Sunday, 26 March 2017

Week 25: (20th March to 26th March 2017) or 'Dating the Past'

Those who are successful in conquering the fortress of time by flying vessels back to the past and reacquainting with the tides of history, have often found themselves sitting on shelves marked Science Fiction or planated into large screens, surveyed by faces stuffed with popcorn. Those who proclaim to be time-travellers are quickly netted up from the streets of reality and pressed into the pulped fibres of books and comics to be sold as a fantasy. Little do those who govern book stores know that time travel is indeed achievable and that a vessel to ship one back to distant times already exists. It's called the 13:41 to Oxford. It looks awfully like a train.

The thrill that one imagines a ride through the time vortex must stir, sadly is never realized. Not only does the machine look like a train, but the excursion back into spent time progresses at a similarly dispiriting speed. One might step aboard and prepare to be hurled through the carriage, upon the great regurgitated projectiles of gravity, but such a flurry of commotion never transpires. When I took a trip on the machine last week, my fellow time-travellers seemed in no way elated by the journey; indeed, many were slipping in and out of a doze. Perhaps they were dreaming of the places, dates and events they wished to travel to. Perhaps they were on the way to rekindle a friendship or repair a dropped stitch in the tapestry of their marriage. But, alas, history is upholstered with impregnable strength and as much as one may desire to re-fashion events, we travel back in time only as shadows.

Alight from the time machine, and at first you curse yourself for forgetting to select a year of the past. You are in Oxford but newspapers still flash colour and crowds still roam the platforms with their gaze glued to glassy gizmos. But persevere with these mere echoes of the future, and proceed out of the station. A short stroll across the concourse and there you find that cul-de-sac of English history; the road to the beating heart of a forgotten heritage. Shavings of the 11th century furnish the thick ragstone walls, and the mind - medicated into dream-state by gothic spires - turns to imagine the depths of Oxford's lierne vaults that lie below the streets. Baroque porches and timber-frames decorate facades and Georgian terraces wrap themselves around the Bath stone. Ivy is maypole dancing around the cast iron balconies. Wander on further, along tree-lined avenues and under the gables of tall villas, and eventually emerge out the other side as if abseiling back towards the future; there spacious gardens await you in one of England's finest Victorian suburbs. You pull hard on the rope that is still knotted to the battlemented walls of medieval Oxford and climb back into a bubble of deep history.

Be warned! The pursuit through the great spindle of Saxon lanes that wrap around the cloisters of Oxford's past is likely to draw attention. I had the distinct feeling that a college proctor had tunnelled through the dust towards a small window in the attic of one of the towers and was eyeballing me, occasionally shaking his head in disapproval. I imagine him seeing me clutching my crumpled paper map and wondering how I managed to get so far without someone informing me that only neatly laminated maps adorned with Royal gold lace were allowed by Oxford's pedestrian traffic. How he must have exclaimed "By Jove" out loud when I boarded a public bus to travel to my budget hotel! How could one not afford to travel in a private chariot?  How could one survive without the cock-a-hoop formality of a luxury hotel? If only he really knew 'what a hoot' a Travelodge can sometimes turn out to be...

A trip to Oxford is to attend a date with the past. You walk through Oxford and become embraced by the comforting arms of antiquity. You pat the Portland stone facades of buildings with affection. Perhaps you stand and stare romantically towards handsome inns and bell towers. You want to buy a drink for the great founders of these icons: William Waynflete, Duke Humphrey, Christopher Wren, Charles Robert Cockerell. In many of the colleges, musicians robed and gowned are rehearsing for the night ahead and you believe that if you peer through the glass, Handel and Haydn are there too, each of them inking the final corrections onto their manuscripts.

Dating the past in Oxford.


In many ways, I had travelled to Oxford specifically to 'date the past' this week. For a few days, I would attend the NERC Radiocarbon Workshop, and join a corpus of archaeologists and environmental scientists, each working on separate ideas but linked by a common interest: being able to put a date to an artefact using Radiocarbon Dating. Let me explain.

