Sunday, 26 February 2017

Week 20 and 21: (13th February to 26th February 2017) or 'A Samba through Brazilian memories'

Surfing on the celestial waves of moonlight, gliding through the sky with elysian beauty, shooting stars prepare to charm the Earth with a twilit ballet. Underneath a duvet of land, a dragon gasps out the final flames of daylight. A fiery glow hovers over the horizon. Oars of orange light paddle through lakes, dispelling droplets of lustrous air and dyeing the surface with the rich complexion of sunglow. Soon the spectacle is complete. As dusk beckons, these flames singe back through the plains and are guzzled by the dragons. Only when the dawn arrives will they discharge the warmth and light once more.

Dusk swoops around the Earth in a twilit odyssey. The Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are simply the highways for this great pilgrimage of final light. On Route Capricorn, dusk skirts west across the dusty tracks of Queensland Australia, wades through the Alice Springs, dives off Coral Bay and floats west still, over the Indian Ocean. The perpetual roaming of evening light continues; on safari through Madagascar, on crusade through Botswana, on a fishing boat from Namibia's Walvis Bay, to ride west over an Atlantic foam. Soon, the dusk will harbour along the shores of South America. In Sao Paulo, gently rippling in the warm tropical breeze, the 27 states of Brazil are gathered in a starry constellation at the summit of flag masts. They, too, are ready to welcome the dusk.

A silvery moon hovers aloft like a 10p piece in the sky, shimmering through the palms and ploughing through the haze of heat that has escaped the streets of Brazil. A beam of soft, white lunar light glows over car bumpers and the backs of crickets, over a bedraggled pair off sandals perched on a favela doorstep, and over the foam that cruises on the shoulders of the Tietê. On the outskirts of Sao Paulo, the moonlight gleams off the back of a great-winged bird; a plane that slowly edges towards a runway like a knight trekking over a chessboard. And there on that plane I sit. Peering through the portholes, I see that the swirls of dusk have already left Brazilian horizons, voyaging west now to enchant Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile. All I see now are the beads of light that sketch out a runway. There is nothing Brazilian about a runway, and so now I am left with a Brazil that exists only through the lexicon of memory.

In the final fleeting minutes before we ascend to spend a night stabbing clouds and piercing through the darkness, my mind swings like a pendulum. A flight departure often leaves the mind struggling to harbour. There is, of course, a maelstrom of take-off activity to absorb; stewards dispatching their trolleys, mothers singing lullabies to infants, businessmen loosening their ties, fathers tending to their sunburnt scalps. And then the very mundanity shakes you in your seat and you close your eyes and think. Some, no doubt, think of home. But try as I might to imagine the green and pleasant land of Britain, I keep ricocheting back to Brazil. A cricket, nestled within my conscience, is calling me back. And so, as the wheels press against Brazil for one final minute, my mind begins to samba through a week of memories.



Nestled in the south of Minas Gerais state, an intense midday heat swallows up the last pockets of fresh air and pants out a sultry humidity that sits like stagnant water over the city of  Lavras. Minas Gerais is just one of the 27 stars on the flag, but is the fourth largest state in the country with over 5 million claiming residence. Lavras holds only 2% of that population and so there's room to breathe. But the air, like I say, is stifling. I'm writing on an island; a park that paddles amidst the vibrant waves of Brazilian activity. Around the park, a monotonous drone of engines hum. Motorbikes skirt around cars and the cars skirt around motorbikes; each pursuing the journey with their own pace and their own interpretation of highway code. Zebra crossings are often just sections of painted road; rarely do they signal anything more profound. I watch as people make their way across the road to the park. The tread the black and white stripes at first with trepidation; some retreating back to the pavement, others continuing with dogged endeavour.

In the park, the giant ball of sunlight becomes trapped in the leafy fans of the imperial palms and the lobes of the tipuanas trees. Perched on the polished mosaic path that scintillates in the flashy spells of sunlight which break through the palms is a Tropical Kingbird. Lapping up the shade around me are solitary thinkers. There are workers taking rests. There are mothers shredding their burdens and fanning their tops. Opposite me sits a retiree, reflecting on the simplicity of post-work life. From time to time, as I look up from my pad, I see him staring thoughtfully into the mid-distance as if he sees a very different Lavras; a Lavras from a bygone age, a Lavras from his past. Is he a ghost of Dr Augusto Silva, the prestigious Lavras doctor that the park is named after?

Lavras does, I admit, have a convoluted sense of time. Peppering the streets, as if someone had sprinkled history from a time cellar, are VW Beetles. I listened to their painful choking pursuit around the park. And as I did, I caught sight of something altogether more obscure. At the hem of the park's northern corner stands a series of stone columns, I believe of Greek design. Cladded to the top of these is a stone roof (like the Parthenon) which makes the entire feature look as if it's been picked up during a historic Greek battle and placed here for safe-keeping. Try as I might, I can find no literature on it at all. Further up the park stands another monument; an obelisk blackened and cracked but resilient under the beating of the sun. On one façade reads: "A Lavras a sua mocidade" which translates as: "Lavras to your youth". It was opened on 20th July 1944 and is dedicated to the youth of Lavras. And so, a great melange of time flocks around Lavras; Greek columns, VW Beetles and an obelisk dedicated to its future.

