Monday, August 9, 2010

I arrived in London at 7am on Friday, July 23rd to a mad rush of customs officials and dozens of people holding signs to find their friends, families, and associates. This was all quite alien to me being my first time flying out of the country, but I managed to figure out how to navigate around with my massive backpack to get onto the city-wide train system known as “the tube.” I had only been able to get an hour and a half of sleep on the plane (got quite sick actually, won’t go into the details) and now had to find my way to a friend’s flat in a distant part of a huge city that I’d never been to. Luckily adrenaline was kicking in along with a few coffees, and I soon found myself at his doorstep.

I’m still amazed that I made it through the whole day without crashing. Mike, my former coworker at Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, NC took me on a whirlwind tour of the entire town. I have never seen so many massive historic buildings in one place; D.C. paled in comparison. For whatever reason we also made it through the high-fashion district and also some of the more interesting down-to-earth parts of town before finally ending up back in his neighborhood for a couple of pints. I had never been so grateful for a couch to lie down on.

The train to Wales left from London at 2:10pm the next day, and I literally made it onto the carriage just as it was closing up. Apparently the London buses were not quite as fast as Mike had thought as I ended up getting off and running in a dead sprint to the train station for the last few blocks. The scenery was fairly boring initially through the English countryside but became much more interesting as we made it deeper into Wales. There was an eerie familiarity with the hills of Eastern Kentucky back home, with majestic mountains looming over vast trailer parks. Some differences were popping up however: we don’t have centuries-old castles or dozens of huge wind turbines in Appalachia.

I was greeted at the train station by Lucy, the extremely generous English girl from Birmingham (Black Sabbath’s hometown!) who would be putting me up for the next couple of weeks. I was immediately grateful for her friendliness, as it was beginning to dawn on me how completely alone I was in totally unfamiliar territory. I spent the next couple of days getting settled into Menai Bridge and exploring the surrounding area on Lucy’s bike. This little town is on the coast of the Isle of Anglesey, separated from the Welsh mainland by the Irish Sea. It was strange and quite nice at the same time to be biking down roads with ancient buildings and stone walls on either side, interspersed with views of the seaweed-covered rocky coastline with the mountains of Snowdonia rising up on the mainland far into the distance.

I made it into the town of Bangor that Monday morning to meet Franco and get started with my mini-internship at Bangor University. I had sent several emails around to various agencies and groups in Wales while still in the States to try to find interesting projects to tie into and get some work experience with that would ideally be relevant to the work I hope to do once I get back to Appalachia at the end of the fellowship. I ended up being contacted by someone who I had not actually emailed, asking if I would like to be involved with a land remediation scientific study wherein I would be helping to get soil samples and do some lab analysis for a slate quarry site in the mountains of North Wales. Franco was a really nice undergrad who was a couple years older than me and doing a for-credit internship over the summer that entailed the project I was tying into. I was happy to have a starting point for my journey, and decided to do a three-week stint with this project that I really knew very little about.

My first couple of days with the University (“uni” for short, no one says “college” here) were not quite what I had expected. I spent nearly all of my time preparing reagents and doing painstakingly accurate measurements for high-tech lab analyses of unknown soil samples. By the second day, I began to grow quite disheartened as I felt like I was not doing what I had received this fellowship to do. I didn’t really need the lab experience as I don’t intend to have a job in a lab at any point; I’m here to spend time in communities with parallels to Appalachia and to see examples of sustainability projects that could work back home. Wednesday changed everything.

Franco and I left quite early to drive down to Blaenau Ffestiniog, the site of the slate quarry where the remediation trials were occurring. I was in awe during most of the hour-long car ride. We were surrounded by massive mountains interspersed with ghostly mining towns and fancy tourist resorts. Some of these slate mining places, such as Bethesda, were once the largest quarries in the world. Huge, barren piles of broken up slate stones (known as “slate tips”) rose ominously above rows of identical hundred-year-old stone houses, all with the same dull gray slate tile roofs. Immense quarry sites where whole sides and tops of mountains had been removed to extract the slate sat directly adjacent to pristine, scenic vistas. I knew that I was in the right place.

The work at the site was very enjoyable for me, despite constantly getting jabbed by stinging nettles. Water infiltration rates, bulk density, above-ground biomass, and general soil samples are right up my alley, and I was glad to be outside working with my hands for the three days that it took to gather all the necessary samples and data. It was a bit surreal to think of this place in comparison to coalfield Appalachia, where we have similar challenges for ecological regeneration on mountaintop removal mine sites albeit in a very different setting. Total lack of organic matter with compacted broken up rock as a substrate are certainly parallels, although the scale at which MTR has occurred over the past few decades is many times greater than the amount of land affected by slate quarrying in this region over hundreds of years. The mountains in Wales were denuded of trees hundreds of years ago, and have instead been used primarily for sheep grazing where possible.