You would have thought that the cosmos, infinitely large as it may be, would be the last place to experience a collision. But trillions of collisions are occurring in Space, notably between Nitrogen atoms and cosmic rays. The result is the production of radioactive carbon which then gets absorbed into plants on the Earth's surface. Last night, you (hopefully) had at least one vegetable and so in consuming that celery, that Kale, that lettuce you too transferred the radioactive carbon into your own body. When humans die (and please permit this brief encounter with morbidity), we stop eating vegetables, and the radioactive carbon that we have already absorbed starts to decay. It decays at a slow and steady rate. Because we know that rate (the half-life is 5730 ± 40 years) it is possible, through measuring the radioactive carbon still left in the human, to say how much time has passed since they died. This can be achieved with anything that once lived. However, beyond 50,000 years, the radioactive carbon left in a sample is so minute that measuring it becomes a haphazard business.

Archaeologists may appear slightly amateur with their shovels and toothbrushes, but delve into their work deeper and you will be amazed at the precision by which they are able to date the once-living artefacts they find. A small brush in the field turns into a large, and multi-faceted complex of machines and laboratories. Samples of bone, paper, seeds and tree are often contaminated, so have to undergo thorough cleaning. The cleaning is often completed using strong acids and alkali, often resulting in a loss of the carbon itself. With cleaning out of the way, the carbon is often converted to Carbon Dioxide, then into graphite, which is then compressed into a capsule as I have photographed below.

The hole at the top of this aluminium tube is little more than a millimetre wide but the process from here invests in scales that makes a millimetre seem Herculean in size. The procedure now is to take these tubes of graphite for a walk across the Oxford cobbles and into the AMS (Accelerated Mass Spectrometry) laboratory. In a room no larger than perhaps a small hotel lobby sits a complicated sprawl of wires, pipes, tubing and buttons. You stand, at first, in amazement that such a ridiculously small sample of graphite requires a machine so major in size and complexity. You try and follow just one pipe on a journey from one end of the machine to the other; it coils around the laboratory like a metallic snake and you lose it in the jumble of unfathomable convolution. You wonder what might happen if 'this' button was pressed, or 'this' knob was turned, or 'this' wire was cut. The technician simply walks past as if the machine is as ordinary as the public phone box or the cement mixer.

I have tried, and failed, to write about how the graphite is plugged in at one end and the process by which a radiocarbon date is acquired at the very end. It is a recipe involving some very technical ingredients (ions, molecules, electrons and isotopes) and each ingredient would warrant a separate volume of additional information. So allow me to reassure you that by some miracle that the technicians call 'straightforward science', a radiocarbon date is churned out eventually.

Back across the road, in the laboratory where samples are cleaned, are five people. All of them bar one wear white coats and safety googles. All of them bar one are busy with their potions; stirring, mixing, decanting, filtering. All of them bar one are whirring with the excitement that I imagine stems from working in an Oxford laboratory. All of them bar one. You are told that this 'one' sits in a corner, and will refuse to speak to you. You are told that he doesn't even move, and yet he is oldest in the room. So why, you ask, doesn't he take charge and offer mouthfuls of wisdom and experience, as the old so often relish the chance to do? You ask to be taken to him and then you learn why. He sits, almost 3000 year old, in a cardboard box on a laboratory work bench.

