Green Karma, a Neighbourhood Tale

By Jenna Mervis
Illustrations Astrid Skibbe

It’s recycling day and the rain falls like a curtain over Hout Bay. I tie a knot in my green bag and trudge up fifteen stone steps to deposit it on the side of the road. By the third step, I’m drenched. Perhaps today Green Karma will reward me, I think. Then again, perhaps not.

Karma, as defined by Wikipedia, proposes that the effects of all our deeds shape our past, present, and future experiences, thus making us responsible for our own lives. Think Newton’s Third Law. We’re sucking our resources dry (action) and wondering why the power gets cut during our favourite soapie (reaction). I like to call this: Green Karma.

At the base of the Vlakkenberg mountains stands my neighbourhood. It’s a couple of paved streets lined with Cape vernacular houses and the occasional ‘tree house’. Our little ’hood is proud to call itself a direct neighbour of Table Mountain Nature Reserve and the hopping ground of the endangered Western Leopard Toad. We have our own recycling scheme, inspired by the magnificent failure of the municipal recycling scheme. We’re also anti light pollution—so there are no streetlights. A plus for star-gazers and crooks alike. We have green neighbours, and not-so-green neighbours and some neighbours in-between. 

It all started with my sister. She’s so green you could dish her up with steak and new potatoes and call it a balanced meal. When we lived together she’d march me out in the middle of the night to catch snails during their ‘active hours’. Rain or wind, we’d be out there plucking the determined gastropods from their organic vegetables and relocating them over the garden fence. 

Green Karma gave her the longest-living, largest-leafed spinach the neighbourhood has ever seen. 

I am also godmother to the 2 500 worms that compost her organic kitchen waste in a Worm Bin. I feed them when she goes away. If I don’t feed them they practice natural population control and stop breeding. But worms, she insists, shouldn’t have to suffer a negative birth rate. Instead, I suffer recurring nightmares. Just last night, I was on my knees shovelling handfuls of raw kitchen scraps into 2 500 minute maws. Carrot ends, rank lettuce, potato peels, apple peels … a therapist would have a Freudian field day.

My brain is made up of grey matter. My sister’s brain is made up of green matter. I’ll proudly display my newly purchased enviro-dishwashing liquid sporting fancy label design and quirky pay-off line. She’ll whip it from my hands, scour the ingredients and manufacture details, then promptly hand it back together with an evaluation.        

“It’s imported, think of the environmental cost of transport,” she’ll say. Or, “It’s still got (insert lethal secret chemical ingredient) so it’s really just the same as the others.” Or, “There’s palm oil in here. Natural plantations are being over-harvested and destroyed.” 

In my experience it is a long hard road to green living, and Green Karma has not exactly taken notice of my efforts. Perhaps it’s because I live with one Taurean male who stamps and snorts when theSodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS)-free soap doesn’t foam and one hyper-active German Shepherd, who spends his days exhuming the lifeless bodies of my once blossoming herbs and scattering them across the garden.

At least I recycle.

Sally is the latest to join our recycling scheme. She signed up at a recycling drive at the local Spar, and much to my disbelief, won the hamper at the end of the day. I’ve been recycling for years—I even rinse the stuff before I recycle and I know what PET stands for (Polyethylene terephthalate—thermoplastic polymer resin which is used in synthetic fibers—the PET number on plastics determine which recycling group the product falls into). I’ve got nothing to show for it, just green envy.

Neighbour Pam’s road to greener pastures has been, quite literally, diamond studded. 
“You see,” she explains over a mug of milky Chai, “our shower drain had been blocked for ages. We poured just about every chemical down it. And I mean every chemical, you name it, we used it.
“Finally someone suggested we use good old elbow grease and some Bio stuff. I borrowed a plunger, my husband pumped—and what do you know?” She shrugs, “It worked!”
I smile. I mean really, a plunger’s not exactly hi-tech now is it? Not the award-winning solution to greener ablutions we’ve all been searching for. But the story, I am informed, doesn’t end here.
“That same evening I took a lovely long shower. What a pleasure. When I had finished, there it was. Just lying there in the corner of the shower, as if it hadn’t been lost for over a year.”
“What?” I ask.
“My diamond earring.”
I try to picture life down Pam’s drain prior to the great plunge of 2008. That earring had been soaking in toxins going on a year now. I’m not sure I’d wear it. But I don’t tell Pam. Ignorance is glitz.

Instead I begin to wonder if people out there are aware of the journey their water takes from source to end. Do they know a huge proportion of a household’s water consumption ends up as sewage? Do Wynberg and Bishopscourt residents, for example, realise their water originates in Hout Bay’s protected Orangekloof? That this pure river water is destined to be laced with a plethora of toxic soaps, bleaches, chemicals and poisons, and then flushed away?

I guess a good many of us are still in denial. I’ve got one neighbour who’s resolutely stuck inside the closet, refusing to live in, what he calls, “green shackles”. I never thought of changing a few light bulbs as an act of bondage, but I guess quot homina quot sententiae (there are as many opinions as there are men).

It’s always good to weigh both sides of an argument, though. Shifting into a greener state of being is in fact a long-term investment, falling somewhere between life insurance and futures investment. Of course you could ease into it by turning off a few appliances, conserving water and switching to compact fluorescents. But going green can be rather addictive. At some point you’re going to want to do more.

This involves an initial outlay of money. You need money to acquire water tanks and gutters, grey water systems, solar or wind powered anything, gas ovens, environmentally friendly household cleaners, organic SLS-free body products and organic, preservative free food.

Breathe.

Plus the composter, the worm bin and the hybrid car. Not to mention time spent researching all of the above in order to make informed decisions. Add to that the cost of establishing your own kitchen garden (and having it dug up by your daughter’s new puppy), sustaining the new status quo with a growing family, and the possibility of having to relocate somewhere in the future and start all over again.

Not for the faint-hearted. But essentially you’re hedging your bets on the probability that our environment is in a state of decline. And in the long run the green endeavour will save you money. Take a grey water system, for example. Water used in the home can be reused in your newly planted kitchen garden. Sure, it’s economical. But it’s also rewarding to know every night, as you brush, gargle and spit, you’re watering your next meal.

It’s raining again in Cape Town and by nightfall my dog is in dire need of a walk. The evidence is strewn across the house. I don polar fleece, raincoat, jeans, gumboots, gloves, scarf, camera, torch and a matchbox, just in case we come across the Endangered Leopard Toad. One can never be too prepared. Whatever the weather, if a resident sees a toad, he or she must have evidence to prove it. This includes GPS co-ordinates of the sighting location, a photograph of the handsome beast (the unique leopard markings are like a thumbprint) and an indication of size, hence the matchbox. Much as it is finding an eligible man in Cape Town. Endangered indeed. I wouldn’t recommend kissing (the toad that is). They tend to hop away rather quickly. 

I return home toadless and wet, only to discover the power has been cut. Thanks to Mr Maroga of Eskom I’m well prepared with an arsenal of candles, wind-up torches and gas appliances. In fact, fortuitously, Mr Maroga has just transformed my ordinary night-in into a romantic candle-lit dinner for two. It’s a good time to discuss the pros of a solar water geyser, and going off the grid. Which in man-speak means braai, unless stated otherwise. 

“Invest now,” I say, pouring him a glass of organic Backsberg Merlot, “and you’ll be a step ahead of the neighbourhood.”

My Taurus stamps and snorts. 

“Plus, who knows when Green Karma will find me and give me that diamond ring,” I wink.
“Honestly,” he says holding his glass up to the light, “I really can’t taste the difference.”