Sunday, March 21, 2010

A busman's holiday

I like it best when all of the bits of my life work together as well as they can, especially when I can unite my two homelands. These last two weeks have been that way.

In the English English of the 1960s and 70s that I grew up with, the phrase "busman's holiday" means that when a fellow goes away for a break, he does the same things he does at home. So a busman would ride a bus on his holiday. It's one of those things that makes no sense in American English.

But I just got back from a very creditable example of a busman's holiday.

Accordingly, this post is published on three blogs, the Sustainability Blog, the Womerlippi Farm Blog, and the reflective blog I made for the students on the trip.

This trip will only come as news to regular readers of the farm blog. I hadn't published that I was going anywhere on the farm blog because I didn't necessarily feel the need to advertise the fact that the Womerlippi Farmhouse would be emptier more than usual. Although I doubt that would have led to any insecurity for Aimee, I'm often careful like that. Belt and braces, we say in Yorkshire. In American, belt and suspenders to hold your pants up.

Back-up for back-up, in other words.

Enough with the American-English, English-American dictionary already. Oy!

I took eleven students with me on this field trip. Two were from my own Sustainability Design and Technology program, but the others were from many different programs so we made it as much of a cultural exchange as it was a tech-happy field camp. It was a bit of both, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope the students did too.

It certainly seems to have been that way.

The first picture above shows Amber and Alicia touring the Whole Home exhibit at CAT, an example of a very low energy consumption house, conceptually not unlike our own Unity House project.

The second and last of the three pictures above show one of our projects, the repair, re-mantling and erection of a 600W Marlec wind turbine.

This was of course exactly the kind of thing we do all the time in our Sustech program, but to do it on a breezy Welsh mountainside was a very nice experience. The turbine was connected to the building it powered, and turned on, so as soon as it was up it began to make power. Very fun.

Students got to tour sustainability exhibits and Welsh towns and a castle and the like, but they also were able to experience British countryside life quietly and directly, with rain showers, lambs in spring, bus trips to town on market day, and walks to the pub. They got to live a little slower for a few days, a very good thing that all of us should try. Even the five-hour train and bus ride back to the airport was slow and patient in a very British way, and relaxing rather than stressful. In very stark contrast to the speeded pace and ridiculous commercialism of the airport itself, especially the Terminal Three department lounge, which needs to take a tranquilizer.

They also got to eat black pudding, if they were very brave, or lamb, or cheese of many different kinds rarely seen in the US. One or three even got to see England draw 15-15 with Scotland in the Six Nations rugby tournament, in the very loud "pigs bar" of a Welsh country pub.

We deliberately had an unpacked schedule with a lot of quiet time and opportunity for unscheduled activities. The British propensity for inclusivity, all "mucking in together", and preference for last minute improvisation over planning helped. Our hosts on the CAT Education and MSc programs came up with new activities they wanted to include us in nearly every day and we took full advantage. It worked better to include the MSc module material for our Sustech specialist students as well as the regular CAT Education department discussions because, well, our specialists are more where the MSc students are, really, if a little younger.

I got to give two lectures in the CAT MSc program, which were well received. Despite the increasing importance of many of the ideas, academics with a Dalian ecological economics training are still quite rare, it seems, and so a good lecture on the basics of this point of view puts many things in clearer perspective, which is what I seem to have managed to do.

At least that's what the MSc students said. It was nice to teach advanced students again.

So good. Maybe we can go back again some day.

Back at base, Aimee has been doing the night checks for our several very pregnant ewes, but of course now I'm home again that's my job, since I'm the somnambulist of the Womerlippi family, if not also the human "black sheep".

We saw lots of English and Welsh lambs on our trip and our students were of course charmed by them. The British countryside is kept in tidy trim by literally millions of sheep, and lamb and wool products are much more popular there. We even saw wool used for house insulation.

Sheep make for an excellent livestock choice in the UK because of the climate, but the fact that they can live outside on grass nearly all year also reduces the carbon emissions from supplementary feed and from equipment use. As I mentioned to students, you don't see nearly as much tonnage of agricultural equipment rusting away around an English or Welsh mixed farm as you do an American one. The main reason is that you need far less winter feed, especially for sheep, and so hay cropping is less important.

Our own Womerlippi Farm sheep are hugely pregnant and will drop around 6 or seven lambs (total) very shortly. I'm looking forward to having lambs at home. Aimee and I will of course try to get some of our students involved in this educational and seasonal operation too.

Because everything works best when it works together.

A few acknowledgements are in order:

Many thanks to CAT staff and faculty for being so welcoming and flexible, especially Rennie, Kara, Arthur from Engineering, Jo, Deidre, Christine, Julie, Mike from the CHP Plant, Sue and Liz and all the others from the restaurant, Meg and Kat from Information and all the MSc faculty, staff and students who allowed us to muck in together for a very enjoyable and educational experience.

Back at Unity Base, thanks are due to Carol Palmer first and foremost, for organizing our finances and our air travel. Amy Knisley, and Doug Fox also helped a good deal, especially Doug who went above and beyond to get the students to the airport and on the plane.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


On Wednesday the 17th it was an early morning start to Machllyth to catch the train to Harlich where we would be visiting the Harlich castle and riding past the beautiful caost. The entire trip there and back was so beautiful, and another sunny day! We arrived at the castle and spent about 2 hours exploring the ins and outs and taking many many pictures. It was amazing to read about the histroy and the time period that it was all built. We than did a little shopping at the gift shop and headed back on our way. We waited in town for a little while to meet everyone for dinner and enjoyed talking to several locals. We than headed to a beautiful inn and had the most fulfilling dinner I think I have ever eaten. Lamb, cheese, veggies, chocolate all so good! I have eaten and tried all that I could new while visiting Wales and have enjoyed all of it.
On Thursday the 18th the project for Renny was finished with a few minor set backs that he will take care of, but none the less something to remember Unity by. We had lunch and than met up for class at 2 about food production. I really enjoyed todays class! Her props were great, it was really refreshing to not see a powerpoint and again to have material that was easily related to children.
Not long after it was time to prepare for dinner and begin packing for an early morning of travel back to the U.S. The stay was so much fun and I walked away with a whole new perspective on many things. The week flew by and I wish we would have had more time to explore and learn the ways of CAT, but I'm greatful for the opportunities and experiences that I did have.


