30 September 2010

Keep running

I don’t like running. It’s the most boring thing one can do. Only meters of it make me wonder what the hell I am doing, and where my bike is.

That was one of the certainties of my life. But no more! Being desperate for low-threshold exercise in this not very physical world, and having more colleagues who do run than who don’t, got me trying it. And I liked it. Even though my hamstrings protested loudly. When Jon (temporarily) stopped I did too, but after Norway I was more desperate than ever and looked for another running mate, and I found Ferret. We’re not as equivelocitary as Jon and me, but Ferret actually runs. And by now we’ve ran four times already! My hamstrings have gotten used to it. And it even has a side effect: as we run aftyer work instead of in between, we have dinner together afterwards, which is nice, and helps against the worst of scientific hermitship.

Some other colleagues even drew my attention to a 10 km run for charity. I thought that might be a bit far for my novice body. But then I ran 8.5 km with Ferret without being tired. It’s that the run is in a weekend that I have guests, but otherwise I may well have subscribed! I’m not sure what’s happening to me, but something’s changing. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to motivate myself for running, and then it will really be a source of low-threshold exercise. We’ll see!

All one wants underground

Some trips just have it all. This trip did. It started out as two ladies going for a quiet cup of coffee in a sophisticated country pub. Before the night was over, there would be episodes of epic mud, deep water, flying cavers, and hardcore tempting.

Dave had asked me to give Marina a ride, and we are both so punctual it isn't punctual anymore, so we had to kill some time. What better way to do that than to enjoy a cup of coffee. Very nice! Lots of men to gossip up on, as well. With surprising outcome! Marina was convinced I had a man here. She knew that, as I had spent the recent easter dinner enthusiastically talking to this man. And indeed I had spent quite some time talking to a gentleman of undeniable charm, though I was not aware of a deeper meaning of this. And there had been no other men near, so this must have been the one. And it was nobody other than our Hugh! I must be a cunning one, as his wife was sitting next to me, and she didn't complain...

Hugh, apparently the man in my life.

But enough about men: we had a mine to mind. So we went to the meeting point, got geared up, and tried to follow Lionel down. It was a bit of a scramble, which is fun, and the mine was pretty all around! I decided to try to take pictures with 15 second shutter time, which was a success and which I will do more often, but which restricts you a bit. You need a place to put the camera down, and the others are supposed to stay away.

I should have realised before my camera has this possibility! And next time not forget my tripod.

One of the places where I had a try (though with only moderate success) was a flooded winze. Lionel got carried away, and spoke of crossing it. Crossing? There was hardly any room to stand on the other side. I asked what he possibly would want to do there. His rapid answer was that it was a good spot for extreme champagne drinking. I immediately agreed that that was a splendid idea, but that it would have to be done in style, and he would have to be wearing his tuxedo for that. His response was "well that can be arranged". I want it! I love a mine, I love a man in a tuxedo, would I manage to have both? And if an Englishman promises you something of that kind you can be fairly certain it's empty bluff, but Lionel's only half British... I'm going to try to make this happen! And from my side that would have to include an evening gown, and it will be interesting to make sure such would still look like an evening gown after getting there, but that is of later concern.

Nice-coloured flowstone never ceases to fascinate

Then we went into a tunnel so full of mud Rick would have been proud of us. One can only negotiate these in one way: a cartoonesque one. On the other side of the mud Lionel  found an interesting little climb. And my rule of thumb is: don't let Lionel have all the fun for himself! So knowing it was not the wisest thing to do I followed. And a scramble lead us back to above the very muddy part. Lionel started coming down, displaying polished climbing technique, until he slipped. And then it was 9.81m/s2 down. Into the mud! Luckily he landed well (though it would have been quite funny had he landed face-down), but I knew such a move would quite likely end in weeks on crutches for me. I announced going back the way I had come, but I hadn't reckoned with Lionel and Finbar, who gallantly helped my fragile body coming down in a more controlled manner.

More people wanting to photograph the flowstone

By then we had lost the others, but that was anticipated and taken care of, so we went to the nearest exit, which had another treat for us (though not welcomed by us all): waist-deep water! And through the brambles we made our way back to the cars, where we met the others. And together we went to the pub for a pint, and for making lots of plans for more trips like this. Excellent! And would there one day be an extreme champagne drinking trip? Only time can tell...

