29 April 2010

Stem kwijt

If only this blog were still in Dutch! The above would have been a spiffingly witty one. I lost my voice! The whole school (as far as it is around; the building is under construction and lots of people whose windows have been ripped out of their offices are working at home) is revelling in my silence. I feel powerless. I can make some sound but it hurts. Internet is a relief; in this world, my voice is still there...

But I lost not only my voice; I lost also my recently won vote. Same word in Dutch. I received a voting card for the municipal elections. As I should! And then, to my surprise, I got also a voting card for the national elections. I thought a while about that. And then I decided that if I get that right, even though it is by mistake, I will wield it. But yesterday I got an apologetic letter saying that it was all a mishap, and that I was asked to destroy the card. I thought about that too. I decided in the end that as they had righted their wrong I would not try to use it. But then the story was not over.

Suddenly, Roland was on the regional radio. It turned out that all (non-UK) EU citizens in Plymouth had erroneously received a voting card for the national elections. A slight that had something to do with it being the very first time the local and national elections were held on the same day. So Roland had gotten one too. And had also gotten quite enthusiastic about voting here. And apparently had already bugged his MP about this years ago. Why only give a vote to citizens, and not to long-term residents too? Let them choose whether they feel more connected to politics in their home country or their country of residence. Within the EU, it might quite possibly even out. Who knows. The Brits are crazy enough to not have proportional representation. I hope they change that. And who can tell, maybe one day the voting rules for foreign residents will change as well...

25 April 2010

Two worlds

In England, a very civilised country with remarkably few active volcanoes, surging glaciers, earthquakes, poisonous snakes, and the likes, the most dangerous entities are, by my estimate, humans. Humans either encapsulated in a mass of metal called car, or just humans with a bad temper, or humans who have difficulty coping and who have access to intoxicating substances or some other detrimental phenomenon. And probably one of the environments in which it is most likely to get hurt without active involvement of other humans, or self-destructive intentions of the human we are ourselves, would perhaps be the underground realm.

In caves you can easily slip. After a while of crawling through the mud you become as slippery as an eel in a bucket of snot. And then it can become a challenge to control your movements on a sloping flowstone, for example. And yes I do speak from experience. You can also just trip, or get stuck, or get lost, or a combination of the above.

In mines you can drop through a rotten floor, you can get a collapsing ceiling on your head, your mates might trigger a small landslide that however is easily big enough to take out a human, you may overlook a flooded shaft in murky waters, you may again get lost…

The Brits have organised society such that all risk is minimised. You think that in the Netherlands this is taken too far? The Brits take it at least as far, and probably further. The kayaking club is an example. It’s no coincidence there is hardly anything on kayaking on this blog; they are so obsessed with safety it is difficult to do anything fun with them. And I have more to do, so I haven’t made it across the threshold.

Caving is, in my eyes, much more dangerous than kayaking. So how would anyone let someone like me into an English mine? That would be very anomalous. You’d expect to need a thick package of certificates, and then still fill in a load of forms before you go anywhere at all. And does it work that way?


The Caving group, or rather the entire caving society as I have gotten to know it, is an enclave of non-English pragmatism within England. If you want to join the caving group and its trips, the only thing you need is insurance. Once you have that you can go anywhere. And of course all trips must be, and are, lead by a certified cave leader, but the rest can be as wet behind the ears as they want. And that’s how I ended up dangling from a rope in a gaping hole with equipment I had never used before, after about a month of caving experience. And there are limits, I presume; there are places, mainly caves, where I think they won’t take novices along, but as most people simply don’t like doing things that are too dangerous for their level of skill, so far I have seen only self-regulation in function. And in such a world you can train with the rescue team only five months after having caved for the very first time. They know I don’t easily panic, am fairly familiar with ropes and with uneven terrain, and am in fairly good shape. And what more do you need? A pile of diplomas? No!

However. Trips need to be lead by a certified cave leader, and we have only few, so I was wondering if I could become one. And soon I found out on the British Caving Association website that you need two years of caving experience before you can enrol in a course that leads to this certificate. Two years! An eternity. At first I was disappointed.

