Sunday, 13 August 2017

Week 45: (7th August to 13th August 2017) or 'If you go down to the woods today..."

The Earth - a planet skewered onto an axis like a kebab - slowly spins under the grill of the Sun. For all the magical splendour that summertime may bring, for most of us it amounts to spending a few months on the galaxy's largest Rotisserie. Round and round we gyrate on the spit, each country roasted to varying degrees.

Somewhere deep in the heart of the cosmos, I can imagine a few refined aliens sitting down to dinner, selecting their country from the Rotisserie menu.
"I'm partial to a smouldering forest fire", the first alien will admit to the waiter. "I often find it's best served with a couple of buckling roads and side dish of dried-up lakes... have you anything like that?".
"Oh, well in that case, may I recommend the 'Congo' or perhaps, the 'Mexico', served 'Well-done'?"
Alien One eagerly nods and the waiter pivots to the second alien. "And for you, Madame?"
"Oh, I'll have the 'Norway', please."
"And how would you like your country cooked, Madame? The 'Norway' is often best served rare."
"Oh, indeed, most definitely 'rare'... just so that a few glaciers may melt down the valleys."
"Absolutely, Madame," the waiter scribbles, turning to the final alien, who cannot make up his mind at all. The waiter proffers a menu from his waist, in assistance.
"Allow me to recommend our pièce de résistance; the 'Summertime England' is our chef's speciality! It's best served 'medium'." But the third alien sits unconvinced.
"What does the 'Summertime England' consist of?" he asks.
And then we realize the waiter was once resident in England himself, for his eyes, suddenly enchanted with a nostalgic romance, gaze up to the sky as if his memories float in a heaven of their own, and he passionately recalls the splendour of 'Summertime England'.

And, oh, to be in England during the Summer! Neither chargrilled, nor rare, Summertime England is a pièce de résistance!

Summertime in England! The unhurried opening of a wicker picnic basket; the graceful placing of a freshly baked scone on blue china; the effortless transmission of jam onto a miniature pillow of clotted cream; the curious scrutiny by tomorrow's clotted cream donors, peering through the neighbouring hedgerows, their hooves buried in the rich grassy meadows. Long afternoon shadows outstretched across sleepy hollows and sunken lanes; the golden-brown shortbread of the parish church; a small plume of dust ascending to the sky at the tails of combines. Every Summer, the seeds of an old England - an English ancestry of simplicity and tranquillity - germinate in hamlet and parish, far and wide.

At the end of a country lane in Herefordshire sits a thatched, sandstone cottage. Generations of farmers have taken their wellingtons off under the small archway beside the wooden door. Once a toddler learning to ride a bike down the country lane is now a grey-haired father sitting amongst the Dahlias digesting the broadsheets whilst his own son is out harvesting a field of barley. The gardens are festooned with blood-red roses and breathe out a sweet perfume to the bees. Swifts playfully sweep the air. A lady is inside, kneading some dough and surveying her beauteous garden. Her father-in-law has fallen asleep in the deckchair, which draws from her a warm smile and she turns to gaze off into the far distance. The view from the sash windows of the kitchen boasts the best view of the house! There, in the far distance, she can make out a speck, a boy - a young man, perhaps - perched on the trunk of a fallen Oak. Though too far away from her to see, the 'young man' is writing about her cottage, her gardens and her father-in-law asleep in the deckchair. Indeed, that 'young man' is I.

Down in the valley that separates my notebook and her dough, is an early chapter of England's history: an ancient woodland. From my oak-trunk bench, it is a bowel of Broccoli. In the far distance, the woodland is nothing but a smudge on the horizon, as if a band of low-lying clouds had been dunked into a pool of dark green paint. Closer, I can detect a brigade of individual trees, and closer still, their interlocking branches wearing green sleeves. In the foreground, these sleeves are not sleeves at all, but little green palms, some lobed and serrated, some more refined. I run my hand over the roughened bark of the fallen Oak upon which I perch, and then the smooth page upon which I write and realize both are different verses in this requiem to an old England.



At first glance, the woodland is passive. Notwithstanding the threat of the saw, or some similarly fateful disease which might beset it, the tree holds a life-long loyalty to its home, often not a place of its own choosing. There is neither an Estate Agents nor a passport for a tree. Belowground, however, the tentacles of the trunk are on the move; stretching out, burrowing their way through the earth, sometimes rising to the surface like a Dolphin might come up to breathe, and then diving back down again, vacuuming nutrients and water. The community of trees that sit between that little thatched, sandstone cottage and myself are their own villages, sharing space and resources just as we do.

When a sapling emerges and casts its first shadows onto the mossy carpet, they are but infants at the toes of their elders. They must equip themselves with centuries of perseverance if they are to reach those dizzy heights. But if trees had the capacity to feel emotionally, I imagine they would be cautious to be so hopeful of climbing the great ladder of air, for they know their life may begin in a woodland, but may not always end there. The British woodland used to be a duvet, cloaking the body of the British Isles. It still does, but much of it is disguised as coffee tables, breadboards, paperback books and picture frames. It is, of course, a great shame and our weakness that we result to cutting these columns of history down but at least when I write on paper, as I do now, I know that my inked page is only a fraction of a long history, and I can imagine the page not as A5 and lined but as columnar, stretching 200 feet into the air, with roots outspread for miles. I can imagine the branches - the playgrounds of squirrels - and the leaves, the luncheons for caterpillars, and the twigs, the currency of birds. The plastic pen or the metal stapler can never boast this history.

An ancient British woodland is, itself, an important artefact in Britain's history just as much as British history is preserved in handheld, leather-bound woodlands but for many parents, this history is kept alive in their child's imagination. The woodland is where Robin Hood assembles his Merry Men and where Teddy Bears gaily gad about. Indeed, I have very fond memories of a cassette tape with the 'Teddy Bear's Picnic' on, and singing it when I used to 'go down to the woods'. Little did I realize at the time that a line in that familiar tune would come back to pull on the strings of my curiosity.

"Beneath the trees where nobody sees,
They'll hide and seek as long as they please,
'Cause that's the way the
Teddy Bears have their picnic"

Though it may well be a nursery rhyme to carry a child into a dream, there is a mystery in every woodland: the mystery about what, indeed, lies "beneath the trees where nobody sees". No playful teddy bears, alas. Soil, definitely. But how much soil? What kind of soil? And how did it get there? Sitting on a small fallen Oak in Herefordshire, espying an ancient woodland, I began to think about the formation of soils in our British woodlands. How might this formation compare to the arable farm? Do woodland soils erode as quickly as our cultivated soils? What were the lifespans of the British woodland soil? Gathering up these thoughts, along with a bag of equipment, I alighted from the trunk, took one final look at the thatched cottage, and strolled down to begin a fortnight of woodland fieldwork. 


***


"In long-range planning for a trip, I think there is a private conviction that it won't happen."

(John Steinbeck 'Travels with Charley: In Search of America')

The very first line of Steinbeck's novel had haunted me, in Lancaster, for many weeks. I had spent weeks planning the fieldwork in copious detail, but at the back of my mind, I still had lingering doubts that it wouldn't actually take place. This may, at first, seem perhaps a frightful silly. But the truth is that almost every plan was falling into place a little too easily. The National Trust had granted me permission, encouraged the study no less, and I had arranged access. The weather appeared to be bright. Each item of desirable equipment had either been acquired successfully from Lancaster Environment Centre, or otherwise purchased without incident, and I had managed to secure a relay of field assistants. Paul would take me down to complete the first few days of drilling (explained later), John would take the baton for a while before finally handing it over to Andy. On the page, it sounded too seamless. 