If ever a seminal case of mistaken identity is needed, walk into the Department of Earth Sciences and ask about the skull. A brown tag stapled to the box reveals the words: Norfolk Constabulary. The skull alone was enough to grasp my attention, but a wave of overwhelming curiosity suddenly emerged when I read those very familiar words. The narrative goes that in the 1970s, a headless body - the remains of a brutal murder, although most murders are brutal - was found in Lowestoft. Years passed until a head was found; a skull unearthed by the dutiful ploughing of a nearby field. The police sent the skull to the Oxford Radiocarbon Laboratory, to check that the life which had once bustled inside the skull, had terminated in 1970. A month or two later, the Norfolk Constabulary received a telephone call from a laboratory in Oxford. The person had not died in 1970, but 900BC. The skull, now "eliminated from their enquiries", has resided in the laboratory ever since.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Week 24: (13th March to 19th March 2017) or 'Springing into Action'

I miss the moorlands; those impregnable domes of earth, clothed in rugs of moss and fern, scaling the skies, poking the clouds and dislocating the rays of a low afternoon Sun. I miss liberating my conscience around the lacy labyrinths of its tracks; those mercurial circuits that coil around boulders and lace around forests, seemingly floating as if buoyant upon giant waves of rock. I miss the undaunting prospect of slipping out of reality and gracefully gliding through the gates of Eternity, to set free the burdens of life and to inflate the soul with the sweet air of solitude. I miss it.

Great skies of misery have impounded my weekend travels recently; only the most eccentrically keen cyclist would have risen to the challenge of battling the storms that have so savagely pummeled the crests of the fells. But fear not, as tunnelling a passageway through the soil, furnishing our beds and borders with elegance and vitality is a floral promise. A promise of longer days, and lighter evenings; a promise to banish the clouds and cast off the rain, a promise that Spring is on the way. This promise, once dormant under thick clods of earth, now stands tall and dainty; a yellow delicacy swaying to the music of Springtime.

My own PhD project has likewise sprung into action. For weeks, the toils of contacting land owners, explaining my research and acquiring their consent to permit me access has been a burdensome task. Perhaps I, conscious that most of life is now plastered over the virtual galleries of the interweb, overestimated the ease to which I would acquire the details of my field sites. Alas, as I have written elsewhere, the task has become more onerous considering the fact that I am limited to selecting sites where soil erosion has already been studied. Many eclipses have taken place since those studies, though, and some of my planned sites it transpires have been subsequently converted to pasture.

But recently, fate has looked encouragingly towards me, and has - if fate holds such powers - granted me a reprieve from the backbreaking work. I have confirmed 4/6 of my sites and am only a hand auger (or two) away from acquiring permission from the other two. For the purposes of site confidentiality, I shall not be naming these sites on this medium just yet. But I can detail the following. There are:

- 3 arable sites: one sandy, one silty and one clayey- in Nottinghamshire, Somerset and Monmouthshire, respectively.
- 3 woodland sites: one sandy, one silty and one clayey- in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, respectively.

A pastel blue sky floated over Nottinghamshire on Wednesday. The robins were in operatic celebration. The balls of dark grey cotton wool, aerially suspended over much of the country the previous day, had migrated east, allowing the sun to paint a range of shadows over the luscious green canvas of private lawns. Blackbirds were breakfasting in the furrows, whilst hares were gaily dancing with the same frolic attitude that one associates with March hares.

A colleague and supervisor of mine, Dr Andy Tye (from the British Geological Survey) had offered to assist me on a mission to visit my first field site, north of Nottingham for preliminary sampling. This would represent, by and large, my sandy arable site. The farm itself has been established for centuries, and one of the current owners remembers a visit made by the 'then' Dr Tim Quine, who conducted an assessment in the 1990s on the magnitude of soil erosion occurring at the site. It was, incidentally, one of the most eroded sites on Dr Quine's national survey, though it seems the farm has adopted new agricultural practices since that study. For example, crop residues are now preserved and carpet the harvested fields, rather than being bagged and sold as garden compost. Ploughing now takes place across the field, rather than along the slope, which has become an established technique in recent times. It was supremely encouraging, and to some extent moving, to sit and hear about these improvements.

