Sunday, 21 May 2017

Week 33: (15th May to 21st May 2017) or 'Different Perspectives'

"In the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds" 

Robert Green Ingersoll

It occurred to me last week, whilst climbing back down the staircase of Snowdon, that I wasn't drenched. Apart from the occasional bead of sweat sliding over the skin, I was completely dry. Before the suggestion is made, I am not making comment about Welsh weather. I am referring to the fact that had I spent four or five happy hours in Snowdonia National Park and been at least 10 miles from the sea, and more importantly, above it. Perhaps this does not appear odd, but for 200 millennia, this region was submerged under the Iapetus Ocean. If they had the capacity to wonder about such things, little were the molluscs aware that the seabed beneath them was just a lid on a saucepan of magma, and in time, a giant volcano would punch its way through the ocean, spewing out 60 cubic kilometres of debris. Little did they realize that one day, some of this debris would be mined for copper. And little did they realize that millions of years later, these rocks would host one of the most spectacular viewpoints in Wales; a country that had not yet been formed, let alone named.

And yes: "in the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds". When we melt away the bricks of our days that together make up the pillars of our months and the walls of our years, the great Mountain of Snowdon is not a paralyzed mound of rock, frozen in time like its painted depictions, but a great nomadic monster that feasts on the land, and stretches his arms up towards the sky in a symbol of victory. The mountaineers, who believe they have reached the summit, are perched on the knuckles of his clenched fist. Soon, the great monster of Snowdon will evolve once again and assume a different pose. Perhaps, he will find himself sinking into another ocean, or waist-deep in a bath of icy glaciers. But for now - at least within our own lifespan - he rests on the land.

Whether you see Snowdon as some lifeless mound, or a rocky nomad on the move through geological time, is really a matter of perspective.

David MacDonald's The Terrace

Perspective is important. We are granted two eyes at birth, but we die with many. We are encouraged to 'see another point of view'. We sometimes fail.

In Science, one person's well-rehearsed argument can, given time and credible evidence, become an accepted paradigm across the world. Consider Charles Darwin, and his theory of Natural Selection or Alfred Wegener, and his theory of Plate Tectonics. But even popular belief can change; a paradigmatic shift, as it is referred to in the trade, can still occur. With an open mind - with a different perspective - a scientist has the capacity to see things differently, and in doing so, may uncover information that can re-mould the discipline. Within a landscape of truths and false truths, the contours that divide the two can deviate. Perspective is important.

Across a wide range of scientific output, the necessity for perspective is realized. Many academic journals now devote entire sections to 'Perspective', allowing scholars the chance to publish their own perspective on a well-discussed, or perhaps a lesser-known, aspect of scientific debate. I have spent the week drafting one such Perspective article. The basis of my article will be to argue for a different perspective on the ways that we can bridge the currently 'island' discourses of Soil Sustainability and Soil Conservation. Both are discussed, researched and encouraged by pedologists, but still we have little knowledge about how our soil conservation strategies enhance soil sustainability. By way of a solution, we must first quantify soil sustainability as the length of time (in years) that a soil remains productive.  Soil Conservation, therefore, should aim to increase this lifespan. Thus, when planning which conservation strategy to enforce, we should ask: how will this conservation strategy extend the productive lifespan of this soil?


"The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself"

(Henry Miller)

Saturday on Campus.

Is there a more enigmatic place to spend a Saturday than a University Campus? From Monday to Friday, the air that swirls through the corridors and around the departmental blocks, is as intelligible as the corpus of students that roam through them. There is nothing to misunderstand about a campus on a weekday; students study, lecturers lecture, researchers research. But at the weekend, the campus becomes of swamp of bewildering riddles. A fraction of them are framed by the panes around my studio window; my view out of it at the weekend is nothing short of a perplexing landscape. A student passes. Who is he and where is he going? If not a lecture, where? And that lady? Though her coat may be electric pink, there is a greyness in her hair that sets her far apart from any student I know, and yet there she is, wandering around the campus. A Saturday on Campus, if one gives close attention to it, becomes as Henry Miller writes, a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself, and I wished to become immersed within it.

It had rained most of the morning, and now Lancashire was on the chartered raft that floats daily between noon and dusk. I had so far devoted my day to reading, but now the rain was mostly on the ground and not in the air, I desired a walk. I did not have a route planned, nor did I have an agenda. I would allow my curiosity to navigate. As the geographer Carl Sauer once wrote: "the mode of locomotion should be slow, the slower the better, and be often interrupted by leisurely halts to sit on vantage points and stop at question marks".