My two woodland sites, whilst not naming them specifically here, are in Shropshire and Herefordshire. They were selected based on a promise made by a few unknown geologists that underlying them - indeed, "beneath the trees where nobody sees" - is sandstone bedrock. To calculate Soil Production Rates from sandstone bedrock, the first task would be to acquire some of this weathered sandstone. Many weeks back, I was recommended the employment of a Percussion Corer. Very simply, this is a metal tube which is pushed into the ground by a petrol-driven drill. The tube (or, to be precise, a bag within the tube) slowly fills up with soil. Persist with the corer, and the almost maddening vibrations that surge through your hands and up your arms, and the tube finally hits bedrock, at which point some of the sandstone is grounded up and squeezed into the bag. The drill is then removed, and a mechanism to manually 'jack' the core out of the ground is assembled. I cannot adequately describe to you how quiet this 'jacking' mechanism was, in comparison to the deafening fury of the drill. Although I'm sure a motorized machine could have removed the core in double the time, I protest that this was surely the cleanest and most satisfying aspect of the challenge.





The satisfaction didn't prolong. Two problems, of varying severity, transpired. Firstly, the volume of material extracted from one coring session was by no means enough. At least three cores would be required at each of my four sampling points to amass the volume of sandstone necessary for calculating soil formation rates. Another means by which to collect the material would be to manually dig soil pits, but would this take longer than coring thrice? Alas, the rip-cord of the drill severed, and pit digging very quickly transformed from a contingency plan to the main order of the day.

How deep would one have to dig to reach sandstone? One morning, a car rattled down to the bottom of the wood, and out emerged Andy with a Panda Penetrometer. Both Andy and the Penetrometer are two very interesting subjects to write about, but as knowledgeable as Andy is of sandstone, the penetrometer would perhaps provide more reliable information. Again, in layman's terms, this is a long metal rod which is manually hammered into the ground. Extension rods are subsequently screwed on and hammered in until the first rod 'hits' bedrock. The force that is required to hammer the rod through a known depth of soil is then used to work out the penetration resistance or the strength of the material. As the bedrock is stronger than its soil overburden, one can establish the approximate depth of the sandstone.


"Beneath the trees, where nobody sees"... A jovial line to the toddler becomes a tease to the Soil Scientist. How can one resist the temptation to dig through the soil, this earthy underworld which as the tune quite rightly describes, is forever unseen. It is still quite bemusing to think that we justify space exploration whilst satisfying our minds with simply 'imagining' what might lie beneath the trees. These thoughts were encircling my mind whilst I dug, dug, dug... deep into the heart of another one of Earth's undiscovered, unseen worlds. 

Theory states that soils should be thickest on plateaus, and thinnest on slopes. My woodlands abide by these theories, I am happy to state. On the steep, arduous wooded slopes where the brambles and nettles attempt to retard your efforts, the soils are about 50-80cm deep. Beyond these depths, little purchase is made with the spade, and you wield your knife into one of the pit walls to extract a piece of saprolite (weathered bedrock). At the summit, I dug continuously: 80cm, 1m, 1.2m... 1.5m before finally making a satisfying noise with my spade that informed me I was hitting rock, not soil. It is then a matter of collecting enough samples, not only of the rock itself, but of the overlying soil. I collected soil samples every 5cm down three columns in each pit.



There is an unspoken delight in digging soil pits, arduous as the task may be. You may gaze hard at the soil; this mysterious world 'beneath the trees where nobody sees'. You may collect and bag as many samples as you please, but a bag of soil on its own will not whisper the secrets to the mysteries of the woodland. There may be an urge to quickly re-fill the pits, and to scamper to the laboratory, but speaking personally, there is an overwhelming and slightly surreal experience about sitting still, six feet below ground.

We often speak of the 'woodland floor' as that which we stroll down, casually on Sunday afternoons with the dog; that surface where roots become trunks and saplings take their first breath. But as any curious dog, or root for that matter will demonstrate, in reality, the woodland floor we know is not a floor, but a rooftop and the tree trunks are merely chimneys, breathing out oxygen in exchange for our CO2. Below the rooftops are many floors, home to millions of species. The top floor, that rich, organic horizon with freshly decomposed litter, a thick middle floor full of light sandy soil, and the ground floor, the bedrock - the true woodland floor - and the foundations for all that exist in the storeys above.

If you dig down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise; a surprise that would make any Teddy Bear's picnic seem fairly commonplace.











Monday, 17 July 2017

SPECIAL FEATURE: The Catena Link

Think of the word Catena and any Soil Scientist would instantly imagine a soil sequence draping a hillslope.  But the word Catena originally stems from the italian word for Chain.  

 

 This week, as well as highlighting the fascinating work by other soil scholars, we shall be making our very own catena of words; a chain of soily word associations...

 

 

Visit the Soil Security Programme blog


 

 ** Previous Blogs featured in the Catena Chain ** 

Visit Dirt Doctors 

Visit Emily's 'Defra Digital' Blog 

Visit Emily's Bankfull Science Post

Visit Victoria's Student Blog

Visit Pierre's 'Plant Soil Interactions' Blog

 

 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Week 39: (26th June to 2nd July 2017) or 'A Postcard from a Rainy Day'

England has kept its appointment with the maritime climate. As one who is accustomed to the British Summer knows only too well, occasionally the country has a 'wash, cut and blow-dry' although not necessarily in that order. On fine Sunday afternoons, husbands and wives become garden barbers, shaving the grass and pruning the sideburns which are for many the hedges between neighbours. A day or two may elapse before these trimmed gardens are rinsed in sharp downpours, so that the leaves of the Prunus may forever shine in the forthcoming sunlight. A warm breeze which lingers amongst the leaves of the trees then descends into England's mini-Edens. The waves of air which so gracefully flow over the mosaics of our rural idylls is a sympathetic score to the ears.

How wonderfully incessant this washing, cutting and blow-drying is in the calendar of rural England. Each step in the sequence breathes promise and hope. How the nation's gardeners rub their green fingers with collective patience for the rain to be delivered; how reassuring it is when the loyal droplets come. But oh, how the mood shifts in urban England! As I write, a deluge is tormenting the rooftops of Nottingham. Drainpipes have awakened and the dust that collects on dry days in pavement cracks is being chased away. Umbrellas are tortured by the harrowing wind; some relinquishing the fight by inwardly contorting themselves to concede victory. They are no longer little domed roofs above irritated heads but little defeated bowls which now collect the water that is pulled from the sky by the underground beast of gravity. How miserable the scene appears and yet thirty miles away, in suburban villages, the rain that falls is hailed as a blessing for cottage gardens, allotments and the farms.

I am in Nottingham once again to meet with Dr Andy Tye at the British Geological Survey. Let me account for the latest developments to my PhD fieldwork campaign. First I can confirm that August and September will witness the first comprehensive spell of fieldwork with a thorough sampling campaign for my four sites across the country. My two arable sites will be the focus for the BGS Drilling Rig which will be injected into the soil to extract the requisite samples of weathered bedrock. Here is a video from the BGS explaining in great detail the process of drilling.


On my two woodland sites, the rig will be substituted by a percussion corer which achieves the same objective of extracting a core of soil, but is easier to transport through a broadleaved woodland. My woodland sites will also undergo what, to an untrained eye, might perhaps look like acupuncture; a grid of large steel pins will be hammered down the slope. If these eyes are trained, one would acknowledge these as erosion pins. They work, more or less, by calculating the difference in height between the soil surface and the top of the pin after a year. A greater length of exposed pin above the soil surface would indicate some degree of erosion.

