Sunday, 27 November 2016

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

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

Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Week 7: (14th November to 20th November 2016) or 'Dreaming with the Spires'

We shuttled, like a shooting star, through the stillness of the night. From the carriage window, diffusing into view, hovered a glow of marmalade over a city of dreams and spires. Tomorrow's bustling cobbled pavements were tonight's sanctuaries of peace. Along the lanes were rows of electric stars on sticks, shining a light for the nocturnal Oxford scholars. Across the city, behind sash windows, wisdom and expertise rested on pillows. The quills, the pads, the leafy volumes awaited the tasks of tomorrow, straightening the curves of question marks into the detailed, factual exclamations of knowledge.

Across the aisle, a young boy of no more than 4, dressed in a red woollen jumper, sat making hot chocolate for his family. The spoons, the cups, the lid were visible only to him. He stirred the cocoa with his imagination and offered cups to his parents. As each received and acted out their sips, the young boy watched intently for their expressions. Too milky? Need more stirring? All the knowledge in the Bodleian could not address these questions. The Dad lapped up the froth from his lips, murmured tones of satisfaction and nodded his approval energetically to his son. We pulled into the station and alighted, the young boy following in his fantasy world. Little did I realize at the time that I was to spend the next five days estranged from my knowledge and expertise and instead, stepping into that land of imagination, of artistic invention; dreaming with the spires in a world of innovation.

In some ways, my week in Oxford was about building bridges; innovative links between knowledge and what I may loosely describe as an 'outside world'.  It is a well-known problem that in the pursuit of a niche, or in the attempt to establish themselves as 'world experts', academics have dug more moats than fashion bridges. Many shy away from opportunities to cohere their work with that of policy and business. Ultimately, it's knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

To be accurate, the aim of the week was not necessarily to build bridges between the island of Soil Science and those perched on banks from the other side, but to learn how to build bridges. However, the workshop invited students from across a wide range of 'Earth Sciences' (biologists, pedologists, zoologists) and as such, the mere bringing together of this diverse congregation had already laid the first bricks. Peppered over the programme were opportunities to develop other skills too, such as project financing and management.

Convening the workshop was Dr Kevin Parker, a former chemist who worked for 12 years at BP but having subsequently trained at the London Business School, currently leads a consultancy and training company called KKI Associates. As part of this latter venture, he mentors companies, start-up businesses and university institutes with an interactive business training programme. Also joining in on the week's activities was Kevin's associate, Dr Tony Aldhous. Tony also worked for BP, first as a researcher but later in the Research and Development programme. Alongside Kevin, he guides spin-out companies to tailor their prospective businesses but also finds time to support universities in efforts to commercialise research.

Now, I would be doing a great disservice to this narrative were I not to state that I found the week challenging. Aside from the pennies that rattle around my pocket, the world of business management and finance is becoming increasingly abstract to me. 'Markets' seem no longer to be places with self-employed traders perching on cardboard boxes and huddling under tarpaulin. No longer are they places where kids wave wooden chip folks at pigeons whilst mothers barter down the price of fifth-hand scarves. I remember physically walking around a market. The only 'liquid assets' were cheap bottles of Panda Pop. There was not a portfolio in sight. Competitor analysis was simply a speedy dash around the other side to check how much Mrs Jackson was selling her nectarines for. It is true to say that these physical markets, by and large, do still exist; indeed, I had a very interesting walk around the Oxford Indoor Market. Likewise, we still deal in units of physical currency and we do still have physical banks where automatic teller machines whir away at customer requests. In short, the world of business does still hold shape and colour. It still makes sound. Money still smells. And yet the world of business we were to plunge ourselves into on the workshop seemed many millions of miles away.

The leap between the outdoor (or perhaps, indoor covered) market and that which exists in an entirely different space altogether is a narrative spoken by the very fabric of the building we spent the week in.  The workshop took place in the Ship Street Centre which is part of Jesus College. In the early 1880s, this was a warehouse operated by William Baker and Co., to produce cabinets and carpets. The company built up of decorators and furnishers couldn't have invested more in a physical and tangible business if they had tried. As I walked under an arch, where horses once rested their hooves, I caught sight of the transformation. Gone are the shavings of wood-dust and the pungent odours of varnish. The off-cuts of unpurchased carpet and the lids of emptied paint-pots no longer litter the floors. If the spirit of William Baker persists, it did not haunt me. The building is now largely vacuous; the design speaks a contemporary dialect. The reception area is mostly air, apart from a sideboard and a single photocopier. In the far corner is the Bastion Breakout Area where brick and beam whisper the past.  