And then relief set in. I realised that I had been working in academia for quite a while now, and that I have become familiar with the scenario that repeats itself every so many years: you start a new job working on a new topic, and you are expected to be a leading expert in that field almost instantaneously. Graduate in structural geology, and then accept a PhD job on monsoon reconstruction. That’s hard work! And then, when you’re finished, accept a postdoc job on Barents Sea ecology. From never having seen an Arctic benthic foram to publishing about them in almost no time. Exhausting. And then hop onward, now into the field of sea level reconstruction. I’m always running.

And now suddenly I have found a world where I can, no, have to, just faf around for two years before anyone expects me to know anything at all! In a way, that’s quite comfortable, actually… so caving not only is a realm where English panic does not penetrate, it s also a realm where academic demands do not penetrate! The perfect escapism, in other words…

24 April 2010

Caving taken further

On the website of the caving group sometimes suddenly “DCRO training” appears. And it doesn’t take much ingenuity to guess DCRO stands for Devon Cave Rescue Organisation. In the beginning I was not too sure what it did there. Then I figured that was possibly even more fun, and more useful, than normal caving. The first opportunity after that I skipped, as the same week also contained the Bedford United trip, and Baker’s Pit, and a committee meeting. And I have to sleep too, sometimes.

In the pub after the Liskeard talk I remembered that some DCRO activity in May was mentioned on the website, and I asked Lionel, one of the DCRO/PCG crossovers, when again it was. And his answer was “this Saturday”! That was not on the list, but I was quite excited. I verified I was welcome as a non-member, and even as the PCG rookie. So Saturday it would be! A search exercise in Pridhamsleigh.

Rupert drove me and Ali there. A whole group of tough people had already gathered! And some less evidently tough people and two dogs. We were briefed by the choreographer of the training. He had hidden an unknown number of artificial victims, in the form of laminated sheets of paper with information on them considering the state of the victim, and what they could tell us. If anything. He told us what the information was we had had from the imaginary police; a bunch of youngsters had been drinking in a nearby pub, had heard about Pridhamsleigh cave and the lake in it, and had decided to go explore. A taxi driver had driven them there, on the way seeing some real cavers, and had been asked to pick them up afterwards at a given time, but they hadn’t shown up. He had contacted the police and they had called us. And there we were!

We would go in in four teams. Four leaders were selected, and they could pick their minions. I was claimed by a guy called Mike I hadn’t met before, and my team mates were Rick, the head honcho of Wheel Russell, and the aforementioned Lionel. We got instructions to search a specific region of the cave. This proved a bit of a challenge, as we had to negotiate nasty drops and holes to get there, but cowardly finding an alternative route we managed anyway. And ended up where we had gone the very first time I had been in there! The squeezy bit Neil disliked so much. And lo and behold: our first victim. A cold, scared and massively confused character. We brought him back to the surface, where we found out about half of the victims (from the less confused specimens we had learned how many there were) had been found by now. In the sun at the entrance of the cave was our coordination centre; all groups reported back to them, so they could update instructions to every quartet of muddy, sweaty types. So we went back in again and again, searching the strangest and tightest corners and crevasses in the cave. And there’s many of them! It was great to see so much of it, and do so much unusual crawling and sloshing and wedging and climbing. And sometimes be rewarded with another laminated victim.

In the course of the exercise the picture became clearer. More victims were found and gave information. And unexpected finds were made! One guy had the brilliant idea to also check other holes nearby. Would a bunch of random drunks necessarily immediately have found Prid? Maybe not! And indeed, one was found behind the locked gate of Dog’s Hole. Joke from the choreographer; the idea was that the real cavers the taxi driver had seen had gone there, so the drunks found the gate open. Only one made it past the uncomfortable squeeze that gave the cave its name, and the rest abandoned the site. And the cavers had not seen the one intruder, and had locked up upon leaving...

Mike and Lionel with a victim in his hands

Having thus realised they were spread out further than initially anticipated, Mike and I set out to explore what’s called “little Prid” while Rick and Lionel went into some other auxiliary void. After about ten meters of belly-crawling Mike said that it was no use looking any further; the organising guy would never venture into such tight places so there would be no victims there. I thought that was a crap argument and I, very uncomfortably, crawled on, a bit at a loss as there were so many ways to go! But I just tried some. And what caught my eye? A victim! The last one, it would turn out. Good. I was getting tired and thirsty.

