Sunday, 14 May 2017

Week 32: (8th May to 14th May 2017) or "A Pedological Pilgrimage"

Does the street cleaner ever wonder what he'd see if he could brush away the concrete? Does the toddler who plays in the park ever long to extend their hands through the grass? Do the train conductors ever ponder what subterranean worlds they are awaking as they roam over the land? Do you ever question what prevents you from falling into a bath of liquid iron in the engine room of our planet? Every now and again, a person becomes enthused about such matters and, if the zeal persists, he or she becomes a soil scientist. Lancaster University welcomed eleven of them, this week.

What distinguishes the soil scientist from a flick of hares or a company of moles is the incessant thirst to understand the soil; to decode the messages it subtly imparts through colour, texture, structure and smell. Whilst the cogs of innovation slowly gyrate the pedologist away from the spade and the trowel to prepare for a world where fingers need not become muddy - a world where researchers need not leave the office at all - those who recall the yesteryears may well wonder whether the classic techniques will soon be heading six foot under to rest in peace with the subject's founders. The great burial of classic Pedology?

Fortunately, those concerns need not vex the anxious soil scientist; classic Pedology is alive and relatively healthy! The 'ST' that prefixes the STARS programme ('Soil Training') was set up with the aim to equip the next generation of soil scientists with a toolkit of foundational skills. For many STARS students, this means digging deeper than their research interests would naturally suggest; for others, it means a chance to step back from the microscope slide and reflect upon the soil in fresh, exciting scales. This week marked one such opportunity for those who join me in the second cohort of the STARS programme; our 'Introduction and Foundation to Soil Science' which, albeit 32 weeks in, acted as a wonderful refresher.

"To the uninitiated, there is often reluctance to begin and a degree of hesitation and uncertainty that only experience will remove. Every soil can tell a story of its past and present; there is no mystique and with patient observation a great deal can be learnt." (Tom Batey, 1988).

Recently whilst at a conference, I realized one of the most fundamental components of a buffet luncheon: the labels. Without these essential tags that hang on miniature flagpoles and impale pies, pasties and sandwiches, it is an arduous challenge to know whether the item will tantalize the taste-buds or compel you to scout out an emergency glass of water. In the event where no such label exists, you may be forgiven for cutting out a slice and peering in at the side to make rudimentary guesses as to the fillings. Step out onto a grassland field and question what lies beneath this green and hairy carpet, the pedologist is seldom blessed with labels affixed to cocktail sticks. Thus, in similar fashion to exposing the fillings of a short crust pie, one must remove a slice of the soil to uncover the secret fillings of the earth. 

Depending on how excited you are in identifying these earthy fillings, the process of digging a soil pit can either be burdensome labour or a zesty pursuit of truth! I imagine each of the STARS students vary with regards to their appetite for digging, but after an hour 'in the field', three soil profile walls were exposed under towering heaps of clayey and silty spoil. The 'field', in this instance, was an open grassland at the fringes of Myerscough college in southern Lancashire; a site that soil scientists at Lancaster University have been using for some considerable time. The grassy blanket that overlies these soils is supreme at veiling the secrets of the world below; all three soils pits exposed the most surprising of artefactual oddities. One uncovered a piece of plastic tarpaulin, the second a buried pipe, the third a buried tree stump. It led us all to the conclusion that at some point in Myerscough's ancient history, this area had experienced many episodes of flooding, saturating the ground to form an organic horizon of peaty soil.  


The remaining three days of the course were set within the operatic valleys and theatrical hillsides of north-west Wales. But to spend a few days roaming around on the doormat of Wales is no substitute to seeing Wales. To do this, one must cordon off a month to allow the spirit of Wales to diffuse through the soul. To understand Wales is to sleep upon a mattress of mountain heather, to ride upon the back of a Welsh lullaby, to awaken rare emotions as you ascend over the shoulders of mountainous terrain which, like a duvet, cloaks a sleeping monster. There are some countries in which an hour's stroll can dutifully unlock its secret treasures. Wales will never be one of those countries. I admit, therefore, that the following account is a sketchy, under-representation of a country that warrants a month of exploration before the first sentence can be accurately scribed.

To exist in Wales is to exist at the cuff of reality. Those who have always lived in the country remain partially unconscious to the mysteries and wonders that it presents. They must be, for if such beauteous sublimity presented itself in the conscious minds of the inhabitants, I am sure that such utopia would drive them out. After all, how can mankind, conscious of all things, genuinely consider to be deserving of such a heavenly life in such an unmarred landscape? No, they must not realize the full extent of the divinity that comprises the very heart of Wales. To those who, like myself, enter Wales for a day, a week, perhaps a month, it is accepted that much of the experience will feel like a dream and it is a dream. 

Breathe in Bangor and breathe in the aromas of paradise. Gaze up from the seaweed that nestles upon the bed of the harbour, and allow the great tide of the mountainous landscape to flood into your mind. A century or two of Bangorian afternoons have witnessed fishermen, with salty beards, paddling into this harbour after a morning out at sea. These fishermen must be blessed with the finest views for here, one can gaze at rugged hills all the way to Snowdon. Had the fishermen been sailing in to Bangor last Wednesday, they might have caught a glimpse of a small black speck - a large cow - making its way up the hillsides of Henfaes. Only those equipped with a pair of binoculars could have identified the species of this cow as a Land Rover. 

