Sunday, 1 October 2017

Week 52: (25th September to 1st October 2017) or 'One year'

Walking to the river, along the river; now in the river...wading through the, I am the river... swirling and purling, spewing and squirting, streaming and sluicing through the channels of life... and how the water gushes past me, how my thoughts surge within me, how memories are but leaves, surfing on the I watch them, feel them, remember them come and go... there they go, whirling around the pool of infinite time in my mind...and how I gaze down into the water, gazing at my rippling face, my ever-changing face... oh, how I stretch my hand through that fluidic face, deep into my cascading mind, my stream of consciousness...

I had challenged myself, perhaps, to an impossible task; to reflect upon the first year of my PhD. As I leaned contemplatively over a moss-bearded bridge, and sought prolonged meditation with the stream below, I realized the difficulty of reflecting in something that is constantly on the move. A PhD is a journey and like the river, it evolves, develops, gyrates and most importantly, is never still. Even at times, at the surface, where it appears to have relinquished vivacity in place for placidity, the current of progress flows on underneath. The contours of my head were faint and broken upon the surface of the stream, mutating incessantly with the flow, so that although my torso stood steadily opaque on the bridge, my mind appeared translucent, drifting atop a deluge of thoughts and feelings. And that word, deluge, testifies to how difficult evaluating even the first year of a PhD can be. I am flooded with memories, and having re-read every word of my PhDiary this week, I am doubly unsure of the moments in which to fish out, and those to 'throw' back in the water.

Every river starts somewhere. The river I write beside is the River Deenagh. Specks of mist which sail in isolation across the Atlantic, ride up over the mountains of south-west Ireland and coagulate into little globes of rain. They fall, in their inevitable descent, down to land on ancient bowler hats and Aran sweaters, tempered cattle and wild clover, and into the deep, rich soils that powder the land and keep company the heather. Journeying downstream before me now was an Irish river but not Irish water, at least not in the broadest sense. I peered up to gaze at future rivers, which were mingling at the tips of the Killarney mountains. Where does this river start, then? And more importantly, where did this PhD begin? So many times in the past year, I have felt obliged - delighted, even - to draw upon my previous journeys, and my previous lives; my life as a curious child, growing up in the blankets of serenity which outlay across my home county of Norfolk. I began this PhDiary in the back garden of my Norfolk cottage...

There is something about Ireland that...gets me. I have tried, and failed, to write about it. It exists in verse of Irish song, but how? In the phrasing? The rhythm? Is it something that can teased apart from the rootlets of other things and held out? Those who have had the pleasure of being in Ireland will sympathize with how inexact this feeling manifests within the traveller and will hopefully agree that it is probably best to accept it and enjoy it, rather than to precipitate it out. It is, in the words of writer Henry Morton, "something in a minor key... half magic and half music". To me, it is the spirit of Ireland; an ancient spirit dissolved into rock and humanity.

I mused on this dissolved spirit at the stream and wondered what unseen Irish essences were whirling around in the current. At school, most students learn about the 'river load' which rides with the water downstream; the load with which you can remove with a net, like the autumnal leaves, and the load that dissolves into the water, which one cannot hold in one's hand. What about the 'PhD Load', the things we entrain along the way, and transport with us on this journey? Since Day 1, I have 'netted' a rather substantial load of papers and books, but have entrained so many intangible, yet useful skills too.

Further along, the path which so dutifully followed the banks of the river, began to migrate and I found myself leisurely sauntering through woodland. A perfect stillness nestled amongst the trees and so fragile it seemed, too. Just as 'one thing leads to another', as is my PhD experience these last 52 weeks, fresh and inviting routes seemed to grow out from each side of the path. Occasionally, I would elect one, and seek out its promises. One that struck me was the Mining Trail which skirts the border of an Early Bronze Age mine; the earliest copper mine in Ireland. According to information displayed at the site, metal was extracted from here and distributed around Ireland in around 700 AD and culminated in large-scale operations in the 1800s, with some 5000 tons of copper ore being sold to British smelters.

On one of the information boards, I noticed a small illustration of a Powder Magazine where gunpowder, used to blast rock in the mines, was stored. I smiled at the magnitude of destruction our ancient ancestors used to permit in order to access their desired material. The last couple of months in this first year as a PhD student have seen me physically mining the soils in woodlands and farms around England and accompanying what has been, at times, a struggle is an age-old question in Soil Science: what is the best way of obtaining the samples? Never would I have even considered gunpowder - more to the point, never would I have been sanctioned gunpowder - but as I gazed at the relics of mining sites, I recalled the many weeks of pit-digging and percussion coring.

It didn't strike me immediately. But as I ambled over a fresh bed of autumnal leaves along the mining trail, I realized that I was also a 'mine' too. It has been one of the honours of this first year as a PhD student to have been so actively involved in teaching and mentoring. And in this unique capacity, which is never to be taken for granted, I have been a mine of information and advice for those students which have sought it. I have learnt the trick to being a good 'human' mine; not to simply give the answer away, but to allow the student in question to 'dig away'.