The business people who do deals on this leather physically turn their backs on their own history. Once upon a time, this room was used to make tables, chairs, wardrobes, desks and cabinets. Today, all you can make is a cup of tea. Once upon a time, a thick cloud of dust and smoke would have spouted out from the lungs of the machines. Today, the cloud remains but it's a capitalised Cloud offering a free wireless internet connection facility.  Of course, I am not suggesting that business must become more tangible; after all, I may well have 'stocks and shares' of my own in the future. I may even have a 'portfolio' which is sobering thought. I acknowledge the intricate and complex work millions 'in the city' do to keep the engine of our country's economy from stalling. All I wish to state is that for someone, like myself, who spends the best part of the working week studying mud, diving into an abstract world of business and finance is challenging. Building bridges with no tangible material is challenging. Just like the father who pays bills one minute and drinks his son's imaginary cocoa the next, the task requires adaptation and innovation.

The tasks throughout the workshop often reminded me of the little boy on the train. We would often have to 'pretend' to be someone, working on a 'pretend' industry. For example:  

"You are a group of doctors, practice managers and finance professionals working for a medical practice. You are wishing to build a new small hospital and medical practice. You have found the web-sites of three architect firms who seem to be able to design medical buildings- whom do you choose?" 

"You are a group of technologists working for Wessex Technology plc. Your work is to evaluate new technologies and recommend which ones Wessex might wish to take to market."

"You have £120,000 to invest in 5 high technology companies launching on the Northland Stock Market Today. Can you turn it into £1m?"

And so it went on. In teams, we would be assigned a task and would have to carry it out as efficiently as possible. Sometimes we were investors, sometimes project managers, sometimes market researchers. In coffee breaks, we became scientists again.


After another bout of overnight commuting, I awoke in Lancaster on Wednesday to a bellowing wind. Rain surfed over rooftops and splintered the gaze from my window. Redundant brollies littered the pavements down the university avenue. I was neither businessman nor scientist today. I was a couple of hours away from carrying out the very first mentoring duties of my PhD studentship in a Cumbrian school as part of the RCUK Partnership Initiative. In short, this is a three year initiative that allows universities and research institutions to work in partnership with secondary schools and colleges. Researchers, such as myself, visit schools and attempt to "enhance and enrich the curriculum". I won't name the school I visited for security reasons but I found both the teachers and students most welcoming.

It was encouraging and deeply inspiring to see school students actively involved with some research of their own. Each had individually chosen a topic and had started to comb through resources to extract the information they needed. The topics themselves for such a small and close-knit class, were extraordinarily diverse. One was looking into serial killers, another into the future of robotics, another into dementia, another into Brexit. The chief commonality weaving them together was a shared interest in hiking through the sometimes foggy and unpredictable quest for knowledge. In this respect, they were no different to the gowned scholars I had walked past in Oxford the day before. The next step, so I'm told, is to mentor these students using an online portal. I felt slightly sad that the student researching the problems with a robotically led, automated, virtual future still has to resign to using the internet for their mentoring.


As the pigments of colour and the fractions of light were vacuumed from the land, I headed southbound again. The cords between Lancashire and myself were becoming stretched once more. I have often pondered, especially on long trips across the country, what the 'mega' in Megabus refers to. If my return to Oxford was in any way representative then I can report that the 'Mega' refers to the copious on-board range of sounds and smells. Between two junctions of the M6, one can indulge in an aromatic smell-scape and with my new-found knowledge of business and enterprise, I can confirm that Megabus has completed extensive market research. With such a diversity of nostrils to cater for, there is a unique blend of the classic whiff with the exotic spice. Fumes of fully-fried fat spout from samosas but on a race to the nostrils is that old favourite: the cheese and onion crisp. No trip is left odourless.

Suitably ponged enough for one day, we dropped a few passengers off at Manchester. A middle-aged local couple came on board. They left their suitcase in the luggage hold but they brought up their domestic as a 'carry-on'. Getting a domestic up to the top deck was clearly hefty work; she lost her Woman's Weekly and the domestic only seemed to enlarge from this point. Eventually, the pair became sick of both being right and resigned to sleeping instead. I learnt then that the man was heading to the UK Snoring Championships and that this was his final dress rehearsal. What a polished performance! Rest assured, he has nothing to worry about.