I watch people walking. Sometimes, there is much to be learnt from watching the footsteps of a population. I've sat in London bistros and gazed at the addled nature of the city pavements; the scramble of a work force, incoherently rushing to their offices. But in Lavras, such flummoxed activity is non-apparent. People saunter here and there's a comfortable space in between each body. The arms swing, but not in the way that Londoners march through the underground. And because the people take time to toddle, pavements are often dusted with market stalls. On one street corner, I notice an elderly man perched under a multi-coloured parasol, exhibiting a table of fruit and vegetables. A cassette player, sitting behind a mango rattles out the beat of a samba. I get the feeling he's sat in the same position for most of his life.

I feel I need to pause here, and offer an explanation as to how I found myself sitting on a park bench in Lavras, Brazil in mid-February. The story in many ways begins in a small, but agreeable hotel room perched on the shores of Whitstable. It was in that room, during a conference last September, where I first received an application form to take part in the 1st Tropical Soils workshop. Whilst it wouldn't directly influence my PhD, it would represent an incredible opportunity to bless my eyes with new soils and new landscapes, and bless my mind with a revitalized sensorium. In bringing together a consortium of British PhD students with a team of Brazilian counterparts, the week would explore the environmental challenges facing those who live and work with tropical soils and prise out the opportunities that hide subtley behind them. The week would be split between kneading the soils between the fingers - really feeling them as pedologists love to do - and kneading over some of the debates, back at the Lavras University.

The University of Lavras

Lavras University - the Universidade Federal De Lavras - must represent something of a paradise for the students that are lucky enough to study here. Whilst the facilities are not 'state-of-the-art' (some lecture theatres still have blackboards) the grounds are serene and studious work takes place under the shade of palms. I passed by the windows and open doors of sessions taking place and remember thinking that the layout of some of these learning spaces appears extremely similar to school classrooms. This feeling only grew stronger when we were invited to dine with the Lavras students at lunch-break. We entered by way of a turnstyle into a vast hall, and dished up our plates from a canteen. Sitting under a hairnet at the end of the buffet bar, I greeted a 'dinner-lady' who discharged a piece of liver on my bed of carrots and rice. And then, just like my school dinner days, I took a seat at the end of one very long and narrow table. It has since puzzled me as to why some of the classroom furniture, and indeed the atmosphere within the lunch hall, are similar to any British state school and I recently learnt one of the potential reasons why. Aside from the undergraduate and postgraduate students who occupy much of the space here, the university also has an intake of 150 high school students. This selected cohort receives a scholarship to study at the university and allows them to be introduced into the world of science much sooner than they otherwise would be.

We emerged after 1/2 an hour of feasting to a campus bandstand; three students were producing what I was informed was "traditional Brazilian classical" music. On the far right stood what I believed was a violin, although what I was actually looking at was a 'Rabeca': a rustic, traditional wire violin that speaks proudly of Brazilian authenticity. Unlike the conventional instrument which perches under the musician's chin, the Rabeca is often placed on the chest or left shoulder.

The laboratory facilities at Lavras University were the subject of a thorough (and thoroughly enjoyed) afternoon tour. With agricultural science as one of the pinnacle focuses at this institution, I was not surprised to see a great expanse of the campus devoted to the laboratories. (The University was founded as an agricultural school in the early 1900s). We perused in and out of greenhouses, where the limits of stuffy, suffocating air can truly be realized. That said, I am sure that after a day or two spent working inside them, one can acclimatize; perhaps even the most fickle of British students! In one of the more ventilated outbuildings, a table supports 7 or 8 soil profile monoliths that to the untrained eye may appear like large fish-fingers. These monoliths are slices of soil profiles, carefully extracted from the walls of soil pits. They are dried, cleaned and then stabilized using resin in order that they might be nailed to information display boards and used in future events. The local schools around Lavras are often treated to sights of soil monoliths when the university teaches the basics of tropical soil science to them, and where it's not possible to take a host of school pupils to a soil pit, this may indeed represent the 'next best thing'.

We riffled through a grand selection of more, conventional laboratories too: a soil physics laboratory (where soil particle size and structure is analysed), a soil microbiology lab (where soils are scrutinized for bacteria and fungi), a lab that specializes in organic matter, and so on. Later, I learnt that the university has about 500 researchers and 1500 graduate students (20 Masters programmes and 18 PhD degrees) and many devote their time to contribute towards five scientific journals that the university maintains including: Science and Agro-Technology.

Trekking through a Tropical Eden

He gave me a long, wooden cane and, in broken English, asked me to adjust the position of a ceiling-mounted projector. The cane would look out of place in any contemporary British university, but it seemed to belong to this lecture hall and it wouldn't surprise me to hear that it was especially acquired for the occasional episode of projector adjustment. Alas, no degree of prodding with the cane could shift the projector and worried that one over-forceful jab on my part would unmount the machine and send it crashing down, I demonstrated some apologies and handed the cane back. The cane would now assume a new role as a pointer. Clasped tightly back in the hand of Professor João José Marques, the lecture began.

It was, in effect, an introduction to the tropical life of Brazil; the biotic communities that share this great country with the human population. Far from wanting to write a guide to the Brazilian biomes (there are, of course, many guides already printed) I shall just remark that in Minas Gerais, the typical biomes consist of both Cerrado and Atlantic Forest. The Cerrado plains expand over gentle hills, and represent some of Brazil's most non-fertile soils. Such land is often highly mechanized and as such, although the soil fertility is poor, two crop series per year can often be harvested. The Atlantic Forest in contrast cloaks the steeper hills, where erosion is often very high. João estimated that about 94% of the Atlantic Forest has been converted to plantations.

