Saturday, 31 December 2016

New Year's Eve: A Message from Dan

As the flames of the year are slowly extinguished, and the first sparks of 2017 begin to light up the skies, I write in the lounge of my home. For all the tides of change that have washed over these shores this year, this house remains an island, afloat and dry from the waves of burdening life. Outside, little globes of water cling to the tips of stripped twigs. One by one, they fall like meteoroids, splashing the concrete. Some become impaled on the sharp blades of a frosty lawn. Robins play dot-to-dot with red winter berries.

Inside, tongues of light speak of warmth from the fireplace and I remember those moments in the year when I have been blessed by the warm glows of human spirit. Just as light drowns out the darkness, I am hopeful that the very best of this human spirit will endure and conquer the ripples of uncertainty we face in the coming year.

As the light wanes outside, stars begin to constellate and for the final time this year, moonbeams serenade the Earth with a heavenly peace. In a stable on the bleakest of moors, a dormouse dreams of Spring in a pool of moonlight. Across the cities, sounds of glass against glass begin to ring in 2017. Hearts meet hearts as people hug out the old and embrace the new.

I am about to make my way to a North Norfolk coastal town called Sheringham. It sits in the stalls before a stage of roaring waves and salty spray. Huddled together around streetlamps are hundreds of weather-pummelled cottages. Tonight, in one of these, I will celebrate the year in a lounge of love and harmony. And like the smoke which rises from flames of warmth in my fireplace to disperse out across the sky, may my very best wishes for 2017 soar across the country too and be delivered to your homes and your hearts tonight.



Sunday, 18 December 2016

Week 11/12/13: (12th December to 1st January 2017) - A Photographic Reflection

I would like to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!
  
Below is a series of my favourite photographs that I've taken during my first 2 months in Lancashire.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Week 10: (5th December to 11th December 2016) or 'A Tale of Two Capitals'

A giant bulb of fire burnt through the horizon, scaled the Hikurangi mountain and floated effortlessly into the sky.  A clan of shadows awoke. They stretched across the Waiapu Valley, yawning a veil of mist into the air. Polynesian hunters, grasping spears that shimmered in the light, craned their heads to the heavens and chanted in revelry, as the bulb chased darkness out of the sky once more. It hovered for a while overhead, delivering day-packages of light to the Maori people and then began its planetary commute, westwards.

Monday morning began journeying across the globe, pulled ceaslessly by this one, unremitting bulb. It glistened over the domes of Indonesian temples, beamed over the Chinese rice paddies and flashed across the back of Bengalian tigers. It burned through the leather of a bedouin sandal, dazzled over the oar of Venetian gondolier and took a ride on a red London bus. It paddled across the Atlantic, gestured to cruise ships and sizzled through the leafy canopies of the Amazon.

In Washington DC, as this tide of promised light arrived, a nation's capital awoke. A city of commuters began well-rehearsed routines, sipping through the froth of cappachinos, bundling their briefcases and bodies into the backs of yellow cabs and reeling through a scroll of morning news. The dough of a lunchtime bagel was being kneaded into shape. At the Jefferson Hotel, a butler stood polishing a breakfast spoon. Of course, this is only what I imagine happened on Monday morning, based on my experience in other American cities. The only aspects I can describe with certainty are the events that took place in Room 100 of the Keck Center, on 500 Fifth Street, and that's because I was there.

It was World Soil Day and in a small conference room in Northwest Washington DC, some of the world's best soil scientists were attending the annual workshop, this year titled: 'Soils- The Foundation of Life'. A few hundred or so scientists could not make the journey for one reason or another (myself included) but by the powers of technological brilliance, I was connected, both sonically and visually, from my room here in Lancaster. Thus, as I sat down with a 2pm brew (for here in the north, the art of steeping teabags in hot water is often used to refer to the beverage itself) the clock struck nine times in the Keck Center and the conference got underway.


To summarize all eight hours of the conference here is a challenging task, and those who are particularly interested should invest time to read the minutes and notes scribed by those who were there, which should by now be surfing on the boards of the internet. What I can say is that certain themes emerged throughout, one of which was suggesting the priorities for future research. Jo Handelsman, for instance, spoke on behalf of the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy. She is the Associate Director for Science for the Obama administration and detailed a recently published report on 'The State and Future of US Soils'. All 57 pages of it sit quite patiently on my desk as I write and I imagine I will add it to a box of Christmas reading but in short, the USA government has released a framework for new actions to protect soil health. Key to this framework is promoting new research and education in soil science, advancing the technology required to study soils and expanding sustainable agricultural methods.

One of the most interesting, I thought, was the announcement of a new initiative; a collaboration of more than 15 organizations across the USA, all aiming to develop strategies that restore soil health in cities. I raise just one of the many new initiatives, because one of the major themes of the conference was that of urban soils. I had always realized that soils played a giant and important role in built infrastructure but Christopher Meehan (Chair of Civil Engineering, in University of Delaware) illustrated many roles I had not often considered. For example, an expertise in the physics of soils is essential for any planned tunnelling or underground space project. In addition to this, there was prevalent discussion on the use of waste products to generate sustainable composts. Sally Brown, a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington, cited a school in the US that recycled urban 'grey' water and municipal biosolids to produce soils in which to grow food for school lunches.