29 September 2010

Work as far as the eye can see

The first will be the last! Queen becomes maid. So far, if we had gone on fieldwork, it was often Durham university that was responsible. And with that responsibility comes the organisation, the paying, and the material handling. There's one thing Durham University always does in this project, and that's diatom analysis, and one thing University of Plymouth always does, and that's foraminifera analysis. But there's all sorts of things in addition to that we have to do with the material. Subsampling it for 14C analysis. Subsampling for ICPMS. Subsampling for the analysis the other university does. Doing grain size analysis. Loss on ignition. 210Pb dating. Tephrochronology, if applicable. Whatnot!

So far I'd gotten away lightly. So far only Iceland had been our responsibility, and for Iceland a lot of analyses had already been done within the framework of an earlier study. And if a site is Durham's responsibility I just get the foram sub-samples, and can leave the rest in Tasha's capable hands. But the USA field sites, which were the real deal, were ours. And us, that would be Roland and me, where Roland basically is for the funding and the inspiration, and I am for doing the work. So there it was. Tens of kilo's of mud. And countless many analyses, many of which unknown to me, to be performed on these.

And it's not as if I have nothing to do. I have to do tephrochronology on the Iceland core (help!). I have most of the Scottish samples to count. I have counted the Isle of Wight core only on half the maximum resolution. I have loads of unfinished articles in the pipeline. I have to give presentations once in a while. But now I have the USA mud. And it's fun, but it's hectic, as well! And thus I ended spending what everybody thinks will have been the last beautiful day before the eternal rains of autumn start toiling in the lab. I could see the sun go down behind my sterilin tubes, sample splitters, wash-bottles, and sieves. But I got the sub-sampling done! And as I write this Tasha has received her samples. Not that she would be bored without them; her to do list is as long as mine. But the project now really is at full speed. And given a large enough amount of coffee this will keep me fired up, probably all the way to the end. Bring it on!

26 September 2010

Save the virtuous lady

Once, there was a virtuous lady. Her beauty was renowned! So much so, that people came from far and away to violate her. When the king heard of this, he decided this should come to an end. He was recovering from injury, so he could not ride out and save her himself. But he had a legion of heroes at his command, and he called upon a man of special skill, named Batman, to take this noble task upon his shoulders. Batman was given the aid of a handful of helpers, and together they travelled on a sunny day to the realm of beauty and destruction to make this world a better place.

What did Batman and his sidekicks plan to do? The idea was to construct a robust chastity belt, so the lady would remain unmolested. The lady, however, was of impressive size, so doing this would be a gargantuan task. The start of this project would be to make a template in malleable material, carry that back to a blacksmith, let him make the final product, and then go back to fit it on the lady. And we would get the key, of course.

Did I say we? I did! This story is a tale from the here and now. So told in less grandiloquent tone, what is it about? Must be some underground space involved, wouldn’t there... and yes there is.

Virtuous Lady mine was renowned for its pretty crystals. Mineral hunters would trespass over the farm on which land the entrance is, and nick the minerals. And they would stop at nothing to get more. They had even been using explosives, this to the displeasure of the family living right above it. So the house owner and the Devon and Cornwall Underground Council decided to close it off with a gate. So one day I got an email from a gentleman called King, which had gone out to the Southwest caving community, to ask who could help with this. He was recovering from surgery and had to take it easy himself.

For some reason or other, it ended up being me who organised things. Maybe because I’m an eager rookie. Anyway. I’d never even been there, so I needed veterans to help me out, if only for finding the actual mine entrance. The guy who would know what the plan was was one of our Daves, generally known as the Batman, as he is a bat conservationist. Lionel, Rupert and another Dave would help out too.

I bought two slabs of hardboard of eight by four foot; this would serve as the malleable material. I thought I’d just lay them on my roof rack, strap them down, and drive away. That was naive. The eight foot long floppy sheets neatly draped themselves over my windscreen and rear window. Bugger! Luckily, I got some lengths of timber to go with the hardboard; lying on top of these the sheets stayed out of my line of sight.

On the day itself I picked up Rupert, made him help me load up the hardboard again, drove to the top of the track to the mine, picked up the other men too, saw them leave the car only tens of meters on as the track was so rough the car hardly could make it while empty, parked like a woman, and then we could start.

 Dave fitting the hardboard sheet in the entrance; there's another Dave on the other side of the hardboard...

We carried the hardboard down and started on the furthest entrance. The Daves were on fire. We made an amazing template with a door in place, using the timber. The non-Daves had no idea what other entrance we would tackle, so we had a relaxed time, sometimes handing drills or screws or sawing hardboard, but mostly just enjoying the scenery and discussing politics.

