There’s Magic in the Web of It


I’m fanatical about handkerchiefs. I carry one with me at all times and have dozens of them in my bedside drawer nuzzling my socks. I like to talk about them the way some guys talk about cars, and I think everyone should use them. Yet I’m painfully aware of the slight backing away of anyone I engage on the subject, especially if I produce one from my pocket (even if it’s a fresh, clean one), and I don’t know anyone else who uses them. Even my wife, who suffers my hankie homages and acknowledges their value, keeps buying Kleenex and relegates the handkerchiefs I give her to her bedside table, unused and lonely. But despite popular disdain (we’ll get to the “ick” factor later), handkerchiefs are hip; they’re helpful and honourable. Handkerchiefs are heaven. In his article “Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture,” the Australian environmental thinker Samuel Alexander cites four reasons—personal, social, environmental, and spiritual—for trying to make our lives simpler. I want to argue that using a handkerchief is a small, simple practice that can have powerful positive repercussions.

From a personal perspective, handkerchiefs have many advantages. First of all, they’re useful. A small square of white cotton will allow you to be prepared for so many situations, even if the opportunity to rob a stagecoach (see graphic) should present itself only once or twice in your life. As Scott Raab writes in Esquire, we’re talking about a “square of cloth that will serve the brave sojourner in various exigencies as snot rag, sweat mop, bar towel, bandana, and tourniquet, all while declaring his virile readiness to meet the world on the world’s terms, come what may” (Raab). I especially find them handy in the restroom when the paper towel dispenser turns out to be empty and at weddings where an extra one will be gratefully received by the woman weeping next to me. Of course, their primary role is Raab’s first function, and as a cloth to blow your nose into, it surpasses the flimsy disposable tissue in size, absorbency, and, most important, softness. Why would I want to wipe my nose with a tree when the handkerchief is so much more tender to the skin? Of the soft cotton hankie her mother gave her when she was giving birth, The Guardian columnist Annalisa Barbieri writes, “I was covered in a hideous rash and everything hurt my skin except for this wonderful, salve-like cloth that she tucked around my neck . . . . It’s a symbol of the tiniest detail that only a mother would notice, the endless thought a mother devotes to protecting and comforting.” Of course the most common dismissal of the handkerchief is that it is unhygienic, that we blow our nose and put it back in our pocket. All I can say is that I have seen too many ratty, balled up tissues divulged from sleeves, coat pockets or purses to believe the hankie, washed daily, loses the hygiene contest, and the latter is certainly better than nothing at all (or children’s sleeves). If anything, I get fewer colds than the average person. A final, small personal reason is cost. I buy the things ($4.99 for six white 100% cotton at Target) rarely, as they serve dutifully for years.

These are the personal reasons for using handkerchiefs, but aside from being able to blot tears, staunch wounds, and allow the owner to help others in a myriad of ways, the handkerchief has historically had more serious social roles as well. From the first century BC, when the rare, luxurious linen handkerchief was an outward sign of wealth, to the medieval knight who fixed it to the back of his helmet for luck, to Louis XVI’s decree—to please the aesthetic sense of Marie Antoinette—that handkerchiefs must be square (“HandkerchiefHistory”), the substance and potential beauty of the handkerchief have given it as much social meaning as any piece of clothing. Would Othello be as upset with Desdemona if she had lost the Kleenex he had given her? Indeed, I have forgotten where the socks in my drawer have come from, but many of the handkerchiefs next to them have memories attached: the bandana-type one I “inherited” from a former girlfriend; the Christmas present monogrammed ones my wife brought back from a trip to New York; the blue, polka-dotted ones I haggled over with a vendor in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Some people send handkerchiefs tucked in condolence cards after a death, and at least one entrepreneur has recognized their social (and economic) potential by offering to do this for you (for $19.95 plus shipping and handling) because “giving handkerchiefs to friends is a lovely way to demonstrate care especially at times when there simply are no words to say” (“Why Handkerchiefs?”).