Later on, after refuelling the mind with coffee and ploughing through some fascinating aerial negatives of the farm, I took a trip out to the field. Four days had elapsed, so I'm led to believe, since rainfall had blessed the land, and yet the soil was still damp to the touch. Auguring the first 20cm of topsoil revealed a mound of black, organically-rich earth; the residues, it seemed to me, were successfully clinging on to Saturday's droplets. A further 1.80m of soil was removed and then nothing but weathered sandstone. In the trade, this weathered rock is commonly referred to as 'saprolite'. By no means is it soil - it can be removed and transported in a stable block - but its structure is not invincible, and with a little pressure applied, one can break it into two, much like a chocolate bar. In the summertime, when the majority of my work will be carried out, the saprolite will be collected in greater quantities; it is this, after all, that is used to obtain the Soil Production Rate.

The site looks suitable and thus I now proceed to conduct similar preliminary surveys at my five other sites, throughout the month.

Sidestepping away from my usual dialogue of travelling perils and moorland retreats (and as I've suggested above, I have no such tale to narrate at present) I thought I would conclude with a message from one of my co-supervisors at Lancaster University. Dr Jess Davies has wrote an article for Nature Comment advocating the need for businesses to consider soils 'in the boardroom'. You can read the article by clicking here or here what Jess has to say on the video below.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Week 23: (6th March to 12th March 2017) or 'STATS by STARS'

If one spends a minute to consider the most illustrious and notable roads that are stitched into the fabric of this great country, you may conclude that what makes them so eminent can seldom be traced back to the liquefied materials that gyrate in the drums of cement mixers. When the odious viscous mixture is swirling around under the watchful eye of an engineer, there is very little hint that what is about to be pasted on the ground will reach the pages of city guidebooks, and construction degrees. Only the ideas which revolve in the mind of the architect can predict that. And even then, it's only ever a prediction.

Some rather brave ideas have been cemented into notable roads, in recent times. Oxford Street is a spine to the country's most celebrated department stores whilst Swindon's Magic Roundabout (of roundabouts) whisks a hellish dose of confusion into millions of daily commutes. Of course, within this inventory, sit the jumbled strands of knitting yarn, often called Spaghetti Junction, which are draped in knots across the suburbs of Birmingham. Then there are roads which seem to feast on the merits of anonymity. They are the obscure, forgotten passages spun like spiders across the landscape; hems to the fields, tunnels through the forests, meandering laces of mystery. They are the oldest of passage-ways, beaten by hooves, pressed by carts, flattened by tractors, nosed by dogs, and showered by centuries of weather. I prefer these lanes, and on such a lane I journeyed this week.

Aside from the occasional village signpost or community hall noticeboard, there was little in the way of evidence to suggest I was motoring through the Buckinghamshire countryside. Washed by the rain the night before, flat open fields were draped over the land as if they had just been ironed. A cluster of thatched roofs sat on the shoulders of farmyard cottages, and scaling the bricks were the usual floral mountaineers of Ivy and Virginia Creeper. Shelters gathered on grassy patches alongside the edge of roads waiting for buses. Crows sat on the telegraph lines, eavesdropping on village gossip. Travel along this same stretch of concrete and you will, as I did, skirt the border of Bedfordshire. You will, by following the road, attempt many times to enter the county, only to find yourself rejected and catapulted back into Buckinghamshire. And so the road concedes defeat and resigns to following the border around, and you have no choice but to join it on this peripheral journey. But with patience and optimism, you will eventually happen upon another road; an overall more perseverant route that some time ago punctured successfully through the Bedfordshire border and now leaves the gateway open for vehicular access. It is this road that I travelled upon, and it's this road that led me to Cranfield.