Lionel and I took the opportunity to crawl around in some other holes

When that was done we moved on to the other one. That was quite something else! Huge, and with a vertical drop. We did what we could. And fairly soon we could take the reshaped hardboard back to the car, strap it to the roof again, and sit down at the riverbank for lunch. I had had a properly domestic and caring instinct-loaded mood the day before, and baked a cake. That came in handy, as Lionel had left his lunch in his car. But we decided that being a DCUC deckhand was not a bad job at all, if it gets you having cake in the sun at the river in good company. And after lunch Dave (not the batman) and Lionel left, the first as he had been in this mine already countless many times before, and the other as he had work to do in his own garden as well.

The other entrance, which was a bit more of a challenge... 

Here some violence was needed

Rupert, Batman and me got our gear in place and went in. I had never been in, and Rupert not very often. And we did not see very remarkable crystals (maybe that’s why people had been resorting to dynamite), but it was a pretty mine. A confusing one, as well. Dave was not dressed to wetness, so he let Rupert and me go through a flooded passage alone. And we marvelled at the maze behind it, but it took us some puzzling before we managed to find the way back. We then went into the other entrance, which was dry, but which quickly lead to places we had already reached from the other side. On the way I also learned the difference between a greater and lesser horseshoe bat. And then we were out!

On the way back I had to be flagged of the road by Dave, who had been driving behind me, and who deemed the hardboard still had a few degrees of liberty too many. But that was quickly fixed, and then we could deliver the stuff to Dave who had volunteered for storing it, and call it a day.

Let’s hope the metalworkers involved get these gates made soon, and we can guarantee this Lady her chastity again!

20 September 2010

Working conditions

I bought them before the Euro era. They cost me ƒ2.50. That's hardly more than €1. And they must have served me almost 10 years, if not more. I'm talking about speakers. I just bumped into a dirt-cheap set of computer speakers and as my desktop was mute at the time, I figured that having sound at my desk would be a neat idea.

I still think sound at my desk is a neat idea. But these speakers, that never were cutting edge, by now were off the edge; they were more or less kept together with sellotape, and the sound quality did not improve because of that. So I got my act together, judged them retired, and went to buy a new set. And when I was at it anyway, I bought a set of portable speakers as well.

My desk new style! The tweeters (is that the word?) are evident, but try to also notice the woofer, almost hidden behind the post-it on my monitor...

Arty-farty picture of a tweeter

I now solidly look forward to office work. The sound quality in there now is as good as in my living room! And if I'm doing stuff from my netbook (as long as it's not demanding a solid internet connection) I have nice sound as well. I like! It's another burst of materialism, but I enjoy it...

And my "home office"; greatly improved!

18 September 2010

Journey home

The trip back to Blighty after our USA fieldwork started well! Tasha and I found the airport without problems, delivered the rental car back, and checked in. But when the US airways employee gave me a hand getting my sediment-core-weighted backpack to the conveyor belt one of the shoulder straps snapped. Rats. I also had my hand luggage, and my heavy NP-bag on wheels. How was I supposed to get that thing through London Paddington if I could not wear it on my back? But that would have to be something to worry about when I got there.

First we flew to Philadelphia. I snoozed all the way until they announced the imminent landing, which coincided with a view on beautiful New Jersey (at least, I assume that’s where we met land again). And in Philly we had a hearty lunch (with sea-weed salad! Not only good, but also nicely reminiscent of salt marshes) and then a long wait. Tasha snugly descended into a podcasted image of her beloved Stephen Fry (or rather, everybody’s beloved Stephen Fry), while I read, surfed and tried to work (indeed, less glamorous, what else is new?). But the hours obediently crawled by, and it was time for the third and last goodbye of this last fieldwork. We had different flights back...

More salt marshes! And is it just me or do they look like a face?

Salman Rushdie and sleep got me over the ocean, and soon I was able to greet my luggage again, happily concluding that the other strap had held. Velvet-handed luggage handlers in Philadelphia, apparently! I trollied the ~67 kg of luggage to where I had to leave this coveted aid behind, and there engaged in emergency backpack surgery. I had wisely kept the duct tape on me! And it was soon proven that a few loops of duct tape could hold the over 34 kg of sediment the bag contained. That made life easy!

The battered-looking backpack in the fancy Heathrow express...

