Weeks 12-13: Savannah’s Final Blog

The SLS-France 2021 Program has officially come to a close, and as we prepare to return home, it seems as though the semester has flown by in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, as with all good things, the program must end, but we certainly went out with a bang! Within the final weeks of the program were some of my favorite activities of the whole semester. Thanksgiving occurred during this time, and it looked much different than in years past. Leaving friends and family and entering a new culture while being a full-time student is nothing short of a challenge. For many students, myself included, the homesickness began to set in with the arrival of the holiday season, especially because Thanksgiving is not celebrated in France. It just so happened that the Pompidou in Metz had a wonderfully interesting exhibit based on five different theoretical worlds so, Dr. Boulard made our own little SLS celebration by taking us to explore the exhibition on Thanksgiving. The five worlds that the exhibit presented were Globalization, Security, Escape, Gaïa, and Gravity. Each planet had a section of the exhibition and featured everything from art pieces to videos that portrayed the overall theme of the planet. I found Planet Globalization and Planet Gaïa to be the most intriguing. Planet Globalization is essentially a representation of the world we are living in now, a world of never-ending modernization with no regard to the limits of our planet. The art pieces (figure 1) in this section represented a willing ignorance in a world of increasing social and environmental terrors. Planet Gaïa, on the contrary, is an imagination of a world not yet created where innovation exists in harmony with the health of the earth. In this section, a fascinating piece featured a room of test-tube-looking structures (figure 2) filled with water, small marble-like pieces, and granite slabs. The water in these tubes was constantly flowing in a circular motion moving the marbles along the granite slab. This combination of elements created a simulation of the erosion that occurs on the bed of a river from the current and moving sediment. The exhibit did a fantastic job of showing the contrast between the grim reality of now and the hopeful outlook of what could be. 

Figure 1: Huang Hai-Hsin, River of Little Happiness 2015
Figure 2: Chang Yung-Ta, scape.unseen_sample-T 2020 & scape.unseen_meta-T 2021
Figure 3: Laura admiring Aluaiy Kaumakan’s piece in planet GaÏa
Figure 4: SLS students at the Pompidou Metz

Possibly the coolest and most unique visit of the entire semester was our visit to the Cattenom nuclear power plant. This visit made me feel like a top-secret spy because of the intense security and billowing clouds of vapor from the cooling towers that greeted us as we arrived at the facility. We spent a good bit of time in class discussing the problem of non-recyclable nuclear waste produced by plants such as Cattenom, so it was surreal to see the source in action. Once we were all geared up and had made it through the many security checkpoints, we made our way to see one of the four pressurized water reactors. The building that housed the reactor shocked me by its size as we climbed several stories of metal grates to reach the top, where we could finally see the reactor itself. The science behind the logistics of using the energy created by nuclear fission is incredibly complicated, and it was mind-blowing to me how people have thought up this process. Essentially, in the most simplified terms, the plant uses nuclear fission to split and release energy from Uranium (a highly unstable element). This energy then heats water which is then converted to steam that turns a turbine to produce electricity. The steam is then cooled by contact with water from the Moselle River in the cooling towers. We learned so much about nuclear energy during this visit, and we were all very grateful to have had such an irreplaceable opportunity to experience one of the biggest nuclear plants in the world! 

To close our semester together, Dr. Boulard scheduled a French cuisine cooking class to teach us how to make one of the most classic French treats: le macaron! This class was such a fun conclusion to the semester. We all had a wonderful time as we took turns aggressively stirring the mixture that would become the delicious filling for the cookies. We were shocked to learn of Lauren’s macaron-making expertise and simultaneously of Alex and I’s lack thereof. I am so thankful for such a good conclusion of my time here in Metz. After months of being away, I am excited to go home and see my family, but I will miss this lovely city I have gotten to know so well and the community that we have created here in the SLS-France program. This program has given me lifelong friends and memories that I will never forget, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Thank you so much to those who have read along with me throughout this semester. I have loved being your window into our fantastic program, and I hope you have enjoyed reading about our many adventures. 

Merci beaucoup et à bientôt!

