Sunday, 15 January 2017

Week 15: (9th January to 15th January 2017) - So many possibilities...

"White. A blank page or canvas. 
The challenge: bring order to the whole. 
Through design.
And harmony."

Stephen Sondheim

If there is a single thread of commonality that hems together this world of diversity, may it be our communal mission to bring colour to the world. Our lives, at birth, are blank pages and day by day, we dab our brushes of experience into palletes of opportunity. We design our lives, composing schemes from dreams; brushing away darkness and tension with light and harmony. As our paint dries, so our experiences become memories; colours which, over time, simply fade away from sight and from mind.

To revisit a memory is to recover those faded colours, and this week, I was granted the opportunity to revisit one of the most cherished memories I have ever had the pleasure to paint.

As the beacon of light in the sky burns out over the horizon, a veil of twilit wonder spreads over the city. The fabric and colour of the buildings slowly dissolve to a monotonous black; the flair of the architect is unexpressed at this hour. The metropolis is liberated from design; it's now a sanctuary for the creative mind. About a year ago, a young Geographer sat in a Nottingham hotel room, overlooking such a vista. He had just arrived, having completed an interview for a PhD in Lancaster. Glowing clouds of orange were diffusing from offices across the city. Street lights twinkled like stars in the distance. Troubled over the outcome of the interview, he retired to bed early. Unable to sleep, he gazed out across the city once more, counting the lights like sheep. His head rested upon the pillow; his mind was elsewhere.

The next morning, sipping a tea and watching a city awake from slumber, he received an email of congratulations. Like the clarity and precision which reappeared over the skyline of Nottingham, his future seemed bright once again. The journey from this point was composed.

That overwhelming sense of achievement - of harmony - greeted me as I returned this week to that very hotel. Recollecting the memory of that evening one year ago, I stood for a while with the lights off, gazing back on that twinkling twilit skyline. For so many hundreds of travellers, a hotel room is often a comma in a holiday; a hyphen between two days; a bracket around dead-time. For me, this room marks the very start of a wonderful journey, and although the rest of the journey is yet to be written, it pays to pause writing, travel back to the start and reflect on the narrative thus far.


"White. A blank page or canvas. 
The challenge: bring order to the whole"

I had travelled to Nottingham for much more than this period of reminiscing. As delightful as revisiting Nottingham for humble reflection may be, in truth I had arrived to take part in the first official STARS training workshop. And thus, I return to the 'blank page or canvas' and 'the challenge'. Like a musician's blank manuscript, or a cartographer's blank map, the PhD student often sets out with a blank page and a set of challenging research questions. In aspiring to attend to those questions - to rise to the challenge - he or she must begin with a well-drafted plan of action. How will I achieve my aim? What needs to be done? When do I need to do it? Why should I do it like that? This first training event would enable us to consider the very best techniques in which to construct a detailed research plan.

I would be doing disservice to the truth brigade if I said the event was held in Nottingham. In reality, the workshop was located on the Sutton Bonington Campus; a subsidiary of the principal Nottingham campus and such is the nature of the transport network that I was routed through three counties before arriving on Monday morning. To account for those travelling to Nottingham, the schedule for that afternoon was slightly slim. Our main task was to present the 'bigger picture' of our research; how and why it responds to some of the much larger questions and issues facing modern society.

I began by outlining four separate topics within Soil Science - soil production, soil erosion, the Carbon cycle and the effects of land use - and expressed them as four unfinished jigsaw puzzles. In the dutiful pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and the slightly self-possessed desire to become a 'world' leader of a specialized niche, these four jigsaws are often tackled separately. My PhD, however, attempts to find the pieces that unite all four together into one, much larger and comprehensive picture - the bigger picture. The Soil Productive Lifespan (the length of time a soil has to deliver vital functions) is, after all, a time period dependent on all four factors.

The workshop was strongly peppered with advice. Experienced practitioners within the academic sphere guided us through the art of writing quality research proposals, the techniques of penning a detailed literature review and the challenges of publishing work. I particularly enjoyed the activity of writing a lay summary; in other words, a paragraph of text that tries to convey my research to a non-professional. Churning the great cauldron of scientific knowledge and producing something palatable for the general public is, at times, tricky. The skills one requires as a scientist transcend beyond solving equations and mixing chemicals. Here's my first attempt at a lay summary:

