Sunday, 10 September 2017

Week 49: (4th September to 10th September 2017) or 'Digging'

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests. 
I'll dig with it."

(Seamus Heaney: Digging)

Page 4. Aboard. Forward 1180 pages. Newness. Forward 258 pages. Questions. Turn back 1017 pages. Curiosities. Forward 72 pages. Discoveries. Backward 212 pages. Challenges. Forward 682 pages. Knowledge. Forward 1054 pages. Wisdom

A long and tortuous journey of 2017 pages in the Oxford English Dictionary. In print, how distanciated these words are from each other. But allow these words to spring from the page and seek them out in our towns and cities. They sit closer together than a dictionary suggests...

It's 7:53am and soon all eight words will be passengers on the bus that's pulling up beside me. I step aboard and exchange a polymer Queen Elizabeth for a small, torn piece of thermal roll. I elect a seat at the front, just behind the driver and my punctuated commute to the British Geological Survey commences. The first couple of bus stops are merely commas in our progress; one, two, maybe three passengers embark. A couple alight. But further on, we reach a semi-colon; a lengthier pause as a queue of school children step aboard. It's the first day back at school, and oh the newness. Filing up the aisle beside me are shining, non-scuffed shoes, unfaded blazers, non-frayed ties. No doubt, unmarred pencil cases carry pens full of ink, uneroded rubbers, and shatter-proof rulers that, for now, live up to their name. Receiving bus tickets this hour, and receiving knowledge in the next, the children are of variable age. (The South Wolds Academy and Sixth Form foster students from 11 to 18). For some, this journey marks the first 40 minutes of their schooling and, for now, their vacuous backpacks only harbour questions and curiosities. Boarding next are pupils from later year-groups, some keen for new discoveries; some acutely aware of the challenges that lay ahead. Hogging the back seats and casting an eye over lower tiers are those from the upper two years - the Sixth Formers - who, after five years amassing knowledge and wisdom, may still be tantalized by the prospect of further education. 

On we travel and I attempt to recall my first ride to school; that state of being ready to quarry through knowledge to yield wisdom. At that time, having a curious mind was much like wielding a sharpened knife and carving out tunnels through Science, labyrinths through History and passages through Mathematics. How keen will these studious passengers be to machete their way through the inevitable curricular difficulties to expose new-found knowledge? Soon, they will take their seats in the classroom, which is really a departure lounge, and their imaginations will soon board their flights to unreachable societies of the past, ancient landscapes and unimaginable cultures. There are some, I expect, who would prefer to simply skim away at the surface, removing a few flakes of basic information, just enough to paste into an exam answer booklet. And then there are others whose curiosity-fuelled engines of intellect will bulldoze their way beyond expectations, digging deeper and deeper into the heart of their scholarly passions. In any case, here they all are, on a bus aptly called the 'Keyworth Connection'; a key to the next chapter of their schooling where the destination is, as yet, unknown. 

For most, if not all of the passengers, the dig for knowledge is purely allegorical but for myself, it is extremely literal. The data for my PhD is underground. After many weeks of digging, coring, drilling and sampling, I arrived at the British Geological Society for my final week of soil collection. The plan this week was to spend a couple of days at a farm in north Nottinghamshire, once again with the BGS Drilling Crew, to extract a series of soil cores from multiple points along an arable hillslope. 

The week was on loan from November; a fresh, blustery and damp week. Clouds were smears of dull grey, grey like pencil graphite. Summer and Autumn were rubbing shoulders once more. Prolonged dreary phrases of bitterly cold winds and fine rain were parenthesized by momentary lapses of sunshine, as if the weather was day-dreaming back memories of Summer. 