Your 2021 SLS-France Program Blogger 

Savannah Simpson

Figure 7: Megan and Nate with their perfect macarons
Figure 10: Ngari and Megan in a stirring battle
Figure 11: Lauren showing us how it’s done!
Figure 12: finished product

Weeks 10-11 Blog: Ecological Adventures

Being at GTL with the SLS-France program gives us the opportunity to have a whirlwind of traveling and adventure, especially during our holiday breaks (one full week and a 4 day weekend, just like French people). We had plenty of ecological experiences along the way! It is super cool how the SLS-France program has given us the mindset to recognize environmental elements in every setting! Before I get into some of the marvelous things I saw during my travels, I must tell you all about my first day volunteering at Un Jardin pour 2 Mains, as it was a long-awaited visit. This organization sparked my interest because of their unique shared space with artists, carpenters, and even a Youtuber and their experimentation with new gardening techniques. We have had a beautiful fall season here in Metz, but winter has begun to set in. The morning Megan, Tanner, Ngari, Nate, John, and I went to the garden was particularly cold and dreary, so Nathalie (the organization’s founder) decided to do an activity inside. She gave us each a worksheet and began to show us two different types of seeds la poirée (Swiss Chard) and Œillets d’Inde (carnations). We filled out the worksheets with all the information needed to grow the seeds successfully, and once we finished, we folded them into little pockets for some seeds of our very own to take home! In class, we recently watched the film, Solutions locales pour un désordre global (Think Global, Act Rural), which emphasized the power of seeds in a world overtaken by industrial agriculture. The film showed how many organic, small farmers take back their power by harvesting their own non-GMO seeds. Having this knowledge in mind as we sifted through seeds at Un Jardin pour 2 Mains gave me a whole new appreciation and excitement about the activity!

For the longer of our two breaks, a few friends and I decided to visit Italy! At one of our first stops, Milan, we were greeted with one of the city’s most impressive urban ecology projects as soon as we walked out of the train station. To our surprise, two of the most predominant buildings in the surrounding city were covered in plants so, of course, we had to investigate. Come to find out, the two buildings we saw are the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) towers. After some curious research, I discovered that the two towers are residence buildings designed by architect Stefano Boeri. The two buildings combined are home to 21,000 plants which, to put into perspective, is equivalent to 30,000 square meters of forest¹. This fact blew my mind! After doing my term project on urban ecology, I was giddy at the fact that a building has been turned into a whole forest in the middle of a city. This building alone can generate oxygen, regulate climate, absorb carbon dioxide, and provide urban wildlife home, which is truly incredible. The thing I find the most genius is the space utilization. If someone had gone to the authorities in Milan and asked for 30,000 square meters of space in the city for a forest, they never would have gotten it, but in this form, it is simply another skyscraper. This innovative thinking is how we can create a sustainable future! The criticism of many towards sustainability is the fear of reshaping society as we know it. The Bosco Verticale is a perfect example of how creativity can rework something familiar into something that can help heal our cities, people, and the planet.

 For our second break, I went with a few others to the beautifully colorful city of Barcelona, Spain. In our time there we visited the famous Sagrada Familia. This magnificent cathedral was designed by Antoni Gaudi, started in 1882, and is still being built today. I have always heard that this was one of the must-see cathedrals in Europe, but I wasn’t sure of what made it stand out until I walked through its grand doors. Gaudi was highly inspired by nature and often included it in his work. The Sagrada Familia is no exception. The interior of the church was designed to look, feel, and act as a forest. The structural support beams of the building are trunk-like columns that branch out towards the ceiling to support the massive towers. Each section of beams is made of different material and has different shapes to produce the look of diverse species of trees in a forest. The stained glass was also strategically positioned to paint the cathedral with different colors based on the sun’s position throughout the day. The idea that a spiritual place should mimic nature is a brilliantly simple idea that I wish more architects would utilize. I was overwhelmed by feelings of awe and peace, and I thought it was incredible how I genuinely felt as if I were standing in a forest. The Sagrada Familia is a remarkable tribute to and a reminder of the beauty that exists all around us, and I can now definitely agree that it is a must-see. 

