Monday, 16 October 2017

Week 54: (9th October to 15th October 2017) or 'Nature's Baptism'

Signatures of Autumn are scrawled over this Lancashire night. Sitting up in bed, with the window ajar, I can hear the tempestuous howl of a callous wind that one becomes accustomed to in these moorland regions. A few loosely anchored papers on my desk are being rustled. The extractor fan of my hob is becoming increasingly restless. The sounds of the undergraduate spirit a storey below, still fresh and enthused and not phased in the slightest by the gusts, start to be delivered through the gap in the curtain. Sounds pinched from bus-stops, from bars, from bedrooms and from kitchens make up this audio drama. I listen to masculine chants erupting like sonic lava from the street below; to locally accented shrieks and shrills; to a kind of laughter only concocted after a couple of bottles have been emptied. The voices are neither clear nor distinct; these slurs are merely shadows of the audio world. I sit there and wonder whether they are sounds at all, but rather soundbite memories of an unreachable past.

Gradually, my room is fed with fewer voices and those that remain drift away like phantoms. The students have been scooped from the campus and couriered to a party. All that remains is the constant eddying of the air; a carousel breeze churning up the autumn leaves below my room. The mind floats off to the moors, where the winds pierce through the heather and taunt the lichened tors. And slowly, these images become darker and less defined as the mind is pulled through the gates of dreamland.

Back I am, in Lancashire, and casting the weather to one side, to a week which has been relatively calm. With the efforts of my fieldwork cocooned into boxes, I have spent the past few days unpacking my samples and setting them up across the department to air-dry. The air-drying process is one of the most important preliminary actions one executes prior to the sample analysis, and with some of the more clayey soils (those from Somerset, for instance) holding the largest volumes of moisture, this procedure could take up to four weeks. Nonetheless, one must subscribe to thorough and methodical work if accurate results are to be derived.

I have also spent the week producing - or reproducing to be precise - a spreadsheet that I aim to use in a future paper. Having lost the first copy to a series of computational wrongdoings- all misdeeds of my own, let me add - I have nearly salvaged the majority of the data. As with most items on this diary, I am unable to fully disclose the details of what I'm doing. That said, what I can say is that I'm considering the many ways in which the 'soil lifespan' may be extended through conservation management. In other words, which land management practices allow soils to be conserved the longest? Only an analysis of a range of studies may illuminate an answer and thus I have tasked myself the endeavour of amassing a large, yet inexhaustive, series of papers each showing how a particular land management regime retards the rate of soil erosion.


Hardly five minutes are expended commuting between my doorstep and the department. That said, the walk has become difficult in recent weeks; no more arduous in terrain or route, but mentally toilsome. On each and every trip, there emerging from behind the campus estate is the Forest of Bowland; drystone walls are but wrinkles in the western face of the moorland, the greys and greens run off into the misty horizon, and you just know that somewhere out in this wilderness, a farmer is milking his cows and an angler is casting his flies. Each and every time I pass this vista, I become more impassioned about returning there. Last Sunday, I tried.

A collage of weather rolled over the hills. Blue skies were borrowed from Summer, a mild breeze spoke for Autumn and every now and again a wintry chill awoke from a year's hibernation. More or less everything else seemed plausibly from the tenth month. A reddish, golden carpet of autumnal leaves carpeted the grass as if mirroring the sunrise. Conkers, as polished as the buttons on a soldier's trench coat, peppered the paths. Squirrels were inspecting their recently shaved branches. In a long overdue rescue effort, I withdrew my bike from what has been three months imprisonment in a dusty, damp shed and set off, out of the campus.

Soon after I left off I realized two things. First, I became enthused about the potential of rekindling some contact with the Bowland moors; its blood, the brown, peaty waters, and its spirit, the solemn and sad atmosphere which seems to exhale from the moss beds. Second, I realized I couldn't. This was the most sobering. My bike (and if I am to be truthful, myself) were in no fit state to continue ascending up the gruelling paths. Dismounted and dispirited, I leaned against a nettle-furnished stone wall and gazed out to sea. What a poor show, and especially after an active summer of fieldwork. Sooner or later I realized that the sheep in the field were not offering bahhs of comfort so I saddled up again and took a short-cut back to the campus. The path would, if memory served, guide me to a small stream, across which sat a series of stepping stones.

What had the previous year been an easily navigable stream has since become a rather ferocious stream, with an angry torrent. From a sandy bed at one side, I watched as bubbles eagerly commuted downstream as if late for an appointment with the sea. The water swirled with confusion around the stepping stones, and more important, over them. Interesting it is now to assess my own state of affairs, my own mindset, happening upon this river. There were at least ten minutes of simple yet ineffective gazing, as if I expected someone to 'turn off the tap' upstream. I climbed the banks and started hunting for logs. I even amassed a selection of large, platy rocks which perhaps could have sat atop the existing stepping stones. At no point, though, did I consider turning around. Despite my situation not improving, I was becoming infatuated with the gushing of the water; how fresh it appeared, how refreshing it would be! If the Forest of Bowland was welcoming me home, I considered this to be my calling card. This river, quite apart from anything else, was to be my baptism, back into the cradling arms of Mother Nature. And with the youthful spirit that occasionally takes over a man, I took off my shoes and socks and waded in.

I can so often remember the mind-numbing chills I encountered in Alaska, five years ago, but moreover the dose of adrenaline that the Arctic winds injected through my very pores. Once again, as I bathed my feet in the refrigerated Lancashire stream, I became likewise invigorated. I recalled the tales masterfully written by Robert MacFarlane on swimming in lakes and bathing in streams, and wished I had the tenacity to similarly excite the senses. Alas, the boyish mood which set me wading so decidedly into this river slowly drifted away from the soul and floated off with the foam downstream, and I was left once again addled with adult thoughts of water-borne disease. And so, I picked up my bike and made my crossing. When I reached the opposite bank, I felt renewed, refreshed and baptised; spiritually back into the bosom of the moorland, bathed and blessed once more by Nature.

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