Moving Out and Moving On

Not enough posts from me in the last month or so.  Well, none at all.  But I do have the best excuse of all.  Try writing a 360 page thesis, and a 600 page atlas in a month, and then see how motivated you can be to write more than an email.  Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I survived the experience, and the thesis was gleefully, if exhaustedly, submitted on the 6th June.

Since then it has been all change at Pen and Ink towers.  After a week long conference, supposedly exploring the origins of life, but mostly exploring the local wine lists courtesy of the Lyon Institute of Origins, I packed up and drove away from Oxford for the last time, ending an eight-year era that has been the majority of my adult life.  A tear was shed, but stepping out into the unknown can be exhilarating with a look to the future instead of the past.

The last week has been a complete change to the pure academic life I’ve been leading of late, as I organised and led the Diamond Jubilee tour of The Ancient Men Morris Dancers on their 107th tour in 60 years.  This past week we have danced from Llandeilo to Llanelli, Camarthen to Cardiff, in some of the most inclement weather the UK has seen for years.  An unremittingly wet, but unremittingly fun week was spent with some of the finest people I know, and while the bruises and blisters may take some time to heal, the memories will stick around for a good while yet.  Here’s a photo of us after our last dance on the beach at Port Talbot.

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

The Ancient Men at Port Talbot

So, onwards and upwards to this future, and I am now counting down the days before I leave for my summer of adventure.  On Saturday, I fly out to San Francisco, to join the exalted ranks of NASA scientists as we strive for a truer understanding of our place in the universe.  Or, more simply, I’m going to poke some algae for a couple of months.  The plan is to try and approach some of the enigmas of early Earth microbial systems from a biological point of view, with a view to understanding what they may be doing, or may have done, if life arose elsewhere.  I expect the work to involve collecting, culturing, and sequencing algal mats, as well as investigating nutrient flows and responses to extreme external stimuli.  I have high hopes and am super excited for a new direction and a new location.

Also super exciting is the prospect of living and working in San Francisco.  Renowned for its microbrewery and chilled out folk culture, somehow I feel I’m going to get on pretty well there.  I’ll be living just off Alamo Square, and while its about an hour commute, I think its going to be well worth it, for living in the middle of everything.  Recommendations for places to hang out, or things not to be missed are greatly welcomed!

As seems to be the thing these days, I’m going to try and keep some semblance of a travel blog/diary right here for those of you who will be missing me desperately, or want to find out how I’m treating San Francisco.  So watch this space for considerably more updates on life as a Brit in the States, life as a Morris dancer in San Francisco, or life as a palaeontologist at NASA.

 

 

Anglesey, Portmeirion, and a new artwork

A few weeks ago, after coming back from my journalistic summer, I embarked on
hopefully the final piece of fieldwork I will have to carry out for my thesis.

My three-year-and-two-month (and counting) doctoral research has been very heavily field based, and I have had the opportunity to scour the rocks in northwest Scotland, south Wales, northern Ontario, and eastern Newfoundland.  My latest trip was to one of the less glamorous locations – Anglesey.  My intended destination was the happening town of Cemaes and its nearby bay, where I hoped to find some excitingly ancient evidence of continents colliding and crumbling.  The fossil-bearing rocks I was in search for formed before the first animals and were once attached to part of South America.

I organised it at pretty short notice, and didn’t have time to organise a proper field assistant.  So I took… my mummy. Here she is:

Mummy admiring some rocks

She was a very good field assistant, quite apart from the trendy fieldworking handbag.  She didn’t answer back, provide any ‘outsider insight’.  She did a spectacular job in sitting on rocks, showing mild interest and making sure I didn’t fall in the sea and drown.

As we were such an efficient fieldworking team, we finished everything I needed to do in minimum time.  We had a spare day, and we decided to spend it at the nearby Portmeirion village on the mainland.

Portmeirion, known to most as the setting for 1960s psychological thriller The Prisoner,  was the brainchild of the absurdly wealthy and deliciously eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, who supposedly built it to resemble an Italian village.  The setting certainly suits, and if you ignore the biting wind and harsh north-Welsh accents, the hillside settlement is truly idyllic.  But the village is not entirely Italian in its design.  Alongside the traditionally brightly coloured Italian townhouses and belvederes, the Town Hall has a gothic-art and crafts feel, owing to many of its architectural elements being scavenged from an abandoned manor house.  There is a soft-plaster roundhouse that is only missing a thatch roof to set it apart form its Cotswold counterparts, and the main ‘piazza’ is dominated by a grand Bristol Colonnade that features its namesake in style and stone. Williams-Ellis should be given extra credit for creating an image with so many individual style elements, but which still fit seamlessly and harmoniously alongside each other and the dramatic setting.

If I was left wanting at any juncture, it was that the village presented a perfect facade, but that was all it was.  The majority of the buildings that had not been turned into shops or resaurants were roped off. The Town Hall apparently boasts an impressive plaster barrel ceiling, but visitors get no further than the doorway.  Most of the individual cottages are rented out to holiday makers, and I am sure this is a valuable and much0needed source of income, necessary for the upkeep of the village.  But to the day-visitor, it can make for a slightly frustrating barrier.

Regardless, my mummy and I had a lovely day, and we had lovely lunch and coffee overlooking the lovely estuary. It was a beautiful day in early November, and one of those golden days that stick in the memory.

So being a lowly journalist-in-training and particularly strapped for cash, I decided to make her a birthday present that reflected that perfect day.  I gave her this:

Portmeirion (c) Leila Battison 2011

Portmeirion (c) Leila Battison 2011. Pen and Ink on Paper

You can see the Bristol Colonnade centre left, and the roundhouse bottom centre.  I am pretty pleased with the result, I really enjoyed doing it, and it was a new experiment with a chinese caligraphy brush and indian ink. Completely different to my usual style, but I’m pleased with how it turned out.  I will be doing more like this just as soon as I find some time!

Mummy was delighted with it and showed all the neighbors.  I am just happy to have been able to record my marvellous trip in my own special way.