It is still raining here in Nottingham but I must now sign off this postcard, reawaken my umbrella, and depart for the BGS.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Week 38: (19th June to 25th June 2017) or 'It turned out nice again'

"The increasing powers of steam will, I think, one day waft friends together in the course of a few hours"

(Sir Walter Scott)

"He's got the whole world in his hands..." When I was younger, an hour or two of my schooling was spent sitting in a small, yet memorably warm mobile home, singing an anthology of spiritual anthems. One such hymn was "He's got the whole world in his hands..." which was never one of my particular favourites given that the melody is repetitious. Nevertheless, the message it imparts is explicit: we are sitting in His hands, the palms of God.

It is only until one is comfortably inside their third decade of life that one realizes that God may not be the only one with the world in his hands. I was thinking about this, as I journeyed to Edinburgh this week to see one of my co-supervisors. Sitting at the nose of a ten carriage train, the driver may not witness nor join the hubbub of activity that he dutifully pulls along the tracks, but he must be in no doubt that the lives of every passenger are in his hands to some extent. He can apply the breaks and immediately delay hundreds of appointments. And, indeed, he does have the world in his hands, or at least, ambassadors from all over the globe. If you take the train between Lancaster and Edinburgh, it does not matter which carriage you select, for in each vessel the spices of international culture gurgle and simmer with eddying frivolity.  

To my left, with their back to Scotland, was a modest Japanese family. Scaling innocently up their mother's thighs and clambering upon the carriage tables were the family's youngest members. If one is acquainted with the tribulations of journeying with infants who have yet to discover their own volume controls, you will understand my silent yet desperate plea for them to subdue their excitement, and likewise you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear that such a petition was unelected. With every passing mile towards the seam, where the last patch of the English quilt is stitched to the tartan of the Scottish highlands, the infants heightened in their elation. Opposite them, occupying the other half of the table, were representatives from India. The five thousand miles that distanciate Japan and India had become compressed into a small void that hovered above their shared carriage table. One of the Indian infants was counting the sheep from his seat beside the window, and was becoming increasingly stimulated as if the sight of each sheep was a coin in his own energy generator. He has many years to go before such an activity has the reverse effect.

By the time we were edging around the castle at Edinburgh, the carriage hysterics had peaked to maddening levels. Though I have reservations about the word 'friends', Sir Walter Scott had been right with his forecast. The increasing powers of steam had wafted friends together in the course of a few hours. The train stopped, its many jaws opened wide, and the cosmopolitan aroma of internationalism wafted out to become diluted once more.

I have written elsewhere (Week 18) about the alleyway that scales the brow of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Edinburgh Railway Station is as Scottish as London Victoria. Some railway stations across the country have been constructed with a conscious effort to preserve some essence of locality. Alas, Edinburgh Waverley does not make the list. But what is lost in this architectural sin, elevates the importance of the 'alleyway' for the steps up to the Royal Mile bridge three centuries. Three hundred years of history are traversed in ignorance everyday. As I began climbing this ladder back to the 1700s, I stopped at a pub that had been the Halfway House during my previous visit. But the wonderful sign which creaked in the whispers of a highland breeze was not to be seen. Had this, too, lost its footing on the tightrope of history to fall down to the present day? I wandered in to a lonely bar. Behind it, a Scottish woman.

"Excuse me," I said. "I wonder if you could tell me the name of this pub?"
I didn't want to ask what had happened to the Halfway House, perchance that the landlady thought me displeased with whatever it currently was.
"It's the Halfway House," she insisted.
She noticed me starting to gesture to a little patch of the brick wall, beyond which used to hang the sign.
"Oh...we've had a re-paint. The sign should go back up tomorrow. It will be the Halfway House again, tomorrow."
I wandered back out, and sighed relief. I was still one and a half centuries away from the Edinburgh Royal Mile, so I continued up the alleyway.

I will never tire of Edinburgh. For as long as I breathe in the air which circulates around the body of this ancient place, I will be re-energized by its heritage and revitalized by its culture. For most of us, our hearts beat with a dull thump. For those who saddle the mountains and search out the wilderness of Scotland, their hearts appear not to thump, but to dispatch an impassioned melody which is carried to towns and cities across the country. This sorrowful cry from the Highlands floats over the Firth of Forth and is received by a uniformed guard who stands daily at the edge of the Royal Mile. The cry is translated in his exhalation; it travels through the Bagpipes and rides out into the Scottish air to make poignant contact with the souls that promenade the street.

My meeting in Edinburgh was my second visit to the office of Professor Simon Mudd. I had come equipped with many questions, mostly about the fieldwork. I appraised him of the developments that had occurred since January: that I had six field sites, that I had been to each site for preliminary inspections, that I had discounted two of the sites, that I had applied to the Cosmogenic facility for funding, that I had prepared a thorough fieldwork campaign programme, that I had been to see a statistician. One of Simon's interests is that of geospatial mapping which is apposite, given that I will need topographic maps for my research. The Environmental Agency, over the last couple of decades, have flown over certain areas of the country in a small aeroplane, sending down lasers to calculate with remarkable precision the distance between themselves and the ground below. This technique, known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is used to draw three-dimensional maps that indicate the slope, curvature and rugged nature of the terrain we like to imagine as flat on our street atlases. Here's an example, showing a Digital Surface Model for Comer Woodland, one of my fieldsites in Shropshire.


There is a problem. The Digital Surface Model includes everything that, naturally, appears on the surface: trees, hedgerows, buildings and so on. Thus, the Environmental Agency have also produced Digital Terrain Models which, put simply, have wiped the surface clean as one might dust a sideboard. However, next in the problem queue is the fact that the plane hasn't swept across every square inch of the country; some of my fieldsites sit, rather annoyingly, a mile or two beyond the flightpaths.


Luckily, there is always a solution. I will travel down to the British Geological Survey again next week and spend some time producing some Digital Terrain Models for each of my four fieldsites. Whilst the Environmental Agency may not have sufficient data, the NEXTmap has a similar facility.

***

How can you get an entire university campus thinking and talking about the same thing? The answer can be discovered by going down to one of the local power stations, finding the control room, and switching the electricity off for a few hours. Ill-fated weather tried this out on Wednesday.

At night, an outage of power is almost immediately clear but the disgruntled cursing and overall frustration is often self-contained inside individual households. Candles are sought from the dusty alcoves of the 19th century; bedtimes are pushed forward as humans succumb to the hopeless reality. But during the day, a redundant computer or an unconscious microwave are more than nuisances. They paralyze most of the liberties of our everyday lives, as if the very human experience itself is wired to the mains. It is during such a (fortunately) rare, yet seismic event, that a very different way of life is exhibited; as if a lifestyle without electricity that has been dormant for so many years has been plucked from hibernation and offered a one-day pass of freedom. Awake from the passages of pre-electric history, a lifestyle prepares to inflict a sobering message upon us all: we should not take electricity for granted.

Leaving the eel aside, we are the only species to exploit the wonders of electricity. The magpies that skate over Lancaster University most mornings must have perched upon the canopies of the campus trees, puzzled as to why scholars were suddenly emerging en masse from their buildings. Why were they crowding in small groups, appearing helpless? The anthropologist, who studies the human condition, must smile - as I did - when the power was snipped. I grabbed my notebook and headed towards the campus. My first stop was the Lancaster Environment Centre, but when I arrived, it was bordering on deserted. Lobbies, that usually hosted student luncheons, were barren and as I ploughed my way through the dim corridors, I realized that most of the centre was already being locked up for the day.

"How cool are these?" one of my colleagues said, pointing in amazement to a ceiling of epiphytes that decorate one of the avenues between buildings.
"It takes a power cut to notice nature?" I said, half-amazed for the other, more cynical half, realized that many often parade this avenue peering down at little glass screens rather than up towards the foliage.

I continued my walk. Passing the library, I noticed keen scholars squinting at their texts using the residual light that was dripping in through the windows. In the main square, the banks and shops were closed. A cashier in W. H. Smiths revealed her agonies against technology.

