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Getting the Green Light

During a trip to Iceland—a world leader in sustainable practices—UA students research principles of eco-friendly living that they hope to adopt stateside.

By Richard LeComte

To understand the environmental stewardship that Icelanders practice, you have to get out and live it: Take a hike. Plant a tree. Build a sod house. Work in a greenhouse. Live on a farm. That’s Dr. Michael K. Steinberg’s philosophy, and that’s also why he led a group of UA students to the island nation in May.

“You have to be in the environment to really appreciate it, to understand what we’re trying to protect,” says Steinberg, an assistant professor of New College and geography at UA. “We did a great deal of hiking.”

The class, called the CELL Iceland Maymester 2009, is a collaboration between UA and the Center for Ecological Living and Learning (CELL) in Maine. The educational experience opened the students’ eyes, as they studied Iceland’s environment, culture and people. Piper Broderick, for example, joined the trip to pursue in-depth studies about the environment and to shoot some potential footage for a documentary.

“We learned a lot about Iceland,” says Broderick, a UA New College major who graduated last May. “It’s such a green country in its practices. Moving through the landscape makes people much more aware of their environment and how to observe it instead of hurt it. You can learn so much from the people there.”

The students packed a lot into the three-week course. The group took hikes to mountain summits and across glaciers. Some of the students had extensive hiking experience; others didn’t. But the classmates decided to stay together as a matter of principle.

“Pauli and Rosa, our Icelandic wilderness guides, showed us that as a group we needed to stick together, no matter the circumstances,” says Kathleen Griffith, a New College major. “When morale was low and we needed a boost, there was always someone in the group who would bring high spirits.

“One day we hiked about 20 kilometers, and that was definitely the hardest hike,” she adds. “With one teammate missing, we sang the Alabama fight song at the top of our lungs on the peak of this gorgeous mountain. After we finished the song, our final teammate came into sight and we cheered him on until he joined us on the peak.”

But beyond the thrill of the outdoors and of companionship, the students got firsthand exposure to Iceland’s philosophy of sustainability. Steinberg and his students paid particular attention to hydroelectric and geothermal energy, which Iceland uses for most of its energy needs.

“Buildings and water are heated with geothermal; greenhouses are heated with geothermal,” Steinberg says. “Iceland is becoming self-sufficient in vegetables through greenhouses heated solely by geothermal energy. So it’s really kind of remarkable.”

The world-renowned Solheimar eco-village served as a home base for the students’ travels, which concentrated on the southern part of Iceland. Solheimar combines a strong philosophy of sustainability with a community dedicated to helping people with physical and mental challenges learn meaningful skills.

“It’s a wonderful community that is very aware of how it’s using the environment,” Griffith says. “It has a windmill and it gathers geothermal energy for its greenhouses. It also has workshops like woodworking, soapmaking and candlemaking.”

The Solheimar community also is dedicated to reforesting. Iceland’s barren landscapes weren’t always so sparse; overgrazing and erosion have taken their toll on the island’s forests, Steinberg says. To offset their carbon footprint, the class members planted about 6,000 trees in two days.

“When the Vikings came over in AD 800, they brought grazing animals, so Iceland has a really long history of overgrazing,” Steinberg says. “With volcanic eruptions, there’s a lot of soil erosion. So if you couple this unstable environment with overgrazing, you get deforestation. We planted a species of native birch, almost a shrubby birch, and a native willow.”

Among their other learning experiences, the students helped a local artist build a traditional Icelandic turf house using area resources: layers of sod alternating with layers of rocks. The artist had created the tools himself, and the students were grateful to learn from his experience.

“Here was a bunch of college kids from Alabama who had never done anything like this,” Griffith says. “He explained it so well. His knowledge of the tradition made the experience so intimate. It was better than taking a history class.”

Survival—in the form of both birth and death—was at the heart of one of the last trips the class took. They visited a farm during lambing season; one night, they camped out on a tarp spread in a shelter among more than 200 sheep. During the night, they observed a lamb being born live, and early the next morning, saw another stillborn. The poignant experience was worth the less pleasant aspects, Broderick says.

In addition to a new appreciation for the environment and culture of Iceland, Griffith came away with some stones that she plans to use as interesting beads—particularly the obsidian stones that are everywhere around Iceland. The stones, the beauty, the ecology and the culture already are beckoning her to return.

“I will be back at some point,” she says. “It’s just a matter of when.”