Sunday, 29 January 2017

Week 17: (23rd January to 29th January 2017) or 'A message from another Evans'

"Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind" 

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)


In the colourless and dispiriting hours of a damp and wintry afternoon, when the bulbs of springtime gaiety still lie dormant, the prospect of endless summer days spent lounging outside remains seemingly unreachable. The promise of bees, bluebells, birds and butterflies against a backdrop of rich green wild grass and sun-soaked cloudless skies feels a little far-fetched. "April is the cruellest month", so said T. S. Eliot. But it's only January. It's at times like these that I often reflect back upon summers passed.

On a journey back to Norfolk this week, on one of those dreary afternoons such as I've just described, I began to mentally inventorize a list of the most provocative and overwhelming seats I have had the pleasure to perch on: a Ferris wheel overlooking Niagara Falls, between the humps of a camel in the Sahara; a Gondola in Venice; an outdoor cinema in Athens... and, of course, more recently the boulders and tors peppered upon the crests of the Lancashire moorlands. Occasionally, on the most arduous of ascents up the fells and over the hills, it's the promise of a welcoming bench at the summit that numbs the pain in the thighs and heartens the mind.  

I can conceive of no chair or bench more disheartening than the one I was travelling 300 miles to sit in. I am, of course, referring to the 'Dentist's Chair'; a woeful, forlorn place to sit. The cushions are cold and leathery and they are packaged with a harrowing distress which diffuses straight through the skin and entwines around your nerves. There are, of course, practical adjustments one could make to the chair in order to furnish it with a sense of comfort and warmth. Alas, even if the cushions were upholstered with better fillings - and please do excuse that word play - the dentist's chair will forever be known as the seat no-one likes to think about sitting on.

And thus, as I was sitting on the train to Norwich, I didn't think about it. Like I said, I casted the mind back to perching on the jaws of gorges, and on the branches of trees and considering the seats I had yet to rest on around the world. How ubiquitous the 'chair' is in our lives! How frequent we relieve our feet from the full weight of our torso! Railway travel, though it may be taken very much for granted, is unique in the sense that many passengers often require two seats: a seat upon which one rests, and a seat directly in front which supports a small fold-down table. As I pondered over memories of sitting down in exotic locations, one of these small fold-down tables across the aisle, (which had been folded up and unclaimed throughout the journey) suddenly relinquished under the pull of gravity and collapsed down to reveal a single piece of lined notepad paper. I could see, albeit unclearly, that there were some words scribbled on the back. I knew that were I not to wander over to discover these words, I wouldn't sleep peacefully and so charged with an inherent sense of curiosity, I went over and grabbed it.

The words were simply these:

"Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here alone."

With a little research, I later learnt that they were the words of an American photographer called Walker Evans (1903-1975). And thus, from one seat to another - from one Evans to another - a message was delivered on Monday night. A message to stare, to educate the eye, to die knowing something. A message I will remember, the next time I'm sitting down on the crests of the moors or against the trunks of a forest.



***
Immediately prior to my departure for Norfolk, I once again engaged in two hours of mentoring undergraduates. As I outlined last week, this role sees me temporarily transform from PhD student to Teaching Assistant, though the skills acquired by the former are, it seems, transferable. In this week's workshop, I dutifully assisted about twenty students who had, during the week, aggregated together to form groups of 4 or 5. In teams, their tasks were to start planning how they would conduct a particular research project and the skills they would require in order to carry it out. I have previously mentioned one of these research projects: an investigation into urban heat islands. Here's another, this time focussed on improving soil quality from landfill waste:


My own PhD research is currently sitting on a conveyor belt at a supermarket checkout; that is to say it's continually stopping and starting, but always moving forwards. It's significant to carry out intricate planning now to avoid catastrophe further down the line. (You don't want to get to the payment and realize you never picked up that one essential item). Over the last couple of weeks, I have assembled together a project proposal in which details a thorough plan of action. One of the most pivotal aspects currently revolves around where I will be carrying out the fieldwork. Clearly, there are a number of hoops through which to dive before a single tablespoon of soil is sampled and taken back to the laboratory, let alone an entire core from the surface to the bedrock. Gaining permission from land owners is integral, as well as ensuring that the site is not being utilized for another project. Ultimately, I aim to study a total of six sites: three sites on agricultural land and three sites on uncultivated soil, such as that in an ancient woodland. Currently, I have a shortlist of three potential sites for the cultivated soils. They were originally part of a much larger study, executed in 1991 by Professors Tim Quine and Desmond Walling. In their original investigation, only soil erosion was studied, and the brown sands of Shropshire's Dalicott farm were found to be some of the highest eroded soils. My investigation will not only focus on erosion but also other mechanisms by which soil enters and leaves the system, such as soil production from bedrock. I look forward to discussions with Tim Quine in the next few weeks.

