“I was always the odd duck in the family.” How this Utah woman

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Twenty years ago, before gasoline companies touted their work “advancing a lower carbon future,” before rooftop solar panels sprouted everywhere and “flip your strip” was a nifty conservation practice, there was Dee Downing. She lived in an A-frame cabin in Woodland, Utah and tried to exist alongside nature and to use only what she needed.

Downing recycled her laundry water in her garden, chose bicycling instead of driving, eschewed meat and avoided “toxic” materials.

“I was always the odd duck in the family,” she recalled.

The Tribune profiled Downing in 1992, and detailed her attempts to ensure “house and life do not violate [the] environment.”

Much has changed since then. The writer of the story, Judy B. Rollins, who worked for decades at The Tribune retired to California several years ago. More cities and states have banned plastic bags. But what hasn’t changed? Dee Downing and her commitment to reducing her impact on the Earth.

Many of the sentiments Downing expressed in 1992 seem more resonant than ever, as a rapidly warming climate pushes more people to find alternative transportation methods and embrace more “sustainable” forms of consumerism.

A quick Google search led a reporter straight to Downing in Park City. The Tribune recently sat down again with Downing to chat about ways to live more sustainably and what her decades of living with, rather than against, nature has taught her.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dee Downing checks on the worms living in the worm farm in her home in Park City, Dec. 7, 2022. Downing fertilizes her houseplants with nutrient-dense worm tea and castings the worms produce from feeding on household food scraps. At left is her dog Piper.

Worms and windows

Now living in a rambling, natural light-filled, passive solar home in Park City, Downing is still just as dedicated to the principles she preached in her thirties, when she was photographed in her cozy living room with her young daughter on her lap. “It’s not so much out of fear,” Downing explained, “it’s more out of respect for the natural systems.”

In the corner of her dining room she keeps an inconspicuous green box of – what else – worms. “I’ve been tending these beings,” Downing said, “and they’ve been giving me great soil additives for 10 or 12 years now.” She adds grass clippings or craft paper and collects “worm compost tea” from a spigot at the bottom of the box to use in her yard.

Her backyard is a “devotion” to birds, with native plants and berries for them to feed on, although on this winter day the yard is filled with snow. Downing waters the indoor plants in her solarium from buckets of rainwater she collected in the fall.

Downing’s laundry room serves as a makeshift recycling sorting center. “I think the longest I’ve ever gone was eight months not taking my garbage out,” Downing said. “We’re lucky in Park City to have a recycling center that takes almost everything.”

She mainly buys in bulk and makes sure the packaging is compostable or recyclable. (Downing stopped buying berries at the supermarket because of the non-recyclable plastic packaging). Rather than purchasing paper towels, she opts to use old newspapers instead. For cleaning around the house, vinegar, baking soda and water often do the trick.

“We’ve been hornswoggled into thinking we need all these consumables and we just don’t,” she said.

Changing that mindset is also a matter of changing habits — which Downing says grows much easier over time. Decades in, it’s tough for her to even pinpoint all the ways she tries to conserve, from taking “Navy” style showers to saving up puffy mailing envelopes for reuse.

Dee Downing featured in a Nov. 16, 1992 Salt Lake Tribune article.

From Big Macs to veggies

Downing experienced an awakening of sorts when she was pregnant with her daughter, Kyra, and decided to have an unmedicated birth after reading a book from a friend.

“The first half of the pregnancy she was grown on quarter pounders and Big Macs,” Downing jokes, “and then by the end I was vegetarian.”

She read the book Nontoxic and Natural by Debra Dadd and became a “fierce filter for exposing my kids to toxins.” She bought only organic, non-genetically modified foods. “When I was a poor single mom, I did that,” Downing said. “I was barely keeping the lights on but my kids always had organic food and I did that by buying, you know, a bucket of black beans.”

While learning to avoid fast food and certain kinds of cleaning products was initially a challenge, it’s now second nature. “I got it so early, when I was setting up my first hearth,” Downing said. “Those became my systems. I never knew another way.”

Her home is filled with books on those systems. “Iwigara: The Kinship of Plants and People” rests on her staircase, while “Soils and Men” sits on a crowded bookshelf.

Closing a loop

Downing’s philosophy also extends to the work she does with her permaculture business, Red Ant Works.

Permaculture, Downing explained, is “the idea of designing a closed loop so that there is no waste in the system.” She tries to maintain landscapes that are filled with native and edible plants and thoughtfully designed water runoff paths.

“We have animal families we know from year to year,” Downing said. There’s one site where moose have made a habit of visiting each fall.

Now 58, Downing is hoping to sell her business and retire soon. She’d like to rig a bus and travel the country, finding people or places where she can “just lend a hand.”

She doesn’t want her work of the past 20 years to go to waste. “I want [the business] to end up in the hands of somebody who will carry on the spirit of Red Ant,” Downing said. “Take all of the methodologies and the technology that we’ve developed, and carry that on and go even farther with it because there’s so much more you could do.”

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