On Monday the 15th we were given a tour of the CAT campus. However, it was only a two hour tour and and when we had finished I felt there was still so much more to see and explore. Our tour guide Joe was great and very informative and not a very technical level, which was great for someone like myself. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up or understand some of the technology but this site brings it to the basics. I really enjoyed learning how a composting toilet works, learning about how the site began to where it is now with more of a wildlife variety than seen in a very long time. I thought the hydraulic lift was very cool as well. Such a simple idea that should be so easy to incorporate into so many similiar forms of transportation. I also enjoyed hiking to the top of the mountain to see the windmills and the surrounding area. It's absoloutly beautiful here. After finished our tour with Joe it was time for lunch at the local cafe which has served us a fantastic meal every day that we have stayed with them. After this we than met with Renny to volunteer to help build a lift for helping the kids to get firewood to the cabins easier. We talked about his ideas and than we all brain stormed on the simplist way to build the project. A new group cooked dinner and it was to bed for another night and a very quick day. So far I think what I'm enjoying most about CAT is that it's really geared torward children. As a future educator I would love to be able to have my students experience such a unique, hands on learning environment. I was really surprised to learn that even the cabins are child friendly. That's very exciting for someone like myself with an up and coming career in this very similiar field.
Tuesday the 16th we woke up and started immediatly on Renny's lift four girls went to town, the guys worked on the lift, and Amber and myself helped Charlie build a box to put the firewood in. Even with 5 people missing from the group there were still quite a few of us working on the project with not alot of space so after a few hours Amber and I headed to lunch a little early to explore the CAT store. After lunch we had a very interesting lecture about ecological footprinting with Deirdre. I learned how and what goes into calculating your ecological footprint and found lots of materials that I could utlize in my own classroom. I really enjoyed the short videos that she had shared with us escpecially "Wake up and Freak Out". I really enjoyed sitting in a lecture directed torward a younger audience. First of all I was able to follow the entire lecture and second of all I walked away with great ideas for a future classroom. AFter this I explored the education exhibits which were very cool, I escpecially liked the solar heating exhibit and the difference between a rural and urban house. And I also enjoyed the peices of turbine that they had recycled into exhibits if not to learn anything else but the shear size of them. After this it was back to the cabin for dinner and bed.

To Sum it Up

This is our last night at CAT. Mick and Kayla have gone off to the pub with a few MSc professors for some good beer and intelligent conversation. Meanwhile, another group has headed into town to enjoy their last night at Skinners, another pub filled with words of wisdom on the walls. As for myself, I am enjoying some internet access down at the old shop, where I was fortunate enough not to get kicked out a second time.
I wish I could sum the trip up for you in just a few simple words. But like the environment we seek to sustain, the complex and extraordinary nature of things has left me a bit speechless. Just to name a few adjectives that come to mind, I have experienced exhiliration, amusement, irriation, nausea, happiness, curiosity and first and foremost, knowledge. Knowledge of a country that I have had the oppurtunity to realize is not as stuck up as we tend to believe and knowledge of a subject that is at the precipice of exploration. It is insitutes like the Centre for Alternative Technology that draws a diverse group of students (much like our own motley Unity crew) who have opened their eyes to the world around them and have seen a need for change. And although this trip has been a sobering experience, I will leave Wales tomorrow with hope in my heart, and dramamine in my carry-on.


On Saturday March 13th after arriving in Heathrow from our long and exhausting trip, we jumped on a bus which than took us to a train that we rode for a couple hours to our final destination of Machllyth around 3:00pm. It was truly interesting to experience the public transportation of the UK. Amber and myself decided to experience the culture a bit by exploring Machllyth, we popped in and out of a few shops and ate a deliscious plate of homemade Shepherd's Pie. After this we were picked up by a local cab driver named Nigel who took us to CAT where we would be staying and exploring for the rest of the week. As we were walking through their campus I couldn't help but to think it was like nothing I had expected, but in a very good way. It was absoloutly beautiful, quant, and most importantly natural. I geuss I was expecting lots of "in your face" technology but wouldn't have had it any other way. We got to know the cabins, chose our rooms and back to town we went to have another very tasty dinner at the local pub, fried scampi and fries with some toffee ice cream for desert.I beleive we all went to bed around 9:00pm and didn't wake until 10:00am the next morning.

On Sunday the 14th after eating breakfast we headed into town to do some shopping for our meals for the rest of the week. And shopping at a British grocery store was a cultural experience in itself. This was really our first experience shopping with UK money and it was very interesting trying to calculate the prices on what we were buying and than trying to compare the prices to what they would be in the U.S. It was fun to see what was carried in their stores vs. ours as well. We than returned back to the cabins, relaxed for the remainder of the day and shared a dinner. After dinner we conversed about theories and ideas or things that we have seen thus far that we like or didn't like and what theory they related to. Up to this point I most liked the ease and access to the forms of public transportation and least like the roadways. I feel that making the transporation so accesible would be a huge success to help steer American's in the right direction to becoming more aware of their footprints

A friend we have in cheeses

I wish I could show a picture of all the different kinds of cheese we have sampled since we came here.

Wales has always had great cheese. One of the national dishes of Wales, Welsh Rarebit, is cheese-based.

Different parts of Wales have different native and traditional cheeses, and the great outbreak of local foodie-ism that has swept the UK has revived many of these ancient and bioregionally-appropriate types.

With so much wet, high, and cold land in moorland and rough pasture, hardy cattle, sheep and goat raising were probably always more sustainable a land use on many sites than attempts at arable farming. And more intensive herding regimes intended to produce more meat and less dairy and cheese would necessarily have been harder on the land. These ancient human ecological factors haven't gone away just because we are now an industrial society.

Cheese is a Good Thing.

Last night's cheese board, at the Wynnstay Hotel in town, where we went for the Big Fancy Dinner we had carefully scrimped and planned and budgeted for, was the cheesy piece de resistance.

