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September 25th, 2009

PLASTIC BAGS, a true story

I was home from school the day the electricity first surged through the network of thick grey wires that wove throughout our house. In this old, old house made of stone and earth, it was impossible to channel a niche for the wires; instead, they lay on the surface, ending in domed brown switches the size and shape of a tea cake.

Cat, My Daughter, Visits the Old House, Vacant For Forty Years

Cat, My Daughter, Visits the Old House, Vacant For Forty Years

I had been ill, nothing serious, simply a childhood malady that had given me an edge. I must have been six or seven at the time, so the whole affair represented a significant percentage of my life.

It seemed as if the prospect of having electricity had gone on forever. Oh the good fortune to be home when that magical moment transformed our lives: the surge of electric current, the switch turned on. A hard, smooth switch, a new sensation for small fingers that flipped them up and down, over and over. The sharp snapping sound of the switch, the instant brightness of light and a lit-up room.

Among the fragments of the negotiations that remain in my memory are deep concerns about the safety of the livestock–the cows in particular. What if lines came down in a storm?  These animals were at the heart of my parent’s livelihood and passion: the small pedigree dairy herd that, in later years, would shape the future of the breed.

The poles and lines would change the landscape forever, interrupt the beauty we had grown accustomed to. Trees were in its path and some had to go. One ash stood in full and glorious stature at the bottom of the farm yard, woven into the hedgerow that separated the built area from the meadow. Roots, dipping into the water of the mill race, gave it every advantage, and for my mother it was part and parcel of the larger vista, the element in perspective, a key foreground feature. She was loath to lose it no matter the advantage of this energy source. Ultimately it went and others were saved. Electricity came with a price.

Strangers came and went. Some talk was heated, some not. Electricity was not just coming for us, the whole area would be linked into the grid and everyone was dealing with the up and downside of it.

Our lives were lit with paraffin lamps: elegant ones for the living room and kitchen; tiny versions that accompanied us up the stairs to bed and big Kelly lamps softly hissing light from their bright mantles in the sheds at milking time. The hiss of the lamps, the rhythmic pulse of the milking machine vacuum, and the steady chewing of milking-time feed had an odd, soothing quality that I loved.

Amongst the treasures tucked away into enormous, mothballed steamer trunks and hidden boxes were lamps and lamp shades that my mother had brought with her when they moved to this farm in 1946. They held no meaning for me until this day when they were brought out like Christmas presents, carefully released from tissue and brown paper and given a dusting. Slinky tasseled fringes fell from lush damask in shades of rose, cream and green. The fabric stretched tight over wires hidden by a soft lining that felt strange and bouncy to my fingers.

I discovered light bulbs: delicate glass structures that, unless handled with extreme care, could fracture in my hand and cut deep into my child-flesh. I was not allowed to install them, though I was given a chance to hold one in my hand, its smooth rounded glass cool as it rested in my palm. Mother showed me the delicate filament and explained how it would light up with the current surging into it, like magic. I watched my mother and my aunt as they set up lamps, attached the bulbs and offered me the chance to be the first in our family to switch on a lamp in this house! I was amazed at how bright they were, how different the room appeared in this stark light; things were visible as never before.

A vacuum cleaner appeared, perhaps brought over by my aunt. Its round little body sat on small wheels and a long, flexible hose extended out from a curved end like an overgrown elephant trunk. It was grey and shiny with silvered ends. My mother attached a wide, hollow part to the end of the hose and showed me how to turn the machine on.  It was hard to hear the next instructions because of its great whooshing sound. My hand was guided to the attachment and I felt the coolness of the air as it sucked my little fingers into its wide, black mouth. I laughed, delighted by this new thing. I then tried my hand at vacuuming, its novelty so engaging that I could hardly wait to show off to my sisters when they came home from school. I had an edge, after all!

For my mother electricity meant many things, the most important was to minimize labor. One of the earliest appliances that she acquired was a second-hand Lyons ice cream freezer, a small chest freezer that would easily fit into our long, slate-pan-lined pantry. At an earlier time in her life she and her sister-in-law had had a home-made ice cream business and she knew first-hand the advantages of freezing foods. Not one to can (perhaps because of an already over-full life), my mother intended to stock the freezer with summer’s excess for winter consumption.

Enter plastic bags, another novel item in our at-the-time bio-degradable world. We did not have easy access to shopping, and even if we did, plastic bags would not have been readily available. Freezers were not commonplace, and other, more typical forms of food preserving were not geared to the need for electricity– this was new-fangled stuff.

An order to purchase these mysterious new plastic bags was placed over the phone and some time later arrived in a box, delivered by Jim-the-Post. Jim delivered our mail rain or shine. Often, in bad weather or on holidays, at Christmas or Easter, he would be invited to stop in and have a cup of strong tea and a slice of rich fruit cake to fortify him before his return walk across the meadow, over the footbridge and through the neighbor’s farm where his Royal Mail van waited for him. Jim was curious about the package, a largish awkward box to carry over his route of rutted ground, and my mother set to show him what he had delivered.  We gathered around to listen to my mother as she described how she would use them, Jim nodding sagely as though he fully grasped the import of this new thing.

The first lesson about plastic bags was the first of many that we would be required to attend to over the years. Plastic in our world, for all its benefits, was a dangerous and potentially deadly item. If an animal ingested it, the cattle in particular, it could well mean intestinal blockage and death. For valuable stock such as ours, this was no simple admonition. We monitored each other, my sisters and I–we were being trained to not litter, and the bags were the reason. A large and ugly “bug” was artfully created, attached to a length of bright yarn, it bore the large letters “LITTER BUG’. Anyone caught littering was required to wear it, as a necklace, for a whole day. It was a very effective awareness tool.

Fifty-five short years later, and the world is drowning in plastic waste:

Like my mother before me, I wash the few plastic bags I use, over and over again.

Plastic Bags, Washed With the Dishes, Drip Dry

Plastic Bags, Washed With the Dishes, Drip Dry

It may seem like an ineffective effort to stem the tide of plastic garbage, but it gives me personal satisfaction to use less and to re-use what I have. For years I have carried my own shopping bags made of canvas or other natural fibers, though I periodically forget to bring them. Produce comes home, most often, without the plastic bags that we are encouraged to use. I know that these small contributions are important.

Each of us, like the single mosaic in a picture, are essential to the whole; and each small thing that we do creates an effect that ripples out far beyond our imaginings. We do make a difference you and I, and if you and I and everyone else were participating in these small ways, we would be a proverbial tsunami.

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