"Back to the pen and paper," I reckoned to her, pointing at her vast array of notebooks and pads. The campus pharmacy was also closed. Why was cash, which by its very nature is pre-electric, also redundant? Could the items sold not be written down and entered into the till at later time? The campus bakery was open. Queues of dispirited students were cleaning the shelves of its stock, rustling into their pockets in the hope that out would rattle a few pound coins. Outside, a student who, like myself, seemed to distance herself from the pandemonium, was observing the action alongside me. She told me that humans were going crazy. I pointed out that some aspects of life were disaffected, pointing to a man delivering a trolley's worth of parcels to one of the departments.


I remembered a sequence from the second act of one of Sondheim's plays, where an unveiling of a sculpture that almost entirely relies upon electricity, is grounded due to a fault.

"For precise synchronization of all of the visual elements, I have installed a new state of the art Japanese micro-computer which controls the voltage regulator. I think the surge from the musical equipment has created an electrical short and unfortunately, no electricity, no art."

No electricity, no art. Is this the case? I ambled over to the art department. By the entrance of the music department, I happened upon two musicians hauling equipment down the stairs.

"Surely, music doesn't stop does it?" I asked, toned with the dismay of realizing the answer already.

They told me that music, indeed, does stop. I fluttered the idea of an acoustic guitar, but it was fought with the argument that they needed an amplifier. We started to make a slow exit; they were apparently heading to the city where a small pocket of electricity was fighting (and winning) against the cut.

"The show must go on!" I said.
"We've quite a lot of work to do. We have a concert on Sunday, a prom on Friday, something else Saturday..."
Another performer hastened to add. "The power cut is not our friend, right now."

I made several other visits to vacant buildings which would, on any other day, be happily populated with scholarly life. Emerging from one of the accommodation blocks, a student - whose choice of clothing would suggest a rather recent departure from the mattress - approached me and asked what was going on. I informed him that there had been a county-wide power cut.

"Oh I see," he said, with hint that he didn't. "Are we supposed to evacuate?"
I replied with a negative and then learnt that he hadn't just awoke, but had been working on his computer for his dissertation. We both meditated upon the timeless agony of an unsaved, and now lost, document.
"I'm an English lit student; I am used to reading from books but I don't have any that I haven't already read...[a slight pause]...well, that I like. I've got plenty that I've bought, read three pages of, and put aside".
I suggested that certain subjects lend themselves to power cuts and that those embarked upon Computer Science were particularly redundant.
"They could write their code on a piece of paper?" he suggested.

I decided to swing around and make one final visit. If there is anything left in the world that can thrive without a voltage, surely it is faith. Surely, the act of worship and the outward expression of belief, are and will never be engineered into the circuit board of modernity. Surely they exist in an altogether more sublime prism? I walked to the chapel. As I entered into this holy place, a small female choir were cradling the air with their glorious verse. The flame from a candle sent a shimmer of light across the hallway. On one of the walls, a message read: "Light will always break through the toughest of dark shields".

I ambled back out, and whispered that again. "Light will always break through the toughest of dark shields".

***


Pull out from your bookcase your thesaurus. Marooned between "commodity" and "commotion" is the word "common", and the scholars at Collins have dutifully provided four situations where the word 'common' may be most appropriately employed.
1. Ordinary, usual, commonplace, simple, run-of-the-mill, bog-standard, workaday[...]
2. Popular: standard, widespread, prevailing [...]
3. Vulgar: inferior, low, coarse [...]
4. Community: public, community, communal [...]

If you are inwardly debating the mastery of Collins, come with me to Blackpool, for Blackpool is a synonym of the word 'Common'.

Where does Blackpool begin? The great arms of British terrain stretch west towards Ireland, and there is a sensation, I imagine, to believe that Blackpool occupies the tips of its fingers; the very interface between land and sea. Perhaps, when one thinks more about Blackpool, the expanse of the Blackpool sands which are revealed at every low tide, come to mind; the palm of the English coastline. And from this palm, four fingers are outstretched: three fingers pointing west, one for each pier, and one bloodied finger pointing towards the clouds, the prominent Blackpool Tower. But the phalanges of north-west England, that drill into the Irish Sea, do not mark the start of Blackpool, as those who visit by train are only too aware. Blackpool begins further up the arm, at the wrists, and it is there where we will start our journey.

The main artery towards the palm of the Blackpool sands is a high street that, collectively, arouses the first of our four synonyms: ordinary. I quickly abandoned my search for the peculiar, for such cultural eccentricities do not linger here. Were it not for the signage that emblazons walls and doors with the words 'Blackpool this' and 'Blackpool that', one could mistake this street for any in the United Kingdom!

I was thinking about the pulleys that drag millions to these 'run-of-the-mill' streets when I happened upon a bar called 'Ma Kellys', which I originally misread as 'Mr Kellys'. At the entrance, a battle was erupting. The outside insisted it was 1:30pm, the inside argued it was 11:30pm. I slipped passed this battle between day and night, and ventured into the bar. From inside, it seemed absurd that it was daytime. Hundreds of evening dresses, wrapped securely (and some less securely) around the waists of middle-aged women, were being chaperoned around the dance-floor. Around small tables in Frankie's Lounge, eggs were beginning to crack open to begin all-night hen parties. On one side of the lounge, a fully occupied tiered seating area afforded a reasonable view of the stage upon which 'Charleigh', in a blue and sparkling dress, was sending her northern dialect assuredly down the microphone. Her final act on this midday cabaret would be a "triple decker". Apparently, this would be like a double decker chocolate bar, but three tracks instead of two, and "you won't put any weight on". I'm bound to say that it hadn't yet worked for her.

Her triple decker began: a salute to Abba. I fled to one of the corners with a Guinness. Dublin, you may be interested to know, translates from the Irish into Blackpool, but the links between the origin of the Guinness stout and the origins of the British seaside holiday resort are sadly no more than etymological. It was, regretfully but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the worst stouts I have ever had the misfortune to drink. I guzzled and gazed. Ma Kelly's brings out the second of our synonyms, for however 'simple', 'ordinary' or 'bog-standard' the place and its occupants appeared, at 13:45 during the daytime it was undoubtedly 'popular'. I spent some time thinking about the wonders of sound. Forty years ago, a Swedish musician woke up and jotted a lyric about money: it was funny in a rich man's world. That idea, which may have fleeted across the mind as quickly as it takes a man to brew his morning coffee, has been scribbled into a pad, typed onto a page, sung in a small Stockholm studio, and has been preserved into eternity as a sound-wave. Those waves have been cast to tape, burnt to disc, zapped into a computer and for three minutes they rippled through the carpet of Ma Kellys to vibrate hundreds of shoes and sandals. Forty years and a thousand miles has transformed an idea into a vibrating sandal.

The triple decker came to a resounding halt. I alighted and carried on down to the sea.


Amusement arcades sit waiting to douse the tourist with delight. Anyone purely passing the time, and not fixated on any one particular game, finds themselves wading through a sonic cocktail. Television theme tunes, movie soundtracks, and incidental music are whisked together, as if one were walking around a series of occupied music studios without soundproofed walls. Clinging to two penny pieces in the slot machines were lollypops, chewing gum and lottery tickets, each equally threatened with the deep and dark cave that would send them with a one-way ticket into the eager paws of a child. I paused by the grab machines. Amassed in chaos were teddies of all denominations, and though they never reach out to grab hold of the metal hook, their imprisonment surely makes them want to.

I sauntered up the pier. Our third synonym became realized. With each step, the vulgarity became ever more apparent. The dispiriting sight of oxidized iron wrapped itself around the pier. Huts declaring fudge and ice-cream were nothing but false-promises clinging to the edge of the wooden boards that suspend you above the waves. At the end, the front hoofs of twenty horses were perpetually kicking the air. Keeping them company was a lady who sat with glum patience inside a small control box, waiting for someone to decide to travel half a mile in a circle.