There were three different kinds of Welsh goat cheese, a smoked cheese, a Caerphilly, and what looked like a Brie but was possibly a Welsh variety too.

Here's a bit of Welsh cheese lore (and law):

"How good are Welsh cheeses? They’re so good they were once used as part of divorce settlements. Under the laws of Welsh ruler Hywel Dda cheeses that were washed in brine went to the wife, and cheeses that were hung up went to the husband."


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Repairing and raising a wind turbine

Most students have gone to the castle town of Harlech for the day, but an elite handful of die-hard renewable energy enthusiasts eschewed such vacation-like diversions in favor of a bit of what Yorkshiremen call "hard graft" or work.

We were asked to help repair and raise a 600 watt Marlech wind turbine for the Ecocabins.

This of course was right up my street, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, none the least because the weather was nice and we were on a Welsh mountain with a wind turbine.

Earlier we took an in-depth tour of the Ecocabin basement where all the works for the solar, wind and hydro systems lurks, also very educational.

Our host was Arthur, one of the engineers, a PhD in Engineering, whose last name I will try to add later, and Dan, a volunteer.

Two PhDs present might be too many qualifications for putting up a wind turbine.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

House Guest for the Night!

After the lecture, Mick surprised us by bringing a guest back to the Eco-cabin for the night. She is a new graduate student at CAT and had some issue with registration, so had no place to stay for the night. Hopefully she has able to sort it out today.
Her name was Lodgka and lives in the Netherlands. She was very curious about little things in America, and we were equally curious about her culture. However, thanks to some certain students who will not be named, she may leave thinking Americans call cereal "hippi crunchies" and use a smell check to decide whether or not to take a shower.
We played card games, we were a little too loud and may have kept Mick up... But, we taught her some classic American games such as rummy and spoons. She taught us a Dutch game called "teasing". We discovered that a lot of the games we play are similar, just slightly different rules.
She was a very pleasant and polite guest, and definitely a good cultural experience hopefully on both sides.

Evening Lecture at CAT

Last night 5 students and Mick attended one of the first lectures for the new graduate students at CAT. The lecture was given by CAT's Executive Realtions Director. The first part of the presentation was a history of the Centre and the mission and goals that have been carried through the years. The Centre was founded in 1973 on the site of an old slate quarry by a diverse group of people from all walks of life but all interested in trying to have a smaller impact on the Earth.
He then discussed current problems such as peak oil and cliamte change, and how these specifically relate to Britain's environmental, economic, and international security. I have had such lectures before in either Mick's classes at Unity or at various conferences, but this one was particulay interesting because there was a focus on Britain and the UK instead of the U.S. It was empowering to hear that the same ideas and solutions are being discussed in both countries.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Behind the scenes tour

Today's first activity was to take a tour with Jo Gwillam, CAT education staffer and renewable energy expert, Jo Gwillim.

Jo took us into some very rarely visited corners of the CAT site, where we were able to get up close with some fairly high tech equipment.

We started with the new wood chip combined heat and power district heat plant. The first picture is the input fuel elevator. This uses what would generally be low grade or even waste wood for fuel, making a rated output of 100 KW of electrical power and 250 KW of heat (about 850,000 BTUs -- enough to heat our gym/Activities Building and perhaps our library too). The equipment was of Czech manufacture, and cost around a million pounds ($1.5 million) all told according to Mike, the engineer in charge of running it.

The CAT engineers are still fine-tuning the output, both heat and power, and say that the thermodynamic efficiency so far is only 60% or so, but that's still way better than the 35% of an internal combustion generator system, although not as good as a pellet fuel furnace. They hope to get the number up. Even so, the fact that it uses low grade fuel makes it probably cost effective. The theoretical efficiency of a CHP system can be as much as 80%. Natural gas or bio-sourced methane systems can be up to 90% but they have more reliable fuel quality.

A good comparison in terms of rated output would be that this million pound rig is the equivalent of three 100KW wind turbines (say Northwind 100s) at around £350,000 ($500,000) each, at a 33% capacity factor, and a million BTU oil furnace for say £20,000 ($30,000). So compatible, price wise, with the cheapest form for 100KW of renewable energy and the cheapest form of fossil-based Maine space heating.

Except you can have renewable heat and power whenever you want, not just when the wind blows. If we let the manufacturers and bleeding edge early adopters like CAT work out the kinks, and if the price came down to say 50% we could almost afford to get one of these for the offset cost of Activities Building and Library heat oil, and power for the rest of campus.

Here's the generator (second picture). Very shiny. So far they've only managed 75KW/hour, but they hope to get that up.

This is not a gasifier/combined cycle system. There's a heat exchanger to take off the heat and make clean expanding hot air for the turbine.

The CAT engineers have put in this thermal storage system (third picture) for the district heat side of the CHP plant, to even out the heat usage over time. This is a large scale version of what our friends at Revision Energy have been doing at the household scale with pellet furnaces and solar thermal systems.

Then Jo showed us the cliff railway system, which uses a water balance counterweight -- no energy required. They use a regenerative braking system that makes compressed air for power tools, so this is really a "hybrid" cliff railway. The lumber is 100% local, green lumber, air-dried. The railway's upper building was built by a women-only crew.

We then visited this 7KW solar breezeway attached to the restaurant, where there is an interesting kind of see-through solar module, with very nice dappled light pouring into this outdoor hang-out space. Not too bright you couldn't use a computer, not likely to get too hot in summer, but still very well lit naturally, and generating power too. Cost around £7 per installed watt, ways Jo.

I want one of these for our campus. We probably couldn't afford to buy this many modules, and it would be a waste of money since we already run on Maine-made wind and hydro power, but we could perhaps make them for about a tenth of the cost from "raw" solar cells and glass much as we did in this laboratory exercise here. And the facility would be a nice outdoor hang-out or even classroom space.

We then hiked up to the reservoir for the hydro power system, which has brown trout, apparently, which caught the attention of a few of our outdoors types.

Finally we went up to the lowest of the wind power sites, where we saw a Proven downwind machine, and a small scale older machine whose name escapes me, as well as anemometry systems, including a model #40 anemometer from our friends at NRG Systems.

