Photo by Salt Water New England

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Reader question: What are some better choices for earth friendly alternatives?

A reader question: 

 Dear Muffy,

Our growing awareness and understanding of things like forever chemicals and products that cause environmental damage means we need to study more closely the things we buy and, when possible, choose the most earth friendly alternatives.  A great example is Gore Tex, basically stretched Teflon.  If you want to stay dry in an environmentally responsible way, choose waxed cotton instead.  If you have been buying sparkling white towels and T-shirts, consider unbleached organic cotton or, better still, linen.  If you are storing that last bowl of chowder for tomorrow's lunch, use glass instead of plastic.  The list may be short, but whatever length it is, it benefits us all to make it grow.  What are some of the other "better choices" SWNE readers make and would share?  Sources are welcome, too.  Finding natural all linen dish cloths took me all the way to Lithuania and LinenHomeStudio via Etsy! 

Best regards,

Vecchio Vespa

52 comments:

  1. I haven't found waxed cotton to be sufficiently waterproof for my purposes. An hour's walk in a drizzle in a Filson waxed "tin" cruiser or their so-called shelter cloth field jacket will show that it really isn't waterproof. But my two Gore-Tex parkas work very well under the same conditions. In fact, they're perfect when it's freezing rain. But long-distance hikers are usually disappointed in Gore-Tex. For the best protection, use the sort of foul weather gear that fishermen use. Even it's not perfect and probably wouldn't do if you're very active. All of that notwithstanding, most of the time I'll just use an umbrella.

    I do use a few linen towels, some surplus from some eastern European army, the rest family heirlooms, complete with monograms.

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    1. Heirloom towels?!

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    2. You bet! They're the sort of thing you put in the powder room for guests, who never touch them. Naturally, like all such things, they're from my wife's side of the family. They came from a big house in Charlestown, West Virginia, that my wife describes as a time capsule when the last family member of that line died about 50 years go. She was the granddaughter of the last private owner of Mt. Vernon in Virginia and that's where her mother was born. The monogram is a "C", which is for the Chew family. I also have a few linen handkerchiefs, also monogramed.

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    3. If a waxed cotton is not sufficiently waterproof, choose a Ventile cotton jacket or smock instead. A double layer should give total protection. Sir Edmund Hillary wore ventile when he conquered Mount Everest in 1953. Sir Ranulph Fiennes wore Ventile when he crossed the Arctic in the early 80s. They did not need clothing with synthetic membranes in the harshest conditions on the planet.

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    4. Ken, I really appreciate your comment regarding Mr. Fiennes and Mr. Hillary. I love to hear stories like that.

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  2. I agree, to a point. I wore Filson on a trip to Alaska last year and after a week of rain, it was no better than a sponge. I wear a great deal of Barbour and it wears like iron. I buy their heavier weight Northumbria and wear it in Montana, New England and Charleston year round. Goretex keeps me dry, but doesn't breathe as it is promoted to.

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    1. The Northumbria has 8oz waxed cotton which is hardest wearing of Barbour's Sylkoils. My Gamefair is made from the 8oz Oban waxed cotton and it is equally strong. Barbour replaced the nylon sleeve linings with the Northumbria's tartan cotton for a very reasonable charge. I recommend the service for other jackets with nylon sleeves.

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  3. First, I'd say there are now many recycled fabrics that we should consider. The more popular they become, the more they will be incorporated into products and help clean up our mess.

    For example, Orvis uses a fabric made, in part, of "recycled polyester and pulverized oyster shells" in some of its sweaters. However, it is coated with teflon. Read the descriptions and labels closely.

    I also think a lot of folks don't know or forget that sheep/s wool is warm even when it's wet. Some densely woven wools (e.g. loden) are said to be waterproof as well, though I have no idea if that claim is true.