The story of Cranfield is a narrative that stretches across multiple volumes. Few universities hold diaries as interesting as those written by the chroniclers of this forgotten institution. I can only suggest that those interested in the intricate details consult the leaves of Bedfordshire's history books. In short, Cranfield University sits on an old RAF air base and the skeletons of those war-time years still reside to a certain extent. The Vincent Building sits under a disused airport hanger, whilst further across the campus, another hanger and runway are still in operation. If you take up the opportunity to go on a tour, you will inevitably happen upon a room collecting engines.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, the base was closed and the College of Aeronautics was set up as one of the UK's centres for the development of many aspects of aircraft research. In the convoluted way events tend to turn, Cranfield eventually adopted the responsibility of agricultural engineering too, which paved part of the way for it becoming an Institute of Technology. Shortly after that, the School of Management hopped aboard this wagon and what had been a technological institute now morphed into a University. And I should make this point here: a University exclusively for the minds of Postgraduate Students.

"There are many still around that miss the days we were an Institute of Technology", my tour guide pondered, gazing just over my shoulder at a British Airways plane parked on the runway. "We've only got Masters students here; it doesn't have the usual feel of the hundreds and thousands of 'undergrads' floating has more of an institute feel about it."

Perhaps that is why I like it.

I have to make a confession. When I first learnt of Cranfield's existence, and journeyed there a few years ago, I left learning very little about its role in the war. That perhaps was the fault of my tour guide at the time, but I do remember the space devoted to agricultural science. I was reminded of the ornate and grandiose greenhouses which hold, I'm told, most of the state-of-the-art sensors in plant observation. The technology held behind the glass can simulate rainfall, scan roots underground, and conduct large-scale investigations into the ways plants and soil interact.

As enticing it may be to explore the innovative wonders germinating from these greenhouses, and indeed the remainder of the UK's largest university campus, my four-day visit this week had a very different agenda. I was actually here to attend another training course, administered by the STARS programme, and convened by two statisticians. The course, in very simplistic terms (although simplicity didn't have much of a role to play) was aimed at outlining the role of statistics in soil science, (re)introducing some basic statistical concepts, and to introduce the R platform. I will come to R in a moment.

The correct employment of statistics within the realms of Soil Science is not something that many can boast, according to Richard Webster; another statistician within the discipline. "Much soil research needs statistics to support and confirm impressions and interpretations of investigations in field and laboratory," he writes in a paper published in 2001. "Many soil scientists have not been trained in statistical method and as a result apply quite elementary techniques out of context and without understanding." Reading that (and the rest of his scratchings on the topic) and one cannot fail to realize why the STARS programme felt that a statistics course was required.

I have thought very long and hard about how much to write about the course. I could type away in gay abandon and deliver an exhaustive (and exhausting) transcript, detailing the byzantine procedures we exercised in complex data analyses. I could rattle on for days about the mathematical formulae we cautiously applied to build our statistical models. I could guide you through the inscrutable code we used to produce various graphs and charts. But I could not put my readership through such unfathomable bewilderment and thus I will simply describe three of the most interesting sessions.


Beyond the panes of glass that separate a Cranfield computer room from the rest of the world, sits a great expanse of grass like a doormat for a giant. It's effectively a lawn, but on Tuesday it was a field. The task was simple. We wanted to know the average water content of this field. With a bursting anxiety to retreat into fresh air, and to reacquaint the hands with the soil, a soil scientist might leap out of his or her chair, grab a soil moisture probe and start stabbing the field to collect results. After many hours at a computer screen, such practice is tempting, but not statistically valid. One must sample randomly. One must sample methodically. When I was young, and considering similar experiments at school, we often used random number tables to select randomized co-ordinates upon which we would use to sample. Recent computational developments have made such tables redundant; random co-ordinates can now be produced at a touch of a button in a computer programme called R. (A touch of a button actually turns into quite a few buttons and a string of complex code). Those who persevere with R will eventually obtain random co-ordinates, which can then be plotted onto a map. In my case, we used R to churn out a set of 15 random points.

A revolving door whirls at the front of the Vincent Building, and it is in this orbiting mechanism that a statistician turns back into a pedologist. Emerging out onto the field of grass, my colleague and I proceeded to measure the moisture content of the surface inch of soil. In my hand was a GPS device, which sent us trooping to each of our 15 randomly selected points. In my colleague's hand was a soil Theta probe which measures soil moisture.

