Sunday, 7 May 2017

Week 31: (1st May to 7th May 2017) or "Staying in Lancaster"

The room seemed clenched inside the fist of paralysis. There was no sign of life. It seemed as if each and every object had been doused in stillness. A black winter coat hung perfectly still from a peg like a scene from the gallows. A stained teaspoon lay lifeless like a shipwreck, submerged under the cold, stagnant residues of last week's brew. Beyond the doors of a wardrobe in an asphyxiating fog of darkness, shelves of clothes waited patiently to be elected for service. On a bookshelf, the works of great minds were entrapped within the fibres of parchment. Even the dust seemed torpid; sound asleep on the back of a placemat, the shoulders of a radio, and the domed roof of a desk lamp. The rippled creases in the bedsheets, that to an spider may appear like a mountainous landscape of gorges and valleys, were as benumbed as the pillows that rested upon them. The energetic sights and sounds of labour and enterprise that had once characterized this room had been plucked away by the claws of lifelessness.

Silence. And then...

The door that had a minute before seemed impregnable, suddenly jolted on its hinges and a great surge of fresh air flooded in, banishing out the stale and stifling week-old equivalent. Clouds of dust erupted into the air like volcanic ash; rippling waves were now cast in the puddle of tea. A switch was flicked and a fireball of light was discharged from the ceiling. And then, the figure who had single-handedly roused a sleeping room, stepped in. He cast a giant traveller's rucksack onto the bed. He unzipped his coat. He gazed around the room and sighed. 

"Home after another journey," he said. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a few random keepsakes; a map of Vienna, a hotel business card, 40 cents and an ID badge for the EGU.

You will, perhaps, have realized that this figure returning home was none other than myself. After an expeditious week in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union, I was pleasantly relieved to be back in the slightly sluggish ambience of my Lancashire flat. Although I seem constantly charged with the thrills of roaming and wandering, it is nice occasionally to stay in one place. As I unpacked, I looked forward to the week ahead; a week entirely spent within the environs of Lancaster and the first of which since the 16th January.

One of the woes of travel, although not so obvious during the travelling, is how stunted the great train of thought can become. I was on my way back from Vienna, planning the outline of a scientific paper I aim to pen this month, and had no less than 14 connections. How one is meant to conjure an unstoppable tide of thought when he or she is usurped from buses, coaches, tubes and trains every twenty minutes, is an art beyond my talents. Time and time again, I would take my seat on a bus and find that I had left my latest musings inside the previous train carriage. If National Rail were to file these lost thoughts with the other items of forgotten property, I suspect that a room the size of the country itself would be required.

But ahead, like I say, was a week of uninterrupted work. The paper I am working on represents the first scratchings of an article that I will eventually (and hopefully) see published. Under the guidance of my supervisors both here in Lancaster, and around the country, I plan for this article to highlight a fresh perspective on an old problem; an exciting and innovative approach to the woes of soil sustainability. I have mentioned my concept of the Soil Productive Lifespan many times now and I unveiled it to an international audience last week at the EGU, (for the video, see last week's post). In short, the Soil Productive Lifespan is the length of time a soil has to fulfil its provisionary services. Without knowing the potential lifespan of soil, we cannot be sure as to how sustainable it really is. Today, as the week edges towards completion once more, I can report good progress on the article. One more week and the first draft should be reasonably sculpted.

On Friday, I rested my pen and spent the day absorbing Science rather than dispelling it. It was the annual Lancaster Environment Centre Postgraduate Conference. Another conference! But, indeed, we must attend these calls to absorb the latest research. We must disseminate our work to others so that we may inspire, educate, discuss and answer unanswered questions. Knowledge is, after all, a sculpture, assembled by a world of intellects, which must be regularly carved and chiseled by the blades of cutting-edge research. This week's conference would be solely for those employed in research at Lancaster University, so it was if nothing else, an intimate affair. That said, I was positively surprised at the number of students, and the volume of work, that the Environment Centre appears to be churning out. I had little idea as to how diverse the research conducted here was! For example, here are a few titles from the oral session, held on Friday morning:
  • 'Developing and Testing the Next Generation Carbon Accounting Tool for Business and Organizations'
  • 'Moths: a marginalized community'
  • 'Long-term monitoring of forest fire degradation and carbon emissions in Brazilian Amazon'
  • 'Complex Processes in Rare Lava Flows'
  • 'Improving the Contribution of Peer-Review'
  • 'Agricultural Soil Formation Rates: The Missing Piece of the Pedological Jigsaw'
That last entry may sound familiar, and indeed it should do. For the third week in a row, I had been invited to talk about my own work on acquiring the first soil production rates on arable soils in the world. Once more, I sounded concerns as to why we only know soil formation rates on uncultivated terrain. Once more, I outlined how I would contribute to this impoverished inventory. Once more, I attempted to disperse the seeds of enthusiasm inside the minds of an audience who don't, I'm willing to bet, eagerly think about soil on a day-to-day basis. Some of those seeds seemed to germinate, for at the conclusion of the conference, I was awarded with a prize for the best first year talk.