    Finally, I think we should remember that the Brits long ago developed a number of very tightly woven, yet breathable cotton fabrics that repel the rain quite well. I doubt they're made of the new organic cottons, but perhaps they will be in the future. I don't know how well these fabrics hold up to a long hike in a hard rain, but I suspect they do the job on those arduous treks to the grocery.

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    1. Except for thin knit fabrics such as underwear is made of, clothing seems to last a fairly long time. All-cotton fabrics with no treatments will show wear first, particularly around the collar and cuffs of shirts. Of course, if you're doing heavy manual labor and washing things a lot, they won't last as long. Personally, I find the idea of pre-washed garments to be bad, since it is bound to shorten the life of the garment.

      I've never walked all day in the rain. But thru-hikers say you just can't keep dry no matter what. Some British manufacturer used to advertise water-repellant sweaters but I don't remember who. IT wasn't Arthur Beale, though. Maybe Peter Storm. The secret was the natural lanolin in wool, or something like that. Heavier woolen coats, including the famous British duffle coats, will do a fair job in inclement weather but take a long time to dry out. But you wouldn't wear them for sailing or hiking. Not these days.

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    2. Do you really want to wear recycled plastic??? I mean, I know we need to do something about it but my family never switched to plastic so, I am not sure if I should sacrifice our health just to "clean up (not)our mess", sorry. My son is 17 now and I remember wondering why would I use glass bottles for a baby which made me really tired sometimes. Explanations, endless explanations of simple things. I think if we know that it's so bad, and it is, why don't we stop to manufacture it?!
      Why would I harm my family with buying anything from polyester instead of wool, cashmere, silk, linen or cotton? Just asking...
      About hiking and fabrics, how about studying old, I mean really old photos from our ancestors when hiking. They were hiking and skiing and iceskating and nobody was complaining too much about getting wet or cold:) My Grandma used to say "we are not made out of sugar". We go to hike pretty often in the summer time and even our backpacks are made out of canvas or wool and leather. We usually wear only cotton, wool and leather for hiking, skiing is a bit more complicated but I will even get my wooden ski next year. I feel like a dinosaur sometimes on the trail but I noticed that most of the people passing us are very fond of this, what they see;) Maybe too many forgot this, what is still obvious to some.

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    3. Oh, no. I only use virgin plastic. It's indestructible. I have a collection of rucksacks, most of canvas, including on I bought in college at least 50 years ago. That one came from Gerry Mountaineering, although it's a Bergans Original. Mostly I used one of the larger ones these days, or a small day sack from L.L. Bean. My camping days are probably behind me, but I manage to get out in the woods behind my house every day. I have seen as much wildlife there as I ever have in Shenendoah National Park. However, I got a digital camera for Christmas, and I haven't seen a single deer since then, only hoof prints.

      None of my more recent ancestors went hiking, skiing, or skating. Too far south and too little leisure time for things like that, although it certainly rained wherever they lived. Horace Kephart gave directions for waterproofing woolens using anhydrous lanolin ("can be bought at any drug store", said he), but I doubt that many have done that since Daniel Beard went to the happy hunting ground. Most of the early writers from the so-called Golden Age of Camping gave a lot more space to dealing with insects than they did to dealing with rain. At any rate, the old-timers like Kephart, Sears, and Warren Miller (editor of Field & Stream, before he was an old-timer) were certainly proud of the latest patent camping gear that they used. Some of them were early devotees of light weight camping, especially George Washington Sears. There is a saying, "If you want to learn something new, read an old book."

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    4. Ventile (tightly woven cotton fabric) was developed in the second world war in Britain to make flying suits for pilots who may have to bail out over (and therefore into) the sea. I believe it may now be made from organic cotton, but is no longer manufactured in Lancashire. It is a very nice fabric.

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    5. @ BlueTrain Soon the consumer will have no choice, some companies say that by 2025 their products will be made out of recycled plastic (at least 75% or so). To me, no matter virgin or recycled, I don't buy it. We don't go hiking when it's rainy anyway. I love the saying by the way, so true!

