Yup, I stuck my head in the holding chamber of a compost toilet on the campus of Vermont Law School during our sustainability travel trip. And it wasn’t as bad as you think, but I’ll give details later. (Compost Toilet Photo)
Why did we go to New England?
Professor Galbreath organized this year’s graduate student travel course to the New England area. Every year professor Galbreath takes students on a journey of sustainability, looking at where the ideas arose, how the policies are shaped and governed, and lastly, the everyday application of sustainable practices.
“First half of the trip”
The focus of our trip was policies and practices of sustainability, first and foremost. But the side story was the food, every meal we had was great! From Yankee Lobster in the south Boston waterfront area with their amazing lobster rolls to the farm to table restaurant The Foundry in New Hampshire to Eaton’s Sugar House with the best maple syrup and pancakes ever in Vermont. And let’s not forget about the fresh field to table lunch and dinner we had at Cobb Hill, all of it was awesome.
Although we ate great meals, we didn’t have time to feel sluggish from Eaton’s pancakes or any other meal. Every minute of our trip was filled with a walking tour focused on sustainability. One of our first stops came in Concord, MA at Walden Pond. There we were able to experience life as Henry David Thoreau, the author of “Walden”, did. We took a short hike through the 335 acre forest and settled at the pond’s banks where some of us took a swim and others skipped rocks and sat in the ponds tranquility. (I’m horrible at skipping rocks) Our day in Concord continued as we toured downtown and visited the home of the transcendentalist, author of “Nature”, and Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Emerson. (Walden Pond Photo)
The next day, we had the honor of touring the Marsh Billings Rockefeller Mansion, which included a 2 hour hike through the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historical Park. The hike was both tiring and energizing, but our host Ed Sharron ensured we knew the history of the park and its current ecological state. The MBR mansion was a living time capsule of history and heritage that spoke to the family’s commitment to preservation.
When we headed back to West Lebanon, we stopped at Judith and Phil Bush’s Zero Energy Home for a short tour. Their home was preassembled by the builders because of the technical advances, then reassembled on site. The home boasted great metrics of energy efficiency to be located in a town that doesn’t receive tons of sunlight and whose average low temperature is 35 degrees. The Bush’s were extremely welcoming and an inspirational couple.
Midway through the trip, we spent the day in one of the best co-housing communities in the country. The Cobb Hill community is located in a mountainous area of Hartland, Vermont that is visually dominated by forest land, farm land, and ski trails. Our hosts, Dr. Rachel Obbard and Dr. Philip Rice, both did an awesome job of conveying the culture and ideology of Cobb Hill. They welcomed our questions and seemed energized by our conversation.
Cobb Hill is a co-housing community with families and community members of all ages living in individual homes on 270 acres of land in Hartland. While on the farm we worked, some of us a little harder than others. I and a fellow classmate lucked out and had the hard job of sweeping and spraying the fruit cellar with Bonnie, a longtime resident of Cobb Hill. After we finished, we sat under a shade tree and ate fresh salsa and watched our classmates work! From stacking wood to pulling invasive plants, to harvesting mushrooms, once completed they understood the meaning of being a working community member of Cobb Hill.
Sustainability is ingrained within this community, from the way they treat each other, to how they treat the land, to the welcoming of visitors. All of which is centered on a culture of sustainable stewardship which is not commonly found here in the south.
“Last half of the trip”
On the last half of the trip, food continued to be a great side story. I had some of the best locally sourced pork belly and chorizo tacos I ever had in Waitsfield. While exploring Montpelier, VT I tried (and loved) Thai food for the first time. Last group dinner was prepared by executive chef Jim McCarthy of Shelburne Farms. I wish I could describe the atmosphere and energy around Shelburne Farms with greater detail, but it’s just a place you have to visit to understand. What I can say is our private room and 3 course meal was one most of us will never forget. (Shelburne Farms Photo)
At the capital of Vermont, Montpelier, we meet with Chris Pelloni, a very knowledgeable operator of Montpelier District Heat Plant. This complex sustainable heating system is common place in Europe but rare here in the states. Chris and his co-workers are able to heat 21 buildings, including the Capitol Complex, school buildings and private customers in the downtown area, all through the renewable resources using modern wood fired boilers.
Later that day we had the opportunity to meet with Institute for Sustainable Communities, a group of individuals who are empowering sustainable communities around the world. Communications Director Elliott Bent, Program Officer Anna Marandi, and Vice President Steve Nicholas all took time out of their afternoon to engage us on how organizations like theirs are becoming the catalyst in communities on sustainable initiatives. ISC has been responsible for everything from EHS campaigns in Bangladesh to working with the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore.
An organization with a similar drive as ISC but works with educators in communities and has breathtaking scenery was Shelburne Farms. Shelburne is a non-profit 1400 acre working farm, forest, and Inn whose focus is educating students and teachers on sustainability. Shelburne has a link to Nashville as well, being founded by Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt in 1899.
The culmination of our trip ended with the green building pioneer Barbra Batshalom of Building Ease and Sustainability Director Ben Myers of Boston Properties. Barbara’s insight on the working world of sustainability was invaluable to a group of graduate students like us. Her understanding of where the sustainability job market is headed gave us comfort in knowing the future is bright in the industry. Ben showed us what is possible when we toured 888 Boylston, the only LEED Platinum skyscraper in the US.
So, I stuck my head in the compost toilet. Like I said it wasn’t bad at all. The toilet doesn’t use water for waste. It works like a normal composter but filled with cedar chips. There was no real smell, it was more like a compost pile in your back yard on a hot day. By not using water it saves over 2000 gallons per year. Once every couple of months the compost is removed and used for flower beds as fertilizer. Andrew Brackett the facilities manager at Vermont Law. Explained the toilet and all of their facilities sustainable advances around campus.
The trip was amazing. It truly gave me a perspective of what sustainability looks like when a community fully embraces sustainable practices generation after generation.
Thank you New England.