London Paddington gave me brunch and nice people, and the latter continued in the train. I ended up having environmental discussions with an Australian lady whose children had a talent for accidentally locking themselves up in the toilet. As you do. Plymouth showed a tougher face with moody-looking people happily letting me, humongous backpack and all, open the doors (these trains only open from the outside, so if you have to show yourself out you have to open the window, lean out, and clumsily fondle the handle) and not at all inclined to step a millimetre aside to let anyone off the train. And with this luggage weight more than my own the steep slope to the university was somewhat unpleasant as well. But minutes later I could unload our precious sediments into the cold store. Mission accomplished! That feels good.

Walking home I updated Roland, who had chosen to travel from Heathrow by car ( a choice I was glad to not have made), and soon afterwards, about 27 hours after departure from our Bangor motel, I could conclude with some relief (I have to admit I don’t live in the best of neighbourhoods) that my car was still there and my house was unburgled. That feels good too! So now I have to shake off the jetlag I undoubtedly have to a certain extent, do some bonding between my neglected bicycle and my over-fed, somewhat over-alcholocized and certainly over-airported body, and get rocking in the lab!

17 September 2010

Thelma & Louise in Maine

“You drive or I drive?” I of course said “you drive”. Tasha’s response was: “great; let the novice drive”. But having been offered a choice I did not feel bad about that.

We had just said goodbye to Roland. The fieldwork was over, but there were some days left, and Tasha and I would enjoy these, before returning all the borrowed kit to Maine University and flying back. And Tasha, who had had her driver’s license for only two months, and had never driven on the right side of the road before, would drive to Portland, Maine. And as I suspected, she did an excellent job.

In New England (and who knows, maybe in the rest of the States too) they use Dutch flags as "open" signs... this picture was taken in Portland

Some people are born to drive, while others aren’t, and while I never really started to enjoy driving Tasha’s only issue with it was that she didn’t approve of the speed limit. And shows a profound disregard of the phenomenon handbrake.

In York village, which evidently was a tourist trap, we had lunch. We still hadn’t had Maine lobster yet, and you basically must while in the state, so we tried a lobster sandwich for lunch. Good stuff! Then the road took us to Portland, where we checked into the beautiful hotel, and went off to explore the town.

Maine lobster as an excellent sandwich!


The York Village lighthouse

Portland has the name of being somewhat quirky and European-ish and left-wing, and, well, it is. I liked it! We walked the length and breadth of the peninsula that holds the city centre, admiring the grand old wooden houses, the fortress in the sea, and so many more things we got fairly hungry. So when we passed by a pizza restaurant that released enticing odours into the street air we yielded and went for it. It was the most hippie pizzeria I’d ever seen! But the food was excellent, and they had all sorts of local microbrews on the menu as well. We like.

Tasha has a special talent for finding very stylish hotels for low prices

We wanted to walk past one quay that allegedly had never burnt down, quite unlike most of the rest of the city, and it didn’t look much older than the rest to me, but it was very, very scenic, in a sort of stray cat-infested, fish-smelling, dilapidated, deserted kind of way. The cameras came out. And then it was time to find a beer pub mentioned in Tasha’s Rough guide. We found it, and enjoyed excellent beers. They had more than one can possibly imagine! And almost only obscure beers. I failed to recognise most of the Dutch, Belgian and Norwegian beers, and on the other nationalities I had no chance at all. Remember the name Bavik Petrus if you like sour beer!

In Portland, things apparently burn down a lot. And yhey're not always restored. These were probably quays of sorts...

Hippie pizzeria in Portland


Silliness in the beer pub. Pic by Tasha

The next morning we started the day in proper geek style; way before breakfast the computers came out. Tasha had a poster to finish, and I had things to blog. But shortly after breakfast we went after all. And we pleasantly drove to Rangeley, where we would spend the next two nights. We hoped to be able to do a hike that afternoon, and then go canoeing the next day. It was fairly late, though, by the time we found a half-decent maps with some hiking trails on, and we decided on a short one. The tourist information lady said the hike up the mountain of our choice would take 1.5-2 hours, so we Europeans did it in 45 minutes. It was pretty! It would be much prettier if there wouldn’t have been all these trees there; bare rock is more beautiful, but one cannot have it all. I could hardly complain since this still counts as work!

On top of Bald Mountain, that disappointingly wasn't bald!

We went back down, and this time I would drive. Hadn’t done that in the States yet. Tasha took over navigation. We would first hop by at the canoe rental for information (they got us enthusiastic) and then drive back over a road that seemed to be frequented by moose. It was more of a detour than we had thought! But then it was even longer, and we became suspicious. It turned out we had missed a left turn back, and we were driving out of the world. We had been joking about being Thelma and Louise, but now we were really heading south, bound for Mexico (be it Mexico, ME). It took us hours to get back. We had initially thought to have a beer on the porch at our return, but now it was pitch dark and we were hungry, so we were off to the nearest pub where they did food. It was a proper dubious American sports bar with questionable food. In which I then forgot my camera. What a day! But upon going back to that pub it was promptly returned to me, and thus the day ended well, in spite of our respective weaknesses. And we were home early enough for me to sit in the parking lot for a while to correct an embarrassing typo in the blog, and write this!