Equipped with fifteen measurements, we processed ourselves back through the revolving doors, turning back into statisticians and ready to analyse our findings. We were to learn much more about our 'field'. We were to learn that the average water content was 47.6%; that the minimum content was 39.5% and the maximum was 54.4% and that the water content this year was on average 12% higher than that measured last year by the first cohort of STARS.

The R package is useful, not only in outputting a set of random co-ordinates, but in suggesting the quickest route between sampling points. To some extent, the doctrine that 'time is money' is true even in soil science, and it is thus sensible to develop an efficient sampling plan. This includes aspects such as the journey one executes to yield the required data. In some experiments, this 'travelling salesman' tool is not needed, especially if you're sampling in a straight line. But in the case of a randomly selected range of co-ordinates, which might be scattered over a map, it can be useful to have a pre-defined route. The map of points in the bottom right of the figure below to some extent demonstrates what I mean.

As the week grew older, and as we skated through various statistical methods, I was beginning to feel rather giddy, as if I had become intoxicated by a cocktail of mathematics. Even the convenors, I think, realized that the four days had been very intensive. On the final day, I noted one apologizing for the "deluge of geostatistical jargon". Later on, one particular statistical test was described as a "palaver". I am not ashamed (nor do I believe I am the only PhD student) to have departed feeling like I had left the straight furrows of Soil Science to emerge into a baffling mathematical wilderness. But journey into this world we must, for the very validity of our investigations is hinged upon the use of rigorous statistical methods. And as taxing as it is to titivate over the maths, we must persevere.

There is, however, a point that is worth mentioning, and it stems from a paragraph about 'regression' written by Richard Webster again, in the same article that I cited a little earlier. And it set me thinking. It follows:

"I described regression, guided authors on its correct application, and warned of its improper use in a previous article. Yet misunderstanding and abuse continue, and I do not know what more I can do to educate authors on the subject. Papers in which regression has been applied thoughtlessly continue to pour into my office, and it is no exaggeration to say that in most the regression is inadequately explained, inappropriate, unnecessary, or just plain wrong." (Richard Webster, 2001).

So, if Webster and his colleagues have reached the point at which they know of no solution to educate the authors, why do authors continue to misunderstand? Could it be that the mathematical "jargon" (as it was described this week by a statistician) clouds their comprehension? Could it be that computer software like R has reduced scientists to pure 'mouse-clickers'? Like Webster himself, I am unsure.

But perhaps being unsure is the desirable instinct when doing statistics. After all, as George Canning once said, "I can prove anything by statistics except the truth".


Sunday, 5 March 2017

Week 22: (27th February to 5th March 2017) or 'Food (Security) for Thought'

If there's one point I omitted from my report on Brazil, it's the fact that there was not a tea-bag to be found. To infuse a tea-bag in England is purely a matter of a well-rehearsed procedure. But when one's abroad, to infuse a tea-bag is to infuse a memory. Each sip can take you back to England, to the green and pleasant land, to country lanes and village churches, to a field of luscious grass and munching cows, to a comforting feeling of home...

And so, by co-incidence, a week to compensate for this lack of tea awaited. One of the untold truths about academic conferences is the frequency of opportunities one has to 'refill the cup' and therefore it is no surprise, especially to those in the business, that one of the first activities in this week's envEXPO conference was to have a cup of tea.

The envEXPO conference, based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, was advertised as a "three day showcase of environmental innovation, enterprise and research; informing the environmental science research agenda by highlighting the environmental challenges facing businesses, industries and policy makers. A number of contemporary big societal questions will be considered in interactive discussion sessions, informed by industry and policy challenges. There will be a range of high-profile keynote speakers, opportunities for lively debate and discussions, workshops, exhibitions as well as ample opportunities for networking." I found all this to be true, and as I stated above, there were also ample opportunities for drinking tea.