The last photo is of the Nordtank machine high above CAT which Jo says is around 225KW rated output and community-owned. It has an advanced form of stall control based on pivoting blade tips, which I found intriguing.

Heavy smokers

Heating with wood? Not really a surprise for Mainers. We have a number of Woodsman Club members with us, so they're naturally on the job, especially Charlie.

This is our domain from the slate terrace above. It's fairly comfy, and the green roof seems to keep the heat in, although the walls and windows don't do quite so well. It would interesting to use the thermal imaging camera to see what parts of the building work best.

Our wood stove is also providing the hot water, so it's good that a couple of us are early risers, or there wouldn't be hot showers!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Useful readings and small "t" theory

As you look around you while in the UK and at CAT, you'll see things that are different from the way we do things in the US.

Many of these are somewhat accidental or cultural, such as a predominance of pubs that are primarily for families, including kids and dogs, not purely for young people, drunks (drunken young people) and bikers.

Others required theory and policy, such as the well-conserved countryside, which is the product of the ten thousand years of habitation, the British conservation aesthetic, and some very strict laws -- so strict that Americans probably wouldn't ever enact them.

Examining these kinds of differences carefully is a kind of study that if taken to a high degree would be called a "case comparison" in the policy world.

One good choice for your formal response (see the syllabus) would be to do an essay version of the case comparison study, taking one of the things that you noticed that was different and finding out if you can, using research, why it is different here from in the US, and explaining that to your audience with critical insight and comments, and if a web submission, pictures or video.

From our shortened list of discussion items, I set up a list of links to accessible readings. Explore these and begin to think about your formal response. You can of course pick another topic than these, but these are illustrative of the way that culture, theory and policy link to ordinary life, and also how to start your case comparison study.

Some likes

Relatively unspoiled countryside: Planning regulations and countryside preservation
1947 Town and Country Planning Act

Interactive environmental education displays
Practical solutions to 21st century problems
What do we do?
(from the CAT webpage, links below to more information)

Wattle fences and blackthorn hedges

Sheep, lambs, and managing pasture and forage through grazing, not mechanization

Pedestrianism and planning for pedestrianism

Public transportation

Some dislikes:

Green roofs
(why not use a higher tech roof approach, and not run the risks of water penteration and collapse)

Rhododendron sp.
as an invasive (native to PA)

That's enough for now.

The view from our window

Power puzzles

The power-use tracking board at CAT Eco-cabins. Part of the Eco-Cabin ethos is tracking your energy and water usage. So far we haven't drained the batteries and are living "off our income" of hydro- and solar-power.

A day off, almost

Students doing chores, journaling, and relaxing in various settings at CAT today. Also the cabbage seedlings for the poly-tunnel/hoop-house -- a sign of spring.

Today was a day off to recover from jet lag and get some sleep. Most students slept through 10 am or 11. Some of us had work to do. A handful of us went to do a big shopping for our evening meals, four of which we shall cook ourselves. The bus timetable seems all messed up, so we finished up walking the 3.5 miles to Machynlleth, getting a taxi back with Nigel, our garrulous cab company owner-driver, who seems to have adopted us, or at least the students have adopted him, none the least because of all the "stick" he gives me.

After a very nice dinner of spaghetti bolognese prepared by cooking group 1, Kayla, Amber and Alicia, we had discussion. The assignment was to describe one thing that you'd seen and liked, one thing that you'd seen and not liked, and relate one of the two to an item of (small "t") theory taught in one or the other part of your Unity College education.

Some likes:

Relatively unspoiled countryside: Planning regulations and countryside preservation
Interactive environmental education displays
Wattle fences and blackthorn hedges
Sheep, lambs, and managing pasture and forage through grazing, not mechanization
Pedestrianism and planning for pedestrianism
Public transportation

Some dislikes:

Crowded public transportation
Green roofs (why not use a higher tech roof approach, and not run the risks of water penteration and collapse)
Rhododendron sp. as an invasive (native to PA)
Game animals belong to the landowner, not the people

There were more, but I'm tired and I still have to post the sunset picture.

Safe at CAT, 12 souls on board

That "souls on board" is an archaic phrase still used by the Royal Navy rescue helicopters.

But we're all here and sleeping off our jet lag. Here are some pictures of the very arduous journey. The first train was way too crowded.

And, of course, lambs.

More later as we wake up and do things.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Wales, crisp early, clear, for Saturday

This according to the BBC a minute ago, the six o'clock news.

Students will be in the air in a couple of hours.

Chartwell, Churchill and sustainability?

Click on the pictures to enlarge

Winston Churchill, as an historic Conservative Party and wartime leader, doesn't get much credit for his social program work, earlier as a Liberal Party leader (he "crossed the floor" of the house twice in his career). But we have him to thank for the start of our old age pension and disability insurance system here in the UK, among other programs. Not exactly your Ronald Reagan conservative. The traditional British land-based aristocracy had a very different ideology.

Neither does he get much credit for his understanding of countryside conservation and his love for animals. The best example of Churchill's conservation aesthetic must be Chartwell, his beloved country house, which I visited today. The Kentish landscape is exquisite, improved upon by a pleasant series of cascading ponds. Churchill also kept a farm and lots of pets from sheep to geese to goldfish.

Pictures from the top:

The walled kitchen garden: a superb example of the type, common to country houses in the UK. The walls extend the growing season. Plums and other soft fruit trees are trellised along the south-facing ones.

Crocuses in bloom. This tree was gorgeous.

The house itself, parts of which date to the 1500s. Kentish architecture relies on brick, timber, and tile. British indigenous architecture varies by geology and ecoregion. In Wales we'll see slate in all it's variations.

A drawing and saying by Churchill, on his preference for pigs. I have to say, as an admirer and keeper and eater of the porcine race, I greatly agree.

Chickens. Churchill kept a wide variety of poultry. His daughter kept wartime chickens, part of the Dig for Victory campaign.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On the road again

I'm starting my journey to meet the students at Heathrow. It's 4 am here in my parents home, now strangely empty without them. I have a little rental car outside and will drive to the airport shortly, where I will turn in the car and go to a hotel for the night. The students arrive quite early tomorrow and Heathrow is a bear of a place to get to and around, so I plan to be there in good time.

