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 cafĂ© 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.

***

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Week 32: (8th May to 14th May 2017) or "A Pedological Pilgrimage"

Does the street cleaner ever wonder what he'd see if he could brush away the concrete? Does the toddler who plays in the park ever long to extend their hands through the grass? Do the train conductors ever ponder what subterranean worlds they are awaking as they roam over the land? Do you ever question what prevents you from falling into a bath of liquid iron in the engine room of our planet? Every now and again, a person becomes enthused about such matters and, if the zeal persists, he or she becomes a soil scientist. Lancaster University welcomed eleven of them, this week.


What distinguishes the soil scientist from a flick of hares or a company of moles is the incessant thirst to understand the soil; to decode the messages it subtly imparts through colour, texture, structure and smell. Whilst the cogs of innovation slowly gyrate the pedologist away from the spade and the trowel to prepare for a world where fingers need not become muddy - a world where researchers need not leave the office at all - those who recall the yesteryears may well wonder whether the classic techniques will soon be heading six foot under to rest in peace with the subject's founders. The great burial of classic Pedology?

Fortunately, those concerns need not vex the anxious soil scientist; classic Pedology is alive and relatively healthy! The 'ST' that prefixes the STARS programme ('Soil Training') was set up with the aim to equip the next generation of soil scientists with a toolkit of foundational skills. For many STARS students, this means digging deeper than their research interests would naturally suggest; for others, it means a chance to step back from the microscope slide and reflect upon the soil in fresh, exciting scales. This week marked one such opportunity for those who join me in the second cohort of the STARS programme; our 'Introduction and Foundation to Soil Science' which, albeit 32 weeks in, acted as a wonderful refresher.


"To the uninitiated, there is often reluctance to begin and a degree of hesitation and uncertainty that only experience will remove. Every soil can tell a story of its past and present; there is no mystique and with patient observation a great deal can be learnt." (Tom Batey, 1988).

Recently whilst at a conference, I realized one of the most fundamental components of a buffet luncheon: the labels. Without these essential tags that hang on miniature flagpoles and impale pies, pasties and sandwiches, it is an arduous challenge to know whether the item will tantalize the taste-buds or compel you to scout out an emergency glass of water. In the event where no such label exists, you may be forgiven for cutting out a slice and peering in at the side to make rudimentary guesses as to the fillings. Step out onto a grassland field and question what lies beneath this green and hairy carpet, the pedologist is seldom blessed with labels affixed to cocktail sticks. Thus, in similar fashion to exposing the fillings of a short crust pie, one must remove a slice of the soil to uncover the secret fillings of the earth. 

Depending on how excited you are in identifying these earthy fillings, the process of digging a soil pit can either be burdensome labour or a zesty pursuit of truth! I imagine each of the STARS students vary with regards to their appetite for digging, but after an hour 'in the field', three soil profile walls were exposed under towering heaps of clayey and silty spoil. The 'field', in this instance, was an open grassland at the fringes of Myerscough college in southern Lancashire; a site that soil scientists at Lancaster University have been using for some considerable time. The grassy blanket that overlies these soils is supreme at veiling the secrets of the world below; all three soils pits exposed the most surprising of artefactual oddities. One uncovered a piece of plastic tarpaulin, the second a buried pipe, the third a buried tree stump. It led us all to the conclusion that at some point in Myerscough's ancient history, this area had experienced many episodes of flooding, saturating the ground to form an organic horizon of peaty soil.  

***


The remaining three days of the course were set within the operatic valleys and theatrical hillsides of north-west Wales. But to spend a few days roaming around on the doormat of Wales is no substitute to seeing Wales. To do this, one must cordon off a month to allow the spirit of Wales to diffuse through the soul. To understand Wales is to sleep upon a mattress of mountain heather, to ride upon the back of a Welsh lullaby, to awaken rare emotions as you ascend over the shoulders of mountainous terrain which, like a duvet, cloaks a sleeping monster. There are some countries in which an hour's stroll can dutifully unlock its secret treasures. Wales will never be one of those countries. I admit, therefore, that the following account is a sketchy, under-representation of a country that warrants a month of exploration before the first sentence can be accurately scribed.