By the time I finally reached the point of slumber myself, it was already Thursday. I had a few hours of rest before making my way once again to the Jesus College Conference Centre for the third and penultimate day of the workshop. By the first coffee break, we had already planned a (pretend) trip to Antarctica! The remainder of the morning was perhaps a little more sedentary, with a talk on how to successfully manage and finance projects. The tonsils of business spoke, yet again. The air was enriched with words such as 'parallel processing', 'overheads', 'internal rate of return' and 'net present value'. I was slightly relieved that there are many, besides myself, who find all of this reasonably complex. In fact, Robert Cinnamon and Brian Helweg-Larsen have made money out of this mass incomprehension by publishing a book: How come you don't understand your accountant? (If they had done their market research, they would soon realize that I don't actually have an accountant, but that's besides the point).

"Business investors do not want to hear about the Science. They don't care about the Science. They only want to hear about the money."

It would be fair to say that if I heard it once, I heard it many times this week. Indeed, I have no doubt that they are solely interested in money. If I took anything away from this workshop, aside from a range of useful skills, it was a disenchanting insight into just how large a gap there is between the world of research and that of business. I admit researchers are rightfully accused of closing their office doors on innovation, but slowly and surely we are starting to build bridges. As Fredrik Nael once wisely pronounced, "it takes both sides to build a bridge". Surely, if science and business are to unite to solve global problems, both parties have to become interested in what lies on the other side of the moat. Yes, that does mean that scientists spend weeks like this, learning about how to pitch for investment. But we should not rest easy unless those within business become interested in the way scientists operate. "Don't tell me about the Science; tell me about how it makes money". It's almost as excruciating to write as it was to hear it. Of course, aside from the lack of zest for science, it's an ignorant concept: the fact that the primary outcome of science is to boost profit. That's not why I'm in this game.

That evening we re-assembled in the 'snug' of the local Chequers Inn for a rendezvous. I watched as gowned members wandered in, acquired a glass of something spirituous and sat discussing various matters with deep enthusiasm. At times, they would glance up and stare at me as if to silently protest at the vulgarity suggested by my lack of gown. Then they would return to the matters at hand. In the 'snug', we grouped around a table and as the baton of time passed between evening and night once more, the dialogue waned and Kevin brought out his acoustic guitar to play a Scottish Lament. He strummed us off and we surfed on his melody. The college facades melted into silvery mountain flanks and every book in the Bodleian turned back to highland forest.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Week 6: (7th November to 13th November 2016) or 'Words about prints; prints about words'

I’m sitting and writing this at the exit shoot of a shoe distribution plant. It’s a formidable operation. One by one, giant receptacles of shoes are dispatched before me and discharged across the country. The shoes themselves are never parcelled and seldom are they pristine. They display the grazes of intensive wear; ensconced in the tread are the sediments from faraway lands. The shoes, suppressed by the eternal clouting from their owners, are discoloured by bruises and abrasions. The teeth of relentless use gnaw their way through the sole. They are far from purchasable quality and yet they are dispatched all the same.

I watch as a little figure in a reflective jacket checks each pair off on a clipboard before they are conveyed to the shoot. There are so many species of shoe; so much multiplicity in material, colour, shape, size, design. The shoes are brandished by diversity in stitching, in tread structure, even in knot type. There is diversity, too, in their biographies. If only the tongues could speak, I thought, they would narrate a fascinating history.

You may or may not have guessed that I am not a shoe distribution plant, in the traditional sense. I'm actually in the departure lounge at London Victoria Coach Station watching shoes, hearing shoes, pass by; each dragged by their owners towards queues to be funnelled into coaches and delivered to promised destinations. With every footstep, the ground is pounded, carved, moulded by the tread. Earth crumbs are plucked, abducted and whisked away to be later dumped as immigrant material on foreign soil. As time passes, these footprints- the signature of the shoe - begin to wane and smudge. They are shaved by winds, blotted by raindrops and sliced and diced by the marks of further prints. The journey's legacy is now but a memory.

