5 Green Lessons Learned from Doris Duke

As an heiress, Doris Duke had a reputation for being quiet, loyal, and a lover of music and Asian art. Duke has been credited as being an early feminist and, in many ways, truly was ahead of her time – from paddle boarding to transcendental meditation to her interest in saving and protecting works of Islamic art (who would have seen that one coming). However, she also made contributions outside the arts, and was a nature lover who would push up her sleeves and work with the rest of the gang on a large project on her farm or in her gardens.

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.

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The landscape at Rough Point in Newport, R.I. was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who aimed to enhance the natural beauty of the site. Today, the gardeners and landscapers use only organic products to maintain the property. Photo by Meaghan O’Neill.

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.

Read more: Garden Tour: Doris Duke’s Rough Point, Newport, R.I.


Doris Duke’s passion was horticulture; she spent loads of time in her greenhouses and conservatories such as this one at Duke Farms in New Jersey. Photo y cogito ergo imago via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.


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!

Read more: You’re Doing It Wrong: The Ultimate Guide to Recycling in the Ocean State

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.


4. Have a healthy mistrust of labels

Duke is reported to have hated the name bestowed on her by the press of the day, the “Tobacco Queen.” And who could blame her? You can’t control a lot about what other people say or claim, but you can control what you choose to consume. There are countless products in the aisles of every grocery store labeled “natural” or “eco” – both unregulated terms – or touting some other spurious health claim. If you’ve ever caught yourself wondering if the bottle of water packages with “30 percent less plastic,” is a better choice, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t a reusable bottle filled with water from the tap be a better option? The lesson here is do some thinking: Every claim in the supermarket aisle isn’t true. Educate yourself enough to know better than to be fooled by labels.

5. Help others, however you can

Of course, Duke is most famous for the charity and philanthropy carried out after her passing. But you don’t need to give away $400 million dollars to change the world – start with 50 bucks. I try to pick one time a year (usually Christmas, but with tax or Earth Day April works, too) – to give a small but meaningful sum to a local charity that I feel has a positive environmental impact where I live. When I was in college and hustling tables for every dime, I would give $30 to Rhode Island’s NPR station and call it my good deed for the year. I’m older now but still hustling for coins, so I try to donate time as well as money to various organizations that work on behalf of the environment, such as ecoRI News or Farm Fresh RI. As Duke discovered, helping others feels good. Imagine just how great you’ll feel to help others help the planet. That’s a sunshine and fresh air return on investment of, like, a thousand percent.

Pia Charlotta Peterson is a writer and illustrator whose main aspiration in life is to be Indiana Jones in a dress. She is from Jamestown, RI , enjoys a good cup of coffee and a stoop that gets sunlight in the mornings. She holds a degree in History and works full time as an English teacher in northern Japan. Check out her website or follow her on Instagram @piacharlotta1.

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