Sunday, 11 December 2016

Week 10: (5th December to 11th December 2016) or 'A Tale of Two Capitals'

A giant bulb of fire burnt through the horizon, scaled the Hikurangi mountain and floated effortlessly into the sky.  A clan of shadows awoke. They stretched across the Waiapu Valley, yawning a veil of mist into the air. Polynesian hunters, grasping spears that shimmered in the light, craned their heads to the heavens and chanted in revelry, as the bulb chased darkness out of the sky once more. It hovered for a while overhead, delivering day-packages of light to the Maori people and then began its planetary commute, westwards.

Monday morning began journeying across the globe, pulled ceaslessly by this one, unremitting bulb. It glistened over the domes of Indonesian temples, beamed over the Chinese rice paddies and flashed across the back of Bengalian tigers. It burned through the leather of a bedouin sandal, dazzled over the oar of Venetian gondolier and took a ride on a red London bus. It paddled across the Atlantic, gestured to cruise ships and sizzled through the leafy canopies of the Amazon.

In Washington DC, as this tide of promised light arrived, a nation's capital awoke. A city of commuters began well-rehearsed routines, sipping through the froth of cappachinos, bundling their briefcases and bodies into the backs of yellow cabs and reeling through a scroll of morning news. The dough of a lunchtime bagel was being kneaded into shape. At the Jefferson Hotel, a butler stood polishing a breakfast spoon. Of course, this is only what I imagine happened on Monday morning, based on my experience in other American cities. The only aspects I can describe with certainty are the events that took place in Room 100 of the Keck Center, on 500 Fifth Street, and that's because I was there.

It was World Soil Day and in a small conference room in Northwest Washington DC, some of the world's best soil scientists were attending the annual workshop, this year titled: 'Soils- The Foundation of Life'. A few hundred or so scientists could not make the journey for one reason or another (myself included) but by the powers of technological brilliance, I was connected, both sonically and visually, from my room here in Lancaster. Thus, as I sat down with a 2pm brew (for here in the north, the art of steeping teabags in hot water is often used to refer to the beverage itself) the clock struck nine times in the Keck Center and the conference got underway.

To summarize all eight hours of the conference here is a challenging task, and those who are particularly interested should invest time to read the minutes and notes scribed by those who were there, which should by now be surfing on the boards of the internet. What I can say is that certain themes emerged throughout, one of which was suggesting the priorities for future research. Jo Handelsman, for instance, spoke on behalf of the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy. She is the Associate Director for Science for the Obama administration and detailed a recently published report on 'The State and Future of US Soils'. All 57 pages of it sit quite patiently on my desk as I write and I imagine I will add it to a box of Christmas reading but in short, the USA government has released a framework for new actions to protect soil health. Key to this framework is promoting new research and education in soil science, advancing the technology required to study soils and expanding sustainable agricultural methods.

One of the most interesting, I thought, was the announcement of a new initiative; a collaboration of more than 15 organizations across the USA, all aiming to develop strategies that restore soil health in cities. I raise just one of the many new initiatives, because one of the major themes of the conference was that of urban soils. I had always realized that soils played a giant and important role in built infrastructure but Christopher Meehan (Chair of Civil Engineering, in University of Delaware) illustrated many roles I had not often considered. For example, an expertise in the physics of soils is essential for any planned tunnelling or underground space project. In addition to this, there was prevalent discussion on the use of waste products to generate sustainable composts. Sally Brown, a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington, cited a school in the US that recycled urban 'grey' water and municipal biosolids to produce soils in which to grow food for school lunches.

Whilst a sequence of individually convened lectures was good, I found a later panel discussion an integral and useful means by which to acquire the 'live' and unrehearsed ideas from many of these leading academics. Asked how we should engage the public in acknowledging the importance of soils, Richard Pouyat (Assistant Director at the White House Climate Resilience and Land Use office) responded: "We need to think of other movements, how did they get the attention...We need to think of stories...what are some really great stories. 80% of the world is urban so we need to start looking at people's backyards and city parks."

Dennis Dimick, former Executive Editor at the National Geographic, offered another idea: "People connect with air, water and food- the things that matter to them. If we can get people's attention with these aspects, we can take them someplace else. Bring them in through their door, and take them out through yours". Sally Brown commented in response that many people in cities are interested in soils. "New York City has the most composting plants per square foot than anywhere else".

I mentioned, in passing earlier, that one of the government's new framework strategies is promoting education in soil science and this was discussed during the panel session. Asked if we teach enough Soil Science, Richard gave what he believed was a very "simple" answer: " of the things we need to do is cross into other disciplines". However, Dennis Dimick pondered whether the question was the right one to ask, suggesting we should be asking: "Are we teaching enough Soil Science students with communication skills?" He went on. "We are on the verge of installing a man who used Twitter to get elected President. The tools are out there to publish stories...we need to use social media". Sally Brown referred, comically, to a red poster emblazoned with the words: "Make Soil Great Again". But Colin Campbell, Senior Research Scientist at METER Group, took a backstep out of a political arena and suggested: "We should care about it no matter who we are. It's not a question of politics, it's a question of our future." He's quite right.

The members who attended in person had lunch, as I had dinner. They spent the best part of two hours in groups (one for each theme) and reconvened at the very end of the day for a final session. Ronald Amundson, Professor at the University of California-Berkeley, delivered a series of concluding remarks which I've paraphrased here:

"Our interests in soils are driven by our human need. To convince and educate people, we need to communicate. When people across the USA were asked what was the most important problem, soil was not on the list. Economic problems, healthcare and a distrust of government were. How do we bridge this? Do we need more education? In my opinion, we don't need more papers, as policy makers don't read them. Based on my experience, farmers do not lack knowledge. They probably just distrust authority because their values are different. So we shouldn't leave with facts; we should leave with values that give the facts a fighting chance. We need to connect to people and their value systems. What is important to them? Understanding people is as important as understanding the Earth." 


Whilst the mattress of Britain lay underneath the duvet of dawn on Saturday morning, I had risen unquestionably early and was charging by train, northwards at great pace, towards another capital city.  As those who ride milk floats and tractors will testify, there is something about riding through the air before the Sun that augments any jouney. By the time the sky was swirling with hues of pinks and oranges, as diffusing tea swirls around water in a teapot, I was already in Scotland. Mountain sheep bowed their heads to the grass in morning prayer and onwards we rushed, waking up the sleepers on the track to Lockerbie, to Carnwath, to Edinburgh! We weaved between dollops of mountains; the mint-chocolate chip tints of grassy hillsides forever turning strawberry as shades of sunrise flooded the Scottish air.

The evening before, I had sat down with a couple of books from Henry Vollam Morton that detail the experience of visiting Edinburgh in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As usual, his literary eloquence on the matter is arguably unmatchable and I recommend his books: In Search of Scotland and In Scotland Again both of which express a rhetoric about the country which, in parts, seems only to exist nowadays in the imagery captured between words. But Edinburgh is different. "Is there another city in the world which marches hand in hand with its past as does Edinburgh; which can look up from its modernity and see itself as it always was, upon a hill intact, impregnable, and still in arms?" Morton could have visited alongside me yesterday to edit his books on Scotland and still left those words in. The city he describes as "ghostly", "turreted" and "loopholed"; "a city that seems still to grasp a sword" was the very city I saw. And, whilst 80 years has elapsed between our invidual arrivals, the city is just as majestic in figure and Scottish in fragance.

I made my way towards the Royal Mile and consumed the regality like a Scotsman consumes haggis. Walking down the Royal Mile is just as Scottish an experience as walking through a vat of broth; there are no points on the compass where the view is not entirely Scottish in character, nor Scottish in sound. Walking down the Royal Mile is also a walk back in time; to an age where high streets were garnished with subtle, individual flavours rather than the bland, mass-produced recipes which are cooked up on most city blueprints nowadays. Where else would you see shops called: "Thistle do nicely" or "Miss Katie Cupcake" or "Really Scottish" which I am in no doubt completely passes the trade descriptions test. Geoffrey Taylor Kiltmakers has a slogan for the capital: "where quality and service still matter". At a street corner and one of the many junctions where past meets with the present, was the "Woolen Mill". It didn't appear exceptionally unique and on any other day perhaps I wouldn't have stopped to take note, but underneath the sign were the words: 'Established: 1993'. Whether the owner believes that this is a statement of endurance and business stability, I couldn't say, but what I do know is that 23 years passes extremely quickly. And as I ambled onwards, on a day where I can officially hang that very sign from my own body, I reflected on having been established for 23 years.

