Annually we feature & interview people in our ‘tiny’ community that engages our minds and hearts in what it takes to leave a tiny footprint.
Our first Tiny Steward interview is with Carolyn Waters, Environmental Educator and Artist, of Where it Stops, Nobody Knows.
First cool thing we noticed about your blog is that you hope that it “will save the world,” something we hope to see happen too! What would this new world look like to you?
My vision for a “saved” world would include a mixture of old practices that our society has largely forgotten, and new ones we haven’t imagined yet, with the result of eliminating large-scale negative human impacts on ecological systems. It will require collaboration between so many different people that I can’t see the full picture by myself. So often we focus on the negative impacts humans have on our environments, but it can be more productive to focus on the positive examples and how we can make more of them. A student recently showed me a project where artists restore coral reefs with sculptures that act as a substrate for the coral to grow on – that’s an example of the kind of creative, positive human-ecosystem interaction I’m talking about that will save the world.
I see you are an environmental educator. How did you get into environmental education, and how does this shape your decision to build a tiny house?
You’ve really opened up a can of worms with this question. My interest in environmental education started eleven years ago when I got my first “real” job after college as a tutor for ELL students in a public high school and middle school. I was also doing a lot of rock climbing at the time, and through that I was learning about public lands and natural history. On my first day of the tutoring job, I was basically dropped into a classroom of students and handed a roster – no curriculum, no supplies, and no training. So I quickly had to figure out what to do with the class periods. I asked myself, “what is the most important thing I can teach new immigrants and first-generation students?” The two things that first came to mind were management of public lands and creative arts. You’re probably not surprised to hear that the year could have gone better. I was one of those teachers who would cry on my way home from work. I loved working with kids, but I couldn’t stand the environment of working in those schools. Here’s an interaction with a student that illustrates my frustration:
Me: Have you ever run away from home like the character in our book?
Amos: Yes, when I was mad I used to run away into the forest in Kenya and sleep in the trees.
Me: (Whoa, crazy) Didn’t your parents worry about you?
Amos: No, they taught me which bugs to eat and they gave me a knife to fight off lions.
I struggled every day to find ways to help students in my class like Amos connect knowledge they brought from their first homes to the environment they now lived in. He had moved to a small town in Indiana from a dramatically different place. How could I help Amos feel like it was worth his time to spend every day in a cinderblock classroom only to return to a small, urban apartment each afternoon? During that school year, I Googled “teaching outdoors” and a perfect graduate program popped up – a Master of Education focused on Environmental Education. I ended up attending that partnership program between Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute the following year.
What is your favorite part of environmental education? Do you think age matters to instilling an appreciation of nature into someone? And do you think enough is being done to connect people with nature?
Of course we’re not doing enough to connect people with nature. Actually the opposite; it’s becoming easier every day to distance ourselves from nature. That’s why we have the environmental problems we have.
My favorite parts of environmental education are the teachable moments that come about spontaneously, especially when I’m learning as I teach. One of my favorite memories is from leading a small group of fifth graders on a hike. They had named themselves “The Read Headed Sapsuckers”, after a native species, to differentiate their group from the others. Coincidentally, I was starting to learn sapsucker behaviors around the same time. On the first day of their overnight field trip, I taught them to practice making the territorial noise of a sapsucker drumming on a metal light post. After a few minutes of practicing, three sapsuckers flew into the trees in front of us, and the group got to know their mascot face-to-face. I know that as a professional ornithologist you probably frown on calling in birds… but I didn’t actually expect it to work!
As far as the issue of age – lifelong learning is essential to being a person who is ecologically literate. So in that sense, age doesn’t matter. However, many research studies have shown that there are certain developmental stages in a person’s life that are especially important for developing relationships with our surroundings and understanding the roles we play in ecological systems. Our country does an okay job of teaching young children about their environments, but as we get older there are fewer and fewer opportunities, especially for adults, and even more so for marginalized communities.
What does a “tiny steward” look like to you? How/what do you feel is the best way we can make environmental stewardship a natural and integral part of our communities?