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    6. My comment about virgin plastic, which I assume actually exists, was not a serious comment. However, plastic in all its forms has serious advantages. It really does last, which of course is also a disadvantage once it's thrown away. Plastic objects can be difficult to repair, too, which is part of the throw-away issue. Although it can be recycled, supposedly relatively little actually is, unlike metals. I was surprised in reading about plastics just now to actually see the term "virgin plastic." Glass, on the other hand, is apparently not recycled. At least it isn't around here.

      When I was still among the employed, I had to plan for hikes ahead of time. It invariably rained. But now I have the luxury of going out whenever I feel like it, provided my wife doesn't have a better idea about what to do with my time. Going out when it snows is absolutely delightful. Only it doesn't snow very much around here. But it does snow enough.

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  4. This hiker prefers waterproof/breathable shells to waxed cotton. A good synthetic waterproof-breathable hard shell will last for years, and waxed cotton simply cannot compare if you have to spend all day in the rain. Plus, there is a dramatic delta in weight, and waxed cotton has virtually no ability to vent moisture. The best way to ensure moisture vents from any shell is to buy a brand with generously-sized zippered armpit openings, as no fabric, even non-waterproof nylon, ventilates moisture as effectively as a large opening.

    boots and shoes that can be resoled are better for the environment than alternatives you must discard when the soles wear out or the waterproof-breathable membrane fails. Cleaning wool doesn't clog our waters nearly as much as synthetic fabrics (also doesn't perform as well in the rain as many synthetics), though there are solutions; i wash synthetic fleece and layers in a Guppyfriend bag that captures microfibers that would otherwise wash into our waterways. re-usable vs. throw-away in other areas - water bottles, utensils, chopsticks (steel dishwasher-safe), straws, to name a few. I'm on the fence about electric & hybrid vehicles; on one hand, you burn less gas, that's good. on the other, you manufacture large batteries with a lot of toxic chemical byproducts and create a serious end-of-life disposal challenge, plus electric cars cause factories to burn more natural gas or coal. still probably better overall than traditional combustion engines.

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    1. Your points on EVs are noteworthy. A recent article in the Globe recounted spending three days to make the twenty hour drive from Boston to Savannah, most of it spent hunting for charging stations and charging!

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    2. MIT says that even though more carbon intensive to manufacture, EVs are better for the environment in the long run than Internal Combustion Engines. https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/are-electric-vehicles-definitely-better-climate-gas-powered-cars
      That said, the United States has a ways to go to improve the infrastructure. I saw in Paris last year that some of the parking on the side streets was limited to only EVs and they had street side chargers like we have parking meters.
      Regardless of your car, the best thing you can do for the environment is keep your car maintained and hold on to it for as long as it makes sense to you to do so.

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    3. I agree. We were early hybrid adopters; our 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid (nicknamed "Fred") still runs well today for our youngest (college student), 165,000 miles and numerous mishaps later. Fred is scheduled to emerge from a body shop after a beer delivery truck gashed the front fender and tore the front bumper off the car. Fred was parked, therefore blameless in the mishap.

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  5. Patagonia does a great job of being transparent about their products and footprints. Hopefully more companies will follow that example. I personally prefer natural, untreated fibers, but there are times I go with Gore Tex or something similar. I'm not going to spend the day hiking in the rain or standing in a beaver pond waiting on ducks in natural fibers when I could stay warm and dry in synthetics. The fact we are having this conversation is encouraging. Environmental science is too often gloomy and this is coming from an environmental scientist and educator.

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    1. I love it when a company is transparent about its products: where they are made, what they are made of, etc. To me the greater problem is people who buy things that far exceed their needs, whether it is a Hummer to lug groceries or a super warm and waterproof technical outerwear for those nippy walks with the dogs. I have no problem with someone summiting Mt. Rainier wearing a thick fill of down and a Gore-Tex shell, other than the hope that some day we can figure out something better.