Whilst a sequence of individually convened lectures was good, I found a later panel discussion an integral and useful means by which to acquire the 'live' and unrehearsed ideas from many of these leading academics. Asked how we should engage the public in acknowledging the importance of soils, Richard Pouyat (Assistant Director at the White House Climate Resilience and Land Use office) responded: "We need to think of other movements, how did they get the attention...We need to think of stories...what are some really great stories. 80% of the world is urban so we need to start looking at people's backyards and city parks."

Dennis Dimick, former Executive Editor at the National Geographic, offered another idea: "People connect with air, water and food- the things that matter to them. If we can get people's attention with these aspects, we can take them someplace else. Bring them in through their door, and take them out through yours". Sally Brown commented in response that many people in cities are interested in soils. "New York City has the most composting plants per square foot than anywhere else".

I mentioned, in passing earlier, that one of the government's new framework strategies is promoting education in soil science and this was discussed during the panel session. Asked if we teach enough Soil Science, Richard gave what he believed was a very "simple" answer: "No...one of the things we need to do is cross into other disciplines". However, Dennis Dimick pondered whether the question was the right one to ask, suggesting we should be asking: "Are we teaching enough Soil Science students with communication skills?" He went on. "We are on the verge of installing a man who used Twitter to get elected President. The tools are out there to publish stories...we need to use social media". Sally Brown referred, comically, to a red poster emblazoned with the words: "Make Soil Great Again". But Colin Campbell, Senior Research Scientist at METER Group, took a backstep out of a political arena and suggested: "We should care about it no matter who we are. It's not a question of politics, it's a question of our future." He's quite right.


The members who attended in person had lunch, as I had dinner. They spent the best part of two hours in groups (one for each theme) and reconvened at the very end of the day for a final session. Ronald Amundson, Professor at the University of California-Berkeley, delivered a series of concluding remarks which I've paraphrased here:

"Our interests in soils are driven by our human need. To convince and educate people, we need to communicate. When people across the USA were asked what was the most important problem, soil was not on the list. Economic problems, healthcare and a distrust of government were. How do we bridge this? Do we need more education? In my opinion, we don't need more papers, as policy makers don't read them. Based on my experience, farmers do not lack knowledge. They probably just distrust authority because their values are different. So we shouldn't leave with facts; we should leave with values that give the facts a fighting chance. We need to connect to people and their value systems. What is important to them? Understanding people is as important as understanding the Earth." 

***

Whilst the mattress of Britain lay underneath the duvet of dawn on Saturday morning, I had risen unquestionably early and was charging by train, northwards at great pace, towards another capital city.  As those who ride milk floats and tractors will testify, there is something about riding through the air before the Sun that augments any jouney. By the time the sky was swirling with hues of pinks and oranges, as diffusing tea swirls around water in a teapot, I was already in Scotland. Mountain sheep bowed their heads to the grass in morning prayer and onwards we rushed, waking up the sleepers on the track to Lockerbie, to Carnwath, to Edinburgh! We weaved between dollops of mountains; the mint-chocolate chip tints of grassy hillsides forever turning strawberry as shades of sunrise flooded the Scottish air.

The evening before, I had sat down with a couple of books from Henry Vollam Morton that detail the experience of visiting Edinburgh in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As usual, his literary eloquence on the matter is arguably unmatchable and I recommend his books: In Search of Scotland and In Scotland Again both of which express a rhetoric about the country which, in parts, seems only to exist nowadays in the imagery captured between words. But Edinburgh is different. "Is there another city in the world which marches hand in hand with its past as does Edinburgh; which can look up from its modernity and see itself as it always was, upon a hill intact, impregnable, and still in arms?" Morton could have visited alongside me yesterday to edit his books on Scotland and still left those words in. The city he describes as "ghostly", "turreted" and "loopholed"; "a city that seems still to grasp a sword" was the very city I saw. And, whilst 80 years has elapsed between our invidual arrivals, the city is just as majestic in figure and Scottish in fragance.

I made my way towards the Royal Mile and consumed the regality like a Scotsman consumes haggis. Walking down the Royal Mile is just as Scottish an experience as walking through a vat of broth; there are no points on the compass where the view is not entirely Scottish in character, nor Scottish in sound. Walking down the Royal Mile is also a walk back in time; to an age where high streets were garnished with subtle, individual flavours rather than the bland, mass-produced recipes which are cooked up on most city blueprints nowadays. Where else would you see shops called: "Thistle do nicely" or "Miss Katie Cupcake" or "Really Scottish" which I am in no doubt completely passes the trade descriptions test. Geoffrey Taylor Kiltmakers has a slogan for the capital: "where quality and service still matter". At a street corner and one of the many junctions where past meets with the present, was the "Woolen Mill". It didn't appear exceptionally unique and on any other day perhaps I wouldn't have stopped to take note, but underneath the sign were the words: 'Established: 1993'. Whether the owner believes that this is a statement of endurance and business stability, I couldn't say, but what I do know is that 23 years passes extremely quickly. And as I ambled onwards, on a day where I can officially hang that very sign from my own body, I reflected on having been established for 23 years.

 
Henry Morton writes:  "I suppose every able-bodied visitor to Edinburgh goes , or is driven by some enthusiastic native, to the top of Arthur's Seat". It is testament to the very nature of the climb, the promise of a view, the seamless way the city is stitched to the rock that renders this statement still true. Perhaps, I thought as I started my climb, many expend their energies in misguidance thinking that at the very top is a large seat upon which to rest the weary feet. One could hardly be more misguided.