A “tiny steward” is probably no more than three inches tall, wears a red gnome hat, and goes around sprinkling moss spores on the north side of trees. But seriously, I think the first part of this question is about how stewardship and tiny house living are connected. It means making a commitment to reducing consumption of resources at a drastic rate. There are lots of ways we can work toward making stewardship part of our communities. One is to integrate it into school curricula and work responsibilities. It’s too easy to live our lives without feeling like we’re making meaningful contributions to our communities. Even small steps can make a big difference in changing that. Another thing we can do is to design our urban spaces to highlight a place’s ecological values. Instead of hiding a creek in a culvert when building a new road or path, build it in a way that shows off the creek’s beauty and integrates it into the way we go about our daily activities.
What preparations (if any) have you and your partner made for tiny home living? Is the tiny home meant to be a permanent dwelling or is that still TBD?
Our tiny house is intended to be a permanent dwelling (as much as anything can be permanent) for both of us. We do not have heavy time pressure to complete our project, so we have been taking small steps to prepare for almost two years now. We are constantly building a donation pile and getting rid of those things, we have changed the way we think about and talk about gifts, and Robert especially has put a lot of research into appliances and furniture options. We have both lived in small spaces for much of our lives already, so the idea of “living tiny” isn’t completely new to us.
What has the reaction been like of people you know/don’t know to build a tiny house? Has this drawn any attention in your community?
Most people say “I love watching those shows on TV!” Generally people are fascinated. It’s the first thing most family and friends ask us about when they see us. Sometimes at parties I feel like how I imagine being a celebrity feels – one person finds out that we’re planning to move into a tiny house, then they whisper it to the next person, and pretty soon I’m surrounded by a bunch of squealing women who want to know how many square feet the house will measure, but aren’t worried about asking me what my name is. We haven’t gotten any formal press about it, but that’s because there are a handful of others around Louisville who are also building tiny and are intentionally seeking press attention to further their projects.
The only negative feedback we’ve had so far has been related to finding a place to put it. Louisville’s zoning code is relatively old, and does not have regulations specific to this kind of housing. Louisville’s culture as a whole is pretty averse to any kind of change, so the idea of doing anything that pushes boundaries is scary and uncomfortable for a lot of people. The people who are interested in our project tend to be interested mainly in the aesthetic parts, and in general the conversation becomes uncomfortable when we start to talk about the social or legal implications.
You seem to have an appreciation for art and its connection to nature. What role has that played/continue to play in your life and occupation?
One of my majors as an undergraduate was studio art, with a focus in oil painting. My other major was anthropology, focusing on photoethnography. Soon after I graduated college, I went to spend a summer at Earthaven Ecovillage working as a muralist in exchange for experiential learning in intentional community living. That was one of the first challenges outside of school where I used my skills to attempt to represent a subculture through art. Later in life, I worked in marketing for a nonprofit dedicated to environmental education, and much of my job was to build a visual brand for the organization, often through photography. I continue to use photography and illustration as means for teaching people and marketing the programs I work in. I’ve been toying with the idea of designing a semester-long class about marketing for environmental causes or art and environmental activism.
What’s been the most challenging part of your tiny house building experience so far?
Oh dear. There have been a lot of challenges! The most memorable was needing to move the house on short notice. Up until that point, a friend had been very generous in allowing us to use part of his business property to work on the project. In a quick turn of events, we needed to move the house with only a few days’ notice. After a lot of frantic phone calls we did find a great spot to continue the work … The drive to the new site meant going through downtown. By this time, it was nearly midnight, so luckily there wasn’t much traffic. Aside from our worries that the structure would wobble and rack, we were also worried about the accuracy of our measurements for going underneath of the several overpasses between us and the destination. Each time, we stopped in the middle of the road, and one of us got out to made sure the roof wouldn’t scrape the overpass. What a celebration we had when we finally got the house to its new site!
What do you hope to gain most out of tiny house living?
More time outdoors, accomplishment and challenge as a couple, freedom, a life less invested in material belongings.
Finally, the name of your blog is Where It Stops, Nobody Knows. If one wants to start living and thinking in an environmentally-friendly way, any advice on where it should begin?
There are so many options! Here are a couple of recommendations, from easiest to slightly less easy: 1) Get up right now and go for a walk outside. 2) Choose one resource that you use every day: water, potato chips, your car are just a few examples. Start there. Find out as much as you can about where that resource that you are using came from and where it goes when you are finished with it. For bonus points, choose an alternative source or disposal method. Then report back to us. – Carolyn Waters
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