A few days ago, my friend and colleague, Arthur Westing of Putney sent me his collected essays on New England forested nature. The collection will take you through the basics of tree physiology and ecology all the way to avian ecology. You will also understand how the sap we covet on pancakes flows in the spring. He ends the small volume with something he calls A Conservation Code. The Code offers eight ways to live lightly on this Earth.
Some people will relate immediately to what Arthur has chosen for his Code; others will be left in the dark (whether some of these can learn is a very important question going forward). For those of us who do understand, sooner or later a simple question shimmers into visibility: "How am I doing?"
For motorcyclists, items five and six of the Code hit close to where we live (bicyclists are allowed to feel smug at this point). Five and six teach us that many important resources are non-renewable, and that some of our actions poison our world Š specifically, "I will not waste fuel or other energy resources," and "I will not pollute the environment so as to degrade the air, soil, or water."
When I first mentioned my interest in motorcycling to one of my buddies at Marlboro College, she said, "Fine, as long as you don’t ride in circles." Damn! That’s all we do. We leave the house, jump on the bike, ride around, and then return. But wait! Don’t all of us ride/drive in circles. We all go to our jobs, a productive birding spot, the Latches Theatre, our favorite restaurants, the soccer game, the BMAC, and the market. Most of us take some sort of "road trip" at least once a year. Road trips are, after all, just bigger circles.
The real difference here is that the vast majority of motorcycle rides are purely recreational in nature. Did the trip include something we had to do anyway? Usually not, except maybe for lunch. That’s the whole point, the machine is just fun to ride, and, usually, there’s some barbecue joint along the way.
To be sure, just like drivers, some riders commute to the job when the weather isn’t too hostile, and some people do a lot of chores from the bike. I do. Most trips to Brattleboro and places like Brown and Roberts, the doctor, the bank, the Co-op, and Sam’s are via motorcycle (at least for six, maybe seven months of the year). In so doing, however, I have also found that there are limits. After repeated attempts, I have stopped trying to bring home 16-foot 2x4s on the bike. I also had to have the refrigerator delivered. The cat refuses to go to her favorite vet in the top case. For that matter, Mallory isn’t too keen on sitting up there, either.
So we’re back to the issue of riding in purely recreational circles. How do we try to live with Arthur’s Points? The most obvious solution -- short of not going -- is to buy a fuel efficient motorcycle. That’s pretty easy, and getting easier. If we say that the average four-wheeled vehicle (we need to include the ubiquitous pickup) gets around 20 mpg (for all driving), the average motorcycle is much closer to 40 mpg. Honda, in particular, has just put out four different models that get 60+ mpg. These are not toys; all of them can handle any road in Vermont. Other makers -- with the noted exception of two of the three major American manufacturers -- are also coming around. Scooters have been here for decades.
My rule of thumb is that my motorcycles have to get substantially better mileage than my Honda Fit, which gets 40 mpg. The BMW gets 50, the little Yamaha, 70. As I continue to sink into decrepitude, I am also thinking of getting something smaller and lighter than the 1200 cc BMW. One option is a smaller BMW. I rented it on a recent Texas road trip, where I bought 16 gallons of gas to go 950 miles (59 mpg). Anything that doesn’t pass the "Fit Test" doesn’t make the wish list.
But there are other, subtler ways to reduce the damage of the ride. Here, the whole idea is to partially offset any profligate production of greenhouse gasses. Guilty fliers do this all the time by paying a fee that goes to new forest regeneration, new solar farms, or some such to offset the CO2 spewed by their plane.
It turns out that cattle pollute the air in much the same way a motor vehicle does. They outgas a lot of greenhouse gasses, both CO2 and, worse, methane. They can’t help it, they’re full of busy little bacteria doing the digesting for them. If you spend quality time with a cow, you’ll hear what I’m talking about. In fact, the world’s cattle -- all 1.7 billion of them -- may contribute as much to atmospheric pollution as does all of the global transportation sector! So if you want to partially offset riding in a circle, skip the beef at the barbecue place and go for the beans and vegetables. Worried about peer pressure? Tell them about the Mediterranean diet motorcycle rally in Palermo, Italy.
It is impossible to avoid leaving footprints on Earth. These tracks swell and shrink as we go through life, but, generally, do you wear flip flops or jackboots? Our actions have consequences, no matter how we might try to wiggle around the fact. As a famous actor said recently, "Nature doesn’t need us; we need nature." Many of us miss this point entirely. Arthur’s Code reminds of this concern. No worries about his last item, though. It’s easy: "I will rejoice in the wonder and beauty of nature all the days of my life."
Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his (relatively fuel efficient) motorcycles, wife, and cat.