The next day we would go canoeing. When in Rome... so we got dropped off with a canoe, and were told where to leave it. It was fun! We were going downstream, so it’s not sport, but gliding through the wilderness is great. Beside the odd evidently sawed log in the water you see no evidence of man on the way. We were sad to see the canoe-drop-off-point within two hours.

Living theMaine life

After canoeing we still had half a day left, and we wanted to hike up a mountain. We picked one, and went looking for the start of the trail. The previous trail had been excellently indicated! This one was missing. Our map said “start at the green sign...” but we saw none. I managed to convince Tasha it started at some vague logger’s road, and we gave it a try; it was a clear path, and after 1.5 to 2 hours we did indeed reach the top of the mountain of choice. From there we had an amazing view! Only to be enjoyed by those who managed to stay upright in the strong wind. We then decided to take a different route down, and we figured soon that that was the official path. When we came back to the road we found a fallen-over pole with about a centimetre of green plastic still protruding from it. Not a shame to not have found that one... and this way we got a round trip! All well.

Impression of the woods through which we walked. Pic by Tasha

On top of Azincohos Mountain

On the way back to the hotel we saw three moose on the side of the road... they were not keen on posing for a picture, but it made the Maine experience complete. Blueberries, maple syrup, lobster, canoeing and moose: check! And that list sounds quite Canadian as well but my guess is that that may not differ too much from Maine anyway.
Tasha in her newfound natural habitat

We ended the day with dinner in the restaurant itself, and a port/whisky afterwards. We would probably have another second-last day posing as a last day. The actual last one we may take it easy, to be fresh for the journey back!

The journey went well, even though I wasn’t at my best navigation skills. To Bangor that resulted in a few U-turns, and in Bangor in some old-fashioned circling around the university, but we had plenty of time, and delivered the kit back into Dan’s able hands in a whiffy. We made sure we got some lunch before we got started on repacking... it’s not easy to pack 12 sediment cores of up to 1m long , and tens of surface samples, in civilian luggage. We also tried to check in online and pre-pay our bags, and then we went on a final road trip in order to deliver some desired hike food to Ian, of whom I hope he appreciates the effort...

We had another all-American sports bar dinner, and that effectively was the end of Thelma and Louise. The next day we would turn back into serious scientists again, trying to return to our respective institutes with the fruits of our labour. I'll report on that quest separately. But this encounter with Maine was good! I'm still not convinced I could feel at home here, but they sure do have empty wilderness (although with way too many trees in it) and beautiful animals and lovely people. Getting a chance to explore this was a fun bonus! We love fieldwork with Roland, even when he's buggered off to Canada...

14 September 2010

USA fieldwork part 2: "outcored by a novice!"

We had completed the first part of the USA fieldwork, and now we drove through the scenic landscape from Bangor in Maine to Augusta. We were back to three brave scholars; our companion in Maine: Mark, had left. And we would drive down from the emptiness of Maine to, well, what would turn out to be the emptiness of Connecticut.

In Augusta we knew there would be a courier, and we hoped to send the fruits of our work to Europe, which would save us travelling with unthinkably heavy luggage. We did find the courier, but were a bit taken aback by the price which was 3 times more than we had expected. We did manage to get lunch, and then the trip continued to our motel. It was another soulless one, on a soulless strip, but what can one do. We unloaded, and then went on a trowel-hunt. The hardware shop turned out to also sell rubber boats! These may come in handy, as the bloke whose field site we would use had warned us (a bit later than would have been optimally practical, though) that it could only reasonably be reached by boat.

Having trowels we went for dinner, where the level of the discussion dropped somewhat, but after dinner we got our act together and did serious stuff such as renting a car for the trip back to Bangor. Roland would drive back to Toronto from Groton, where we stayed, so Tasha and I would otherwise have to walk with all the kit.

