From her home on a corner lot in Bangor, Hope Brogunier, 80, is quietly staging a green revolution. Her side yard is a lightly tended jungle of shoulder-high raspberries, a fragrant, knee-deep drift of meadow anemones and a spiky sea of flowering goutweed.
Bees bumble in the cool blue trumpets of the bindweed and the hot yellow cups of the primroses. Birds call from the elderberry, dogwood and crabapple that frame the boundaries of this in-town Eden.
Brogunier keeps her 2000 Honda Insight, one of the first hybrid vehicles purchased in the Bangor area, parked on the street so as not to bother the wild strawberries infiltrating the gravel of her driveway. The house itself, a stately, three-story Victorian, boasts a fresh coat of yellow paint. But inside, it shows some signs of deferred maintenance: cracked windows on the sunporch, badly worn linoleum in the kitchen, old knob-and-tube wiring in the cellar.
Brogunier has lived in this house for nearly 50 years. She shared it with her late husband, Joe, a University of Maine professor of English who died in 2014, and the four children they raised. From the looks of things, not much has changed over the years. But on a recent sunny morning, dressed in faded jeans and a T-shirt from the 2014 Common Ground Fair, her silver hair pinned into a wispy, fly-away bun, she was under the cellar stairs poking at a new electronic instrument panel mounted on the wall of the stone foundation. A blue display screen shone in the dim light, transmitting data from a new array of solar energy modules mounted on the roof.
“Right here is how much [energy] is being generated right now,” Brogunier said, peering intently at the display. “It’s 1,500 right now, but it’s going down, probably because there’s a cloud blocking the sun. Oh, look, now it’s going up again; it must be coming out from behind the cloud.”
Brogunier’s rooftop solar system, designed and installed by Sundog Solar in Searsport, went live on May 15 of this year. She’s still learning about its capabilities and recently signed up for an online tool that will allow her to monitor and adjust its activity using her iPad. But the concept of using the sun to power her modest energy needs has been on her mind for years, an extension of her long-term, wide-ranging commitment to living responsibly on the planet.
By generating most or all of the electricity she needs, her monthly electrical bill will nearly disappear. But the greater gain is in knowing she’s doing something real to offset the use of coal and other fossil fuels by supporting a more sustainable and less damaging energy technology.
“People ask me how soon I’ll see a return on my investment,” she said. “I tell them I already have; it was immediate.”
Older solar technology called for heavy, high-maintenance solar panels and the storing of unused energy in large battery banks, a system Brogunier found intimidating. But a couple of years ago, some friends invested in a rooftop solar system featuring more advanced, more durable solar collectors that capture more of the sun’s rays and have the ability to feed unused power into the public energy grid in exchange for cloudy-day energy credits. Suddenly, the whole idea seemed more feasible.
But it was the appointment by President Donald Trump of former Oklahoma senator and attorney general Scott Pruitt to lead the federal Environmental Protection Agency that tipped Brogunier over the edge. Pruitt’s conservative political priorities and his record of suing the EPA over regulatory restrictions run deeply counter to her own leanings.
“I have so much pent-up frustration over this anti-environmental head of the EPA, our pulling out of the Paris Agreement [on climate change], all that,” she said. “I felt like, ‘This is it, my chance to literally put my money where my mouth is.’ This is the time for we, the people, to do what we can to boost the alternatives. I mean, if not you, then who?”
Deep roots in the natural world
Brogunier was raised in Philadelphia but spent happy summers visiting her maternal grandparents in Rhode Island.
“I had a very strong relationship my grandmother, who was a real artist with plants,” she said. “She had one of those magical gardens with iron gates and moss and lots of plants and an immense cutting garden for flowers and a special room where she made these incredibly beautiful arrangements for the house.”
When she entered the women’s division of Brown University — “only it was Pembroke in those days, just before the lid blew off in the ’60s” — she considered studying landscape architecture. But her family thought it was an inappropriate field for a woman, so she majored in French and German instead, with a minor in art history.
“But in my senior year, I needed a science requirement so I took a course in botany and absolutely loved it,” she said. As part of the course, she assisted the professor in a study of the effects of a common pesticide on the growth of a plant group called liverworts.
“It kills weeds by forcing rapid growth, like a carcinogen,” she said. In this case, plant parts called rhizomes that typically grow underground started sprouting out of the top of the liverworts after they were exposed to the pesticide.
“I became a total convert [to avoiding pesticides],” she said.
At Brown, she met Joe and they married just after graduation in 1959. Ten years later, after Joe finished his Ph.D. and accepted a teaching position at UMaine, the young family moved to Bangor.
Hope Brogunier was a stay-at-home mom and the family enjoyed camping and other outside activities. Later, after her children were grown, she worked as a volunteer naturalist at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Orrington. But she has always stayed true to her belief in the importance of protecting the environment through individual, local and community efforts.
From developing a taste for home-dug dandelions to prevent her husband from spraying the yard with weed killer — “I told him, ‘Joe, you have to chose between me and those chemicals’” — to an early commitment to using cloth bags for her groceries, she has adopted small, almost intimate ways to minimize her impact on the planet.
“It’s all in the do-able range, like hanging my clothes out on the line instead of putting them in the dryer,” she said. She shops locally, recycles and composts. She travels by train rather than plane when she visits her children and grandchildren out of state, and she has no intention of trading in the Honda hybrid parked out on the curb. She also supports and helps fund larger environmental causes, including efforts to protect whooping cranes and manatees and the restoration of the Penjajawoc Marsh near Bangor.
Brogunier’s new, eight-panel solar energy system cost about $9,500, including unanticipated expenses related to its placement, some new wiring and a circuit breaker. Thanks to a pro-solar provision of the Obama administration, she’ll get a 30 percent rebate at tax time. After the purchase of the Honda, it is the most costly and most visible of her many commitments to environmental protection.
At 80, living in a big house with structural and cosmetic needs, why would she choose this particular investment, over, say, a new kitchen floor or a second bathroom?
“It gets down to what’s going to make me feel best in my own space. It’s doing something that makes a difference, a thing that can be done, that I can do to live more lightly on the earth,” she said. “People say ‘Oh, we need to make big, institutional changes at the global level,’ and that’s true, too, but I happen to think it does matter what individual people do.”