To exist in Wales is to exist at the cuff of reality. Those who have always lived in the country remain partially unconscious to the mysteries and wonders that it presents. They must be, for if such beauteous sublimity presented itself in the conscious minds of the inhabitants, I am sure that such utopia would drive them out. After all, how can mankind, conscious of all things, genuinely consider to be deserving of such a heavenly life in such an unmarred landscape? No, they must not realize the full extent of the divinity that comprises the very heart of Wales. To those who, like myself, enter Wales for a day, a week, perhaps a month, it is accepted that much of the experience will feel like a dream and it is a dream. 

Breathe in Bangor and breathe in the aromas of paradise. Gaze up from the seaweed that nestles upon the bed of the harbour, and allow the great tide of the mountainous landscape to flood into your mind. A century or two of Bangorian afternoons have witnessed fishermen, with salty beards, paddling into this harbour after a morning out at sea. These fishermen must be blessed with the finest views for here, one can gaze at rugged hills all the way to Snowdon. Had the fishermen been sailing in to Bangor last Wednesday, they might have caught a glimpse of a small black speck - a large cow - making its way up the hillsides of Henfaes. Only those equipped with a pair of binoculars could have identified the species of this cow as a Land Rover. 

If you ever get the chance to sit in the front seat of a Land Rover, decline the offer immediately. Instead, take a seat on a small bench in the very rear of the vehicle. At first, it feels like such a space cannot possibly accommodate a dog, let alone a person but it can be done. Close the rear door, and it's like riding inside a runaway cave. But a vista is knocking at the door; you feel obliged to open it. You have to open it; it would be rude not to. Thus, the door is opened and the landscape floods in. As the Land Rover crawled up to the very ridge of Henfaes - Bangor University's farmland - I witnessed how the land bows down like a servant to kiss the feet of the sea. 



The task for the next few days would be to document the changes in the soils down what's commonly described in the trade as a catena sequence. In Latin, the word 'catena' means 'chain' and one only needs to wander down from the shoulders of a hillslope to its toes to observe the many linkages in the pedospheric system. What happens in and above the soils at the summit very often influences the neighbouring soil systems on the flanks of the hills and down at the feet. Thus we stopped off at regular intervals down the hillslope; each time, digging the soil, probing the soil, even smelling the soil. Readings were scribbled into notebooks; samples were sealed into bags. We accounted for all the 'services' that the soils are accountable for. And then, like a herd of scholarly sheep, we moved on to fresh pasture. There we paused, withdrew our equipment, engaged once again with the soils, before steadily moving on again. From a distance, it must have appeared like a pilgrimage, and in many ways it was. A great pedological pilgrimage. 


At the base of Henfaes University Farm is another Welsh secret. Behind the stable doors, you might expect to find a pony or two, rolling around in a bed of hay, or perhaps a herd of cows dreaming of life on the hills. But you don't. Instead, you find some of the most sophisticated laboratory equipment. Here we would spend an afternoon, studying the intricacies of our soils; their chemical and physical make up. Carefully measured grams of earth were added to colourful potions, some of which could quantify the concentration of vital nutrients such as Phosphate and Nitrate; some soils were burnt in furnaces to quantify the contents of organic Carbon; some grains were submerged in acid to test for Carbonates. And all of this happened in a building I expect, once upon a time, was home to the local pasture.



***
Evening. The phantoms of dusk and mystery convene in the skies above Wales, before descending to cast a spell of twilight over the country. Valleys become baths of fog. Life of all kind is submerged until the promise of a morning is realized. Even the spire of Snowdon is cloaked under this relentless tide.

