Sunday, 19 November 2017

Week 59: (13th to 19th November 2017) or 'Towed Thoughts'

Have you seen the face of Lancaster? Its two eyes are to be found at the Castle and the Cathedral, which for centuries have towered over the city and surveyed the echelons of its society. Nearby, protruding out of the city like a nasal ridge, is the bluff of Williamson Park. And there, curved into an eternal smile, is the mouth of the River Lune. The face of Lancaster is not without its blemishes, either. Like wrinkles on aged skin, the roads have multiplied and widened. Pockets of deprivation have emerged like patches of unmanaged stubble. And yet, many including myself, choose not to notice these blemishes, but solely a veteran city; the wisdom held in the eyes of a venerable retiree, who once worked to keep the North industrial, but now content on allowing new towns take charge with their fresh ideas. If the new town of Milton Keynes were to visit Lancaster, it would be like a young boy meeting his grandfather, admiring his shrewdness and senescence.

If we peel back the skin of Lancaster, we find a thin capillary that's marked on the map as the Lancaster Canal. In the 18th century, it was a major artery, linking together the limestone quarries and the coalfields so as to feed the hungry mouths of mills and workhouses throughout Lancashire and Cumbria. Little, if any, of that history remains. Once upon a time, men used to tow coal down the canal. All they seem to tow nowadays are their dogs.



If, like myself, you have ever had the privileged opportunity of spending an afternoon, musing about history with a retired grandparent, you will be aware of their instinctive desire to pluck you from your armchair and take you into the hidden cupboard of their mind where memories are stored. And as you collect more fragments of their former life, you begin to remember them not as senile or enfeebled occupants of the armchair, but youthful and dutiful forbearers, who contributed admirably towards noble causes. A saunter alongside the Lancaster Canal conjures the same atmosphere. If you follow the canal as it dives under bridges and wraps around the ankles of buildings, a story that lay dormant on the bed for 300 years, begins to awaken. The faces of those who pass you become blackened by coal. The dog being walked becomes a horse, strenuously hauling vessels of limestone. Smoke begins to rise out of chimneys and you believe, if you walk up to the castle, that a public execution may just take place.

Thus, is it this undying link to the past, to a sort of fluidic wisdom, that inspire men and women to leave the warm lounges of their homes and spend an hour or two beside this water? Away from the deafening rush of the city, a bench by the canal may well be akin to spending the afternoon sat in an armchair, enjoying the peaceful company of a retired grandparent as they narrate their stories. Or is it the fact that water opens the mind to new possibilities? On a sunlit day, when the reflections of bridges and houses are painted in the oldest mirror, the world seems that little touch larger and deeper. Whatever brings people down to the retired waters of the Lancaster Canal, one thing is for sure: it does it well.

I took my thoughts for a walk along the canal. We tunnelled through a small woodland that enjoys a suburban peace all the year round. Bathing on the opposite bank were a couple of bungalows that use the canal as a foot-spa; the toes of sloping gardens just sinking into the water. A blue sky bathed over subtle ripples. Often, a number of silvery wings would emerge up ahead; the shallow waves pulled over the surface by a convoy of ducks. But all was calm and still.



Passing through Lancaster on the canal towpath is like travelling the full length of a field through one long rabbit burrow. The city, as seen from this basement corridor, is unrecognisable, apart from the occasional flash of familiarity as the cathedral and castle float into vision. You begin to see slim boats cutting through the water and wonder what it's like to live on a floating hallway. A book is yet to be written on whether the names emblazoned on the shells of canal boats boast the truth about what happens inside. How serendipitous is the Serendipity? How celestial is the North Star? What gives the Mint Imperial its name? I would love to do a tour of the country, hopping and hitching from one canal boat to another. On the ocean, one has to accept the remoteness, but on a canal boat which flirts all the while with civilisation, how disciplined is the lifestyle? If the crew from Mint Imperial wish for custard they need only to cruise a couple of miles downstream and jump ashore. But would they?

I walked for 11 miles. The artist inside me painted a beautiful canal out of watercolours, and then as if divinely enlightened, he kept festooning it with foreground interest: a boy with his Dad's fishing line, a family cycling the banks, the Cuz I Can cruising delicately past me, and of course, bridge after bridge. Occasionally, a dull reality seeped through: a tyre at the bottom of the canal, an empty beer-can floating sorrowfully over the water, a chip cone entangled within the weeds. Litter on the banks feels, at least to me, essentially manageable but down on the murky depths of the canal bed, one stares at it feeling utterly helpless.

When you walk along the Lancaster Canal, you have one decision to make: when to stop walking along the Lancaster Canal. It is a difficult decision, for there arises out of one the incessant curiosity and desire to know what lies beyond the 'next bridge'. But the canal is a story 42 chapters long, where each mile is an exciting and beautiful chapter, enriched in history and like any great novel, it is good to pause and refresh. So that's what I did. After 11 miles, I let a finger post direct me out of this watercolour painting and back into the heart - or perhaps that should be face - of Lancaster.



Monday, 13 November 2017

Week 58: (6th to 12th November 2017) or 'Lost at Sea'

It was high tide in Huddersfield; a tide of ghostly silver mist rolled out across the moorland. The houses of the industrial north were smoking their first pipes of the day, sending small clouds into the air, to lose themselves in the mist. The tall necks of factories hung above the grey slates like brick giraffes surveying a savannah of drainpipes and gutters. In this country shed of its colour by a blanket of suspended water, a medieval spirit as old as the peaks themselves came alive. I half expected an army to come marching down to seize the town.

One of the wrinkles set into the heart of the industrial north is a stretch of metal that sends trains from Manchester to one of England's famous cul-de-sacs: Kingston upon Hull. It is difficult to believe, as one weaves through the heartland towns of Huddersfield, Leeds and Selby, that there should exist a coastline at all. On and on, the train gobbles up miles, pulling us through a seemingly endless map of England. Horizons come to meet you, new horizons are born; new and exciting possibilities, coming and going, coming and going. The sounds of a conversation between sea and sand here seem gagged into a silence of implausibility. The sea? Here?

