Sunday, 26 November 2017

Week 60: (20th to 26th November 2017) or 'A Storm... and a Teacup'

This week, as the topic of the weather unlatched the gates to another conversation, a colleague insisted that we needed a different latitude. I felt like saying "wait around for another million years and that may well happen". The UK is, of course, merely a speck of dust on a piece of a crustal jigsaw. Whoever, or whatever, is shuffling the pieces around is doing it incomprehensibly slowly. But on the move, we are. We have bathed under the equatorial beams of sunlight in the past and no doubt we will again in the future, although perhaps not in our future.

What can we do to improve our collective future? That puzzle, more or less, must underpin the mission of all living things. The pursuit of betterment has been a quest undertaken by plants and animals alike since their genesis. Charles Darwin referred to it as the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Mankind, though a latecomer in the grand kingdom of life, has followed suit. However, perhaps - and I am no expert here - perhaps we as human beings are the only species which actively sit down and discuss how to sustain. As far as I am aware, we're the only species to train a batch of our race to become nurses and doctors, so that we are able to prolong an individual's life as long as possible. We establish targets in order to regulate our use of the Earth's resources. We set up alliances, working groups and organizations that ponder over these matters everyday. Although, as Darwin suggests, we have descended from a web of heritage, a genetic web stretching from the bat to the banana, surely we are alone in our efforts to continue our struggle for life?

The Lancaster Environment Centre recently joined in this effort. Earlier this year, a group of academic and professional staff and students assembled together in a small board room, around a plate of cake. It seems that the presence or absence of cake can do more to influence the attendance of a meeting than any other entity. It must have incentivised me as I, too, was there. Around the table, the Lancaster Environment Centre Sustainability Group was born. It stemmed from an embryonic idea of Dr Jess Davies, who leads the group and together, we are working to put sustainability into action, engaging with the departmental community and the university as a whole, and to act as a platform for debate on sustainability issues. This week saw the group's inaugural event How to be Sustainable, at which this platform was officially unveiled.

























A number of speakers mused on what they considered to be the most sustainable way of living. Some were more practical and directly related to those within the Environment Centre. "If it's wrong to wreck the planet, it's wrong to financially benefit from wrecking the planet," Dr Emily Heath suggested, focussing on unsustainable pensions and offering advice on those which are more ethical.  Others spotlighted the wider debates of sustainability, beyond the UK. Julia Loginova took us to Russia to explore the environmental and social impacts of oil extraction whilst Dr Kirsti Ashworth summarised her research into sustainable US cannabis production.

One of the final speakers was Ann Brookes, who presented some postcards from a 'No Impact' week experience. In essence, this evolved from a year long experiment by Colin Beavan, and his family, to lead a zero net-impact life in New York city. The 'No Impact' week was subsequently designed to provide an appetizer of what this experience would be like for seven days. As Ann explained, "the week is designed to address much more than just environment sustainability; it's about increasing personal happiness and social wellbeing".

I recalled a similar passage, written by Herbert Ernest Bates in 1949, in which he remembers upon "a life where everyone...had to clothe himself, feed himself, amuse himself and as often as not doctor himself from the cradle to the grave [...] Are we really witnessing, not symbolically but actually, the destruction of an era, and being drawn back, with corresponding force, to a life that is closer to earth, the element which sustains us? It is a thought that fits in well with a certain observation, expressed elsewhere, that rather than study the habits of the savage in the jungle we should study ourselves, in this jungle of our own."

Some days later, I pulled my copy of Bates' The Country Heart down from the shelf because I remembered a conversation, documented somewhere amongst the pages, between Bates and another formidable writer, E. M. Forster. It was a discussion about the ease, or at times lack of, with which change can be executed in society. Indeed, the 'No Impact Week' is an individual's effort. "Sustainability," as Ann Brooks reminded us "isn't achievable alone - we need to work together!" But there are moments when one can feel that even the best collective efforts from a community, such as the LEC Sustainability Group, are not large enough to render any meaningful and impressionable change. I eventually happened upon the passage:

"How many people care if the country tomorrow is different from the country today...It is true that some people, perhaps an increasing number of people, care very much. But do the right people care?" 

I hope they do, for all of our sakes.


***




























There is something quite ethereal, almost unbelievable, about a cloud. From the ground, a storm cloud is an impenetrable ceiling of lead that defies even the most radiant light to singe through. And then you notice a small aircraft climbing up the walls of this sky, accelerating towards this very ceiling and you wonder how this piddling needle will ever pierce through. But it does, and you are left concluding that any cloud, however dark, is purely a phantom roaming the skies, drifting in some other dimension.

Night falls and the light, that had seemed to be entrapped by the clouds, is extinguished. And you go to bed.

The next morning, the sky is free from drifting coal but you are ankle deep in cold, turbid water. There is no ground anymore, apart from some solid base lingering twelve inches below. You gaze out the window to find sofas floating down the street. Wheelie bins have set off from your front gardens like cruise ships. Cars become submarines. Chair legs become anchors. The boundaries to yesterday's rivers have been erased almost as easily as an artist could manage. It is when your whole life paddles through the realities of a flood, that you can turn back towards a sky of clouds and wonder how you ever underestimated them.

Pockets of Lancashire were subjected to record rainfall this week; 1.7 inches in 24 hours. All told, twenty-seven residents had to be evacuated from their homes in Galgate and seventy from the north of the county. 120 premises were flooded, including a couple of lecture halls at Lancaster University.

***

I was off to the theatre. For £4.90, you can sit in the stalls all day and spectate upon the most fascinating of performances; the very best representation of contemporary urban life. The acts are unscripted, unannounced and unrehearsed but select any performance (and there are many within a day) and you're guaranteed a pageant worth all 490 pennies. I chose the 12:35pm showing. Oh, and the theatre's name? The 'Number 4'. 