A few companions and I huddled around a fire in the living room of a small, Victorian cottage clinging to the wall of a valley. The fire roared as if the blaze was fighting against a menacing darkness. Occasionally, our host would chop up a trunk with an axe, and recharge the embers. There we sat, like many generations of explorers before, hatching a plan to climb the monster of Snowdon. To ascend up one of the highest mountains in the UK, a brave spirit of unsurmountable determinism that lies cocooned in the minds of many, must be tempted from dormancy. And so, before we retired to our mattresses, I wandered back out. Through the dusk, I could see a foreboding shadow; a darkness competing with the night-sky itself. There, beating the fog with a rage, was Mount Snowdon. I wandered through the terraced gardens to the outdoor toilet, and back up to the cottage, more determined than ever.



The spells of the twilight were vanquished and the promise of morning rang true. In the valleys below Snowdon, daylight seemed to suck the fog out like a straw, leaving a raw landscape. I realized that whilst I had been asleep, below this duvet of mist and mystery, the monster of Snowdon had been very much awake. Torrents of icy water, once prisoners within the very rocks of monstrous Snowdon, had been spouting out of orifices in the valley above, fleeing like liquid fugitives, desperately surging through the valley to avoid being frozen to death. And as we emerged out of our cars in a layby, the race was still on. And it never ceases.

We hiked along this river to the start of the ascent. Along the way, I noticed that boulders once within the grip of the beast of Snowdon, had wriggled out of his fist and had charged down the hillside to the bottom of this valley. Some material clearly catches a lift with the water and rides out of the valley for good. The boulders do not. They perch on the banks of the stream like a vagabond might stand on the edge of a motorway. If they do not succeed in hitching a lift, they wait for time to slowly rip them apart into angular fragments, each of which is then singularly evacuated out of the valley.

Then came the ascent. We spent two hours clambering towards the brow of Snowdon. The route twisted and curled around the mountain, each segment becoming increasingly challenging, but with each step, that fiery spirit of determinism conjured around a fire the night before became stronger. What fed the muscles under the strain became more concentrated in vanity every mile.


Try to wind read this wind and see wind how difficult wind it is wind to make wind any sense wind of it wind. Now try to hike against it.

The zig-zag path that leads to the summit is the windpipe of Snowdon. You are hiking against this monster's continuous exhalation. It pushes you back, so that you are forced to duck like a rugby scrum, and tackle it shoulder on. The further you progress, the stronger Snowdon's breath becomes. It's an icy breath too; the cold breath of a monster.

We battled on and reached the summit. It seemed even the train had been forced to retreat because of the wind. In a small building, adjacent to the summit, hundreds of conquerors were battling another challenge: a long, winding queue for coffee.



As we ventured to the very summit, my friends and I recalled the words of William Blake.

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land.

And with those strong-willed words of resolve and unfaltering persistence, the human spirit, armed with those arrows of desire, will continue to conquer Snowdon, and indeed, any challenge that lies ahead...

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Week 31: (1st May to 7th May 2017) or "Staying in Lancaster"

The room seemed clenched inside the fist of paralysis. There was no sign of life. It seemed as if each and every object had been doused in stillness. A black winter coat hung perfectly still from a peg like a scene from the gallows. A stained teaspoon lay lifeless like a shipwreck, submerged under the cold, stagnant residues of last week's brew. Beyond the doors of a wardrobe in an asphyxiating fog of darkness, shelves of clothes waited patiently to be elected for service. On a bookshelf, the works of great minds were entrapped within the fibres of parchment. Even the dust seemed torpid; sound asleep on the back of a placemat, the shoulders of a radio, and the domed roof of a desk lamp. The rippled creases in the bedsheets, that to an spider may appear like a mountainous landscape of gorges and valleys, were as benumbed as the pillows that rested upon them. The energetic sights and sounds of labour and enterprise that had once characterized this room had been plucked away by the claws of lifelessness.

Silence. And then...

The door that had a minute before seemed impregnable, suddenly jolted on its hinges and a great surge of fresh air flooded in, banishing out the stale and stifling week-old equivalent. Clouds of dust erupted into the air like volcanic ash; rippling waves were now cast in the puddle of tea. A switch was flicked and a fireball of light was discharged from the ceiling. And then, the figure who had single-handedly roused a sleeping room, stepped in. He cast a giant traveller's rucksack onto the bed. He unzipped his coat. He gazed around the room and sighed. 