Before I finish with the car, I plan to give myself a half-day vacation today. It's been a somewhat busy and stressful week here and I need a mood-shifter.

I'm going to visit Chartwell, Winston Churchill's country house in Kent. It's only 30 miles from Heathrow, and I've always wanted to go. I have a good collection of Churchill's books and books about him, and have always been interested in this impossible but essential man and his life and times. It's time I went to his home.

The students will leave very shortly too, in about a half a day. Hopefully everyone is properly packed and ready for the trip.

And has remembered their passport!

Travel safe.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tea and Welshcakes

I've been in Wales now for about 36 hours. Already I've had three cups of tea made for me by various Welshwomen.

I remember when I first came to America, to California, and was surprised to discover that rarely would anyone offer to make me a cup of tea, and I have to say I thought it quite rude until I realized that it was just one of those cultural differences.

But Thelma, my parents' neighbor, discovered me sitting in the car in my parents parking spot, waiting for my sister yesterday, and had me come in the house and made me tea and sat me down for a chat with her and her husband Bryn. And every time I go to visit my parents in their new care home, the caregivers make me tea.

Very nice. A very civilized country. Sorry. Civilised, with an "s".

We will have to make sure everyone has tea, while they're here. And welshcakes.

By the way, the weather is very pleasant over here, quite warm by the late afternoon, and sunny. It's supposed to hold in this pattern for most of next week. I haven't seen any Welsh daffodils in flower, but I've seen some very close to flower. And a few lambs.

Did I mention that the daffodil is the Welsh national flower?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Skyscraper scene

The view of the Boston skyline across the pan at Logan Airport.

Plane leaves very soon.

Friedman on fossil fuel finesse, boosts Bloom Box buzz

(Why have your own blog if you can't make up your own silly headlines? Five points extra credit to the student blogger on this trip who posts the best, or worst, headline of the trip!)

This blog post from the road, or to be exact, the bus.

Unity students have been reading the NYT columnist Tom Friedman lately. Mitch Thomashow, our fearless college president, has required his book for a few classes.

Here's his latest column.

In it he praises the founders of Bloom Energy and Calera Inc, a couple of smart-grid start-ups that I've been watching too.

But he also has an interesting riff on immigration to the US, a topic that has often been in my head since I got on that first transatlantic airplane all those years ago.

A related topic might be "why go back?" This might also apply as much to Americans of European descent of any generation as it does to first generation immigrants like myself.

Especially when air travel is so GHG-rich. We're going to have to indulge in the modern medieval indulgence of quite a few carbon offsets to put the carbon balance back in the black.

The best answer I have to this question, other than "I have to go back to see my Mum," is to learn. Although America is still probably the most technologically and socially innovative society on planet Earth, you have to give those Euros credit for some of their recent innovations. And older ones, such as public transportation that works.

We expect to examine both the new and the old up close and personal on this trip. Including public transport.

By the way, this bus is very nice. And the WiFi works. Recommended.

Also by the way, what if Kerouac had written On the Bus instead of On the Road as the quintessential American creed of its era?

What difference would that have made?

On my way...

I am leaving earlier than the students. I have a family in Britain, including aging parents, and they need me for a few days. This is somewhat unexpected, and arrangements have been made for the students to be accompanied to the airport themselves in a few day's time.

But I will get to Britain a little earlier.

Which is why I'm sitting in the Concorde Trailways bus station in Augusta, Maine, having been dropped off by Aimee a few minutes ago.

Trains and Planes and Automobiles was the title of a funny movie a few years ago. But it will also be me for the next few hours. Bus to Boston Logan Airport, plane to Toronto, then London Heathrow (having to go west to go east was not my preferred approach, but the only way I could be assured of coming back with the students group).

Having landed at Heathrow there will be a shuttle bus to a rental car company, where I will rent a car, and then drive to my family's place in South Wales.

Once I get there I will take some pictures and make a post or two if I see or hear or read anything interesting or relevant to our topics of climate change and energy ideas, or to the natural history of the British Isles, or indeed anything that is different that an American environmental college student might not have heard of, or be interested in.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


(Wikimedia photo.)

One place we might go on our day off is the seaside town of Aberystwyth, famous, as is Machynlleth, for its consonants, but also as the site of the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, the National Library of Wales, an ancient castle, a nice beach, and the gentle sweep of Cardigan Bay.

Like most British coastal resorts the town is largely Victorian and Georgian, and very pleasant and walkable. There are some shopping streets, as well as the usual fish and chip shops and pubs.

(I may be willing to give five points extra credit to the student who can still spell both Aberystwyth and Machynlleth at any time after we get back and before the end of the semester.)

British-American dictionary

George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have once described the United States and Britain as “two nations separated by a common language."

This might help.

And then again....

BBC America's British-American Dictionary

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wales in pictures

There are daffodils. Confirmed by one of these pictures. Although some of the others look more like Maine! I expect the warm temperatures have disposed of that by now.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

From the valleys of Wales, to the valley of Swat

In the post on Welsh history and national identity below, I explained how the latest waves of immigrants to our islands are adding yet more flavors and layers of identity to the mix. The British were already a complex mix of Ancient Briton, Roman, Celt, Saxon, Norse, and Norman-French, long before the new immigrants from South Asia began to arrive. Now we're just a bit more mixed. And we have some better cuisine to choose from.

The result is that few British people have an unclouded ethnic identity. For myself, this is represented in English, Welsh and Scottish ancestry. But that would be relatively uncomplicated by modern British standards.

I hypothesized about a Welsh Muslim from the Valleys who perhaps married an Englishwoman, and how he might feel about the Welsh part of his identity.

While my hypothesis was based on experience, I didn't expect to come across a parallel story in my newspaper quite so quickly.

But here it is: A Welsh woman marries a Muslim immigrant to Britain, who dies in a terrorist attack in Pakistan. In Islamic tradition, she marries the brother, but is then killed herself.