Finally, and most importantly I think, are the environmental reasons for using handkerchiefs. The production, transportation and disposal of the 255,360,000,000 facial tissues Americans use each year (“Paper Facial Tissue”) have significant environmental impact. Many companies, including Kimberley Clark (which produces Kleenex) do not use recycled material to manufacture these tissues; rather, they use 100% virgin fibre (“A Shopper’s Guide”). The production of this facial tissue uses millions of litres of water and large amounts of electricity. Their transportation produces pollution and contributes to increased greenhouse gases. And these products are often used for only a few seconds and then discarded, contributing to mounds of garbage in landfill. According to Greenpeace,  “If each household in Canada replaced one box of virgin fibre facial tissue with a box of tissue made from 100% recycled fibre, we could save: 11,654 trees; 853 cubic metres . . . of landfill space equal to 48 garbage trucks; [and] 15.9 million litres . . . of water, or a year’s supply for 32 families of four” (“The Issues”). Handkerchiefs do need to be produced, transported, and washed, but Rebecca Blackburn, writing for G Magazine reports that hankie use requires four times less water (to produce and wash) and three times less energy, and results in  26 times less waste than the use of disposable tissues (Blackburn). Handkerchiefs are especially easy on the landfill since, once they’re no longer fit for the nose, they’re useful as rags to clean windows. And then they end up in the workshop . . . and so on.

These personal, social, and environmental reasons for using handkerchiefs lead, for me, into Alexander’s fourth factor in adopting a practice of simplicity: spirituality. It may seem a stretch, but just as 1950’s men spiced the uniformity of their grey flannel suits with idiosyncratically coloured handkerchiefs (Gustafson), my own use of them contributes to a sense of moving outside the mainstream, of defining myself against the herd-like mentality that underpins our modern disposable materialism. As Alexander writes, “if we take time to isolate ourselves from consumer culture for long enough to unlearn it, for long enough to rouse ourselves from the daze of unexamined habit and reopen the doors of perception, we just might provoke a surprisingly fresh interpretation of the form of life behind.” This glimpse into the life behind, a small spiritual experience, happens each time I take out my handkerchief.


Works Cited

Alexander, Samuel. “Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture.” The Simplicity Collective. N.d. Web. 17 March 2014.

Barbieri, Annalisa, “Comfort and Protection.” New Statesman 12 February 2007: 52-52.

Blackburn, Rebecca. “Tissues vs Handkerchiefs.” G Magazine. 14 May 2009. Web. 18 March 2014.

Gustafson, Helen. Hanky Panky: An Intimate History of the Handkerchief. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2002. Xviii

“HandkerchiefHistory.” Handkerchief Heroes. N.d. Web. 18 March 2014.

“The Issues.” N.d. Web. 19 March 2014.

“Paper Facial Tissue – History and Environmental Impact.” Green Groundswell. 5 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 March 2014.

Raab, Scott. “The Endorsement.” Esquire, 1 Oct. 2005. Web. 20 March 2014.

“A Shopper’s Guide to Home Tissue Products.” National Resources Defense Council. 8 May 2009. Web. 20 March 2014.

“Why Handkerchiefs?” Love Deeply Weep Freely Handkerchiefs. 2014. Web. 18 March 2014.




My bio writer of choice: George Monbiot

MonbiotThere are many reasons I like the writing of George Monbiot, at least as many as the number of chapters from his two most recent books on the environment (Heat and Feral) that have found their way onto the reading list of my course on sustainability. I want to focus on one reason here: the way he introduces his Canadian editions.

First, in searching for reading material for my course, I read more than a few books, and Monbiot’s are the only ones in which the author wrote introductions (a forward in the case of Heat) specifically addressed to Canadian readers about Canada’s environmental record over the last few years. Environmentalists are always going on about the importance of the “local”: Monbiot enacts the dictum, contextualizing the topic of each work–global warming in the case of Heat, the “rewilding” of nature in Feral–by presenting relevant Canadian snapshots: our repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol in the former book, the effects on woodland caribou of the Alberta tar sands in the latter.

