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Seniors cultivate earth-friendly values

By Nancy Shohet West
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2012
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Among the approximately 350 residents in their 70s, 80s, and beyond living at the continuing care retirement community of Carleton-Willard Village in Bedford, suggestions from their adult children are a frequent topic of conversation.

But resident Peggy McKibben may command a little bit more attention than some of her peers when she passes along wisdom from her son, especially if the topic is sustainability or conservation. She is the mother of renowned environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben, author of numerous books including “The End of Nature,”“Enough,” and most recently “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.”

Bill McKibben is also the founder of 350.org, an international initiative to raise awareness about climate change and reduce carbon emissions to slow the rate of global warming.

A few months ago, when Peggy McKibben read about an event that 350.org was planning for May 5 called “Connect the Dots,” with projects and rallies scheduled worldwide, she knew that several of her friends at Carleton-Willard Village would want to participate with her.

“The idea behind ‘Connect the Dots’ is to map out the world using red dots to show the dramatic damage caused by catastrophic events related to climate change, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis, and using green dots to show the ways in which people are practicing sustainable living,” Peggy McKibben explained.

It wasn’t the first time that a group from the retirement community had undertaken an environmental initiative.

In October 2010, when 350.org promoted its first major climate impact awareness day, residents at Carleton-Willard established the center’s composting program, which is still thriving today.

McKibben sent out an e-mail to gauge interest in “Connect the Dots,” and then held called a meeting.

Several who showed up were enthusiastic gardeners. Carleton-Willard already offers residents and staff access to individual garden plots. The group came up with an idea: What if they joined together in a gardening project, one that could eventually provide food for their own community?

After a little bit more discussion, the concept solidified: The group would plant cherry tomatoes, with the goal of serving their harvest in the Carleton-Willard dining halls later this summer.

Carleton-Willard staff responded enthusiastically: chief executive Barbara Doyle applauded the idea, and the buildings and grounds workers said they would help with tilling and other jobs requiring heavy lifting.

Those who assembled for the meeting were quick to find ways they could pitch in. Mary Waters Shepley offered her own garden plot for the project, and found a collection of tomato hoops they could use. Esther Braun, the informal overseer of Carleton-Willard’s composting program, said she would ensure the garden would have an ample supply of enriched soil from her project.

“We all consider ourselves environmentalists, and we’re all very committed to making Carleton-Willard be as much of a community as possible,” McKibben said. “We also thought it was going to be a fun thing to do together.”

“We knew not everyone would be physically able to join in the gardening process,” said group member Jeanne Paradise. “But there are other ways people can be involved. They can pick or wash produce, or help to contact and organize volunteers.”

McKibben and her friends acknowledge that the environmental movement is often associated with a younger demographic; Bill McKibben founded 350.org with a small group of his university colleagues and current and former students at Middlebury College.

And yet there’s really nothing surprising about people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s wanting to do what they can to improve sustainability, as these women explain it. “Most of us have children and grandchildren. One of us even has great-grandchildren,” McKibben said. “As I see it, our most important challenge is to leave a world our descendents can live in happily. I feel so guilty when I think of the world that we’re likely to give them.”

Discussion of environmental and global issues is a part of daily life at Carleton-Willard. Garden group member Joan Kaufman, a retired librarian, believes this is in part because community members now have more time to read extensively about current events, as well as a setting in which they gather often to share ideas.

Carleton-Willard has its own energy-conservation task force, and frequently invites guest speakers on environmental issues.

Moreover, the bonds that residents form with staff at the center underscore the presence of the global community, and gives them what they consider a personal stake in natural disasters that take place on other parts of the globe.

“We have people who work here from all over the world,” said Shepley. “From Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America. At the time that the earthquake struck in Haiti, there were 40 Haitian staff members here. There is a huge international community within our community, and we care about them.”

A favorite quote of the group comes from environmental writer Wendell Berry:“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

“This piece of land where Carleton-Willard Village now stands was once a farm,” Paradise said. “I feel strongly about fostering a sense of continuing responsible use of the land we live on for the interests of the community. As I get older, my relationship to nature feels ever more important. It’s a connection to the life energy force. To have the beautiful trees and flowers, to explore the possibility of making our own food; these are very powerful ways of being connected to life.

“When you live in a community where there are constantly people passing on, it really feels very important to have that kind of connection to the earth.”

As Bill McKibben sees it, what his mother and her friends are doing speaks to a larger trend. “One of the best things about the climate movement is that it’s going seriously intergenerational,” he said. “When we had the first big mass arrests at the White House last year, the biggest cohort had been born in the FDR and Truman administrations.

“And when I see what’s happening at Carleton-Willard it makes me happier than I can say, and not just because of my mom. It’s because it sends the signal to the young people leading this movement: We have your back.”

As far as how her son became one of the world’s leading environmentalists, Peggy McKibben takes little credit – and like any good mother, she is careful not to pick favorites among her children.

“Bill really became interested in the environment because he and his dad were always out hiking. I’ve learned tons from Bill,” she said. “But my son Tom is a third-grade teacher in Maine, and he teaches his very young students about the environment also.

“Who knows which of them really has the greatest reach? People have all kinds of effects on those around them.”

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