That shawl of mist, which England wears with Shakespearian mystique, is really a promise; a promise of crisper and brighter hours to come; a promise of sunshine that smiles through whimsical clouds. And as the mist rolls back out, a promise is fulfilled. Willows become fountains of light frozen in time and the Beeches stand golden as if drizzled overnight by demerara. I read a quotation recently from Albert Camus who described the British Autumn as "a second Spring where every leaf is a flower".

I caught glimpses of farm workers, wielding their spades through the soil, a lone horse in a farmstead, a robin carolling from a street sign, and far off into the distance, eight or nine dull grey vases boasting, not flowers, but thick and sluggish blooms of steam. The rugged country, the wild moorlands of the west, which had occupied most of one's view, were now distant horizons themselves, and now we rolled out across the flat stamp that sits on England's right. Elevation here is represented by the occasional farm mound or molehill.

I was writing when I suddenly gazed up to see water. A vast bath of glistening deep-blue had swallowed up the land. Small shapes were sitting at the water's edge on the far side, and as our train moved westwards still, a town began to raise its brow above the Humber.

 *** 

He sat on a street corner, and I stood from the opposite. His greying beard seemed to be pulling him towards old age whilst his brown leather jacket was tugging him back. With dexterity and unfathomable speed, his fingers were exercising themselves across an accordion, parcelling up notes into small melodic bundles and delivering them to his passing traffic. I admired the sheer ease with which he seemed to impregnate joy into the lives of strangers. Not one child passed him and failed to become absorbed by this great wave of notes. Even the teenagers (whose self image is often guarded with unparalleled focus) broke out of the rhythms of their own world to let themselves be pulled into his. I went over at a fitting conclusion to what could have quite easily been an incessant tune and raised my hat.

"François?" I suggested, pointing towards the accordion.
"No, Romania," he corrected.
"Ah, you play in Romania?" I pursued.
"Nah, Germany... no good in Romania."

Why he had to travel close to 1000 miles to pick up his instrument was never to be answered as he pulled out a phone - that great conversation warden - and tapped out some numbers, perhaps to Romania, perhaps to Germany, perhaps to someplace else. Further up the street, a market trader was dishing out Dutch Pancakes. Beyond this floated a faint tune on a Spanish guitar. And there, projected on to one of the city walls, the words which verified all of these first impressions: "Hull, the city of culture".



Hull's playground has not one blade of grass in sight. Neither for that matter does it have any of the accustomed pleasures: no swings, no slides, no roundabouts. It consists simply of a trio of large circles which are constantly drawn, erased and re-drawn on the concrete by a series of underground fountains. With a graceful and reassuring regularity, columns of fresh water leap into the air, each seemingly attempting to out-jump the other, before they descend back down to make their meeting with the tiles. Occasionally, the ensemble breaks out in a series of elegant solos or a Mexican wave, before they unite in symmetry yet again. Sometimes they flirt low with the tiles, only to ascend back into choreographed dance. In the glorious sunshine, as an old man recalls familiar melodies on a Spanish guitar, I gaze at these fountains - these aqueous ballerinas - and the townsfolk who play with them. This is, as I say, a playground.

I watch as young children approach the spaces of temporarily absent fountains, small holes in the ground that would soon spout unannounced geysers, their faces painted with unwavering concentration as they calculate their vault across. Some enjoy many successful flights, and with boosted confidence, begin to jump in gay abandon and without premeditation. Some have clear disinterest in staying dry, and attempt to stamp out the gushing water, only to find the water ascending in ferocity through the voids uncapped by their shoes and boots. Occasionally a friendship, albeit transitory, strikes from within one of the circles, as an impenetrable wall of water forces unacquainted youthful eyes to meet and then, before names and schools can be exchanged, the ground swallows up the water and they run out of each others lives. Pigeons meet to wash down their lunch of breadcrumbs and pastry flakes, some perching close to one of the showers to wash the dust of their wings.



Choose the right cobbles and you find yourself gazing up to Hull Minster. It's not the grandiose Minster of York, but impressive nonetheless. An organ was playing somewhere from within when I arrived and with the curiosity that piggybacks on the conscience of the solitary traveller, I wandered in. The air inside these holy sanctuaries is often unlike any air one can encounter anywhere else; it's weaved together by an unseen, untouchable splendour and it doesn't wait to be inhaled; it rushes to you, through you. I started to become the Minster. I smelt nothing but that antiquarian, sweet comforting aroma that ascends to the nostrils from ancient books when you open them. I heard nothing but the triumphant bars of the organ, which became no less grand no matter where I took myself within the church, as if the organist was sitting on a stool from within my very soul. Shimmers of bright light beamed through glass, turning a window into a story, and down at my feet were stones under which were the remains of a Hull past.

I ambled around this contained peace, thinking what would happen if the walls were removed. Would the peace float out to dispense itself around Hull? Around England? What radius could the peace adequately cover? Like dropping an inkwell into the ocean, would it soon dissolve away? Is it the state of being quelled within these four ancient walls that ensures its strength and its eternality? Later, when escorting myself around the exterior, I happened upon an open window. Drifting out were the voices of what sounded like angels preparing for evensong. I leaned against the wall underneath this extractor fan of peace, and listened as the voices rode upon a wintery air. I expected them to become fainter and fainter as I moved away and on through the rest of Old Hull, but they didn't and I realized that, standing beneath the open window with welcoming ears, the voices had found, in me, a new sanctuary of peace.

***

At the fingertips of Hull, the mouth of the Humber sits gaping wide, as if in permanent awe of the sea. A raft in the far distance is the Lincolnshire coastline, over which seagulls gather in the afternoon sunlight. As I write, a lonesome sailing boat is drifting just beyond the marina. It gyrates around, like a lost soul might search an unfamiliar space to seek lost friends. It seems to be searching for a fleet, but the fleet - once an emblem of Hull - is absent.