Week 8-9 Blog: Planting Trees and Posing with Piles of Compost

For the past two weeks, my fellow SLS students and I have had the opportunity to work with the organization Motris to pursue its mission to create urban forests and plant 10,000 trees in two weeks in the city of Metz. The first week we went to Parc du Sansonnet, where the organization had prepared two plots for us to start planting. I was honestly shocked at how easy it was! They handed us some shovels and gloves, and the only rule was that we couldn’t plant two of the same trees next to each other, as they were following a specific method called the “Miyawaki method”. This method developed by Japanese botanist and expert in plant ecology, Akira Miyawaki, takes into account ecological successions, and allows to immediately plant an advanced forest through the choice of the most adapted plant communities based on cooperation between trees. The method’s reconstitution of “indigenous forests by indigenous trees” produces rich, dense and efficient protective pioneer forests in 20 to 30 years, where natural succession would need 200 years.

Trees make a huge difference in the environment for the better, and often people allow themselves to be deterred from planting them because they think it will be some intensive process, but it’s not. We were not alone in our tree planting endeavors. We were joined by two different classes from local elementary schools! Some of us continued to dig holes for the children to put the trees in (probably better not to hand shovels to a group of kids), while others helped them loosen the tree roots and made sure they covered them with enough dirt! The children were so cute and excited, and I actually learned quite a bit of gardening vocabulary from them! I thought it was refreshing to see that they are being taught about environmental consciousness at such a young age and getting hands-on experiences with nature in a learning environment. I definitely did not get to plant trees during class when I was in elementary school, and it probably would’ve made me more environmentally aware far earlier in life. It is essential to show kids how fun and easy it is to make an impact because it changes the prevalent narrative of “you are too young to make a difference” by filling them with the inspiration to do great things. Just as my generation is shaping what the future will look like for them, they will one day shape the future for my children, and they are already getting a head start at six years old! 

When we were at the first of the two tree planting sites, we had an exciting opportunity to talk to some people from the local newspaper! They were very interested in what Motris is doing for the community, and they also thought it was cool that students from Georgia Tech in Atlanta were there to help. They interviewed several of us and asked us about the SLS program, why urban forests are essential, and the differences between urban ecology in Atlanta and Metz. They also had a photographer there getting down in the dirt for the perfect shot (figure 1), although I must say I am not sure many photos top the mid-air action shot of Marc digging a hole (figure 2). All jokes aside, the paper did end up writing an article and publishing some of our photos which was super cool and great for the program! We are incredibly grateful for the feature and the opportunity to impact Metz positively! I hope I will be able to come back to Metz in the future and see the growth of the trees we have planted here! 

Figure 1: The article and photo that were published
Figure 2: Marc mid-air to dig the perfect hole for the trees
Figure 3: Laynie being interviewed by a reporter

This week we also had one of our smelliest and most fascinating field trips yet! We visited the Méthavalor recycling plant. Here they recycle three main categories of trash: typical recycling (paper, plastic), compost waste, and miscellaneous trash. These three categories are separated by bag color, with orange for recycling, green for compost, and blue for all other trash. We got to walk through the factory that processes the compostable waste, and a room full of tons of rotting food smelled just about as you would expect. Regardless of the smell, it was very cool to see such a mass composting initiative. The most thought-provoking part of their composting process is the way they utilize the gases produced during food breakdown. Now, I am not a chemical engineering major for a reason, so I cannot tell you precisely what gas is used for what. However, I do know that they use the chemicals produced during the process to power their company vehicles, which is genius. This gas extraction is a somewhat tedious process that would take some time to adapt for large-scale use, but I really do believe it could be the future of fuel if perfected! I found this tour intriguing because we got to physically see each step of the process, starting in the room with the large bins of compost waste, the gas processing room, the piles of fertilizer, and lastly, seeing the cars that utilize compost power! We finished our tour by visiting their beautiful greenhouse, where they also use aquaponic techniques like the “Jardin pour 2 Mains” where we also volunteer! As always, Marc was ready for a great photo with one of the scarecrows, and Dr. Boulard, Laynie, and Samyuktha got to feed the fish. So, I would say it was a great ending to a great visit! 

Figure 4: Marc posing with a scarecrow
Figure 5: first bio waste processing site
Figure 6: pipes that collect the biogases that fuel the vehicles
Figure 7: Nate holding a cup that reads “I am thirsty for ecology”
Figure 8: Dr. Boulard, Laynie, and Samyuktha feeding the fish
Figure 9: Megan, Laynie, and I posing in front of a pile of compost