I executed a long, and needlessly meandering route to Arthur's Seat, so that along the way I could meet with the other highlights from Holyrood Park. Along the very western perimeter is a slab of vertical rock, as if King Arthur took a giant knife and cut the park like a slab of cheese. In actual fact, this isn't too far away from the truth. Here, at Salisbury Crags, are the remains of an old quarry and it's at this location that James Hutton (of whom many regard as the founder of modern geology) made a crucial discovery that the rocks had been formed from hot molten material. Hutton is believed to have asked the quarrymen to save the rock and the request was evidently accepted, as over 200 years later, it's still here and makes for an acceptable walk. (Alas, perhaps not for those who suffer from vertigo).


As I would eventually discover, Morton was right when he said that "every abled-bodied visitor goes ... to the top of Arthur's Seat". What he failed to include was the fact that not only do visitors swarm up there but natives too, and thus the exact summit is often difficult to see for all the shoes, rucksacks and hiking equipment. Arthur's Seat provides two studies. One is obviously of Edinburgh and I will address that in detail in a moment. The other, however, is a study of how people gaze at panoramic views and such was the diversity in my fellow hikers that I could not fail to make notes on this either.


Shortly after I arrived, a boy of about 7 emerged from around the other side of the seat, carrying a water pistol and seemed more engaged with seeking out acceptable targets than with the view. At the other end of the spectrum, a relatively mature woman roamed around in a frustrating attempt to find signal. Many decided to stand with their backs towards Edinburgh, waving a 'selfie' stick around like a wand. It was, as you can imagine, a most displeasing sight. However... the view.

From the crevassed and roughened summit of Arthur's seat comes a realization. Holyrood Park represents the forecastle of a giant ship that has run aground at the doorstep of Edinburgh. Arthur's Seat sits like an ancient captain's cabin, and the sheer-cliffs of Salisbury Crags represent what's left of a bow. I imagined sailing westwards, over the north sea, aiming for the Firth of Forth but being swung port by a tempest, and beaching here, only to find Edinburgh in all her commanding majesty; an unpenetrable boulder. A thin ribbon of mist lay over the horizon and towards the north, across a Firth of Forth, were shadowy shapes of other lands. I watched as a crow simply outstretched its wings and without a single flutter sailed off into the sky under a conveyor belt of a strong gust.


As morning passed on duties to afternoon, I retraced my steps through Holyrood Park and found myself, once more, promenading through the very business of Edinburgh. Floating in the air, and through many centuries, was the dance of a melody; an unforgettable and undeniable sound. It was as if the clefs and crotchets of sheet music had been laced together to form a net with which to scoop up the visitor from his or her own thoughts and into a medieval world. I could not repel, nor did I want to repel the charm and somewhat melancholic chimes of the pipes. If there is an instrument that is so strongly and effortlessly soldered with the heart of a country, it is most certainly the Bagpipe with Scotland. For me, it doesn't take me to the top of Ben Nevis or the moors where moss carpets rest in solitude, but to the living rooms of cottages, where beards nestle in the shrivelled fingers of those who have seen so much life.

At the eastern end of Princes Street is Carlton Hill. From the top, I gazed out across Edinburgh; where scottish air rests on a carpet of rooftops. I found myself without company on Hume walk, the path which winds around the hill, and the first path in Britain to be built solely for recreational use. It is named after David Hume (born 1711) who petitioned the council in 1775 for a path that would encourage healthy living. It was granted and built, but Hume sadly had little time to use it for he died a year later. Might not this be the first architectural link between recreation and healthy living? And what does it say for the present when one can amble along its entire length and see so few people?

Carlton Hill, when compared with Arthur's Seat, is more akin to a mole-hill but what it lacks in altitude, it makes up for in summit-based interests. The most arresting is perhaps the National Monument, built in the 1820s in respect to those soldiers who lost their lives serving in the Napoleomic war. The design is of a neo-classical Greek style, based on the Parthenon in Athens. Alas, the stream of funding ran dry and it was never completed. Perhaps more pitiful than the fact of its uncompleted state is that this monument - this tribute to the heroric hearts and the strong-will of the minds that battled for Scotland - has been reduced to a playground. People climb it, jump from it, hang around the columns and, I expect, pay little attention to the very reason why it's there.


I remained on Carlton Hill and waited patiently for the first verse of sunset. As darkness began to fall, the summits of distant hills spoke to each other in flashes of light. The glow of bedside lamps spilled through windows, into the mild Scottish air. I sat and wondered who turned them on, what their story was, what their Scottish life is like. The Firth of Forth could be traced by an absence of such light. Turning to face Old Edinburgh, the walls of the castle began to glow, as if the phantom of history was seeping out of the stone to climb over the moors. I remembered Morton's final lines on Edinburgh:

"The sun goes down and dusk falls. I feel conscious that I should descend to fashionable Georgian levels, but that, to me, is an unreal Edinburgh. I like to linger on the hill in the dark, where winds whistle like swords and darkness creeps with an air of conspiracy." 

 
I did, however, descend to fashionable levels to conclude my day at the Christmas Markets. This is my final weekend before I make a return trip to Norfolk for the holidays and in the spirit of the season, there is perhaps no better place for such a market than Edinburgh. There is something about the stubborn reluctance of harsh, bitter-cold climates that make street gatherings in these regions all the more warming; the way people entwine together and make merry. I weaved my way through rows of wooden huts and around throngs of woolen bobble hats, glided down steps to lower tiers and smiled at the simplicity in congregating a city, which is already as close-knit as the tartan scarves it sells. The odours of Christmas- those sweet and comforting aromas of hog roasts and roasted almonds- dance around the nostrils, warning away the nipping Mr Frost. Hear the bells and triangles and tambourines of festive music, floating like the Snowman through the chill of the air, casting joy across the faces of thousands. Clouds of candy floss hover over the heads of tiny tots, see their eyes all aglow; see the relief of parents and grandparents who have secured their innocence for yet another year.