The next morning we would go into Mystic, a much nicer town than Groton on the way to the marsh, and there have breakfast and buy a map, and then go try our marsh. All possible map selling points would not open at any reasonable time, so we only managed the breakfast in some left wing deli. They also sold sandwiches for lunch. So we just went to the marsh like that. We took surface sampling kit, recce coring equipment, and surveying kit. And off we were. We encountered some helpful ecologists on the way, who helped us a bit with plant taxonomy, and easily found the place where we would have to leave the path. And there it got tricky. The water was very high! I could get about in my waders, but even I had to look out for ditches. We decided to go back, and first install the pressure transducer near where the car was parked. And then it was already lunchtime. So there we were, three sea level scientists (one of them most eminent!) caught by the tide, having a sandwich on the jetty. That was the second time we had to wait it out. ("What an idiots!")

Putting the pressure transducer into place. The water was to deep to do that from the water! And notice it isn't weather for such garment... pic by Tasha

Sitting on the dock of a bay...

After a while we had another try at reaching the site, but the ditches we knew we would encounter turned out to be a bitch. We had to add another tide-waiting break. Tasha decided this was the most relaxing fieldwork she’d ever done, and that Antony had something to answer for. But on second thought; maybe Antony would have checked the tide beforehand... he’d laugh his head off upon hearing this. Funnily enough, we seemed to have picked this time window on his request. We could have come later in the year, when the tides were lower. And now Antony hadn’t come along...

Wait #2; pic by Roland

After wait #2 we gave it another try. But the ditches were just too much. Too deep even for waders! And for science’s sake you might choose to just get wet and get on with it, but that would have resulted in two pairs of wellies stuck in a ditch... we decided against. We would need a boat for this. We came up with plan B. We didn’t really need our site to be that near to the site of our American colleagues. They had different needs from us. We might just pick a more accessible part of the marsh... so we reccied the rest of the marsh, and decided on some other stretch. And by that time we were knackered. We hadn’t gotten any mud, but we had been walking for hours in the heat carrying all that equipment. I had been wearing waders, which meant I had the wettest trousers. I was soaked with sweat. I smelled worse than a caver. We decided to do the sampling the next day.

An innocuous-looking, but tricky ditch

On the way back we visited the memorial plaque for Orson; Roland’s old supervisor, and my old guardian angel. Good old Orson. The plaque says a lot. It doesn’t mention, though, that he was a lovely man, but he was.

I hoped to get my trousers (and more) washed in the motel, but their washing machine was broken, so we just went for dinner. Roland took the opportunity to sing obscene Christmas songs to his lady companions. And before one gets the wrong idea about Roland: that was on specific request. And before one gets the wrong idea about me: it was Tasha’s request. And after this jolly evening it was an early night. We didn’t want to be stranded by high tide again, so we wanted to be in the marsh at daybreak.

At 5.45 Roland came up to our room for breakfast, and shortly after 6 we were on the move. We rocked! We found a good spot for the surface transect, and got moving. We nailed that fast! So we had all surface sampling done before the tide came back. When it did we went back to the car, and set up the GPS. We left Tasha with it, and went to the Laundromat with my still repulsive trousers. And much more. Waiting for the laundry to be clean and dry we just sat on the porch like to Louisiana pensioners and contemplated life (and did some more plant taxonomy; maybe less typical). Then we had to do some more of that back with the GPS. We were positively frying in the blazing sun, but there was no shade anywhere near the GPS.

Setting up the GPS in the heat, on the parking lot. The next day there would be a massive SUV parked over that spot...

It certainly was a beautiful marsh!

We got ourselves together for the second part of the field day: stratigraphy. We cored our surface transect, but weren’t too sure if it would do, so we then cored the rest of the marsh too. That was even worse, so we settled for the original transect. When that was done I GPS’d it while Roland surveyed in our benchmark at the parking lot all the way to the marsh, and then it was a wrap! We could do the routine again of showering and going for dinner. This time we picked a rib restaurant on the other side of the road. I felt thoroughly European when we took minutes to figure out how to cross over safely. The restaurant was excellent: lots of local microbrewery beers, lovely personnel, and good food. Tasha attacked the beer like someone whose fieldwork is over, and even went out to buy another sixpack, of which we merrily drank another half in the motel.

The next morning we got up at 5.30 again. We had another breakfast in Tasha’s and my room, and were off. We went back to our transect and started coring. The first core came out broken. The second was quite OK. At some point I took one out, and it was perfect. That resulted in a proper rant by Roland, who had been quite out of coring shape these days, which annoyed him; he could be heard uttering things as "I've been out-gizmoed by a novice! These f%£@# bi#*$!" Always lovely to get the appreciation of your professor when you do a good job. We love this man.  

