University City

‘Big Green Bus’ visits University City

What’s long, green and filled with stories?

Answer: The Big Green Bus from Dartmouth University, a transcontinental environmental pilgrimage that visited Charlotte just before the Fourth of July last week.

The bus’s crew of 12 are all undergraduates at the Hanover, N.H. college. They planned and organized the tour themselves. Along the way, they research environment, sustainability and energy issues, volunteer to work hands-on and swap stories and insights with the people they meet.

Before arriving in Charlotte, among other adventures, they learned about fracking in New York state, met with U.S. senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., and sang folk songs with residents of a coal mining community in West Virginia.

During their three-day stay in the Charlotte area, the crew took part in Sustainable Charlotte’s Health and Harmony Fest, which took place in NoDa’s Area 15 alternative business incubator. They also volunteered at the Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord, a training program for new organic farmers.

Bus crew member and Dartmouth senior Joanna Schneider, who is from Charlotte, organized this stop on the tour.

At the farm, the crew rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Thomas Gentry, professor of architecture at UNC Charlotte, directed a team building a shelter, while another group worked with Lomax farm manager Aaron Newton to assemble greenhouse tables from recycled materials.

As he moved cinderblocks in the greenhouse, Max Hoffman of Burlingame, Calif., reflected on the trip so far.

Discussions of environmental law and policy were very interesting, Hoffman said, though meetings with elected officials and their staffs in Washington, D.C., were less an inspiration and more a sobering reality check on the political climate. Among the tour’s high points, he said, was learning folk songs during the stop in West Virginia.

Turning to fellow crew member Andrew Milligan of Las Cruces, N.M., one of the group’s resident guitarists, Hoffman asked, “Hey, how did that song go? ’It’s as dark as a dungeon way down in the mine’?”

The bus crew heard stories at Lomax as well, from Carl Pless, a veteran Cabarrus County Extension Agent for crops and livestock, whose family has been farming for eight generations. As a rain squall rattled on the tin roof of the farm’s packing shed, Pless took a break from his presentation on how to use a refractometer to grow vegetables.

He spoke from the heart about broader issues. As crew members listened intently, Pless reminded them of the vital importance of preserving first-hand knowledge of farming and the land. Passing on this hard-won know-how is an essential part of a sustainable local food system, and it’s one of the goals of the Lomax Incubator Farm.

Hoffman offered an impromptu tour of the bus, a converted Greyhound painted bright green and festooned with slogans and logos.

The bus began as a project of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering and the college’s Ultimate team in 2005. The team needed a way to get to a national championship competition in Seattle, and students came up with idea of converting a bus to run on recycled cooking oil.

The trip was so successful that it became an annual event. Most of the crew are still engineering and environmental science majors, but the 2013 group is more diverse, including social scientists and an artist. About the only students who seem less interested, one crew member remarked wryly, are business majors, though their skills would be invaluable.

“Maybe they can’t turn down those high-paying internships,” she said.

The bus has had some significant improvements. This year, it’s running on biodiesel rather than old French fry grease, which is better for the engine. The interior is now a pleasant collegiate hodgepodge of wooden countertops and bookshelves and repurposed lounger bus seats, with solar panels to provide power. There’s even tiny rolling “garden” of slightly light-stressed basil next to a window.

Crew members with commercial driver’s licenses pilot the vehicle on its summer odyssey, which again will take them to Seattle and other West Coast destinations. The crew stays with hosts along the way, many of them Dartmouth alumni. Crew members blog regularly about their journey, sharing their experiences and stories.

They have found that environmental and energy issues are highly complex. In West Virginia, for example, mountaintop removal has had terrible environmental consequences and layoffs from the coal industry cost jobs and decimate communities.

Meegan Daigler, the crew’s only veteran, who was part of the 2011 Green Bus trip, blogged recently that the population of their host community, Montgomery, W.Va., had shrunk from 15,000 to 2,000 over the past 20 years:

“Jamie, a Morris Creek Watershed Association volunteer and West Virginian, told us that when the coal industry lays off (workers), some people must hunt (wild game) to feed their families.

“For that reason, sustainability to her is as much economic sustainability as environmental sustainability,” she wrote. “I learned that to discuss only the environmental impacts of coal, and not the economic ones, is to leave out the human impact.”

Crew member Patrick Saylor of Stowe, Vt., agreed in his most recent blog post, after the Charlotte visit:

“ … Climate change and global warming are more than just environmental issues. They affect real people and have dramatic influences on the lives of others.”