As I write, the time is ticking and tocking towards midnight and Sunday 13th November: a day we remember the footsteps left by many millions who gave their lives so that we may continue to craft our own footprints. For many, the war effort casts greater legacy not in the mud of the battlefield but on our souls and we honour their brave marches for world peace and prosperity. It is on this day, perhaps more than any other, that one salient point becomes clear. A shoe can shape the ground, but it is the bearer of the shoe that shapes the world. Lest we forget that.

I have spent most of the week shaping, not the world I hasten to say, but my essay on soil life-spans. "You like language", my supervisor remarked, in this week's meeting. I make no apology nor admit shame for this; words are our greatest currency. They have agency to promote and deter; to inform and deceive; to drive change and hamper it. Consider, for instance, another significant event from the week: the US election. For anyone engaged in a campaign, cultivating support and sustaining such endorsement requires words; the correct ones, the ones that prick the conscience and invoke the emotions. The ones that capture and prolong attention; the ones that can be trusted. And perhaps, most of all, the ones which inspire hope. To mobilize a country, o inspire a population in walking with you, fashioning footprints by your example, you need the right words.

This election was charged with unprecedented literary energy. Some words offended, appalled and disengaged the electorate. Others unfastened and lacerated the binding forces of unity and harmony. The political poetry of a motivational speech was partly sacrificed in favour of a less appetising string of accusations and threats. I will not confess to be an expert in exactly why the election concluded the way it did, nor do I need to assert my own political views. What I hear and read (more words!) indicates that Donald Trump won precisely because of the words he employed; the ones that the disaffected desperately desired to hear. Now the election is over, it will be the actions in this presidency that define the next. Indeed, I'm reminded that actions often speak louder than words. However, I maintain that to acquire the power to deliver these actions, to yield support from the people on election day, one requires a strong and unwavering grasp on the handles of language.
For academics, no theory or concept would yield value and respect were it not for this great instrument of language. And so another week passes, another week churning the cement of my essay; churning the words and nothing less. For me, the pleasure from this arduous task arises not necessarily from laying down a string a words or a paragraph or even a whole draft. I relish the churning of words. Excavating the possibilities; burrowing deep into the heart of the language and selecting that best word. It's like delving into a canister of sugar for the sweetest grain.

My shoes (and I) have been dispatched, yet again. I'm scratching these remarks on the way to Oxford where I'm about to spend a week at a PhD workshop.  It will mark the first event of this nature since I started and I'm wholly looking forward to it. And of course, I'll have many words to lay down about this, next week.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Week 5: (31st October to 6th November 2016) or 'Spells of Mixed Fortune'

The Sun rose on Monday but darkness descended. The sinister tentacles of doom slowly laced themselves around our lives; recklessly lacerating normality like a scalpel. As fires burned, and cauldrons bubbled, fear and dread engulfed the air, asphyxiating stability and threatening the world with a suffocating chaos.

Or perhaps your Monday- your Halloween- wasn't like this, in which case please accept my apologies for starting this week so miserably. I, on the other hand, found myself thoroughly bewitched, bothered and bewildered. The spell must have been cast at 13:20. I was in Manchester Piccadilly, fashioning some satisfaction from a Bacon and Brie sandwich (but not enough, alas, to equate with the pennies spent) and waiting for the 13:20 train to Meadowhall Bus Interchange. I was travelling (or, at least, I had some intention to travel) to Twyford in Berkshire, where there I would be escorted to the Rotary Club of Loddon Vale. You may recall from an earlier post that I regularly guest-lecture at Rotary Clubs on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. For reasons I shall not engage with here, this particular club was some 300 miles away as the crow flies, but as I'm not a crow, I embarked upon a very involved journey, dappled generously with connections and breaks. My lunch at Manchester Piccadilly was one such break, but I desperately required the 13:20 to depart at 13:20 because I would only have about 5 minutes to alight at the other end and meet my connecting coach.

Needless to say, it didn't. It hadn't even arrived to collect its weary travellers at 13:20. At 13:23, it materialised; languid, lethargic and lifeless. I boarded but now in despair that it would shuttle me off to an interchange, many miles from recognisable civilisation and to a slab of pavement where only minutes prior, happy travellers had boarded the coach I had planned to use. Thus, the ride was dreary and it wasn't uplifted at all by the on-board music: the ever-popular angular tones of a British family who use carriages to experiment how loud their voices can reach. When I finally arrived in Meadowhall at 14:27, I was surprised to see machines still dispensing tickets with 2016 on them. Innoculated with some optimism that coaches are seldom on time, I alighted with all the urgency of one suffering incontinence and scooted towards the bus stop, weaving my way between roaming suitcases and handbags. Would the 14:25 coach still be there?