You have to use your imagination at Hull Marina. You have to imagine the men with foam in their beards, grappling thick rope with their beaten hands. You have to imagine the men who jumped ashore to marry their ships with the large, iron hands that stick out of the decking. You have to imagine the cheese from Stafford, the corn from Cheshire, and the butter from East Riding bidding farewell to their fatherland. You have to imagine the tobacco and sugars arriving on early mornings from the West Indies, and the crews saluting a Halibut ship that pulls away for a week out at sea. You have to imagine the grain ships, the wool ships, the vessels laden with coal and the triumphant crafts escorting machinery, that skated so freely across miles of foam, congregating just beyond the marina, like an anthology of epic tales bound together for the first time.

The tides of change have swept across Hull, bringing a wave of international culture, but its seafaring days are sadly lost at sea.





Sunday, 5 November 2017

Week 57: (30th October to 5th November 2017) or 'Weighing up the week'


The silver horseshoe in the sky slowly abseils down a wall of stars. In a while, the horizon will unzip once more, dispersing a colourful steam across the sky like dyed perfume to paint the Earth once more. From this stream of colour, the clouds that live over Lancashire will take their straws to the dark greys, lapping it up until the sky is full of lead.

And so it was, on one particular morning this week. I was sitting under some of this lead waiting for a train to whisk me south. Though others also waited around me, we were all lost in the labyrinths of our own thoughts. (I was musing over a sign I had read in my taxi stating that the soiling charge was £75, and wondering how to release the word 'soil' from its prison of negativity). And then, in that unique yet inevitable way a chord of activity can strike whilst travelling, a figure emerged before me. Though he didn't speak, his appearance translated his predicament to me perfectly well. He was about 30, and his was a life of drama. Which props had been used in the most recent episodes of this drama? Not a sink, that's for sure. I was doubtful about a pillow too. But certainly, somewhere along the way, a bottle opener. He slunk into the chair next to me and loudly exhaled as if to eject the troubles from his mind. 
Moments later, a trio of police officers descended to the platform. They approached the man without the look of urgency usually reserved for the most dangerous of suspects but still with an essence of displeasure. 
"Can you tell me where you're travelling to?" one of the officers began. There was no intelligible answer, apart from a slurry of words slipping over the tongue. It was if his very vocabulary had been diluted in a flood of alcohol. Eventually, a 'baa' and a 'row' crept out. Barrow in Furness. 
It transpired after lengthy interrogation that, in the course of the night, he had struggled his way across the railway tracks, an offence which would eventually carry a fine but in the meantime, a ban from travelling by train so very quickly the police scooped him up from the platform. For a while, though, it troubled me; the officers hadn't asked him why. What seed of woe had germinated this state of mind within him? Somewhere, the manipulative tentacles of some heavy burden had pulled out the rational reasoning from inside him. As he ascended back up the steps, he did so sluggishly as if he was hauling an ever growing load of troubles, which in a sense, was true. 
We all carry some measure of burden; the daily toils are as important to the human experience as water is for tea. If there really is some 'weight on our shoulders', even if it's the weight of the world, it's alas a mass that will never be numerically described. The only scales we have are the few moments of introspection that we are sometimes afforded at the end of the day; in the stillness before slumber, when our conscience is weighed.

Luckily, within the Earth Sciences, the measurement of mass is a more precise endeavour and in Soil Science it’s one of the first processes a sample goes through during the experimental period. For my samples, the mass of the soil, together with its volume, will indicate its relative density. In time, as more of my samples are sent through this procedure, I will begin to establish how the density of soil changes down the profile; establishing whether the use of heavy farm machinery has compacted the surface horizons is one such line of enquiry.

And so, a bag is unsealed, its contents are placed in a foil tray, measured on a mass balance, poured back into a bag and resealed. Then, a bag is unsealed, its contents are placed in a foil tray, measured on a mass balance, poured back into a bag and resealed. After this, I take a bag, unseal it, place its contents in a foil tray, measure it on a mass balance, pour it back in a bag and reseal it. On and on and on this cycle persists, never deviating nor embellishing. The only aspect of the project which dares to surprise, the one unpredictability within a web of constants, is the mass of the soil itself.

 
 
 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Week 56: (23rd to 29th October 2017) or 'Literally connecting with Nature'

In the ever-expanding lake of one's memories, one occasionally yearns to sit alone by the edge, with a net of nostalgia, and fish one or two out from the murky depths. This lake, one's personal pool of serenity, floats far from the channels of everyday life. Oh, how the eternal flow of the Present rushes on. Most of our lives are spent eddying around in the currents of the Current. But, as I say, sometimes one is seized by a wistful desire to moor up, and with pensive steps, amble down to the Lake of Reminiscence.

And there, by the water's edge, we reach out with our nets. The grains of our past are like a silty loam, passing effortlessly through the sieves of our memory. Most of our life passes through, forgotten. All that is curbed by the mesh are the larger grains; the nuggets of bliss and the lumps of sorrow. Sometimes I net relatively new-born memories, those that are still buoyant at the surface as if they had been dispensed only yesterday. Every now and again, however, I garner a trove of my childhood. Like a butterfly searching out the sweetest nectar, a memory from one's childhood is a honeyed delight. Though we were unconscious of it at the time, the world back then seemed profuse with beauty and adoration. Days seemed endless, embroidered together only by our enchanted dreams, and when we awoke, so on our unfettered life continued. And we continued to dream. Both day and night, we dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.

At some point, amidst those long, gleeful days spent dreaming, I harboured some interest in Science and, in particular, the art of the scientific experiment. I recall my hankering one year for a laboratory kit and my delight at receiving such a present one Christmas. And so, afternoons following school were thereafter spent diffusing coloured dye into test tubes, fantasising that they were actually potent chemicals, decanting them into beakers and thumbing the pages of a Young Scientist's experiment book, eager to tease out new and fascinating trials. Slowly, and surely, the zest for Science was infusing through me and I became indoctrinated by something that cannot be gift-wrapped at Christmas: a passionate endeavour. The clichéd closure to this story is often that 'the rest, as they say, is history'. But it's not entirely my history. The spirit of elation which enveloped me as a young boy, pouring vinegar over mother's baking soda in the privations of my dreamy mind, is the same spirit that drives me both today and tomorrow.

