Living Lightly // An Island Couple Practices a Sustainable Lifestyle

By Leigh Calvez

On weekday mornings Cyndy Holtz and Paul Nishman rise before the birds, gather their gear for the day, and pedal five miles to catch an early ferry to their respective jobs in Seattle. Nishman works as a rehabilitation engineer, while Holtz manages watersheds for the city.

Sometimes the ride can be quite exciting, like the time Holtz was attacked by an owl as she cycled along Wyatt Way. Other times they ride through below freezing temperatures, wind, rain, fog and dark. As exciting as this built-in cardio routine can be, it is not only for the exercise.

It is also zero-emission transportation and only one piece of a larger, sustainable lifestyle the couple has perfected, growing the idea over time like a graceful madrone poised atop a rocky outcropping.

On Bainbridge Island, a hotbed for sustainability (defined as the practice of reducing negative human impacts on global supporting systems in order to maintain their health and balance for future generations), we are fortunate to have many sustainable practices done for us.

We enjoy curbside recycling and composting for yard waste. Energy-efficient buses provide transportation. The paper/plastic debate has been settled with a ban on plastic bags. And we now provide public charging stations for electric cars.

It’s easy to participate in these systems and most of us regularly take part in at least one. Yet this island couple has turned living sustainability into an art form. It all began for Nishman as a boy growing up in the Catskills of New York. Back then he planted a “truck garden” and sold the vegetables off the back of his bicycle, forgoing the truck.

When his zucchini weren’t doing well because of poor pollination, he asked his mother if he could get some bees. He never imagined it would be the beginning of a life-long adventure in beekeeping and noticing the natural world around him. When it was time to leave for college, Nishman packed up his bicycle and pedaled for one month from New York to Olympia to attend the Evergreen State College to study physics and engineering.

Holtz, a Los Angeles native, came to Seattle to study landscape architecture at the University of Washington after earning her first degree in natural resources planning from Humboldt State. She moved to Bainbridge Island in 1992, as a commuter compromise between her job for Kitsap County and her then husband’s job in Seattle.

Twelve years ago, when Holtz and Nishman became a couple after a first date hike to Twin Falls in the Cascades, Nishman moved to the island too. When they began looking for their first home, Nishman had a dream to buy waterfront.

They didn’t know if owning waterfront would be an option, but when they found a 1960s project house on Rich Passage in 2003, their dream became reality. “When we started looking at this house, I knew I wanted a garden. I could see we’d have full sun here.

I knew there were shellfish out there,” Nishman explained, nodding his head toward their rocky piece of beach. “I knew I wanted these things in my life.” “Paul was much more comfortable with construction being a way of life for a while than I was,” Holtz admitted. “So it was easier for him to imagine what it could be. He talked me into it. Now I’m glad he did. We feel very lucky,” she said, glancing around their sustainably refurbished home.

When Holtz and Nishman began planning their house projects, they looked first to their existing materials. “We salvaged as much of the old trim as we could,” Nishman explained about the natural fir trim around the home’s many windows.

“When we got here all this was painted over with lead-based paint,” Holtz added. “Back then beautiful VG [vertical grain] fir was throwaway wood. It was everywhere. It was their nemesis,” she explained, referencing an Annie Dillard novel, “The Living,” about how the settlers of the Pacific Northwest cleared the old growth forests in order to farm the land around them.

“Things are different now—they painted it; we want to show it off.” The couple liked the good feeling that choosing the most sustainable options gave them. When it came time to buy flooring, Nishman researched the best options.

“It was hard to find flooring that looked the way we wanted but wasn’t rainforest wood,” he said. It was clear to the couple that they did not want to participate in clear-cutting the world’s forests for their floorboards. So they found another solution from J and B Wood Products in Oakland, Ore., which knew how to mill hard madrone wood for flooring.

In addition, the wood was FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, meaning the logging company followed sustainable forest practices, like not trashing any of the trees it had logged. After installing the variegated yellow- and red-hued madrone wood flooring, they salvaged a beam from a pickle factory to help delineate the space between the open-concept kitchen and living room.

Two sinker logs from the bottom of Puget Sound near Olympia support the beam on either end of the island bar—Nishman’s first DIY welding project—with the counter made from an unfinished edge maple slab. To complete their dining room, Holtz found a table on Craigslist, checkered with multi-colored wood stain under a glass top, and placed it in the perfect spot to enjoy a full view of Rich Passage. The concept of re-use had taken firm root in their design.

The final step was to boost the home’s energy efficiency. Last year they wrapped the thin walls with another layer of foam insulation, put in a more efficient ductless mini split heat pump, and installed solar panels manufactured in Washington state.

Each year they receive a nice subsidy check from the state, based on the amount of energy they produce through the solar panels. In addition to powering their home, the solar-generated electricity also charges their Ford C-Max Energi, the hybrid plug-in they purchased last year to replace their aging 1997 Honda CRV.

To take a break now and again from 10 years of house projects, Holtz and Nishman turned to their passion for growing food. Nishman learned the ins and outs of oyster farming, establishing a plot of oyster bags below the high tide line to cultivate Olympia, Kumamoto and Pacific oysters.

He works at low tide, sometimes in the dark, cleaning and repairing bags that get damaged and cleaning the muscles from the oyster shells so they will tumble properly and grow nicely shaped shells. “I like things that get me out there.

I like to notice what’s going on,” Nishman explained. He also returned to his love of raising bees for honey, creating an apiary on a forested slice of their property. He has become the local expert, making bees the new chickens in the neighborhood.

Holtz has taken on the gardening duties, expanding the raised beds and drawing out this spring’s planting diagram on a yellow legal pad. She maintains the garden year-round, planting fennel, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, kale, chard, and parsley. “The minute something’s done, I’m going to plant the next thing to maximize the space.”

In the summer she adds arugula, snap peas, mustard greens, Asian greens, artichokes and tomatoes. “I never ate collards before. Now I get them from the garden and throw them into a soup or in with a chicken.” She also grows a colorful flower garden with dahlias and other perennials.

There is no sense of urgency or judgment in what they do. They don’t deny themselves life’s pleasures either. They enjoy exploring other countries, traveling last year to India and planning a cycling trip to Vietnam for next year. Living sustainably has simply become a passion for Holtz and Nishman. By choosing what they want and how they want to live, they have grown a lifestyle over time that they can appreciate every day.