Carol Ellis climbed onto her biodiesel-powered backhoe and began churning up a compost pile of food scraps and yard clippings that will become soil for the organic garden in the yard of her home in a luxury gated community.
“It’s good for the environment, and good for stress,” she said.
Ellis, 55, also powers her home and vehicles with alternative energy, captures rain in a cistern and recycles everything she can. She planted habitat for a federally endangered butterfly, and her nature photos are used for environmental advocacy and education.
The sun, wind, rain, backhoe and cameras are part of an eclectic effort to help preserve her native South Florida. She recently earned the individual green living award from the nonprofit Florida Keys Green Living and Energy Education.
“The variety of all the cool things that she does is what stood out,” said GLEE president Alison Higgins.
Ellis’ concern for the planet began when she was a teen in the early 1970s. During more than a decade living in a Fort Lauderdale canal-side home, she watched the water go from clear enough to see moray eels taking cover under rocks at the bottom to water so murky she could barely see any marine life.
``I think that was when I first started feeling really sad about the environment,” she said. ``I remember writing a little poem: ‘Where have all the blowfish gone?”’
But Ellis didn’t set out to become an environmental activist. She graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, but that career path was derailed when her mother became ill with cancer.
After her mom died in 1979, Ellis spent five years working on luxury yachts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean before returning to Fort Lauderdale during its downtown development boom. She sought nature, which led to Key Largo.
She became a professional photographer and master gardener, harnessing both for her environmental passion, said Nicky Laak, volunteer representative for the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo.
Ellis helped plant wild lime across from the refuge as habitat for the Schaus swallowtail butterfly, the only federally endangered insect in the United States. It was part of her “living fence” project that used 30 native species to also provide a border between a highway and a neighborhood.
Ellis’ photographs, most of them black and white, have been exhibited at the 50th Anniversary of Everglades National Park and been part of a documentary called The Fragile Keys.
And recently, she traveled by boat through the Keys backcountry to shoot the devastation of wildlife caused by January’s cold spell, including a “carpet of dead snappers” and other fish entangled in the mangroves. She said she was able to get close-ups of birds, too full to fly from eating the dead fish.
Some of her photos that illustrate the fragility of nature are being exhibited for the month of April at the National Key Deer Refuge visitor’s center on Big Pine Key.
“It’s tough being a native Floridian and seeing the changes in my short lifetime,” she said.
But she’s determined to reduce her own impact on the environment. She drives a solar-and-electric vehicle for short trips and a biodiesel-fueled car for longer ones.Her home and rental home in Key Largo are equipped with solar panels, wind generators, solar water heaters and geothermal air conditioning systems.
She said many of her clean-energy ideas are the result of her forward-thinking husband, Ted, a windstorm insurance mitigator. It was his idea to use a cistern to capture water runoff from the roof and use a large Gatorade barrel that captures condensation from the air-conditioner to water her garden.
Their saltwater pool uses a pump powered by the sun.
“All 1960s technology,” Ellis said.
Last year, she began an organic garden. Now her 1-acre yard is filled with tomatoes, jalapenos, carrots, broccoli, dill, basil, arugula and other vegetables and herbs. She doesn’t use pesticides, handpicking insects off her plants.
“When I was getting a bit down about global warming and the environment, my friend said: ‘Carol, bring it in,’ “ Ellis said. “My friend said: ‘Do stuff closer to home where you can make a difference.’ . . . And that put me in gear.”