I took my seat in this touring theatre and as it steadily withdrew from the pavement, the first act began. People you assumed were fellow spectators suddenly burst into role, and at each stop along the journey, a few would exit, and a few would take their place on the stage. Sitting backstage behind a screen is the director of this traveling play. His name is 62815 on my ticket, but he is known to the cast as 'Driver'. "Thanks, Driver," they say, as they step off the stage. Driver's job is to ensure each scene runs to time and often, when this isn't achieved, the cast are quick to inform him. If only they realized that, quite apart from running the show, he is also in charge of managing the audience. 

"Can you girls keep it down," the director cried out, staring at the reflection of three very loud, teenage members of the audience, in his rear view mirror. They had boarded a few scenes after me, and were not paying attention to the events happening before them. 



Let's meet the cast in Scene 8 or 9. There's Peggy, who wears a plum-red anorak and crowns it all with a mop of silver, which makes it seem that she's accidentally left her hair out in the garden overnight and it's caught the frost. Peggy needs work on speaking impromptu, as she sits in silence for most of her scenes. Doris, who sits opposite, has mastered the skill. Little, bar the sudden jaunt at an unexpected traffic light, can stop Doris from speaking and it appears she finds delight in issuing her soliloquy to thin air if a fellow cast member has wandered off-stage. And so, as I sat there, I began to listen to her Life and Times before a flood of characters came aboard at the bus station to drown out poor Doris. 

"I'm off for ma big shup...Asda," Margaret exclaimed. Margaret wears a sheepskin that speaks for itself; that is informing us, the audience, that many generations of lambs have been reared since the one responsible for Margaret's costume. 
"Oooh, off for a big shup at Asda, are you?" Sue is Margaret's friend, and has a habit of rephrasing each of her statements into a question. Their on-stage presence is priceless. 
"Yeah, the big Asda, you can get all the big bargains in there, you can."
"All the big bargains?"
"I got this the other day," Margaret says, withdrawing the face of Daniel O'Donnell from her handbag. "It's Danuel O'Dunnell, got it nine ninety-nine, all his greatest hits."
"You got it nine ninety-nine?" Sue checks to confirm. 
"Off for washing powder today...Bold. I'm off for Bold today."
"Is Bold the one you get?"
"Yeah, I do ma washing this aft-noon..." 

The plot thickens. Next on stage is a young boy, who enters clutching a miniature helicopter. His grandmother ushers him unsuccessfully into a seat at the front, oblivious it seems to the fact that the stage manager inside her grandson's mind informs him that the most exciting seat is further towards the back. "Can you make it work, nanny?" he asks, handing over the aircraft to Nanny. "I can try..." and suddenly she has changed character. She is no longer Nanny but an aeronautical engineer. 

***

The director keeps his appointment with the final kerb. The show has run to time and the first act is complete. The cast exit out the stage door for the interval. I made a quick dash through the rain to one of those last remaining plinths of quintessential Englishness: a tea-shop.

Taste, alone, does not mark the success of the tea-shop. There is a music to be enjoyed here. If ever (God forbid it) I lost my sight, I would take myself to a tea-shop for reassurance that I had not wandered unguided across a bridge to some distant country. I would open the door - manually, of course, and listen out for a charming bell to sound a high-pitched A above me. I would sit and relish the dainty voice that is the chatter between crockery as they are delicately stacked together by waitresses. I would listen to the sound of a teaspoon as it is gently tapped thrice against the cup and then one satisfyingly final ring as it is placed back down on the saucer. I would take note of the staccato chink chink chink as a bill is percussed into a cash register and the chorus of jangling coins as the cash tray springs open.

"It should have voided... I just don't understand it". Sheila is more adept (probably) with a cake slice than her cash register. "It's giving me...£16.94... I don't want £16.94." 
"I wouldn't mind £16.94," I said to another customer, as I took my seat behind a large red chess-board of gingham tablecloth. Suddenly, a long receipt, akin to an Egyptian scroll of erroneous numbers, was fed into Sheila's hands. I began to gaze around at the paraphernalia that adorns the artex. A pizza cutting board was hanging just above my tea and scone. Dotted around were some very old photographs too, most of which demonstrating what used to occupy this space about a hundred years ago. The similarities are reassuring. Modernity, or at least that frenetic hurly burly which whizzes around most cities, clearly doesn't care for Chamomile tea. The closest one gets to the 'current' here are those found in one of Tracy's homemade scones. 

Tracy is the chef. She remained out of sight until she swung a two-way door ajar and chaperoned three bowls of broth to the table next to me. The broths were welcomed with the "ahhhhhhs" that Tracy is accustomed to hear from those who have mustered enough miserable weather for one day. 
"It's the day for soup, apparently," she says. 
"Oh, aye. Aye!" one of the men replied, taking in a big breath of broth.

A handwritten message is sellotaped to Tracy's leather-bound menus. It reads: "Due to rising costs, we have had to raise some of our prices. Our appologies for this, but we look forward to your continued loyal custom". (She obviously doesn't pay for the use of her P's). Despite this message, Tracy can be in no doubt about the continuation of loyal custom. Sheila's warming welcome - when she's not arguing with the cash register - cultivates this loyalty. Here, in this northern tea-shop, every customer is a 'luv' and they can expect Sheila to be nonchalant with the bill. "Oh, let's call it £1.80," she will say, knowing deep down that doing so will bring them back to pay £1.80 next week. 



***

As I bid farewell and opened the door, the quaint bell sounded again; a chime that rings all the way from a bygone age. I crossed the road and stood in the queue for the next 'show-on-the-road', the Number Four, back to the university. Soon, the four-wheeled theatre arrived. The door burst open and we boarded to take our seats. The second half was about to begin...




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.