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.


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