We debriefed. We talked all the victims through; how would we treat every single one? Some we could just lead out, but some first needed a medical check, and some needed to be monitored while more serious medical assistance could be fetched. One victim had a leg crushed underneath a rock... that’s beyond our expertise.

After debriefing we could refresh and regroup in the pub. The first stop was the river; an excellent place for washing out very, very muddy garments. We were all soaked to the waist anyway, so walking into the stream did nothing to ameliorate our condition. It looked like a scene from centuries gone by; people rinsing, beating and treading on textile in the village river...

We also washed the mud from our faces and arms. Then we were ready for changing and a pint! It was interesting to chat away with these guys, who tended to be rescue veterans. They had experienced many great and horrible things! And I look forward to training with them again. I cannot become a cave leader anywhere soon, but strangely enough a cave rescuer needs fewer qualifications...

22 April 2010

Dust in your cereal

War is raging, people are starving; not only in poor countries but even in Birmingham, the sea is rising, the ocean acidifies, people go to prison for horrible crimes they haven’t committed, people do not go to prison in spite of horrible crimes they have committed, countless species go extinct, science has started to learn how to give blind people their eyesight back, a transvestite runs tens of marathons in a row for altruistic reasons, love is found and lost, volcanoes erupt. In other words: there’s countless many shocking, amazing, ground shaking things going on.

And beside that there’s even more trivial nonsense going on. People earning a living researching what people think of dust in their cereals. People researching the very phenomenon of dust in cereal. Who design packaging for cereals on which attention is drawn to the presence or absence of aforementioned dust.

Is this a good or a bad thing? In a way it is good; a society that can afford spending time on such things has no real problems, you would say. Maybe the person doing all this work in this way manages to make a decent living for him- or herself and some loved ones, which cannot be taken for granted. But I can’t help but wonder if we don’t just make ourselves believe we have no real problems, and that we have time for this. And I wonder what could be possible if we would all stop wasting time on such evident nonsense, and dedicate it to something more useful. If we pool all the energy that is squandered by such trivia, could we, for instance, not take major steps in the direction of a sustainable society?

If I wouldn’t be such a geek as to think counting microfossils and writing about them is important enough, I might otherwise have acquired a more substantial idea of why and how we could and should improve ourselves, by reading the following books… perhaps plugging them here inspires someone (including myself) to make that effort!

Both books taken from earthscan.co.uk; the website of a publisher of, well, that kind of books...

The other way around

I blogged it already months ago: Tuesday is Caveday. That is, after all the usual obligations of my university job. But sometimes things suddenly work out differently.

This week’s caving trip was going to be a talk about the industrial archaeology of the Tamar Valley. But on Monday I received an email from Neil, saying he was going to go underground, and if I was interested in joining. Neil the caving lawyer? No! One of our senior professors, who was taking his students to a touristy cave, where interesting palaeo-anthropological research had been done. Afterwards he would take them to a beach for some related palaeo-environmental reflections. That sounded cool! I like going underground, I like going into the field, and I like a chance to have something to do with the students. It’s not in my contract, so anything is bonus.

So this Tuesday morning I arrived on the campus in my quick dry trousers and hiking boots. Good for a day at work, and maybe a bit underdressed for the caving activity afterwards! A strange idea.

We set off in a coach to Torbay. The whole front of the bus was full of eager employees… at the cave another lecturer joined us, and we were complete. This overdose of staff (3 permanent guys) meant we juniors (4, and all female; typical!) would not have to be worried about whether our knowledge of cave bears or shell beds was sufficient; it takes less than three men to satisfy the rather negligible curiosity of 28 students. So it was just a day out. Fun anyway!

In the cave we got the standard tour by a guide. Nowadays it was a tourist trap with some small patches of excavations going on, but in the 19th century it had been the site of groundbreaking science performed by still celebrated regional heroes. And besides being an archive it was also a nice dripstone cave; partially still active.

The "face" in the wall

The archaeologists had dug right through a thick layer of flowstone

A mesolithic (?) torch!