I stood overlooking the market from the very top tier and remembered those who weren't here; those freckled hands - the old men of 94 years, who have seen so much - in the glowing huts of the Scottish highlands. I pictured them in armchairs by open fires, roasting chestnuts and warming slippers. I pictured them gazing through the frost-tinted living-room windows, from the peaks of a hillside, down to a fiery blaze of light in the valley below. Down, down, down... to an ancient castle and a Christmas market. Down, down, down... to the stalls of fudge and hot chocolate. Down, down, down... to the glory of the capital city whose doorstep sits at just the right distance to theirs. And down towards a man of twenty-three, who stands beside a Christmas tree, gazing down himself to a young boy of no more than four years of age. The young boy, untarnished by the realities of life, swims freely in the wonders of Christmas.

Of course, the young boy of four, the old man of 94 and myself, who has just turned 23, are three separate people in three very different worlds. But as I stood there, warming the cockles with one final hot chocolate, I realized that, in a way, we all represent to each other our own Christmas past, and our own Christmas future. And so, one chilly December night when I'm 94, perhaps I will gaze down a valley to a Christmas market, and espy a young man celebrating his 23rd birthday by a Christmas tree; and both of us will gaze down and smile to a young boy of 4 and both of us will wonder where on earth the years have gone.



Sunday, 4 December 2016

Week 9: (28th November to 4th December 2016) or 'Mud Pie and a Taste of the Sea'

At the conclusion of my undergraduate degree, during those long summer days of little agenda, I wrote an essay about how our journey through education is similar to the way our taste-buds develop: 

"We start, right from birth, being spoon-fed dollops of mushed up food. Likewise, the world's a complex place for a new-born baby; rather than select which bits to digest, we absorb anything and everything at that age. Our minds are open to a mélange of sights, smells and sounds. And suddenly before our parents' eyes, we're no longer babies but toddlers, off the baby food but subjected to a diet of basic, staple ingredients. We're also fed a basic diet of knowledge, too, learning the alphabet, numbers up to a hundred and how to tell the time..." 

"Suddenly we're off to primary school and fed, progressively, some basic truths of the world: what a forward roll is (it's evidently, alas, not a sausage roll), the world's major religions, how to master the art of drawn-up handwriting. In my experience, all of this came from one classroom, but notably the day was divided equally into 'lessons' and 'sessions', punctuated by periods of running around outside. Back home, our dinners start to mature too. There's more than one ingredient now; all on one plate, but similarly segmented up in an arrangement that fulfills the idea of a 'divided plate'..." 

"Time ensues; we are now pupils at secondary school with an increasing amount of choice on our hands. And something else has profoundly changed at mealtimes. We start to accept (and relish) the notion of mixing foods up and using one to compliment the other. Gravy on our meat, bolognaise with our pasta, and our sandwich fillings, in particular, undergo a revolutionary shift..."  

"And then we're 18 and about to 'tuck in' to three years of university. Aside from the odd one or two treats here and there, living amongst students is often the arena to share not only recipes from one's homeland, but a place to chew over the ideas about the subject one is reading..."

Two months have passed since I set out on my largest and most aromatic dish so far, although it's absurd to compare a PhD to a standalone dish. A PhD is a very different culinary experience. The spectrum of opportunities such an endeavour unleashes makes it arrestingly pungent. The people one meets along the way; the literature inked around the world that passes before your eyes; the places one can travel to pursue answers and ponder question marks is akin to catering for a world food café. However, taking a grocery bag of raw ingredients, or in my case, unanswered questions and churning them together towards a divine, tantalizing conclusion requires some degree of energy and hunger. It's a hunger for knowledge - a ravenous yearning for scientific truth - that keeps me 'cooking' all day long.

Keeping the food metaphor on a low simmer, there's also a well-known idiom that many use nowadays to express busyness: "I've got a lot on my plate". Indeed, the last two weeks have been eventful, but nutritious nevertheless. The Oxford Innovation trip (week 7) gave me a chance to taste the world of business and enterprise, and take away handy recipes of how to pitch research to non-academic audiences. Last week, I attended the STARS Welcome Meeting at Borwick Hall and contributed to the cauldron of exciting research projects currently taking place in Soil Science. 


All in all, the last two weeks have been extremely flavoursome, but there's only so much one can squeeze on to one's plate, so this week, I opted for a smaller dish instead. A Mud pie perhaps, for a soil scientist? After all, I have spent the majority of the week cracking on with my own research into the Soil Lifespan.

On Tuesday, here at Lancaster, my supervisor (John) and I chewed over the 'soil lifespan' concept and washed it down with coffee. Without explaining the concept in too much detail, the project seeks to answer a question on the minds of farmers, land owners and policy makers: how long do we have before our soils disappear? Just as we have 'life expectancies', I am seeking to discover what the life expectancy is for productive soils and the factors that control these expectancies. The Soil Lifespan takes into account the rate at which soils are produced, the rate at which they erode, and the rate at which they degrade in quality. 

