Thursday, 4 November 2010

On My Travels: Spirituality and Science

If you take a look at the number of blog posts I have published over the last several months you will notice that the number dips in August and is almost non-existent in September. As I announced, I was taking a break from posting as I was too busy; much of my time was spent abroad. After I got back from the trips abroad I had a few days before my return to Portsmouth, leaving little time for blogging, and upon my return I had no internet access. So what on Earth did I get up to? My first trip was my annual pilgrimage to the Taizé ecumenical community in France, travelling with Bishop Tony of Pontefract and the rest of my friends in the Wakefield group. In contrast to this religious excursion, I then spent two weeks in the Sierra Norte region of Spain doing a spot of geology. Interestingly these contrasting excursions had some overlap. Here's a little bit about what went on (finally posted nearly two months after returning...).


The Wakefield group outside the Loup Garou restaurant in Cluny
My trips to Taizé differ every year and I never quite know what to expect. I've been seven times now and although the general goings on are the same, what I gain from it differs every year. The first year I went I had a fair few things on my plate which were really getting to me, not to mention I was soon to go to university for the first time. My time up on the Taizé hill removed my burdens and made me very happy, ensuring I went back for another year. My second trip to Taizé had me in the position where there were no major burdens, so I found myself able to focus on other things, not least the pretty girl who went on to become my girlfriend. Yet again, Taizé brought me happiness. When I went for the third time things had changed quite significantly. The aforementioned girlfriend had split up with me and I was struggling to come to terms with it, especially as she had come to Taizé that year too. To make matters worse she was flirting with someone on the bus and tensions were high, well, for me at least. Having my ex-girlfriend in a neighbouring tent with another guy was a bit much for me, but I did find solace and support from my friends. The third was my worst year in Taizé, but I did feel better for going.
Young Anna in the candle service

My fourth year was a very important one for me at the time. I had previously used Taizé as my time to reflect on personal issues, or to explore the social aspect. On the lead up to Taizé I had started asking myself some big questions about life, the universe and God. Taizé was a great place for me to really explore some of the faith questions and my interactions with both friends and new people fostered this endeavour. I found myself heading to the church at night to read, able to listen to the singing which often goes on until morning. I also bought a book called Seek and You Will Find  which asked many of the questions I had been asking, giving insight into answers. My fifth trip had me doing a bit more of the same, but I balanced it with the social aspect and found it to be fruitful. For my sixth trip to Taizé I used my alone time to ponder theology of nature, which had become my favourite interest, but also found myself keeping up the social aspect and flirting with a particular girl.

So, onto my seventh year. For this year my attention was much like in my second trip; I focussed on a girl. I had met Lizzie during my fourth year in Taizé and during the sixth year she was the person who had my attention at times. This year she near enough had my undivided attention (and even managed to get me up nearly every day for morning prayer). The main thing I think about when I look back to my week in Taizé this year is Lizzie, so it is unsurprising that she is now my girlfriend. But Taizé wasn't just about Lizzie, there were other things too, as there always are. I still engaged in some theological discussion, but not quite to the extent of other years. Most of my theological focus was on another book I bought, I Am the Beginning and the End, by Brother John of Taizé, a look at the creation stories in Scripture. The book has had a huge impact on me, so much of my writing on Genesis will reference it. Much of what I already believed had a more firm context and connection to Scripture thanks to the book, which I found myself taking notes on through the week.
Notice the croque monsieur on the table, mmmmm

On the social side of things, we met some wonderful people. We also played football against the Italians, which we somehow only lost 1-0, and also had a singing competition against the French, who I think we managed to confuse by singing Ilkleh Mooer Bah Tat. I mentioned earlier that there was overlap between the two trips and this came in the form of fossils. Whilst standing around near the tents, Lizzie randomly asked if she had found a fossil, something which I was incredulous about as we were in the middle of a field. She then picked up the rock which showed clear ridges which may have biogenic origins, possibly being a trace fossil. I was baffled by it and intend to have it looked at some time soon (I currently think it is a possible sedimentary structure, but may be wrong). [Since writing this I have had it looked at and intend to write about it soon.] Later in the week I found another, smaller rock with the same pattern, so I am very intrigued. As if to rub it in, I later found Lizzie standing on the pathway between the tents and the main areas (such as the church), a path I had walked every day, with a big grin on her face. She simply pointed downwards and I saw a bivalve fossil (a pectin) in the rock at her feet. This one was definitely a fossil, something which she gloated about (in the adorable way only girlfriends can) for a while.
The first potential fossil find, modelled by Lizzie.