Whilst the hot water canisters were being refilled, and wicker baskets of biscuits were being replenished, we enjoyed the wisdom of several key-note speakers, or as one lady put it, talks from "big cheeses". One such speech was delivered by Terri Freemantle, a Senior Earth Observations Specialist for Satellite Applications Catapult. This, I'm led to believe, is a new type of independent innovation and technology company, created to foster growth across the economy through the exploitation of space. But Terri is far from an astronaut. The idea is to (virtually) jump on existing satellites which ride through space, eyeballing the Earth, and download the data they collect to explore how the planet is physically changing. The key areas that Terri's company expresses primary interest include the sustainable use of global water resources and sustainable global development. At the conclusion of her talk, Terri clicked a button and demonstrated through a short video why 'clicking buttons' will soon be sown into the fabric of history.

I was no less than alarmed at this prophetic video - a future built on automation and robotics - that I enjoyed (perhaps more than usual) the very manual, slow and sloppy process of making another cup of tea. No doubt one day, I will be attending these academic conferences with my own customized robot who will march off and bring me back a drink. Indeed, one day I will probably attend these events from the comfort of my own home and the wizardry of virtual technology.

David Askew brought us back to reality. David is the director of Natural England's evidence service and a leader in Defra's Earth Observation Centre of Excellence. His talk provided us with a brief overview of the current approaches taken to improve conservation in England, such as the 'Conservation 21' programme that seeks to create resilient landscapes by putting people in the heart of the environment. This point is particularly apt, given that people feel less connected with nature now than ever before. The big question that David helped to tease out is 'what does a healthy ecosystem look like?' and given the melange of functions provided by our natural environment, it was a difficult question to answer.

Major environmental challenges were left to be tackled after lunch, when brains were refuelled with the assets of a buffet. The corpus of scholars, including myself, divided and filed into seminar rooms where topics were sown and discussions were germinated. In my room sat a myriad of ecologists, agro-scientists and soil scientists, each equipped with disciplinary perspectives on the issue of Food Security. Whiteboards were marked with ideas and solutions; A3 paper carpeted the floor. Innovative aims began to emerge. Perhaps food needs should be separated from food wants? Perhaps we should focus on genetically diversifying our crops? Perhaps we should use these crops to improve the soil? Perhaps we should grow more of our own food rather than exporting it? Perhaps we should make more use of our food waste? Perhaps we should have another cup of tea and think about it?


He had forgotten the date.
"March 1st", I uttered as a reminder. "New month!"
"New problems", the taxi driver sighed releasing the lock on the doors.
I paused to briefly contemplate the cynicism and alighted. Somewhere in between his jacket and seatbelt was a heavy weight pressing down upon his shoulders.
"New solutions," I whispered, raising my hat and bidding him good day, although somehow I doubted he often enjoys them.  "New solutions..."

Unearthing the solutions behind problems, particularly with innovative thinking, was a theme and a strategy that journeyed with me to Sweden. There I was to unite once again with the TruLife network to continue discussing the issues of Food Security, within the urban environment. As I quote from the network's website:

"Facing the challenge of increasing urbanisation, strategies for future city development are not considering the long urban past. Archaeologists of ancient cities recognise that long-term urban processes can teach us about diverse human-environment interactions. Thus, TruLife’s core research question is: Can studying the diversity of long-term urban traditions, exemplified by pre-Columbian Maya tropical cities, effectively inform designing for sustainable urban futures?"

I attended the first TruLife workshop last summer, in Canterbury. There I formed, for the first time, a component of a network of researchers, incorporating both environmental and social sciences. That first meeting was devoted to the topic of urban waste management, of which has become a rising debate within the wings of Soil Science. But the issue of Food Security overshadows, and in some cases, overwhelms the scholarly mind. It is often when discussing such matters with non-pedologists that interesting solutions greet potential solutions.