After emerging from the cave we walked to the beach. The choir of complaints about having to walk very far (several minutes!) and even negotiating some topography nicely confirmed some of my prejudice against English students, of which many had not bothered to don themselves in shoes that consisted of more than some cotton and a trace of rubber.

We managed to reach the beach, though; there Neil’s first priority was finding the specific sediments he wanted to illustrate his point with. I scurried off in some direction too, not finding anything to his liking, but really enjoying the rocky coast and the deformed rocks, and even a closed off entrance to something. A cave, a mine? After coming to a dead end I came back to the group, to have lunch in the sun. Neil turned out to have found his sediments without the insubstantial help of easily distracted people like me.

The whole succession of deformed rock, consolidated sediments, and unconsolidated sediments on top told an interesting story of environmental vicissitude on many scales, which utterly failed to entice the majority of the students. Neil did his best, but there is only so much one can do.

Neil widely gesturing to the students, backed up by two jaded doctors

It was good I had no important role to play, for on the way back I got annoyed by flocks of panicky kids waiting for Neil at any junction on the path. Which way to go? Anything to avoid finding your own way! Maybe you end up walking 10 meters too much! I was happy to leave this inert bunch for a while and take the short route back on my own. But then again, I probably was equally sheep-like as a student…

So what had I learned? Not that much about the students. More likely I learned what Neil wanted thém to learn. But it had been a nice day out!

After a short interval behind my desk it was time to reverse the day. I swapped Neils, and together we set off in the opposite direction. After a nice trip (roof open! Sun and high speed!) we got an excellent talk, and a good pint of Black Prince afterwards. An unusual day, but a good one!

19 April 2010

One soul saved

God knows everybody needs a hand in their decisions; some of us are not so sure...
The Sisters of Mercy already sang it. Sometimes one needs a push in the right directions. Especially at a tender age. At real tender ages one hopes to have parents around to provide such a push. But sometimes, even parents are not so sure.

Rolands daughter would turn 1, and I was invited to the party. And I had been thinking what to give her. First world children tend to have much more than they care for, so giving them something that really adds to their lives is hard. And then I knew.

Maria is English, and Roland has turned English-ish. So I suspected they might, with all their good intentions, allow Rosa to grow up in a horrid, painful void. Of bicyclelessness. And that must not happen! One is a good age to start biking, or rather, triking. So I engaged in a crusade to the toyshop around the corner and purchased a tricycle. And indeed, she didn't have one yet! But she liked it! Her legs are too short to reach the pedals, but that will sort itself out soon enough, and until that time she may employ parents, since they are good for pushing. Perhaps that pristine soul is saved now!

16 April 2010

First batch of samples done!

Time to space, and space to time. When we are on fieldwork, we tend to take a core that holds ~500 years worth of sediment, and sample it. So every sample represents a parcel of time. Typically 5 to 10 years.

We also take surface sediments. These are all taken in what can be rounded off as the same time. But they are taken at different elevations. A sample typically represents a 1 to 3 cm parcel of vertical space. And then you can compare! Do wild statistics, and produce impressive graphs.

The Icelandic core had already been done before I started working on the project, so I started working on the surface samples. And after we had gone to the Isle of Wight I switched to these samples. And I hope to soon get the core samples from there. Lots, lots, LOTS of samples! But this week I clenched my teeth and did all the Icelandic surface samples I still intended to do (some of them do not bear any resemblance to the core samples, so we can't use them). I counted 12.570 foram in total! And it feels good to have that behind me.

The last sample!

Not that I will get any rest now; I need to process that data. And process the grain size data I produced in the previous year. And beside that I still have 32 uncounted 5cc samples from the Isle of Wight, and I so far I have had foram abundances up to 3000 specimens per cc... but still. A modest milestone!

14 April 2010

Baker's pit

No baker to be seen! But some sort of a vertical sewage pipe was clearly discernible in some nondescript meadow. And of course we went in. Another rare cave in my caving life, which mainly deals with mines.

It was, in a way, the brother cave of Pridhamsleigh; a frequently visited, large and confusing, windy, squeezy and intensely muddy dripstone cave. And as it goes with frequently visited dripstone caves; all fragile formations had long been destroyed. But there was still a lot of beauty to see!

