Sunday, 29 October 2017

Week 56: (23rd to 29th October 2017) or 'Literally connecting with Nature'

In the ever-expanding lake of one's memories, one occasionally yearns to sit alone by the edge, with a net of nostalgia, and fish one or two out from the murky depths. This lake, one's personal pool of serenity, floats far from the channels of everyday life. Oh, how the eternal flow of the Present rushes on. Most of our lives are spent eddying around in the currents of the Current. But, as I say, sometimes one is seized by a wistful desire to moor up, and with pensive steps, amble down to the Lake of Reminiscence.

And there, by the water's edge, we reach out with our nets. The grains of our past are like a silty loam, passing effortlessly through the sieves of our memory. Most of our life passes through, forgotten. All that is curbed by the mesh are the larger grains; the nuggets of bliss and the lumps of sorrow. Sometimes I net relatively new-born memories, those that are still buoyant at the surface as if they had been dispensed only yesterday. Every now and again, however, I garner a trove of my childhood. Like a butterfly searching out the sweetest nectar, a memory from one's childhood is a honeyed delight. Though we were unconscious of it at the time, the world back then seemed profuse with beauty and adoration. Days seemed endless, embroidered together only by our enchanted dreams, and when we awoke, so on our unfettered life continued. And we continued to dream. Both day and night, we dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.

At some point, amidst those long, gleeful days spent dreaming, I harboured some interest in Science and, in particular, the art of the scientific experiment. I recall my hankering one year for a laboratory kit and my delight at receiving such a present one Christmas. And so, afternoons following school were thereafter spent diffusing coloured dye into test tubes, fantasising that they were actually potent chemicals, decanting them into beakers and thumbing the pages of a Young Scientist's experiment book, eager to tease out new and fascinating trials. Slowly, and surely, the zest for Science was infusing through me and I became indoctrinated by something that cannot be gift-wrapped at Christmas: a passionate endeavour. The clich├ęd closure to this story is often that 'the rest, as they say, is history'. But it's not entirely my history. The spirit of elation which enveloped me as a young boy, pouring vinegar over mother's baking soda in the privations of my dreamy mind, is the same spirit that drives me both today and tomorrow.

These recollections, particularly those concerning inking beakers of water with food dye, surfaced this week whilst tidying a laboratory here at Lancaster University. Handling trays of beakers and flasks and sending them to the 'wash-up', I recalled the countless times I would hand my Mum a range of test tubes and cylinders, spatulas and stirrers and ask if they may be washed up for the next 'experiment'. As I tidied the shelves, I remembered that I too had a shelf, rooted into the wall just above my headboard, with containers full of all manner of materials. If anything was strange this week, it was the surprising similarity between my 'bedroom laboratory' and this university one. Remove the space-themed wallpaper, the wardrobe and the bed, and there is very little to distinguish one from the other. In one aspect however, indeed the propensity for mess, they stand far apart.

I have rarely happened upon a laboratory, especially a University laboratory, which could, with an hour's notice, host a worthy jumble sale. I wrote earlier about the Present being very much like a powerful river that rushes on and on. This laboratory dammed that river long ago, and years worth of time have been slowly filling it ever since. When the worktops were fully occupied, time seems to have disorderly seeped into the cupboards and around the backs of equipment. I have unearthed a pair of hair straighteners, empty rucksacks, a grass strimmer and what looks like a lawn mower this week. Alongside these artefacts sit samples, diaries and bottles nearly ten years old. I am reliably informed that the unintelligible words scrawled over the whiteboard have faced countless of scientists for more than five years. There are documents with signatures from Doctors that now sign as Professors. And, as I'm sure you know, I could very well go on.

"You've made it too lovely," someone told me, having spent the afternoon feeding hungry black sacks with ten year's worth of agglomeration. Lovely, maybe, but it is now a functional laboratory, with labelled shelves and drawers. Workspaces are now numbered and have their respective booking sheets. Unnecessary boxes, holding unnecessary bags, full of unnecessary samples, have been necessarily disposed of. And as a result, the laboratory even has overspill space which can be used as and when it is deemed required.

Until this week, I had been reluctant to start my laboratory work, but having seen it reincarnated as a fully operational lab from its previous life as a junkyard, I am now both eager and excited to begin weighing my air-dry soil. I will pen a line or two about that, next week.