We were blessed with a great opportunity to see for ourselves the overwhelming diversity that thrives within the Atlantic Forest on our first full afternoon in the state; 160 species per acre to be precise. Meandering deep into the heart of luscious tropical flora and fauna is a creek of clear, shallow fresh water that slues and skews around an assembly of polished pebbles and boulders. We religiously followed the bends of this channel as we immersed ourselves under the canopy of this leafy paradise. Almost every available air pocket is occupied by flora. I became mesmerized by the diversity in leaves, in branches, in trunks, in bark...even, in the red lichens that conquer vast areas of the trees. Some trunks provide the scaffolding for epiphytes to scale up; some act as playground equipment for resident monkeys. On we trekked.

Delve down and inspect the soil and a perplexing mystery unfolds. The soils here are very shallow and yet the leafy litter that accumulates here (and the climate) suggests that the soils should be much thicker. One of the students from Lavras University suggested high erosion rates, but if this is the case, where is the eroded sediment? We peered down into the creek and found no build-up of sediment behind the boulders, as one might expect in the case of high erosion. It was with some irritation that we emerged out of the forest with not much in the way of a solution. What we did leave with - or, at least, what I parted with - was the confounding experience of feeling very small and insignificant. To the trunks that soar up high towards the heavens, we must have appeared like ants with backpacks. It's reassuring to know that there are still botanical theatres in the world where man is simply 'a background extra' and not the starring role.

Digging away at the Tropical Soils

There is a myth in Brazil. It is said that the ferns and the mosses, the orchids and the bromeliads, the vines and the palms - indeed, every single plant member in Brazil - is rooted not in soil but a bed of the world's most redolent spices: paprika, cayenne pepper, chilli powder, tumerin... And from a reasonable distance, it is possible to imagine that the granular material which supports the diversity of life above is the world's largest spice reservoir. Believe this, though, and you would also be a reasonable distance from the truth too.

The oxisols here are undeniably arresting. (Oxisols are strongly weathered and deeply developed soils on stable and old land surfaces). One need not travel very far to catch sight of them. However, just beyond the university campus are a couple of exposed profiles and it was there that I greeted them properly for the first time. Initially, they do appear like beds of pungent spice; you dare not touch them for fear of burning. But a pedologist is greatly disgruntled if they haven't felt the soil. So they sink their knife in, as I did, and extract enough for the fingertips to relish.

I massaged the grains. Soon what was a powder transformed to dust and like a spectre, it seemed to dematerialize from my palm, leaving only a smear of reddish dye on the skin. The soils here are rich in iron oxides, especially hematite, which is primarily responsible for pigmenting the grains with a fiery reddish tint. Iron oxides are produced when ferrous iron is quickly oxidized; in other words, the soils here are rusty! But there's an additional power of the iron oxides here. Pour a bucket of water over these soils, and one might expect the water to pool on the surface; these soils comprise of 70% clay after all, which typically hampers the infiltration of liquids. But the reverse is seen; indeed, the water is lapped up as if there's a clan of parched monsters living inside the soils, hankering for moisture! To clasp the truth is to observe the second property of these iron oxides. Not only are they effective pigments, but they turn a platy soil (with poor water infiltration rates) into a granular soil (which relatively high infiltration rates). Granular soils are those where the soils grains are almost spherically shaped like crumbs, and as a result, permit water movement in all directions. Thus, a soil with 70% clay behaves as if it comprises only 30%, and so here on these tropical oxisols, the essential property is not the size of the grains but their granular structure.

It would be a great inaccuracy to believe that all tropical soils are this red and so let me account another journey we made.

The dust spurted up as the wheels of our coach roamed over the tracks, leaving a contrail of troubled muggy air. We had left Lavras early and were heading to a series of sites in the Rio Grande basin, the first of which was the Serra de Itumirim. Although we had travelled for just under an hour, this represents a mere blink to the history of the Itumirim field-site. The narrative of this first stop begins 150 million years ago, when Africa and South America were still stitched together in a continental land mass spanning thousands of kilometres wide. Slowly (although words are too transitory to convey just how slow the process was) a sequence of rifting and drifting began and both Africa and South America became independent land masses. Though the ties had been severed, remnants of this continental marriage remained. In fact, as we disembarked off the coach and introduced our boots to the mica schist below, we were stepping onto a surface over 145 million years old.

Aptly, the steep and infertile rocky area that homes the Serra de Itumirim is the Gondwana Erosion Surface, named after the super-continent Gondwana. The soils here (mostly Lithosols and Cambisols to readers pedologically inclined) are infertile, supporting only grasses and low-lying shrubs and remain young compared to their parent rocks due to high rates of erosion. I took a knife to a profile and worked the blade down; it wasn't long before I was hitting the underlying bedrock. Unlike the oxisols, the profiles here are devoid of the reddish hematite and mostly consist of quartz and gibbsite. (Gibbsite is an oxide of aluminium and is a product of some of the most advanced stages of soil weathering). It was during the excitement of discussing such soils that a couple of local police cars came whirling around the corner. A window was dropped and Portuguese phrases skipped along a cloud of dust that was surging its way towards us. I had (and still have) no idea what the cause of alarm was, although I like to think that they said: "Someone's stolen the red spice from these soils, leaving them dull and grey...We're here to catch the culprit!"

