A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Manic Street Preachers as a rock band that sings in Welsh. The reference has been omitted from this version.
Wales, the greenest place on Earth
Sunday, March 21, 2010
For two decades I've been exhausting my vocabulary seeking names for all the shades of green in the Welsh countryside. Pastures are Crayola green; windbreaks are jade; spring mosses are the chartreuse of an avocado's innards. The ribboning hills after it has rained, when sunlight breaks through shark-colored clouds, throb pure neon. Distance makes the mountains aquamarine.
These days, Wales can add another green to its palette: the green that comes from being one of the most environmentally progressive nations on Earth.
Last fall I launched my latest tour of West Wales -- my first "green tour" -- on the edge of Cardiff Bay, at the great sailing ship of a building that houses the Welsh Assembly. It's a soaring carbon-neutral masterpiece, completed in 2006, called the Senedd. The Assembly, which was voted into being in 1998, is one of the few governing institutions in the world with sustainable development inscribed in its statute.
In Machynlleth, I visited Wales's Centre for Alternative Technology, an internationally famous green mecca that draws tourists, community leaders and scientists from all over the globe to see and study clean methods of building, planning, recycling, gardening and energy production.
And across the nation, I found a variety of businesses -- from a construction outfit that promotes sheep's wool as building insulation to a pharmaceutical company extracting an anti-Alzheimer's drug from daffodils (the national flower of Wales) -- blazing innovative paths into the 21st century.
The good news for travelers like me is that Wales's commitment to sustainability isn't a fad dreamed up by a government focus group. It's a way of being that permeates every nook of Welsh life, with deep roots in Welsh history and culture and in the very environment: the hills, the sea, the valleys, the rain, even the sheep. Which means that I've found it nearly impossible to enjoy myself and eat well in this place and not practice sustainability at the same time.
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I might as well fess up right from the start: I stopped in Cardiff, the capital, to rent a fossil-fuel-burning Ford in which to make my green tour (okay, so no one's perfect). My car's emissions -- not to mention the cost of gas -- got me thinking that maybe Wales's green leadership is karmic payback for the fact that its coal fueled the not-so-clean Industrial Revolution. Richard Llewellyn's classic 1939 novel, "How Green Was My Valley," reminisced about the days before great gray slag heaps overwhelmed the hillsides of South Wales's coal-mining valleys. When I'd first traveled to South Wales 20 years ago, everything about the valleys had been ashen: streets, houses, sky, earth, industrial plants. This time, as I zipped through the old industrial corridor (in said Ford), I was overjoyed to see the slag heaps gone and the valleys blazing green again.
The first stop on my tour was St. David's, the smallest city in Britain. It's the site of Wales's national cathedral, a plum-colored beauty built in a hole in the 1180s. (Theories run that the cathedral hunkers in a declivity so that the Vikings wouldn't see it, come ashore and sack it, as they had its predecessors.) I marveled over the wildly imaginative misericord carvings at the cathedral -- misericords are wooden shelves on which weary monks could rest their medieval bottoms when they had to stand for hours on end -- and reduced my carbon footprint by hiking the town's surrounding promontories. St. David's Head, in particular, summons something close to sanctity from the wind, the sea and the wild, rocky coast. This whole area, which is traced by the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail, is a blessing for hikers bent on taking in some of the most spectacular scenery in the United Kingdom.
What I didn't see was the reason I'd come to town. That would have been impossible without scuba gear, as it sits on the bottom of the sea.
In the Middle Ages, the pope decreed that two pilgrimages to St. David's equaled one to Rome. Today, new pilgrims like me come to marvel at the city's most technologically advanced -- and simultaneously retro -- "green machine": a tidal turbine that will provide the city's 1,000 or so homes with energy when it's up and running later this year, making St. David's the first truly carbon-zero city on the planet.
Unlike wind and sun, tidal action offers a source of renewable energy that's not only clean but also predictable. "The energy here is absolutely astronomical," says Richard Ayre, the turbine's designer. He came up with the idea while positioning buoys off the Pembrokeshire coast, when he noticed that tidal currents kept dragging his boat sideways.