Driven to Slow Down



oldbarn-lowresWhen I was 23, I spent the winter in the stripping room of a tobacco barn in Gravel Switch, Kentucky. The year was 1976. I joined a movement of young people concerned about environmental issues and sustainability who were taking to the hills to start organic gardens and build off-grid homes.

I lived back Black Lick Branch, a narrow valley, almost a ravine, with knobs like small mountains rising on every side. Sunshine didn’t reach our strip of earth until late morning and disappeared by 4 p.m. My friends and I huddled around a woodstove, rotating every 10 minutes to get our backsides warm, and listened to the wind whistle through the cracks in the barn that was our temporary shelter. We lived mostly outdoors that winter. I brushed my teeth at the creek, drew water from a well, hiked the knobs and gathered sassafras roots for tea. I came to know my habitat in the manner of which Annie Dillard speaks: “I would like to know grasses and sedges—and care. Then every journey into the world would be a field trip, a series of happy recognitions.”

Now, 30 years later, I live like many North Americans. I’m a stereotype of an upper-middle-class professional. I own two cars (though one is held together with duct tape and is missing most of its door handles), a small house (1,700 square feet with 2 ½ baths), a one-car garage (home to my husband’s motorcycle), various recreational equipment (mostly kayaks) and a large backyard. I’m remarried, and between us, Loren and I have four children and two grandchildren. Life is good.

But life could be better if I had a cleaner conscience; if I didn’t have to worry about using more than my share of the world’s resources, depleting the water supply and spewing more toxins into the environment; if I knew I was doing my part to preserve the earth. If I did my part, the grasses and sedges and sycamores I love might be here for future generations to enjoy.

On this Earth Day, 2010, I rededicate myself to the art of simpler, greener living.

I’ll begin by driving the speed limit, which will save gas and cut down on harmful emissions. It’s a small step, I know. But I have 18 hours to drive from Vermont, where I’ve been on retreat, to my home in Kentucky. I’m anxious to arrive because my daughter is visiting from North Carolina and has only a couple of days before she returns to work.

By perusing a couple of Web sites, I learned that you can save more than a ton of carbon dioxide a year by accelerating slowly and smoothly, driving the speed limit, maintaining a steady speed (use cruise control) and anticipating your stops and starts ( Other tips include making sure your tires are properly inflated, avoiding unnecessary idling and seeing that your car receives regular maintenance.

Sometimes I wonder, “Who was that young woman who lived in an unheated barn without water or electricity? What happened to her?”

This past winter, Loren and I stayed in a cabin outside Hot Springs, North Carolina. One night when it was about 18 degrees, I climbed the rock drive winding up the mountain to get cell phone coverage and call my daughters. Afterward, I gazed up at the stars, such a mass as I’d seen only a few times in my life, pulsing pinpoints of infinity. I caught a glimpse of my younger self then, gazing at the same stars as she squatted by the creek and dipped her fingers in the ice cold water.

Assistant Editor Leslie Smith Townsend is a pastoral counselor in private practice.  A composite excerpt of her memoir appears in the anthology Voices of Alcoholism.

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