In the basement of Gothenburg University's Arts and Humanities department- the Humanisten, as it is effectively named - the TruLife membership took their seats. Along one side of the room, a table was crowded in refreshments. As I explained in this week's opening, very few workshops exist in the absence of caffeine. I took charge of one canister, decanted what I thought was tea (but in the event turned out to be coffee) and occupied a vacant spot. The first Keynote Talk would be from Cary Cruz, from the Local Sustainable Programme in Havana.

The speech began, in Spanish. And it continued for an hour in that language. In my naivety, I often glanced across the room to see how many members were similarly perplexed. Blank expressions were painted on faces. Why was there no translator? When the talk concluded with a 'Gracias', I half expected a member to beckon a translation, but instead a thorough and interconnected question and answer session followed. One by one, each TruLife member rattled out an impressive paragraph of Spanish and there I sat in sustained bewilderment. I soon realized I had made a grave mistake with the choice of refreshment. The sachets positioned next to the coffee were not sugar after all, but a miniature and readily dissolvable Spanish dictionary. All but one member had treated themselves to one of these sachets. All but I.

The rest of the afternoon was, at least for me, much more accessible. Nicholas Dunning gave a fascinating presentation into Pre-Columbian Maya Farming practices, which are if anything an inspiration for the future. Nicholas stems from the field of archaeology and teaches in the University of Cincinnati. The Maya planned their cities with sustainability at the heart of the designs from the outset; the soil was particularly central to their way of life and they contributed towards it greatly. 

A busy first day that had started with a taxi ride in Norwich, concluded with a taxi ride in Gothenburg. Broken English was exchanged on the way.

"New month", I stated again, this time to a driver who seemed much more energized with positivity.
"Here in Sweden, we look forward to March", he replied. "More sunshine and light, and people feel happy".

I decided that the month had started well.


A new day arrives in Gothenburg. Cyclists don helmets and cruise in their respective lanes, whilst pedestrians linger on traffic islands waiting for the tram. Streets stretch wide like gaping mouths. Bricked apartments rise out of the hubbub, with the ground level devoted to the shops. Candy stores, now somewhat antiquated in much of England, sweeten many districts in Gothenburg. Wander into them and one becomes instantly engaged in a perusal down the multi-coloured rows. Only the most disciplined can depart without 'picking and mixing'.

If there is a curiosity that beguiles the mind more than anything in this country, it is the Swedish language. Never have I seen letters neighbour each other so peculiarly. Needless to say, translating Swedish into English by considering word origin is an unsurmountable task. For example:

"Smakas kottbullar med potatismos, rarorda lingon och inlagd gurka" is translated as: "Smakas meatballs, with mashed potatoes and lingonberries"

"Skinnstekt Skreitorsk med smorstekt svartrot, kroppkaka med rokt torsk samt brynt citronsmor" actually turns out to be tasty. In England, the dish would be called: "Pan seared Skrei cod with butter fried salsify, potato dumpling with smoked cod and browned lemon butter".

The workshop continued for a couple more days. Discussions about the 'afterlife' of the TruLife network finalized the three day event. One idea is to encapsulate some of the dialogue into a series of published articles, of which one (about Mayan-developed soils) I am ring-leading. Another idea is to hold an urban design competition, where architects and city planners are invited to share their sustainable city solutions, which will be potentially displayed in an exhibition next year. I, for one, am proud of the work we have achieved together thus far. Although the network has a primary focus on the urban lifestyles of the Ancient Maya, the bridges between archaeology, urban design and soil science have become truly established. The moats of each discipline still split these three fields of study, but at least I now feel more acquainted and welcomed into these 'foreign' districts.


At the airport in Sweden, I passed through border control and seemingly joined a queue with non-European passports.

"Excuse me, Sir", a voice murmured behind me. "You have a European Union passport; please join the queue over there". The official waved his hand in the general direction of a line of British tourists.

"You're still part of the EU", he reminded me again, as I slowly maneuvered myself to the correct line. I turned round and uttered the obvious.

"For now", I said.