"Home after another journey," he said. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a few random keepsakes; a map of Vienna, a hotel business card, 40 cents and an ID badge for the EGU.


You will, perhaps, have realized that this figure returning home was none other than myself. After an expeditious week in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union, I was pleasantly relieved to be back in the slightly sluggish ambience of my Lancashire flat. Although I seem constantly charged with the thrills of roaming and wandering, it is nice occasionally to stay in one place. As I unpacked, I looked forward to the week ahead; a week entirely spent within the environs of Lancaster and the first of which since the 16th January.

One of the woes of travel, although not so obvious during the travelling, is how stunted the great train of thought can become. I was on my way back from Vienna, planning the outline of a scientific paper I aim to pen this month, and had no less than 14 connections. How one is meant to conjure an unstoppable tide of thought when he or she is usurped from buses, coaches, tubes and trains every twenty minutes, is an art beyond my talents. Time and time again, I would take my seat on a bus and find that I had left my latest musings inside the previous train carriage. If National Rail were to file these lost thoughts with the other items of forgotten property, I suspect that a room the size of the country itself would be required.

But ahead, like I say, was a week of uninterrupted work. The paper I am working on represents the first scratchings of an article that I will eventually (and hopefully) see published. Under the guidance of my supervisors both here in Lancaster, and around the country, I plan for this article to highlight a fresh perspective on an old problem; an exciting and innovative approach to the woes of soil sustainability. I have mentioned my concept of the Soil Productive Lifespan many times now and I unveiled it to an international audience last week at the EGU, (for the video, see last week's post). In short, the Soil Productive Lifespan is the length of time a soil has to fulfil its provisionary services. Without knowing the potential lifespan of soil, we cannot be sure as to how sustainable it really is. Today, as the week edges towards completion once more, I can report good progress on the article. One more week and the first draft should be reasonably sculpted.


On Friday, I rested my pen and spent the day absorbing Science rather than dispelling it. It was the annual Lancaster Environment Centre Postgraduate Conference. Another conference! But, indeed, we must attend these calls to absorb the latest research. We must disseminate our work to others so that we may inspire, educate, discuss and answer unanswered questions. Knowledge is, after all, a sculpture, assembled by a world of intellects, which must be regularly carved and chiseled by the blades of cutting-edge research. This week's conference would be solely for those employed in research at Lancaster University, so it was if nothing else, an intimate affair. That said, I was positively surprised at the number of students, and the volume of work, that the Environment Centre appears to be churning out. I had little idea as to how diverse the research conducted here was! For example, here are a few titles from the oral session, held on Friday morning:
  • 'Developing and Testing the Next Generation Carbon Accounting Tool for Business and Organizations'
  • 'Moths: a marginalized community'
  • 'Long-term monitoring of forest fire degradation and carbon emissions in Brazilian Amazon'
  • 'Complex Processes in Rare Lava Flows'
  • 'Improving the Contribution of Peer-Review'
  • 'Agricultural Soil Formation Rates: The Missing Piece of the Pedological Jigsaw'
That last entry may sound familiar, and indeed it should do. For the third week in a row, I had been invited to talk about my own work on acquiring the first soil production rates on arable soils in the world. Once more, I sounded concerns as to why we only know soil formation rates on uncultivated terrain. Once more, I outlined how I would contribute to this impoverished inventory. Once more, I attempted to disperse the seeds of enthusiasm inside the minds of an audience who don't, I'm willing to bet, eagerly think about soil on a day-to-day basis. Some of those seeds seemed to germinate, for at the conclusion of the conference, I was awarded with a prize for the best first year talk.



