The Green Extreme
Once kooky tree huggers are today’s green gurus. But would you want one for a neighbor?
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: Scottsdale Times, August 2007
Daniel Thompson doesn't see negativity. Call it a form of mood ring color-blindness brought on by decades of working outdoors as a forester, where nary a living thing shows attitude.
But when Thompson stands in the middle of his front yard, a veritable rainforest of towering sunflower stalks, giant turnips and leafy lettuce amidst the neat desert stone and trimmed Bermuda lawns of his upscale Gilbert cul-de-sac, all he sees from the sidewalk are the sunny smiles and the supportive thumbs-ups from passing neighbors.
"Oh yeah!" says the exuberant 59-year-old Arizona native. "You oughta see how many people come by my place and give me the 'thumbs up' or 'V for victory' sign! A bunch of guys have told me they're now doing the same thing I'm doing in their backyards. They're too intimidated to do it out front 'cause they live in HOAs. They gotta hide it. But yeah, it's catching on!"
Like many neighborhood eco-nuts, Thompson has been clearly encouraged by the current greening of America, the late-arriving environmental awareness - coming nearly 40 years after the first printed reference to the "greenhouse effect" in the New York Times - that is suddenly turning tie-dyed tree-huggers like himself into respected green guides.
In fact, Thompson passes out photo business cards proclaiming him the founder and steward of something called the Outdoor University of Reforestation - essentially his backyard, where he and a handful of supporters host tours of what he calls one of the Valley's first voluntary EPA-compliant homes.
"Green laws are coming - no ifs, ands or buts about it," he says, citing the recent adoption in some states of revised building codes requiring things like low-flow toilets and showerheads, high-efficiency water heaters and recycled lumber, which several Valley cities - including Scottsdale, which hosts this October's Green Building Expo - are reportedly now considering.
"Those who convert first will be the leaders, they'll be the winners," Thompson says. "We're showing and demonstrating all the ways you can be an efficient solar energy harvester and the most efficient water user on the planet. And we got a huge equity bump on the refinancing of this house because of that."
But not everyone in the neighborhood is ready to give environmental activists like Thompson their politically correct props. A Valley real estate agent who's been trying to sell a house a few doors down from Thompson's sees the negative stares from prospective homebuyers all the time.
"It definitely gets a reaction from nearly everybody who sees it - and it's never a positive one," he says. "People will say, 'Obviously you don't have an HOA here, 'cause you've got the frickin' Garden of Eden growing down the street!'"
Today's green awareness has made statements like that a little un-PC, and the agent, who's asked to remain anonymous, sounds at times like he's searching for the current preferred nomenclature for "crazy tree-hugger."
"I know there's a certain acceptance of this kind of thing now," he says. "But I think people are more tolerant if they're not living on the same block as these guys. I mean, I'd hate to be the guy living next door to him!"
Indeed, one of Thompson's neighbors has already taken him before Gilbert town officials over the condition of his front yard, enlisting the support of Town Councilman Dave Crozier, who petitioned the Gilbert town attorney to rule Thompson's yard a code violation. The neighborhood, one of the few newer developments without a homeowners association, falls under an old ordinance allowing farmers to plant crops on their land, which has allowed Thompson, who insists everything growing in his yard is edible, to escape rules of non-compliance. Nevertheless, Crozier is pushing to get the ordinance changed, comparing Thompson's yard in the press to a "science experiment" and "a jungle gone wild."
For all the applause today's eco-warriors are enjoying in the media, it appears it's still not easy being green, and that most suburbanites remain a long way from embracing the neighborhood eccentric with the wild front yard.
"I think if most people had their way, everyone would prefer people just keep their yards . . . normal," says the real estate agent, once again measuring his words. "Generally, on that street, we've been very lucky. People have always kept their yards nice. It's only that one guy who's chosen to grow a vegetable garden in his front yard. And frankly, a lot of people are concerned about it."
Lonely Green Giant
For part of each month, 11-year-old Dillon Nys and his 10-year-old sister, Eva, live in what Dillon describes as "a very regular American house" - that being his mother's home, a 3,000-square-foot property in a typical Phoenix suburb.
The other part of the month, the children of a divorced couple stay with their dad, Christian Nys, in the tiny guestroom behind a former crack house that Nys has been busy converting into a showcase for the Valley's green community. Outfitted with things like a shower the kids pump to recycle the used greywater into the vegetable garden outside and bunk beds that fold down from the wall to make optimal use of the 412-square-foot, two-room dwelling, Nys' house is a model of self-sustained living and downsized consumption - and about as far from a "regular American home" as you're likely to find. Diplomatically speaking, young Dillon calls his dad's funky digs "really special."
Still, as much as the Nys children obviously admire their dad's efforts to create the kind of living space that will ultimately promote a healthier world, Dillon admits they're a bit reluctant to invite their friends from school over.
"Most of our friends know my mom and dad are divorced, but they don't know about my dad's house," he says. "It's something different."
