Sunday, 16 October 2016

Week 2: (10th to 16th October 2016) or 'Coffee, Toffee, Trains'

A hand twirls under twilit skies. A meagre but loyal audience of twelve digits spectate it pirouetting around. Often, it awakes other hands from their slumber and ferries each one a short way before depositing them back down again. About a minute later, their vessel has arrived once more. Again, they are plucked from the ground by the grasp of this gyrating hand, only to find themselves, once more, cast aside and free again. Free to snooze for fifty-nine undisturbed seconds. Digits 3, 6, 9 and 12 are busy preparing their own performances: static, yet strident chimes. Any minute now, they will sense the unique stroke of a hand; their cue to begin a pulsating melody. The piece is called: 6:30am.

Reverberating down a hushed vacuous street, the tones muffle a chorus of robins, still half-asleep on their self-possessed twigs. They know the 6:30am melody very well, yet it still startles them. Asides from night-watchmen trotting home and taxi cabs cruising back towards their garages, a cyclist is the only item in transit. On his back is a small rucksack, stuffed with academic papers. Nestled in his pocket is a train ticket to Leeds. He wouldn't usually hear this particular rendition of the popular 6:30am melody, but it's inescapable this morning as he passes the tower from which it emanantes, on the way to the train station.

That cyclist was indeed myself. I was heading to Leeds to meet with Professor Steve Banwart, a distinguished and highly respected scholar within Soil Science. Life in Lancaster at half-past six, apart from the chimes, is a relatively peaceful affair and the commute to the train station was without incident. By the time I was settling down into the carriage, the Sun had only just shaken its duvet off. On this particular morning, it was required more than ever. Great Northern Trains have finite wisdom and, alas, functioning carriage heating is beyond such bounds. And so, my fellow commuters and I teetered and trembled for two hours.

My appointment with Steve transpired after I watched one of his talks at the BSSS (British Soil Science Society) conference last month. His expertise spotlights on what we often call 'critical zones'; the Earth's outer skin, in some senses, comprising everything between the tops of trees and the bottom of the underground water. Although this seems a lot to deal with on a daily basis, he is one of many hundreds of scholars who work for 'critical zone observatories' distributed around the world. My meeting this Tuesday morning would be a discussion of how some of the latest research into critical zones could facilitate my own PhD project.

By the time I arrived in Leeds, the city was very much awake and out of bed, but alas, having its morning shower. Unprepared for the deluge, I arrived in the School of Earth and Environment looking as if I had just stepped in one msyelf. If Steve passed judgement, it wasn't broadcasted. In fact, the meeting was extremely positive. We 'chewed over' various ways by which I might be able to assess the impact of cultivation on soil production rates. One interesting item from this package of ideas was to run a transect across two neighbouring sites; the first being uncultivated such as a school playing field, the second being a heavily tilled farmland soil. It's work in progress. My journey back to Lancaster was this time a much warmer experience. Gracing the vista was the fringe of the Peak District.

One of the first endeavours that an academic carries out before an investigation is a review of current research. Clearly, spending three years establishing something that is already published knowledge is a waste of time, money and comfort food that could otherwise be allocated to more needy individuals. But reviewing the literature is not just a speedy frisk through the database of knowledge; it's a process that paints a collage of what we know thus far, so as to highlight the voids in our understanding. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to collate such work but ever since my supervisor and I spoke on the phone a month or two ago, I've been hard at it; reading, note-taking, fact-checking and theme-spotting. This week I sat down to write my first draft. As I write now, at the end of the week, I've parked myself at the half-way house, so to speak. A sip of something spirituous, perhaps, and then I will hop aboard the word-wagon, once more, to continue cruising to that final full stop. This journey is a 'pop-to-the-shops' compared to when it comes to writing the main thesis.

Also, this week, I sat down with three other distinguished individuals based here at Lancaster University. The first is John Quinton, my supervisor. He sipped a flat white coffee opposite my co-supervisor, Dr Jess Davies. Her tea, infused with mint from a stall in Marrakech, sat next to another coffee belonging to Dr Ed Tipping. Ed is not a supervisor on my project as such but is very knowledgeable about some of its themes. It transpires that I will be applying for further funding to support some of the laboratory-based work taking place over the next couple of years and our meeting's purpose was to discuss various aspects of this application form. I have until next April to submit such a form, after which (hopefully) I will be granted funding and tasked with the first round of fieldwork. (To anyone who is perhaps more interested in the beverages than our very specific discussions, and has noticed that I have omitted my own drink of choice, it was a bucket of English Breakfast tea. Bucket, by the way, is no exaggeration).

