Maps, Wolves and Riots: All in a day’s work on a Birkbeck Field Weekend

This post was contributed by Dr Sue Brooks, Dr Rosie Cox, Dr Becky Briant, Dr Andrea Ballatore and Dr Kezia Barker from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

The Cambridge Backs in Autumn (photo S Brooks)

The Cambridge Backs in Autumn (photo S Brooks)

On a glorious autumn weekend large tracts of East Anglia were dotted with roving groups of undergraduates from the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. New students had been with us for just three weeks when they were treated to an extravaganza of delights, taking in the stunning wildlife at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve, exploring the market city of Ely and ending up in the fast-paced urban landscape of Cambridge. The new students were able to apply their learning from lectures and readings and test the lecturers’ knowledge of their outdoor environments as they developed new skills in field studies and spatial analysis.

Learning about an ancient landscape (photo A Ballatore)

Learning about an ancient landscape (photo A Ballatore)

Wicken Fen has some of the best preserved wetlands in the whole of Europe, allowing people to see at first-hand what the ancient Fenlands looked like before they were drained for agriculture. Through a series of probing questions the students kept the reserve’s ranger, Maggie Downes, on her toes as she outlined the National Trust’s future vision for Wicken Fen, including the use of Highland cattle and Konik ponies as ecosystem engineers in an exciting rewilding experiment. Students were also reassured that rewilding advocates do not plan to reintroduce wolves in Cambridgeshire. The day ended in Ely, with a look around the ancient cathedral and some socialising in the evening.

Inside Ely Cathedral (photo A Ballatore)

Inside Ely Cathedral (photo A Ballatore)

The following day, supported by modern digital media and GPS sensors, students collected data about the vegetation and wheelchair accessibility of diverse areas of Cambridge. The data was then used for the production of maps. The social interactions were lively, to say the least, and the results of the photography competition have yet to be announced!

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Vegetation mapping along St Barnabas Road, Cambridge

Vegetation mapping along St Barnabas Road, Cambridge

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Wheelchair accessibility mapping (accessibility level represented as green, yellow, and red)

Wheelchair accessibility mapping (accessibility level represented as green, yellow, and red)

Exploring accessibility in urban spaces in Cambridge (photo B Briant)

Exploring accessibility in urban spaces in Cambridge (photo B Briant) 

Meanwhile Geography and Environmental Management students entering the final year of their BSc programmes were out and about exploring the Fenlands of East Anglia. Stepping out into the wider Fens that exist today, students were able to engage with debates about landuse conflict, water management, water abstraction, fisheries and the threat of accelerated sea level rise on vast areas of grade A agricultural land lying at or below sea level. A highlight of the day was a chance encounter of the author Rob Reed, who recounted in graphic detail the Littleport Riots of 1816 which he had recently been researching for his book Rebels with a Cause, published this year.

The Denver Complex (left) and cut-off channel (photo S Brooks)

The Denver Complex (left) and cut-off channel (photo S Brooks)

Finishing at the Denver complex, where tidal water from the sea meets the river outflow from land, really focused minds on issues associated with management of the river Great Ouse and the Ouse Washes, set within the fourth largest river catchment in the UK. Our coach driver, Dee, brought us all safely home in her inimitable way with lots of humour and good fun. Students were happy and notched up many useful skills to take them through their degree and beyond.

The Unmanaged River Great Ouse upstream of Earith Sluice and Hermitage Lock (photo S Brooks)

The Unmanaged River Great Ouse upstream of Earith Sluice and Hermitage Lock (photo S Brooks)

What our students said:

“What I would say about the Fenland trip is that it was fascinating to learn about a part of the country I have never been to (and maybe never will again?!). Friends and family I’ve spoken to have only ever, at best, passed through it, but when I’ve explained to them how for hundreds of years we’ve massively modified the landscape there to reclaim it from the water, they have wanted to hear more about the feats of engineering used” Lisa Howard, BSc Geography

 

“As per usual this was a great learning experience, I find it’s much easier to learn things whilst I participate in fieldtrips” Margareta Vutescu, BSc Environmental Management

 

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PhD Chocolate Tasting

Chocolate is often an integral, but rarely acknowledged, part of the PhD process. As part of their transferable skills training for PhD students, the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS) decided to explore this further, with a chocolate tasting session run by Anthony Ferguson of Niko B Chocolates. The session was introduced by Kate Maclean and Rosie Cox, whose opening talks framed the session in terms of the relationship between taste, food and embodied knowledge. Following a geographical theme, students and staff tasted chocolate from around the world, and learnt to distinguish the multiple taste and texture sensations of chocolate truffles.

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The work of Jane Bennet

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR).

The BISR recently hosted a two-day event about the work of Jane Bennet (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) organised by Lisa Baraitser (Birkbeck, University of London) and Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin).

The workshop held on 5 October 2013 around the work of Jane Bennet, was filled with phrases like “object oriented ontology” (OOO for short), “new materialisms”, and “speculative realism”. As a person who has studied law, a discipline obsessed with language and meaning, and whose theoretical approaches in his PhD involves thinking about language and forms of life, all of this was new to me. The idea that material objects could be alive or actively participate in everyday life, seemed like a distant idea.

Yet this is precisely what Jane Bennet’s work argues: that matter has vitality. Maybe the first step is to move away from thinking about language as the threshold of human life. Humans always act within a larger assemblage of other (non-human) bodies. But more than that, things and objects seem to act upon us in a number of ways, and matter acquires a kind of life-force of its own. Actions are not only constituted through forms of human sociality, but by the material bodies in the assemblages that we are a part of.

The workshop took Jane Bennet’s work in several directions. Lisa Baraister’s presentation explored the ways in which mothers experienced the different objects that they encountered in a city: taking their baby buggies through the gates in Underground stations, or navigating busy sidewalks. While some navigated the city with ease, others struggled to find their way in the narrow pathways that the city afforded. In her narrative, the city emerges as a living sieve, which hoarded the various objects that it wanted to keep.

Nigel Clark’s presentation was on the question of time in geography. Geographers and geologists had usually understood rocks, and minerals and the other things that go to make up the earth as usually being inert, unless there was some event like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. He wondered what would happen if we began to see that minerals and rocks are do not merely sit inertly in the earth, but act over many millennia. Another presentation titled “JB” by Michael O’Rourke explored the theoretical linkages between Judith Butler and Jane Bennet (available here).

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