"Earth is the only planet not named after a God or Goddess. Instead, it's named after one of the most essential components of life. Indeed, our lives depend on the earth - the soil - beneath our feet. From the food we eat and the water we drink to the gardens we create and the bricks that we use to build our houses, soil is critical for our jobs, our homes and our livelihoods. And yet, despite this, our soils are degrading. Across the world, we are losing productive soils faster than they are created. In my research, I am asking: how long can we rely on our soils to support both us and the rest of life on Earth? Think about the engine in your car. For that engine to function, it needs fuel: the right amount and the right type. The ground beneath our feet is an engine too, performing important functions and it too relies on there being healthy soil and enough of it. To understand the lifespan of a soil, my research therefore asks: what is the soil quantity (and how quickly does it reduce) and how healthy is the soil (and how quickly does it decay)? If we understand more about soil life expectancy, we can better plan what we do to protect them, saving both time and money. After all, lengthening the time our soils carry out the essential functions, lengthens the time we, as a species, have to enjoy long and productive lives."

On Tuesday evening, having dined in the grand ambience of one of the university's finest hotels, we retreated as a cohort back to Sutton Bonington campus. Paying full regard to the fact that the 'night was still young' (and perhaps very little regard to the early start required on Wednesday) we decided to congregate in one of the campus flat kitchens. A cordial dialogue was soon whipped up around the coffee table; harmless jesting and joyful quips soon turned a room of scientists into a room of friends. It should be noted that this would be one of the first times that we, as a cohort, would spend together in a room without an agenda. Games were played. Drinks were decanted. The glass seemed always half-full. And then, at a sobering period of an early morning, when the bottoms of glasses take their first breaths in hours, we recharged our minds with the more poignant issues facing the world. Such a discussion would have occurred differently after sleep. When the mind is fresh, words are more carefully restrained by the tight reigns of consciousness. After a long day, these reigns are withdrawn and the mind is free to canter along the tracks of honesty and unspoken truths. Thus, we trotted through the spiralling complexity of life and, as so often when dealing with such matters, we found ourselves trapped in a cul-de-sac of unanswerable questions. It was time for bed.


It was indeed refreshing, amidst a much more troubling national forecast, to see that the weather arriving in Lancashire on Saturday morning, was bright. Some of the 'treats' I unwrapped on Christmas Day were to be finally realized. One such gift was a bicycle computer, which calculates a range of interesting (and at various times along a journey) uplifting statistics about your ride. There's nothing like seeing an odometer steadily climb up the number scale as you, yourself, steadily climb a hill!

I parted the pavement and mounted my saddle at a little after 9am, and 15 miles elapsed until I alighted once more. I cycled through a defrosting landscape. Many of the fields glistened as the low, winter rays of the Sun collided with little globes of dew. Highland cattle, under their heavy coats of hair, seemed disaffected by the raw breeze which swept around the fells. Gliders surfed on this breeze above me and had I not planned to climb one of the highest fells in the Forest of Bowland, I might have even been slightly envious of their vista. Such was my plan though that this envy never transpired.

Dismounting in Chipping, a beautiful village I had the pleasure to pass through in the first month of my studentship, I made my way north-westerly across the fields towards Fair Snape Fell. The route at times engaged with some very deep pools of mud; for my new boots, this was their very first dialogue with nature and happily I can report a sterling job on their part. Soon the track began ascending. The ground underfoot transformed into a firm, reassuring carpet of moss and hardy grass. At times, the route was littered with black, angular boulders. At others, it was brightened by a gentle dusting of snow like flour dusts a loaf. A sweeping panorama emerged in the west; a green mosaic splintered by a corridor of hedge or a meandering country lane. A pristine tranquillity in the valley below had somewhere along this ascent battled and succumb to an overall more volatile, mountainous reality; a piercing breeze that shuttles around the lobes of your ears and injects a chill through the fibres of your cheeks.

I would now like to write another paragraph of text from Mr Morton, who often accompanies me in bounded form, on journeys like this. Here he is writing about the eternity of youth:

"Everyone can, I hope, remember a time in childhood when...the mind, untarnished by sin and undaunted by Eternity, lived as the butterfly lives, searching for, and finding, only sweetness everywhere. In those days the earth and the flowers smelt more richly and the sun seemed brighter than it is to-day; the rain, the snow and the mist were enchantments. Life is to most of us a gradual growing-away from this enchantment. But amid the million trials and difficulties of life that can harden and embitter, it is possible now and again to re-capture fractional seconds of this earlier world."

At the summit of Fair Snape Fell, I indeed recaptured one such youthful enchantment. I made a snowman. For just over an hour, I was deeply engaged with this simple, yet pleasurable activity. Just as my fingers became slowly numb to the frost, so my mind became numb to the burdens of life. An unshackled creativity was set free to roam around the vestibules of the imagination, and all from a blanket of snow. All from

"White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities".

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