In describing these failures, Monbiot doesn’t mince words, and his directness is refreshing. In Heat he describes Canadians as a “liberal and enlightened people,” but, urging us to consider our ascendant position among nations in per capita greenhouse gas emissions, he writes, “you could scarcely do more to destroy the biosphere if you tried.” He calls Prime Minister Harper an “irresolute wimp” for having caved to Big Oil, and in Feral he characterizes the changes wrought by the tar sands as the transformation of a decent country “into a thuggish petro-state.”  These words would be harsh caricature if Monbiot didn’t back up his claims with fact, which he does.

Finally, I admire Monbiot’s way of getting to the heart of the matter and his prescience. While he was writing Heat in the early 2000s, the Harper government was taking halting steps away from Kyoto, but Monbiot was able to see the bigger picture, that this recoiling was a central action in our nation’s evolution. Although the book was published in 2006, five years before the Canadian government’s formal withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, Monbiot writes as if he sees it coming.   As for the plight of the caribou, in the introduction to Feral, published last year, Monbiot documents  the multinationals and western provinces’ domination of the Canadian environmental agenda, and catalogues the threat it poses to not only caribou, but to birds, bears, whales, and Fraser River salmon as well, a fact confirmed recently by the train derailment and coal spill into the water where Fraser River salmon spawn.

Some might take umbrage at an outsider telling us our business and in such stark terms, but I would argue that this bluntness is warranted by the truths Monbiot reveals, truths not enough Canadians are willing to face.





Blog post assignment on the Tar Sands Exposed event (optional)

Poster_Montreal_(This piece can count as your post on energy or as a 1% bonus on your final grade)

To write this post you’ll have to attend the assembly on Sunday, January 26 at 2pm in the Salle Clark of La Maison Du Développement Durable, 50 Sainte-Catherine Street West. Here’s the invitation.

Write 250-400 words describing the event and what you learn there. Think of yourself as a journalist reporting on the event, making notes on anything interesting you see or hear. Please send the post to me once its written.

Some questions to consider discussing in your post:

  • How many people are in attendance? What kind of people are attending (age? gender? ethnicity?)
  • Who is speaking, and what are their main messages?
  • What’s the purpose of this gathering (is it to inform? to rally? incite action?)
  • Are you learning anything you don’t already know?
  • Is there anything about the meeting you really like? Anything disappointing?

A cool(ing) idea

Bill McKibben’s latest book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, offers an imaginative way to fight global warming: divestment from oil and gas companies. This may sound like an old idea (think South Africa in the 1980s and the Ozone Action campaign in 2000), but McKibben shows that, given the alarming acceleration of climate change and the futility of current protest strategies, divestment may be the way to go.

Like most good authors on the environment, McKibben makes the impact of man-made climate change real. He reminds us of the unprecedented weather we’ve seen over the last three years (2012 alone saw record-setting temperatures in March, a summer heat wave that wilted crops across the U.S., and the decimation of New York City by Hurricane Sandy in the fall). But it’s his descriptions of nearby phenomena that spook me most.  He captures the unprecedented flooding of Vermont in August, 2011: homes and hospitals inundated, “150-year-old covered bridges washing away in a matter of seconds.” He also describes the increased prevalence in the northeast of deer ticks, carriers of lyme disease, which like the warming temperatures. This is bad news for humans, like me, who like to go outdoors, but it’s especially bad for moose, which scientists have found carrying as many as 70,000 ticks each. “The insects were driving them so crazy that they were scratching off their fur,” writes McKibben, and without fur, moose are done for come winter.

While these changes are clearly speeding up, accepted ways of countering climate change seem stuck in neutral. Political lobbying, as McKibben points out, is heavily tilted in favour of fossil fuel companies. And small individual actions or group protests don’t seem to be working either: “There was no way, fighting one lightbulb or pipeline at a time, that we could make a dent in that momentum [of climate change].”

So McKibben is driving a campaign to have colleges and universities divest from Big Oil. Armed with a study that shows that the “’theoretical return penalty’ of excluding fossil fuel stocks . . . was 0.0034 percent, or about as close to zero as one could get,” McKibben says he has helped coordinate 252 campus campaigns on divestment (and his shows nine institutions have committed to it).

McKibben calls divestment “one of the biggest student movements in many years.” Is this something Vanier should consider?