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Kittredge: Breaking Glass

01/03/12 7:55AM By Susan Cooke Kittredge
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(Host) Caring for the environment and lowering one's carbon footprint can often seem to be mainly concerned with the consumption of resources and the use of material objects - but commentator Susan Cooke Kittredge sees connections with our personal relationships as well.

(Kittredge) For most of my life I’ve lived in old farmhouses whose water came from gravity fed springs that flowed into cisterns in the basements. I cringe at this time of year when the snow cover is light and the temperature falls because I remember vividly the spring line’s freezing and being without water for weeks. Then in dry summers air pockets formed in the line and water was scarce.

But there were certainly advantages to the old system: the water was free, and when the power failed, the water didn’t. Eventually, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages, and we dug a well that produced abundant water year round. Keeping the old system for gardens and emergencies, we were swimming in water.

Some years ago my husband and I moved to Chittenden County, and we got our first water bill. The idea of paying for water was a shock. But I decided it was a really good thing because it made me aware of the millions of people on the planet who don’t have enough water and that even for us conservation is important.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs also bring me up short. For a while it seemed an easy answer: save the environment by replacing incandescent bulbs with cfls. But we are learning that it isn’t simple at all because the thin glass of these bulbs encapsulates a very potent hazard: mercury. Many of us have, at some point, dropped a cfl and watched the mercury bobble along the kitchen floor. I’ve raced to get rid of it - irresponsibly and dangerously, I’ve since learned. Don’t vacuum it, don’t breathe, get the grandchildren and the pregnant women out of the house immediately. Mercury dissipates quickly into the air. And when the bulbs finally burn out, proper disposal is complicated and time consuming; you can’t just throw them in the trash; they have to be carefully recycled. How do I get the things to the few centers that accept them? Better start saving bubble wrap. The warnings about these bulbs are so dire I decided at one point never to have one in my house again. But then I started seeing that cfls are an excellent lesson, that using them can be a spiritual practice in environmental stewardship. They remind us that we need to be deliberate and careful in the way we live because it takes time, effort and sacrifice to save the earth.

We’ve celebrated Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, and Christmas with trees sparkling and windows aglow. For all the gathering of families and the sharing of light and love around the holidays, no doubt some of us felt broken. It’s worth remembering when caring for the world and those dear to us that bright faces are frail and, like cfls, when people break darkness can spread like mercury. One of my resolutions this year is to try and tread lightly on the earth and on the spirits and hearts of the people I love.
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