March 4, 2013

Agricultural history. Professor Martin Jones 1897-1979

Professor Martin Jones, Kings College, Newcastle Upon Tyne, University of Durham

Lecture memories: Prof's thin chalk line 

 By Dr Clive Dalton (Kings College 1952-56)

Botany – of the pure kind
For those of us who whose main interest was animal husbandry, and had never done botany at school, having to study it in the Intermediate year of our degree was somewhat of a chore (to put it mildly). Botany labs in the old Armstrong College building were not taken terribly seriously.  Having to cut up a pansy and draw its vital parts was a bit too far from growing oats, barley and turnips which fed stock.  Galloway bullocks didn't winter well on pansies!

Professor Merion Thomas in the pure Botany Department we all thought was mad!  He taught plant physiology and could write on the blackboard behind his head without looking at it.  By the end of the lecture, the board was a total incomprehensible mess.  And so were we!

But we admired the sincerity of lecturers like Dr William A (Willie) Clark, husband or our dear ‘Dolly’ (a true Geordie) who took us for agricultural botany in our second year.  A true Scott, I can still hear Dr Clark’s Ayrshire tongue with the common speech habit of precise thinking Scott’s of inserting ‘aaay’ between every 2-3 words while their brains searched for the precise word. We used to call him ‘Dr aaay Clarrrk’.

I became expert at predicting when he’d insert an 'aaay'. For example he’d always start a lecture with a wee synopsis of what was on the menu:

‘Today aaay, we’re going to aaay, discuss aaay, the function aaay of the parenchymatous barrrll shaped cells.  Last time you will aaay remember that we aaay …………….

My old Ag Dept scarf
Agricultural botany
But at last in our second year, we were with our own kind – agricultural botanists, who quickly made us realise that Ag botany was a massive subject on its own, and not just a tack on to pure botany.  

It had the key role of feeding the world from the beginning of time, and Dolly Clark was a world expert on ancient cereal grains and their growing as the start of this.

Professor Martin Jones 
When we met Prof MJ who led the College’s Agricultural Botany Department, I suppose he’d be in his 60s with graying hair and mustache. His classical mid Wales accent (Welsh was his mother tongue) was an inviting target for mimicry, a habit for which some of us were too prone.

But the great thing about this was that by imitating his words, - and they were always precise uncluttered with jargon – we learned them never to be forgotten.  Later in Wales, I was to learn that it was the style of a rousing sermon in a Welsh chapel. 

Many of the word intonations between Geordie and Welsh are very similar, especially the rising inflection at the end of a sentence, and I used this trick some four years later when I went to Bangor in North Wales to do my PhD. The local Welsh speakers thought I was from South Wales (and not English), so was readily accepted among the College farm staff – and the farm dogs who had no English!

Prof’s lectures
We knew the drill to so many of Prof’s lectures. He would come into the lecture room on the second floor of our Ag building, taking small steps with his stick, always in a 3-piece suit, and wearing his Homburg hat which he always removed carefully.  His faithful walking stick was rested along the front of the bench, and regularly became a handy pointer for extra emphasis.

The thin chalk line - birth to death
Inevitably early in his lecture Prof would draw a long thin line in chalk, right across the length of the very worn blackboard.  This represented the surface of the ground.

Then the story would begin –told with the passion that only Welsh speakers can put into the English language.  In no time he had us captivated as the story would start to build – always from left to right on the board.

The ‘seeede’
On the far left, the chalk made a tiny speck on the board just below the line, and then with a few more tiny circles a ‘seede’ would appear, nicely covered by enough soil to give it protection and keep it moist.  Never ‘too deeepe’!

With a bit more chalk work it would fatten, and suddenly a ‘shoote’ would burst from it and fight its way upwards to the surface.  Then with more chalk work, from the seed’s base, a tiny ‘roote’ - a ‘seminal roote’ appeared to fight its way down.  Why did the shoots know to go up and the roots to go down?

Then we remembered in those dry pure botany lectures, all that stuff we got the clever chemistry involved in why shoots go up and roots go down.  It was useful after all. 

So now from Prof’s lectures we appreciated that if you got the seed depth wrong when setting the drill and the subsequent harrowing, you could cause serious trauma to this germ of life – and cost to the farmer (your employer).  You may not be there long!