Until about six years ago, Christian Nys, a 43-year-old former airline pilot, lived with his wife and young children in a typical home in Vermont. But after delving into nutritional research to help his then-wife's intestinal disorder, he began seeing the benefits of eating raw and organic foods, sparking a consuming interest in a more natural lifestyle that eventually led to the creation of his "ecohouse" in Phoenix - preceded, he says, by the dissolution of his marriage.
"It probably helped send our divorce into higher gear, because it became kind of a polarizing thing," Nys says of his eco-obsession. The devoted dad followed his ex-wife's move to Phoenix to stay near the kids, but settled into a very different environment. Today, a little over a year after snatching up the bargain property in a rough neighborhood in central Phoenix, Nys's house on Pierson Street just off 7th Avenue stands as a green oasis along the blighted boulevard, bursting with oversized Armenian cucumbers and bright tomatoes between front yards littered with dead grass and car parts.
"In terms of picking a neighborhood where we can have dirt piles and stuff growing in the front yard, it helps that this street is kind of run down," he says. "Nobody on the street that we know of complains. Now, if we were in a totally white-bread, manicured neighborhood where everything was trimmed to the T, I'm sure we'd have opposition."
All the same, it gets lonely being the only green giant on the block, which is why Nys has been persuading fellow members of the Valley permaculture community to buy up other houses on his street and create similar produce-producing front yards. Already, in what he calls the Pierson Street Ecohood, Nys has eleven people sharing four neighboring houses - including the converted crack house in front of his own quarters, where four people split the mortgage equally for each bedroom, sharing a single greywater-pumping kitchen and solar-heated bath under one purified rainwater-collecting roof.
"It can be hard living this way on your own, because you feel isolated, you feel alienated," says Nys. "Sometimes I'd lose wind and go off my diet and feel horrible. So it helps to be surrounded by other people who believe in the same things."
As for his kids, they're still a bit on the fence over which lifestyle they prefer. Eva says she likes certain things about her dad's house, like the strawberries, bananas and peaches growing in both the front and backyards.
"But there are some things I don't like," she admits. "Like the shower he's building outside. I could never get into that!"
From the street, you'd never know there were over 50 fruit trees, a dozen grape vines, 20 varieties of herbs and at least a half dozen chickens growing in Greg Peterson's yard in central Phoenix.
Nestled in a quiet, older neighborhood near 12th Street and Glendale, Peterson's property, which the lecturer and educator calls his "urban farm," is neatly hidden behind a well-manicured hedgerow of tall, thick trees. Even in the backyard, where most of Peterson's planting blooms, there's an atypical attention paid to aesthetics. You'd hardly realize there were pomegranates, broccoli, fennel, snow peas, apricots and cucumbers growing in the yard's tastefully arranged flower beds until Peterson points them out.
"I try to do things as mainstream as possible," he explains. "I'm designing it so that when people see it, mainstream America can say, 'I can do that in my backyard, too.'"
Peterson, who holds a master's degree in environmental planning from ASU, seems to have applied the same mainstreaming techniques to his own public image, opening his house to monthly educational tours and seminars for the local eco-community and writing sustainable living tips for Phoenix magazine. He also makes regular appearances on the local morning news shows as one of the city's go-to green guides.
Unmarried and childless at 45, Peterson often invites interested college students to help out on the farm in exchange for temporary room and board. On this particular Friday morning, Peterson is cheerfully served purified water and fresh-picked peaches on the patio by a comely co-ed from North Carolina named Gabriella.
"I try to live by example, to show people the sustainable lifestyle can actually be fun - rather than a sacrifice," says Peterson, as Gabriella asks him for a masher so that she can make peach jam. "Everything we do here is all positive and happy."
While Peterson sometimes grimaces at the sight of his neighbors washing their Hummers with non-biodegradable soap, he's more likely to offer them fresh-picked apples than criticism. "I stay away from preaching, because that's when people stop listening."
Together with local artist and sculptor Joan Baron, an active participant in Scottsdale's Green Building Program who's created some environmentally-friendly public art pieces for the city, Peterson represents the acceptable face of the green revolution.
It's a respectability that eco-activist Karen Bauernschmidt, who helps tend garden in Daniel Thompson's backyard, wishes mainstream America would show to more eccentric prophets like her mentor.
"Daniel only sees the positive," says Bauernschmidt, who made local headlines two years ago for climbing a tree in Metrocenter's parking lot to protest mall owner Westcor's decision to remove 340 mature trees to make room for more parking spaces. "But I'm more of a skeptic."
Bauernschmidt, a Mensa member who says the folks she's met in the green community are some of the brightest she knows, admits renegades like Thompson are still a long way from Al Gore-like acceptance.
"I would like to believe people are coming around, but I'm not so sure," she says. "Fortunately, Daniel doesn't care. He'll talk about this stuff all day to whoever comes on his property. His motto is, 'Bloom where you're planted.' And that's literally what he does."