Midwest Living

I personally don’t enjoy talking to people seated next to me on airplanes. I’m the person who brings four magazines and a novel to read during the flight, and I always end up next to someone who brings nothing on the flight — they just read the safety instructions, peruse through SkyMall, and then rely on talking to me. On my flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in early October, this was the case. But fortunately, the woman sitting next to me was not your usual air traveler — she is a truly extraordinary person.

Michelle has not been on a flight in eight years. Sitting next to her, I could feel her anxiety and how foreign air travel was for her — she struggled with checking in for her flight and printing her boarding pass electronically, and she was nervous about finding her connecting flight at LAX once we arrived. She also does not own a smart phone, and was borrowing her friend’s Samsung tablet for her trip, which I had to show her how to use. I was puzzled by how anachronistic her life was; can you imagine not having boarded a plane since the year 2007? Or not owning any wireless technology besides a flip phone? But when I learned her story, my confusion turned into awe.

Originally from New Zealand, Michelle lives on a farm in rural Wisconsin. River Falls is a town of about 15,000 people, located not far from Wisconsin’s border with Minnesota. On her farm, she and her husband (both in their 50’s) own three horses and 36 chickens, among other animals. She loves that she can have the most wonderful eggs first thing when she wakes up in the morning, and she’s lost 25 pounds so far this year from all the work she does on her farm. (What’s ironic is that despite her lack of a smart phone or tablet, she does own a Fitbit Charge, which is how she tracks her exercise!)

Meeting Michelle was eye-opening for me because I viewed a glimpse of her unusually sustainable lifestyle, and even though she already has a low carbon footprint (she doesn’t air travel, she grows her own food, and raises her own animals), she still is taking far more efforts than the average person to continue improving the environment. In addition to caring for her farm, Michelle’s day job is supervising a recycling center at the River Falls township. In her nine years of work there, she has helped reduce the town’s waste from 450 tons to 300 tons — a 33 percent decrease for a town of only 15,000.

Although Michelle is an exemplary steward of the environment, she is still not immune to the influence of climate change. She told me how in her 30 years in the United States (since she moved from her homeland, New Zealand) she has seen climate change take its toll. On her farm in rural Wisconsin, the climate has altered what she and her husband can now grow. They are thinking of building a greenhouse — an expensive and time-consuming project — just so they can continue to grow their tomatoes because the increasingly cold winters have curtailed the growing season for tomatoes.

I thank God for my conversation with Michelle, because I learned a lot from her description of her daily life, and unfortunately I was not very warm towards in the beginning of the flight (I was trying to work on a homework assignment due the following day). But after getting to know her and consoling her (she was flying home to New Zealand because her mother passed away), I left that plane with some deep questions I still cannot answer. Initially I was so shocked by Michelle’s lifestyle — her infrequent travel and lack of wireless technology make her a walking time capsule. Yet on the other hand, this anachronistic way of life is admirably simple and results in a very low carbon footprint. Thus, is it worth being eco-friendly but unexposed to the world and its developing technology? Should I live on a farm and get rid of my iPad and iPhone? Should I stop traveling so frequently by plane? I definitely fly over a dozen flights a year; I’ve boarded about 100 flights in the eight years Michelle has not traveled by plane. That’s a huge difference in our carbon footprints, and frankly I feel very guilty about it; often people argue that it’s impossible to fly less in this day of age, but Michelle is a testament that it can be done.

I was also struck by Michelle’s determination to continue reducing waste and improving recycling in her community. If a 54-year-old farmer who lives in rural Wisconsin can have a passion for protecting the environment, then anyone can make the effort to live more eco-friendly. The green movement is not just for millennials or hipsters or people who live in tents in national parks. Michelle is one of the most sustainable people I have ever met, and it’s because she leads a beautifully classic and pastoral life, that subsequently a low carbon footprint coincides with this lifestyle. I hope I can one day have the chance to own a farm and preserve the lifestyle that Michelle demonstrates. Until then, I’ll aim to fly less frequently.

© Rissponsible Living, 2015

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