by Sven Eberlein
Last week the US Postal Service released its newest stamp series, Go Green. It’s a series of 16 stamps designed by Eli Noyes, a 68-year old farmers’ market going, veggie growing, composting San Francisco artist and designer.
While the word “green” has become a bit of a cliche in recent years and suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of clever marketing slogans cashing in on our collective desire to be more environmentally conscious, these messages are really spot on. The first thing I always look at when someone is going “green” is whether they’re trying to sell me stuff. Sure, there are things we need, and the lower the environmental footprint the better, but too often the stuff that comes with the big eco sticker attached isn’t really needed in the first place. In this case, out of 16 tips, the only thing it’s telling me to buy is local produce. Not bad.
Each of these stamps is like a public service announcement that all combined lay out a road map for personal choices reflective of a deeper shift in behavior and consciousness. Choosing to walk or letting nature do the work may not sound on par with the complex systemic problems civilization is faced with, and yet their very essence carries with it much more than a specific item on the green checklist but a fundamental shift of how we relate to the world around us. Adjusting the thermostat or turning off the lights when not in use may seem like a drop in the bucket, but what’s much more significant than the hard numbers of energy savings is the radical realization that energy is precious and worth being conserved.
Each of these stamps deserves its own showcase, and I’ve written about most of the themes espoused in one form or another. However, since the argument could be made that the very idea of physical mail is incompatible with sustainable practices, I’d like to use this space instead to make the case for a dear old friend of mine…
I admit it, I have a soft spot in my heart for this wrinkly artifact of communication. And, just to get it out of the way: I’m not talking about junk mail or bills — God bless spam filters and electronic bills — but that organic, handwritten piece of mystery whose mere presence in your mailbox brings a smile to your face. Sure, there’s probably an app for love letters somewhere out there in cyber space, but will it ever tickle anyone’s heart the way this one tickled mine?
Yup, that was my first love letter, with my name spelled backwards, from my cousin, wax seal on the back. It’s still there, at the bottom of a huge pile of hundreds upon hundreds of letters that I received over the years until they stopped coming about ten years ago. How many emails or facebook messages will be saved on my computer 30 years from now? I don’t know, with growing “clouds” and ever-expanding hard drive space maybe more than I would ever know what to do with. But will any of them connect me back to a particular time, place and feeling as this one does?
There are many advantages to instant communication, tweets, pokes, and IMs. We can now send anything anywhere anytime, and nothing needs to ever be left to chance anymore. However, it’s this very immediacy and almost clinical delivery we’ve become accustomed to that’s also shrinking the space needed to evoke the less literal and more sublime lessons of life inside a human body. Embracing imperfection, accepting the unknown, being patient with each other, and giving ourselves time to reflect are increasingly becoming lost arts. This response letter I received from a family in India whose picture I had taken on a trip and sent in the mail took over two years to arrive…
…but the message was timeless…
I try to be thoughtful with my electronic correspondences, but really, most of it is still fairly inconsequential chit chat. How much time do I spend each day on deleting barely read emails and updates, skimming over endless announcements, and engaging in proforma back and forths? In the time it used to take me to write a decent letter to a dear old friend I can now have 20 simultaneous conversation threads, and in the time it would take to get a response I can now add hundreds of new friends, followers, fans, or whatever slightly errant word from the old school physical world we use for these new kinds of cyber relationships. While I now get a whole facebook wall full of happy birthday quickies, nothing still beats an original b-day song composition on the back of a letter.
You may ask what good could possibly arise from slow, inconvenient, and delayed communication? Well, if I were a letter, I could think of a few things to ask the emails and texts of the world: “When was the last time you were opened with utter anticipation and joy? Have you ever been carried to the post office in the nervous hands of a secret crush? Sat in a treasure chest of childhood memories for several generations? Traveled across oceans and mountains? Been smelled, licked, or made into a drawing? Read over and over? Hung on a wall? Picked up soggy in the pouring rain? Put in a bottle and thrown in the sea? Been graced with unique fonts for each of your journeys?
Yes, sure, it’s paper, and paper is trees. And yes, flying and shipping mail across the country and the world burns CO2 and uses up resources. But there’s another dimension to being “green” beyond efficiency and carbon counting that I think gets neglected too often. Feeding our souls, our inner poets, artists and muses often gets left out of the equation because the “results-oriented” world we’ve created only measures in tangible units, whether it’s parts per million, click-through rates, or dollars and cents.
How does one measure the environmental impact of an afternoon of writing a letter, of putting down one’s thoughts on paper, of tuning in deeply with another? In the most quantitative sense, you could say it’s a few hours of having our energy-consuming devices turned off. On a more visceral level, it’s a way of slowing the frantic activity in our head, focusing our attention, tapping into our deeper reservoir and seeing what’s there. Writing a letter is like a meditation, an invitation to connect with our soul’s unspoken knowledge, with the question of who we are in the grand scheme of things.
As with so many of the choices we face, it’s not an either/or thing. I love and appreciate the ease and convenience of digital communication, though I’m not sure how much paper and energy it’s actually saving us. Even if only every umpteenth email or word document gets printed out, it seems that the mounting volume of information we hurl through fiber optic cables into ever more high-powered servers keeps outpacing any potential energy and resource savings we may have gained by going digital. We seem to have become so fixated on volume and quantity that much of our communication merely echoes the chatter in our head, as if every thought, no matter how fleeting and inconsequential, needed to be broadcast into this world. Everybody’s talking, and nobody’s listening.
That’s why I think writing a letter can be a good exercise. What would you write if you had three or four pages to express your internal processes of, say, the last six months? Or six years? How would you convey it to someone near and dear your heart who you hadn’t seen or talked to for that long?
More than any radical earth-shattering eco epiphanies, these are the questions the USPS’ Go Green stamps evoke in me. There’s something so beautifully simple in Eli Noyes’ illustrations that draws me in, yet upon getting closer I realize it’s the symbolism of the stamp itself that beckons me to get back to basics: to cherish the tactile and sensory experience of putting ink on paper, to take a break from life’s many distractions, to awaken my inner muse, to take the time honoring friends and loved ones, and, with a bit of patience and luck, get to know myself a little better in this grand puzzle called life.
I can’t seal this one without including my musical ode to the letter…
Woke up this morning got a thought in my head, I dug out a pen, wrote it down on a pad
scribbled a note, drew up a scene, the words came pouring out of me
A proposition, a press release, a poem, a reminder, a string of ideas
a story about life on the brink, the whole page covered in ink
Down the street to the mailbox I went, an envelope in my hand
a letter stamped and addressed to the Department of Curiosity
From the mailbox down to the central hub, tossed in a pile and covered up
then shuffled around and sorted out, the time had come to go travelin’ about
Letter of mine, letter of mine, travel the distance through layers of time
red or white or black or blue, my mission is to contact you
from state to state, land to land, a hundred times exchanging hands.
by ship, by train, by plane, by foot, your postal code will get you through.
Over the mountains, across the sea, through cities and towns when finally
a sign says on the destination door: “This address don’t exist no more”
Return to sender and back in the pile, adjusting the outcome, changing the style
I’m tossing the words, licking the glue, I’m sending this one out to you
Sleet or snow, sun or rain, the message must go out again.
I send the letter to the care of curiosity living everywhere.
And now, bestowed with dinks and dents the letter gets in the whole world’s hands
from the continent’s heart to the edge of the coast, they all read the curiosity prose:
I want to learn what I learned and unlearn it again, find what I found and then lose it again
listen to those that I don’t understand, find us all an open end
I want to wake up the past and let it sleep again, fight for a cause and surrender it then
be all the change that I possibly can, turn it all around again