These recollections, particularly those concerning inking beakers of water with food dye, surfaced this week whilst tidying a laboratory here at Lancaster University. Handling trays of beakers and flasks and sending them to the 'wash-up', I recalled the countless times I would hand my Mum a range of test tubes and cylinders, spatulas and stirrers and ask if they may be washed up for the next 'experiment'. As I tidied the shelves, I remembered that I too had a shelf, rooted into the wall just above my headboard, with containers full of all manner of materials. If anything was strange this week, it was the surprising similarity between my 'bedroom laboratory' and this university one. Remove the space-themed wallpaper, the wardrobe and the bed, and there is very little to distinguish one from the other. In one aspect however, indeed the propensity for mess, they stand far apart.

I have rarely happened upon a laboratory, especially a University laboratory, which could, with an hour's notice, host a worthy jumble sale. I wrote earlier about the Present being very much like a powerful river that rushes on and on. This laboratory dammed that river long ago, and years worth of time have been slowly filling it ever since. When the worktops were fully occupied, time seems to have disorderly seeped into the cupboards and around the backs of equipment. I have unearthed a pair of hair straighteners, empty rucksacks, a grass strimmer and what looks like a lawn mower this week. Alongside these artefacts sit samples, diaries and bottles nearly ten years old. I am reliably informed that the unintelligible words scrawled over the whiteboard have faced countless of scientists for more than five years. There are documents with signatures from Doctors that now sign as Professors. And, as I'm sure you know, I could very well go on.


"You've made it too lovely," someone told me, having spent the afternoon feeding hungry black sacks with ten year's worth of agglomeration. Lovely, maybe, but it is now a functional laboratory, with labelled shelves and drawers. Workspaces are now numbered and have their respective booking sheets. Unnecessary boxes, holding unnecessary bags, full of unnecessary samples, have been necessarily disposed of. And as a result, the laboratory even has overspill space which can be used as and when it is deemed required.

Until this week, I had been reluctant to start my laboratory work, but having seen it reincarnated as a fully operational lab from its previous life as a junkyard, I am now both eager and excited to begin weighing my air-dry soil. I will pen a line or two about that, next week.

***




























An Autumnal dawn yawned out over Lancashire, exhaling a breath of crisp, biting air across the county. The knives of the turbines cut through the beams of the low morning sunlight much like we might take a knife to our toast. Cattle began sketching their first shadows over a carpet of silvery grass. Glistening globes of dew hung like chandeliers from the branches; arms once clothed in luscious sleeves of green, but now naked, hanging over puddles of reds and orange. I cycled to where civilization zips on to the barren cloak of the moors, and sauntered leisurely to a small, hidden, inside pocket of woodland. And there I perched, on a moss-bearded stone, watching as the gaps between trunks were busy ushering morning sunlight through the wood. The stream on the left beside me was breakfasting on some of this light and I gazed as the bubbles became miniature lightbulbs. To my right, a sheep was engaging his jaws on the leaves. High above me, birds were dispatching messages to comrades. All around me, it rained a golden, reddish rain, and I knew I was witnessing the graceful final journey of the leaves.  


Sometime after, I arose to recharge my familiarity with the moors. I can try to weave some literary web to paint my experience, but it would be a poor effort, for there are sensations on the moorlands that one cannot possibly encapsulate with written word. As I clambered towards the rocky tors, which perch like brave climbers high up on the peaks, the mind - as it often does in these circumstances - turned to thoughts which away from the moorlands seem ludicrous. Notwithstanding, I did muse about the water locked up in the peaty bogs, and if they were granted the faculty of feeling emotions (I warned you it was ludicrous), how on earth they would feel. There, in the air, how liberated those little droplets must have felt, diving from the clouds towards the greens and browns of an English moorland. How barren, and thus how enthralling the chance to join streams that tour down valleys. The final centimetres of descent; suddenly, thirsty hands of moss snatch the little droplets and detain them in the peat. How jealous they must be now as they gaze west at the unbounded Irish Sea...

It is when the mind begins to conjure up these thoughts, so distant from reality and reason, that the solitary wanderer realizes they are not merely hiking, but have allowed their mind and soul to nestle within the very spirit and ethos of the moorland.


The peat is the diary of the moors. The footsteps of a thousand journeys are scribed into the black. I wandered for what felt like hours over a landscape, etching the course of my journey and reading those who ventured before me. Occasionally the cast of a walking boot is partnered with a paw, and over both of these, a grouse has narrated its own excursions. But no sign of any of the authors.

At noon, I gazed out over the coastline of Lancashire and witnessed an inward migration of clouds effortlessly passing border control. This pilgrimage of cotton wool muddled the blue skies for the remainder of the day. When they cast a veil over the rays of the low-lying sunlight, the moors became instantly refrigerated. Over the valley, I watched as these clouds pulled on their invisible reigns and dragged shadows over the hillsides like sledges over snow. On rocky outcrops, I often paused and lunched on the tapestry of a fine view. With the tide out, the horse-shoe of land that unites Lancaster with the peninsula of Grange over Sands seemed closer than I had ever seen it before. The Sun bounced its rays off the roofs of cars making their way from Lancaster, across the bridge, and on to what looked like the end of the world. Northwards, the Lake District hid in its own world, behind a haze. And panning westwards, where the stitches of a border pull Lancashire and Cumbria together, farms were freckled with cattle and wrinkled with dry-stone walls. At my feet was a sea of red heather; the embers of a season past.
