Further along the Gondwana erosion surface, we met one of the neighbours of the Rio Grande river; a relatively flat, yet wide expanse of similarly infertile soil. A local Brazilian pedologist jumped into a pit and started scraping away at one of the walls. He revealed, in the wake of his work, another environmental challenge. The sandy soils here represent the weathered products of the underlying sandstone and it's partly due to the porous nature of these sandy soils that water, nutrients, pesticides and organic matter leach straight through them. Ultimately, the farmer is left with a Spodosol; an ash-gray leached surface horizon, with very little nutrient value, overlying a 'spodic' horizon, which means a deep layer of organic matter. (You may notice how the soil is more brown at the base of this soil pit, relative to the surface). Though the organic matter exists, it remains too deep to be agriculturally viable. The challenge therefore is to find a way of preventing the organic matter from leaching down the profile...


We left Lavras at dawn. A clear sky waited patiently for a bulb to be switched on. A hush settled over the town like a lid, and the only sound was the bickering between the suspension of our coach and the road. I peered through the window and gazed at the sleepy pavements. A group of men were sweeping little pools of dust into bags; unspoken work by a forgotten workforce. Other townsfolk were standing on street corners and appeared to be waiting for buses, although some were outstretched on the ground and might as well have been waiting for Christmas.

We were soon spouted out from an exit shoot of Lavras and delivered to the highway, where there we headed south to a town called Extrema. Bobbing over the Atlantic Forests was a ball of light; it courted with the horizon and made a group of clouds blush. Across the plains, an elusive spectre of mist was surfing around the ankles of palm trees towards the glow.

Extrema attains its name from sitting on the fringes of Minas Gerais; it is the final city one travels through before leaving the state on the way to Sao Paulo. Over 30,000 currently write Extrema when scribing out their home addresses. We entered via the city gate that makes the first few yards of Extrema appear like King's Lynn or York, or any other historic English town that still preserves a physical entrance. I recalled the city's anthem:

...Your ties are stuck in the past,
Of the people who made your story,
Your children have duties to fulfill,
Continue your conquest of victory...

If that conquest of victory includes conquering the battle of soil erosion, the townsfolk of Extrema have a gruelling task. The soils that drape over the steep granite and gneiss bedrock are at war with the high rainfall intensities that fall over this region; some reaching up to 50 mm/hour. Surface runoff is almost inevitable. That said, in some areas, the soils are enriched with up to 5% organic matter; an aid to retain water and build aggregate stability in the surface horizons.

We clambered up the hillside to confront a series of erosion plots. These are simply controlled sections of the slope, where the soil surface is encased by a metal rim and any eroded soil is collected in large sediment tanks at the bottom. By measuring the mass of this collected soil over a known time interval, one can gauge a sense of the erosion rates. Currently, these erosion plots are installed around bare soil (as a control), around maize and around an area of reforestation. Given the fact that reforested land is effective in building soil stability, re-planting trees over some of these steep terrains could be one of the routes on this 'conquest of victory'.

The importance of achieving victory in the eternal battle against soil erosion is more than just fulfilling the duties spoken out in an anthem. Here in Extrema, the Municipal Council for Environmental Development have invested heavily in a Water Conservation Project, which seeks to increase forest cover in the watersheds and reduce levels of pollution and river sedimentation. The local river, the Piracicaba, is responsible for more than half of Sao Paulo's water supply and thus it's critical that pollution is controlled here in Extrema. Quite rightly, the project prioritizes preventative control over corrective action; in other words, it's best to prevent pollution initially rather than treat the water downstream. As an incentive to support the scheme, rural landowners are rewarded about R$262.00 per hectare per year which is divided and paid in monthly instalments.

A Brazilian Success Story

Stamped on the map towards the city of Madre de Deus de Minas is a success story. What starts out as a visit to a large-scale production farm slowly but surely turns into a moving experience. I awoke just as the coach was traversing through the puddles of shade that lay on the dusty drive to the farm's outbuildings. You could gauge the enormity of the estate just by the length of the driveway. Eventually the engine rested in the yard, and we alighted into a cloud of thick dust. Farmer Claudio stood waiting to whisper the secrets of his success...

I say 'whisper the secrets' but that's not entirely helpful. What Claudio is doing (and I will come to it in a moment) is not a secret and the results should be shouted loud and clear among the other farmers in the region, across the country and indeed, around the world. We walked a little way to the edge of a maize field; soon our shoes were not treading a hardened path but a thick, spongey bed of decomposed material and it's this bed that is the central character in Claudio's success story.

Perhaps to many, leaving the residues of the maize crop after harvesting is a form of natural littering. To Claudio, these residues are key to restoring soil fertility. For the price of appearing a little untidy, Claudio has augmented his soil carbon to 5% (almost 2 kg/C) in the topsoil horizon. I bent down and scooped a handful of this fresh, organically rich soil. Compared to the oxisols I had seen the previous day, this soil had ascended to higher planes of fertility and quality. At least ten days had elapsed since Claudio last received rain, but this soil was still damp to the touch; such is the power of organic matter. I asked Claudio how thick this organic layer extended down, and through a gratefully received translation, I learnt that I was standing on at least 5m of rich organic matter. Here at Claudio's farm, the soil is thickening and the yields are improving. 

The maize stood tall like a troop on parade. I watched as a tractor slowly crept over the dirt and worked its way into the distance. The real movement here, though - indeed, an inspirational movement for the whole farming community - is the innovative, open-mindedness of Claudio. Through farming against traditional practices, the seeds of success have been sown. And what's more: they've been sown in productive, home-grown soils.

