Carving Out A Life with Minimal Stuff

Carving Out A Life with Minimal Stuff
By Audrey McCollum
In a brief punchy film titled “The Story of Stuff,” United States culture is portrayed as obsessed with the extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal of material goods. Yet Emily Neuman, 32, Sustainability Coordinator for the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society (which includes the Hanover and Lebanon Co-op Food Stores, the Co-op Community Market on Lyme Road and the Park Street Service Center) lives a life permeated by frugality, simplicity and delight in nature.
Appearing friendly, open-minded and thoughtful in a recent contact in the Hanover Food Co-op, she engaged with me in an e-mail exploration of her values as well as her current responsibilities.
”The earth is an absolutely incredible thing that we so often take completely for granted,” she wrote. “And material stuff … gets in the way of noticing, appreciating and respecting it. It’s still going against the grain to bike to work but I love it! It just adds to the pleasure … that biking to work is also good for our environment.”
In good health and with many physical skills, she enjoys using the power of her body. For example, she prefers hiking up a hill and skiing down rather than using a ski lift, as well as canoeing and swimming, berry picking, gardening, dancing and hanging out the laundry. Along with reading and sharing dinner with friends, these activities comprise her “frivolities.”
“I come from a family with more than enough access to material resources. I sometimes wonder if my frugality has been a reaction against that abundance or a way to limit my world a little,” she wrote in what was an uncommonly wise observation. “I’m inspired by people who carve out their life with care rather than buying their life, so to speak.”
Growing up in Le Claire, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, Neuman was surrounded by nature. With both parents engaged in full-time professions (her mother was the first female Iowa Supreme Court Justice), Neuman and her sister were provided with daycare in the home of a woman who had grown up on a farm.
“We helped her pick grapes and apples. We ate apple crisp and drank grape juice in season. She made wonderful zucchini bread for us too. She canned jams and stored them in her basement. She made tomato sauce from scratch while we played in the living room and …we took walks up in the woods to pick raspberries,” Neuman reminisced, adding “the fact that she engaged us in the richness of these activities is the important part.”
Yet it was not until her teens, when she went backpacking in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, that her concern for environmental conservation became focused.
As a freshman at Dartmouth College, she became fascinated by the influence of agricultural practices on weed and insect populations, a topic explored in an Introduction to Ecology course, and became active on the student organic farm. Prior to that, she had never heard of organic agriculture, had never considered that farming could be done on a small scale, or even that a woman could be a farmer!
Those revelations led her to post-graduate study in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology, as well as ongoing work in organic farms and food co-ops. Then her husband’s medical training brought her back to Hanover and she assumed her current job in ’07.
Recycling constitutes a major realm of responsibility. Neuman has organized a staff team to increase recycling across all co-op locations, and shoppers are encouraged to recycle glass, #1 and #2 plastic bottles, #5 plastic dairy containers, mixed paper, metal cans, corrugated cardboard, EcoPak containers, CFL bulbs, rechargeable batteries, and heavy plastic shopping bags.
In addition to these goods saved from the landfill, the Service Center recycles scrap metal, motor oil, oil filters, antifreeze, tires and car batteries.
About 70% of the co-ops’ organic waste (e.g. edible but slightly bruised fruits and veggies) is donated to a non-profit called Willing Hands that distributes it to people in need, and food scraps are given to farmers.
In parallel to the wide-ranging recycling program, Neuman coordinates energy audits of the facilities, surveys shoppers about the environmental information they seek from the co-op, and writes for the Co-op News.
And in yet another realm, she encourages staff to “green commute” – biking, walking, car-pooling and using Advance Transit.
Finally, this dynamo – who generates remarkable energy within herself – serves on the Sustainable Hanover Steering Committee. But that is another story.
This column was published in the Spectator on June 26 ’09 . Audrey McCollum can be reached at