What I am about to narrate next happened in less than ten seconds. I was walking back to my bike, down in the lowlands of the moors. All was calm, and still, and the mind was wandering not with the feet, but in some other world. And then, thud. Struck. On the head. From behind. Down I fell. Grounded. A moment was spent grasping my senses, another was spent rubbing a bleeding elbow, and then I turned around to face the entity which had mugged me of my serenity. There, sitting quite pathetically at the scene of the crime, and by no means absconding in guilt, was a Grouse. It withheld some disposition of anger in its eyes, and I realized that it was a premeditated attack rather than a flying error. Nevertheless, I wasn't going to be cautioned off my path in this way and thus I gave the Grouse some stern words.

"We share this planet. There's plenty of room for the both of us. Okay?"

The Grouse, who had been quite still up to now, suddenly nodded once towards me and with that I walked on. Sheep always stare at hikers, but those grazing nearby seemed genuinely stunned.

For clarification (and this should be broadcast to the entire animal kingdom), when I write about 'connecting with nature', I don't mean literally.





Sunday, 22 October 2017

Week 55: (16th to 22nd October 2017) or 'A world that never sleeps'

The soil never sleeps.
In its voids, gas and waters gather,
waiting for thirsty roots to crawl
down motorway tunnels dug by worms.
For the spade. The plough. 
The massage-press of hooves.
For the rain to run through its seams
and seeds to push up to the light.
(Adam Horovitz, The Soil Never Sleeps)


Early morning, and the stage is ready to host the dramas of another day in Hertfordshire. Enter character one: a flame of amber, who creeps on stage and hurries away the blackened curtains of the night sky. Soon, the cast of Life rush on; the leading roles of Mr and Mrs Mundanity, the commendable Mr and Mrs Success, the ever-heckled Mr and Mrs Disaster and the curious family of Mr and Mrs Mystery. Scene after scene, hour after hour, the script to Life is re-written by Director Fate, an ominous figure that sits in the wings and adjusts the set relentlessly. The conflict between Mr Success and Mr Disaster is continuously reworked, the Mundanity clan tediously roam the stage uttering their trivial lines, and the family of Mr and Mrs Mystery, a strong family of eighteen questions, loiter as unsolved riddles in the shadows. Today, however, is a special day. Up in the gallery, a team of 18 fresh faces are preparing to take over the spotlights, ready to shine a light on these Mysteries. It's a long scene of over three years, but once fully aglow under the spotlights of lengthy research, they are re-cast as Truths and exit the stage to perform a new script: the script of the Thesis. For now, though, eighteen Mysteries float about the stage. Today they are ready for their inaugural moment under the spotlight; their first lines in this production called Life. Let's meet the talent operating those spotlights, the attentive engineers of research and study, the third and final team of STARS PhD Students. 



Eighteen young and inquisitive minds made a confident march through the front doors of Soil Science this week. Down at Rothamsted Research, on the outskirts of a surprisingly bustling town called Harpenden, the third and final cohort of STARS PhD Students were welcomed into a family of like-minded soil enthusiasts. I had been looking forward to the event for a while. These occasions, wherever they take place, nearly always call for much inspired discussion and debate and this week's Welcome Event was no exception. As I introduced myself to the cohort on Wednesday morning, I was talking to future colleagues and almost certainly future friends, all of whom have germinated the seeds of passion for Soil, all of whom demonstrate the zest required if such a passion is to be continually cultivated. 

In a slightly different programme to my own STARS Welcome Event at Borwick Hall last year, each new student was tasked with introducing their project through a single object. Whether they were directly related to the project, or presented in more abstract terms, I became intrigued in the indisputable diversity of Soil Science as a discipline (and not for the first time). Objects like an acorn, a miniature tractor, a bee-emblazoned cushion, a Pot Noodle and a metal chain each represent, to some degree, the main business of three years' research. If only we could amass an exhibition of objects from many more Soil Scientists? How extraordinarily diverse that would be, I wonder! 

Incidentally, when I arrived in Harpenden, the first gentleman I talked to knew about Rothamsted Research, but then he was a taxi driver. I imagine many residing or working in Harpenden, a leafy north London suburb, would not hold extensive knowledge about the institution so allow me to introduce you to, arguably, one of the world's most important Soil Science research institutes. This really is one of the Grandfathers of Soil Science, being the founding place of the British Society of Soil Science and to this day, the home of one of the world's longest running experimental sites. These accolades sit inconspicuously from the driveway and are not immediately apparent until one goes exploring. Turn left and right in the right places, and one eventually happens upon the UK's most extensive archive of soil samples, described in some detail on the site's webpage:

"Between 1843 and 1856, Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert started several long-term field experiments at Rothamsted Research. Some failed or were discontinued because of poor soil structure and crop diseases. When Lawes died in 1900, the remaining experiments were continuing more or less as originally planned and are now known as Classic Experiments. They are the oldest, continuous agronomic experiments in the world and therefore rightfully and uniquely famous.
With remarkable prescience, Lawes and Gilbert retained samples of crops, soils, fertilisers and manures applied to the experiments. Successive generations of scientists at Rothamsted have continued to add to the collection and the resulting Sample Archive now comprises > 300,000 samples. This unique resource is of immense value. New analyses of archived material continue to provide insights into changes occurring over 170 years. No other long-term experiments have such an archive."  Read more about the Sample Archive, here.


The soil never sleeps. 
It banks live
in its soufflé stomach,
connects them to everything.
Even the dirt beneath fingernails, 
the dirt caught in a mole's coat, sings
with a million microbes to the gram 
of connections, growth.

Seldom do academics, and students for that matter, survey the incredibly dense and complex web of interactions that exist between the many micro-worlds within Soil Science. Those who have had this enriching experience may know a gentleman called Nick Skinner. Nick, who founded and leads Poppyfish People Development, has a highly-sought talent of shifting the way we perceive the invisible, and rendering it surprisingly tangible. The connections between the 18 new STARS projects were exemplified this week with garden string. And as the poem above suggests, singular topics of research, that were originally conjured as separate projects by distanced researchers, have entered this flavoursome and aromatic soufflé of Soil Science; they are no longer single ingredients, but now part of an intriguing mix of interrelated ideas and themes. With garden string, the complexity that exists between less than twenty projects demonstrates the extraordinary breadth of the discipline, just as a few minutes ruminating over a teaspoon of soil would present unimaginable biodiversity.