What I find hopeful about this is how much, according to the people around her in Wales and Pakistan, said she loved and cared for her people.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Read or watch BBC Wales -- in Welsh, even (if you dare)

You can check out the news in Wales on the BBC Wales homepage.

Here's an encouraging sample:

American, 21, rescued on Snowdon

A 21-year-old walker who was lost on Snowdon in Gwynedd has been airlifted to safety in treacherous conditions.

The man, from America, was heading towards the 3,560ft (1,085m) summit on the Snowdon Ranger Path but got into difficulties in bad weather.

He called for help on a mobile phone and was located by members of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team.

A rescue helicopter based at RAF Valley on Anglesey flew the walker to hospital in Bangor for a check up.

The man had tried to retrace his steps in a snow storm after becoming lost but wandered on to Clogwyn Coch, an accident danger spot on the mountain's west side.

The rescue team, some taken up the mountain by helicopter, led him down towards Clogwyn station.

The helicopter was able to land and pick up the walker and members of the rescue team when the cloud lifted.

But it was 45 minutes before the helicopter was able to take off from the mountain because the weather had deteriorated.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Brief History of the People and Country of Wales

This piece will take me a few days to complete, so keep checking back to see how far I've gotten. I'm putting it together largely from memory, but I will reference all the major facts via Wikipedia, so students can read more deeply into the history by clicking on the links.

First off, notice the title. Wales is a country. Its own country, within the United Kingdom. This is important if not crucial for visitors from other countries to know, especially since the Welsh people you meet will make a point of their distinctiveness from the rest of the UK, particularly England and the English, and will expect visitors to appreciate this distinctiveness.

Best start off on the right foot! Or at least not put your foot right in it.

And indeed, how many Americans are fully aware that the United Kingdom is essentially a constitutional monarchical federation of nation-states, in which there are four major nations and several minor ones, not to mention overseas and dependent territories?

(The four major nations of the UK are England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each has their own separate government. Each, however, is subject to different levels of central government control from "Westminster," which is the traditional shorthand term for the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the case of Wales, there is a sixty member Welsh Assembly with power to legislate on certain specific issues, subject to veto by the UK Secretary of State, or by the Westminster Parliament. There also remain forty Welsh seats in the Westminster parliament. Of these, three are currently held by the Welsh Nationalist Party, or Plaid Cymru.)

And how many Americans know that there are four major indigenous languages in the British Isles, including Welsh itself, and a number of minor ones, not to mention recently imported ones that are spoken by large numbers, such as Urdu or Hindi? And many of these new immigrants have come to Wales, particularly to its industrial cities.

Imagine the possibilities for multiple and overlapping ethnic identities. A little imagination is probably required on the part of Americans to appreciate this.

You could, for instance, as a genuine product of our multi-ethnic modern British melting pot, quite easily have been born a brown-skinned yet basically British person of primarily south Asian descent, who has English as a first language, Urdu as a strong second language, but with Welsh as a weak third language. This last might have occurred because you were born in one of the Welsh Valleys (the industrial heartland of South Wales), hence that language education which you got at school. So far so good.

This hypothetical Welshman might also visit conservative Muslim relatives in Pakistan once a year (where he has learned to hold his tongue), but might also have served perfectly loyally in the British military in Iraq for a stint. Yet he might have declined an traditional south Asian arranged marriage in favor of a tradition-breaking bond with a white, fluent Welsh-speaking spouse, of solidly middle-class English parentage who was born and raised in Milton Keynes, Middle England.

All this and much much more is possible and even likely in the new Wales and indeed the new Britain of the 21st Century. And there are of course American analogs.

So, if you are this person, are you Welsh?

More than likely, if you are this person, you do identify with being all of these: Welsh, South Asian, Muslim, and British.

All at once!

And after all, you were born and raised in the Rhonddha.

Actually, I can't imagine anyone born and raised in the Rhonddha not growing up with some powerful notion of the hundreds of years of struggle that it has taken to maintain some kind of Welsh identity.

So what does it mean to a Welsh person of any ethnicity to be Welsh?

Well, if you perhaps take the long view, you might consider that this new South Asian immigration to the Welsh Valleys is only the most recent of many. Multiple waves of newcomers, who have been appearing for nearly ten millennia, have in each case been assimilated to some or a great extent, but with each also having their cultural and genetic impact on the whole. And the Welsh, of course, are part of this same story of multiple immigrations as much as any other British peoples are.

Although the people that gave rise to the pre-industrial Welsh did come a little earlier than most. The earliest of all, in many cases. Perhaps that makes them different or special. I'm not sure. But before we talk about it, we should know about it.

The reason the Welsh are often nationalistic and protective of their identity is that they generally consider themselves, or at least the people they were before this new immigration, to be a completely different ethnicity than the English and the original inhabitants, ab origine, which means "from the origin." The aboriginal people of the British Isles, in other words. The ones who belong there. The best American analog is not comparing, say, southern and northern US culture, which may be very different but have similar ethnic roots, but perhaps comparing mainstream European-American culture with Native American culture. And that, at least is often how the Welsh see themselves. England for centuries has been the bigger and more powerful country, and the Cymry have been on the defensive since about 500 AD.

Their very existence is in fact owed to this defensive posture. A weaker-willed ethnic group, and their language and song and tale, would have disappeared hundreds of years ago. A milder level of feeling wouldn't feel the need, for instance, to patiently teach their ancient language to the children of a new generation of immigrants who already speak perfect English, when English is the primary language and nearly everyone speaks it.

Study the passion and feeling (and tuneful singing) at Cardiff Millenium Stadium when the Welsh national anthem is played before a international rugby game against Italy.

Not only is the crowd full of obvious pride, but they can sing too!

(As the Reverend Jenkins says in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, "Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.")

So I wouldn't, if I were you, dear students, underestimate the strength of Welsh ethnic pride. The average Welsh heart fills with immense pride just to be part of this ancient tradition.

Language doesn't help much the non-Welsh out here. Cymru is Welsh for Wales, while cymry is Welsh for the Welsh people. The English terms Wales and Welsh are vaguely insulting, having the connotation of foreigner, or outsider in Old English. So the very word "Welsh" carries this same key connotation of different ethnicity.

