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.

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