If you walk into the reception of the conference centre at Rothamsted, look to your right. As with most items of interest at this institution, the keynote interests are not immediately realized. I didn't notice it myself at first. A stand holds a three-verse poem originally commissioned by the Oxford Real Farming conference this year and scribed by Adam Horovitz, and which text has added light punctuation to this week's post. The soil never sleeps, and thus, the work of the Soil Scientist is never complete. As STARS launch the third and final cohort into the galaxy of pedological research this week, it does so knowing that the eighteen new projects will never shine a light on all of the mysteries encapsulated by the discipline. 

The soil never sleeps. 
Never slips into ideology or nostalgia.
It is place and purpose,
the perfection of decay.
A story that shifts 
from mouth to mouth. 
A crucible for rebirth, 
A rooftop on another world. 

 
As I admired the eighteen new students, speaking aloud in this historic institution, I pondered on how their excitingly fresh hopes and plans for the discipline may have been received by Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert. And so we return to the theatre. How the narrative of Soil Science has shifted from mouth to mouth since those figures made their inaugural speeches! This week marked a new 'Act' in the script, a rebirth of ideas, and all the time we believe we're actors on the stage, we're really just perching on the rooftop of this other world; a world that never sleeps. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Week 54: (9th October to 15th October 2017) or 'Nature's Baptism'

Signatures of Autumn are scrawled over this Lancashire night. Sitting up in bed, with the window ajar, I can hear the tempestuous howl of a callous wind that one becomes accustomed to in these moorland regions. A few loosely anchored papers on my desk are being rustled. The extractor fan of my hob is becoming increasingly restless. The sounds of the undergraduate spirit a storey below, still fresh and enthused and not phased in the slightest by the gusts, start to be delivered through the gap in the curtain. Sounds pinched from bus-stops, from bars, from bedrooms and from kitchens make up this audio drama. I listen to masculine chants erupting like sonic lava from the street below; to locally accented shrieks and shrills; to a kind of laughter only concocted after a couple of bottles have been emptied. The voices are neither clear nor distinct; these slurs are merely shadows of the audio world. I sit there and wonder whether they are sounds at all, but rather soundbite memories of an unreachable past.

Gradually, my room is fed with fewer voices and those that remain drift away like phantoms. The students have been scooped from the campus and couriered to a party. All that remains is the constant eddying of the air; a carousel breeze churning up the autumn leaves below my room. The mind floats off to the moors, where the winds pierce through the heather and taunt the lichened tors. And slowly, these images become darker and less defined as the mind is pulled through the gates of dreamland.


Back I am, in Lancashire, and casting the weather to one side, to a week which has been relatively calm. With the efforts of my fieldwork cocooned into boxes, I have spent the past few days unpacking my samples and setting them up across the department to air-dry. The air-drying process is one of the most important preliminary actions one executes prior to the sample analysis, and with some of the more clayey soils (those from Somerset, for instance) holding the largest volumes of moisture, this procedure could take up to four weeks. Nonetheless, one must subscribe to thorough and methodical work if accurate results are to be derived.

I have also spent the week producing - or reproducing to be precise - a spreadsheet that I aim to use in a future paper. Having lost the first copy to a series of computational wrongdoings- all misdeeds of my own, let me add - I have nearly salvaged the majority of the data. As with most items on this diary, I am unable to fully disclose the details of what I'm doing. That said, what I can say is that I'm considering the many ways in which the 'soil lifespan' may be extended through conservation management. In other words, which land management practices allow soils to be conserved the longest? Only an analysis of a range of studies may illuminate an answer and thus I have tasked myself the endeavour of amassing a large, yet inexhaustive, series of papers each showing how a particular land management regime retards the rate of soil erosion.

***

Hardly five minutes are expended commuting between my doorstep and the department. That said, the walk has become difficult in recent weeks; no more arduous in terrain or route, but mentally toilsome. On each and every trip, there emerging from behind the campus estate is the Forest of Bowland; drystone walls are but wrinkles in the western face of the moorland, the greys and greens run off into the misty horizon, and you just know that somewhere out in this wilderness, a farmer is milking his cows and an angler is casting his flies. Each and every time I pass this vista, I become more impassioned about returning there. Last Sunday, I tried.

A collage of weather rolled over the hills. Blue skies were borrowed from Summer, a mild breeze spoke for Autumn and every now and again a wintry chill awoke from a year's hibernation. More or less everything else seemed plausibly from the tenth month. A reddish, golden carpet of autumnal leaves carpeted the grass as if mirroring the sunrise. Conkers, as polished as the buttons on a soldier's trench coat, peppered the paths. Squirrels were inspecting their recently shaved branches. In a long overdue rescue effort, I withdrew my bike from what has been three months imprisonment in a dusty, damp shed and set off, out of the campus.

Soon after I left off I realized two things. First, I became enthused about the potential of rekindling some contact with the Bowland moors; its blood, the brown, peaty waters, and its spirit, the solemn and sad atmosphere which seems to exhale from the moss beds. Second, I realized I couldn't. This was the most sobering. My bike (and if I am to be truthful, myself) were in no fit state to continue ascending up the gruelling paths. Dismounted and dispirited, I leaned against a nettle-furnished stone wall and gazed out to sea. What a poor show, and especially after an active summer of fieldwork. Sooner or later I realized that the sheep in the field were not offering bahhs of comfort so I saddled up again and took a short-cut back to the campus. The path would, if memory served, guide me to a small stream, across which sat a series of stepping stones.