Further along the seafront, I happened upon the word 'Brilliance'. The letters were part of a neon lighting display, and the neon had clearly popped out for a breath of fresh air. I asked myself how brilliant the street that leads off from it could be, and with the infectious inquisitiveness that commands my movements in these situations, I crossed the road. To my left, a lap-dancing club and 'Knobby's Karaoke Bar'. To my right, Brannigans claimed that it "likes to party". In Blackpool, it seems, no distinction is made between the words 'vulgarity' and 'brilliance'.

"Luk Mum," a voice shrieked from behind several inches of fake tan. "Soph said it's well dead cool in 'ere." I turned around to see a young girl pulling her Mum towards a shop selling 'everything half price or less'. Sitting on a small island in the middle of the high street, I began to watch what I believed was Blackpool's major shopping district. The biodiversity of the human species is healthy here in Blackpool. Pigeon street cleaners dodge the pilgrimage of customers who pinball their way from shop to shop, in the conquest of a bargain.


Around the corner, at the summit of the high street, a relatively ornate church stood as a backdrop for a town show. Erected before it was a stage, from which two speakers were spouting the music most often reserved for the circus. I had arrived just in time to see the George Formby Tribute Act. Up a set of stage steps came the ghost of Mr Formby, clutching a ukulele. Against the harsh winds that were threatening to steal his top hat, he spent half an hour exuding a gaiety across the square that salutes our final synonym of Blackpool: that of community. I have little doubt that the town has entertained the crowds for over half a century and it is perhaps the celebration of the other three themes- a widespread passion for ordinariness, the prevailing acceptance and celebration of its own vulgarity - that makes Blackpool the town it is today. Little mops of grey hair were sitting in rows, and I watched as Mr Formby used the oldest paintbrush known to man - comedy - to paint smiles across their wind-swept faces. Many were fanning the air with little union jack flags. Nearly all were tapping their feet as Mr Formby strummed out some echoes from the bygone age. The clouds had given way to the first rays of sunlight, and like he promised, it had turned out nice again.


Down by the Blackpool Sands, the gulls were puppets being pulled by the wind. With the tide's day trip to the coast now over, I watched it as it made its westerly voyage to the horizon, ready to bathe the sun. Several acres of Blackpool had become available. Donkeys carted children across the sand; their hooves sinking in to small pools which were now only memories of an Irish Sea. I walked across to greet the current shoreline, which was at least 700m away now. The farewell messages from the departing waves were sketched into the sand; the corrugated ripples punctuated often by the commas of shells and the apostrophes of crabs. Beside the legs of the Central Pier, now ankle deep in sand not water, were two figures seeking treasure with metal detectors. I gazed as they ironed the air with their machine, often making exploratory digs with their spade. If the jewel of the coast is here in Blackpool, it may well be deep underground but then Blackpool doesn't protest to be seasoned in treasure, or indeed, peppered with riches at all. It prides itself, I think, in being common: in being ordinary, popular, occasionally vulgar, and forever a community.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Week 37: (12th June to 18th June 2017) or 'Paradise Found'

Stand in the right spot in London and it is possible to roam across the sprawling palm of the city without moving a muscle. The spot in question is a carriage that whisks through the intestines in the very belly of the capital. I minded the gap in London Liverpool Street and boarded one of London's arteries; the blood-red Central Line heading westbound. Just as this underground capsule was ready to depart, germinating from a crowd of summer caps, a couple sprang to life and made a sprint towards the closing doors. The following five, perhaps ten seconds must have seemed like an eternity. The gentleman lunged forwards so as to defy the gnashing jaws of the tube doors, and being in a position to help, I assisted in pulling his suitcase through. The doors, those gnawing molars, were only the more desperate to close. The gentleman turned to lend a hand to his partner but it was too late; the lips of the doors were satisfyingly pursed. A few seconds elapsed where his eyes met hers and I watched at their collective longing for each other as the train started to pull away. I imagined what was going through his mind. Perhaps he began to place his feet inside her boots: would she stay and await his return? Would she take the next tube and meet him at the next stop? Would she go on to their final destination and wait in patience? I thought to myself that this is surely the strength test of understanding for any relationship. The gentleman alighted at Bank and I nearly joined him on the platform, purely out of curiosity to witness the outcome of this subterranean drama. But I had a train to catch and so the case remains, at least to you and I, unresolved...

So often the carriage of the train or the decks of the stagecoach are awash with postcard narratives like this. I have promised to myself that one day, when the burly of life has become less hurly, I will make a tour of this little island solely on public transport and document the fascinations that occur along the way. If you were to take the train from Birmingham to Manchester, you would inevitably find a sign decorating every carriage window reading: "We want everyone to have a great journey so please consider others around you". How true those words are, for my most enriched journeys are those where I've simply sat and considered my fellow travellers; their unspoken oddities, their curious dialogue, their role in such theatrical mundanity. One day I shall embark on such a pilgrimage, but not today.

I had parked my PhD in a short-stay car park and had taken a couple of days off to make a fleeting visit to Norfolk. But now back in Lancashire, and back in the driving seat, I was ready to make progress along the road to where all PhDs eventually park: the graduation hall.

***

Where along that journey is my PhD currently? I am encircling one of those many roundabouts, where avenues of choice sprawl out like tentacles, each promising a slightly different future. Quite apart from the impetuous reflex of quick decision making that taunts (or invigorates) the driver of the motorcar, the PhD student must digest each and every option, muse out loud their predicaments, consult with their supervisory assistance, and then once the decision is made, turn on the indicators. The roundabout I am currently girdling is that of 'Experimental Design' or, to exemplify, planning the vital details of my summer fieldwork campaign. It is with some sense of ease that I can report that this task is going well, but there had been one aspect that for some reason or another I had omitted until now: the meeting with the statistician. The blueprints of experimental design must be fondled at least once by a statistician for they have the judicious skill of scrutinizing a series of fieldwork plans and informing whether they have both the rigor and the precision worthy enough to be carried out. And so, I found myself travelling to Nottingham to see one of the country's most respected geostatisticans: Dr Murray Lark.

What is the point of Statistics? I imagine those words, or words to that effect, have been whisked in the minds of nearly every student obliged to employ them. For those who do not elect the Statistics for Geographers or the Statistics in Geography as 'light' reading material before switching out the lights (and let me assure you, I join you) let me nevertheless justify one of the major strengths of this mathematical toolkit. If I were to ask you to inform me as to the average number of seats on a standard UK bus, you would face a daunting challenge of traversing the country and tallying the numbers of seats on every single bus. Although I admit the challenge would be enthralling, it is hardly an efficient method and I may find myself without an answer for some foreseeable time. No, what you would do is sit aboard a sample of buses, perhaps 100. The experience would, no doubt, be similarly interesting. Thus, the power of statistics is the means by which a sample can be used to inform one of a much larger population.

I was thinking about this as I alighted off the bus in Keyworth. Alas, I did not count the seats, which remains a task for another visit. My arrival to the British Geological Survey was an early one, perhaps too early, so I took a walk around the village of Keyworth before making my entrance. Should one require a representative sample of an ordinary British suburban village, one need travel no further than Keyworth for soaked into the fabric of this neighbourhood, I found an irrepressible ordinariness. There are few things to stand aghast to in Keyworth. Gardens sit like welcome mats on the doorsteps of detached abodes; each separated by a little wall of hedge. Cars sit on the road with two feet up on the kerb. A few weeds take refuge in the gorges that open up on well-paced pavements. I wandered up Mount Pleasant and found the experience to be exactly that. I became a little irritated that around no turn, nor deviation from the path, gave way to shock or surprise. And upon returning to the entrance of the British Geological Survey, I was neither elated nor inspired.

