Thursday, January 11, 2007

On resourcefulness amid overabundance

I am often impressed (or depressed) by the level of waste and abundance found in developed countries. But the overabundance of my life hit me especially hard a few weeks ago, while watching a recent addition to the Discovery Channel's "Survivor Friday" line-up. The unfortunately titled "Man vs. Wild" stars Bear Grylls, a British survivalist, climber, sky diver, former member of the British Special Air Forces, and more, who, in each week's episode, parachutes into the wilderness, then shows the audience how to survive under such conditions while finding your way back to civilization. I'd be concerned about revealing a bit of a crush on this impressive man, but I think my husband is just as captivated by him; see for yourself here. (My husband would want me to mention here that Grylls is married, with two children, and that he has no intention of leaving me for Grylls.)

There is an absurdity to the situations Grylls finds himself in. Few people are likely to be faced with these circumstances, though in each episode Grylls recounts stories of people who unexpectedly have been. And the recent tragic deaths in Oregon of CNET editor James Kim and hiker Kelly James, and the presumed deaths of Kelly James' fellow hikers Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke remind us that no amount of technology and innovation can shield us from the force of nature. But Grylls doesn't just jump into the middle of nowhere and find his way out. He falls off of cliffs (voluntarily, while tied to his parachute) or jumps into freezing cold ponds to show his viewers what you would want to do if you were to find yourself (involuntarily, I assume) in a similar position. He places his urine-soaked t-shirt on his head to cool off in the desert, and drinks the liquid from fresh elephant dung to demonstrate what can and should be done to survive the most dire circumstances.

The show is a real lesson in not only survivalism but the fundamentals of necessity and resourcefulness. Grylls typically lands on the ground (or water, or tree) with the materials of his parachute, a knife, a canteen, and the clothes he is wearing (the garb varies depending on his destination). It is not that Grylls finds joy in torturing himself through extreme deprivation. Though he knows how to survive with very little, and to forage for what he needs, he is often heard pining for a cup of tea or other bastion of civility. But just as often he finds extreme pleasure in something as simple as a fire, a meal of fresh fish (as in, just plucked by hand out of the water), or a flat and safe place to sleep.

On one recent episode, Grylls stranded himself on a desert island. After a few days apparently enjoying the island life--climbing coconut trees for the food and natural protection from sun and wind the coconut oil provides, fashioning fishing lines and spears from local plant life to catch his dinner--Grylls decided to turn his attention toward building a raft to get himself off of the island and, hopefully, rescued at sea. Grylls excels at making rafts; he has quickly fastened a few logs together on more than one previous episode to speed his return to civilization, as he says a river is generally the fastest way home. But this time he wisely took his time, building a rather elaborate raft and sail from what he could find on the island.

He also took some time to collect a few items to help ensure his survival on the ocean. (Of course, he had a camera crew there, and the show's rule--that the crew will interfere only in a matter of life or death--is both what lends fascinating realism to this show and what allows Grylls to take such insane risks.) The most basic necessity, of course, is water; Grylls needed plenty of water to survive even a few days waiting for rescue. How to hold such water? Well, this is where Grylls got lucky. You might think unbelievably so, unless you've been to a beach recently and started collecting the trash that washes onto the shore: he found an empty plastic gallon container, a little dented by its journey, but still able to hold a decent amount of the rainwater Grylls had been collecting.

Yes, what impressed me here, and has continued to come to mind each time I toss an item into the trash or recycling, is this plastic jug. This is the kind of item we routinely buy with the intention of using its contents and throwing it into the garbage or recycling bin (or, apparently, the ocean), but that could have significant use left in it. Likewise, as I am inundated with junk mail, flyers, and unsolicited offers each day, I am most likely to be so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of junk in my mailbox that I choose to toss it straight into the recycling. I know, however, that besides adding to the garbage collection or recycling flow, each of which takes up space and precious energy, there are other possible uses for the many items that enter my home each day. The paper could be used to make more handmade paper, or to create paper beads, or the blank parts used to make envelopes or as scratch paper for my son.

There are many reasons to get junk mail, plastic jugs, and other packaging out of your house as quickly as possible, and many reasons not to keep such items around for continued use, including time constraints and maintaining sanity, general cleanliness and order. But this is precisely the point. My grandmother used to have a pink embroidered bird on white cloth framed and hanging on the bedroom wall. The cloth was a scrap, and the thread used for embroidery was unraveled from another scrap, a project undertaken by a great-grandmother while she was pregnant on a farm somewhere in Kansas. My grandmother also kept a small jar on her windowsill, in which she kept a collection of the red plastic and wire closures that came with saltine crackers, and a small container in her pantry, into which she stuffed assorted plastic bags. On top of this, my grandmother collected the possessions of the generation that preceded hers, which included the possessions of the generations before that, as they passed away, and stored these possessions in hutches, closets, cupboards, and drawers. Yet, compared to many homes today, hers was relatively bare; the vast majority of stuff in her home was valuable or useful. Her plastic bag and red saltine wrapper collections were of reasonable size because she brought home a reasonable amount of plastic bags and saltine crackers, and because, like island-stranded Grylls and his plastic jug, she made good use of what she had.

These days there are entire televisions shows devoted to helping people rid themselves of boxes of fabric and jars of red saltine wrappers. And with good reason. A person who saves even a small portion of the useful bits and pieces that come into the average home could quickly be overrun. A single trip to the grocery store might yield enough packaging to fill your garbage or recycling bin; a run to Target or the mall might overstuff your closet, then send you running back to Target for some organizational tools.

For me, Grylls' plastic jug serves as a both a reminder of absurd overabundance and a challenge to think more carefully about the resources I bring into my home. It does not suggest to me that we should all strand ourselves from civilization and survive off the land and the garbage that floats our way. Rather, it suggests to me that, beyond reducing general consumerism, we should be conscious of the overabundance of resources afforded by even a simple lifestyle, of the disposable scraps we pick up each day even when not over-consuming, and that this simple consciousness might inspire powerful change. Stick around as, in the next few days, I develop this challenge into my next personal project.

No comments: