Sunday, 4 December 2016

Week 9: (28th November to 4th December 2016) or 'Mud Pie and a Taste of the Sea'

At the conclusion of my undergraduate degree, during those long summer days of little agenda, I wrote an essay about how our journey through education is similar to the way our taste-buds develop: 

"We start, right from birth, being spoon-fed dollops of mushed up food. Likewise, the world's a complex place for a new-born baby; rather than select which bits to digest, we absorb anything and everything at that age. Our minds are open to a mélange of sights, smells and sounds. And suddenly before our parents' eyes, we're no longer babies but toddlers, off the baby food but subjected to a diet of basic, staple ingredients. We're also fed a basic diet of knowledge, too, learning the alphabet, numbers up to a hundred and how to tell the time..." 

"Suddenly we're off to primary school and fed, progressively, some basic truths of the world: what a forward roll is (it's evidently, alas, not a sausage roll), the world's major religions, how to master the art of drawn-up handwriting. In my experience, all of this came from one classroom, but notably the day was divided equally into 'lessons' and 'sessions', punctuated by periods of running around outside. Back home, our dinners start to mature too. There's more than one ingredient now; all on one plate, but similarly segmented up in an arrangement that fulfills the idea of a 'divided plate'..." 

"Time ensues; we are now pupils at secondary school with an increasing amount of choice on our hands. And something else has profoundly changed at mealtimes. We start to accept (and relish) the notion of mixing foods up and using one to compliment the other. Gravy on our meat, bolognaise with our pasta, and our sandwich fillings, in particular, undergo a revolutionary shift..."  

"And then we're 18 and about to 'tuck in' to three years of university. Aside from the odd one or two treats here and there, living amongst students is often the arena to share not only recipes from one's homeland, but a place to chew over the ideas about the subject one is reading..."

Two months have passed since I set out on my largest and most aromatic dish so far, although it's absurd to compare a PhD to a standalone dish. A PhD is a very different culinary experience. The spectrum of opportunities such an endeavour unleashes makes it arrestingly pungent. The people one meets along the way; the literature inked around the world that passes before your eyes; the places one can travel to pursue answers and ponder question marks is akin to catering for a world food café. However, taking a grocery bag of raw ingredients, or in my case, unanswered questions and churning them together towards a divine, tantalizing conclusion requires some degree of energy and hunger. It's a hunger for knowledge - a ravenous yearning for scientific truth - that keeps me 'cooking' all day long.

Keeping the food metaphor on a low simmer, there's also a well-known idiom that many use nowadays to express busyness: "I've got a lot on my plate". Indeed, the last two weeks have been eventful, but nutritious nevertheless. The Oxford Innovation trip (week 7) gave me a chance to taste the world of business and enterprise, and take away handy recipes of how to pitch research to non-academic audiences. Last week, I attended the STARS Welcome Meeting at Borwick Hall and contributed to the cauldron of exciting research projects currently taking place in Soil Science. 

All in all, the last two weeks have been extremely flavoursome, but there's only so much one can squeeze on to one's plate, so this week, I opted for a smaller dish instead. A Mud pie perhaps, for a soil scientist? After all, I have spent the majority of the week cracking on with my own research into the Soil Lifespan.

On Tuesday, here at Lancaster, my supervisor (John) and I chewed over the 'soil lifespan' concept and washed it down with coffee. Without explaining the concept in too much detail, the project seeks to answer a question on the minds of farmers, land owners and policy makers: how long do we have before our soils disappear? Just as we have 'life expectancies', I am seeking to discover what the life expectancy is for productive soils and the factors that control these expectancies. The Soil Lifespan takes into account the rate at which soils are produced, the rate at which they erode, and the rate at which they degrade in quality. 

Consider, if you will, financial budgeting. To estimate how many years our funds will persist, we need to know the incomings (in my case, the soil production rate) and the outgoings (the soil erosion rate). But of course, the value of money depreciates over time; what used to be £1000 might now only be worth £800. Even if our incomings and outgoings remained constant, the value of our bank balance would still slowly drop, and likewise for soil, it is essential to measure how it degrades over time. The organic matter within soil has a finite lifespan, and as it degrades, the quality or value of that soil also starts to depreciate.

With the Literature Review in good shape, our attention now turns to compressing it into a strong academic journal article.  John suggested a skeletal structure for this and in the next few weeks, I hope to expend some ink on the first draft. As evident below, such work involves a lot of reading!

With the last spoonful of Mud pie, or in reality, the final hour of intensive soil-related ruminating complete on Friday night, I decided to head out once more for the weekend. Although I am now fully recovered physically after my ordeal on the moors last week, my vigorous hiking gumption is still somewhat in recovery. It also occurred to me that I have so far ventured north, east and south on these weekend excursions but have seldom, if ever, chartered towards the west.

Without paddling some considerable distance to Ireland, the parcel of land west of Lancaster is by no means substantial and its highlights can be largely covered by foot in a few days. I say this with some degree of certainty as most of the territory is designated floodplain land and would only appeal perhaps to those testing waterproof footwear. There are, arguably, two or three major hotspots of activity in this region and this weekend I was to get a 'Taste of the Sea' by visiting two of them.

Morning breaks over Morecambe and Heysham. Between them, three miles of beach sit parched, patiently waiting to feed off the fresh froth of a future foam. The tide torments the sand, forever teasing it with an advance, only to deviously retreat back again. You can almost hear the ebb's vindictive laugh as it retards the beach from quenching its thirst. But eventually, it arrives. The sand starts sipping recklessly, guzzling up as many gallons as possible before the tide withdraws once more.

By the time I arrived in Morecambe, the tide was already commuting seawards. A family of grains, pebbles and rocks sat mingling on the beach, each refreshed from their morning bath. A dull shade of grey was busily diffusing through the air and the water. These two would have been hopelessly indistinguishable were it not for a sword of rock, impaling the greyness and revealing a horizon. Along the promenade, street lamps expelled a dim, ineffective glow.

There is something curiously 'British' about a grey sky hanging over the coastline. And like so many seaside towns, Morecambe retaliates back with a palette of colour. A row of hotels is rarely monochromic; nearly every string of inns I saw in Morecambe was like an assembly line of pastel crayons. Harboured at the shore are modest fishing boats that look worryingly sinkable yet each one boasts attractive tints. Huddled behind fishing wire, crouched down on a lunchbox, is a fisherman sporting a bright, full-body waterproof suit so that in the distance, it looks like a nectarine is gazing out on the surf.

I ambled along without haste. A few low-spirited tourists were sitting by the window in the breakfast room of the Yacht Bay View, looking out on their yacht-less bay view. Whilst the view may not have been so extravagant, Morecambe focuses on the foreground. I stopped by an information board presented by the Rotary Club in 1989. It details the amazing diversity of bird life that Morecambe Bay appears to attract. Regrettably, the diagrams of each bird lack colour, making it seem that the Teal, the male Wigan and the Goldeneye are one of the same species, which of course they are not. Craning an eye to the sky, I spotted only two aerial subjects, and one was ejecting a contrail.

The other was a pigeon and how they were to become an optical highlight on the walk. I am one of the few, perhaps, who has never found it amusing to watch these birds being shocked to flight by small humans charging towards them. They may not hum or tweet with sweet melody, but as with any bird, they manage to do what we, without machine, cannot: ascend into air. At the seaside, a kit of pigeons whipping the air in flight, diving down to collect a chip or two and climbing back up the sky is inherently part of the experience. Although perhaps more graceful, it would be simply odd to see the same display enacted by kingfishers.

Perhaps I've spoken at length about the British seaside town, and not about Morecambe. I feared something like this would happen, but then it speaks volumes about how one can see so much of coastal Britain in an hour, and yet so little of Morecambe. Aside from the Morecambe Bay information board on various birdlife, there were only two signals that reassured me that I was in Morecambe. The first was a statue of Eric Morecambe balancing on one foot on a raised platform, along the promenade. He stands facing, not the sea, but towards a red, modest café, in his own name. The other, I have to admit, I would not immediately associate with Morecambe but it exists to remind us of a part of Morecambe that predates Eric, himself. It is a large, dilapidated tower painted to mimic a tube of Polos, although for such a refreshing and invigorating sweet, it's in an appalling condition. The Polo Tower, alas, is the one and only structure that still stands to remind residents of a Theme Park which existed in this area for just under 100 years. Once upon a time it was called Frontierland Western, but visitor numbers apparently dwindled, so a series of re-branding was executed. Both 'Fun City' and 'Morecambe Pleasure Park' did not remedy the poor profits and by the end of the 2000 season, most of the site was resigned to rubble.

Towards the end of my walk in the village of Heysham, I greeted a lady who was dutifully scraping dog excrement into a small bag. I am still unsure of the dialogue that enabled us to leap from the material aspects of dog excrement to wider societal matters, but I'm glad we did.

"I've had hardships in the past", she admitted, as we both scanned the ground for further faeces. "My husband died of a pulmonary embolism twenty years ago, but you get over it, don't you?"

I nodded, although I'm not sure why, for I do not merit the same experience. Her 76 year old hands tied a knot in a bag. I attempted to ask her about Heysham, but regretfully she discovered more dog waste, and never returned to the matter.

"Got family coming to see you at Christmas?" I asked.

"Yes, my two step-sons", she replied, eyes scrutinizing the ground for faeces. "They'll probably come over and give me something I don't want. Last year, though, they gave me this lovely cushioned lap tray. I now spend most mornings in bed playing bridge on it".

Satisfied with her collection, she started to walk on. As we parted ways at the village church, I watched as she trotted back up the path and then turned back. I thought she had found more 'material' to bag, but she signalled that I should look at a particular gravestone. The stone was dedicated to the memory of John Mashiter, who was born in 1852 and married a local girl called Sarah Hannah, born four years later. Together, they tamed and cultivated the earth as a small farming unit at Town End Farm here in Heysham. They were to have a son, Richard Mashiter in 1880 who went on to manage the farm with his later wife, Mabel Fox. The grave was in excellent condition; I could read the names so well. John Mashiter, 1852 - 1941 and Sarah Hannah, 1856 - 1919. I looked up. Slowly ambling back up the street was their great great grand-daughter, still peering down, ready with the bag.

The church perches precariously on the edge of the coastline. Row upon row, the graves stand, searching out the horizon. I sat down on a bench and listened to the rhythmic beating of the water on the rock-strewn shoreline. Although I couldn't see them, I imagined the spirits of the Mashiters, uniting together in revenant harmony, calling by Town End farm to bless the land, and then to surf off westwards, cruising over the twilit waves, the tides of change and back to life in the 19th century.  

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