The bivalve fossil. 

My trip to Spain came just over a day after I had returned from Taizé, leaving me little time to prepare. We had to set off from London-Luton airport, in which we saw Michael Palin setting off on his own travels with his family. Checking in for the flight and getting off in Madrid seemed to take longer than the flight itself. Our arrival in Madrid was followed by a lengthy coach ride to Bersoza del Lozoya, where we were to stay for the first week. In Bersoza is a hostel which the university has been using for several years. Sharing a room with 9 other guys is not as annoying as I had expected, but it does have some frustrating aspects, perhaps having to share the showers between so many people was the worst, and even that was not so bad. All meals were provided and were generally of a decent quality; some of them I want to never eat again, whereas others had me constantly filling up my plate. Each evening meal was accompanied by sangria, which we instantly took a liking to. Packed lunches were provided for the day, along with frozen bottles of water, which were much appreciated.
La Cabrera - ignore the date, my camera wasn't set correctly.

Our first day found us studying something which palaeontologists usually ignore: igneous rocks. Instead it got fascinating at times, getting an insight into the geological history of the Sierra Norte region and being introduced to La Cabrera for the first time (an imposing mountainous ridge which we would see often). Flying high above La Cabrera, as we sketched it in our notebooks, flew several vultures - some of my favourite birds. We also observed an igneous dyke, something I had never seen before. Studying the igneous rocks was a steep learning curve for me, having only ever looked at them very basically. We also observed the contact between the igneous intrusions and the country rock they intruded, giving insight into the sheer age of the rocks. The second day had yet more rocks which we were not used to, this time metamorphics. We started by observing some very beautiful banded gneisses, yet again having a lot to learn rapidly (not too easy in scorching Spanish heat). After studying these high grade metamorphic rocks we moved on to some very jagged looking micaceous schist; beautiful rocks which have characteristic cleavage and a shininess which makes them look like glitter when they break up.
The lovely micaceous schists. 

During one of those first days, possibly the igneous day, we had lunch overlooking an enormous valley with breathtaking views. The rest of the group found their own spot to sit, whereas I ended up on my own, sitting on my own little perch, able to reflect and soak it all in. I was surprised to find myself having quite a spiritual moment, able to marvel at the grandeur and feel both alone yet not at the same time. Before I went to Spain I expected that my time in Taizé would be the most spiritual and my time in Spain would be purely scientific; having that moment overlooking the valleys was eye-opening. I have long held the view that a Christian in science should not divorce their science and spirituality at the same time, but often wondered how this could be put into practice. This is something I intend to write on very soon, which my experience will surely influence. [Check Kale Ktisis for what I went on to write.]
A view from my spot.

Our third day had us looking at sedimentary rocks, starting first by sketching a view to get a feel for judging things at a distance, then moving on to looking at a conglomerate. We then went on to examine an unconformity, before doing some sedimentary logging in what later turned out to be the mapping area. The logging started out at a fair pace, but then got a bit random, especially when Dave Martill decided he wanted to catch a basking adder. The fourth day continued the sedimentary rocks, though first we went looking through slates to see if we could find some metamorphic fossils. I've not researched metamorphic fossils yet, but intend to as I find the idea rather fascinating. We moved on to do some "speed logging" which did not seem very different to the original logging really, though I did catch a frog, seemingly miles from any moisture. That day ended with us collecting fossils in order to reconstruct the ancient marine environment (at some point I will scan in my drawing to show off). Echinoids were the most abundant, being the only fossils I found at first. I also stomped right through a wasps nest, causing three angry wasps to sting me and ending my 24 year streak of being sting free. On the way back to the coach I manage to find two different types of ammonite (oxycone and cadicone) and spent the evening reconstructing the environment. Others had found gastropods, brachiopods and bivalve remains.