Most Welsh speak English as a first language today, but many also speak the Welsh language, or Cymraeg, as a first language. Nearly all the people you meet will speak English perfectly too, but many Welsh people will have a strong accent when speaking English, and use many dialect words, all of which Americans may find difficult to understand. British people in general are more used to communicating despite multiple dialects and accents. More than likely Welsh people will understand your American accent perfectly (yes -- you do have one!), but you won't necessarily be able to understand them. In addition, we are visiting the area of Wales where Welsh is most likely to be the first language or a strong second language. Many of the people you meet will be functionally bilingual, and able to switch from Welsh to English and back again easily.

So this is a very different picture from the common American viewpoint that tends to put all of the peoples of the British Isles in one group. (And that incomplete picture, of course, most closely resembles the English.) So we need to know a bit more about it than this. Let's begin to explore the historical roots of this complicated ethnicity.

The earliest prehistorical inhabitants of the British Isles came from the mainland of Europe over a land bridge during the ice age. After that land bridge disappeared for the last time, some 10,000 years ago, the first Mesolithic cultures are found, followed by Neolithic agriculturalists around 4,000 BCE. From these peoples, combined with multiple waves of later immigrants from the mainland, the Ancient Britons emerged. Modern genetic evidence suggests that perhaps the largest number of inhabitants of the British Isles today have genomes that go back several thousand years in place. Some remarkable cases of persistence remain to be fully explained, but as the Cheddar Man evidence showed, they do exist and are widespread.

These Ancients are first identified to written history by ancient writers from Greece and Rome.

The Greek sailor, Pytheas, is the first known literate person to have written about Britain, in the fourth century BCE. Pytheas apparently circumnavigated the Isles. He describes them as occupied by a people with the material culture traits we identify with the Celts of mainland Europe. Archeology confirms that at this period an identifiably Celtic culture was in place in the Isles.

In particular, by 500 BC, an identifiably Celtic ornamentation is found in metal objects found in Britain, design which has much in common with the famous La Tene sites on the mainland. It used to be assumed that a wave of conquering Celts brought this culture to the isles around the same time or earlier, but this interpretation is now beginning to be discredited by the modern techniques that uncovered Cheddar Man and others.

The recent DNA evidence casts doubt on the notion that La Tene Celts replaced older populations entirely. Some of the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome genomes encountered today in the Celtic lands seem to indicate earlier provenance, although these are found alongside genomes of similar provenance to those found in other Celtic lands such as Brittany or Galacia. But the fact remains that the material culture and lifestyle was largely Celtic, similar to that of the Celtic Iron Age peoples of the mainland, and the characteristic flowing knot-work and other stylistic designs must have been closely linked to continental Celtic peoples such as the Gauls and Bretons.

The ancestors of today's Welsh people first appear to written history in any detail as the Ancient Britons encountered by the Romans. At that time the greater part of the largest island, called Great Britain, was primarily occupied by British (Welsh) speaking peoples. English arrived much later. Julius Caesar led forays into Britain in 55 BCE, seeking fame and fortune, finding only a temporary toe-hold for his pains. It took nearly a century for the Romans to return, during the reign of Claudius. They successfully conquered the various British tribes and established the Roman Province of Britannia.

The name Briton and the geographic term Britannia both have their roots in the Celtic word romanized by Ceasar as prettanni, meaning "painted" or "painted people," a reference perhaps to the use of blue warpaint from woad or copper minerals.

The marriage of Roman and British culture was long-lived and successful. Roman roads, civil government, literature, engineering and architecture, enriched the Iron Age peasant farming systems and tribal cultures of the insular Celts. Romano-British political and religious ideas (such as early Christianity) and living styles were kept up even after the Romans withdrew in 410 CE. And of course, the Romans, and their various auxiliary forces, many of whom were German tribes, would have left some of their genetic material behind too.

The Romano-British aftermath is the period which gives rise to the legend of King Arthur, the civilized yet mystical Roman-British hero, fighting the English (Anglo-Saxon) invaders from the east. The name Arthur is perhaps rooted in the Welsh word for bear, so Arthur may be a "bear-man" or "bear-hero." About the same time as the legend of Arthur was first generated, the European brown bear itself became extinct in the British Isles, through hunting. My west Welsh grandmother told me stories as a child about how King Arthur and his men were sequestered in a Welsh mountain, waiting to spring into action to "save Britain" from some horrific fate. The fate itself was never detailed, but since Grandma was a survivor of the Great Depression and the Blitz and the Twentieth Century in general, I got the distinct idea that it was someone like Hitler or Stalin or the Luftwaffe that would cause it, and Arthur and his men would be quite up to the job, despite their medieval weaponry. This story-telling on Gran's part is an example of the fragmented but still intact oral tradition in Welsh folk tales.

The invaders were Germanic tribes from Jutland, Freesia, and Saxony, and are usually simply called the Anglo-Saxons or Saxons. After the turn of the sixth century CE they drove the Celtic inhabitants further and further west. At least that was what the history books said until recently. That recent DNA evidence, however, suggests the persistence of pre-Celtic and Celtic mitochondrial DNA lines, indicating that Celtic women were captured and used as house slaves and concubines, or preferred to make their own peace with the invaders their men were fighting, or most likely a combination of both. These findings remain controversial. (Their primary author is Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer.)

The long-vaunted Saxon invasion may thus have been more correctly a fairly small affair, more the incursion of a few elite warriors supplanting native tribal leaders, than it was the great battles between Arthur's men and the foreign hordes we have imagined for hundreds of years since Le Morte d'Arthur. But the fact remains that after the sixth and seventh centuries the Ancient British languages were increasingly restricted to the west and the north, the Celtic fringe, as it is often today called. These are places that neither the Romans nor the Saxons conquered.

We are going almost to the edge of the fringe, the westernmost part of west Wales, and a remaining homeland for a living Celtic language and culture.