I then realized how extra-ordinary Keyworth is. Although a prevailing air of normality rides over the rooftops and swirls around the cul-de-sacs, not every suburban village can boast of having one of the world's leading geological organizations as a neighbour. Keyworth is far from ordinary! I began to cross the large car park towards the visitor entrance. With giant rocks peppering the site, and peculiar patterns garnishing the pavement slabs, both of which I can never adequately identify, I always feel the faint tinglings of being an imposter here. There is also a certain and eerie sense of tranquillity here. I am often prepared for a large explosion or perhaps the tremors of a controlled earthquake, but such geological activity never arises.

"Not as geological as I thought," I remarked, as I shook hands with my supervisor Dr Andy Tye.

For the best part of two hours, Dr Murray Lark, Dr Andy Tye and I played Jenga with my project's experimental design. (Those who didn't relish an afternoon's enjoyment as a child playing Jenga should make up for lost time, but essentially, wooden blocks are removed from a tower and repositioned so as to make it appear, at least at first glance, a less stable structure). In much the same way, the building blocks of my experimental design were each removed, studied, debated and repositioned. Some aspects were dropped, some rearranged, and some were left in place. One interesting conclusion was made. Until now, scholars measuring soil production have seldom acquired more than one 'production rate' for any one point across a study site. To a statistician (and to employ our earlier analogy), this is akin to counting the seats on just one bus and using that as a representative average for the entire UK bus fleet. We all agreed that it is essential to make more than one measurement of soil production rate at each study site.

***


The second hand of my watch is a baton held currently by the final minutes of an early summer's evening. Effortlessly, it is about to be passed on to the first minute of Midnight. In these ephemeral moments, I lean against the windowsill of my hotel room. From the sixth floor, my eyes reach out like a net to capture the vista of a city asleep. The minutes that pass now are those that occupy the binding of diaries and the lines on calendars; a transitory wave of time where anything seems possible. My eyes wander across the rooftops; there are no shops, nor businesses, nor homes in this twilight. They are simply blurry solids, separated by the gaseous voids of roads and alleyways. Stabbing the horizon are towers, which ascend into the air perhaps to rest their brows on one of the sky's white cushions. I listen intently to the moaning and humming that bleeds out from the ring-road. Buses that are 'not in service' are retiring to their depots, a boy speeds on a bike to deliver a pizza, empty lorries return to the warehouse for a midnight feed before they are discharged once more. Townsfolk step out from the streetlamps, meandering lazily across the road, their wallets lighter and their livers heavier. Two men wade into a pool of light to enjoy one last cigarette.

On the top floor of an adjacent premises, I gaze at what appears to be the most peculiar burglary ever to take place in Nottingham. A few silhouettes are dismantling a door frame. I watch it being divorced from the door it once embraced and carried down a stairway to emerge out on the street below. Another shadow opens the hatch of a lorry and in it goes. Kidnapped, with little chance to escape, the door frame is now hurled around the labyrinth of the city's backstreets and I watch in subtle amazement as the lorry fades from view.

I should go to sleep... but I search out the horizon, one final time. There in the far distance is a soup of lights. Some of those lights are those from the dwellings on Mount Pleasant; they overlook the city centre like the audience in the Grand Circle. I try to imagine that Keyworth community; the ordinariness of the village, the weeds in the pavement, dirty cups in the dishwasher. Some of those twinkles are from the British Geological Survey, as guards stand with hot cocoa to protect some of the country's most celebrated geological findings. I stumble into bed...

Another morning promised is a promise kept. But Nottingham, I conclude, is a puzzle. At night, it is bewitching, as if the Gods of Twilight freshen the air each night with the vespers of an irresistible enchantment. But that allure has diffused by morning, and now from the ground, a conscious urban reality rises from slumber. I walk to the railway station. How can it look so grotesque? Concrete germs, sneezed out from the uninspired and dull wits of the 1960s architects, plague most of the inner streets. Fine architecture seems all the more appealing now; it's as if these ornate designs are attempting to turn your head away with the comforting message of "Don't look, don't feast your eyes on those wearisome car parks; turn to look at me! Don't I dazzle your eyes with such resplendent design? Don't I exude glee and splendour with my irradiant beauty?" I walk past a lorry, with the side hatch up. Out of curiosity, I peek in and search for a door frame. A young man is sorting through many brown sacks of Lincolnshire Potatoes. The door frame may well be out the country by now, I thought.

***
   

There's a bus to Paradise. It scoops you up in Gargrave and heads towards this other Eden through some of the most tranquil country lanes you could ever hope to travel. You watch as wild hedgerows attempt to board and travel with you; they try to cling to the panes of glass, offering their sticky seeds the promise of another home. Occasionally, the bus pulls to a halt and collects more passengers. There are no bus shelters nor signs, but little figures standing idle under the canopies of Oaks or sitting upon the dry stone walls. On board they come, joining a congregation of light chatter. You gaze once more out of the window; an ever-changing tapestry of Constable's landscape commands your view. Like an unfinished painting, the sheep are little white blobs that paddle around in a pool of luscious green velvety paint. Droplets of blue dye are being discharged from the heavens to diffuse into a blanket of white clouds and soon each patch of the quilt is coloured. Soon you arrive into Paradise.

"Right, everybody," goes the driver, whose pitch ascends on the final syllable of each sentence. "Have a good day! If you're coming back with me...half four... here. Okay, everybody, have a good day!"

You alight and the first thing you notice is that Paradise is spelt wrong. It's spelt 'Malham' here.

For some weeks, I have peered out the window back in Lancaster and watched as little droplets of the Atlantic Ocean slide down the glass. So you may imagine my delight when this weekend promised no such delivery. There are only two buses that visit Malham everyday; one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and it was vital that my adventures sandwiched neatly in between these two non-negotiable crusts of time. I had planned an eight mile walk that vowed to encompass the major highlights of Malham and I made for an immediate start.


It wasn't long before I stopped. I admit I was beginning to feel like I was on a conveyor belt, or perhaps on one very long ride at an adventure park, being moved along by the pace of those parading behind me. Thus, I decided to 'hop off' the ride and sit alongside the edge of a stream. The channel pleasantly drifts between two meadows. Riparian grasses overhang the sides of this miniature valley, peering at their own reflection in the continuously shifting mirror. For a while, the clear water appears almost sedate, gliding smoothly as a singular ribbon. How innocent it moves towards a war downstream. Ahead and inescapable are four or five boulders that rip that ribbon of tranquillity apart, awakening each bubble from its coma, and hurling them over their rocky shoulders into a tumultuous chaos. At the feet of each boulder is an anarchy of individual bubbles; it's every bubble for himself now! They roar in anger at being awoken; some eddying around as if protesting to the boulders, some fleeing from the unruliness. Disaffected, the boulders remain still.

I climbed back upon the conveyor belt and continued the walk. Summer caps and straw hats were being taken for a day out both behind and ahead of me. Soon, the unannounced tour entered what appeared like a kitchen, and those short of sight would have not revised this initial conclusion. In every aspect apart from the visual evidence that it was indeed a woodland, this stretch of the walk felt like we were trooping around the kitchens of Venetian restaurants. A river rushed past us, gurgling and bubbling as if it were boiling vegetables. And drifting around our nostrils were pungent Ramsons or 'Wild Garlic' that had taken root around the trunks of the more venerable trees. Scattered like the herbs a chef might shower a dish with were Broad Buckler Ferns, the 'Lady of the Valley', the Herb Paris and Dog's Mercury. Sizzling ahead of us was a waterfall, behind which legend states lives the Queen of the Local Fairies. Only in Yorkshire would such a member of divinity be called Janet!

