Several years ago I carried out to my tool shed a small roll of vinyl flooring that was, by nearly anyone’s measure, a totally useless piece of scrap that ought to be discarded immediately. The rolled-up portion that remained from my bathroom flooring project was scarcely large enough to be of any use anywhere in the house. The scrap wouldn’t cover the floor of a closet. But saved it anyway, out of habit, because I come from a long line of very frugal people, and saving scraps is what we do.
Early on I was taught about the sin of waste as one might learn about the dangers of a hot stove. My German grandfather would shake his fist in the air whenever he spotted one of us grandkids throwing away, for example, a morsel of uneaten food or an empty tin can that could be used again.
“Such a vasteful country!” he shouted to the heavens in his thick accent. My grandmother, equally committed to the religion of personal thrift, would watch us grandkids tear apart perfectly good wrapping paper as we opened presents, then weep with concern for her descendants. Grandma would famously brush together the crumbs left on the family table after every meal, gathering them into a neat little pile, drawing them carefully into her palm—then toss back the crumbs into her mouth.
I’m not making this up. My grandparents honestly wasted nothing. Everything they had was stashed away for our future. And for good reason. These Old World immigrants knew true hardship, and hunger. Both came to America in the 1920s then tried to scratch out a living in rural Wisconsin during the Depression, but failed. Throughout my childhood, I heard recited stories of the hard, terrible life in the old days, and remembered it all, and so I was raised.
Yet I’ve come to realize as an adult one cannot live a reasonable life while also saving everything that might be of potential use someday. We all recognize those embarrassing examples, the eccentrics, the must-save-everything hoarders who cannot part with a single possession even as they run out of living space.
There’s a fine line between being frugal and being a total idiot. For example, it should be understood by all eaters of bread that one does not, in any possible way, have any practical use for the thousands of wire twist-ties we remove during a lifetime of eating bread. A kitchen drawer filled with heaps of twist-ties eventually proves the point. And that coffee can on the shelf in the garage, the can with three lugs saved from the wheel of a long-gone truck—that can will not ever make us glad we saved it.
Of course we know this to be true, but we also know there is that thing we call Murphy’s Law as it applies to throwing away useless possessions. Once we discard something useless, regardless of how long we saved it, we’ll need it almost immediately. It’s law. Just try throwing away those three lugs and see what happens. It’ll be just a matter of days before a neighbor stops by our garage with this inevitable request:
“Do you happen to have exactly three wheel lugs?” the neighbor will ask, glancing up at the shelf where the coffee can once resided.
Yet for every saved item that somehow, magically redeems itself, a mountain of useless junk lies in waiting. With my scrap of useless vinyl flooring, I decided two weeks ago the time had finally come to face reality. I declared the scrap to be an official waste of space. Too many years had passed. I’d be dead before it was ever needed.
In my moment of epiphany, my eyes targeted scores of additional pieces of junk. I had become a curator of possessions for which no use would ever be found. So, in that afternoon of ruthless condemnation, I gathered up the flooring, along with all other pointless possessions in my shed, and threw them into the bed of my truck, and off to the dump I would go. Finally, despite my upbringing, I would be rid of all things unused. The vinyl flooring topped the heap.
As it turned out, I didn’t make it to the dump that day, for no particular reason. But the delay proved prophetic. Within three days I came to realize that what I really needed in life, more than anything else in the world, was a few yards of scrap vinyl flooring. The revelation was both inevitable and haunting. I was reminded of that shaking fist.
It turned out that what I’d known since childhood was actually correct. Waste nothing. And this was my redemption: I needed new covers for the buckets I hang on maple trees when I make maple syrup in late winter. Exactly three days after heaving the roll into my truck, the maple-sugar season began when I walked out into the woods and drilled a hole in one of the trees on my property.
For those of us who spend the last weeks of late winter collecting maple sap and boiling it down into syrup, the equipment we use—most of it homemade—is constantly being tinkered with and upgraded. We sap-boilers experiment with endless versions of effort-saving tricks for extracting with perfection the many gallons of sap we need and reducing it to its essence.
Stop by the coffee shops in maple country and you’ll discover the subject of boiling and filtering maple sap is compelling oratory wherever we gather. You’ll hear what matters to us. The precise way we hang buckets, the proper filtering of the raw sap, the angle of the dilled hole—all are potential game-changers, in theory, to the maple syrup producer.
Still, after years of syrup-making, despite all of my experimentation, I had one, nagging problem: I had yet to create the perfect, rain-proof cover for my buckets. Stiff metal lids clattered in the wind. Neighbors might hear. Standard bucket covers didn’t fit properly over the tap. The quest frustrated me each winter.
But Murphy’s Law ended it. I retrieved from my truck the recently condemned roll of flooring. I cut it into measured squares, and soon I had created the perfect, flexible cover for my sap buckets. The natural weight and flexibility was perfect. A simple wire held it in place.
It seemed a miraculous cure. Like all near-dump experiences, the flooring was saved and redeemed with much ceremony and satisfaction. The thing about saving things we might never use is that, deep down, we know we’re not crazy. Time will always vindicate our frugal behavior, even if we’re dead when it finally happens. And it’s perfectly natural we should all want to save for that future we might never experience ourselves, a future our descendants will see.
I am convinced those of us who appreciate nature are natural conservationists of all things. Those of us who save short rolls of vinyl flooring and coffee cans with three lug nuts know there is a perfectly good reason why we are saving. Others may mock us. But there is true grace in saving. As conservationists, we save the last of something because we know it must be worth saving—even if there appears to be no arguable point in saving it.
This saving instinct is as natural as anything we do, and so we must keep it alive, salvaging from oblivion things we have at our disposal today. People will be glad for it someday, we sense, because the future needs our good history. And so the lessons of my grandparents, lessons taught from the reality of their hard experiences, remain today as much a part of my life as ever. I will continue to save what I know must be saved, defiant against those who would dismiss their value, because someday there will be that saving redemption. And no amount of conservation has ever saved that which has already been lost.