Red State, Blue State, Green State

I read an article in the New York Times today that hit close to home. It was about energy efficiency, politics and the Midwest. “Being green” has become synonymous with being liberal, but a few communities in Kansas were dispelling that myth. Energy efficiency is often associated with being “left-wing” and a “tree-hugger,” phrases that aren’t usually compliments in the Midwest.

You can be energy conscious and conservative, as several communities in Kansas are showing. Which is pretty amazing, when I think about it. Someone doesn’t believe in global warming, and they’d rather give up red meat than hear another word about Al Gore, but they’re interested in energy efficiency?

Yep.

The Midwest has very interesting politics, as Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” illustrates. I read it when George W. Bush was president, as a democratic college student in a red state. Even back then, I was one of the foreign-car-driving, “latte-sipping liberals” mentioned in the book — and proud of it. Frank explained how several divisive issues (same sex marriage, abortion) became part of the standard party platforms, which explained why these people who might have voted as democrats, or populists, were voting for republicans. Being green doesn’t mean you have to be a democrat. And these people in Kansas are proving it.

“If the heartland is to seriously reduce its dependence on coal and oil, Ms. Jackson and others decided, the issues must be separated. So the project ran an experiment to see if by focusing on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity, it could rally residents of six Kansas towns to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.”

“The project’s strategy seems to have worked.”

It all started during a kitchen table discussion, with the observation that “even though many local farmers would suffer from climate change, few believed that it was happening or were willing to take steps to avoid it.”

So they separated the environment from the politics. Instead of being politically motivated, energy efficiency was about being thrifty and creating jobs. And it tied into religion and the Christian obligation to care for the earth. In a way, it’s like mixing a child’s medicine in a spoonful of sugar, like in Mary Poppins. Instead of this horrible connotation of left-leaning tree-huggers, now energy effiencency was related to faith, saving money, competing with your neighbor and adding jobs to the local economy.

Energy efficiency became a competition among local towns, which is a good strategy. A little friendly competition is healthy. Hometown pride ranks pretty high in the Midwest — I think it’s somewhere between taking pride in your mother’s and/or grandmother’s cooking and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, which are definitely in the top 5 on the list of “Midwestern Things to be Proud of.” Personally, I’m not a fan of the Cornhuskers, but I rooted for the Minnesota Twins when they played in the post-season, and I’m convinced my mom’s biscotti (a recipe she got from my grandmother) are the best biscotti I’ll ever have.

A more important factor than being proud of the hometown team or family recipes, is practicality. Midwesterners are practical. Stubborn, perhaps, but they are definitely practical. These communities in Kansas didn’t need to believe in global warming to become more energy efficient, because they believed in the almighty dollar. Saving money  and improving the community are great motivations in a small town.

“Whether or not the earth is getting warmer,” a grain farmer was quoted in the article, “it feels good to be part of something that works for Kansas and for the nation.” He wasn’t convinced about global warming, but he didn’t see the sense in our country’s dependency on foreign oil.

It’s pretty amazing that that a town that wasn’t convinced global warming even existed successfully lobbied for a wind turbine factory to come. This will create several hundred local jobs. Farmers can lease part of their land for the turbines, and boost their income by doing so. (I’d venture a guess that wind turbines are much less labor-intensive than raising cows, soy beans or corn.)

Nice to see that the Midwest is taking an interest in energy efficiency, regardless of the politics involved. Proof that you don’t have to be a democrat, or particularly care about the environment to become more energy efficient.

The Great Outdoors

It all started on Highway 12, by mile marker 180.

After a rainy night of camping and a breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, and a bottled coffee drink from PCC, we had arrived at the rafting site near the Tieton River, near Yakima, Washington. Camping hadn’t gone exactly as planned. I’d borrowed a tent and sleeping bag from my dad, but hadn’t asked about a tarp. We didn’t think about the possibility of camping in the rain, since Eastern Washington is usually dry, unlike Seattle.

The tent

The tent

Not taking a tarp was our big mistake. The sides of the tent were wet and the rain wasn’t letting up. So we slept in my Honda Civic, which actually went pretty well. The front seats are more comfortable to sleep in than I thought.

It was my first time rafting, and the first time I’d gone camping in two years. Although I’d hiked a trail at Mt. Rainier last summer, I hadn’t done many outdoor activities lately… dating a bicyclist doesn’t count.

I felt out of place, but my friend and I were both first timers, so we told ourselves “Here goes nothing…” and signed the release forms at the white tent the rafting company had set up. We both smiled when we saw four college girls who looked slightly more clueless than we were. With the borrowed synthetic pants, I thought I presented the illusion that I knew what I was doing. I’m sure it wasn’t convincing.

I was nervous as I pulled a damp, cool wetsuit over my clothes. By the time I received my helmet, life jacket and what I called a “rain slicker,” I was excited but very anxious. Would I fall out of the raft? When was the last time I went swimming… 2003 maybe?

Riding in the old yellow school bus on the way to the launch site, I noticed the bus driver’s old marathon t-shirt. His curly hair peaked out from underneath a weathered baseball cap. It wasn’t until we shuffled off the bus that I noticed the purple polish on his toenails. It added to my romanticized idea of what rafting life was like. I tried to imagine what it would it be like to wear a wetsuit or board shorts to work, instead of my standard jeans and black flats or boots. I imagined the pace of life was slower. I envisioned a life of riverside camp fires, and a wardrobe entirely from REI, the outdoor store where I’d climbed “the Pinnacle” twice and purchased my three rain jackets.

After hearing about the “river position,” the desirable position to take in the event you fell out of the raft, we divided into groups of 5 or 6, and practiced our paddling. Our guide explained that it was important to just start paddling when she commanded, then try to adopt the same rhythm as the other rafters. Not having much upper body strength, I was nervous that I’d be exhausted long before the end of our 3 hours on the river.

The river was shallow and not very wide, a category III, which meant the current moved pretty quickly. We rafted on the river through the canyon, an entirely different view than what we’d seen from the highway and our campsite. We paddled intermittently, at the commands of our guide, and avoided rocks, pools, and the two big obstacles called “High Noon” and “Waffle Wall.” The names sounded like something from the Old West or a Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game.

Our guide, Nikki, a mother of two girls, got certified in 1986. She’d married another rafting guide, and we’d meet her husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 9, at our lunch site. After almost two hours on the river, we got out of the raft and warmed up with hot tea around a campfire. They’d prepared a delicious lunch of warm roasted vegetables, chicken, salad and corn on the cob.

By lunchtime I was invigorated. I wasn’t completely inept on the river. I felt a sense of accomplishment after feeling the resistance of the river when I paddled. No one from our raft had fallen into the river, although two people had falled out of the other two rafts in our group. I’d surprised myself, which is a pretty good feeling.

At the take out point, we hoisted the raft on our shoulders and carried it over the river’s bank to the trailer. After pouring what felt like two inches of water from the boots, I peeled off the wetsuit and immediately regretted that I hadn’t brought towels, but at least we had dry clothes. We rinsed our wetsuits in the river and gave them to our guide’s daughters, who used paddles to stir the suits in makeshift laundry buckets.

We stopped at a fruit stand along the highway before we reached Yakima, at a Starbucks in Ellensburg, and we reached Seattle by 8 pm. We were home from the adventure.