Paddling through a reservoir of after-thoughts

We received an invitation to paradise. Away from the muggy hubbub of Lavras, a lacy track wraps around the hills. To follow it is to find yourself pleasantly trapped between the maddening nature of reality and the felicity of utopia. The track trims around a couple of suburban estates and then you see it: the blissful serenity of an expansive lake. Around the edge you drive, flirting with the water and feeling immeasurably drawn in by its indulgent placidity. And soon the edge disappears beyond a rich canopy of vegetation and a row of expensive abodes. We roamed past a few and then pulled up to the gates of a grand house.

A tropical arboretum sits on the doorstep of this house and we wandered slowly through to greet Professor Marx, who stood ushering us in to his home. "Let's go, Let's go," he said, escorting us through the lounge and kitchen. Professor Marx has recently acquired this useful English phrase to assist with any type of ushering and he is generous with his use of it. It's a kind of 'sporty' instruction one might use if coaching an athletics team, and if I close my eyes now, I can imagine Professor Marx standing under a sports cap, clutching a whistle and stopwatch at the track and field events I used to compete in many years ago. "Let's go". With an infatuation towards these two words, there was only one way we could repay him for this invitation.

Cultivated in the large expanse of a back garden is a euphoric bliss. There are few words to describe it. At the very top, bowls of fresh barbequed food and salad were being delivered through serving hatches. Marx' wife, Rose, was escorting a silver tray of freshly made pastries and by a Jacuzzi stood a canister of revitalizing fruit cordial. I wandered through the heavenly kingdom of the back garden, sipping the fruit drink and admiring the Cypress trees. Further down, the sunlight was glistening off the back of the lake; the glazed surface started drawing me in. I noticed, as I weaved in and out of the palm trees, that the partition which had once separated Marx' house with that of his neighbours had now disappeared and I was walking now through a paradise shared.

A wooden jetty seems to rise out of the end of the garden like the root of a giant Eucalyptus tree and extends into a liquid utopia. I moseyed over the planks until the wood gave way again to water and dived in. There one truly learns the power of the Sun for the bath was warm and rejuvenating. A film of water slowly rippled its way over the crests of my shoulders and tickled the lobes of my ears; a warm, incandescent film. And when the novelty passed, for divinity should be savoured in bite-size chunks, I climbed a ladder back to the jetty and sunk into a deckchair.

For most of the day, I sat in that deckchair, admiring the vista and listening only to the melodic sounds of the ripples breaking against the jetty. Occasionally, I would wander back through the garden and reacquaint myself with the lime cordial. By the end of the day, as the Sun passed over the lake and dipped behind the loaf of earth which sits across the bay, the group assembled on the jetty and we all caught a glimpse of the day's final beams of light. And then, bidding farewell to Marx and Rose and our Portuguese comrades, we boarded the coach and cruised away from paradise.  


"I have used one before... it's not very common is it? It's a shame because it's a nice medium". Professor John Quinton recollected memories of using chalkboards on our final day of work as we amassed together to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that face Brazil. It's clear that the 1st Tropical Soils workshop was never going to solve these challenges, but forming some words out of chalk and thought would represent at least the start of a future journey. In many ways, our responses were not revolutionary. The challenges of giving unbiased information to farmers - a community that often resists change - are challenges that have confronted Soil Science for decades. Similarly, the mounting issues of climatic change were sounded, which was somewhat interesting considering the fact that it hadn't surfaced in discussion throughout the week. I mentioned the success story of Claudio's maize farm which should be used to inspire farmers around the world. The ingredient which builds these rich organic soils is not the residue, but the dynamic, long-term vision on the part of the farmer. Others called for more data and more evidence; a reassuring sign perhaps that the work for the tropical pedologist is far from complete. Hail the 2nd workshop!

As we concluded our discussions, an idea germinated. We would each offer one word that describes the week, and around the room the carriage collecting these adjectives cruised. "Engaging"..."Remarkable"..."Challenging"..."Colourful"..."Fascinating"..."Stimulating"... "Inspiring"..."Illuminating"..."Agroforestry"..."Diversity"..."Coffee"..."Hot"..."Red"...

Yes, red. Perhaps I said it because of the red stains that still blemish the front of my field notebook; the work of an oxisol! Perhaps I said it because of the sunburn. Perhaps I said it because red often means stop. Perhaps I want to stop the clock and pause for thought...

I'm writing on the roof of my hotel. Brazil sits, like a carpet, under my feet and two hundred extra feet of concrete. I gaze out at a panorama of Minas Gerais, surveilling the streets and skies of Lavras with the eagles. Steadily sloping hills painted in various tints of green cloak the horizon, and then a series of distant hills, smudged by the haze, sit beyond. The roof of a hotel - indeed, the roof of many high-rise buildings - is home to a series of views unachievable from the ground. Private rooftop pools float in secret. Solar panels go unnoticed. On one apartment roof, I even spot a trampoline. I reflect on a trip that has equally opened doors to new views; new landscapes, new cultures, new soils. There is no substitute for being in a rainforest and touching the soils.

I gaze down again, onto the sunlit streets on Lavras; onto the park, onto the zebra crossings, onto the townsfolk that saunter with their shopping. From the rooftop, the energy of city life is subdued like a silent film. VW beetles cruise without choking or coughing. A market trader sells a mango to a lady in silence. A group of elderly men sit in the park and communicate only by lip-reading. The rooftop offers a different perspective of the familiar just as the workshop provided new views of old sights. I had never seen soil so red nor coffee on stems. I had never seen forests so diverse, nor lakes so warm.

And beyond the hills, I know there are other towns to visit, other parks to cherish, other people to meet. There is more Brazil to see. The beats of the samba ride on over the horizon.

