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Writing conference papers is an agricultural process.

You see the Call for Papers, and prepare the ground by studying the conference theme, allowing your imagination to raise a number of virtual crops which you study carefully in your mind; and if you feel one is viable and inspiring and useful in the overall development of your farm and the work of others, you write it up and send it in. Will it be accepted? You can't hold up the rest of your work waiting to find out, but at the same time you have to set aside notional time and mentally re-balance future tasks and projects in case it is. So: it is.

You plough and plant, and realise the ground wasn't quite as you'd imagined it, but the seed goes in. The weather is unpredictable, and the rest of the farm refuses to stand still and steady; but at first it doesn't matter, because the conference date is so far away. But then it begins to matter, because the date is suddenly looming. Your plans for fertilising and weeding have gone out the window, along with time to recover from any torrential downpours at terrible times in the growing cycle, or equally relentless bouts of dry weather and scoriating winds. By force of will, late nights, and endless anxieties you find yourself with a field of golden heavy-headed corn that surpasses your wildest imagining: Indeed, so vast has the crop become that by itself it could fill the entire conference several times over, and overspill the 20 minutes allotted without registering.

You break out the combine harvester. The weather changes, and suddenly  a farm inspection team arrives, all 250 ewes begin to lamb, and a neighbour arrives with some bad news about the herd. You really need 20 minutes of standing crop to deliver. You cut your first swathe around the field; the grain is excellent, and that's wonderful from one point of view, but agonising from another as you've already cut it down, and also because you still have a massive field in front of you. Excellent point after excellent point is ruthlessly cut down, threshed out and left in the field - no time for tractors and trailers and taking grain back and forth to the barn. Agony after surgical agony. But finally the joy of a 20 minute stand: Finally a paper and presentation you can deliver. Never mind that the answers to many of the questions people ask you in the discussion period afterward lie rotting in the field and blowing about in the wind; that 10 minutes is wonderful: Some of those threshed and winnowed ideas that blew past the combine's cab come briefly back to life again - disjointed and out of context, but vital and excited at being used.

And then it's back to the farm.

 

img_6316 Combine harvester, evening, field of corn, dust cloud and chaff: bringing in the conference paper

 

(Written in the wake of an excellent #ARA2016, 2/9/2016, and origially published September 3, 2016)

"ephemerality has to be indicated to ensure it is not absolute"

Face Blindness

One of my earliest memories is racing out into the street to ecstatically greet some adult who turned out to be a stranger; while in a more recent encounter, in a meeting at the British Library, a person who drew out no associations when they approached turned out to be someone I had worked closely with in organising and running a conference session only months before.

At least once in any public meeting or event, especially if I have not prepared by reading and re-reading the delegates list, I will abash myself by one mode of tumble into the abyss or the other. Nor is it absolute or predictable. I gave two oral history trainings on consecutive days in neighbouring museums last year, and only in leaving the second and trying to understand both the warmth of welcome from the curator and its cooling did it dawn on me that they had been part of the intensely engaged and creative training on the day before. I recently followed a very old friend down the street without any sense of recognition until we stood next to each other at an intersection; my astonishment doing mid-air pirouettes from the internal Olympic high beam of identity reconstruction, in split seconds, cried out, from her reaction, for explanation. But how do you graciously explain a failure to recognise someone you know well?

Because my default position in life seems to be to like people, and because I am happy to stand in Will Rogers' shadow with that particular lariat in my hand, the face blindness can  sometimes be a good and welcome friend. Some time after completing my PhD I met someone in the road who was leading a walking tour of my subject-town; and it was only after the warm and lively conversation, drawing the tour members in with the kinds of details and appreciations that only students and lovers of a place can have; and only after the tour had moved on, and was well down the road, that I gradually realised that the leader of the tour was someone who had offended me in the course of my work more than anyone ever has; and indeed did something completely unforgivable. My face blindness generously saved me from diminishing the reservoir of joy in the world, and from diminishing my soul as well.

But knowing that it is going to open a trap door beneath my feet at some unknown point or points in the midst of an event, with a sense of humour I have not quite learned to appreciate, tickles my native apprehensions about venturing into the world. Conferences approach, and I approach them with trepidation.

 

[Originally posted June 25, 2016]

One morning a while back I was walking across a field near the house. I was taking particular care, because several of the cows in the herd had recently given birth; and while bulls and cattle generally are amenable beings when treated with respect, the atmosphere palpably changes when babies are around.

The herd itself was at the far end of the field, apart from one lone cow off to one side, by the lip leading down to the mill stream. I didn't know the farmer, and I wasn't quite sure why the herd had left her alone; but her look at me was so forlorn and empty of challenge that I wandered over, and she accepted my approach almost as if I had been a friend. She didn't budge or demur, but directed my gaze with supplicating eyes (no, really); and I saw a calf, in the middle of the trickle of the mill-stream below, up to its knees in mud, with thoroughly dried mud caked everywhere. It looked exhausted, and hungry, and as if it had been there throughout the night. It tried but couldn't escape when I slipped down the bank; and it didn't have energy to struggle significantly when I put my arms under it to lift.

When the calf was back up the bank and with its mother, it felt as if the mother and I were friends. When I went back the next day, the herd was all together, and the atmosphere was as one would expect: Keep your distance, stranger. No exceptions; and no glimmer of recognition, nor expectation of it from me.

One of my favourite experiences of cattle in those fields was having my daughter on my back in a backpack, scrambling down in the river, and her singing bringing the cows to the fence lining the river above, on the other side. It never failed.

That is the river along which she, my daughter, built a tiny but intricate house for fairies; while her younger brother and I skipped stones and waded.

 

[Originally published June 27, 2016]