Eco-Homebodies: Finding Afar Close to Home


A view of Portland on 350 Day, October 24th, 2009

I’ve been away from my home in Portland, Oregon for 75 percent of 2010. I’ve become used to a gypsy eco-adventure life on the road or at sea – I’ve got a good tan and my hair is going blonde, and I’m centered and focused. At home, I have a mortgage (and an actual bed). Living in a van is heaven on wheels. It’s life distilled, pure and simple: camera, computer, books, surfboard, dog and a sense of eco-traveling purpose.

For work, I study pollution in marine environments, so by nature I spend a lot of time at the beach. As part of my recently completed synthetic sojourn to better understand how plastic pollution enters our watersheds, I looked at how different cities function on a municipal level. At each new place, I was guaranteed to see parts of a city’s underbelly that few knew about – even longtime residents. I met plenty of characters along the way, all whom shared stories and suggested other people to talk with to better understand the journey of garbage from source to sea.

But what if you can’t live in a van? Or better, you don’t want to live in a van? Or you just can’t get away? I hear you, gentle reader. I’ve been home for a week and already I’m antsy as all hell to get back on the road.

But yesterday I remembered the last time I felt away from home while at home. It was last year, during the international day of action. Several activists got together on the Willamette River to make a giant 350 and as I photographed, I was astonished by my vantage: I was looking at my hometown through new, eco-tourist eyes.

Portland rests at the Willamette River, which dumps into the Columbia River. The Columbia is one of the largest per volume watersheds in the world. Just like other cities, whatever we litter on the streets here makes its way to the sewer systems, then into our watersheds. Remembering my trip, I realized that I should make an effort to look at my own city with the same inspired eyes that lead me to explore.

So here’s my project: I’ll start at the dump and look at its geography in relation to the catch basins for rain. I’ll arrange to tour my sewer system (gross and spooky, yes), just to see what’s down there and what is ultimately coming out of the pipe into the river. Then I’m going to paddle part of the river to see where garbage washes up. Then I’m going to visit some wetland biologists downstream to see firsthand what effects our pollution has on the surrounding ecosystems. I’m excited, because I’m bound to see new faces of this city that will enrich and inspire my sense of home.

What about you? Sewers aren’t for everyone, but maybe it’s a green architecture tour? Find a firm, make an inquiry. Maybe it’s community gardens?  Find them, and start asking questions. Or what about looking at solar output?  Living buildings? The list goes on and on – all you need is to get out and explore your immediate world. All it will cost is time.

Where do you live? We’d love to here some ideas about your city in the comment section.