Me looking triumphant with the core barrel I worked so well with that morning. Pic by Roland

He then taped the taking of another core, which was also perfect. Maybe generations of Plymouth geography students will be shown that one... we also made a small movie with Roland doing very vulgar things with a core we didn’t need. And then he had his revenge by taking out another perfect core on his own. Pride restored! And only shortly after 8 in the morning we were done.

We did the core wrapping on the parking lot, guarding the GPS (again!), answering all the questions from the local fishing enthusiasts that had come flocking to this boat landing. I also did some lying underneath a car as it had been parked over our benchmark, but luckily nobody asked about that.

Alternative surveying. Pic by Tasha

When the GPS had run for 3 hours we could call it an almost-wrap. We would pick up the pressure transducers as late as possible, being the day after, but except for that it was done! I’d have lots and lots of work in the lab later, but here in the USA we could go and have fun. Almost. We went back into Mystic to try and buy a bag for the cores, and some other last-minute necessities, and then we went to the hotel, for a shower, a beer, and what turned out to be lots of nerding. Roland started plotting stratigraphic transects, Tasha looked online for accommodation for the coming days, I preserved my sampled plants, and in the meanwhile we exchanged gigabytes of pictures. It was an empty stomach that drove us out of that hotel room...

The drawbridge in Mystic

We went back to the same place as the night before, but the nights of bad sleep and morning of 5.30 awakening had taken their toll. We decided to call the previous, festive night the last night, and take it easy this one. The next morning we forced all our stuff into the car with difficulty, retrieved the pressure transducer, and drove to the car rental place where our roads would separate. Tasha and I forced all our stuff into our rental car, and then it was time to take a last band picture, give Roland a big hug and wish him a good trip, and drive off. This was the real end of the fieldwork. It had been a good one! And for this project it was the last...

12 September 2010

USA fieldwork part1: "I f***ing love stratigraphy!"

When I got onto the plane it still didn’t feel real that I was on my way to the USA. This would be a strange fieldwork. We would revisit a site Roland had worked with before, and visit a site our American-based colleagues had already worked in. Roland, who had lived in Maine for five years, would fly in first, rent a car, and pick us up with it. He also had booked a motel. There was not much we needed to organise! I only gathered all the kit we would bring from England and dragged it over the ocean.

The posh hotel at Heathrow where the University travel unit had booked me a room
In Philadelphia I met Tasha. And in Bangor I bumped into Roland, who appeared where I didn’t expect him, so I hadn’t seen him at all. We were complete! Roland brought us to the aggressive-looking Dodge with which he drove us to our motel. The New England landscape glided past. It felt like a movie set. That’s what you get if you go to the states as a European: your entire life you’ve been exposed to these landscapes through TV, movies and whatnot, and then it feels wrong to end up in the real thing.

We went to bed soon after arrival; for us it was 4.30 in the morning. The next morning everything turned even more unreal: Roland took us out for breakfast. So we drove in that silent monster over empty roads to an eerie mall to eat an enormous breakfast, served by hysterically hospitable people. It was all a bit disconcerting, except that they keep on filling up your coffee cup. After breakfast we went shopping for all the kit we hadn’t wanted to bring, but needed anyway. And then we just shopped some more, so we drove around on this enormous terrain where the buildings are unthinkably widely spaced, and the only entities that move are cars. And where people are paid to do nothing other than to greet you when you enter a shop. I felt massively out of place.

When even Roland’s desire to shop had been satisfied (I don’t think we were a very gender-stereotypical bunch) we went for a beer in a local microbrewery. Hard work, fieldwork! My Calvinistic background (which is half-imagined, I admit) couldn’t cope, and I spontaneously inhaled a jalapeno-seed, which left me coughing and crying from one eye.

We went back to the motel, waiting for a word from Dan, Roland’s old PhD supervisor, with whom we should be going for a beer. We spent our time in deafening silence from his side, though, so we just read books and newspapers and wrote blogs and posters and articles and whatnot, until we got hungry and went for dinner at Pat’s Pizza, Roland’s old favourite. It was a place that made my feeling of being in a movie set even stronger. But the food was good. We had one last try at contacting Dan, which was still in vain, so we just went to the hotel with our still somewhat jetlagged heads and went to bed early. The next morning we were expected at Maine University at 7.30, so we could use some sleep!

We got there a bit late. When we turned into the parking lot the door of the climate science building already opened and two men came flooding out. A comic duo of a jovial, loud, voluminous man and a small, skinny, shy one; it was Dan and Mark, respectively; Mark was an old colleague of Roland who would join us in the field for as long as we stayed in Maine.