Saturday morning was six hours old when I awoke and peered out my curtain. I saw not the promise of unsullied sunshine which had blessed each and every day of the week so far, but a troubled sky bullied by bulbous, threatening clouds. I slumped back on my pillow and cursed, as every Englishman or woman does from time to time, the Great British Weather. I had planned to make a short, but exciting trip to Malham in Yorkshire - my first encounter with its dales - and spend a day climbing rocks and mounting hillsides, and losing myself within the wilderness. Those carefully made plans that had floated on my mind for a week, had now capsized.

But I did travel - significantly travel - on Saturday morning. I found myself on the platform of Norwich Train Station, surveying families who were united once again for the weekend, boarding trains and most likely travelling to the jewels of an unspoilt coastline. Later on, I found myself in the granary of Filby Bridge Restaurant, an establishment I had the good fortune to work at many years ago, and wandering into the kitchen to surprise the kitchen staff. The kitchen was not how I remembered it; the ovens were sitting in front of what used to be the door to the wash-up room. So where was the wash-up room now? I could not smell that candied odour of sweet potato, nor the rich aroma of gravy which so often swam into my lungs on every shift. As I turned left down an alcove, I seemed to be entering not the bar - as it previously led - but a laundry room, of which by dimensions alone, seemed to have nudged the rest of the restaurant into the broads. Later in the day, I took a walk down a street lined with terraced flats and rusty cars. At the end of the road, four or five boys were sitting and chatting on the window frames of their bedrooms, legs hanging over the shrivelled leaves of the shrubs below. I was about to discharge a pleasantry or two, when I found myself walking not through flats, but instead alongside a suburban park...and then a field... and then I awoke, and realized that I had not travelled a single mile at all but had dozed back into slumber. Outside, a melancholic tapestry of clouds still hung over Lancashire.

I decided to make the best of it. I had not the zeal required for a large adventure, but decided to address one of my many 'loose ends'. I had, in 31 weeks (perhaps unforgivingly) neglected a slice of Lancaster; a park that, up until now, I had read and heard so much about but had not explored for myself.

It is easy to drive innocently past Williamson Park, and many do. Those who don't, enter by means of a flight of stone steps that wind under the fringes of a small woodland. A well-groomed path awaits you. It leads you around the trunks of trees that took root in Lancaster long before James Williamson, the park's creator, was born. It takes you up and down gradients that appear unnaturally steep, so that in places, you face not a sea of ferns, but the brutality of the sandstone bedrock. In places, the ground appears to be bleeding; these are the springs that feed the mouths of ponds and the spouts of the fountains below.

I take a seat by the pond to gaze at the ducks which in timeless fashion elegantly grace the ripples, but I find myself taking stock of an altogether more wondrous sight: that of the Great British public. How extraordinarily interesting the relatively simple act of observing people is. How enriching! If ever I were to find myself being granted a year sabbatical, I would set out to travel across the cloak of society which clothes this island, and sit for an hour each day to watch human life. If I wrote about such an experience, it would perhaps be filed under History for the echelons of society are forever evolving. Maybe Biology then. It might best suit the category of Sociology or maybe even Anthropology. But back to the pond...

A fragrance of lavender hovers over a bush to the left of my gaze. Behind it, a young couple are sprawled out upon a pink picnic blanket, embellished in purple spots. The couple's focus is on a cream, wicker picnic basket that, when open, reveals a set of cutlery on the underside of the roof. The gentleman, dressed in his Sunday best a day early, masterfully pours a glass of red wine and hands it to the lady. They nibble on scones, occasionally breaking to unwrap the film that imprisons sausage rolls. Sometimes they orchestrate those quintessentially English tones; that satisfying ring where the knife, having completed its duty, is placed down on the china plate or, even more satisfying, the sounds which follow the stirring of tea. Listen to those three taps of the teaspoon - ring, ring, ring - on the rim of the cup, and one final 'ring' as it is placed on the saucer! How English!