As in Somerset, I was granted an audience with the Dando Drill. It is, in case you have missed my previous entry, like an injection that pierces the ground and draws out a column of soil. It punctures the earth by way of a large metal weight that is pneumatically sent crashing down onto the top of the core. I have witnessed it 'in action' so to speak several times now, and the menace with which it impales the soil is still breath-taking. The aim - as has been the case for my other three sites - is to extract a column of soil from the surface down to the bedrock. Here at this Nottinghamshire farm, the depth to bedrock (or saprolitic 'weathered' sandstone, to be specific) varies as one travels downslope. On the plateau at the summit of this slope, the depth is about 2 m. This thins to about 40 cm on the steepest segment before thickening once more to about 1.2 m at the relatively flat 'toe' of the slope. It is my hypothesis that much of the thickening taking place at the lower portions has resulted from many years of soil eroding (and thinning) from the upper, sloping segments. The lifespan, therefore, of a soil on the slope - the length of time before the soil thins to bedrock - must be of stark contrast to that at the toe slope. 

Suddenly, it was as if a monstrous hand, deep underground in the subterranean darkness, had grabbed onto the core. Try as we did, the mechanics of the Dando were not sufficient to liberate the metal casing from the ground. The rescue attempts went on and on and on. This, of course, did not happen in Somerset for reasons which are faintly mysterious; after all, the soils in Somerset were more clayey and, as a consequence, more 'sticky'. Here, in Nottinghamshire, the soils are almost entirely sand-based with very little cementation keeping the grains intact. Yet, here we were with a pipe impaled 2m underground. Stuck.

The farmer had almost seen this coming. Several years ago, on a completely separate project, a keen geologist had managed to get a set of coring equipment stuck 25m below ground. The upper 4m were set free thanks to the farmer's digger. Bearing this in mind, it was beyond embarrassing that our equipment had become immobile only 2m below the Earth's surface. It was with heartfelt gratitude, and some degree of inward disbelief, that we applauded the arrival of the farmer with his digger.

I referred to the Dando Drill Rig with animalistic descriptors a couple of weeks ago, and I now realize that these are inaccurate. In comparison to the farmer's digger, the Dando Drill Rig is a delicate instrument, inserting a tube into the ground with finely-tuned precision, but sluggish pace. The bucket on the neck of this giant digger is, without doubt, the supreme predator. With a nudge on a knob, the jaws of the bucket strike the earth, lacerating it up and gobbling great mouthfuls before spitting it out to one side. It is with nothing less than anger that it goes back, head first, and drives its metallic molars deep into the soil again. I remember standing there thinking that the action is much like a scooping a wedge of ice-cream with a small plastic spoon, except the digger executes it with force, with menace and with greed.

Very soon, a mound of spoil - that had taken an hour to penetrate with the Dando - sat next to a very deep pit. And exposed were four very distinctly coloured walls. 60cm of brown, organically rich soil sat upon a seemingly endless wall of red sandstone. Without hesitation, I decided to make good use of the pit and climbed down to the bottom. Never have I been so deep into the Earth, save perhaps for the times I've been down into caves or volcanos. Once again, an overwhelming sense of discovery charged through me and I began to extract samples, vigorously. The great theft of soil, 2m below the Earth's surface was the most labour I had completed throughout the entire week.


As I write, I now have most of my samples. (There is still work to be completed in Somerset). As the rain pummels the window beside my desk, I am aware that the Summer has now passed, and Autumn, with all the associated weather, is fast approaching. There has scarcely been a minute this Summer where I've been able to extend an eye and an ear to the barren moorlands of Lancashire, to soak up the dynamism of the northerly towns or even to make my inaugural visit to the Lake District. As much as these aspects of life 'away from the PhD' entice me, right now my efforts must remain unremittingly bound to the completion of my fieldwork and laboratory work. I am also very much aware that I am edging closer to the end of my very first year as a PhD student; a milestone which I shall herald with the dignity that it rightfully deserves when it arrives.

And thus, the extensive fieldwork campaign draws to an end. Now the intellect must continue digging, deeper and deeper, down into the heart of the mysteries that envelop my thesis. I must dig deeper to satisfy my curiosities and deeper to yield answers to unanswered quandaries. I will dig on with my determination, and my passion. And soon, of course, I shall get back to writing again. The spades are now clean and back in their cupboards. The auger is resting on the shelf. The Dando is hibernating in a storage container.

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests. 
I'll dig with it."

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