Needless to say, it wasn't. Vexed by public transport and irked by life in general, I made a low-spririted retreat back to the railway station and considered taking the train down to London. The price of a single ticket almost made my Bacon and Brie sandwich a sensible bargain, but if I had the desire to complete the journey, I would have to bite not bacon but a bullet instead. And so, reluctantly withdrawing my card, I approached the machine. In the immediate eyeline was the coach interchange and the coach bay I had just returned from. And a coach. AND A COACH! The coach hadn't departed on time; it had only just arrived. I spat out the bullet and, with another high-powered dash, made a sprint to the coach bay. Would the journey now resume a positive, unblemished service?

Needless to say, it wouldn't. It was the coach driver's first day and the first domino in a long line of soul-destroying dominoes was about to be toppled: a warning light on the dashboard. From my upper-deck position, I couldn't quite make out the telephoned advice from the engineer but then, it seems, neither could the driver; he seemed to relinquish the phone in similar despair and handed it to one of his passengers. This lady had a go, but evident language barriers tarnished any attempt to yield success. Befuddled, I chewed over whether it would be easier to take the train after all. Even better, to find a witch and hire a broomstick for a day! Thankfully, with a roar from the ignition, the decision to remain on the coach was made and as we bid farewell to Meadowhall, I prayed it was the right decision.

Needless to say, it wasn't. Our journey was punctuated with irritable stops, on hard shoulders and service stations. Drip, drip, drip; we were now soaked in our own gloom. When the coach neared Daventry, the driver once again negotiated us into a service station, not for additional engineering but because he had apparently been driving too long and needed to pass the baton. If only at that moment, I had a baton... Thus, we sat and waited once more. A few alighted, perhaps to check the tariff of the motorway inn, perhaps to assess how practical it would be to hop in the trunk of a London-bound motor. Even I seriously considered escaping and hiking to a railway station but in the way that I have so often become accustomed to, as soon as I'm disengaging the seat-belt, the engine rumbles again and I settle back in anguish. Is there much more anguish to discuss?

Needless to say, there is. I could mention how upon arriving in London 30 minutes late, we were subjected to a thorough Home Border check and how upon relaying to the officer the established recipes for English foodstuffs such as scones and jam, I was allowed to leave. (Actually, it wasn't quite like that). I could mention how I scurried through the underground and arrived for my Twyford train 24 seconds late. I could mention how I apologetically arrived at the Rotary Club and commenced my starter dish as others engrossed into their mains. But, to sustain even the smallest chance of continued readership, I will pass these matters aside and just say this. Next Halloween, I will insist upon staying house-bound.


That spell of misfortune quickly turned itself around. On Tuesday, with the forces of Halloween now dulled and wavering, I got back to my Soil Lifespan review paper. I must say now that I have left this section quite brief each week, which isn't to say that I have not made progress; I'm "ahead" according to my supervisor. However, I have been advised not to say too much about my current scratchings whilst the ink is 'still wet', as it were. What can I disclose, though? Since last week, I have committed to a complete re-draft as I feel my first offering wasn't attacking some of the points I had wanted to tackle. I have also put together an inventory of Soil Production rates from a host of studies; the diversity within the values is extraordinary (see graph below showing soil production rates for soils of different depths, as measured in previous studies). 

As part of the STARS (Soils Training and Research Studentship) programme, I am looking forward to meeting fellow soil enthusiasts in a few weeks time as we all put down our spades and shovels and spend a few days getting to know one another. Until then, you can meet them yourself. We've each uploaded a photograph and profile of our research to the STARS website, so do take a look.

Witch: female, cunning, manless, old,
daughter of such, of evil faith;
in the murk of Pendle Hill, a crone.

Carol Ann Duffy, The Lancashire Witches

Some might say it was too late. I had been injected on Monday by the repugnant forces only Halloween could assemble and thus I was being heedlessly transformed into 'one of them'. Well, not quite, but I did spend the best part of my Saturday following witches; that is to say, figurative witches emblazoned upon fifty or so wooden arrows, scattered throughout the Borough of Pendle. 

