as green as my grandmother

This is my grandmother, Runa. Look at her beautiful face, radiant with merriment.

Though she’s been gone more than 25 years now, I still draw inspiration from her strength, kindness, faith, and even the inordinate stubbornness that was her hallmark!

I’ve come to another realization about her lately:

She was the greenest person I’ll ever know.

Runa raised her four children in a tiny house which had one – one! – closet and two small bedrooms. My mother often told of sleeping in the unheated attic in winter, just enough warmth drifting up through the floor vent, and on the front porch in summer, catching the sweet, cool breeze. That wide three-season porch gathered all the warmth of the sun through its wall of windows, and most days would find Runa there, creating custom draperies on her treadle sewing machine or reading in her rocking chair.

How I loved visiting my grandma in her little home.

Next to the house was her vegetable and flower garden. Runa had a green thumb and even supplemented her income by selling flowers to local florists. Her garden’s abundance was certainly multiplied by her practice of composting long before it was trendy. She was always sprinkling coffee grounds, egg shells, and whatnot into her soil rather than in the trash. Next to the garden were her clothes lines, white sheets flapping in the sunshine, soaking up the heady perfume of fresh air.

She ate simply – a bowl of oatmeal every morning was her unbreakable ritual – and she never, never wasted food. As a child, I remember being slightly horrified when she insisted on eating overripe bananas because they mustn’t be thrown away. Summers would find her tramping to her secret berry patches, filling buckets with tiny blueberries, tart wild strawberries, and plump raspberries which she would turn into the most mouthwatering pies and jams you ever tasted.

Brown as a berry and fit as a fiddle from a healthy lifestyle.

Runa never drove a car, but walked everywhere in her small, northern Minnesota mining town. That meant walking to the grocery store, the library, her church, her ceramics class – everywhere, even in the bitter winter cold.

Her life was simple: A small house to heat. A small inventory of worldly goods. A solar-heated porch, pedal-power sewing machine, and non-electric carpet sweeper. Gardening. Composting. Zero food waste. Modest eating habits. No car. Altogether, if Runa’s carbon footprint were calculated, it would be very small indeed!

But let me assure you — she would never have called it being green. She’d never heard of such a term. If asked, Runa would have said she was simply being frugal.

Frugality for Runa was not really an option. She grew up in poverty,

So happy, just 2 years before “Cap” died.

learning to make do as a child. In the midst of the Great Depression, when she was 41 years old and the mother of four, her husband unexpectedly died in his sleep one night leaving her to somehow provide for herself and her children.

Yet frugality was not accompanied by resentment, melancholy, or a sense of deprivation. Instead, my grandmother and her children have always been some of the most content, happy people I’ve known. Their household abounded in love, laughter, and extras around the table. My aunts recall inviting housefuls of friends over after ice-skating parties, with their mama whipping up batches of tender cream puffs to feed them all. In her 80s Runa was still cooking meals to

My mom and her sisters remember childhood as a lean but happy time.

deliver to the sick and “old people.” If you had asked her how this gladness was possible, she would have attributed it to her faith in God, a faith that overflowed into restful contentment, compassion towards those less fortunate, and generosity.

Even without the pressures of early widowhood, I believe Runa would have maintained the same lifestyle, for the wisdom of frugality, contentment, and generosity, has historically been embraced by those of faith and ran deeply through her family tree. Runa was raised in the Northwoods, a country girl who loved the land, saw it as a gift of God, and would not have done anything to harm it. She was raised by practical, thrifty, Swedes who weathered their pioneering days in Wisconsin and Minnesota with grit and gumption. By them, she was taught to love God and neighbor, to treat the sick and needy with dignity and love.

What’s interesting to me is that Runa’s habits, steeped in old-fashioned virtues, overlap remarkably with those urged by modern environmental advocates. Without ever knowing the term “green” Runa lived a profoundly conscientious, sustainable, “green” life. How does that work? How is environmental stewardship so intrinsically linked to frugality, contentment, and compassion? Here are a couple of examples.

Those beautiful wild blueberries Runa loved.

Food waste, besides being such a heartbreak in our famine-ravaged world, is an enormous contributor to an unhealthy planet. Do you know that at least 1/3 of the food we grow is wasted? The ramifications are shattering. You can read more about that here. By growing or buying local or seasonal produce, purchasing only what

we need, thereby reducing our own food waste, and cutting down on the quantity of meat we eat – all of which Runa did as part of her frugal lifestyle – we reduce our negative impact on the environment and help the desperately malnourished have enough to eat. And it’s better for our pocketbooks. Frugality. Compassion. Generosity.

Rampant consumerism is essentially sucking the life out of us and our planet. We buy so much unnecessary stuff. We build larger homes to accommodate it that require more energy to heat and air-condition and furnish and paint. We work longer hours to pay for it all. We rent storage units to contain the overabundance of material goods we own. All of this has to be cared for, repaired, replaced, maintained to our great detriment. And in the end, we pitch it in a landfill. The wear and tear on our planet resulting from manufacturing, shipping, and disposing of all this excess crud is enormous. The wear and tear on ourselves is numbing and exhausting. Runa was happier with less and free to use her time and resources for more life-giving and altruistic pursuits. Frugality. Contentment. Generosity.

happy, healthy, and wise

Being green is not about buying a Prius and recycling. Being green is about having a different perspective on living. It’s about having the lenses to see the connection between our consumer habits and their personal, social, and environmental impacts. Personal flourishing and green living coincide with the practice of frugality, contentment and generosity. Even with differing starting points, a “green” mindset has multiple, profoundly good outcomes.

This Friday the world celebrates Earth Day. Tomorrow I’ll have a list of fantastic books to help you do that. I hope that even if you’ve never considered yourself an environmentalist per se, you’ll join me in learning about, appreciating, protecting, preserving, stewarding this one-of-a-kind planet and its abundant life.