The ‘shoote’
Then with his dark Welsh eyes sparkling, as we sat there we saw the shoot start to make its hazardous journey up above the chalk line breaking through the surface to life support from the sun. We felt like shouting ‘Halleluiah’. 

Things were moving fast now, as the shoot started to ‘tillller’ – with more young shoots starting to emerge out of the plant’s vitally important ‘growing point’ just above the ground surface.  This was a sacred part of the plant and must never be damaged – we got that message in no uncertain terms!

Prof’s excitement gained momentum as his chalk produced more shoots (tillers) and more roots – and more roots and more shoots.  He was in full flight until suddenly - Silence!  You could hear a seed drop.  He had our total concentration - we were all hooked. 

What on earth could have happened of such momentum to this chalky grass plant growing along our well-worn blackboard, to bring our normally relaxed mob to total silence? 

With his back partly hiding his hand doing a bit more secret chalk work – there it was.  The first ‘seeede head’ – the grass flower.   We all cheered!

Prof’s chalky masterful hand produced more and more seed heads on the plant which ‘greewe’ quickly – even in a matter of days when light, temperature and nutrients were all in line. 

We animal men all knew that sex had few downsides apart from a few disease risks, and you could never get enough of it, and he cunningly led us to believe that sex was what the plant wanted too. We were all very keen to support the idea.

But then our blackboard plant with its massive seed heads started to look tired and stopped growing!  Maybe there was a lesson here that too much sex could have it’s problems.  So as more flowering heads appeared with their mass of developing seeds, the plant leaves started to droop, get narrow and fall over.  Then some of the seed started to drop out. 

So now our great grass plant full of vigour in its youth was on death row!  With Welsh passion in his voice – he almost had us all in tears.  After sex you could die – and if conditions were right – you could die fast!  We could imagine a little white cross as the last drawing on the line.

But there was salvation!
Indeed there was salvation for our chalky blackboard grass plant.  With more sparkle back in his eyes and bending slightly forward while eyeballing everyone one in the room Prof asked in his rising Welsh tones –“So what happens then’?  We were all on tenterhooks.

With a wide sweep of his arm and a slowly closing fist, Prof hit the blackboard just before those sexy seed heads had appeared and grabbed at the lush and leafy chalky plant and decreed – ‘the cattle beast takes it all’!

Then with his duster he wiped the top of the chalky plants and we thought he’d ruined his masterpiece and all the work that went into it.

 Like a final blessing in a Welsh Chapel he thundered - ‘Always aim to keep the plant in the leafy vegetative stage’– and in almost a whisper he continued - ‘by good grazing management’.   His Gospel continued with - ‘The grass plant feeds the animal, and the animal keeps the plant to keeps it its vegetative stage’. 

The other key part of this great grassland Gospel was that no matter what grass varieties you sowed, if you didn’t get the animal defoliation business right, you’d end up with a mess of unproductive grasses, no clover and weeds. (See Deric Charlton’s notes).

Champion pot leeks at Bellingham Leek Show
One day before Prof arrived at class, we had the thin chalk line already drawn on the board for him – with one addition. One of the lads drew an enormous leek at the far right hand side of the board, correct in every botanical detail.  It was a wonderful specimen that would certainly have won the Supreme Award and Cup at the Bellingham and District Annual Leek Show, and probably would have taken out the cup at Ashington Miners’ Leek Show too.

Prof came in, and to our utter dismay and great disappointment completely ignored it.  We were starting to feel a bit peeved, and accepted that our smart-ass move had flopped.   We knew that these things happen of course, with lecturers who have their good and bad days!

The thin chalk line got its usual workout, and it was getting near the end of the lecture when most of us had entered that twilight zone of concentration, brought on by lecturers repeating their message for at least the third time.  We drifted on to the importance of nutrient storage and feeding value, and how to make sure the nutrients were used for the stock and not wasted to produce seed.

Prof was chalking away on the topic, watching our reactions at the same time - and then suddenly he stopped.  Silence!  Prof picked up his Homburg hat grabbed his walking stick and headed for the door.  Our clicking ring binders celebrated the end of proceedings - but to our dismay - he had stopped dead in his tracks.

He spun around, eyes sparkling, moustache bristling and in a crouched pose, with stick at the ready as a pointer and grin as wide as the Tyne - he hollered in his great Welsh accent - ‘LIKE THE FOOD STORE IN THIS LEEEKE’ !