Further waves of Anglo-Saxons and later Norse invaders impacted both Wales and the rest of Britain. In Wales the Norse Vikings raided and settled in places, and so left cultural and genetic imprints around the coast but the language remained distinctly Welsh. The rest of the isles experienced a considerable Norse influence, and the English language is often described by scholars as a marriage of Anglo Saxon and Norse. One powerful group of Norse descent were the Normans, a group of whom, under Duke William of Normandy (King William I of England) subdued most of the Isles, including much of Wales, after 1066. The Anglo-Norman rulers of England also attempted a settlement of Wales in the 11th Century and much occupying and castle-building was done, particularly in the flatter and more fertile regions, but the people and the language again survived. The great Norman-Welsh castles of Caernarvon and Harlech date from the later part of this period. They use architectural ideas and technology imported from the middle east during the Crusades.

In other words, the Anglo-Normans found it necessary to employ the same technology to protect themsleves against the Welsh as they employed against the Saracens in the Holy Land.

The Welsh thus enter the Middle Ages as a culturally and linguistically distinct people, as yet unconquered or at least only partially conquered by the Anglo-Norman hegemony that rules much of the rest of Great Britain. The great Welsh historical problem became, and continues to be, how to remain distinctively Welsh under the constant onslaught of the more powerful culture to the east.

The last Welsh Prince of Wales was the hero Owain Glyndŵr, who led a 15th century revolt against Henry IV of England. Glyndŵr, anglicized as Glendower, appears in Shakespeare's Henry IV as a terrifying warlord, fit to strike fear into the heart of any mere Englishman:

"at my nativity, The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes, Of burning cressets, and at my birth The frame and huge foundation of the earth Shaked like a coward."

This kind of revolutionary fervor is not necessarily departed from the Welsh stage. The precedent is found again and again, in events such as the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the labor unrest at Tonypandy in 1910, or the nationalist violence and arson of the 1970s. The Welsh reach deep into their past for identity and meaning, and recast their resistance to new incursions in the light of old ones.

Yet on the other hand, most Welsh remain far less than militantly nationalist in their outlook, Plaid Cymru gets only a minority of votes, and there remains a good deal of support for various bastions of the British establishment, particularly Rugby Union, the Liberal party, the Labour Party, and even the monarchy. The latter can fairly claim some Welsh ancestry, dating from the Tudors. And from the earlier time of Edward I, also a fearsome personage, the tradition of naming the first-born son of the English monarch as Prince of Wales is dated. Currently Prince Charles is Prince of Wales. When Charles assumes the throne, the title will pass to Prince William.

Will he be Welsh enough? Perhaps we should ask our hypothetical Rhondda Valley Welsh-Asian?

My favorite Welsh author is Dylan Thomas, who wrote in English. My favorite Dylan Thomas work is the play Under Milk Wood, which you can listen to by clicking on the link. What I like about Thomas's play is how much it celebrates Welshness without taking Welshness too seriously.

Which is what I think you have to do to make any humane and common sense out of this strong feeling.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Link to the weather in Machynlleth

More winter birds

In order...

European magpie
Red grouse
Pied wagtail

British winter birds

Although spring will have begun when we are in Wales, many migrant birds will not have arrived. Here are some of the common overwintering birds to be found in Britain and not commonly seen in North America.

In order...

The great tit

The song thrush

The European robin (not a member of the thrush family as is the American robin)

More to come, as I find time to post them.
All pictures are from Wikipedia, non-copywrite.

Cat and environs

I downloaded the UK Ordnance Survey's free use maps to make this image. Click on the map to see a larger version.

If you want to get a better look at these maps, go to

Up and running...

This is the first of many diary posts for our 2010 Spring Break travel seminar on renewable energy. Eleven students and one professor from Unity College in Maine will travel to the UK's amazing Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), Machynlleth, Wales. We will be there for five full days. Many of the students have never traveled abroad before. All are very excited as the weeks and days before our trip ebb away.

The primary reason for our trip is technology transfer. Unity College is heavily involved in the development of renewable energy in Maine, and already has a large number of demonstration facilities and test sites. We partner with many Maine organizations, such as Maine Rural Partners, Efficiency Maine, or Fox Islands Wind, to name a few, to deliver community service renewable energy education, outreach, and technical assistance.

Examples of the kind of work we do including providing the services of faculty and students to our local weatherization scheme, providing expert anemometry to local community-owned wind power proposals, ensuring local and home-grown food is used in our own dining services, or providing local foods, hoop-housing, and horticulture expertise to our local elementary and middle schools.

CAT, for its part, is a recognized leader in such work in the UK, and provides many of the same kinds of services on-site and off-site, either directly or through spin-offs such as the Eco-Dyfi community organization. Eco Dyfi actually has many parallels with our own Unity Barn Raisers.

But there are many things that CAT does a lot better than we do. The CAT site is the kind of living, learning laboratory for renewable energy and sustainable living that we would like our Unity College campus to be. CAT makes very good use of its sustainability demonstrators and interpretive efforts for visitor education, while Unity College doesn't even have a sign pointing to our Jimmy Carter solar panels or the Unity House.

Obviously we can do better.

Other items of strong Maine interest:

CAT's community-owned wind turbine
might be a model for similar Maine efforts.

CAT's micro-grid
, if implemented on Maine islands and peninsulae with poor electrical power reliability, would be a great thing.

Business start-ups in the Dyfi valley area as a result of CAT efforts: could Unity College in concert with local partners such as Unity Barn Raisers and the Unity Foundation have the same kind of impact?

So. Fairly serious stuff, isn't it? And important, as Mainers figure out how to implement a 21st century energy economy sponsored primarily using indigenous Maine resources like the sunshine that falls on the land, the wind over our hills, the tides in the Gulf of Maine, or forest products from Maine's managed woodlots or wild forests.

It's a lot of air-miles and train miles to get to CAT for a few short days. But the climate emissions will be offset, and we will learn a lot that we can bring home to use in Maine.

Of course, the students are hoping to have a little fun. It is spring break after all, and they could have gone to Florida instead.

So watch this space for pictures, updates and movie clips of our activities. In the next few days, as we build up and get ready to go, we will begin posting diary extracts, useful links, and other interactive web-ware, so even if you, the blog reader, especially other Unity College students, staff, and faculty and the families of the eleven students on the trip, can't come with us, you can find out what we're doing and follow along.