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My View: Auntie was an expert at protecting the planet

By Diane O’Brien

“Don’t throw that dish detergent bottle out. Add some water, shake it and you can wash another batch of dishes,” Aunt Marie said. She always extended the use of an item.

The word “environmentalist” wasn’t frequently used in the early 1960s. My sister and I would often nudge each other as we considered Auntie’s actions a bit eccentric.

In retrospect, she was the first environmentalist I knew. My aunt learned early on to reuse and recycle everyday materials.

Aunt Marie was born in 1920 on my grandparents’ produce farm. As a child, she learned to care for the crops of tomatoes, beans and other veggies.

The farm relied on well water to nurture the growing plants. In a drought, any use of water was thought out carefully. After washing dishes, the basin of dishwater was used to water the roses and irises around the house.

“Look,” Auntie would say, “the plants are getting dish soap also. That should help keep the bugs away.” She always smiled when she could conserve water.

Her parents had pigs on the farm. Her mother taught her how to use the pig fat to make soap. She rendered the lard from this animal’s fat, then carefully combined the lard with caustic soda or lye. Her soaps were very basic with a dull white color and no fragrance, yet they cleaned the laundry very well. I was honored to use her homemade soap from my laundry shelf for many years.

Self-employed people, especially farmers, learn early on how to make the best of their resources. Auntie learned from her parents but she also lived through the Great Depression, which taught her another layer of conservation.

She watched families struggle as men lost their jobs. She observed families using every last bit of food and wearing their clothes longer, to conserve their resources.

On a cold winter day, I could visit this relative and find her studying strips of cloth spread over the back of her couch. She was deciding what colors to put together from these worn­-out shirts and dresses. Later, she would braid these colorful pieces into rag rugs. I cherish these throw rugs that I now bring out for occasional use.

I became part of the activism on my college campus when the country celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The three R’s of environmentalism – reusing, reducing and restricting the use of goods – were proclaimed and touted.

I smiled as I went through the workshops and protests, such as declaring Lake Erie dead because of the algae. I felt way ahead of these students in my awareness of how the Earth needed to be treated. I didn’t know any other way to treat the Earth, but to be mindful of my actions.

When I called Aunt Marie to tell her of this campus event, she asked, “What are they doing new? I’ve been doing those things for years!”

My sister and I often reflect on Auntie’s awareness of how the Earth should be treated.

Today I am an environmentalist. My lifestyle is totally different from Auntie’s, yet I think twice before I buy items. Do I really need this? Could I reuse what I have? Garbage day means the big bin for recycling is filled and curbside. The actual garbage bin? I only need to take it out every other week.

I was young when I rolled my eyes at Aunt Marie. Now I admire her for the extra efforts she made to care for our planet.

Thank you, Auntie. Your lessons have been well repeated.

Diane O’Brien remembers many valuable lessons learned from her rural childhood.
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