Saturday on Campus is littered with question marks. I am writing at a vantage point; a seat next to the window of a café which overlooks one of the many thoroughfares. During the week, throngs of students use this to navigate classes, or (if the class does not promise bliss) as a means by which to escape! But it's Saturday, and lecturers are in their back-gardens, enjoying the fruits of a day off, and most probably a bottle of one particular fruit. If that is so, what can account for so many students passing by? There are some people who bear an image that leaves the imagination in little doubt about their intentions. The gentleman who strides by, buttoning a helmet to his skull, is clearly about to head off on a motorcycle. The Asian girl who passes him, awkwardly grappling the handles of two very packed shopping bags as if in the middle of a tug-of-way with gravity, has clearly been shopping. By the look of exhaustion, not on her but on the handles of her bags, it's also clear that she needs to get home fast to avoid the mass evacuation of her purchases. And look! Those two girls, who are sharing the burden of carrying a king-size duvet across the campus, are clearly heading back from (or are on the way to) a sleepover.

But equally, there are many walking question marks; weekend campus-trekkers whose agenda is more effectively disguised. A young man - student, perhaps - is heading for the campus shop in a style that is neither a walk nor a stagger, but sandwiching the two. His head is permanently down, like the way a desk-lamp might study a desk, but why? Did he attend the party 'of his life' last night and, now half-dead, he is monitoring the ground to ensure his feet go where he wants them to go? Is he looking for a lost phone? Has he received some 'terrible news' about his hamster, and now plunged into a pool of grief? Is he a fanatic on paving slabs and is grossly engaged in the study of their use on campus? All are possibilities, and how I wish I could flatten the curves on so many of these question marks and turn them into exciting, and perhaps surprising, exclamations.

Between ? and ! is a void of mystery one can only hope to conquer.

I continued to walk and happened upon something extraordinary; something that made me check, once again, that it was indeed Saturday. Through the windowpane on one of the doors to a large lecture theatre, I could see at least one hundred, perhaps two hundred students, each sitting at an individual desk, busily scribing away. A slightly older gentleman was standing outside and expressed concern as to my interest.

"Excuse me sir," I said, cocking my head a little in the way one does when enquiring. "Is that an exam going on, in there?"

"Yes, it's a Maths exam," he confirmed my suspicions.

"But it's a Saturday afternoon!" I said, now wearing a face of genuine amazement.

"Oh I know," he began. "It used to be Saturday mornings...the maths exam... but now it's the afternoon."

He had clearly thought I was protesting about the time, and not about the day, but I didn't want to bother him any further. I ambled off with only three words on my mind: Exams on Saturday?

The plot thickened. I sauntered into the Great Hall, expecting to hear bands rehearsing and the theatrical groups refining their scenes, but stepped only into more disbelief. Emblazoned upon a board on a large easel outside the hall were those timely words again: "Silence Please. Examination in Progress". In the Great Hall's great lobby, I had stumbled upon a scene not too dissimilar to that of a bomb scare. Handbags, coats, laptops and other personal effects were strewn across tables. An orchestra of phones were whiling away the hour with music. From within each of these caves, I could hear beeping, buzzing and whirring as if the phones were engaged together in plotting an escape plan! Their owners? Though I could not see them, I knew they were currently under 'examination conditions'. After all, there are few circumstances that can plunge three hundred students into such a prolonged collective silence. I wandered around some more. Emerging from the pockets of coats and rucksacks were the answers! I attempted to decipher the hand-writing on some to identify the subject they were being examined on, but not to much success. I decided to wait until their release from temporary imprisonment.

I sat writing some notes, keeping a handbag company. How were they feeling? A year has elapsed since my thoughts and ideas were vacuumed up by 'answer booklets' and yet how familiar the environment now seemed. Beyond the doors sat a hall of students, many perhaps coaxing their minds to believe it was a weekday, and all inking the contents of their minds. Here, and only here, will their efforts become truly realized.

Silence. Even the phones had stopped their conversations, perhaps knowing that escape was impossible. It was only a matter of time now before...

Release. The Great Hall's great door swung open abruptly and cascading into the lobby were hundreds of happy faces. One student glanced slightly towards me, rounded his lips and exhaled quickly like one would after a run. Another emerged from the doorway with a little 'hop and skip'. Another with a high-pitched "woo". A parade of relief assembled around me, almost too cock-a-hoop to even notice me. Girls were embracing one another, as if this was a reunion of distant friends that had been separated for months by the pangs of revision.

"There were four exams in there this morning, and three exams in there this afternoon....umm, Property Law, that exam," a security guard said, busily restraining the doors to the hall by way of a long metallic chain. He wore the look of someone who could think of better ways of spending Saturdays. I shared with him my amazement that exams were taking place, at all, on a weekend. He gave me an 'oh, I know' in the northern dialect that the phrase was invented for. I said I wouldn't want the stress.

"Oh neither would I," he replied, looking back at me in mild relief. "Not at my age. I didn't want it the first time round!"

"Yes, well... life's a test, isn't it?" I chuckled, making way for the exit. 


I headed back home, and happened upon one final surprise. During the week, when doing such a journey, I often have to negotiate a route through great masses of studious traffic, and fail to gaze up. As a result, I have never noticed this.


It's amazing what a different perspective can bring.


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