On fallen trees as learning opportunities

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir, 1911

As I’ve been writing in this column, and discussing in conjunction with the Sustainable We forums, Minneapolis has many passionate, energetic people who profoundly care about the city we live in. One woman who moved here from another state told me she lives here partly because of the determination we have for creating a stronger community.

We do have great gaps in education and economics that need to be rectified. But the pleasure of my writing life lately has been in meeting Minneapolis residents who understand what Muir said so eloquently in 1911: We are interconnected.

As more of us recognize the mutual responsibilities that come from being part of the same system — not being above it or apart from it — we make smarter decisions for the whole. 

A tree falls in Lynnhurst 

One couple I met recently, who “gets” how our individual lifestyles lead to every other, is Jenna and George Hutchinson of Lynnhurst.

When a 280-year-old elm tree in their backyard had to come down, the Hutchinsons turned it into a solar power opportunity. With their new south exposure, they put up a rooftop solar array in 2013. The following year, 47 percent of their 1941 home’s electrical power was created by the array, instead of a fossil fuel plant. With tax incentives and rebates that defrayed the cost of installation, they expect the $8,000 initial investment will pay itself off with energy savings within nine years.

The Hutchinsons have made ongoing improvements to their mid-century home’s building envelope, such as: R-30 fiberglass insulation and vapor retarder membrane; tighter windows and front door; stronger furnace and energy efficient appliances; rain barrel for stormwater runoff, improved raingarden drainage plan, ongoing composting; reduction of turf grass and use of native plants for a pollinator friendly space; purchase of an electric vehicle, now powered by their solar array.

The reason for these steps, George Hutchinson said, is not about reducing expenses. “We can continue to simply live on the planet contributing to increasing temperatures and carbon loads — or we can do something to be part of the solution,” he said. “It’s the raindrop philosophy. A few of us making changes might not do much. But when you get a lot of us together, you get a flood.”

It’s a switch in mindset, he added. Conservation is about running the dishwasher only when full, and combining errands into one trip.

“Many of us, especially those who own older homes with ordinary thermal envelopes, and who have the means to do so, can choose to decrease our consumption of fossil fuels — but we also have the opportunity to contribute. We can own the problem and feel required to help solve it,” he said.

The Hutchinsons were part of the recent Minnesota Renewable Energy Tour, to show others how relatively simple steps can lead to long-term benefits. They keep track of monthly data about their energy consumption and production to help others see the benefits. (Learn more about the costs of each step at MPLSGreen.com.) 

A wood pile in Taos 

Another person who understands the impact of our daily consumption of coal with the climate change that impacts lives globally is Sean McLoughlin of Kingfield.

As a child growing up in an admittedly “hippy” home in the mountains of Taos, he said, each fall they cut up wood for fire logs. A conscious choice was made each time they picked up a log — did they need it? — because they could see how the wood pile got smaller in time.

Without that visual, personal connection to energy use, McLoughlin said, we don’t typically understand where it comes from. We turn the light switch on, or the heater, and it simply works. Most of us, he said, aren’t aware of our continued reliance on coal in the post-Dickensian era because we aren’t personally shoveling it into a furnace.

He developed the nonprofit Carbon Zero Home (carbonzerohome.org) to use market forces to make renewable energy and high-efficiency renovation affordable to the average homeowner, and accelerate the housing industry’s evolution toward carbon reduction. He is currently trying to get city building permits issued to renovate a 100-year-old home in North Minneapolis.

Making room for an extended family tree 

Marnie Peichel, an architect, also is seeking to create more sustainable living. Thanks to some code changes, prompted in part by two multi-generational projects she completed — and for which she recently won an Eco-Blend award — she is seeking to “increase housing options, rather than building what is already out there.” New Accessory Dwelling Unit code, for example, helps to “provide a different arrangement for extended family living, whether spanning multiple generations or providing alternate living arrangements for immigrant families.”

These are a few of the people who are involved in upcoming “Sustainable We” forums, held monthly throughout Minneapolis, as part of a network of pioneers naming roadblocks, and finding solutions, to improve our interconnected community.

Mikki Morrissette is the founder of www.MPLSGreen.com and the “Sustainable We” forums, designed to lift up and celebrate the innovators in our midst who are working to resolve issues of sustainability.