What had the previous year been an easily navigable stream has since become a rather ferocious stream, with an angry torrent. From a sandy bed at one side, I watched as bubbles eagerly commuted downstream as if late for an appointment with the sea. The water swirled with confusion around the stepping stones, and more important, over them. Interesting it is now to assess my own state of affairs, my own mindset, happening upon this river. There were at least ten minutes of simple yet ineffective gazing, as if I expected someone to 'turn off the tap' upstream. I climbed the banks and started hunting for logs. I even amassed a selection of large, platy rocks which perhaps could have sat atop the existing stepping stones. At no point, though, did I consider turning around. Despite my situation not improving, I was becoming infatuated with the gushing of the water; how fresh it appeared, how refreshing it would be! If the Forest of Bowland was welcoming me home, I considered this to be my calling card. This river, quite apart from anything else, was to be my baptism, back into the cradling arms of Mother Nature. And with the youthful spirit that occasionally takes over a man, I took off my shoes and socks and waded in.


I can so often remember the mind-numbing chills I encountered in Alaska, five years ago, but moreover the dose of adrenaline that the Arctic winds injected through my very pores. Once again, as I bathed my feet in the refrigerated Lancashire stream, I became likewise invigorated. I recalled the tales masterfully written by Robert MacFarlane on swimming in lakes and bathing in streams, and wished I had the tenacity to similarly excite the senses. Alas, the boyish mood which set me wading so decidedly into this river slowly drifted away from the soul and floated off with the foam downstream, and I was left once again addled with adult thoughts of water-borne disease. And so, I picked up my bike and made my crossing. When I reached the opposite bank, I felt renewed, refreshed and baptised; spiritually back into the bosom of the moorland, bathed and blessed once more by Nature.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Week 52: (25th September to 1st October 2017) or 'One year'

Walking to the river, along the river; now in the river...wading through the river...now, I am the river... swirling and purling, spewing and squirting, streaming and sluicing through the channels of life... and how the water gushes past me, how my thoughts surge within me, how memories are but leaves, surfing on the current...how I watch them, feel them, remember them come and go... there they go, whirling around the pool of infinite time in my mind...and how I gaze down into the water, gazing at my rippling face, my ever-changing face... oh, how I stretch my hand through that fluidic face, deep into my cascading mind, my stream of consciousness...

I had challenged myself, perhaps, to an impossible task; to reflect upon the first year of my PhD. As I leaned contemplatively over a moss-bearded bridge, and sought prolonged meditation with the stream below, I realized the difficulty of reflecting in something that is constantly on the move. A PhD is a journey and like the river, it evolves, develops, gyrates and most importantly, is never still. Even at times, at the surface, where it appears to have relinquished vivacity in place for placidity, the current of progress flows on underneath. The contours of my head were faint and broken upon the surface of the stream, mutating incessantly with the flow, so that although my torso stood steadily opaque on the bridge, my mind appeared translucent, drifting atop a deluge of thoughts and feelings. And that word, deluge, testifies to how difficult evaluating even the first year of a PhD can be. I am flooded with memories, and having re-read every word of my PhDiary this week, I am doubly unsure of the moments in which to fish out, and those to 'throw' back in the water.

Every river starts somewhere. The river I write beside is the River Deenagh. Specks of mist which sail in isolation across the Atlantic, ride up over the mountains of south-west Ireland and coagulate into little globes of rain. They fall, in their inevitable descent, down to land on ancient bowler hats and Aran sweaters, tempered cattle and wild clover, and into the deep, rich soils that powder the land and keep company the heather. Journeying downstream before me now was an Irish river but not Irish water, at least not in the broadest sense. I peered up to gaze at future rivers, which were mingling at the tips of the Killarney mountains. Where does this river start, then? And more importantly, where did this PhD begin? So many times in the past year, I have felt obliged - delighted, even - to draw upon my previous journeys, and my previous lives; my life as a curious child, growing up in the blankets of serenity which outlay across my home county of Norfolk. I began this PhDiary in the back garden of my Norfolk cottage...

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There is something about Ireland that...gets me. I have tried, and failed, to write about it. It exists in verse of Irish song, but how? In the phrasing? The rhythm? Is it something that can teased apart from the rootlets of other things and held out? Those who have had the pleasure of being in Ireland will sympathize with how inexact this feeling manifests within the traveller and will hopefully agree that it is probably best to accept it and enjoy it, rather than to precipitate it out. It is, in the words of writer Henry Morton, "something in a minor key... half magic and half music". To me, it is the spirit of Ireland; an ancient spirit dissolved into rock and humanity.

I mused on this dissolved spirit at the stream and wondered what unseen Irish essences were whirling around in the current. At school, most students learn about the 'river load' which rides with the water downstream; the load with which you can remove with a net, like the autumnal leaves, and the load that dissolves into the water, which one cannot hold in one's hand. What about the 'PhD Load', the things we entrain along the way, and transport with us on this journey? Since Day 1, I have 'netted' a rather substantial load of papers and books, but have entrained so many intangible, yet useful skills too.

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Further along, the path which so dutifully followed the banks of the river, began to migrate and I found myself leisurely sauntering through woodland. A perfect stillness nestled amongst the trees and so fragile it seemed, too. Just as 'one thing leads to another', as is my PhD experience these last 52 weeks, fresh and inviting routes seemed to grow out from each side of the path. Occasionally, I would elect one, and seek out its promises. One that struck me was the Mining Trail which skirts the border of an Early Bronze Age mine; the earliest copper mine in Ireland. According to information displayed at the site, metal was extracted from here and distributed around Ireland in around 700 AD and culminated in large-scale operations in the 1800s, with some 5000 tons of copper ore being sold to British smelters.

On one of the information boards, I noticed a small illustration of a Powder Magazine where gunpowder, used to blast rock in the mines, was stored. I smiled at the magnitude of destruction our ancient ancestors used to permit in order to access their desired material. The last couple of months in this first year as a PhD student have seen me physically mining the soils in woodlands and farms around England and accompanying what has been, at times, a struggle is an age-old question in Soil Science: what is the best way of obtaining the samples? Never would I have even considered gunpowder - more to the point, never would I have been sanctioned gunpowder - but as I gazed at the relics of mining sites, I recalled the many weeks of pit-digging and percussion coring.

