Friday, 3 October 2008

Field trips in a wet climate and the problem of unresolved gratitude

I don’t often write about my job on this blog, which is just as well as I found out today that at least one student regularly reads it. Hi Ioan! Teaching geology has one slight problem attached to it: the need to do fieldwork. In theory this is fine, as in South Wales we live in an area where, within a day’s drive, we can see some very fine geology. But when am I supposed to take my students out? Term starts in early September, but for the first few weeks my first-year students know very little geology and fieldwork presupposes at they have least some knowledge. And by the first week in October temperatures have started to drop and the autumnal gales and rain are upon us. So should I leave it and do it all in late spring? That is hardly acceptable from the teaching point of view and anyway, in some years the weather doesn’t really improve until mid-April. But as our exams start in mid-May we are already in revision mode by then and my colleagues are less than happy at losing students from their classes. So my habit is to try to get the fieldwork in at the very end of September.

Yet here matters are made even more complex by the fact that almost all our best rock sequences are on coastal sections. ‘So what?’ you say. Well, we live in a part of the world that has the second highest tidal range in the world (9-10 metre tides are perfectly common) and the omnipresent health and safety legislation means that I can only really work on a falling tide. So the dates of my field trips are more or less chosen for me and this week was the week: I had three full-day trips. The weather was bad on one day but good on the other two; by the miserable standards of 2008 a very good result. In fact even the field trip on the wet day went well and I actually had some pleasing feedback. I’ve been very glad to get them out of the way because the temperature today has really dropped and there is a feel of late autumn in the air. We also had on the radio that message which is for Brits the first harbinger of true winter: a warning of snow on the Scottish Highlands.

Anyway I’m very grateful for the good weather and am happy to attribute it to answered prayer. I am well aware of this raises lots of problems (what about those who, for whatever reason, prayed for bad weather?) but I’m content to let my praise sound out. This whole issue raises for me one of the most telling arguments against atheism and one which I think is insufficiently discussed. It is this: when faced with some potentially disastrous situation that, in the event, goes right, we all – atheist and believer alike – feel the urge to give thanks. Yet for the atheist this is the most frustrating of all desires: there is simply no one to give thanks to. It may be that if the problem of pain is the strongest objection to Christian belief, the problem of pleasure is atheism’s Achilles heel. The atheist cannot admit for a moment the existence of ‘blessing’; that would require the existence of a Blesser.