***

Saturday morning was six hours old when I awoke and peered out my curtain. I saw not the promise of unsullied sunshine which had blessed each and every day of the week so far, but a troubled sky bullied by bulbous, threatening clouds. I slumped back on my pillow and cursed, as every Englishman or woman does from time to time, the Great British Weather. I had planned to make a short, but exciting trip to Malham in Yorkshire - my first encounter with its dales - and spend a day climbing rocks and mounting hillsides, and losing myself within the wilderness. Those carefully made plans that had floated on my mind for a week, had now capsized.

But I did travel - significantly travel - on Saturday morning. I found myself on the platform of Norwich Train Station, surveying families who were united once again for the weekend, boarding trains and most likely travelling to the jewels of an unspoilt coastline. Later on, I found myself in the granary of Filby Bridge Restaurant, an establishment I had the good fortune to work at many years ago, and wandering into the kitchen to surprise the kitchen staff. The kitchen was not how I remembered it; the ovens were sitting in front of what used to be the door to the wash-up room. So where was the wash-up room now? I could not smell that candied odour of sweet potato, nor the rich aroma of gravy which so often swam into my lungs on every shift. As I turned left down an alcove, I seemed to be entering not the bar - as it previously led - but a laundry room, of which by dimensions alone, seemed to have nudged the rest of the restaurant into the broads. Later in the day, I took a walk down a street lined with terraced flats and rusty cars. At the end of the road, four or five boys were sitting and chatting on the window frames of their bedrooms, legs hanging over the shrivelled leaves of the shrubs below. I was about to discharge a pleasantry or two, when I found myself walking not through flats, but instead alongside a suburban park...and then a field... and then I awoke, and realized that I had not travelled a single mile at all but had dozed back into slumber. Outside, a melancholic tapestry of clouds still hung over Lancashire.

I decided to make the best of it. I had not the zeal required for a large adventure, but decided to address one of my many 'loose ends'. I had, in 31 weeks (perhaps unforgivingly) neglected a slice of Lancaster; a park that, up until now, I had read and heard so much about but had not explored for myself.


It is easy to drive innocently past Williamson Park, and many do. Those who don't, enter by means of a flight of stone steps that wind under the fringes of a small woodland. A well-groomed path awaits you. It leads you around the trunks of trees that took root in Lancaster long before James Williamson, the park's creator, was born. It takes you up and down gradients that appear unnaturally steep, so that in places, you face not a sea of ferns, but the brutality of the sandstone bedrock. In places, the ground appears to be bleeding; these are the springs that feed the mouths of ponds and the spouts of the fountains below.

I take a seat by the pond to gaze at the ducks which in timeless fashion elegantly grace the ripples, but I find myself taking stock of an altogether more wondrous sight: that of the Great British public. How extraordinarily interesting the relatively simple act of observing people is. How enriching! If ever I were to find myself being granted a year sabbatical, I would set out to travel across the cloak of society which clothes this island, and sit for an hour each day to watch human life. If I wrote about such an experience, it would perhaps be filed under History for the echelons of society are forever evolving. Maybe Biology then. It might best suit the category of Sociology or maybe even Anthropology. But back to the pond...

A fragrance of lavender hovers over a bush to the left of my gaze. Behind it, a young couple are sprawled out upon a pink picnic blanket, embellished in purple spots. The couple's focus is on a cream, wicker picnic basket that, when open, reveals a set of cutlery on the underside of the roof. The gentleman, dressed in his Sunday best a day early, masterfully pours a glass of red wine and hands it to the lady. They nibble on scones, occasionally breaking to unwrap the film that imprisons sausage rolls. Sometimes they orchestrate those quintessentially English tones; that satisfying ring where the knife, having completed its duty, is placed down on the china plate or, even more satisfying, the sounds which follow the stirring of tea. Listen to those three taps of the teaspoon - ring, ring, ring - on the rim of the cup, and one final 'ring' as it is placed on the saucer! How English!

Oh how the elegance is shattered to my right. A little girl is charging at pigeons. Why do children run at pigeons, I wonder? I can only hesitate to guess that a child, whose life is spent following commands, finds a sprig of excitement at the opportunity to be in command; to be the one who decides whether a pigeon may sit in peace or find respite elsewhere. There she goes, charging up and down the promenade. Her mother, oblivious up until now, attempts to tease the girl away from this act of bullying. But wait. Is that a squirrel?

