Written by Anne-Marie Melief
This past summer I spent several weeks with two of my good friends in a small town in Montana. With the town’s population hovering around 125 residents and the nearest Wal-Mart a solid hour’s drive away, I think it is safe to say we were in the middle of nowhere. Or rather, how I liked to think about it, we were in the middle of the wild. The Clark Fork River was a few hundred feet from our front steps, and bears were a serious threat. Our rustic home for the summer was accurately named Paradise. While my summer had a gorgeous backdrop, it was far from paradise as far as amenities went. The house my friends and I stayed in hadn’t been occupied for a quite a while…so when we moved in we had several surprises in store.
All of us southern girls, well, we were prepared for the heat but also for the air conditioning to confront it. Our two-bedroom bungalow was supplied with a single window air-conditioning unit. During consecutive 100 degree-days, it did not help much in warding off the rising temperature and the rising tempers accompanying it. As the resident proponent for sustainability, I was keen to use as little electricity as possible and simply adjust to the warm days. Much to my friends’ dissatisfaction, I frequently turned off the unit and turned on the tension between us. I quickly learned that sustainable practices should never be forced upon someone. Perhaps the bigger lesson I learned, however, is that people sometimes are allowed to use the luxuries afforded us (especially when it comes to air conditioning). There is a fine line between employing sustainable practices and pushing people’s boundaries too far. My experience taught me that to successfully employ sustainable behavior, you have to share your own perspective through dialogue and education. While each situation is different, applying this method, in my experience, is one of the better approaches to sustainability.
Besides our air conditioning issues, my friends and I experienced several other unexpected hazards of living in the wild. At one point, both our oven and washing machine decided they had reached the end of their life cycles. Normally not a big deal in suburbia…but in the middle of nowhere, it took several days for us to get new appliances. We refined the art of microwave cooking in those days. As our broken oven sat in the yard, the shiny whiteness boldly contrasted with the yellowing grass, and it struck me how strange a machine it was. This thing that could not be happened upon in nature is suddenly here sitting in it, begging the question, are machines unnatural? Machines are the product of human ingenuity, of cooperation, education, and resource use, but does that make them unnatural? My own conclusion to this, as I sat on the porch and watched the burly men bring in our new saran wrapped oven, is that a machine is a tool with which we interact with our environment. This interaction is perhaps not as organic as chopping down a tree, but it is a means of changing our world to suit our lives. The point at which this interaction becomes unnatural, I believe, is when we forget our place in our environment. We do not control our world; we simply inhabit it.
Nature has a way of reminding us that human invention is only temporary. The mouse that decided to make our home his home reminded me of this. Here is where sustainability for me rings truest: it is the means to which we can more effectively and organically interact with our environment. It is to make humans realize our interconnectedness with nature, despite how much we believe we dominate it through machinery and walls. My summer in Paradise had me reconnect with nature in a way that I hadn’t expected. It now serves as a reminder of why sustainability is such an important asset in our quest to decrease human impact on the Earth and to create a more harmonic relationship with the environment.