Ever since I arrived here in Lancaster, I have been aware of this great narrative: the famous trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612. In the murky depths of Lancaster Castle, ten women were found guilty of witchcraft and were sentenced to execution at the top of Pendle Hill. Whilst their resting places have never been found, Pendle Hill has enchanted the minds of curious parties for over 400 years. Including me. 

To access the hill, I took the train from Lancaster to a small, unarresting town called Nelson and then the bus to a quaint village called Barley. I would happily ride that bus anywhere- even to a Rotary Club. The driver sports a silvery beard, enough I ponder, to render him worthy of a velvety red suit come Christmas time. It just so happens that his second part-time job is as the local Mr Claus. He whirls through the countryside with all the merry of Santa, too, and the ride, albeit not on a sleigh, is still highly spirited. Toe-tapping tunes from the sixties join in on the rattling tour; some passengers sing out on the better-known choruses. When they alight, they thank the driver not for the journey, but for letting Gerry and his Pacemakers ride with them. 

Barley is pleasant, but I made for Pendle Hill relatively quickly, given the fact that a 10 mile walk was ahead of me. In sheltered pockets behind dry-stone walls, the air was cool yet not overwhelmingly crisp, but as roads curled, air currents reclaimed their dominance and I had to double my efforts. I traversed about two miles or so before reaching the base of the almighty climb, bidding many cheerful hello's to roaming sheep and receiving many silent replies. All the while, in my sights, was that 'pile of earth' known as Pendle Hill.

A road that reached up to the constellations;
A pile of earth, that propped the firmament;
A landmark, for the sea-traversing nations;
A universe-o'erlooking battlement

William Billington, Pendle Hill (1876)

My ascent up this 'universe-o'erlooking battlement' was nothing short of a clamber. I remember thinking that the witches must have been half-dead anyway by the time they tottered up to the summit. Step by step, with every tendon crying for rest, the wind seemed to amplify in energy rendering the most sturdy of broomsticks defective here. At the summit, I found adequate shelter in which to enjoy the view. And what a view! I sat there, feeble and frail fingers clutching to the crumbs of a sultana scone, thinking about the situations in which one dies. Often, it is a sterilised, curtain-walled hospital wing, with no hope of any view. They may have been killed for their spells, but at least their final glimpses of the world were these scenes. The Pendle Witches were executed, but they left some spellbinding views.

From Pendle Hill, I negotiated a descent and continued my walk; a showreel of ever-changing vistas. I passed by reservoirs and along hedgerows, over grassland and under bridges. Unlike Pendle Hill, which attracts a fair number of visitors, I spent many miles in a charming solitude. I crossed farms, with that recurring feeling of encroaching on private land and followed the path through woodland. The woods I ventured through were some of the wildest and austere I have ever paced. Rays of light are oppressed so that what one can see is not complete darkness but the shadowy constellations of stumps and trunks. Spying from ahead is a dense canopy, swaying with ghostly spirits in a tempestuous bluster. You pray, not to escape alive from the other side, but that in this veil of darkness, there is an exit.

As the Sun started to rest its weary head, I found my way back to Barley. One final sultana scone was munched and then that charming bus and its joyous driver returned to take me back to Nelson. The cusp of dusk was approaching, and we motored through the country, the radio now tuned into a selection of contemporary mellow classics. Those hully gully passengers, who waved their return tickets to The Monkees, were now slumbered back, and tunefully singing along to Karen Carpenter and George Benson. An orange ribbon unfurled over the horizon, and from my window, I could make out Nelson in all its twilit spendour. Golden balls of light flickered over the town like a blanket of tealights, dazzled in their glory only by the darting trails of red and white. Under thousands of those tiled roofs were families, back together after the day's work, sitting down to something warm and savoury. Soon they would don their thick, winter coats and head back outside into a piercing cold to spectate an annual firework display.

When I arrived back in Lancaster, thousands of hats and scarves were assembled on the bridge. A froth of excitement was bubbling through the streets as one by one, families sauntered down to see the firework displays. Children were playing swords with glowsticks; their parents recalling the days of sparklers. Security personnel enacted their very best (and thoroughly rehearsed) expressionless faces and I found a convenient space to wait. The display was worth waiting for. And it goes to show, at such a time when the country seems weak and divided, and efforts to fuse communities back together are not working, after all!