After climbing down the shaft we soon found ourselves in a room with one fragile phenomenon still intact: a permanent drip from the ceiling that had not created a stalagmite, but cave pearls. I’m not entirely sure how they are generated, but they are pretty! Just like the whole patch of white precipitate they were seen in.

We crawled, climbed, slid and walked our way through the maze. Dripping with sweat, as it was very warm and moist in there. In one of the larger rooms, where the men did not run away in all sorts of directions for a while, I got the opportunity to do some playing with the flash. And with acceptable results!

A picture taken soon after entrance; it can be seen that I am already quite sweaty, and that I had tried to wipe some sweat away that was about to drip into my eyes. Which incidentally gave me beautiful eyeshadow!

Luckily, quite many cave formations are fairly pillowy in shape, so they are fairly vandal-proof. And running water always makes for nice pics!

 Rupert unclearly demonstrating a squeezy bit in the cave system

Rupert again unclearly posing. To the right you can clearly see the steam coming from me, reflecting the light of the flash of the camera itself…

Richard and Jed, caught in a rare moment they are not running and snaking around

It was only two days ago I had been underground, but I had had Baker’s pit on my wish list for a while. And it was worth it! But that was enough for a week. Time now to recover, and get lots of work done!

I looked questionable again after coming out, especially after changing to civilian clothes...

Accidental church

Incineration as a beauty treatment. Maybe it's because I'm Dutch, and grew up among well-kempt, well-maintained, minutely planned and carefully trimmed things, that I think many things (not all!), including buildings, often increase in beauty if they have been on fire.

I was simply looking on Google Maps for the place where we would meet for the weekly caving trip. Next to the church, Richard had said. And the church was easily found. But there was something odd about it. It did not seem to have a roof!

I arrived punctually on a sultry spring evening. A slightly less punctual caver was still expected. So I took my chance, and had a look around. The church lies on top of a hill that has not much more development on it. The plot of land is owned by pheasants. At least, that is the impression you get from the way they prance around, rowdily disturb the silence, and flirt ostentatiously. A special place!

Back in the normal world with buildings unaffected by fire I had a look on internet how this church had met its fate. And there was much to it! The devil seems to be prominently present on the Moors, and has been known to personally try to obstruct the building of Christian churches. He seems to have tried, in vain, to sabotage the building of the church Neil and I tried (also in vain) to reach on that bright snowy December day, and also of this one. In spite of his fruitlessness, his high profile in the surroundings attracted the attention of fans, and many an evil deed has been performed under the grim Tors.

Back to the burnt out church. On its graveyard lies buried a man whose morality, or rather, lack of it, is still not forgotten, though centuries have passed by since his demise. It seems that he still haunts the place. And indirectly, he haunts the world; apparently it was his ghost story that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write "the hound of the Baskervilles". True? I don't know.

The evil deeds of the buried man, who allegedly murdered his wife, even though she survived him by 14 years, may be a bit shady. More recent events, though, are more solidly defined; it seems not te be doubted that when the church burned down in 1992, this was due to arson. And the fire brigade had some difficulties dealing with this fire, as on this fairly barren hill not much water is found. And after thus having burned out completely, it was never rebuilt.

The caves underneath the church seem to have their share of evil influences too. I noticed none. Nor did I meet the ghost of the buried squire and his hounds. But I was impressed enough to grant this ruin a blogpost of its own! And I have made a mental note that some day soon I should visit Brent Tor, the other church wrestled from the claws of Beelzebub...

12 April 2010

Caving bigtime stylee

Caving, that’s walking into a mine, sloshing through waist-deep water, taking a few pictures, and walking out again, isn’t it? Well, not always. Sometimes you don’t get around to making many pictures. And sometimes the rest differs a bit too.

The entrance, seen from inside.

And seen from the outside in. The little spark in the distance is Dave fixing a rope to the wall.