I open my eyes and find myself back on the plane. We seem to have left Brazil now. I close my eyes again and travel back...

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Week 19: (6th February to 12th February 2017) or 'Happily ever after starts here'

Snuggled under a duvet of serenity, resting the sweet head on a pillow of peace, a magical spell of wonder will soon be cast across a child's mind. The fairy tale - a bewitching lullaby of sorcery and mystique - is about to begin. Four words glide like angels through the air to fall on their untiring ears; the only four words that can truly bridge the chasm between the world of humanity and that of pure imagination. They are, of course, these: Once upon a time...

...There was a tree. It had grown for many years and now it was growing old. Dark clouds swept across the sky. Rain fell, thunder roared and a lightning bolt split the tree in two. A woodsman came upon the broken tree and sawed it down so that only the stump remained. Soon a bark beetle with long feelers settled in. The beetle loved the stump and laid her eggs underneath the bark. The eggs hatched and tiny maggots emerged. All summer long they gnawed tunnels in the bark... (and so the short story by Natalia Romanova continues).

To capture and to sustain the attention of another human being, to guide their mind through the aisles of a narrative, is by no means a trivial pursuit. Be it a fairy tale about a rotting log or the evening news, the art of crafting a story and sharing it is not an inherent attribute we are born with. And for scientists, whose stories are at times riddled with complexities, it is not only prudent to consider what's being said, but the way it's being presented. In this, an extraordinarily diverse and busy week in what is now the fifth month of my PhD, I've been reflecting on this theme of 'Science Communication'.

On Monday, I was handed a milestone. It appeared in the form of 21 undergraduate essays and my very first marking duty. Their physical weight does, by no means, match the weight of the responsibility I feel, nor the extent of my honour. Despite what my colleagues may report, I do not feel - nor will I ever feel - that marking work is a burden. On the contrary, it is an enriching task both for the student that ultimately receives the feedback, but also for the marker, whose mind should be broadened and deepened with the dose of undergraduate wisdom.

The essays that sit next to me as I write are the first examined scratchings from those second year students involved in the course I have been helping to teach over the last month or so. As a reminder, the course is principally designed to tutor the student in the art of research proposal writing and a core tenet of that proposal is a review of the current literature. Indeed, it is this self-executed review of the existing work about a particular topic that every researcher must complete prior to mapping out a feasible study. It is, if you recall, what I did in the first couple of months of my PhD. And so, the students' first task was to write a 1000 word literature review on their chosen topic of study, identifying what has been explored thus far and the knowledge gaps that exist. Whilst I mark some of those, their next endeavour will be to start thinking about how to carry out an investigation to answer some of those unanswered questions.

When circulating around my groups this week, I was positively amazed at the pure simplicity yet intrinsic influence that accompanies the duty of teaching. At the very beginning of the session, a group outlined their research questions. (A research question, in a very self-explanatory way, is a question that the investigator asks prior to beginning a study). For instance, it could be: 'do cities affect soil moisture?' Whilst it perfectly reasonable to ask such a question, it is nevertheless quite broad and my main package of advice was to make these questions more specific and answerable. 'Do cities affect soil moisture' might then become: 'does city size reduce the rural topsoil moisture in the summer time?' With the latter, the inclusion of greater detail - the study region (rural), the section of soil (topsoil) and the time of the study (summer time) - renders the question to be much more answerable. When I returned to the same group at the very end of the session, their research questions had transformed. I had made a difference; their questions were now much clearer. This is, of course, just one of the many attributes warranted by those who pen scientific works: the art of being more precise.

With the workshop closing for yet another week, I headed off almost immediately and made passage for the library. There, in one of the study rooms, were 30 A Level students, some of whom I had met last year when I made a visit to a local Cumbrian school. On this particular occasion, they had travelled to Lancaster University to immerse themselves into a world of cutting-edge research. They were also here to learn and make use of one of the Library's most useful tools: the 'OneSearch' website. It can be used (and is employed extensively on a daily basis) to locate and download research articles. By conducting a search in a particular way, using the right 'search terms', there is a greater chance of finding an article which satisfies your needs. Once again, it's about communicating effectively; only this time to a search box.

Some of those A Level students might be back here in several years time, within the vibrant realms of a university, undertaking a PhD and will discover that whilst it's clearly substantial to carry out well-articulated, structured research projects, one of the most salient tasks is to share that research with people who can render real change. Indeed, it is only through working and communicating effectively with policy makers that a PhD thesis can have a sense of agency in the world. This week, I attended a workshop convened by Sophie Scragg, a Senior Universities Programme Officer for the Houses of Parliament. One of her principal duties is to travel to university institutions and encourage researchers to work with Parliament in shaping policy. To some extent, the STARS programme has already played its part to this effect. Last year, the first cohort produced a report for the Soil Health Enquiry that evidenced the importance of soils for the 21st century. You can read a copy of the STARS evidence by clicking here. Having said that, there is much more to write and much more that Parliament needs to read, so part of our session was spent discussing the most effective ways of communicating complex science to the 'non-specialists' that sit in Parliament.

Another equally fascinating arm of Parliament that I discovered in that workshop is the list of 'All Party Parliamentary Groups'. To those who are yet to be visited by Sophie, All Party Parliamentary Groups (or, APPGs) are clubs that comprise of members from a range of political parties which enjoy a shared interest. As an example, there is an APPG in: ants and heritage, bees, the furniture industry, home electrical safety and international mining (and of course, many more). When the list is scrolled to 'S', I was disappointed not to see 'Soil' there, though hardly surprised. However, there is an APPG for 'Sustainable Food and Farming' and 'Environment', both of which I'm sure cross over to discuss the integrity of soil on many occasions.