Consider, if you will, financial budgeting. To estimate how many years our funds will persist, we need to know the incomings (in my case, the soil production rate) and the outgoings (the soil erosion rate). But of course, the value of money depreciates over time; what used to be £1000 might now only be worth £800. Even if our incomings and outgoings remained constant, the value of our bank balance would still slowly drop, and likewise for soil, it is essential to measure how it degrades over time. The organic matter within soil has a finite lifespan, and as it degrades, the quality or value of that soil also starts to depreciate.

With the Literature Review in good shape, our attention now turns to compressing it into a strong academic journal article.  John suggested a skeletal structure for this and in the next few weeks, I hope to expend some ink on the first draft. As evident below, such work involves a lot of reading!


With the last spoonful of Mud pie, or in reality, the final hour of intensive soil-related ruminating complete on Friday night, I decided to head out once more for the weekend. Although I am now fully recovered physically after my ordeal on the moors last week, my vigorous hiking gumption is still somewhat in recovery. It also occurred to me that I have so far ventured north, east and south on these weekend excursions but have seldom, if ever, chartered towards the west.

Without paddling some considerable distance to Ireland, the parcel of land west of Lancaster is by no means substantial and its highlights can be largely covered by foot in a few days. I say this with some degree of certainty as most of the territory is designated floodplain land and would only appeal perhaps to those testing waterproof footwear. There are, arguably, two or three major hotspots of activity in this region and this weekend I was to get a 'Taste of the Sea' by visiting two of them.


Morning breaks over Morecambe and Heysham. Between them, three miles of beach sit parched, patiently waiting to feed off the fresh froth of a future foam. The tide torments the sand, forever teasing it with an advance, only to deviously retreat back again. You can almost hear the ebb's vindictive laugh as it retards the beach from quenching its thirst. But eventually, it arrives. The sand starts sipping recklessly, guzzling up as many gallons as possible before the tide withdraws once more.

By the time I arrived in Morecambe, the tide was already commuting seawards. A family of grains, pebbles and rocks sat mingling on the beach, each refreshed from their morning bath. A dull shade of grey was busily diffusing through the air and the water. These two would have been hopelessly indistinguishable were it not for a sword of rock, impaling the greyness and revealing a horizon. Along the promenade, street lamps expelled a dim, ineffective glow.

There is something curiously 'British' about a grey sky hanging over the coastline. And like so many seaside towns, Morecambe retaliates back with a palette of colour. A row of hotels is rarely monochromic; nearly every string of inns I saw in Morecambe was like an assembly line of pastel crayons. Harboured at the shore are modest fishing boats that look worryingly sinkable yet each one boasts attractive tints. Huddled behind fishing wire, crouched down on a lunchbox, is a fisherman sporting a bright, full-body waterproof suit so that in the distance, it looks like a nectarine is gazing out on the surf.


I ambled along without haste. A few low-spirited tourists were sitting by the window in the breakfast room of the Yacht Bay View, looking out on their yacht-less bay view. Whilst the view may not have been so extravagant, Morecambe focuses on the foreground. I stopped by an information board presented by the Rotary Club in 1989. It details the amazing diversity of bird life that Morecambe Bay appears to attract. Regrettably, the diagrams of each bird lack colour, making it seem that the Teal, the male Wigan and the Goldeneye are one of the same species, which of course they are not. Craning an eye to the sky, I spotted only two aerial subjects, and one was ejecting a contrail.

The other was a pigeon and how they were to become an optical highlight on the walk. I am one of the few, perhaps, who has never found it amusing to watch these birds being shocked to flight by small humans charging towards them. They may not hum or tweet with sweet melody, but as with any bird, they manage to do what we, without machine, cannot: ascend into air. At the seaside, a kit of pigeons whipping the air in flight, diving down to collect a chip or two and climbing back up the sky is inherently part of the experience. Although perhaps more graceful, it would be simply odd to see the same display enacted by kingfishers.


Perhaps I've spoken at length about the British seaside town, and not about Morecambe. I feared something like this would happen, but then it speaks volumes about how one can see so much of coastal Britain in an hour, and yet so little of Morecambe. Aside from the Morecambe Bay information board on various birdlife, there were only two signals that reassured me that I was in Morecambe. The first was a statue of Eric Morecambe balancing on one foot on a raised platform, along the promenade. He stands facing, not the sea, but towards a red, modest café, in his own name. The other, I have to admit, I would not immediately associate with Morecambe but it exists to remind us of a part of Morecambe that predates Eric, himself. It is a large, dilapidated tower painted to mimic a tube of Polos, although for such a refreshing and invigorating sweet, it's in an appalling condition. The Polo Tower, alas, is the one and only structure that still stands to remind residents of a Theme Park which existed in this area for just under 100 years. Once upon a time it was called Frontierland Western, but visitor numbers apparently dwindled, so a series of re-branding was executed. Both 'Fun City' and 'Morecambe Pleasure Park' did not remedy the poor profits and by the end of the 2000 season, most of the site was resigned to rubble.


Towards the end of my walk in the village of Heysham, I greeted a lady who was dutifully scraping dog excrement into a small bag. I am still unsure of the dialogue that enabled us to leap from the material aspects of dog excrement to wider societal matters, but I'm glad we did.

"I've had hardships in the past", she admitted, as we both scanned the ground for further faeces. "My husband died of a pulmonary embolism twenty years ago, but you get over it, don't you?"

I nodded, although I'm not sure why, for I do not merit the same experience. Her 76 year old hands tied a knot in a bag. I attempted to ask her about Heysham, but regretfully she discovered more dog waste, and never returned to the matter.

"Got family coming to see you at Christmas?" I asked.