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It didn't strike me immediately. But as I ambled over a fresh bed of autumnal leaves along the mining trail, I realized that I was also a 'mine' too. It has been one of the honours of this first year as a PhD student to have been so actively involved in teaching and mentoring. And in this unique capacity, which is never to be taken for granted, I have been a mine of information and advice for those students which have sought it. I have learnt the trick to being a good 'human' mine; not to simply give the answer away, but to allow the student in question to 'dig away'.

***


A day later, and the clouds were sprayed out of the sky. Down came the rain on Killarney (it had rained most of the night, too) and I spent most of the morning in a series of cafes, drinking warmth and listening to Irish chatter. Something - perhaps also an Irish wildness - grew inside of me, though, and I had the increasing urge to be back amongst the splendours of the national park. And so, I made way for the park, becoming increasingly aware of limits of my waterproofing, but remaining stubbornly persistent. I must have had a rather dispirited look about me, though, for approaching me was a large Irishman who offered to take me to Ross Castle on his cart. Such was his generosity that he also offered me the chance to pay him for the deed, too! These moments, where experience and payment stare at each other in contest, happen so often to me, alas. If one is to write about a place, as I do, he or she must always vote for experience, and coins are rarely dispensed, but exchanged for a good story.

My guide was called John (I fancied that his surname was more Irish) and the six year old horse was called Billy. Together, the three of us rode into Killarney National Park, and in between fragments of unintelligible Irish - for which I do not complain about at all; it is one of the delights of the language - Billy would often pause to allow John to point out the notable statements of interest. Was the horse and cart still popular over the rest of Ireland? Yes, it was. And turning to a matter of immediate interest: how often does it rain in Killarney? At least twice a week. I peered over the edge of the cart. The surface of the river which had seemed so clear the day before was now a torrent of brown, muddy foam, gushing its way through the channels, as if each bubble was on a race to the front. Clearly the night's rainfall had been unusually heavy as the muddy water even made a citation on the tour! Oh, how quickly water can be muddied! I recalled the moments on my PhD where simplicity and clarity had given way for muddle and strife.

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An hour in Ireland elapsed, and enough time it seemed for the rain to pass. A fresh nose-bag was granted to Billy whilst I explored Ross Castle. It has stood on this spot, by Killarney lake, since the 15th century.


Moored up beside the castle is a semblance of peace. It tugs at your torso, makes you sit. Then it tugs at your mind, makes you ponder; an overwhelming solitude. A gentle breeze ploughs a ripple into the lake. The clouds only enhance this place. On many a traveller's 'perfect' day, the skies would be clear and blue, and likewise the water, blue and still, but to see it in this way would only reveal half of its beauty. The other half remains harboured to the clouds, which roll off the lake, sketching new horizons, and painting mystique across the vista.

And then, the inevitable. All twelve of their American accents arrived about a minute before they did, but soon there they all were in person, with binoculars and cameras and a "Gee-Whiz" to hand, per chance that something might suddenly dive out of the water. Killarney Lake is large and my vista was panoramic, but somehow, they managed to position themselves in such a way as to block each and every square inch of water I had originally been espying. Expertly managed, I thought!

"Whiskeyyy...", they harmonized, exaggerating the 'key' so as to pull, and hold, the most unnatural of grins for a group photograph. They had spent no more than two minutes before they were being ushered back onto the coach. If any member of that group can write a spiritual and impassioned account about Killarney Lake, it will - for them - be a matter of fiction.

I felt a little foolish to imagine that such serenity would be - could be - uninterrupted by the exclamation marks of tourism. But why complain, too? This is, after all, what has made the last year such a fascinating experience for me. I have come to learn, at my pleasure, that doing a PhD is more than just an enquiry into your subject but a journey that makes you, as the researcher, more observant in life, more responsive, more accepting perhaps. The truly remarkable, yet unspoken truth, is that a PhD can make you more curious in areas of life you may have neglected in the past. I began to recall upon some fantastic moments where I have studied human life.

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"I don't know why you take so many photographs," an American lady set out to her husband, behind me.
"I take them to remember where I've been," he masterfully replied. "I'll forget, unless I write it down..."

With those words, I realized that I have scribed so many experiences in the past year and I began to wonder why. Have I had more time? More literary liberties? A greater reflective capacity? Maybe I just like to think about things? Before long, it occurred to me that I was staring at but not seeing Killarney Lake. Too enveloped I was in self-reflection that I hadn't noticed a couple of young girls, and their grandma, down at the lakeside feeding the mallards. Scattered crumbs were being scavenged, at first with little opposition, and then slowly a couple of cygnets emerged from around the reeds to join the banquet. Then, a couple of ravens swooped in and before long, it felt as if it was market day at the lakeside, with each feathered species eyeing up a meal with discounted effort.

Food... and thoughts. Both, I submitted, had the capacity to bring people together, in extraordinary ways. Thoughts alone can scoop hundreds, perhaps thousands, from their offices to conferences around the world. I mused on the conferences I had been lucky to attend over the past year...

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***


In an epilogue to my reflections, allow me to take you down to the Lake of Killarney, Lough Leane.

I am gazing into the lake and gazing at my liquid self, my ever-changing self, my evolving and adapting self; a mind of many thoughts, and questions, all swirling around in the water. The Killarney Mountains are floating off in the distance, as a ribbon of clouds move in. Summits begin to disappear beyond sight; others are floating like phantoms in the mist. The next year of my PhD awaits, at the feet of these mountains. As yet, the routes to the summits are unguided, unmapped, untrodden paths of discovery, veiled by the clouds of questions and the mists of uncertainty. But soon these clouds will turn to rain, and the rain will fall into streams, rivers and lakes again, so that what were once challenges will simply become more pools of experience to reflect in. Lough Leane, from the Irish, means 'Lake of Learning' and now, having reflected in what I've learnt these past 52 weeks, let us look forward and scale the challenges ahead.