That evening, ahead of a two-day workshop on Innovation, the STARS constellation regrouped again, this time in Lancaster's Merchant House restaurant. We dined in what was once a wine merchant's cellar, 300 years ago, but which has since been converted into a private function room. The subterranean ambience one might expect from that of a wine cellar has not been lost, though.


Sitting patiently on the fringes of Lancaster is a secret. Moored to the edge of a still, shallow lake, hiding conspicuously behind the bulrushes as if espying upon a rare bird is one of the most uniquely designed buildings I have ever seen on my travels. At some angles, it appears like a fishing boat, designed with portholes and an inverted hull for a roof. At other angles, it's a house for a hobbit, curved and irregular with playful eccentricity. In many ways, it's as if it was built out of dough which has been moulded by the quirks and oddities that float around in the human mind.

Forrest Hills is, in fact, a meeting venue that occasionally tailors for weddings and likewise functions. The graceful ambience of the surroundings is by no means a 'decoration'; it is essentially part of what makes this place such an inspiring location. As STARS researchers, we were lucky this week to spend two whole days here. The Reed Room, where most of our time would be enjoyed, is in many ways an ideal lounge, equipped with a wood burning stove that glows subtly at one end and a panoramic vista of Fountain Lake from the other. In fact, the nature outside that enthrals the eye blends well with the straw bale walls and the chairs, upholstered I am led to believe using nettles and wood.

Like I say, we spent two days at Forrest Hills, but not 'for rest' as the name implies. In great contrast, we had a packed programme of sessions, each of which was tailored to a particular strand of what is now called 'Innovation'. Though there isn't much in the way of a definitive description for 'Innovation' in this particular context, the objective nonetheless was to strengthen our skills in communicating our research with non-scientists.

80% of our success as Soil Scientists relies upon, not what we do, but how we do it. So remarked the course convenor, Nick Skinner; the founder and director of a company called Poppyfish which develops learning and development workshops for businesses and organizations. And so it follows, that our 'behaviour' as scientists is intrinsic to our success. I refer to 'behaviour' cautiously as many may simply consider only two categories, born out of a distinction made first in primary school: good and bad behaviour. For Nick, behaviour is a little less clear cut.

Prior to the event, I completed a questionnaire that asked twenty questions about my 'working' life and with considerable ease, a computer churned my answers and gave me a colour. It is that colour that explains my behavioural preferences. Essentially, the four major colours that each of us 'have' are: red (assertive, risk taking, strong minded), yellow (positive, warm, happy), green (friendly, fairness, justice) and blue (calculating, logical, safe). The results from my own questionnaire show that my 'behavioural colour' is emerald, a blend of blue, yellow and green. I am, the report suggests, "likely to be neither strongly extrovert nor introvert, but have the ability to work alone or in teams. I strive for quality, work methodically and use humour in a dry way to express my opinion. I may bottle up my feelings and emotions and am a stickler for quality and detail. I like people and I am equally comfortable in large groups or with a small circle of close friends." I will let others be the judge.

Why does this matter? In many ways, it gives you an appreciation of the many varieties of behavioural types that exist within the Science community, and of course, within society in general. By identifying someone's behavioural colour, it is suggested that you can shape what you say so that it more effectively sparks their attention. Those individuals with red-dominant personalities are less likely to want as much detail as those, for instance, who are blue-dominated. Likewise, someone who associates with yellow are much more likely to be friendly and sociable.

In one the final sessions on Day 1 of the workshop, the task was to consider ourselves on the first day of retirement, looking back on a (hopefully) successful career. The challenge was to communicate what we'd achieved in our PhDs using six, pre-selected photos. Effectively, we were in the future, looking back on to what currently is the future, and the fact that we had to discuss our PhDs with six particular photographs, made the task equally as testing. Having said that, it shed light to some extent on the importance of considering the future now. The question is, of course, when I eventually reach retiring age, what do I want to say that I achieved? What difference do I want to say that I made to the world? What will people remember me for?

Day 2 of the workshop was centrally focussed on the art of networking; the ways by which we present the 'big ideas' behind our PhD research. Clearly, my 'big idea' revolves around the theme of enhancing soil productive lifespans. But whilst that may be the case now, I haven't always been doing this, nor will I continue to study this theme (although there's a possibility I will, of course) so a large aspect of networking is considering the people who I need to talk to next. Arjun Heimsath, one of the leading authorities on Soil Production, could be a node in my potential future network. We also learnt the art of delivering the 20 second pitch; a short summary of: who you are, what your big idea is, what you can do to help the person you're talking to and a concluding statement. And so, outside on the patio on a raw Thursday morning, overlooking the serenity of Fountain Lake, we stood and practised our spiels, complete with handshakes.

Thus, across the week, it has become increasingly clear that communication as a scientist is one of the most essential skills one can develop. There is, of course, a certain way by which to network with other scientists, which is quite distanciated from the way one might network with the public. As I parted from the venue, in the dimming light of Thursday afternoon, one particular sign stood out. It read: "happily ever after starts here". For me, however, the story has only just begun...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Week 18: (30th January to 5th February 2017) or 'One mosquito bite felt 5000 miles away'

In a little while from now, deep in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, a butterfly will realize that the leaf it sits upon is far from supreme and tantalized by an untenanted, altogether more sumptuous leaf on a neighbouring stem, it will ascend into flight. As the wings whip the air, little does it know that it's causing a hurricane, thousands of miles away. Little does it realize that the seemingly innocent pursuit of another place to park has the potential to destroy homes and disrupt livelihoods across the planet. But then, there's little chance that this butterfly has studied, or even heard of, the so-called 'Butterfly Effect'.

