Enlarging Our Definition of Beauty with Some Help from our Neighbors
Elizabeth Sawin September, 2001
Everywhere I have lived, I have had neighbors, sometimes in houses just fifteen or twenty feet away. Always I’ve had a garden and woodpile, sometimes bees, chickens, and fruit trees. In each place I have lived, I have given the garden a lot of my love and care, the lawn and shrubs a bit less. Everywhere I have lived there have been occasional questions, comments, and complaints from neighbors.
“What’s that smell?” Our compost pile.
“If my kid gets stung by a bee….”
“What’s that smell?” The chickens.
“Would you like to borrow our lawn mower? Yours must be in the shop.”
“What’s that smell?” Fish emulsion fertilizer.
I have always managed to work things out, to go about my projects without leaving anyone permanently angry. I’ve distributed tomatoes and basil and peaches when I could, and I keep a watchful eye on the compost pile. But what usually gets me out of the garden and behind the lawn mover is the sense that the neighbors are keeping watch.
Even when their standards are different from mine, I have appreciated that my neighbors’ caring extends beyond the boundaries of their own yards. But how much beyond? Do your neighbors raise their eyebrows because the car parked next door gets lousy gas mileage? Has anyone ever called the town hall because the family across the street buys food grown on farms that pollute the Mississippi River?
We give each other permission to criticize how we take care of our yards, but not how we take care of the living systems that sustain us.
I’m not suggesting that the way out of our environmental messes is to nag each other into living more lightly on the Earth. But I do know that a group of neighbors can support and encourage each other into happily — even joyfully — making choices that take the wider world into consideration.
My family is one of a group of twenty-one families who co-own a farm in Vermont. We are building homes for ourselves on one corner of that farm. Because we are using a common design and a single contractor we have to make group decisions about many things we are more accustomed to deciding individually —- the color of the houses, the location of windows, the shape of the porch lights. As you might imagine, we have some long conversations about our building options. At our best, we help each other see new possibilities. We make choices we might never have made on our own.
Recently we had to choose the finishes for our interior trim and floors. Two options were easy to settle on — off-white paint, and clear, water-based urethane. (Well, OK, getting twenty-one families to agree on ONE shade of off-white paint wasn’t all that easy!)
The hardest decision was whether we would include the option of staining the wood. Staining adds an extra step to the finishing process, because the stain coat must dry before the urethane is added. Because our houses are being completed sequentially, a delay in one house translates into delays in many others. One member pointed out that we would have to pay interest on our construction loan for each day that staining added to the schedule.
Another member urged that we remember that all of the stains available to us contained VOCs. These are volatile organic compounds, chemicals that evaporate out of the stain and into the air. They contribute to ozone pollution, and some of them have neurological effects. Others are possibly cancer causing.
In the end, we decided that we would not stain any of the trim or floors. My friend Colleen, who loves the warm tones of stained wood, said, “I will always feel a little pride now every time I look at our unstained pine trim and remember the principle that choice represents.”
Even though she still loves the appearance of stained wood, Colleen is choosing the option that is most beautiful to her. That is the option that won’t pollute the air, cost her friends extra money, or add to the burden of toxins her own body must process. Far from making do with a sub-optimal choice, Colleen has expanded her sense of beauty to include more that she cares about. That’s what the move to “greener” ways of living is all about — enlarging the scope of our vision so that the healthiest long-term solution is the hands-down, obvious, most beautiful of all our options.
Expanding the circle of people and places we take into account in our decisions isn’t easy. The company of friends and neighbors who are willing to nudge, inspire, and encourage us toward a larger definition beauty can be a comfort or a challenge. Always, it is a gift.