18 March 2010

Isle of Wight revisited

Could I show up at the Isle of Wight on Wednesday the 10th, with a fully loaded rental car of which I would be the sole driver? Such are the things your Durham colleagues sometimes want to know. Well, considering I would arrive back in Plymouth from Jotunheimen on Tuesday evening the 9th, that would prove a bit of a challenge. Luckily there were no available flights from near Durham to near the Isle of Wight that day. I would get one day respite…

I came home, threw my very smelly clothes in the washing machine, ate something improvised, and went to bed. The next day I had to be on top of the game again, and get ready for the fieldwork. And I, or I should say we, managed! With Roland not coming along (teaching obligations) we had contracted Marta, the Spanish PhD student. And with my arm not working we had asked Rob as well. By the time I left Norway I was already brushing my teeth with my right hand again, which was a promising start, but nothing near full force coring. And we needed coring power badly!

The Durham crew wanted to see us at 11AM. It’s a 5 hour drive. You need to add another half hour for ferry check-in. I wanted to have some extra time for coffee breaks and possible traffic jams, as we would negotiate the vicinity of Southampton during rush hour. Ergo, I got up at 3.50, got dressed, reloaded the car (we did not want to leave expensive surveying equipment in the car overnight), and left. In the dark, quiet town I picked up Marta and Rob, and off we went. Worryingly my satnav indicated we would only just make it, so we sped on.

After several hours Rob was the first to really wake up. The satnav was an hour off! We had plenty of time. Unfortunately there was no good breakfast place around, but we did find an open supermarket, willing to sell us sandwiches and bananas for both breakfast and lunch. Now only some coffee! Nothing is open at that hour, so we had to settle for abominable coffee at the ferry terminal.

We first drove to the cottage to drop off some gear. With all the gear there was no way we could transport all the people, so we dropped all off except for coring equipment. And went to Cowes, to pick up the Antony and Tasha. I headed for the wrong ferry terminal, so there was some confusion, but all turned out well, and we drove straight to our beloved field site, which looked much more pleasant than the previous time. And we went to work!

For some reason these were parked at the cottage

So what is it really we try to do? The idea is that we want to know what sea level did all around the north Atlantic in the last 500 years. And one of our circum-Atlantic sites is on the Isle of Wight. And from old maps we knew that that marsh had been there for at least 500 years. And in the sediments of the marsh there are our beloved microfossils, which are quite sensitive to how often they are subairially exposed, and what the freshwater/saltwater ratio is. And that of course relates to sea level. So we needed a core with 500 years worth of marsh sediments. Not less, evidently, but also not much more, as you want to keep the total amount of sediment limited so you don’t get a serious uncertainty due to sediment compaction. And you need stuff you can do carbon dating on. Dating is as vital for sea level research as it seems to be for modern society in general! So we needed to core all over the place in order to get our heads around the stratigraphy, in order to know where we would find the perfect sediments for our purposes. When you have them, you take them home, ogle all microfossils, date the shit out of it, and have some intelligent people figure everything out that is not “pure” sea level but things like vertical land movement, gravitational pull of ice masses, atmospheric pressure, and confusingly many other such issues. But we were not at that stage yet.

Describing a core

We started at our previous site of choice, which was easy to find back. Re-coring it made sure we all knew what we were dealing with, and what the standard was. But we would look for improvement from there! So we set off, coring in search of the perfect sedimentary sequence. We had manpower enough for two coring teams, and the marsh never had a chance keeping its secrets.

If we find a core we want to take home we use a larger barrel

It is also useful to record the vegetation

At some hour even Rob Scaife turned up. Our guardian angel! It was good to see him again. We would do it again that afternoon in the pub.

After a while we had logged so much stratigraphy it was time to process that in the cottage. Luckily, for even though it wasn’t late in the afternoon, it had already become a very long working day. Time for groceries, a beer in the pub with Rob and his family, and then hungrily home.

Where it all comes from

Rob (our specimen) had volunteered for cooking, and it would be folly to argue. On top of that, Antony had been mindlessly boasting about his ability to make meringues, not knowing we had gotten eggs with our cottage. Now he had to put his money where his mouth is! And we looked forward to putting his meringues there. While I went through the first test samples under the microscope (looking good!) the men worked miracles in the kitchen. And when they were done it had been worth the wait. What a fieldwork feast. Amazing pasta followed by meringues with apple compote, yoghurt, and raspberry jam. Wow! But after dinner I was exhausted. I collapsed in my bed and slept like a log.

Rob in a position we like to see

The next day we continued our search. In a way, the day was very similar, except for that we got up hours later. Thankfully! But after a nice breakfast Marta made us a tonne of sandwiches, and we sped off to our marsh. We now all spoke the language of core description, so nerdily uttering code we interrogated the stratigraphy. We measured the elevations of anything interesting the old fashioned way; with a theodolite. Normally we drag state of the art GPS stuff along, but the Durham crew does not like that. And I must say, I got convinced as well. Since our thoroughly GPS-ed benchmark was still there we could level from there with much lighter, easier equipment. Learned something!

Antony showing us how the theodolite works

The staff that belongs with the theodolite

I guess we all learned. Not just dry scientific stuff. Antony learned how few topics, and how few phrases, are off-limits among non-Brits. We noticed Marta’s obsession with racism, and she learned the words “banter” and “hovel”. Related? Maybe… Marta further got an iPhoned taste of Fawlty Towers, which was about time, as absolutely everybody will refer to Manuel when encountering a Spaniard. Unfortunately we learned that Manuel’s accent is more Italian… I learned that Brits can use the word “cunning” without immediately being accused of parroting Baldrick. The Plymouthers found out that calling Antony “boss” gets you fired. We geographers found out what sediments excite an archaeologist, and the archaeologist found out many geographers indeed eat all the sediments they core. Or at least eat of all the sediments we cored. We must have cored at least our body weight worth of sediments, even with the narrow gouges used for a reccie.

