Doris Duke’s legacy is everywhere here in Newport. A short wander down Cliff Walk, and you can jump off the cliffs outside her summer home, Rough Point. You can’t walk up a quiet historic street in Newport without seeing houses restored by her local nonprofit organization, the Newport Restoration Foundation. As a young woman living in Newport, it was hard not to regard this omnipresent woman as a mythical figure – something from a period novel come to life. I envied her the good life that her money and lifestyle conveyed, but I’ve read enough books to know that those things don’t necessarily mean happiness or a flawless character.
Check it out: Waterscapes: Islamic Architecture and Art from Doris Duke’s Shangri La, a new exhibit at Rough Point in Newport
This Earth Day, I’m keeping Doris in mind as a role model – none of the money, mind you – but with all of the joie de vivre of helping others and, either directly or by extension, the planet. Here are five takeaways from learning about her life and legacy.
1.Have a garden, and keep it natural
Duke spent a lot of her childhood at her father’s home, the 2,700–acre Duke Farms in New Jersey. Today it stands as a small working farm and historical site on a larger nature preserve. Open to the public, Duke Farms holds farmers’ markets and group bike rides on the property. If you have some space and the passion to see green things growing on it, make it happen. The Northeast Organic Farming Association (along with plenty of other advocates) call for growing flowers and plants that suit your local climate and don’t require pesticides or excessive fertilizers to thrive. The landscape crew at Rough Point follows this philosophy, and the property’s gardens are astounding, even in remarkably salty and windy conditions. Whether you’re preparing raised beds or just chucking a couple of seed bombs outside your backdoor, any effort to plant something in the ground makes a difference.
2. Reuse, and make from scratch
I was as surprised to discover that Doris Duke was a baker of whole wheat bread, despised a dirty kitchen, and cleaned up after herself as she cooked. In her obituary, she’s quoted talking about work in her greenhouses: “Sometimes, when we’re hanging flowers, I [work] 16 hours a day. I work like a stevedore!” Sure, store-bought bread is convenient, but making your own will reduce your environmental impact and toxic body burden – from plastic packaging and transportation footprint to the chemical preservatives in many prepared foods. So give it a try and put it the extra work – with or without a striped shirt and a stevedore’s cap – and learn how to make from scratch some things that you would commonly buy, including bread, toothpaste, and household cleaners. Doris did!
3.When in Rome, ride a bike
As a foreign correspondent in Rome after WWII, Duke commuted by bicycle around the city instead of using a car. She was also an accomplished swimmer, surfer, and paddle boarder, learning the sport in Hawaii long before it became popular in New England (or anywhere else). Exercising outdoors is good for the body and the soul, plus, it forces you to notice what is going on around you in terms of weather, nature, and your community. To be fair, Duke also owned a private plane – a luxury and a CO2-emitter. Since that’s not an option for most of us, consider your car to be the luxury item, and make walking or cycling the norm instead of the alternative, whether you’re going to work, the store, or a bar.