The next day for us saw us splitting from the geologists as they went to visit a dam. We got to go on the bus to Madrid to visit the museum and potentially look around the city. We made our way through the bustling city only to find that the museum, along with all the other museums, was closed on Mondays. We only got to peer at the Carnotaurus skeleton through the doors. So instead we had a day off to wander Madrid, oddly enough managing to achieve very little at all. We had a look in a few shops, then spent most of the time in a restaurant with very expensive drinks, only to then go and eat in McDonald's. I also bought a postcard to send to my girlfriend, which arrived at her house long after I returned from Spain.

The second week was spent in a village called El Berrueco where I had an en suite room to myself, complete with its own kitchen. I took the opportunity to walk around naked and undisturbed, able to shower whenever I liked; I even had a bath on one night, which I have not done for a long time. Cooking for myself was interesting as there were only hobs and a microwave to use, plus I am a rubbish cook. I also spent a lot of time watching Spanish soaps, which I found amusing. The days mapping were often difficult as there was little cloud cover, the sun was scorching and we were out from around 8:30am to around 5:00pm, spending the majority of the time walking. We spent the first few days with a tutor who helped us to figure out where to look, also showing us some of the bed contacts. We gave our formations some daft names such as "Thunder Fm." and "Predator Fm." so we often got excited when we came across a new one (sad I know). The terrain was tough, often steep and covered in harsh vegetation, so there was nobody who came back without horrendous scratches on their legs.
Las Cuchilleras - right in the middle of the mapping area.

Our first day mapping alone was particularly interesting; we were in groups of two and my mapping partner (Matt) and I set off up the west road. We identified the marls as being the youngest formation (Dante's) and followed them along, finding another formation of sandstones on top of them. We had already seen sandstones, but these could not be the same ones as a huge dolomite section (Thunder) should be in between them and the marls. We thought this was fantastic! We had a new formation, which we called "Jabba" and Matt started trying to work out the geomorphology, which seemed to fit very well with our observations, allowing us to then work out the history of the area. We had a new formation, the geomorphology sussed and the history of the rocks, all before lunch and on our first day alone! We checked the whole section and found metamorphic rocks, which we new meant an unconformity was nearby. As we headed back round to our start point, pleased that this mapping malarkey was easy, we bumped into another pair, Matt H. and James, and decided to compare notes, that's where things begin to fall apart...

The other two had interpreted the marls as an older formation, giving them reason to think that the sandstones were the older sands and that we did not have a new formation. This also changed the geomorphology, indicating huge folding across the map; our hypotheses were being challenged by theirs and the marls were important. Against their hypothesis was the fact that between the older and younger marls was the huge dolomite section, which seemed to vanish under their model. Yet theirs made sense of the unconformity, which did seem very out of place with our hypothesis. We went our separate ways and eventually got to discuss with a tutor, only to find that we were both wrong. It turns out that we were right about the marls, they were indeed the younger ones, however, the sandstones were not even sandstone at all. They were actually the dolomites we had spent several days getting sick of! They appeared to be on top of the marls as they were folded round on themselves - something we had observed evidence for in the east but had not made sense of. For me this was a great experience: forming hypotheses; testing them; trying to disprove other hypotheses; having to drop comfortable ideas and embrace new ones. Even though it won't get to be in the final report it will still be one of the most memorable parts of this trip for me.

By the last day our maps were near complete and laziness kicked in, so much procrastination ensued. We also had to be up early the next day in order to return to the airport, though we did get to spend a couple of hours in an interesting little village with castle walls and a nice little church. Returning home felt good, though it did mean I had just a few days to prepare for my return to Portsmouth.

My apologies for the lateness of this post, as I started it a few weeks ago and never got round to finishing it. I could actually add a lot more, such as the 4x4 needing a push, dead dog corner, some of the cool geological stuff I found. Another time maybe, as this is a long post already.

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