"Yes, my two step-sons", she replied, eyes scrutinizing the ground for faeces. "They'll probably come over and give me something I don't want. Last year, though, they gave me this lovely cushioned lap tray. I now spend most mornings in bed playing bridge on it".

Satisfied with her collection, she started to walk on. As we parted ways at the village church, I watched as she trotted back up the path and then turned back. I thought she had found more 'material' to bag, but she signalled that I should look at a particular gravestone. The stone was dedicated to the memory of John Mashiter, who was born in 1852 and married a local girl called Sarah Hannah, born four years later. Together, they tamed and cultivated the earth as a small farming unit at Town End Farm here in Heysham. They were to have a son, Richard Mashiter in 1880 who went on to manage the farm with his later wife, Mabel Fox. The grave was in excellent condition; I could read the names so well. John Mashiter, 1852 - 1941 and Sarah Hannah, 1856 - 1919. I looked up. Slowly ambling back up the street was their great great grand-daughter, still peering down, ready with the bag.

  
The church perches precariously on the edge of the coastline. Row upon row, the graves stand, searching out the horizon. I sat down on a bench and listened to the rhythmic beating of the water on the rock-strewn shoreline. Although I couldn't see them, I imagined the spirits of the Mashiters, uniting together in revenant harmony, calling by Town End farm to bless the land, and then to surf off westwards, cruising over the twilit waves, the tides of change and back to life in the 19th century.  

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Week 8: (21st November to 27th November 2016) or 'A New Constellation of STARS'

How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you're carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel 'em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life....Now try to walk. It's kind of hard, isn't it?

Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
 

It's safe to say that as I stumbled out my house on Tuesday morning, hauling two very heavy backpacks, I had left a fair majority of my 'life' behind. This did not, of course, pacify the pain in my shoulders as the straps slowly carved their way through to the bone. Adding further weight was the slightly depressing thought that this spine-numbing freight was indeed the very minimum I required for just three days away.

Both my luggage and I were on the way to the STARS Welcome Meeting; a three day affair held in the grand, yet secluded grounds of Borwick Hall. For those based within the environs of Lancashire and Cumbria, the meeting could not have been held in a better location, except perhaps on the patio outside my house. As I trotted wearily on to the bus, I remembered that many attendees had been journeying long before the Song Thrush had recited its morning melodies. Breakfasting in carriages, as far and as wide as Scotland and Wales, were my fellow STARS colleagues, shooting as stars often do over the country to form a new close-knit constellation under the skies at Borwick Hall for a few days. The purpose of bringing the STARS cohort to one place was simply to unite a galaxy of sparkling and dazzling personalities together, so that we may acquaint ourselves and our interests with one another. On the second day of this three day event, the STARS in the previous cohort would also arrive, to provide that glow of experience and add a glitter of advice to our big and bright ideas. Not seeking to fuse this starry scene, I should perhaps add here, for those who are recent visitors to this blog, that STARS stands for 'Soil Training and Research Studentships' but do not think that this necessarily dulls the story. From attending this wonderful event, I can say that the future of soil is, indeed, very bright!


As Shakespeare dunked his quill in the ink and etched a midsummer night's dream of wild thyme, oxlips and nodding violets, the first stones of a future hall were being laid in Borwick by Sir Robert Bindloss. Sir Robert was part of a dynasty of Kendal cloithers and purchased, with a slice of his wealth, a 14th century stone pele tower; a skeleton around which he fleshed with his own architectural flair in the late 1590s. Those gabled and embattled designs of Bindloss have marked maps for over 400 years. Like a brigade of sundials at attention, the columns of a weathered balustrade pivot long, autumnal shadows over the tiered courtyard gardens. A small stream chuckles daily over a bed of pebbles as it commutes to the River Keer. Grooves chiselled out by wind and rain are gorges to resident lichens. Roughcast walls have been sanded smooth by the bristles of time; the gritty flour lays where wall meets ground and moored to the dust are clumps of moss.

There is something in the rigidity of its architecture that sketches the theme of war in my eyes. At any minute, I expect a military squad to parade around the sandstone walls and pierce the air with barking commands. It came as no surprise to learn that Borwick Hall was a military base during the Second World War. Although we never ventured inside the curiously named 'Coffin Room', I imagine it to have been dimly lit, with a large oak table, across which sprawled a mass of weapon inventories and invasion maps. I imagine commanders intercepting coded messages and then discarding them to the flue. At the end of the war, Borwick Hall was sold for £8800. It subsequently became a holiday camp, a home for the Lancaster Youth Clubs Association and now it remains the keep of the Lancaster County Council.


Behind the stones of Borwick Hall, the air swarms with legends and myths. According to one tale, a girl who protested at her arranged wedding, was locked in the tower to starve and now her spirit roams around the corridors in perpetual anguish. Recalling this, I was escorted to my room.  Given its history, I had expected a large, rusty iron key that would solicit a great degree of coaxing to unlock the chamber. I imagined twisting and turning it in all directions, teasing out a few dead flies and then, once unbolted, the hinges to screech and squeal in agony as if waking up from a long sleep. The reality, as is often the case, was slightly less romantic. The key was an electronic tag which required only a quick hover around the handle to permit entry. Inside, however, the chapter and verse of history appeared unwithered. The floorboards creaked in all the right places and a couple appeared slack enough to remove, as if to tease the more curious souls to check for a secret message from the past. A small sink sat lonely in the corner. Would the whine from the starving girl shriek down these ancient pipes? Would the whispers from a forgotten world come charging through the air vents? The only window, curtained so as to block out the present, was just under the ceiling and was beyond reach.


