Sunday, 22 October 2017

Week 55: (16th to 22nd October 2017) or 'A world that never sleeps'

The soil never sleeps.
In its voids, gas and waters gather,
waiting for thirsty roots to crawl
down motorway tunnels dug by worms.
For the spade. The plough. 
The massage-press of hooves.
For the rain to run through its seams
and seeds to push up to the light.
(Adam Horovitz, The Soil Never Sleeps)

Early morning, and the stage is ready to host the dramas of another day in Hertfordshire. Enter character one: a flame of amber, who creeps on stage and hurries away the blackened curtains of the night sky. Soon, the cast of Life rush on; the leading roles of Mr and Mrs Mundanity, the commendable Mr and Mrs Success, the ever-heckled Mr and Mrs Disaster and the curious family of Mr and Mrs Mystery. Scene after scene, hour after hour, the script to Life is re-written by Director Fate, an ominous figure that sits in the wings and adjusts the set relentlessly. The conflict between Mr Success and Mr Disaster is continuously reworked, the Mundanity clan tediously roam the stage uttering their trivial lines, and the family of Mr and Mrs Mystery, a strong family of eighteen questions, loiter as unsolved riddles in the shadows. Today, however, is a special day. Up in the gallery, a team of 18 fresh faces are preparing to take over the spotlights, ready to shine a light on these Mysteries. It's a long scene of over three years, but once fully aglow under the spotlights of lengthy research, they are re-cast as Truths and exit the stage to perform a new script: the script of the Thesis. For now, though, eighteen Mysteries float about the stage. Today they are ready for their inaugural moment under the spotlight; their first lines in this production called Life. Let's meet the talent operating those spotlights, the attentive engineers of research and study, the third and final team of STARS PhD Students. 

Eighteen young and inquisitive minds made a confident march through the front doors of Soil Science this week. Down at Rothamsted Research, on the outskirts of a surprisingly bustling town called Harpenden, the third and final cohort of STARS PhD Students were welcomed into a family of like-minded soil enthusiasts. I had been looking forward to the event for a while. These occasions, wherever they take place, nearly always call for much inspired discussion and debate and this week's Welcome Event was no exception. As I introduced myself to the cohort on Wednesday morning, I was talking to future colleagues and almost certainly future friends, all of whom have germinated the seeds of passion for Soil, all of whom demonstrate the zest required if such a passion is to be continually cultivated. 

In a slightly different programme to my own STARS Welcome Event at Borwick Hall last year, each new student was tasked with introducing their project through a single object. Whether they were directly related to the project, or presented in more abstract terms, I became intrigued in the indisputable diversity of Soil Science as a discipline (and not for the first time). Objects like an acorn, a miniature tractor, a bee-emblazoned cushion, a Pot Noodle and a metal chain each represent, to some degree, the main business of three years' research. If only we could amass an exhibition of objects from many more Soil Scientists? How extraordinarily diverse that would be, I wonder! 

Incidentally, when I arrived in Harpenden, the first gentleman I talked to knew about Rothamsted Research, but then he was a taxi driver. I imagine many residing or working in Harpenden, a leafy north London suburb, would not hold extensive knowledge about the institution so allow me to introduce you to, arguably, one of the world's most important Soil Science research institutes. This really is one of the Grandfathers of Soil Science, being the founding place of the British Society of Soil Science and to this day, the home of one of the world's longest running experimental sites. These accolades sit inconspicuously from the driveway and are not immediately apparent until one goes exploring. Turn left and right in the right places, and one eventually happens upon the UK's most extensive archive of soil samples, described in some detail on the site's webpage:

"Between 1843 and 1856, Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert started several long-term field experiments at Rothamsted Research. Some failed or were discontinued because of poor soil structure and crop diseases. When Lawes died in 1900, the remaining experiments were continuing more or less as originally planned and are now known as Classic Experiments. They are the oldest, continuous agronomic experiments in the world and therefore rightfully and uniquely famous.
With remarkable prescience, Lawes and Gilbert retained samples of crops, soils, fertilisers and manures applied to the experiments. Successive generations of scientists at Rothamsted have continued to add to the collection and the resulting Sample Archive now comprises > 300,000 samples. This unique resource is of immense value. New analyses of archived material continue to provide insights into changes occurring over 170 years. No other long-term experiments have such an archive."  Read more about the Sample Archive, here.

The soil never sleeps. 
It banks live
in its soufflé stomach,
connects them to everything.
Even the dirt beneath fingernails, 
the dirt caught in a mole's coat, sings
with a million microbes to the gram 
of connections, growth.

Seldom do academics, and students for that matter, survey the incredibly dense and complex web of interactions that exist between the many micro-worlds within Soil Science. Those who have had this enriching experience may know a gentleman called Nick Skinner. Nick, who founded and leads Poppyfish People Development, has a highly-sought talent of shifting the way we perceive the invisible, and rendering it surprisingly tangible. The connections between the 18 new STARS projects were exemplified this week with garden string. And as the poem above suggests, singular topics of research, that were originally conjured as separate projects by distanced researchers, have entered this flavoursome and aromatic soufflé of Soil Science; they are no longer single ingredients, but now part of an intriguing mix of interrelated ideas and themes. With garden string, the complexity that exists between less than twenty projects demonstrates the extraordinary breadth of the discipline, just as a few minutes ruminating over a teaspoon of soil would present unimaginable biodiversity.

If you walk into the reception of the conference centre at Rothamsted, look to your right. As with most items of interest at this institution, the keynote interests are not immediately realized. I didn't notice it myself at first. A stand holds a three-verse poem originally commissioned by the Oxford Real Farming conference this year and scribed by Adam Horovitz, and which text has added light punctuation to this week's post. The soil never sleeps, and thus, the work of the Soil Scientist is never complete. As STARS launch the third and final cohort into the galaxy of pedological research this week, it does so knowing that the eighteen new projects will never shine a light on all of the mysteries encapsulated by the discipline. 

The soil never sleeps. 
Never slips into ideology or nostalgia.
It is place and purpose,
the perfection of decay.
A story that shifts 
from mouth to mouth. 
A crucible for rebirth, 
A rooftop on another world. 

As I admired the eighteen new students, speaking aloud in this historic institution, I pondered on how their excitingly fresh hopes and plans for the discipline may have been received by Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert. And so we return to the theatre. How the narrative of Soil Science has shifted from mouth to mouth since those figures made their inaugural speeches! This week marked a new 'Act' in the script, a rebirth of ideas, and all the time we believe we're actors on the stage, we're really just perching on the rooftop of this other world; a world that never sleeps. 

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