Dan gave us the equipment we needed, and demonstrated it for as far as necessary. We then asked if we perhaps could cut our guttering lengthwise with his power saw. And we could! Roland was surrounded by old acquaintances, so he excused himself and vanished, while Tasha and I donned masks and ear protection and started violating our very thick conduit pipes. It got us plastic sawdust everywhere, but it was fun, and we had it done in no time! So then we could load up and go. We first went for breakfast, where I had gotten the hang of things, and managed to order something I could finish. We got to know Mark a bit. There were certainly similarities with our previous volunteer in the field: Rob, on the Isle of Wight!

At the supermarket in Ellsworth we bought some victuals, marvelling at the prices. Five dollar for a small loaf! And then they call us Europeans expensive. But we very un-americanly bought lots of healthy stuff and drove on. This time I rode with Mark, who knows a lot about the landscape. When we reached the motel we unloaded, had some excellent lunch, and now we were off for real!

We drove to the marsh, got into our field boots, and off we were. Within two minutes Roland had found his old site back, and after a quick look-around we marked out a transect near it for surface samples. The men surveyed it in, while the women made a vegetation zonation, commented by Roland (he was quite impressed with my classifications as “plant 1” and grass 2”), and then sampled where the men had decided they wanted a sample. We had not brought a trowel, so it was slow business. Roland, who at some point was done surveying, went off to try and buy one, but it was in vain. We managed to sample them all anyway, but it was nearly seven when we packed up.

Grim-looking scientists assessing the marsh

I try to add a picture of us actually doing work, and immediately it gets distorted!

We went for a quick shower to wash the DEET and the mud and the sweat off, and Roland impressed me a lot by bringing me a beer while I was gathering my showering paraphernalia. Yay! Life is good. I took it with me in the shower. After me Tasha did the same.

The very American parking lot from which we entered the marsh

We would go to Helen’s, but to our horror they were already closed. Luckily a non-descript restaurant down the road was still open. Only just. So we had our meals, and a beer (Mark an enormous, fancy cocktail), and went back to the motel where Roland knew there was baseball on TV, and where there were cold beers. The men, though, were completely taken out by the day in the field, and both fell asleep on their beds, so we called it a day.

The next day we went back to Helen’s, now for breakfast; that went well. I was only disappointed that in a sleepy town like Machias they don’t fill up your coffee cup as swiftly as in university town Bangor. While we had our blueberry pancakes, or omelette, the rain hammered down outside, so we were not in a hurry. By the time we reached the marsh the weather was fine, but the tide was high. And we knew it would be. We also knew that the high tides were very, very high these days. But we had somehow failed to imagine it would be THIS high. It was so high we could hardly do anything. So we just doodled around until the water dropped again. I took the opportunity to contemplate the revision of a manuscript I had sent in...

The marsh was very scenic at high tide

The water dropped, and we sampled some more surface samples, and re-cored Roland’s old transect. The results suggested the sediments had been compacted since he had worked here; perhaps due to heavy clammers stomping around. So we decided to make a new transect. That would be much more work, though, and we hadn’t brought lunch. So I absconded with Mark to go make some sandwiches. After lunch Roland and Mark went off to set up the GPS while Tasha and I cored on, mocked by chirping squirrels. Tasha had a proper stratigraphy-loving Antony moment! The men were less inspired, and it would take them hours to get the GPS running, so by the time Roland came back (Mark did not dare leave the GPS alone) he could just help us with some bonus cores we wanted to replace some of the not-quite-successful ones. Then we could pack up, release Mark, and get out of there before the restaurants would again close in front of our noses.

Tasha's Antony moment: ""I f***ing love stratigraphy" - what an idiot!"

This time we showered fast; I decided to just come out dressed in a towel so Tasha could jump in; something that got Roland’s approval, and maybe not only because this way we did make it to Helen’s in time. Also here we had beer and a fancy cocktail for Mark with our food.

We thought we would be back in time to do some useful things, as book the next motel, and do some plant taxonomy, but we were all tired, and after one motel booking and half the taxonomy we went to bed.

The next day we would move on to Connecticut, so we got up early, and packed the car. That took a while, among other things because we cut the core guttering to size and packed the cores neatly, so we decided to first have joined breakfast and then hit the road. After breakfast we had to say goodbye to Mark, who would not follow us into Connecticut; we would miss him! But we folded ourselves up in the car and went. Part one of the fieldwork was done. Done well, and done nicely! Let’s see if we could do that again in Connecticut.

A last view of Maine on the way to Connecticut... pic by Tasha