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    2. Eileen Fisher is another company that is very transparent. Interestingly, both EF and Patagonia offer programs to return your used items for resale or recycling.

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  6. I would be interested to know how others are handling things like single use plastics. I have been trying to be better about that element of choice, but sometimes a Ziplock bag just makes things easier (and cleaner!)

    I know there has been a move to ban single use plastics like take-away containers in Britain, so perhaps there are ideas coming from that?

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    1. I'm trying to move away from the plastic cartridge razors from companies like Gillette and move toward "older" styles of razors. Of course, I'm using many band-aids in the transition.

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    2. Funny you should mention razor blades. I remember something in Mad Magazine from probably 65 years ago about the accumulation of trash in the world. Such was my taste in reading when I was in grade school. I specifically remember a man in front of a mirror, shaving, with used razor blades everywhere. The old Gillette Blue Blades were easy to cut yourself with. At the moment, however, I can think of three acquaintances who have beards.

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    3. I have been using reusable silicone bags (Stasher brand) instead of ziplocks. And generally trying to substitute glass jars/containers for ziptop bags!

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    4. Beeswax wrapping papers are great. I also use plain old wax paper with an elastic to secure it

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    5. It is a dying art to be able wrap sandwiches with wax paper and not need a rubber band. As a child our house keeper taught me how to fold them. She also reused mayonnaise jars for hot soup in the winter and iced tea in the summer.

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  7. I'd have to argue that Gore-Tex successfully solved the problems associated with waxed cotton and traditional 'waterproofs'. There are similar membrane fabrics, such as Sympatex, which can be recycled.

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    1. I think the main culprit of Gore-Tex and other plastic fabrics and their treatments are the health concerns with PFAS and other substances and their future implications, known ones as well as unknown.

      At another point, I have never understood the need for no-iron clothes, most of these treated with formaldehyde during the production.

      There is much similarity between fashion and the food industry, fads comes and goes, sometimes a new thing is invented, hyped, adopted, popularized, only to then showing its true colors when father time takes his toll. There are things that are true and tested while once and again someone decides to try to make a quick buck via a invention or by repurposing an item from another field into a new one.

      Crisco made use of leftover cottonseed oil, a bi product from cotton farming, to sell it as a a shortening made of "vegetable oil", you see the word "vegetable" sounds healthier then "seed oil" to most ears. People bought it, and soon other crops' seeds also where marketed as vegetable oils: sunflower oil, grape-seed oil, canola oil and so on and this industry has been growing to this day. But consensus among health-studies are starting to show that the human body do not respond well to these kinds of seed-oils at all.

      My take away from all above is that, the longer a body has been subjected to a chemical of any form (and a typical dose set by the living environment) during the entire evolution, the better are the chances that the body will respond well to it and not develop symptoms of disease.

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    2. Thank you, I will stay with no-chemical wherever possible.

      Before the body will respond well to any chemical, will need lots of other chemicals from the pharmacy and these, will land in the end in water or on the fields. Humanity made an amazing progress but we came to a point when the progress is starting to damage us and, what is more worrying, the Earth and other species.
      Apropos inventions in the food industry, do you see how many people in developed countries are being obese or overweight suffering form malnutrition at the same time? It takes decades sometimes to state clearly that something is not causing any damage. There are almost certain side effects if the product doesn't come from natural source.
      I use a set of glass pots for cooking which are unbelievable 40 years old. I don't believe that teflon or any alloy is better than silica glass, it can't come to any reaction with the food. There must be an explanation for explosive number of different type of cancers, Alzheimer, Parkinson and other diseases, nature is suffering greatly too.

      I do hope that all of us, not only in developed countries, will ask the question what can we do, naturally and effortless, to leave this place in a better shape.
      I.

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    3. We have been to Ethiopia over a dozen times. It is one of the poorest countries on earth. Theee are no obese people there.

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    4. I gather we should stick with lard and butter instead of Crisco and margarine.

