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."