Wayland Earth Day 2013: a successful experiment

By Kaat Vander Straeten, Transition Wayland, MA

Transition Wayland, along with the Wayland Green Team, organized our town's latest Earth Day event, on the last weekend of April. Last year we had put up the traditional fair on the Green, with booths, activities, food and music. Though that was by all counts a success (400 visitors), we felt free to try something completely different this year.

The issue with last year's formula was that it was too much work for too little impact. Organizers were exhausted by the time the event came around. We ran around putting out little fires and worrying about tents blowing off, unable to visit the booths and enjoy the day. Visitors strolled in, enjoyed the food and the carousel for a couple of hours, then went home and never got back to us. Afterward there was the distribution of raffle items and collection of table fees to deal with, but very little in terms of welcoming new members as a result of our hard work. Time to do something different!

Perhaps it was a sign of how stuck we were getting in our ways that it was a new member who, after several hours of chatting over a potluck dinner, came up with the winning formula: open houses, open gardens, open places of worship and open businesses, all over town, places where things sustainable, resilient and “green” are happening, though not always known to residents. The moment he said it we knew that was it!

What a great way to “give it away” to the community, simply by decentralizing it. Each host would take the work, responsibility and accolades for their own events. The whole town, north to south, east to west would get involved. All we would do was the promotion and to help where help was needed. It was with a considerable amount of daring and trepidation that we sent out our invitation to the community via the local press, word of mouth and our Big List. Even if we had only 10 open houses, even if they were just our own houses, we decided, it would be worth it!

We needn't have worried: the response was much larger than we had anticipated. By the April 1 deadline, the schedule counted thirty-four events all over town. Even after the deadline late- comers asked to join the list. Some hosts offered to be open for two hours, one couple opened their entire house (bathroms and basement included) for twelve hours, and many opened on both days. Most of these people, I hasten to add, were not Transition Wayland or Green Team people.

It's a good thing we had planned on an Earth Day weekend, because all of it would not have fit into one day. As it was, it was a challenge to fit all of them onto the flier. The flier was one of those compromises: it was resource-intensive, but it would have been impossible to list all these events on the central billboards in town.

That flier (run of 2000) was quite costly, and as I usually say, “we're grassroots and dirt poor!” But we had decided that all of it would be free: free for hosts (regardless of whether it was good for their business), free for visitors. This meant working with sponsors, something our group had never done, not for these amounts of dollars, anyway. The flier was enthusiastically sponsored by two local heroes (both LEED architects). They got their logo on the flier.

Through our close relationship with the Wayland Green Team, which is a committee of our Public Schools Parent-Teacher Organization, we could put these fliers in the elementary school kids' backpacks, in one fell swoop reaching some 800 families, many of whom don't read the local media. Other publicity included an eleven-week article series in the local press (which loves us, as we always deliver good copy), home-made A-frames at the three central intersections, and lawn sign invitations coming up by roadsides. Those lawn signs were leftovers from our previous year's Solarize effort (which resulted in 74 new solar PV arrays in our town, by the way). My basement became “Earth Day Central” and people walked in to splash paint around and chat while quickly rubbing out misplaced lettering. I will never forget those pARTies.

The hosts were even more excited than we were. They had prepared tours, slide shows and handouts of their houses old and new, designed, built or retrofitted for green living, their geothermal systems and lots of solar, mostly photovoltaic but also hot water. The elementary schools showed off their gardens, composting and rainwater catchment. Visitors came to stroll private vegetable and herb gardens, take home seedlings and perennials and try dandelion fritters and pine needle tea. Girl Scouts offered children's activities. There were horses to pet, bees to watch and baby chicks to hold.

Local stores offered goodies to customers bringing in their maps, and the local garden center gave tours of their greenhouses and solar array. Two churches welcomed visitors to their efficient buildings and solar PV, and our local Fireseed Arts group invited people to play electric guitars and other instruments made from trash. The Transfer Station (aka “The Dump”) offered free compost. Our one local farm put its band saw into action and one street welcomed test drivers for three fuel-efficient cars, including a prototype electric BMW.

So, what happened?

All together, these events received over 700 visits (it's impossible to tell how many visitors, because many walked, biked, drove from one place to the next). Some visits were from friends and neighbors, many more from welcome strangers. There were even people looking to move to Wayland and using this event as a way to explore the town and meet the people. Needless to say, they were impressed. The sunny weather encouraged walking and biking.

In the end we could not resist holding one centralized event. The choice of showing Chasing Ice was an easy one. Thanks to another generous sponsor (another $700) we got the screening rights, and the High School hosted it. Over fifty visitors came to this, one of the first grass-roots screenings in the US. In fact, the DVD had arrived in Wayland just the day before - we usually don't cut it that close.

The conversation that followed the screening brought out both optimism and pessimism about climate change and our ability to deal with it. The same happened after a smaller, living-room screening of Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic of Our Time. But there was a marked difference.

The first was more like a political debate between one optimist and one pessimist, somewhat contentious and abstract, with little in the way of personal feeling given away. Others said nothing out loud, but you could see them siding with one or the other, cementing their own beliefs as they listened. Because of the lack of time this didn't result in agreement - though we did, I believe, manage to convey they idea that mitigation (for the optimist) and adaptation (for the pessimist) can go hand-in-hand.

The smaller, living-room screening of Green Fire, on the other hand, was much more personal, with childhood stories gently surfacing and a real approaching between strangers. One of the ideas that has therefore already come out of Earth Day 2013 is to show both movies in living rooms to groups of no more than 7, and to talk, talk, talk and get to know each other. We need that culture in our town: conversations, not presentations; friendships, not memberships. (The work is always only just begun.)

In our Letter of Thanks for the local media we ended by saying that people in our town have questions, concerns and hopes, and that this Earth Day was, in the end, all about this: how can we live sustainably and resiliently? We let residents know that the invitation to courageously combat, and adapt to, climate change is outstanding and continuous.

Let's see what our next meeting brings!

Photo credits: 

Top (by Kaat Vander Straeten): Local artist Patino Vasquez of FireSeed Arts shows his electric guitar made from a trashed counter top at the Earth Day event at Happy Hollow School, Wayland.

Middle (by Peg Mallett): Homeowner Satrajit Ghosh talks about the solar PV and solar Hot Water systems on his roof.

Bottom (by Kaat Vander Straeten): The Crier's Green Guy, Doug Sacra, shows the pole-mounted solar array in his backyard. Over fifty came to the screening of "Chasing Ice."

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