He bolted shaking with laughter to our roar that would have done a Jackie Charlton header proud.  Full time score that day: Martin Jones 1 – Students Nil!

It was at the end of so many of Prof’s lectures that I used to panic – I hadn’t written anything down!  The standard routine in lectures was from when the lecturer first opened his or her mouth, to when they thankfully left the room at the end, it was wise to write down every word they uttered.  You dare not sit back and listen, hoping for a clear message to regurgitate back to them in exams. 
Most times there was no clear message!

In Ag economics lectures I found that when I finally faced the agony of reading the scribbles of my Parker 51 fountain pen before an exam, the notes went around in a complete confusing circle, as those from the last lecture seemed to be a repeat of those from the first!  It all seemed ‘common sense made difficult’ – a good definition of economics at the best of times, but it was essential to regurgitate in exams what you got in the lectures if you wanted to pass.

With Prof MJ, all that most of us had to show for his hour’s lecture was a line across our books with little drawings on it.  But really you didn’t need notes – it was all there from his skill or an orator, turning words delivered with passion into images, which most brains can recall better than text.

My future salvation - Prof’s chalk line.
Sixty plus years later as a Scientific Liaison Officer at the Ruakura Research Centre in New Zealand we received many VIP overseas visitors, who had come to New Zealand to see how we produce and manage pastures.  They wanted to find out how to keep costs down for their farmers to stay in business - to crack the secrets and dark arts of Kiwi pasture management.

Then later in the 7 years I taught pasture management to young farm Polytech students, most of whom were full time on the farm, only coming to class one day a week – I had really needed some tricks. 

These part-time students were always tired as they worked awful hours, and from their school background they were not great note takers. I could get them to draw pictures and use mind maps where writing was at a minimum.  The challenge was to make the science behind the practice of farming interesting and relevant – to explain the Why behind the What.

Prof MJ’s thin chalk line said it all.  After all those years I could remember every detail, and I unashamedly used all the tricks of the great man, to get the basic message across so they went back to milk at least motivated to want to learn more.  The details of strip grazing and rotational grazing, feed allocation and feed budgeting were not the main issue – the basic principles were. 

It was getting these students to appreciate, value and marvel at ‘the green stuff’ the cows ate and dunged on.  I used Prof’s thin chalk line (now with a whiteboard marker) to get them to remember (and never forget) how a grass plant started life, how it lived and died – and how important this was to their farm income and the economic benefit of every New Zealander.  It’s a pity that most politicians both then and now had no idea what all this was about.

New Zealand pasture knowledge for export
In recent years there have been many more overseas farmers and executives from dairy companies coming to New Zealand to learn about our pasture management, as their high cost systems based on grain feeding are now starting to hurt their profits.

They have suddenly realised that pastures can be much more than summer exercise areas for their monstrous grain-devouring North American Holstein Friesian cows, which have swept throughout the world.

Pasture management is not an easy subject to teach, as when you visit successful New Zealand farmers and hear them talk about what they do to achieve top results, it sounds to be more art than science.  So much of it is about timing of doing things like moving fences and moving stock.

There’s a question of – ‘what’s the difference between a good Kiwi farmer and a poor one’?  The answer is – ‘about a week’!  This is because the grass plant as a feed source varies every day of it’s life in both quantity and quality, and even over different parts of the day.

 Lost in translation
Teaching pasture management through a translator is always a frustrating and worrying business, as you never quite know if your message was clear.  Prof MJ’s chalk line always saved my day an at times I found myself slipping into bits of passionate Welsh if I was concerned about the translation accuracy!   I loved walking around the class sneaking a look at visitors’ notes and seeing Prof’s thin chalk line being annotated in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.  I wish he could have seen it all – I certainly felt his presence.

My 1953 Ag Botany my lecture notes from Kings had long gone – but I didn’t need them.  Because of the skill of Prof Martin Jones as an inspirational teacher, it was all there as a picture in my old brain. 

There’s a well-recognised principle of communication about what makes a message memorable?  It’s not the content of the message but the passion with which it is delivered.  Was there any better proof of that principle than the lectures of Professor Martin Jones?  He deserved a Knighthood for his dedication to agronomy and to his many students.


No comments:

Post a Comment