 

***
 
 
It is 08:40 GMT in London. The AA6317 flight to Venice is due to ascend over Heathrow in exactly 5 minutes. In York, winter coats and hats are assembling on Platform 11, waiting for a train to Middlesbrough; if it's on time, it will arrive in exactly 3 minutes. In Los Angeles, the day is only 40 minutes old and yet to many amongst the giddy volatility of downtown bars, it still feels like Saturday night. In Turkey, lunchtime is fast approaching and the wafts of ground beef and cauliflower are simmering on a low light. In Sydney, a harbour glistens under the stars as a new week is about to dawn. Around the world, in every community, many men and women wonder what the time is and seldom ask why it happens to be that time. It's 19:40 in Sydney because it's 08:40 in Greenwich. It's 00:40 in Hollywood, because it's 08:40 in Greenwich. It's 11:40 in Turkey because it's 08:40 in Greenwich.
 
Venture into Greenwich - where the silk of time that webs itself around communities far and wide is first spun - and the first feeling you might have is one of pathos. There is, after all, very little to suggest that each and every clock on the planet is keeping up a steady pace to this hub of time-keeping. I arrived in Greenwich early yesterday morning, as thick low-lying cloud spread its wings over London, dissolving skyscrapers as it roamed the skies. I was due to meet with some friends but I had some Greenwich mean time to spare, so I decided to wander up to the observatory. Like the very best seams in fabric, the first and last mile of the world are stitched imperceptibly together. There is very little glorification here and yet I was only a hundred yards away from one of the most famous and significant clocks in the world.
 
It was, I have to admit, my very ignorance in Horology that led me to believe that this - the very first clock to show Greenwich Mean Time- had stopped. I would not like to imagine the implications of such a clock stopping, so I will happily admit that it took me a while to realize that this, the Shepherd Master Clock, is designed to represent all 24 hours of the day. Back in the mid-1800s, a time signal would be shuttled to Harvard University in Massachusetts by the means of one, transatlantic submarine cable. Clocks at Harvard (and indeed in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin and Belfast) were physically attached to this single time-piece, and the responsibility for time-keeping I can only imagine was one of the most seminal in the land.
 
 
The minute hand had made several sprints around this race-track of time and in what felt (and so often feels) like an instant, the afternoon had arrived. Having successfully rendezvoused with some friends of mine in Greenwich, I had shuttled my way through the great subterranean intestines of the nation's capital to Barnes Bridge, where there another friend patiently waited to pick me up. Our plan, albeit sketched quickly in the eleventh hour, was to enjoy the final hours of daylight in the Chiltern Hills. The Chilterns rise up from the feet of London's suburbs, and in places, enjoy uninterrupted panoramas of the British heartland. One such position, and in fact the very summit of this AONB site, is the monument at Coombe Hill and just before an hour of walking was complete, we happened upon it. 
 
The winds swirl around this monument as easily as one stirs milk into tea. I watched as children struggled with kites, and parents stood ready to take charge, concerned perhaps that with one unannounced whisk, their offspring would be cast across the Cotswolds. Even the monument itself, a memorial to the men who fell in the Boer War, has been damaged several times by the fingers of lightning. But brushing aside these minor, yet in some ways unnerving details, the vista one affords is as spectacular as one might expect from such a position. Close by, the Chequers House and Estate - the 16th century country residence of the Prime Minister - sits in a pool of green. The individual branches that make up hedgerows, with distance, seemingly blend together into globules and close to the horizon, the globules flatten and the land appears pressed into a two-dimensional landscape painting. The cottages that make up what I'm sure are some beautiful villages are simply pellets from above, and then mere specks in the distance. And beyond the horizon, the landscape evolves only through the imagination.
 
Again, I remembered the message:
 
"Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here alone."
 
 


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