  
The claws of time have gnawed away at Yorkshire. The scars of mutilation leave irreversible impressions in the landscape and in the minds of those who traipse through them. Gordale Scar wears a skirt of loose debris, and short blades of grass grow from the valley walls to make this gorge appear like an unshaven giant. Visitors quite innocently saunter through this gorge everyday, unaware that ahead of them lies a trap. I was about to fall into it.

Bearing right around the gorge, for it is no straight cavity but a hook-shaped void in the landscape, I saw it. There, with striking menace, was the end of the gorge and guarding it, fierce cascading water. Like so many other walkers, I took a moment to review my steps. Had I taken a wrong turn? Had Janet, the Queen of the Local Fairies, played a trick upon me in revenge for me pitying her name? And like so many other walkers, I concluded that this was indeed the route. Now, I find it difficult to express the raw emotions that transpired at this point. Amidst the cataclysmic surge of water bellowing in pain as it crashed against the boulders below, I had a decision to make. Was I to join only a handful of experienced walkers in climbing up the face of the waterfall as my directions suggested? Or was I to re-navigate back and seek an alternative route? I ran and re-ran the scenarios in my mind. From the position I was in, there seemed no safe route up the wall of the gorge, and any attempt would be a temporary defiance against gravity. As I moved in closer, I began to map out a route. A few beams of sunlight seemed to be glancing down at the action, revealing how polished these rocks were, as if beckoning me to reconsider.

I decided to take the risk, for if risk is to be taken, it should be executed in youthful ignorance. I clambered over boulders towards the rock face; the foam swirling around the soles of my boots as if attempting to pull me away from inevitable danger. On I went, across the last couple of boulders and now the climbing began!

My future was shared equally among my four limbs. I stretched out to the rocks protruding through the face; my boots wedging in to little caverns below, and up I climbed. Down below, I noticed some of the new arrivals, putting hands over the 'O' of the open mouths as they stood, as I did, aghast that a young man was climbing over the face of a monster. Soon, I emerged on the brow and arranged myself into a sitting position to stare back over the gorge I had climbed. Adrenaline was powering through my vessels as fast as the water that was free-falling to the bottom of the valley below. But how to celebrate my victory, my successful conquest against gravity? I could have defaced a rock with my initials, or asked a walker to take a photograph of me proclaiming triumph, but I'm as British as they come so I walked out onto a grassy meadow and enjoyed a Ham, Cheese and Tomato sandwich.



Is there any other country where the mood can shift so rapidly? No further than a hundred yards from the waterfall, I found myself as small as a pinhead in a vast, open landscape. The birds were once again making melody, and the drone of the solitary bee passed by me in those sleepy meadows. I walked against the wind, an ancient wind, a wind that had howled continuously for millennia over these Yorkshire Dales. Eventually, my route brought me to the edge of Malham Tarn. There, along the lakeside, I shared with a hundred or so cows, an inescapable blueness. I have rarely seen water so blue, apart from perhaps in the Mediterranean. There was an Aegean feeling here, too. The water, far removed from that which confronted me at the waterfall, seemed too delicate, too ethereal, to touch. But how I longed under the beating heat of the Sun to paddle in one of Nature's most graceful baths. I looked over at the cows, grazing at the grass and gazing at the view. How quintessentially English the scene appeared!


I had become spellbound. And lost. No matter which route I tried, I would invariably pause, reassess my position on the map and withdraw. Was I on the yellow line? Was I on the dotted line? Was I on any line?

"Am I going the right way?" I asked. There was no answer.
"Please, is this the way to Malham Cove?" And yet, still no answer.
"Because I think this is the dotted path to Malham... would I be correct with that?"

The sheep just kept grazing and so down the track I continued.



I am writing on the edge of Malham Cove, where an assembly of clints and grikes meet a blanket of air. Once a pavement of limestone, the rocks now sit apart from one another, as if like distant friends, cautious of each other's personal space. It is the world's most 'near-complete' jigsaw, for if each rock was nudged closer to its partner, a solid pavement would manifest again from history. But, alas, like nervous dance partners, they stand still in their own individual micro-worlds.

Without doubt, this is one of the most glorious views in England. It is indeed a challenge to know what to write about. Perhaps, the seemingly endless stream that carves through the valley. It's as if a child has taken a finger to a large slab of green marzipan. Now, in the blue ribbon that winds itself away from Malham Cove, small children splash around in their imagined worlds. I can hear their cherubic cries of joy that travel on the back of the stream and into that vast openness of the valley. Perhaps I might write about the miles of dry-stone wall that stitch together this patchwork quilt. How those walls keep the cattle in, but oh how pathetic - how surmountable - they appear from here. I can run my little finger from field to field with ease, crossing no stile, unfastening no gate. Perhaps I might write about the cattle that dot the landscape like measles, or the farmyard buildings which crop up from the ground like molehills. Perhaps I might write about the way the vibrant green slowly dilutes with distance, to turn into a misty grey upon the horizon; the great battle between the hue and the haze. Perhaps I might write about that which is unseen; the farm-worker who stands in one of those white cottages, sawing a loaf of homemade bread as he makes an afternoon sandwich; inside the minds of the sheep as they dutifully mow the pasture; the tentacles of the trees that stretch and unwind into a hidden underworld. Perhaps I might write of the gentleman who sits next to me, with his partner, half admiring the scenery, half assessing whether to 'pop the question' against a backdrop of this truly British countryside. 

Perhaps I may not write at all. Perhaps I will just sit here, where Paradise is far from lost, and gaze.  


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Week 34: (22nd May to 28th May 2017) or 'Earth is a Great Place to Live'

This week, following the attacks in Manchester, I travelled to the city and gave a talk to the Manchester Luncheon Club. Despite the fact that the attack had inspired many to comment on the dire state of the world, I reflected upon how Earth is truly a great place to live.



Sunday, 21 May 2017

Week 33: (15th May to 21st May 2017) or 'Different Perspectives'


"In the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds" 

Robert Green Ingersoll

It occurred to me last week, whilst climbing back down the staircase of Snowdon, that I wasn't drenched. Apart from the occasional bead of sweat sliding over the skin, I was completely dry. Before the suggestion is made, I am not making comment about Welsh weather. I am referring to the fact that had I spent four or five happy hours in Snowdonia National Park and been at least 10 miles from the sea, and more importantly, above it. Perhaps this does not appear odd, but for 200 millennia, this region was submerged under the Iapetus Ocean. If they had the capacity to wonder about such things, little were the molluscs aware that the seabed beneath them was just a lid on a saucepan of magma, and in time, a giant volcano would punch its way through the ocean, spewing out 60 cubic kilometres of debris. Little did they realize that one day, some of this debris would be mined for copper. And little did they realize that millions of years later, these rocks would host one of the most spectacular viewpoints in Wales; a country that had not yet been formed, let alone named.

And yes: "in the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds". When we melt away the bricks of our days that together make up the pillars of our months and the walls of our years, the great Mountain of Snowdon is not a paralyzed mound of rock, frozen in time like its painted depictions, but a great nomadic monster that feasts on the land, and stretches his arms up towards the sky in a symbol of victory. The mountaineers, who believe they have reached the summit, are perched on the knuckles of his clenched fist. Soon, the great monster of Snowdon will evolve once again and assume a different pose. Perhaps, he will find himself sinking into another ocean, or waist-deep in a bath of icy glaciers. But for now - at least within our own lifespan - he rests on the land.

Whether you see Snowdon as some lifeless mound, or a rocky nomad on the move through geological time, is really a matter of perspective.


David MacDonald's The Terrace


Perspective is important. We are granted two eyes at birth, but we die with many. We are encouraged to 'see another point of view'. We sometimes fail.