Henry Morton writes:  "I suppose every able-bodied visitor to Edinburgh goes , or is driven by some enthusiastic native, to the top of Arthur's Seat". It is testament to the very nature of the climb, the promise of a view, the seamless way the city is stitched to the rock that renders this statement still true. Perhaps, I thought as I started my climb, many expend their energies in misguidance thinking that at the very top is a large seat upon which to rest the weary feet. One could hardly be more misguided.

I executed a long, and needlessly meandering route to Arthur's Seat, so that along the way I could meet with the other highlights from Holyrood Park. Along the very western perimeter is a slab of vertical rock, as if King Arthur took a giant knife and cut the park like a slab of cheese. In actual fact, this isn't too far away from the truth. Here, at Salisbury Crags, are the remains of an old quarry and it's at this location that James Hutton (of whom many regard as the founder of modern geology) made a crucial discovery that the rocks had been formed from hot molten material. Hutton is believed to have asked the quarrymen to save the rock and the request was evidently accepted, as over 200 years later, it's still here and makes for an acceptable walk. (Alas, perhaps not for those who suffer from vertigo).

As I would eventually discover, Morton was right when he said that "every abled-bodied visitor goes ... to the top of Arthur's Seat". What he failed to include was the fact that not only do visitors swarm up there but natives too, and thus the exact summit is often difficult to see for all the shoes, rucksacks and hiking equipment. Arthur's Seat provides two studies. One is obviously of Edinburgh and I will address that in detail in a moment. The other, however, is a study of how people gaze at panoramic views and such was the diversity in my fellow hikers that I could not fail to make notes on this either.

Shortly after I arrived, a boy of about 7 emerged from around the other side of the seat, carrying a water pistol and seemed more engaged with seeking out acceptable targets than with the view. At the other end of the spectrum, a relatively mature woman roamed around in a frustrating attempt to find signal. Many decided to stand with their backs towards Edinburgh, waving a 'selfie' stick around like a wand. It was, as you can imagine, a most displeasing sight. However... the view.

From the crevassed and roughened summit of Arthur's seat comes a realization. Holyrood Park represents the forecastle of a giant ship that has run aground at the doorstep of Edinburgh. Arthur's Seat sits like an ancient captain's cabin, and the sheer-cliffs of Salisbury Crags represent what's left of a bow. I imagined sailing westwards, over the north sea, aiming for the Firth of Forth but being swung port by a tempest, and beaching here, only to find Edinburgh in all her commanding majesty; an unpenetrable boulder. A thin ribbon of mist lay over the horizon and towards the north, across a Firth of Forth, were shadowy shapes of other lands. I watched as a crow simply outstretched its wings and without a single flutter sailed off into the sky under a conveyor belt of a strong gust.

As morning passed on duties to afternoon, I retraced my steps through Holyrood Park and found myself, once more, promenading through the very business of Edinburgh. Floating in the air, and through many centuries, was the dance of a melody; an unforgettable and undeniable sound. It was as if the clefs and crotchets of sheet music had been laced together to form a net with which to scoop up the visitor from his or her own thoughts and into a medieval world. I could not repel, nor did I want to repel the charm and somewhat melancholic chimes of the pipes. If there is an instrument that is so strongly and effortlessly soldered with the heart of a country, it is most certainly the Bagpipe with Scotland. For me, it doesn't take me to the top of Ben Nevis or the moors where moss carpets rest in solitude, but to the living rooms of cottages, where beards nestle in the shrivelled fingers of those who have seen so much life.