The first afternoon was spent undertaking an assortment of team-building activities, expertly designed and convened by the Lancaster Outdoor Association. In teams, we set out competitively scoring points by executing a number of challenges: locating the hall on an OS Map, collecting ten objects beginning with the same letter, fashioning various types of knot, etc. As the afternoon light was guzzled by the oncoming dusk, the outdoor tasks became more difficult and an extra dollop of teamwork was stirred in to our pot of points. In one challenge, we had to build a tower of empty milk crates to hoist someone up in the air so they could touch a ball. In another task, (a slight variation on a theme), a person had to climb up a pole, launch themselves into the air and touch another ball. Our evening meal - Roast Chicken and associated trimmings - satisfied our, now, large appetites.

We reassembled as a cohort of students and supervisors after relishing an Apple Crumble to learn more about ourselves. Electing to tell two truths and one lie, and challenging others to guess the lie, we spent an hour or two in collective dialogue. I revealed that I was a fully trained lifeguard, working on the North Norfolk Coastline during my spare time. I also suggested that the Daily Mail had scribed an article about the interesting commonalities between me and a certain Alan Partridge. My third was that I hold a world-record collection of mouse-mats. Were it not for my rather feeble physique, I might have got away with the 'lifeguard' story but, alas, even after working out all day and relishing a Roast Chicken, the majority detected it as fallacious.



Morning broke. All but 12 stars faded behind a curtain of sky blue; the twelve remaining STARS rose from slumber and breakfasted on a hearty menu. The day's itenary would, by and large, be soil-based and a chance for the STARS cohort to dig deeper into the core messages and values of the doctorial training programme. We enjoyed talks, for example, by members of the STARS management board, detailing the incalculable range of facilities available to us; specialist instruments and machines around the UK that make up some of the country's (and the world's) most cutting-edge technologies in the field of Soil Science. Just after a light luncheon, we each delivered a three minute presentation about our respective research interests. Needless to say, the diversity among just twelve projects is none other than amazing.

Professor Phil Haygarth chaired many of these sessions and I have seldom seen a more animated presenter. He seizes and grapples the attention of an audience with extreme mastery; his words and gestures refuel the mind with a rich, revitalised zest. As often as a Rotary Club may have described my lectures as enthused with passion, I have to say I'm quite a dry speaker in comparison to the Professor! Aside from convening certain aspects of the programme, Phil is also Chair of the STARS management board and is based, fortuitously, at Lancaster University. Since becoming a STAR, I've heard from a number of people about Phil's flair for harnessing the very best of social media. When he suggested a 'selfie', how could I refuse?


That evening, the STARS team united around several large circular tables in one of the function rooms of the close-by Longlands Hotel. (It was only upon approaching the car park that I recognised this as the hotel I had visited a few weeks ago as a guest of the Carnforth Rotary Club). Once more, little parcels of our biographies were unleashed into a hearty dialogue between courses. A smoked haddock fishcake, moored on a leek and mustard velouté, separated the narratives of my supervisor's 1989 trip to India and my 2012 expedition to Alaska. We enjoyed intellectual chitter-chatter between bites of a pan fried vanilla salmon and delicious it was, too, especially accompanied by snow peas, red peppers and brown shrimp butter sauce.

After the last crumbs of Sticky Toffee Pudding were savoured, Phil awoke the Black Cat. That is to say, his blues funk band; a "fire" (as he explains on his band's website) that started in 2009. If the sound of spoons blending cream into coffees made any noise, it certainly was not audible over the eclectic mix of the Black Cat set. Once again, the audience became instantly captivated. I can only describe Phil's vocal talents as a walk into a candy shop; on show and instantly available upon request are songs with different vocal flavours, different vocal textures, different pitches, different rhythms. And, in addition (as if an addition is ever required), he ventilates the melody with rich, ambient chords from his harmonica. His band mates describe his performances as "high energy" and "infectious". He "knows how to sing sweetly, shake his thing, and sear a cruel solo". And I can confirm each and every word is wholly truthful.


I think my feet were still tapping when I awoke on the third and final day of the welcome programme. The packed programme (almost as packed as my luggage) and a late night at the Longlands Hotel had perhaps made me slightly sluggish but after a bowl of cereal, a refreshing tea and a few rousing words from Phil, I had fully recharged. In this particular morning, we would lose ourselves in the research of the STARS from the first cohort; letting them transport us through the microcosms of their studies. Do the hairs on roots help soil to resist erosion? How does soil repel water? How and why is there so much biodiversity in our soils? These topics and many more besides tantalised our scientific antennae. The morning's session was excellently rounded off with a guest visit from Chris Collins, who manages the national Soil Security Programme. Chris gave a whistle-stop tour of the ways by which soils are being currently being monitored and managed, and dutifully requested that STARS students adhere themselves to some of this work. As with most things, collaboration makes all the difference.

The constellation of STARS, that had in three days struck friendships and infused innovation, slowly began to float off, back to our own respective zones within the academic cosmos. We shall, of course, unite together again but for now, it's back to our offices, to shine a light on the mysteries that lie beneath our feet.


***


On Saturday, I stepped into the artist's canvas - the Forest of Bowland - once again. The day could not have started out more gloriously. Sunbeams rained down and painted the moorland heather with a rich, golden glow. Trunk-cast shadows tickled the leaves on the woodland floor. The current of the brook serenaded the banks with an ethereal melody. Spewing over the countryside was a steamy cloud of mist, as if the valley gods were brewing cups of morning coffee. Little pockets of airborne water were cruising northwards along the horizon. Resurging towards the heavens were the tips of the tallest mountains; I could make out little rooftops of snow, as if the Alps were on a weekend vacation to the Lake District.

