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Over the last several years we have heard a lot about the need to be “green” in an effort to save our planet. We have been urged to reduce, recycle, and reuse. In the food arena we want to buy locally, grow our own food, buy organic and eat clean. We are offered chances to reduce our carbon footprint. You are special if you are recognized as a locavore or you can survive on a “100 mile or kilometer” diet. New goods made out of recycled materials are seen as admirable and are sought after.

Most of us try to do the right thing and do participate in many of the efforts by throwing our cardboard and other recyclables into the right bins, buying food at local farmers markets when we can and some of us have even started to grow our own vegetables in one of many community gardens springing up in cities across Canada. Many people have stopped obtaining plastic bags at the grocery stores and bring out their own reusable bags to carry their purchases home. I have and know of many others who have jumped on the bandwagon of making new products using recycled materials. I love being able to write in a notebook that I have made out of reused paper from old reports I have had lying around the office. All commendable actions in an effort to save the planet which we appear to be destroying at least from a human perspective that is.

My perception about our western world efforts to be green got a little shake-up on a recent trip to Ukraine. I was visiting family who for the most part reside in the city of Lviv. One Uncle and his family however live in a small village northwest of Lviv and our visit would not have been complete without a visit to the village. Getting out of the city gave us a glimpse of the rural Ukrainian landscape. The rural areas of any country always seem a little simpler, quieter and more “green”. We saw a few horse drawn wagons sharing the road with the cars and trucks and witnessed at least one stop in traffic to allow the cow herders to take their herd across the highway. No need to reduce their carbon footprints.

Arriving at my Uncle’s home was like going back in time. The house nestled in the overgrown trees and vines looked like a cute little cottage out of a fairytale. The back door the main entrance into the house was framed with vines heavy with grapes ready to be harvested for the next batch of wine. We were greeted by the chickens in the pen beside the vegetable garden as my Uncle, Aunt and three adult children and two grandchildren gathered outside to welcome us. Many hugs and kisses later we were ushered into the house for a grand feast.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I felt the love of my family in the room. I was also feeling the emotions of being in the same physical space that was that of my dear grandmother whom I never had the pleasure to meet. This was the house that was built by my great great uncle for my grandmother at the end of the Second World War when she was left with five of her six children after her husband and oldest son, my father, escaped to Canada. This was a special house and one that my Uncle had spent his entire life within. After his siblings left the family home he stayed and started his own family. Some 35 years later he remained, now sharing the house with his children and theirs.

It was evident that this was a house well lived in but the other characteristic that was plain to see was this was a “green” household. The delicious and elegantly presented food we were provided definitely fit within the “100 kilometer” diet, it came from the backyard. The tomatoes had the taste of heaven and the potatoes melted in your mouth. The mushrooms had been picked that morning. The chicken was flavorful and reminded me of the fresh chickens we were able to get when I was a child. The wine we were offered and loved was made out of last year’s crop of grapes that surrounded the house.  My Uncle and Aunt, talk about a couple of locavores!

We appreciated the food but were even more impressed when we had a tour of the house and saw how the family had cleverly kept things working for the last sixty some years. It turns out that my Uncle, “a jack of all trades” had the reputation in the community and with his extended family of being able to make anything, fix anything and reuse everything. He had a garage full of things that had been and would once again be reused in some clever way. Talk about sustainability.

His car was a marvel. Sure the trunk lid was cleverly held shut with a complex set of wires but after 40 years of use it still runs. I am not sure many people in the Canada can even fathom having a car for more than 10 years let alone 40! Then there is the bike! My cousins, now in their mid –twenties all related their personal experiences of being touted around town in their father’s magic bike. He had crafted a box and cleverly attached it to a bike older than he was and used it for some 30 years to deliver stuff, pick up stuff and take all three of his children to school and other places in and around the village. Again talk about being green.

We toured the garden where several crops of vegetables shared the space with berries, fruit trees and a full range of herbs. Everyone gathered around the walnut tree and waited as my Uncle climbed up on the roof of the shed that he of course had built, to sweep the load of walnuts in our direction. He showed us how to crack them open without a nutcracker and dig out the sweet delicious meat. Normally walnuts seem a bit bitter for my taste but I could not stop eating these. The abundance spread beyond the yard.

The large field behind the house as well as the forest just on the outskirts of the village offered a wide range of wild mushrooms. Of course both my Uncle and Aunt were able to distinguish between the ones that were tasty and fit for human consumption and those better left alone. My cousins several years younger than me had developed this knowledge as well. I felt a little sheepish when asked what kinds of mushrooms I liked the best and could only respond by saying I liked the white ones I find neatly stacked on the shelves at the local grocery store. Not only did they know their mushrooms they made the gathering of the same into a recreational event and just naturally spent time in nature, something that we seem to have to work hard to accomplish.  The chicken coop, the rabbit pen provided fun for the rosy cheeked grandchildren but also a delicious source of protein for the family. The neighbors had the cows and goats that provided the family with other meat, milk, cream and you guessed it, they made some of their own cheese and yogurt. By this time I was feeling like that little garden plot we had going at home was almost pathetic, but I nonetheless reminded myself that it was a start and was somewhat admirable. 

This family really had it figured out as far as being green goes. I was impressed. The funny thing was that talking to my Uncle about carbon footprints, sustainability, eating locally or making things with recycled materials would be nonsensical to him. He had lived these things all his life. He was the epitome of what we strive for in the western efforts at “tree-hugging”. I am proud that he is my Uncle and look to him as a source of inspiration in my efforts to be green and support the planet.

Irene McDermott © 2011