It's Not Easy Being Green: One Mother's Struggle to Save the Earth and her Sanity

It's Not Easy Being Green:  One Mother's Struggle to Save the Earth and her Sanity
A beautiful oasis

 

As the famous philosopher, Kermit the Frog, once sang with melancholy and heartbreakingly honest lyrics, "It's Not Easy Being Green."

In 1969 years before we realized the harm caused by our daily consumption of goods and over a full decade before controversial plastic bags with handles were introduced to consumers, Kermit crooned about the universal struggle to accept ourselves exactly how we are:

"It's not that easy being green. Having to spend each day the color of the leaves. When I think it could be nicer being red or yellow or gold or something much more colorful like that.
It's not easy being green. It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things. And people tend to pass you over 'cause you're not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky."

Somehow Kermit managed to sum up my adolescent years of self-doubt. I, too, blended into the background, lost in a sea of other girls with brownish blondish hair and pale skin. Oh, how I wanted to stand out like flashy sparkles in the water.

Thankfully, as the years passed, so did a lot of my insecurities.

I accepted my quick-to-burn and easy-to-bruise skin and developed a swagger, which some days comes naturally and other days I just have to fake. I truly thought that I was over the bulk of my self-doubt until I landed in the middle of the Green Debate.

I've never needed a t-shirt or bumper sticker to proclaim my love of our planet and Mother Nature. I was born to a mother with Cherokee blood running in her veins and farming in her soul. My mother’s family owned a farm in Naperville, complete with a giant dollhouse in the backyard which my mother filled with live bunnies and chicks instead of dolls.

As an adult living in a new Naperville with paved roads and subdivisions, my mother grew our food in her gardens, recycled years before it was considered cool and even had a secret compost pile when composting was a dirty word that only hippies on a commune used. She was a rebel for Mother Earth and proudly displayed her crisp laundry drying on a line in the sunshine – each article of clothing was a miniature victory flag.

Through the years, she did reign in some of her behavior, especially after a brief move to a heavily regulated neighborhood in Oakbrook, where instead of welcoming us with a fruit basket or muffins, a band of neighbors handed us an encyclopedia of subdivision rules.

I still have nightmares of ruler-brandishing-clip-board-carrying militant busybodies in white collared polo shirts measuring the length of each blade of grass in our lawn. (My only respite is that I'm pretty sure they will die first in the zombie-apocalypse that my kids keep planning for and stockpiling boxes of Sour Patch Kids as a precautionary measure. I don't ask any additional questions on this topic 'cause I’m proud that my children are finally taking initiative in planning for the future.)

Thankfully, my family moved back to Naperville and my mother got her grove back after years of self-discovery. She no longer keeps her organic vegetable gardens hidden in the backyard. She proudly paints her rain barrels in bright colors to punctuate the end of her uninspired gutters. My mother openly discusses composting, suburban chicken coops and reusable shopping bags. She discovered the writings, project ideas and recipes of Mary Jane Butters and eagerly participates in her local Farm Girl group.

Meanwhile, I am balanced precariously on the property line between my mother and the Farm Girls and my friends and family members who won’t even recycle aluminum cans.

The stance from my fence post suited me in the beginning.

Off to my left, I enjoy looking at the lush, manicured golf-course green grass. I am even amused at the little white signs that pop up like the sunny, yellow dandelions in my yard.

Sure, those immaculate signs, coordinating perfectly with the immaculate lawn, proclaim that my children shouldn't walk on the lawn, touch the lawn or stand too closely to the lawn for several days after chemical application, but we have learned to live with the rules and play a kind of hold-your-breath-when-you-drive-past-a-cemetery game.

I must confess that I do admire the lack of recycling clutter at the curb in front of those houses, too. Garbage day always seems so neat and tidy with everything perfectly compacted into one big blue can at the end of the driveway. The perfectionist in me cringes at the bursting mix-and-match bins piled at the end of my driveway overflowing with newspapers, cereal boxes and water bottles.

On the other side of the fence, the view is equally as pleasant, though in a very different way. Similar to Monet's study of haystacks, my mother's organic landscape changes with each month of the year. Her yard is one our ancestors would recognize, filled with a collection of native plants, gardens, hard-working insects and creatures driven by purpose.

Sure, the native plants do invade the entire lawn and weeding diligence is needed to maintain balance. It is also very easy for those who don't understand the whole native plant movement to erroneously refer to the plants as weeds, but I am slowly learning to appreciate the richness their color and texture.

Over the years my mother's yard, which sits on the outskirts of bustling downtown Naperville, has been transformed into a magical wonderland. It is a refuge where my children and I discover villages of toads, hidden bunny nurseries, butterfly coffee klatches and outdoor festivals of crickets chirping while dragonflies and hummingbirds dance above our heads. Adding to the nature's theater is a chicken coop with five chickens and clutch of quail, a bunny hutch, a tire swing, two large climbing trees and three cozy sitting areas furnished with recycled treasures rescued from the curb.

Each time I visit her yard, it is harder to come back home to my own yard in Aurora and perch back up on my fence of indecision.

My yard reflects my hesitancy and ambivalence. Sure, I enjoy the paver patio and sitting wall with matching chairs, throw pillows, tables, faux wooden deck boxes & ottomans, but I just can't bring myself to apply the chemical weed-killer and destroy the green sprouting between the pavers. I love my brightly patterned Pottery Barn hammock with wooden stand, but I was equally as thrilled to find a coordinating bright blue rain barrel to tuck behind it.

My husband and I created a landscape plan brimming with color blocked flowers, manicured shrubs, size-appropriate trees and carefully plotted areas of fun. And then we realized we just couldn't deal with the pressure-cooker maintenance. (Seriously, it is still a miracle that our children are fed and bathed on a regular basis!) And I swear that the high-maintenance, meticulously-bred and cross-pollinated plants had it out for me. Sure, they would grow beautifully in the neighbor's yard, but as soon as I would plant the same type of flowers and shrubs, they would conspire against me and refuse to thrive.

So, I surreptitiously started replacing the pretentious hybrid plants and flowers with transplants from my mother's yard. Her rag-tag assortment appreciates my yard.

Now I don't want to mislead you that this process is anything less than an uncontrolled science experiment. As my mother's plants are purchased from garden club fundraisers and farmers' markets and exchanged amongst friends, I never really know what I am given.

The plants arrive nestled in paper boxes as dirt clumps of spindly roots and vaguely familiar foliage. They are fall root balls demanding to be planted in any available space in my yard and emerge months later as little packages of spring surprise. It is only until a distinguishing feature emerges from the ground that I can truly determine what exactly is growing and if I want to keep it.

All too often by the time that I am able to solve these mysteries, the blistering summer sun has arrived and I have to wait months to correct any problematic placement. Sometimes the transplanted gangs of natives bring their less-desirable friends to the party in my backyard and invasive weeds of destruction creep into the flower beds.

Contrary to the soup can soldiers lined in military rows with their labels facing forward on my pantry shelves, my flower beds are defined by their chaos. And it amazes me that as much as I need order and organization to function within my home and tend to develop a nervous tic whenever a couch pillow is slightly askew, paradoxically, I actually relish the mystery and surprise of my adventures in gardening.

I have been stuck up on this fence of indecision for several years now, and it is getting quite uncomfortable straddling a fine line between the two extremes and worrying about what everyone else will think or say about my lawn and lifestyle.

As of today, I'm building my own damn platform:

1. I will no longer apologize for using Miracle Grow in my garden and flower beds. My garden yields an amazing bounty, and I will unapologetically eat every last tomato, bean, squash, berry, pepper, cucumber and anything else that comes from the ground. My husband and I mix garden soil, Miracle Grow, peat moss, mushroom compost and sand into a perfect blend. We will share our harvest as long as you don’t criticize and just enjoy it.

2. I will unapologetically gather fruit and vegetable food scraps from discarded plates at our next party and defend my compost bin with pride. Yes, I do have a compost bin. Yes, I will use the compost to fertilize my gardens. No, it doesn't stink if you follow a few simple guidelines that my children can write down for you.

3. I will no longer allow myself to get sucked into a debate about Global Warming just because I ask someone to throw a plastic bottle in the recycling bin. It is my house, and recycling is the house rule. My request is not an invitation to debate. Recycling in all forms makes sense to me and is the next logical step in my brain synapses: I use something = there is something left which can still be used in another way = I donate/recycle/compost accordingly. End of explanation.

4. I will no longer sheepishly change the subject when someone addresses my chemically maintained pool filled with city drinking water from the hose. Yes, I am using proper chemicals and test strips to maintain balance and chlorine in the pool. Yes, I do realize that water is a vital resource. My kids love their pool, and I love the ugly babysitting circle of fun in my backyard.

5. I will stop making excuses for my re-usable shopping bags which always seem to confuse the bagger in the check-out lane. It's a bag. It can be filled with merchandise just like those plastic ones can. It really shouldn't be that difficult and confusing, but I will be patient and proud as I smugly tote my bags out of the store.

6. I will also stop making excuses and feeling guilty when I forget my re-useable shopping bags and have to use the plastic ones, especially now that my mother and her group of Farm Girls can recycle them and transform plastic bags into woven rugs. (Thank you, Farm Girls!)

This new platform of mine will undoubtedly grow, evolve, and change. I've finally made a stand and will adopt it as I adopted that swagger of mine many years ago. Some days, it will be easy and come naturally. Other days, I'll just have to fake it. But I refuse to venture into the murky depths of self-doubt. And I'll embrace my slowly developing Green sensibilities even if they aren't always easy.

As that great green philosopher sang so eloquently decades ago:

"But green's the color of the Spring. And green can be cool and friendly-like. And green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree.
When green is all there is to be. It could make you wonder why but why wonder why. Wonder I'm green and it'll be fine. It's beautiful, and I think it's what I want to be."

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  • I, too, have my own platform...unfortunately I think it changes from day to day! Still don't get why it's so hard to use your recycling bin though....we usually fill 2 a week!

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