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    5. Reminds me of a friend - State Department - they raised their family overseas in poor countries. They brought their kids to Disney World. The children had two questions: Where are all the goats? Why are the people so fat?

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    6. "do you see how many people in developed countries are being obese or overweight suffering form malnutrition at the same time?" @Annonymous, well, I don't think Ethiopia counts to developed countries, that's what I clearly wrote. But the obese from developed countries have something in common with Ethiopians: malnutrition. By the way, next time in Africa, go to Ghana and see Himalaya of clothes, used clothes (and cars tires) from W.European countries, plastic too is being exported to Africa since South-East Asian countries like China refuse to import it. That's the way how wealthy humanity understands term "recycling" I guess.

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    7. Just to make it clear:

      When i wrote in regard to the 'chemicals' the human body are best adopted to I meant the natural 'chemicals' and materials, which are found in nature as is, and which we have evolved along. I never meant man-made synthetic chemicals of any form, which has surfaced the latest 150 years or so.

      Except the bad seed oils, all the added sugar (high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrine, and so on) I think is the next bad major actor in the food industry. The new artificial sweeteners may be even worse, aspartame, sucralose et al., many cancer alarms un-acted upon.

      Add this to food habits of today, many meals and snacking, making the body spike in insulin all day long, insulin which when spiked up-regulates the storing of fat.

      Why do people eat several times per day, as mentioned above, it simply due to hunger, hunger which stems from a lack of nutrients in the body, since people choose food with low nutrition but high energy content.

      I guess this is what society gets when a greedy big food industry can dictate national food guidelines.

      Skip all foods containing soybeans, soy lecithin, and soy oil, since these has estrogenic properties in the body. If a male eat these he will grow feminine, and if females eat it they may develop female specific cancers(breast cancer, ovarian cancer) since their natural own estrogen level is disturbed.

      At last but not least, do not take my words for it, always take your own responsibility and research the food items you buy and consume, your body and your family will be forever grateful.

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    8. I don't see overweight people where I live, although that doesn't mean there aren't any. I've made these same comments on a forum that I participate in. My daughter went to school in West Virginia for two years and did comment on seeing overweight students. She finished college at a local university named for one of her direct ancestors.

      As for guidelines on diet and lifestyle, never take advice from someone younger than yourself.

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  8. My trusty old Barbour's never fail!

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  9. In our area, recycling is heavily required, and we do so happily. We utilize reusable grocery bags when possible, and recycle the single-use along with much of our plastic wrap/films. It's amazing to see at the end of the week, how little trash we actually throw away. We only purchase natural fiber clothing, and waxed cotton is great for the little amount of time we spend in the rain. To Andrew's point above, use of synthetic clothing is starting to be questioned, as much of the microfiber pollution being found in the Artic is shown to be from clothing. --Holly in PA

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  10. We must be mindful about climate all ways, please.

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  11. Yes, that is reality. Saw this and did some fact checking.
    According to a friend, not even a handful of days this year in Lake Placid when folks awoke to below zero temps. There used to be 20-25 days a year. And January was always the coldest month. If it’s not happening now, forget it.

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    1. The reality is omnipresent. The southwest is in drought, reservoirs are at record lows, and heat records keep getting shattered. The west coast is now being inundated, but it still has a radically transformed climate. The magnitude and frequency of wildfires is alarming. Some folk point to the extreme cold brought about by the polar vortex as evidence that warming is not occurring, not understanding how the extreme heat over northern Africa and the warming ocean currents are major reasons for the phenomenon. In Austin spring is beginning. It used to begin in March, then February, now January. It has been years since I needed a muffler, a topcoat, or a raincoat. The skimpy Barbour is plenty.

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    2. While I agree with you in general, the last two February’s in Austin have anything but Spring-like. True, we had highs in the 80’s last week, but lows are supposed to be in the 30’s next week. It is no exaggeration to say our weather has become bizarrely erratic and average temperatures are steadily increasing, which is how scientists said that climate change would develop.