For the majority of his life, Edward Norton Lorenz (1917-2008) was a mathematician and meteorologist, fascinated in how the very smallest of changes can have extremely large and unrelated implications. After digesting a complex string of equations, he churned out a simple, albeit controversial analogy: the 'Butterfly Effect', which proposes that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can influence the weather in the Himalayas. Although it's an interesting thesis, there is of course no means by which to prove it.

Having said that, the concept is not entirely redundant. The notion that something so meagre in size can influence events from thousands of miles away is fairly sound. I suggest this with some degree of certainty and although I do not have equations to hand, I do have experience. Allow me to explain. 

City clocks had barely wrapped up their midnight broadcasts as I climbed aboard an all-night Megabus coach on Tuesday morning. I might have absconded from a piercing chill but I was to spend the next six hours absorbing unpalatable odours. About a lifetime later, which equates to about 240 miles, I disembarked at London's Victoria Station and presented myself in front of another driver. He promised another 120 miles of dreary road but affirmed Norwich as the final destination. And so on we went, wriggling around the labyrinths of London, fleeing the endless sprawl of its suburban territories and finally on to the M11. I cruised in and out of slumber, but the driver had kept his promise, and four hours later, the engine spat out its final fumes in the heart of Norwich.

What I've just described is, to state it in the simplest terms, over 350 miles of travel and 10 hours of my life. Each and every mile - indeed, each and every second - of that trip was caused by something no larger than a centimetre, no heavier than a milligram, living more than 5000 miles away. I am referring to a mosquito in Brazil that, after one fatal bite last month, caused a Yellow Fever outbreak, a state of emergency in South America and, 5000 miles away, another Megabus experience for this writer. There is only a week to go now before I fly into the epicentre of this Yellow Fever plague and, having not been specifically vaccinated for it, I had little choice but to endure yet another injection.

If something as small as a mosquito in Brazil can subject a Lancaster student to 10 hours aboard a Megabus, perhaps there is some truth in Edward Norton Lorenz's 'Butterfly Effect' after all...

With a droplet or two of Yellow Fever swimming around inside of me and an immune system preparing its weapons against impending attack, it was fortuitous that the rest of my week only consisted of project meetings. On Wednesday, I welcomed Dr Andrew Tye from the British Geological Survey to Lancaster and together with John, we sat down to discuss the finer details of my project proposal. Andrew was a member of a team that studied soil production in Bodmin Moor (Cornwall) about five years ago, although it's questionable as to how representative the data from that study is for UK soil production. After all, Bodmin Moor has not been cultivated. I fully expect to find that agricultural practices, despite occurring at the surface, propagate effects all the way down to the underlying bedrock and as a result, influence the rates of bedrock weathering (soil production). Indeed, as I have previously written before, my project will be one of the first (if not the first) in the world to study soil production on agricultural land.

There are few alleyways in the world that I can instantly recognise and pin to a map. But the ascent up these well-trodden slabs, passing paint-peeling drainpipes and timeworn brick walls into the hub of Edinburgh's Royal Mile will forever be etched into memory. I first climbed these steps on my December visit and remember feeling at the time that this narrow passage-way bridged England and Scotland more aptly than any tannoy at Edinburgh Railway Station. Halfway along is a reasonably labelled 'Halfway House' and this week marked my second passing of it. Rather reluctantly, it also marked the second time I've resisted the temptation of venturing in. It is Edinburgh's smallest pub, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for all the more in history. Sheltered from development, it has sat on the ledge of this city since the 1700s and I dare say that much of it rightfully remains in its antiquated condition.

I had travelled to Edinburgh to meet with Professor Simon Mudd, another supervisor involved in my project. We met inside a wonderfully ornate building. The Institute of Geography is nestled both in the heart of Edinburgh and in the heart of its history; the exterior facades are such as to make you believe that beyond the doors, 19th century Geographers are busy unrolling scrolls and illustrating maps. One couldn't be further from the truth, though. Beyond the doors in the 1850s were Doctors, indeed, but medical doctors, performing operations; this was Edinburgh's Old Infirmary. It's surreal to consider that where Simon's desk is currently placed was where an operation table might have once stood.

We enjoyed a productive meeting. Soil formation is one of Simon's key interests and, as such, his advice was both thorough and useful. One of the next steps I will now proceed with is deriving some topographic information about my study areas and with the aid of a programme that Simon and his team have constructed, I should be able to select my sampling locations with greater rigor.

The final piece of advice Simon gave me was, in many ways, a plea for me to visit the National Museum of Scotland and thus I left the Institute of Geography and made my way towards it. From the outside alone, it looks a formidable building, though this isn't necessarily a unique attribute in this city. From its entrance lobby, the grandeur is only enhanced. I had every expectation, therefore, to part with quite a considerable sum of money in exchange for what would be a fascinating afternoon consuming the very fabric of Scotland's culture. Thus, I was aghast when the personnel in the foyer told me there was no admission fee. The pursuit of learning in Scotland has yet to be blemished by the money-bag; no tuition fees and now a free museum! I glanced at my watch; there was under an hour to go before my return train would depart and so I made my apologies to the lady at the counter and gave her my assurance that the next time I am in Edinburgh, I would most certainly pay a visit.

And I meant it, too.