energy living green

A Bit of Background, Part 2

I mentioned in part 1 that living in the bush in Tanzania changed my post Peace Corps plans. When I returned to the U.S. in late 2008 I began researching environmental and mechanical engineering graduate degree programs. The following is a mildly edited selection from my personal statement used in my applications to mechanical engineering master’s programs.

In the village I lived near the power lines did not stray far from the main road. The rolling hills and trees in the valley muted most of the lights and sounds of electricity. At a certain point, walking down the dirt path to the foot bridge over the river and up into the hills towards my house outside of the village, the shadows that could be seen were only those cast by the light from the moon. The fingers of the power plant didn’t reach any further into the mountains in this direction. But looking around the walls of the bowl created by the surrounding mountains, a sharp glimmer would pop out of the darkness. Sparkles of electricity shone out from the hills. Batteries charged by solar panels were providing some families – some of my students – light to enjoy dinner with and light to study by. Light from the sun still burned brightly for them long after the sun’s last rays had slipped behind the mountains for the evening.

building earth - waterfall in TanzaniaFor two years, those hills in Tanzania provided me with a shelter, a family away from home, an education, an opportunity to share my education, and an inspiration. Watching the effects of “progress” tear down trees, wash away soil nutrients, and pollute our river and source of drinking water for much of the year cemented my desire to work with our natural resources, not against them.

building earth - palm tree in Tanzania

In the middle of my second year in the Peace Corps, my school took our students on a field trip to a local hydro-electric plant that harnessed a natural waterfall. As the engineers explained to my students how the plant changed the energy from the moving water into the electricity that ran into the outlets at the small shops where they charged our cell phones and watched the football matches huddled around small grainy televisions, I stood absorbing the information. And I knew. I knew I was not ever going to be fully satisfied until I had taken everything apart and put it back together again, and ensured that it ran better than before. I knew that this was a way I could put together my love of science and my passion for living a sustainable life. I knew that I was going to finish my service in Tanzania and come home to study renewable energy and mechanical engineering.

Now I find myself, 5 years out of the Peace Corps, graduate degree in hand, looking ahead to the next steps, trying to figure out exactly what this means.

Life continues to be a grand adventure, and my hope is that I can live it in such a way that builds rather than destructs.

living green

A Bit of Background, Part 1

I’ve always been a nature lover. We spent many summer trips hiking through the woods at my grandparent’s house; camping in state parks; canoeing in the boundary waters; and getting pruney in the water at the nearest lake beach. My dad’s house sits atop a hill that has been having erosion trouble for years. Many spring and summer weekends during high school and summers home from college were spent planting various ground covers on the hill, a crop of strawberries along the path, and herbs in the back yard. I remember talking with my dad about bee keeping and how cool it would be to have our own hive, planting flower gardens in small patches of the yard, and hunting for raspberries or blueberries on various camping trips.

building earth autumn trees

But I don’t think it was until I was living in the mountains in Tanzania during my time in the Peace Corps that I fully grasped my connection to the earth. You’d think the fact that I’d joined the Peace Corps in the first place would have tipped me off to my crunchy-hippy-tree-hugging nature before then. But for whatever reason it took until probably about 9 months into my stay in Tanzania for me to realize that nature was my church, and appreciating and caring for the earth was my prayer.

When I left for the Peace Corps my intention was to return in just over two years and start applying to grad school programs in the area of aeronautical engineering. I intended to be an astronaut. Or at least as close to one as possible, working in the space industry. But, as so often is the case, plans changed.

building earth succulant

I lived amid subsistence farmers. Farmers with no running water and no electricity. No plows, nor tractors, nor work animals to ease their burden. These families were at the mercy of their own physical abilities,  the land (in this case mountain clay) and the weather to make their living. And they were living with the effects of ongoing climate change. The rainy season was shifting and growing more extreme in the Usambara mountains. For generations my neighbors had known when to prepare their fields and plant their crops in preparation of the oncoming rainy season. But recently the rains have been coming weeks or months late. And when they do come, they have been torrential downpours rather than the slow, steady rains they had once been, washing away their mountainside farms, and their income for the year.

Living in a community that so relied on the earth for their livelihood was one of the experiences that began to shift my post Peace Corps plans.

building earth light house

We may not have the ability to change or control the weather, but we can help each other live with the effects of climate change. And we can reduce our negative impacts on the earth and replace them with positive impacts. We have such a beautiful and bountiful rock on which to spin around the sun. I think we need to take care of it. Because that’s what you do when you have nice things.