At the eastern end of Princes Street is Carlton Hill. From the top, I gazed out across Edinburgh; where scottish air rests on a carpet of rooftops. I found myself without company on Hume walk, the path which winds around the hill, and the first path in Britain to be built solely for recreational use. It is named after David Hume (born 1711) who petitioned the council in 1775 for a path that would encourage healthy living. It was granted and built, but Hume sadly had little time to use it for he died a year later. Might not this be the first architectural link between recreation and healthy living? And what does it say for the present when one can amble along its entire length and see so few people?

Carlton Hill, when compared with Arthur's Seat, is more akin to a mole-hill but what it lacks in altitude, it makes up for in summit-based interests. The most arresting is perhaps the National Monument, built in the 1820s in respect to those soldiers who lost their lives serving in the Napoleomic war. The design is of a neo-classical Greek style, based on the Parthenon in Athens. Alas, the stream of funding ran dry and it was never completed. Perhaps more pitiful than the fact of its uncompleted state is that this monument - this tribute to the heroric hearts and the strong-will of the minds that battled for Scotland - has been reduced to a playground. People climb it, jump from it, hang around the columns and, I expect, pay little attention to the very reason why it's there.

I remained on Carlton Hill and waited patiently for the first verse of sunset. As darkness began to fall, the summits of distant hills spoke to each other in flashes of light. The glow of bedside lamps spilled through windows, into the mild Scottish air. I sat and wondered who turned them on, what their story was, what their Scottish life is like. The Firth of Forth could be traced by an absence of such light. Turning to face Old Edinburgh, the walls of the castle began to glow, as if the phantom of history was seeping out of the stone to climb over the moors. I remembered Morton's final lines on Edinburgh:

"The sun goes down and dusk falls. I feel conscious that I should descend to fashionable Georgian levels, but that, to me, is an unreal Edinburgh. I like to linger on the hill in the dark, where winds whistle like swords and darkness creeps with an air of conspiracy." 

I did, however, descend to fashionable levels to conclude my day at the Christmas Markets. This is my final weekend before I make a return trip to Norfolk for the holidays and in the spirit of the season, there is perhaps no better place for such a market than Edinburgh. There is something about the stubborn reluctance of harsh, bitter-cold climates that make street gatherings in these regions all the more warming; the way people entwine together and make merry. I weaved my way through rows of wooden huts and around throngs of woolen bobble hats, glided down steps to lower tiers and smiled at the simplicity in congregating a city, which is already as close-knit as the tartan scarves it sells. The odours of Christmas- those sweet and comforting aromas of hog roasts and roasted almonds- dance around the nostrils, warning away the nipping Mr Frost. Hear the bells and triangles and tambourines of festive music, floating like the Snowman through the chill of the air, casting joy across the faces of thousands. Clouds of candy floss hover over the heads of tiny tots, see their eyes all aglow; see the relief of parents and grandparents who have secured their innocence for yet another year.

I stood overlooking the market from the very top tier and remembered those who weren't here; those freckled hands - the old men of 94 years, who have seen so much - in the glowing huts of the Scottish highlands. I pictured them in armchairs by open fires, roasting chestnuts and warming slippers. I pictured them gazing through the frost-tinted living-room windows, from the peaks of a hillside, down to a fiery blaze of light in the valley below. Down, down, down... to an ancient castle and a Christmas market. Down, down, down... to the stalls of fudge and hot chocolate. Down, down, down... to the glory of the capital city whose doorstep sits at just the right distance to theirs. And down towards a man of twenty-three, who stands beside a Christmas tree, gazing down himself to a young boy of no more than four years of age. The young boy, untarnished by the realities of life, swims freely in the wonders of Christmas.

Of course, the young boy of four, the old man of 94 and myself, who has just turned 23, are three separate people in three very different worlds. But as I stood there, warming the cockles with one final hot chocolate, I realized that, in a way, we all represent to each other our own Christmas past, and our own Christmas future. And so, one chilly December night when I'm 94, perhaps I will gaze down a valley to a Christmas market, and espy a young man celebrating his 23rd birthday by a Christmas tree; and both of us will gaze down and smile to a young boy of 4 and both of us will wonder where on earth the years have gone.

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