Oh how the elegance is shattered to my right. A little girl is charging at pigeons. Why do children run at pigeons, I wonder? I can only hesitate to guess that a child, whose life is spent following commands, finds a sprig of excitement at the opportunity to be in command; to be the one who decides whether a pigeon may sit in peace or find respite elsewhere. There she goes, charging up and down the promenade. Her mother, oblivious up until now, attempts to tease the girl away from this act of bullying. But wait. Is that a squirrel?

"Gimme ma PHONE... MY PHONE," she calls out to the father. So immobile he was on the bench beside the pond, that I hadn't even noticed him. But being the recipient of this anxious demand to provide his dearest a camera, he leaps into eyeshot. His one and only task of the hour and he fails.

"It's gone, GONE, come on," the mother barks and with that, the family moves on.

Stepping out upon this stage of activity, in the grand theatre that is Williamson Park, a couple stride down the path. They progress in regal fashion as if practicing for the next State Opening of Parliament, but their choice of clothes speaks of an event as far as one can be from Westminster. From the ankles down, when I engage with their walk, it suggests a royal banquet or a formal procession. From the ankles up, a punk rock concert. The man wears a purple velvet jacket, the lady wears a Victorian corset dress, and all of this happens underneath two mops of long black hair.

Ahead of me, a lady in a relatively less striking brown overcoat, is feeding the ducks the crumbs she scooped from the bottom of her bread-bin. Why do people feed ducks? Do they not consider ducks to possess an ability to hunt food on their own? I gaze at the lady for a while. She does not scatter the crumbs in one helping, but scans across the pond like a lighthouse at a duck she considers is worthy of a treat. She feeds it. Then she scans again, pivoting her gaze across the water. 'Which one next?' she muses, scooping a handful of crumbs from the bag. Her decision is made. The crumbs are scattered. How pathetically strategic the task appears.  

Suddenly, a voice to the right: "Gimme camera...quick! Get my phone." Another squirrel sighting. And so it goes on...


At the edge of the Williamson Park, is the Ashton Memorial. It reminds many of the Taj Mahal, as if the warm tropical currents had once transported the spices of India across the continent and lay them down on the beds of the park. It reminds me of St Paul's Cathedral. In any case, it was commissioned by Lord Ashton as a tribute to his wife, Jessie, whose death supposedly devastated him. The folly dominates the Lancashire skyline, and for months I had caught glimpses of it from the belly of the town and from the shoulders of the moorland. From the moors, it is but a speck of dust on the horizon; from its foot, it stands overwhelmingly tall over you. Granite sourced from Cornwall makes up the steps that lead you to the main body; a Portland Stone tower, sitting under a copper helmet, painted in a green patina. The balcony presents a panoramic vista over Lancaster and I would have stared at this much longer, had I not been curious as to why two limousines were parked around the entrance. Leaning up against the front of one, a tall gentleman sporting a chauffeur's cap was also gazing out over the skyline.

"A wedding?" I asked, and almost immediately regretted the question, for two pink ribbons were suspended above the bonnets of both cars.

"Yes, it's a right strange one, this is," the chauffeur replied, in an accent strong enough to tell me that he wasn't far from his hometown. "The, let me show you the groom."

He fished a phone from his jacket pocket and showed me a photo of the husband-to-be. All I could think of is Lord Summerisle from The Wicker Man. He had a long velvet cloak and long black, greasy hair. I suddenly recalled the gothic couple from the duck pond. They were guests to the most beguiling of weddings.

"You must see all sorts in this line of work?" I asked.

"I do this as a hobby... yes, all sorts... but this is the best. Never seen a wedding like it. The reception's at Galgate Village Hall. Strange place. Still, doesn't bother me. It could be McDonalds, I wouldn't mind. I'd go through the Drive Thru."

"Lovely place to get married though," I said, gazing up at the tower.

"Oh yes. I used to go wild here as a kid. I used to go up and down...that was before the restrictions, the 'Health and Safety', you know".

We nodded, because indeed, we both knew. Through the windows, the congregation were rising to their feet.

"I wonder what the first hymn will be," I uttered.

"God knows. Meat Loaf probably," the chauffeur chuckled, ambling back to his car.

I bid him a good day and went on, back down the path and into the park again.

"Surely, the Sex Pistols?" I whispered to myself.

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