How can you say "no" to that face?
While everyone has personal reasons for choosing a tattoo design, having a tattoo like the ones pictured here could be considered like wearing a "Save the Whales" T-shirt, except permanently. And not only permanently, but more evocative of the beauty and character of wildlife. Realistic tattoos such as these allow the animal to speak for its own conservation while showing that the person with the tattoo is committed. They can even show ecological relationships, emphasizing not one species but the whole system of interacting species. A well-chosen tattoo represents sustainable planning, in the sense that if one wishes to have a tattoo and never regret it, one will choose something for which the meaning and beauty of the image will last a whole lifetime.

Will I get one like this? Not anytime in the near future. Plus, it would be silly to fly all the way to Finland for a tattoo that's supposed to have a pro-environment message. I'd have to shop around locally, after I get a steady job with good income, choose an animal, decide on the placement, and know I really want it.

As I said above, these are from the Art for Life Tattoo Studio in Finland. The gallery is here (warning: some tattoos are NSFW).


Happy new year!

What sort of resolutions have the Ecohouse students been coming up with? I'm so glad you asked. Here are some of them, in their own words:

Maura: Shorter showers and learning how to ride a bike!

Natalie: My new year's resolution is to learn to cook vegetarian food. Having been a vegetarian for 6 years now it's probably about time.

Olivia: I resolve to pay special attention to where my food and other products are coming from to reduce the miles they go. Also, on second thought, I resolve to actually remember my reusable bags when I go to the store.

Michelle: One of my new year's resolutions is to live more simply.

Hanna: My new year's eco resolution is to eat only local meat.

Elena: I've been wanting to live more simply ever since I joined Ecohouse (be happier with fewer things, be content without always being hooked up with tvs, computers, phones, etc). (She asked me to reword this one but I think it's pretty good the way it is.)

Makeda, our lovely teaching assistant: My resolution is to use public transportation at least two times a week and to take more walks outside (even if it's a little chilly for me!!!).

And me? Well, I want to ride a bike more regularly, more because it's fun than anything. I want to take shorter showers more often than not - I'm good about them, but then the air gets cold and I slide back into the "I'll just stand here for a while until I'm good and ready..." mode. I want to buy things locally instead of ordering them online. When I do order them, I'll order them from relatively close by. And since most of the things I order on the internet are books (used, at least I get that one right), I'll get into the habit of checking the library for the books that I want instead of buying them.

So happy new year and may you all find the time, willpower, guts, and oomph to not only keep your resolutions, but make new ones throughout the year. You do at least have the support of Ecohouse.