The other meeting I had this week was without refreshment, but in its place, was a plate of cake. In a lobby, on the western border of the Lancaster Environment Centre, sat a tray of sponges and three STARS students, including myself. Also present was the recently recruited STARS Innovation and Policy Boost member, Rebecca Burns. Fortunately, the programme has been granted extra funding which will be spent on 'boosting' each student's non-academic profile. This could entail them attending training courses, work shadowing opportunities and company workshops. At the end of the day, it aims to solder academics with non-academic professionals, so our research can have an impact on the real world. I think anyone pursuing a career in academia should be eager to weave the web of knowledge around as much as life as possible.

On Thursday evening, the nib of my pen was granted a few hours leave as I donned a three-piece suit and journeyed north to Carnforth. Many who are reading this may not realize that when I'm not writing, researching and keeping Yorkshire Tea in business, I travel around the country visiting various Rotary Clubs. At each, I dine, converse and finally present a lecture on a scholarship I received from the Royal Geographical Society. About four years ago, I used the aforementioned scholarship to travel extensively around the United States, particularly around Alaska and the West Coast. Whilst the trip wasn't soily, it was equally remarkable in just about every other conceivable way. The Carnforth Rotary Club are the latest to have asked me to vocalise my 'footsteps beyond the pond' and after enjoying a fine Gammon Steak and Sticky Toffee Pudding, it was the very least I could do. I've edited what was a 45 minute lecture into a 16 minute highlights video, below. 

And so to Saturday again. Those hands seem to be spinning ever faster.

I awoke to a subtle patter of droplets, descending through a veil of morning mist. There was still a film of moisture on the ground by the time I emerged from the house at midday, but the skies had began to clear and atmospherically, the afternoon appeared to be good for another exploration around the Forest of Bowland. Last week, I traversed the moors that cover the western quadrant of this AONB site. This week, my aim was to inspect what the south-west had to offer. In hindsight, this was an over-zealous aim, given the fact that I had only six hours before duskfall.

Afresh from the morning downpour, the fields were a luxuriant green, mottled by white fluff, jigsawed by miles of dry-stone wall. I took the road south to Chipping, traversing streams and passing farms. There's something quintessentially English in these farm buildings. Tall, unpenetrable wooden barn doors are held shut by hefty, rusty padlocks, with stretches of thick, weathered rope draping the well-trod ground. The forces of time have exulted their curses on this barn and yet it, like the farmer, still stands. Structure and man, together, unrelinquishing even under the most threatening of seasons. 

Chipping emerged at the bottom of one of many descents along the ride. It's yet another rural idyll, among idylls. In many pockets of the country, you have to dig history up, search it out, pester the ear of its oldest inhabitant over an ale. Much ink is often devoted to pages of history books, prophetic to the inevitable modernisation. Chipping has no such requirement. Chipping looks exactly how it used to stand, over 1000 years ago. It is older than Turkey both in existence and in aesthetic. Many hooves have ambled through in its rich and proud narrative.

My wheel spokes revolved another thousand or so times before I parked up again, this time at Langden Brook. The landscape is grand. To visually engage with the beauty is difficult; there is so much to see, a mere blink would be a waste of precious time here. As a cool breeze injects the valley, birds soar over meandering streams and ducks cruise on the currents. Clouds flirt briefly with valley crests before continuing on their voyage. I parted from the path, briefly, and clambered over moss and grass to assume a more aerial position in which to read.

I peered down to my wrist; the hands of my own watch were suggesting departure. And so, back down I climbed; back to the path, back to my bike and back to my house. As I pedalled ever closer to Lancaster, I realized that I was not cycling in second or minute-terms, but was hurtling forwards through hundreds and thousands of years of history. Away from bygone villages and ancient gorges, towards motorways and microwaves; the pirouetting hands of time knit these worlds together for mankind - past, present and future - into the grandest of all performances: Life.   

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