We gathered at ten in the morning on my first weekend trip. I got out my brand new waterproof bag and chest harness and geared up. The entrance already was promising! Evidently, the lode it was all about was thick and subvertical. And that tends to lead to impressive, gaping cracks in the rock, with gloomy, rotting beams to support the walls. And indeed. And this time, either the rock or the panelling was not of very good quality, as after only a few tens of meters the floor had given way for the first time. A ladder was draped over the gaping hole, and as that may not suffice for safe passage we needed to start rigging. The experienced cavers did that in a whiffy, of course, and soon I crossed, a bit wobbly still, in the beginning. And then immediately afterwards we had to SRT (Single Rope Technique) up. And then crawl through a low tunnel, the middle of which had collapsed, simultaneously avoiding falling down and avoiding disturbing the tens of bats dangling from the ceiling. Climb down all sorts of holes that were not dangerous enough for a rope, but still tricky enough for some sweat. And that was only the beginning.

Dave rigging, seen from somewhat closer

We went down a shaft, in brotherly symbiosis with a waterfall. I like such things! The shaft ended in crotch deep water. And from there it was fairly standard. For a while.

Pic by Dave

At some point we came across a waterfall, with some half-serious rope dangling in it. Some tough, unshaven blokes from the Cornwall caving group (it was a joint trip) didn’t think twice about it and ran up. It didn’t look too Health & Safety to me, but heck, I don’t like Health & Safety, so I followed. From there we could go on! So we did. And soon after found a vertical shaft with an old chain ladder in. We could go up! And on! So we did. And we came to some hole. Now what? Go in, of course! The men climbed on top of each other in order to reach some accidental bolt we could hang the rope from, and one of them went down to explore. In the meantime we figured that the rest had not bothered to follow. Oh well, we would find them back.

In an old coppermine you always get nice blue and green stuff!

The guy who had gone down judged it was not worth it. So we balanced over a loose plank to get over the hole. And found another hole with a loose plank. And a hole where the rock had collapsed, but the rails still hung on. We negotiated it all! These guys stop at nothing. Quite often we had nothing other than ourselves to secure the rope on. But we made it without any mishap.

Amazing old engineering too, in this one. Pics by Dave.

At some point, on some unstable slope, we reached a dead end. A what? The men immediately scurried off into all sorts of possible side-tunnels or arbitrary holes in wall, floor, or ceiling, but it seemed that they were all dead ends. And we figured the others might be getting slightly impatient... so we rope-danced back to the waterfall, where my lamp batteries died. The men were really helpful, and shone their lights where I was going. Health and safety? Ah well, this time I actually attached myself to the rope. By the light of my torch I made it down some more waterlogged, unstable slopes, until there was a quiet bit where I could swap batteries. Next time I bring hundreds of these! This new lamp is great, but it sucks the batteries empty in next to no time.

The ceiling, or lack of it, where Dave was waiting for us. Pic by Dave

Soon after we met Dave again, who had simply fallen asleep when we kept him waiting. I was quite glad that we were on our way back by then, as I hadn’t figured we would be down there so long, and hadn’t brought any lunch or water. I’d had coffee and muesli that day... not enough to last you to the night. And I had plenty in the car! The others were wiser, and had some snacks while we discussed politics and divorce laws. As you do, half a mile into a hill!

Pic by Dave

We went back. The only time I had done SRT before it took us ours to come back up. But this was a dream team of SRT heroes, and everybody simply ran up. And the rest of the obstacle course was no issue at all, of course. It was 5PM by the time I was back in daylight. And it would take quite a while longer before we were out of there; the last man had to undo all the rigging. We waited, cleaned our gear, took a leak, and then my car beckoned. It had dry clothes and food in it! Food!

Coming up the shaft again. Pic by Dave

The Cornwall men drove off, and the Plymouth crew decided to find a pub. Two attempts to find an open one, one pint, and my satnav trying to direct me back over Tamar bridge (which is a toll bridge, and I had forgotten my wallet) resulted in me being home at 9PM. What a day!

Pic by Dave

Devon Great Consols was really impressive. The big SRT up and down was much more eerie and vast. But all together, this was more spectacular. Too bad though that I needed all the batteries I had with me for the lamp. Not much power left for my flash! And without a flash you don’t get very far in such a stuffy cave. So this trip I mostly keep to myself! Even with few pictures I don’t think I’ll soon forget...