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    3. My quince and my Mexican plums are blooming.

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    4. You’re right. It doesn’t take “a rocket scientist” to determine average temperatures are increasing.

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    5. VV, did you cover your quince and plums last night? The temp hit freezing this a.m. I’m not arguing with you about climate change. It’s real. I’m saying we should be as accurate about the facts as the scientists who predicted it.

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  12. What a timely question! I've been comfortably adapting to many practices I recall from my grandmother. Non-electric appliances. Natural fibers, locally produced whenever possible. Shoes to be resoled. It seems like a clever and modern idea that one can spend one's way into more responsible living.

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    1. Yes, non-electric appliances are a good idea. The dryer uses a lot of electricity. Why not use a drying rack? What’s the rush? Most of us have enough clothes to wait a day for drying.

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    2. Most days, hanging the laundry outdoors is faster than the dryer here!

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  13. It occurs to me that the issues brought up in this thread are related to affluence and abundance. Don't get me wrong, though. Having come from a background that was anything but affluent, I appreciate "plenty."

    When I was in high school, I lived out in the country with my father and my step-mother and her family, my mother having died when she was not yet 50. There was no inside toilet. Heat was from a coal-burning stove in the living room. There was still a wood-burning stove in the kitchen but also an electric range. Both were in use. There was water piped into the house, but it was chancy and sometimes there was none. But there was a spring that never went dry. It was simple living, and frugal, too. They never threw anything away. My father was a rural mail carrier at the time.

    I recently purchased a copy of "Chop Wood, Carry Water," thinking it was about simple living. It wasn't. It was New Age nonsense. But I have actually chopped wood and carried water. If anything was motivational, doing those things sure were. I left home when I finished high school and never looked back. But time didn't stand still back there. They even have city water these days.

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    1. @ BlueTrain

      "New Age nonsense" I love it, will adapt it in my daily vocabulary and hope not to overuse it...
      I almost lost my eye once, helping my Grandpa with chopping wood and I am regularly carrying water from the spring when in our summer house-farm. I could do it more up to date way but it somehow reminds me, and I like this reminder, how comfortable life I always had and still have. About the deers, I must confess that my family shares life between 2 countries and in both (Austria and Poland) are still pretty lot of deers and some of them even coming to our land (that's why I don't want to fence it, the forest is on the other side). Deers, foxes, wild boars, hedgehogs, plenty of storks every summer (coming to our pond for a really fine dining, poor frogs!), and sometimes even wolves. It's comforting that the population of all of them is growing but unfortunately, we take more and more of their land so, they come closer and closer.

      I really thought that you started to use the term "vergin plastic" (yes, indeed it exists) in the US, I even thought that it's one of this NA nonsenses;)
      I can only imagine you could be a great source of ideas on the topic, simple life meant so much more time for a human and human/family relations.
      Kindest regards and sorry for my English, hope it's understandable.

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    2. Your English is every bit as good as mine, although I'm not English. I'm an American. I've been to England, and we don't quite speak the same language. I was in Germany for two years and came away knowing only a half-dozen words of German, since forgotten.

      I hesitated before saying "New Age nonsense," since there might be some out there in oxford cloth button-down shirts or leather pants. The book was simply not what I was looking for. It seems incredibly dated, too.

      I've been retired for about five years, and I don't seem to have any more time than I ever did. It's still 24 hours in the day. Our two kids are out of the house (Our son just turned 40!), but I get to spend all my time with my wife, but the house has three floors. Alas, but I'm not a good source for anything. I should point out, however, that at one time not that long ago, a wood-burning kitchen range was a modern convenience. Then came the expression, "Now we're cooking with gas!"

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  14. Gas-powered leaf blowers. Just no. And encourage your neighbors to do likewise. If you can't rake it, then simply ignore it; let the leaves stay just where they are. It's not just the noise; it's what those things are putting into the air - nothing good.

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