Although the soil sampling work was far more rewarding than the lab tasks, I realized a few days in that I would have to cut my stay here in half if I truly wanted to see and experience this country. I’m set to be in Spain by September, and I need to experience the South Wales coalfields as well as areas of Scotland and possibly Yorkshire before then. The soil sampling gig will have relevance to work I intend to do in the future with MTR sites, but overall there didn’t seem to be examples of sustainability projects here to transition these dying slate mining communities to something better. Ecotourism seemed to be happening to a decent extent, no doubt helped by the fact that the vast majority of this area is designated as the National Park of Snowdonia (exceptions were made for the areas with huge slate reserves). As I’ve seen in other examples of ecotourism, only a handful of jobs for locals are created to serve the outside tourists who come in to hike, camp, and go to museums and putt-putt courses.

Once I had booked a train ticket and made plans to head to South Wales (starting out with the National Eisteddfod, a 200 year old festival of Welsh culture and arts in a former coal mining and steel smelting colliery), I decided that I needed to spend at least one day in the mountains, both for the natural scenery and to get at least a taste of the culture. Menai Bridge and Bangor are both more or less college towns, and I actually met very few local Welsh people there. Bizarre bilingual signs were everywhere however, and I continue to marvel when I find out how some of these words are actually pronounced (Eisteddfod is pronounced ay-steth-vod, for example). After a chaotic morning trying to tie up loose ends in the lab on Wednesday morning, I set off on the haggard road bike that I’ve been spending way too much time working on to make it to the mountains outside Bethesda.

A researcher in the lab (Christoph from Germany) suggested I take a secluded bike path instead of the main road, and it was a very good suggestion. I can’t help but be amazed at how gorgeous the old bridges are around here, and how there are hand built stacked-stone fences literally everywhere. The path came out at the huge and still active Bethesda slate quarry, where another path started that wound between slate tips on the right and wilderness on the left. Eventually I made it to a parking lot beside Lake Ogyen where the path up mountain Tregarth started. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and had little more than a vague map in a brochure and a couple of water bottles in a pack.

Words can’t do the next few hours justice, but it was definitely the most breathtakingly scenic and completely frightening thing I have probably ever done. Climbing straight up one immense series of rocky cliffs after another (literally up into the clouds); crossing over ridges populated by mountain goats, sheep, and other-worldly rock formations; overlooking vistas that extend for miles; places with names like Glyd-y-Vawrs and Devil’s Kitchen. All of a sudden it was time to come off the mountain, and right about that time the clouds/fog became so thick that I couldn’t see more than fifteen feet in front of me. I was somehow able to scramble down through mushy pasture, brambly blueberries and heather (a local low-growing woody shrub that flowers in iridescent purple, orange, and yellow), ravines, and sections of loose rock that sometimes led to sheer cliffs to eventually make it down to the road on the wrong side of the mountain. After taking some amazing pictures of the sunset, I realized I had no idea where I was. Luckily I was able to hitch a ride with a nice family on holiday (no one says “vacation”), and they took me the 8 miles around the mountain to the point where I’d parked my bike.

Though I was completely exhausted, I was able to get a boost of adrenaline energy and bike back to Bethesda, the ghostly quarry town I had first passed through a week ago with Franco although it seemed like at least a month prior. I stopped in at a local pub with hopes of talking to people who either are or were employed in the slate mines and for some coffee and a pint. It was a very nice little place, and I was pleased to hear almost nothing but Welsh being spoken when I entered. The woman at the bar was very friendly, as were the other patrons who started talking to me once they noticed my strange accent. These were all older people, and none of them had been involved in slate mining and none knew of any alternative economic development projects in the area. I thanked them for their friendliness, and made it back the last several miles to Menai Bridge by around midnight.

I’m now on a train to South Wales, passing through a mix of hay and cattle fields with rolling forested hills in the background. Very reminiscent of the parts of Kentucky where the bluegrass butts up against the foothills, such as Madison or maybe Rockcastle county. I really don’t know what to expect of the next few weeks. I did not rigidly plan this part of the trip, as I wanted to have the flexibility and freedom to explore and follow leads as they come up. I do hope to make more direct connections with the people who are or were employed in the mining industry here; that's the one area I feel like I should've done a better job with up north in the slate mining towns. Check back again toward the middle/end of August to see how it all went!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds awesome brother! I couldn't imagine seeing it all firsthand. I have always noticed the mountains in that area are mostly treeless. Was it done for livestock, or because of the slate mining? Is that the same thing as the mining they do for kitty litter clay? I just found out that that is strip mined too.
    We have ancestors from Wales, and all in the area you are now, including Ireland. The Hansels were German/Welsh. So cool you get to see it. I haven't seen very much outside of these hills, and it's great to get to follow your journey!