Modern fieldwork: everybody nerding away on iPhones and what have you during lunch

And then it started raining heavily, and it was time for having Rob the Omniscient shine his lights over our achievements from behind a pint of bitter. And then home, where Rob the field chef would be making cottage pie. Soon absolutely everybody will want to take the bloke on their fieldworks; word of his kitchen skills is already going around. And he’s a drilling monster as well. And a better driver than me. I should make haste with all my pending publications, otherwise I’m completely overshadowed by the guy. Luckily he’ll probably never beat my language skills! Smart thing of Roland to hire him; you get an excellent PhD student, and you keep all your postdocs on their toes. Silly he only got that job because the number one on the list turned it down…

The working ethos of the Durham crew! Constructing stratigraphic profiles in the back of the car…

Yet again I tumbled into my bed completely exhausted. I woke up before my alarm went off, and already got out of bed. In the living room I found out I had been confused; it was an hour earlier than I thought. I did not want to get back to bed as that may wake Tasha up, so what could I do? I turned to my microscope. I did realise that microscoping before 7AM is so nerdy it can hardly be described, but hey, the job had to be done.

Antony taking the relaxed approach to fieldwork

And Tasha getting illustrative

This day in the field, which would turn out a nicely sunny one, we would try to round up. Already weeks before the fieldwork Tasha had announced the Durham crew would demand to be out of the field by 5PM, as there would be a rugby game on TV: England-Scotland. The foreigners couldn’t care less, but we were willing to consider giving them a try to convince us that that’s worth watching. Anyway, it was a wrap in good time! Rob the omniscient and his son had joined us again in the field, and now they were also willing to join us for the obligatory band pics. Northerners are reluctant posers! Even if they’re import-Northerners.

Rob being his usual serious self

They don’t like posing but they’re good at it!

At home I insisted on finishing my sample before I would watch that game. Just in time! I tried to make some sense of these hordes of stocky men piling up and groping each other, but it seemed it was a crap game, and not the easiest to make sense of. Marta lost interest after about five minutes and read Agatha Christie instead. Our Brits, on the other hand, got more and more excited. Jumping up, screaming, cursing; it was more telling to look at them than at the screen. Stwange cweatuwes, these English! I presume watching a good game that England wins would really cheer them up; otherwise it would be difficult to grasp why they would want to destroy their good mood for days by watching fumbling Neanderthals hurting each other.

When I took the picture the TV immediately got upset, apparently to the great amusement of Marta. But notice the stern faces of the Brits!

After the game we would meet Rob the Omniscient yet again in the pub. As I cared not for rugby I was the designated driver. During the game the Brits had already imbibed considerably, and in the pub they made it much worse. Tasha seized the opportunity to ruin Rob’s son’s soul yet again (she is almost banned from the island as she did that the previous time as well); this time she used her phone, which had a racing game on it. Even Antony, Rob the O., and me were persuaded to play. Rob, a typical eccentric scientist, was even quite good at it, quite unlike me, who crashed that car so bad I would have killed myself at least 10 times if that had been real driving.

Rob doing the racing game under the frivolous supervision of other Rob

To my horror they kept bringing more and more beer to the table. I wanted to go home! Nothing as annoying as drunk people if you have to stay sober yourself. If we would just go home I could join the debauchery. But nobody as insensitive to the sober as drunk people. Finally I could chauffeur a mess of embarrassing, lumbering, giggling sods home, where they sobered up while I frustratedly turned to a bottle of whisky, resulting in us meeting somewhere in the middle over dinner. And then we called it a day.
We did not need the last day for fieldwork, and we had to leave the cottage at 10, so we just got up and packed. I would first drive Antony and Tasha to Cowes where they would meet yet another Rob, and then pick up the stuff and the Southwesterners. The plan was to have coffee at Rob’s place, and then take a look at “the Needles”; some chalk cliffs off the west coast, and then take an early ferry. And so we did. It’s always great to end up in Rob’s unusual lair. And it really was my lucky day; the previous time I had developed a serious crush on his old fat cat, and this time she seemed waiting for me behind the window… first thing Rob pushed her into my arms. Bliss!

The cat does not look half as happy with the situation as me. Story of my life!

Romance tends to not last, so we were off again. Or maybe because it was such a lovely sunny day. Rob must have been exhausted, hung over, or both, as he was uncharacteristically absolutely useless in navigating me to the aforementioned Needles, but in the end we made it, and had a nice walk in the fresh air. These needles are quite pretty. And then we drove to Plymouth, unloaded the car, and drove home. Time for bed! And for dreaming of a successful fieldwork. There’s a big load of excellent mud now lying in a Durham fridge! And soon we will be locked up in laboratories and offices for months and months in order to process it. But that’s the name of the game. Watch us; we’ll boldly push forward to borders of sea level science!

Needles and charming ladies

How we drove into the sunset, back to Plymouth…


Unknown said...

You should know that Ziltoid is the Omniscient. In fact, if there were to be two Omniscients, Ziltoid would be both of them. Now get him your finest coffee!

... Lourens
(Not making sense today...)

Margot said...

Maybe Rob is Ziltoid in disguise.