Captured so effortlessly in the wonderment of this crisp, wintery morning, I began ascending up Clougha Pike. Under a woodland canopy, the ground was still in frost and autumnal foliage crackled under the weight of my sole. Emerging out of this arboretum, Bowland was slowly defrosting. Lenses of ice began to liquefy quickly and the moorland heather began to take its first sips. Peaty soils, which had up to now, been as solid as tarmac now began to resemble a thick, molten lava. The stationary boot would begin to sink down as if being sucked by a villainous subterranean monster.


I paused on one of many boulders, and scanned the skies. It's nice to acquaint oneself with the species that share the planet with you. One of the truly magical wonders is that even the most intrepid of travellers could not hope to meet every single biotic organism in his or her lifetime. I strongly doubt they could meet and greet every twig, every blade of grass, every lichen on every stone on every dry-stone wall here in the Forest of Bowland and thus, as I wander over the moorland, there's an acute feeling of being the very first human to spot that leaf, that pebble, that grain of soil.

The Forest of Bowland, as I have perhaps versed before, is peppered with boulders and carpeted by moss. It is nature's reply to the world of hard and soft furnishings. In all of this disorder, are perhaps the only signatures left by our own species: the dry-stone wall. One particular segment had kept me company for most of the way to Clougha Pike, rising and falling to the concavities of the undulating landscape, like the Great Wall of China.


I reached Clougha Pike a little earlier than I had expected and with an intrinsic urge to walk further into the moor, I headed on, over bog, over boulder, over peat and on some more. On and on I walked. Deeper and deeper I ventured. Further and further, higher and higher and the air became cooler and cooler. As I ascended, once more, to Ward's Stone, the mats of sweaty moss began to become frosty again. Films of ice slowly covered leafy stems as if spray-painted by the chill. I climbed to the very peak of Ward's Stone and took account of my surroundings. Where before, at Clougha Pike, I could label the specks on the horizon with the names of recognisable buildings, the skyline vista was but a smudge. Someone had run their finger over the green paint of the fields and the blue paint of the sky and left an unrecognisable landscape. I realized such an effect is only achieved with distance and with the mind. Of course, in truth, one can never walk towards a horizon; the horizon is both behind you and in front of you, and from the right angle, you are the horizon that sows the land with the sky.


There, on the top of Ward's Stone, in the serenity and grandeur of this place, the first seeds in a nightmare began to germinate. The Earth had turned too quickly on its axis, and at best I had about an hour left of decent light. I quickened my pace over the bogs but found doing so only clipped the time I had to select the best route. Shadows began to stretch one final time before the close of the day.


The hour elapses. By now, our giant star is but a small orange flame, flirting over a low-lying cloud. I watch it sink, dispersing an orange and purple dye, staining the cloud, whirling the colours around. Evening has arrived; the horizon has freckles of light, specks of weekend traffic, shards of glistening windows. And I am still an hour away. I am alone on the moor; a moor that is also drifting from my sight.

I rummage around in my backpack for a torch, and yield one, but the type an optician would use to examine an iris; not one a lost traveller would use to plot an escape route. Alas, it is the only source of light I have.

When light is extinguished, trekking over the moor only enlivens the other senses. You start to feel the heather brush your shins, the juices of the bog seep into your boots, the chill of the air piercing your cheeks. At times, I am stunned into stillness by the flight of a bird; it feels as if the wings are close enough to pluck me from the moss and toss me across the moor. You can hear the air being whipped by its aviation. Back on ground, the silhouettes of boulders play tricks with my mind. What is a recognisable boulder from afar seems to change shape, and size and now it is just one of many thousand, scattered over the landscape. And then, my eye catches sight of that tor; the tor I had lunched at. If only I could make it to that tor... Slowly, I make my way there, en route to yet another mistaken identity. In the pursuit of a route, I am becoming more lost, more bewildered, and more tired.

I slump down and cradle in the heather. Not a single soul knows where I am. I do not know where I am. Suddenly the extraordinary force of nature, which at times is suggestively passive, begins to feel more and more active. Injected by this realism, I stagger to my feet and persist on. The ground is becoming more steep and more treacherous, and I am climbing not walking. I grab the heather and clamber over boulders; in front of me is a patch of moss upon which to rest my feet, and I aim my boot towards it. The moss seems to disapparate like a spirit, and what seemed solid ground, is now a deep trench of thin air and I am lunging towards a chasm of shadows. I have fallen down.

Beside me is a gorge about ten-times the depth and had I fallen 90 degrees to my right, it would have probably been my final journey. For the first time since being in Alaska, I fear my days might be up. I am not making much progress and there is no longer a path with which I can take. Another bout of slow climbing. Another fall. Another lucky escape. This time I have landed in a flooded bog and muffled below the moss are the faint whistles of running water. I decide to follow it, sure in the knowledge that it must connect at some point to a larger stream. It flows under a dry-stone wall, and I climb over, following the trickles like a police dog follows a scent.

I am right. The trickles have assembled together in a stream and this is the brook upon which I had walked beside, earlier in the day. An overwhelming sense of relief gushes through every muscle and here is the path that will take me to my bike. To my house. To a very large cup of hot chocolate. And, most importantly, to a light switch.