Sustainable Arlington

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SA Member Profile: Elizabeth Karpati

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Elizabeth Karpati (center) is pictured here with other members of the community who are discussing the potential location for a demonstration rain garden to be installed in a local park.

In addition to her active membership with Sustainable Arlington, Elizabeth Karpati is a dedicated member of another Vision 2020 environmental task group, the Spy Pond Committee. Elizabeth is a long time volunteer with Friends of Spy Pond Park, dedicating her time to fighting the invasive non-native plant species that attack the shoreline of Spy Pond and the surrounding wooded areas.

You'll find her, trowel and plastic garbage bag in hand, at every Spy Pond trail and park clean up day, digging up oriental bittersweet and buckthorn and helping keep our precious pond a beautiful place for the community to enjoy. When asked about how she became interested in doing this kind of work, here is her narrative response.

What makes a Sustainable Arlington member tick?  In my case it was my mother’s example.  She grew up in Hungary during and in the aftermath of World War I and had to raise her two girls during and in the aftermath of World War II – first in Hungary, then as refugees in Germany, and finally as new immigrants in the United States.  Wartime shortages meant that you had to make do with what was available, improvise when you couldn’t get what you needed, and save everything that might be useful someday, in case it was not available to be bought even if you had the money.  Anything you had must be used sparingly, using only the minimum needed, and re-using things whenever possible.  All this I absorbed until it became second nature.

For example, in postwar Germany food was rationed for a while, but having ration coupons and money was not enough, you also had to bring something to carry your purchases.  You could take home a loaf of bread or a couple of potatoes in your hands, but if the store had a sack of oatmeal, it could weigh out the amount your coupons entitled you to, but couldn’t provide anything to put it in; you had to bring a bag or other container if you wanted to eat. When reusable shopping bags began to be popularized in the US, they weren’t a novelty to me.

My mother spoke fluent English and could type, so when we got to the US she quickly got a clerical job at the Harvard Business School.  True to form, she turned out the lights when she left a room, shut off the electric typewriter as soon as she stopped typing, etc. Her office-mates said “Oh, you come from a poor country; here we don’t have to be so careful.” Looking at the inserts that come with the utility bills these days, it seems that the country is finally catching up with Mom.

Just a couple of examples of the way Mom’s attitude has permeated my daily life.  One day when I washed my hands at work and dried them with a paper towel, the thought hit me that since my hands were clean, the towel remained clean.  I scrunched it in my hand and carried it back to my desk and put it in the bottom drawer, which was metal with a ventilation hole. In a couple of days it was dry and I could take it home and use it to wipe the kitchen counter or mop up a spill.  I have had to buy few paper towels since that brainstorm.  I do hand laundry in a series of plastic buckets, wash-rinse-rinse.  The dirty, soapy water goes down the drain; any almost-clean rinse water goes to a garden plant or to wet the compost heap. Jeans that got literally soiled while gardening get pre-soaked in a bucket of cold water. Some of the dirt comes loose and goes with the water, back to the garden where it belongs, or to a thirsty street tree, and the jeans come clean with less detergent.

Little daily actions won’t be enough to stop global warming, but they can inch us closer to the goal.

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