A couple of years ago, my wife Dawn spied a stainless steel pail on Pinterest. Next thing I knew, it was living by our kitchen sink, holding eggshell shrapnel and avocado skins until I delivered them to their final resting place inside a large, domed tombstone that sat squat near the fence. At eighty gallons, it was no joke. A sticker on the front told the world who it was: The Earth Machine. And I was in charge of its columnar ventilation, which meant opening the tomb and dumping our kitchen pail full of dinner slop inside, minus any meat, of course.
Then the real work began. I churned The Earth Machine’s soup with gusto and learned quickly that bulldozing my heap was the secret to keeping all the little maggots content. I took pride watching last Wednesday’s buried clementines transform into a grayer, more wrinkled version of themselves. I even used the homemade dirt once when I moved four trees from the backyard to the front. I dug up roots and left the hose on the new spots like I’ve seen every pro lawn guy do dozens of times. Standing in my Redwings, it was all so easy – until the trees died and the opossum showed up. He must have caught a whiff of the homemade sauce we were brewing. Composting lost its luster after that, but I still do what I can. In the morning, I leave my banana peel on the floorboard of the car until I get home. Then, when the neighbors and the family aren’t watching, I fling it into our yard under the Japanese maple and let nature do her thing.
These days, paper is my muse. Costco cardboard, Zappos boxes, that six yards of butcher paper Amazon tossed in with Elvis Costello’s new book – it’s a long list. Paper is everywhere, and I’m not afraid to grab that unfinished toilet tube castle or the abandoned coloring project left in the hall. I gather them up like the little treasures they are and toss them into our backyard fire pit. Sure, I’ve messed around with those kerosene-soaked starter logs, but Martin’s foot-long receipts work just fine. I want flames quick, so I hoard. It could be eighty degrees outside, but I don’t care. When the boys ask, “Can you build us a fire?” I jump right on it.
I’ll admit I’ve been tempted to grab the Restoration Hardware catalogue that shows up every quarter even though we’ve never bought one of their cool light bulbs, but I stop myself. There are rules with fire making. No color paper. No glossy pages. Boy Scouts taught me that. Instead, I use the lint from the dryer and head for the backyard where I make big sticks into little ones. Jack London’s To Build a Fire did something to me, so even during the warmest days, I cut and I saw. I feel like a farmer, doing chores and working my land. But there are no crops to tend. Instead, it’s my mission to make sure no paper goes in the trash. I might not be racing a Mustang or an old Triumph motorcycle, but I’m outside, mending the fence, working with my hands, feeling like Steve McQueen.
The composting experiment. The fire commitment. These were my things. But to tell you the truth, the boys are greener than me, even if their motivation is suspect. Levon refuses to wear underwear, while Atticus recently boasted about a seven-day run in the same pair of socks. After they left the backyard hose running overnight for a river they were making, I’m happy when they forget to flush the toilet or catch them digging out yesterday’s dinosaur flosser out of the trash. Yeah, it’s gross, but hey, we’re making a difference.
The biggest battle for our family is probably over Ziplocs. After dinner, I like to keep leftovers in their original bowls and then put each one inside a gallon-sized freezer bag. It’s a great system until Dawn refuses my technique. She guards the plastic gold and even washes out the old ones. The boys take after me. They want every unfinished crumb sealed away for later, especially suckers. At any given moment, three lollipop corpses are snoozing in the cupboard. When the boys aren’t looking, I toss them in the trash, which comes at a risk. Anything that ends up in the super-can outside often finds its way into the driveway thanks to the squirrels and raccoons.
“Dad, how did my fries get out here?”
“Go ask your mother.”
At the hardware store yesterday, Atticus found an abandoned water bottle next to our parking spot. There was still a little water inside, but not much.
“Dad, I’m thirsty. I’m going to drink this.”
“No, you can’t drink that. It’s dirty. Drop it!”
“No, it isn’t, Dad. The top is on. See?”
I thought about saying, “Go for it!” I like to choose my battles, but I stood my ground and shared my elementary science knowledge about germs and bacteria.
Back at home, Atticus saved us eleven cents by peeing in the backyard. And though it was T-shirt weather, I snagged a paper bag from Kroger and some free oak logs that the neighbor didn’t want. Together, we headed into the woods. The flames came quickly. Sitting there, kicking the leaves and breathing the smoke, I spotted a squirrel running toward the tree house with a slice of last week’s pizza. From the other side of the yard, The Earth Machine stared us down. I knew then that it was time to get back to work. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.