An Autumnal dawn yawned out over Lancashire, exhaling a breath of crisp, biting air across the county. The knives of the turbines cut through the beams of the low morning sunlight much like we might take a knife to our toast. Cattle began sketching their first shadows over a carpet of silvery grass. Glistening globes of dew hung like chandeliers from the branches; arms once clothed in luscious sleeves of green, but now naked, hanging over puddles of reds and orange. I cycled to where civilization zips on to the barren cloak of the moors, and sauntered leisurely to a small, hidden, inside pocket of woodland. And there I perched, on a moss-bearded stone, watching as the gaps between trunks were busy ushering morning sunlight through the wood. The stream on the left beside me was breakfasting on some of this light and I gazed as the bubbles became miniature lightbulbs. To my right, a sheep was engaging his jaws on the leaves. High above me, birds were dispatching messages to comrades. All around me, it rained a golden, reddish rain, and I knew I was witnessing the graceful final journey of the leaves.  

Sometime after, I arose to recharge my familiarity with the moors. I can try to weave some literary web to paint my experience, but it would be a poor effort, for there are sensations on the moorlands that one cannot possibly encapsulate with written word. As I clambered towards the rocky tors, which perch like brave climbers high up on the peaks, the mind - as it often does in these circumstances - turned to thoughts which away from the moorlands seem ludicrous. Notwithstanding, I did muse about the water locked up in the peaty bogs, and if they were granted the faculty of feeling emotions (I warned you it was ludicrous), how on earth they would feel. There, in the air, how liberated those little droplets must have felt, diving from the clouds towards the greens and browns of an English moorland. How barren, and thus how enthralling the chance to join streams that tour down valleys. The final centimetres of descent; suddenly, thirsty hands of moss snatch the little droplets and detain them in the peat. How jealous they must be now as they gaze west at the unbounded Irish Sea...

It is when the mind begins to conjure up these thoughts, so distant from reality and reason, that the solitary wanderer realizes they are not merely hiking, but have allowed their mind and soul to nestle within the very spirit and ethos of the moorland.

The peat is the diary of the moors. The footsteps of a thousand journeys are scribed into the black. I wandered for what felt like hours over a landscape, etching the course of my journey and reading those who ventured before me. Occasionally the cast of a walking boot is partnered with a paw, and over both of these, a grouse has narrated its own excursions. But no sign of any of the authors.

At noon, I gazed out over the coastline of Lancashire and witnessed an inward migration of clouds effortlessly passing border control. This pilgrimage of cotton wool muddled the blue skies for the remainder of the day. When they cast a veil over the rays of the low-lying sunlight, the moors became instantly refrigerated. Over the valley, I watched as these clouds pulled on their invisible reigns and dragged shadows over the hillsides like sledges over snow. On rocky outcrops, I often paused and lunched on the tapestry of a fine view. With the tide out, the horse-shoe of land that unites Lancaster with the peninsula of Grange over Sands seemed closer than I had ever seen it before. The Sun bounced its rays off the roofs of cars making their way from Lancaster, across the bridge, and on to what looked like the end of the world. Northwards, the Lake District hid in its own world, behind a haze. And panning westwards, where the stitches of a border pull Lancashire and Cumbria together, farms were freckled with cattle and wrinkled with dry-stone walls. At my feet was a sea of red heather; the embers of a season past.

What I am about to narrate next happened in less than ten seconds. I was walking back to my bike, down in the lowlands of the moors. All was calm, and still, and the mind was wandering not with the feet, but in some other world. And then, thud. Struck. On the head. From behind. Down I fell. Grounded. A moment was spent grasping my senses, another was spent rubbing a bleeding elbow, and then I turned around to face the entity which had mugged me of my serenity. There, sitting quite pathetically at the scene of the crime, and by no means absconding in guilt, was a Grouse. It withheld some disposition of anger in its eyes, and I realized that it was a premeditated attack rather than a flying error. Nevertheless, I wasn't going to be cautioned off my path in this way and thus I gave the Grouse some stern words.

"We share this planet. There's plenty of room for the both of us. Okay?"

The Grouse, who had been quite still up to now, suddenly nodded once towards me and with that I walked on. Sheep always stare at hikers, but those grazing nearby seemed genuinely stunned.

For clarification (and this should be broadcast to the entire animal kingdom), when I write about 'connecting with nature', I don't mean literally.

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