A day later, and the clouds were sprayed out of the sky. Down came the rain on Killarney (it had rained most of the night, too) and I spent most of the morning in a series of cafes, drinking warmth and listening to Irish chatter. Something - perhaps also an Irish wildness - grew inside of me, though, and I had the increasing urge to be back amongst the splendours of the national park. And so, I made way for the park, becoming increasingly aware of limits of my waterproofing, but remaining stubbornly persistent. I must have had a rather dispirited look about me, though, for approaching me was a large Irishman who offered to take me to Ross Castle on his cart. Such was his generosity that he also offered me the chance to pay him for the deed, too! These moments, where experience and payment stare at each other in contest, happen so often to me, alas. If one is to write about a place, as I do, he or she must always vote for experience, and coins are rarely dispensed, but exchanged for a good story.

My guide was called John (I fancied that his surname was more Irish) and the six year old horse was called Billy. Together, the three of us rode into Killarney National Park, and in between fragments of unintelligible Irish - for which I do not complain about at all; it is one of the delights of the language - Billy would often pause to allow John to point out the notable statements of interest. Was the horse and cart still popular over the rest of Ireland? Yes, it was. And turning to a matter of immediate interest: how often does it rain in Killarney? At least twice a week. I peered over the edge of the cart. The surface of the river which had seemed so clear the day before was now a torrent of brown, muddy foam, gushing its way through the channels, as if each bubble was on a race to the front. Clearly the night's rainfall had been unusually heavy as the muddy water even made a citation on the tour! Oh, how quickly water can be muddied! I recalled the moments on my PhD where simplicity and clarity had given way for muddle and strife.

An hour in Ireland elapsed, and enough time it seemed for the rain to pass. A fresh nose-bag was granted to Billy whilst I explored Ross Castle. It has stood on this spot, by Killarney lake, since the 15th century.

Moored up beside the castle is a semblance of peace. It tugs at your torso, makes you sit. Then it tugs at your mind, makes you ponder; an overwhelming solitude. A gentle breeze ploughs a ripple into the lake. The clouds only enhance this place. On many a traveller's 'perfect' day, the skies would be clear and blue, and likewise the water, blue and still, but to see it in this way would only reveal half of its beauty. The other half remains harboured to the clouds, which roll off the lake, sketching new horizons, and painting mystique across the vista.

And then, the inevitable. All twelve of their American accents arrived about a minute before they did, but soon there they all were in person, with binoculars and cameras and a "Gee-Whiz" to hand, per chance that something might suddenly dive out of the water. Killarney Lake is large and my vista was panoramic, but somehow, they managed to position themselves in such a way as to block each and every square inch of water I had originally been espying. Expertly managed, I thought!

"Whiskeyyy...", they harmonized, exaggerating the 'key' so as to pull, and hold, the most unnatural of grins for a group photograph. They had spent no more than two minutes before they were being ushered back onto the coach. If any member of that group can write a spiritual and impassioned account about Killarney Lake, it will - for them - be a matter of fiction.

I felt a little foolish to imagine that such serenity would be - could be - uninterrupted by the exclamation marks of tourism. But why complain, too? This is, after all, what has made the last year such a fascinating experience for me. I have come to learn, at my pleasure, that doing a PhD is more than just an enquiry into your subject but a journey that makes you, as the researcher, more observant in life, more responsive, more accepting perhaps. The truly remarkable, yet unspoken truth, is that a PhD can make you more curious in areas of life you may have neglected in the past. I began to recall upon some fantastic moments where I have studied human life.

"I don't know why you take so many photographs," an American lady set out to her husband, behind me.
"I take them to remember where I've been," he masterfully replied. "I'll forget, unless I write it down..."

With those words, I realized that I have scribed so many experiences in the past year and I began to wonder why. Have I had more time? More literary liberties? A greater reflective capacity? Maybe I just like to think about things? Before long, it occurred to me that I was staring at but not seeing Killarney Lake. Too enveloped I was in self-reflection that I hadn't noticed a couple of young girls, and their grandma, down at the lakeside feeding the mallards. Scattered crumbs were being scavenged, at first with little opposition, and then slowly a couple of cygnets emerged from around the reeds to join the banquet. Then, a couple of ravens swooped in and before long, it felt as if it was market day at the lakeside, with each feathered species eyeing up a meal with discounted effort.

Food... and thoughts. Both, I submitted, had the capacity to bring people together, in extraordinary ways. Thoughts alone can scoop hundreds, perhaps thousands, from their offices to conferences around the world. I mused on the conferences I had been lucky to attend over the past year...

In an epilogue to my reflections, allow me to take you down to the Lake of Killarney, Lough Leane.

I am gazing into the lake and gazing at my liquid self, my ever-changing self, my evolving and adapting self; a mind of many thoughts, and questions, all swirling around in the water. The Killarney Mountains are floating off in the distance, as a ribbon of clouds move in. Summits begin to disappear beyond sight; others are floating like phantoms in the mist. The next year of my PhD awaits, at the feet of these mountains. As yet, the routes to the summits are unguided, unmapped, untrodden paths of discovery, veiled by the clouds of questions and the mists of uncertainty. But soon these clouds will turn to rain, and the rain will fall into streams, rivers and lakes again, so that what were once challenges will simply become more pools of experience to reflect in. Lough Leane, from the Irish, means 'Lake of Learning' and now, having reflected in what I've learnt these past 52 weeks, let us look forward and scale the challenges ahead.

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