In Science, one person's well-rehearsed argument can, given time and credible evidence, become an accepted paradigm across the world. Consider Charles Darwin, and his theory of Natural Selection or Alfred Wegener, and his theory of Plate Tectonics. But even popular belief can change; a paradigmatic shift, as it is referred to in the trade, can still occur. With an open mind - with a different perspective - a scientist has the capacity to see things differently, and in doing so, may uncover information that can re-mould the discipline. Within a landscape of truths and false truths, the contours that divide the two can deviate. Perspective is important.


Across a wide range of scientific output, the necessity for perspective is realized. Many academic journals now devote entire sections to 'Perspective', allowing scholars the chance to publish their own perspective on a well-discussed, or perhaps a lesser-known, aspect of scientific debate. I have spent the week drafting one such Perspective article. The basis of my article will be to argue for a different perspective on the ways that we can bridge the currently 'island' discourses of Soil Sustainability and Soil Conservation. Both are discussed, researched and encouraged by pedologists, but still we have little knowledge about how our soil conservation strategies enhance soil sustainability. By way of a solution, we must first quantify soil sustainability as the length of time (in years) that a soil remains productive.  Soil Conservation, therefore, should aim to increase this lifespan. Thus, when planning which conservation strategy to enforce, we should ask: how will this conservation strategy extend the productive lifespan of this soil?


***


"The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself"

(Henry Miller)

Saturday on Campus.

Is there a more enigmatic place to spend a Saturday than a University Campus? From Monday to Friday, the air that swirls through the corridors and around the departmental blocks, is as intelligible as the corpus of students that roam through them. There is nothing to misunderstand about a campus on a weekday; students study, lecturers lecture, researchers research. But at the weekend, the campus becomes of swamp of bewildering riddles. A fraction of them are framed by the panes around my studio window; my view out of it at the weekend is nothing short of a perplexing landscape. A student passes. Who is he and where is he going? If not a lecture, where? And that lady? Though her coat may be electric pink, there is a greyness in her hair that sets her far apart from any student I know, and yet there she is, wandering around the campus. A Saturday on Campus, if one gives close attention to it, becomes as Henry Miller writes, a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself, and I wished to become immersed within it.

It had rained most of the morning, and now Lancashire was on the chartered raft that floats daily between noon and dusk. I had so far devoted my day to reading, but now the rain was mostly on the ground and not in the air, I desired a walk. I did not have a route planned, nor did I have an agenda. I would allow my curiosity to navigate. As the geographer Carl Sauer once wrote: "the mode of locomotion should be slow, the slower the better, and be often interrupted by leisurely halts to sit on vantage points and stop at question marks".

Saturday on Campus is littered with question marks. I am writing at a vantage point; a seat next to the window of a café which overlooks one of the many thoroughfares. During the week, throngs of students use this to navigate classes, or (if the class does not promise bliss) as a means by which to escape! But it's Saturday, and lecturers are in their back-gardens, enjoying the fruits of a day off, and most probably a bottle of one particular fruit. If that is so, what can account for so many students passing by? There are some people who bear an image that leaves the imagination in little doubt about their intentions. The gentleman who strides by, buttoning a helmet to his skull, is clearly about to head off on a motorcycle. The Asian girl who passes him, awkwardly grappling the handles of two very packed shopping bags as if in the middle of a tug-of-way with gravity, has clearly been shopping. By the look of exhaustion, not on her but on the handles of her bags, it's also clear that she needs to get home fast to avoid the mass evacuation of her purchases. And look! Those two girls, who are sharing the burden of carrying a king-size duvet across the campus, are clearly heading back from (or are on the way to) a sleepover.

But equally, there are many walking question marks; weekend campus-trekkers whose agenda is more effectively disguised. A young man - student, perhaps - is heading for the campus shop in a style that is neither a walk nor a stagger, but sandwiching the two. His head is permanently down, like the way a desk-lamp might study a desk, but why? Did he attend the party 'of his life' last night and, now half-dead, he is monitoring the ground to ensure his feet go where he wants them to go? Is he looking for a lost phone? Has he received some 'terrible news' about his hamster, and now plunged into a pool of grief? Is he a fanatic on paving slabs and is grossly engaged in the study of their use on campus? All are possibilities, and how I wish I could flatten the curves on so many of these question marks and turn them into exciting, and perhaps surprising, exclamations.

Between ? and ! is a void of mystery one can only hope to conquer.

I continued to walk and happened upon something extraordinary; something that made me check, once again, that it was indeed Saturday. Through the windowpane on one of the doors to a large lecture theatre, I could see at least one hundred, perhaps two hundred students, each sitting at an individual desk, busily scribing away. A slightly older gentleman was standing outside and expressed concern as to my interest.

"Excuse me sir," I said, cocking my head a little in the way one does when enquiring. "Is that an exam going on, in there?"

"Yes, it's a Maths exam," he confirmed my suspicions.

"But it's a Saturday afternoon!" I said, now wearing a face of genuine amazement.

"Oh I know," he began. "It used to be Saturday mornings...the maths exam... but now it's the afternoon."

He had clearly thought I was protesting about the time, and not about the day, but I didn't want to bother him any further. I ambled off with only three words on my mind: Exams on Saturday?

The plot thickened. I sauntered into the Great Hall, expecting to hear bands rehearsing and the theatrical groups refining their scenes, but stepped only into more disbelief. Emblazoned upon a board on a large easel outside the hall were those timely words again: "Silence Please. Examination in Progress". In the Great Hall's great lobby, I had stumbled upon a scene not too dissimilar to that of a bomb scare. Handbags, coats, laptops and other personal effects were strewn across tables. An orchestra of phones were whiling away the hour with music. From within each of these caves, I could hear beeping, buzzing and whirring as if the phones were engaged together in plotting an escape plan! Their owners? Though I could not see them, I knew they were currently under 'examination conditions'. After all, there are few circumstances that can plunge three hundred students into such a prolonged collective silence. I wandered around some more. Emerging from the pockets of coats and rucksacks were the answers! I attempted to decipher the hand-writing on some to identify the subject they were being examined on, but not to much success. I decided to wait until their release from temporary imprisonment.

I sat writing some notes, keeping a handbag company. How were they feeling? A year has elapsed since my thoughts and ideas were vacuumed up by 'answer booklets' and yet how familiar the environment now seemed. Beyond the doors sat a hall of students, many perhaps coaxing their minds to believe it was a weekday, and all inking the contents of their minds. Here, and only here, will their efforts become truly realized.

Silence. Even the phones had stopped their conversations, perhaps knowing that escape was impossible. It was only a matter of time now before...

Release. The Great Hall's great door swung open abruptly and cascading into the lobby were hundreds of happy faces. One student glanced slightly towards me, rounded his lips and exhaled quickly like one would after a run. Another emerged from the doorway with a little 'hop and skip'. Another with a high-pitched "woo". A parade of relief assembled around me, almost too cock-a-hoop to even notice me. Girls were embracing one another, as if this was a reunion of distant friends that had been separated for months by the pangs of revision.

"There were four exams in there this morning, and three exams in there this afternoon....umm, Property Law, that exam," a security guard said, busily restraining the doors to the hall by way of a long metallic chain. He wore the look of someone who could think of better ways of spending Saturdays. I shared with him my amazement that exams were taking place, at all, on a weekend. He gave me an 'oh, I know' in the northern dialect that the phrase was invented for. I said I wouldn't want the stress.

"Oh neither would I," he replied, looking back at me in mild relief. "Not at my age. I didn't want it the first time round!"

"Yes, well... life's a test, isn't it?" I chuckled, making way for the exit. 

***

I headed back home, and happened upon one final surprise. During the week, when doing such a journey, I often have to negotiate a route through great masses of studious traffic, and fail to gaze up. As a result, I have never noticed this.

 

It's amazing what a different perspective can bring.

***