"Gimme ma phone...my PHONE... MY PHONE," she calls out to the father. So immobile he was on the bench beside the pond, that I hadn't even noticed him. But being the recipient of this anxious demand to provide his dearest a camera, he leaps into eyeshot. His one and only task of the hour and he fails.

"It's gone, GONE, come on," the mother barks and with that, the family moves on.

Stepping out upon this stage of activity, in the grand theatre that is Williamson Park, a couple stride down the path. They progress in regal fashion as if practicing for the next State Opening of Parliament, but their choice of clothes speaks of an event as far as one can be from Westminster. From the ankles down, when I engage with their walk, it suggests a royal banquet or a formal procession. From the ankles up, a punk rock concert. The man wears a purple velvet jacket, the lady wears a Victorian corset dress, and all of this happens underneath two mops of long black hair.

Ahead of me, a lady in a relatively less striking brown overcoat, is feeding the ducks the crumbs she scooped from the bottom of her bread-bin. Why do people feed ducks? Do they not consider ducks to possess an ability to hunt food on their own? I gaze at the lady for a while. She does not scatter the crumbs in one helping, but scans across the pond like a lighthouse at a duck she considers is worthy of a treat. She feeds it. Then she scans again, pivoting her gaze across the water. 'Which one next?' she muses, scooping a handful of crumbs from the bag. Her decision is made. The crumbs are scattered. How pathetically strategic the task appears.  

Suddenly, a voice to the right: "Gimme camera...quick! Get my phone." Another squirrel sighting. And so it goes on...


***

At the edge of the Williamson Park, is the Ashton Memorial. It reminds many of the Taj Mahal, as if the warm tropical currents had once transported the spices of India across the continent and lay them down on the beds of the park. It reminds me of St Paul's Cathedral. In any case, it was commissioned by Lord Ashton as a tribute to his wife, Jessie, whose death supposedly devastated him. The folly dominates the Lancashire skyline, and for months I had caught glimpses of it from the belly of the town and from the shoulders of the moorland. From the moors, it is but a speck of dust on the horizon; from its foot, it stands overwhelmingly tall over you. Granite sourced from Cornwall makes up the steps that lead you to the main body; a Portland Stone tower, sitting under a copper helmet, painted in a green patina. The balcony presents a panoramic vista over Lancaster and I would have stared at this much longer, had I not been curious as to why two limousines were parked around the entrance. Leaning up against the front of one, a tall gentleman sporting a chauffeur's cap was also gazing out over the skyline.

"A wedding?" I asked, and almost immediately regretted the question, for two pink ribbons were suspended above the bonnets of both cars.

"Yes, it's a right strange one, this is," the chauffeur replied, in an accent strong enough to tell me that he wasn't far from his hometown. "The groom...here, let me show you the groom."

He fished a phone from his jacket pocket and showed me a photo of the husband-to-be. All I could think of is Lord Summerisle from The Wicker Man. He had a long velvet cloak and long black, greasy hair. I suddenly recalled the gothic couple from the duck pond. They were guests to the most beguiling of weddings.

"You must see all sorts in this line of work?" I asked.

"I do this as a hobby... yes, all sorts... but this is the best. Never seen a wedding like it. The reception's at Galgate Village Hall. Strange place. Still, doesn't bother me. It could be McDonalds, I wouldn't mind. I'd go through the Drive Thru."

"Lovely place to get married though," I said, gazing up at the tower.

"Oh yes. I used to go wild here as a kid. I used to go up and down...that was before the restrictions, the 'Health and Safety', you know".

We nodded, because indeed, we both knew. Through the windows, the congregation were rising to their feet.

"I wonder what the first hymn will be," I uttered.

"God knows. Meat Loaf probably," the chauffeur chuckled, ambling back to his car.

I bid him a good day and went on, back down the path and into the park again.

"Surely, the Sex Pistols?" I whispered to myself.