Unlikely as it seems, a recent run-in with my vacuum cleaner has me thinking about Earth Day and my longtime commitment to protecting our environment.
Back in the spring of 1970, I was student at The Hinckley School, a short-lived, prep-school offshoot of the historic Goodwill-Hinckley Home for Girls and Boys. It was my first year living away from home, my first taste of Maine and an exciting time of exploration and new ideas.
At the beginning of the spring semester, my hip, young biology teacher, Harry “Dutch” Dresser, explained that there was a national grassroots movement building to protect the natural environment, and that April 22 would be celebrated across the country as the first annual “Earth Day.” My recollection is that the whole class was pretty gung-ho on this idea.
After all, the late 60s and early 70s were the height of the counterculture movement, and there was rebellion in the air. It was also the beginning of the “back to the land” movement, and appreciation of our rural resources was running high.
I was only 15, on the trailing end of the generation of protesters, principled social dropouts and would-be revolutionaries. But when Mr. Dresser asked who would be willing to make an Earth Day banner for our school, a small group of us raised our hands eagerly. He provided us with a drawing of the official green and white striped flag with a circular yellow symbol in one corner. We were allowed a special trip into Waterville for fabric and supplies, and over the course of a week, the group of us, no doubt with some faculty oversight, fashioned a big, clumsy Earth Day flag.
On the morning of April 22, 1970 our flag was hoisted on the flagpole outside Prescott Auditorium on the school campus, where it hung proudly beneath the American flag for a few hours, shredding gently in the light breeze.
Mr. Dresser gave a short talk at breakfast about the importance of protecting the environment. I’m sure there were other activities to mark the day — maybe a slide show in the auditorium, or a guided tramp through the still-wintry woods.
I have no idea what happened to the flag. But like many baby boomers, my support for environmental protection was forged in those early days and has only deepened over time. I’ve lived in Maine long enough to remember when our beautiful rivers were too filthy to fish or swim in, when harvesting practices in our vast forests gave no consideration to the impact on the creatures that inhabited them, when the idea of protecting fragile wetlands from the ruinous effects of development seemed absurd. When I hear about threats to the hard-won regulatory protections that have been put in place over the past 45 years, my heart sinks and my blood rises.
It’s no surprise, then, that I have always been a supporter of the simple, consumer-level practices that we can all adopt in our daily lives. I’ve composted my kitchen scraps forever. My recycling bin runneth over. I pay attention to the packaging and the carbon footprint of my purchases. I’m glad to incorporate gently-used items from the thrift store or a yard sale into my home instead of buying new. I’m no zealot about any of this, but I do try to be mindful of how much stuff I have, where it comes from and where it goes when I’m done with it.
So, a couple of weeks ago, when I realized how badly the hose on my 20-year-old Kenmore vacuum cleaner was cracked and leaking, I decided to see if I could simply replace the hose instead of getting a whole new machine. After all, I reasoned, the motor still had pretty good suction. I still had all the specialized nozzles and cleaning heads, though some were broken and had to be duct-taped in place. True, the separate motorized attachment for cleaning carpets hadn’t worked for at least five years, but I had lived without it for this long. All I really needed was a new hose.
I got online with a Sears representative who helped me identify the part I needed. It turned out that I could order either just the hose itself, or a whole hose assembly. Since it was just the hose that was the problem, that was all I needed. The agent assured me that an adult woman with two hands could figure out how to disassemble the assembly, attach the new hose and put it all back together again. He even sent me a handy diagram showing how it all worked. Simple.
The hose cost about $45 and arrived via FedEx two days later. Excited, I sat down on the sofa with the old assembly, the new hose, the diagram and a selection of screwdrivers from the kitchen drawer. An hour later, it became clear to me that I was not going to figure this out on my own.
When my husband, Douglas, came home, I asked him to bring his manly skills to the task. He spent a half-hour with it before proclaiming, somewhat uncharacteristically, that it couldn’t be done. The next day, I drove up to the Sears store in Bangor with the new hose and the old assembly and asked the nice guy in the appliance department what we were doing wrong. He peered at the diagram and the parts and suggested I take it all over to the repair center on the other side of town. But, he cautioned, as an afterthought, the workers there knew all about fixing refrigerators and generators, but not really about vacuum cleaners.
“Most people just buy a new machine,” he said, shrugging. “We have several models on sale right now.” Fifteen minutes later, I was back in my car headed to work, having capitulated to the consumer forces around me. I sent the new hose back where it came from and will figure out the best way to dispose of the old machine and all its parts.
I feel somewhat defeated, not only in my effort to squeeze a few more years out of this old vacuum, but by all the time, money, effort and carbon emissions I wasted in the process. I mean, I could have just bought a new vacuum cleaner online with one click and it would have appeared on my doorstep two days later. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.
Our ideas have to evolve with the world around us, I guess, along with the way we do things. Dutch Dresser, to whom I am forever indebted for fueling my awareness of the fragile magic of the natural world, went on to become the headmaster at Gould Academy, and then cofounded Maine Energy Systems, an alternative energy company based in Bethel that sells wood pellets and wood pellet boilers.
It’s been interesting to think back on my early underpinnings in environmental awareness and see how they play out, so many years later.