If you ever get the chance to sit in the front seat of a Land Rover, decline the offer immediately. Instead, take a seat on a small bench in the very rear of the vehicle. At first, it feels like such a space cannot possibly accommodate a dog, let alone a person but it can be done. Close the rear door, and it's like riding inside a runaway cave. But a vista is knocking at the door; you feel obliged to open it. You have to open it; it would be rude not to. Thus, the door is opened and the landscape floods in. As the Land Rover crawled up to the very ridge of Henfaes - Bangor University's farmland - I witnessed how the land bows down like a servant to kiss the feet of the sea. 

The task for the next few days would be to document the changes in the soils down what's commonly described in the trade as a catena sequence. In Latin, the word 'catena' means 'chain' and one only needs to wander down from the shoulders of a hillslope to its toes to observe the many linkages in the pedospheric system. What happens in and above the soils at the summit very often influences the neighbouring soil systems on the flanks of the hills and down at the feet. Thus we stopped off at regular intervals down the hillslope; each time, digging the soil, probing the soil, even smelling the soil. Readings were scribbled into notebooks; samples were sealed into bags. We accounted for all the 'services' that the soils are accountable for. And then, like a herd of scholarly sheep, we moved on to fresh pasture. There we paused, withdrew our equipment, engaged once again with the soils, before steadily moving on again. From a distance, it must have appeared like a pilgrimage, and in many ways it was. A great pedological pilgrimage. 

At the base of Henfaes University Farm is another Welsh secret. Behind the stable doors, you might expect to find a pony or two, rolling around in a bed of hay, or perhaps a herd of cows dreaming of life on the hills. But you don't. Instead, you find some of the most sophisticated laboratory equipment. Here we would spend an afternoon, studying the intricacies of our soils; their chemical and physical make up. Carefully measured grams of earth were added to colourful potions, some of which could quantify the concentration of vital nutrients such as Phosphate and Nitrate; some soils were burnt in furnaces to quantify the contents of organic Carbon; some grains were submerged in acid to test for Carbonates. And all of this happened in a building I expect, once upon a time, was home to the local pasture.

Evening. The phantoms of dusk and mystery convene in the skies above Wales, before descending to cast a spell of twilight over the country. Valleys become baths of fog. Life of all kind is submerged until the promise of a morning is realized. Even the spire of Snowdon is cloaked under this relentless tide.

A few companions and I huddled around a fire in the living room of a small, Victorian cottage clinging to the wall of a valley. The fire roared as if the blaze was fighting against a menacing darkness. Occasionally, our host would chop up a trunk with an axe, and recharge the embers. There we sat, like many generations of explorers before, hatching a plan to climb the monster of Snowdon. To ascend up one of the highest mountains in the UK, a brave spirit of unsurmountable determinism that lies cocooned in the minds of many, must be tempted from dormancy. And so, before we retired to our mattresses, I wandered back out. Through the dusk, I could see a foreboding shadow; a darkness competing with the night-sky itself. There, beating the fog with a rage, was Mount Snowdon. I wandered through the terraced gardens to the outdoor toilet, and back up to the cottage, more determined than ever.

The spells of the twilight were vanquished and the promise of morning rang true. In the valleys below Snowdon, daylight seemed to suck the fog out like a straw, leaving a raw landscape. I realized that whilst I had been asleep, below this duvet of mist and mystery, the monster of Snowdon had been very much awake. Torrents of icy water, once prisoners within the very rocks of monstrous Snowdon, had been spouting out of orifices in the valley above, fleeing like liquid fugitives, desperately surging through the valley to avoid being frozen to death. And as we emerged out of our cars in a layby, the race was still on. And it never ceases.

We hiked along this river to the start of the ascent. Along the way, I noticed that boulders once within the grip of the beast of Snowdon, had wriggled out of his fist and had charged down the hillside to the bottom of this valley. Some material clearly catches a lift with the water and rides out of the valley for good. The boulders do not. They perch on the banks of the stream like a vagabond might stand on the edge of a motorway. If they do not succeed in hitching a lift, they wait for time to slowly rip them apart into angular fragments, each of which is then singularly evacuated out of the valley.

Then came the ascent. We spent two hours clambering towards the brow of Snowdon. The route twisted and curled around the mountain, each segment becoming increasingly challenging, but with each step, that fiery spirit of determinism conjured around a fire the night before became stronger. What fed the muscles under the strain became more concentrated in vanity every mile.

Try to wind read this wind and see wind how difficult wind it is wind to make wind any sense wind of it wind. Now try to hike against it.

The zig-zag path that leads to the summit is the windpipe of Snowdon. You are hiking against this monster's continuous exhalation. It pushes you back, so that you are forced to duck like a rugby scrum, and tackle it shoulder on. The further you progress, the stronger Snowdon's breath becomes. It's an icy breath too; the cold breath of a monster.

We battled on and reached the summit. It seemed even the train had been forced to retreat because of the wind. In a small building, adjacent to the summit, hundreds of conquerors were battling another challenge: a long, winding queue for coffee.

As we ventured to the very summit, my friends and I recalled the words of William Blake.

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land.

And with those strong-willed words of resolve and unfaltering persistence, the human spirit, armed with those arrows of desire, will continue to conquer Snowdon, and indeed, any challenge that lies ahead...

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