I took a road trip recently, over the Pyrenees from France to Spain. Stopping in a lay-by to admire the view I spotted this glorious flower. I imagine nobody planted it here. I don’t know what it’s called. But it caught my attention and drew me right towards it.

We have two kinds of attention working all the time, a focussing in, narrow form attention which lets us spot a detail and study it up close. And a zooming out, broad form, taking in the whole view type which shows us this…..

The first is a flower. The second is a flower in the Pyrenees.

As a doctor, making a diagnosis was at the core of my daily life. I’d focus in on the details to figure out what kind of disease this was (I’m better at naming diseases than naming flowers!) but, at the same time, I’d keep an open mind, keep my curiosity active, and zoom out to hear the patient’s unique story, to understand the contexts and connections related to this disease.

The narrow focus helped me recognise disease, the broad focus helped me understand human beings.

Ok, as always, it’s not quite that simple, but I thought these two photos were a good illustration of the different values underpinning the strategies of engagement of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

We need both. We shouldn’t get into the habit of using only one.

I took this photo while out strolling round the village. From one of the small bridges you can see the stream winding its way among the trees, creating an astonishingly beautiful, green scene.

When I looked at this photo at home I thought it looked like an Impressionist painting, but, really, no art quite achieves the beauty of Nature. We can re-present the world to ourselves and others but our lives are lived in a continuous flow of energies, materials, sensations, thoughts and feelings.

Every single one of these moments is unique and no two of us standing on the same bridge at the same time will have identical experiences. We are all influenced by, you could say created by, the cumulative flow of personal, subjective moments which we weave together to tell that singular, unique story that only we can tell.

These are moments of awe and wonder, and Nature has the power to generate these, most healing of all, experiences.

This stream, by the way, flows from “La Source”, which emerges from the subterranean waterways coursing through France. That, too, contributes to my experience of awe and wonder.

Telling the world

As I had lunch outside one day this week, I heard a loud birdsong and looked up to see this swallow perched on the tv aerial.

He’s been there every day since, singing his heart out, broadcasting his presence, celebrating his existence, telling everyone his one unique story.

I don’t speak swallow but from what I know about these birds there’s a good chance he’s been down in Africa all winter and has flown over the desert, across Morocco and the Straights of Gibraltar, up through Eastern Spain to finally come back to this garden, here, in the Charente Maritime, a garden he left last autumn.

I find this both delightful and astonishing. That this little creature can make its way thousands of miles to Africa and back to the exact same garden amazes me. Of course, I don’t know if this particular bird, singing today from my rooftop, is one of the ones which swooped over this garden last summer, but I believe a good percentage of these birds do exactly that, returning to the same place, so there’s every chance he’s been here before.

Nearby, at the same time, I hear the call of a Hoopoe, yet another bird to make this annual journey of migration.

These returning birds put me in touch with deep natural rhythms and remind me that the everyday really is full of moments of wonder and awe.

This weekend I’m in Stirling, Scotland, for a family gathering to celebrate the 90th birthday of my mother in law. It’s a brief visit, just for the weekend, but I, too, have migrated from one part of this planet to another. I, too, return, periodically to the place of my birth.

I’m not perched up on a tv aerial but I am here singing my own unique song, telling my particular story with these, my relatives, my children and all my grandchildren.

That, too, delights and amazes me.

Living gardening

Some time last year, I don’t remember exactly when, while visiting family back in Scotland, I went to one of my most favourite places in the world … The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. At one stage in my life, during my student years, I lived only a few minutes walk from “the Botanics”, and went there at least once a week. Occasionally I took along a book to sit and study in the quiet surrounded by trees and shrubs.

When I visited this time, we had a little browse of the shop at the entrance gate and I spied a little packet of about twenty bluebell bulbs. Well, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for bluebell woods and so I thought, I’ll plant these back in France and start my own bluebell wood.

Part of the long neglected garden which came with the house we bought here in the Charente Maritime just over a year ago was so wild it was a dense thicket of thorns, creepers and saplings. I made some inroads into it over the year, and when it came to bulb planting time I popped the little bluebell bulbs into an area at the edge of the trees.

Well, Spring came, and up came a flourish of daffodils and tulips, but no sign of any bluebells. I hadn’t been organised enough to put labels next to where I’d planted the bulbs and only had a rough idea of the area I’d planted them in. But, nope, no sign of a single one.

I’ve learned by now that gardening is a bit like that. You can prepare the ground, plant bulbs, sow seeds, put in some actual plants, but which will survive, which will thrive, and which will disappear? You don’t know. Nobody does.

Oh well, I thought, I’ll get some more next time and try again.

However, a couple of months on and, surprise, surprise, looks what’s popped up! Some bluebells! And they’re looking pretty healthy! What a delight!

Gardening teaches you to accept uncertainty and to learn that nature isn’t under your control, but with attention, care and patience, you can create an immediate, present environment to live in which will delight and surprise you.

Many years ago I was a GP in Edinburgh at the outset of AIDS. We didn’t know what it was at first, but it spread pretty quickly in Edinburgh. There weren’t any good treatments at first and I remember one particular patient who’d just received his diagnosis. I asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life (knowing we were talking months, probably not years) and one of the things he said was “I’m going to create a garden”. We talked about it for a while. There was a garden where he lived but he hadn’t touched it since moving in, and now, he said, he’d create a garden which was an expression of his preferences and values, and the people who he knew and loved would see it as a continuation of his existence after he had gone.

I’ve always remembered that conversation and I think lots of people have a similar idea. We have the opportunity to plant, encourage, care for and nurture, a small patch of this Earth, and often it can indeed become part of our legacy as well as our way of living the little life we have.

As I look at these first bluebells I think of “the Botanics”, the many memories from there. I think of Scotland and of woods and forests. Just a few little flowers reinforce my sense of a life lived, and give me a vision of a future which will stretch far beyond my single lifetime.

The medium

In the natural spring across the road from my house the water is crystal clear. During the summer drought the level dropped so it wasn’t pouring into the old Roman aqueduct for a while, but mostly it’s high enough to spill over the edge all the time.

There are plants which grow under the water in the pool. All year long. Sometimes they reach the surface and spread across it, but mostly they seem content to survive and thrive below. You can see them so clearly.

As I was contemplating this scene I thought of the old saying that fish are not aware of the medium they are swimming in. I must say I don’t know if that’s true. They may be acutely aware of it, able to detect all kinds of differences within it which we can’t see. Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s either not there, or it’s irrelevant.

A big study of drinking water quality in France was reported this week and it showed that over half the samples, taken from all round the country, revealed traces of a dangerous fungicide, one which was banned a few years ago, showing us how long these chemical pollutants can hang around. In fact, several chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they never seem to disappear. The study also revealed around 157 different pesticides in the water. Truly, we have dumped, and continue to dump, an awful lot of potentially harmful stuff into our water.

But then we do the same with the air, and with the soil.

How aware are we of these pollutants? Not very. We don’t look for them very much. How aware are we of the effects they might have in our health and the health of our loved ones? Not very. We don’t really know. Typically we know many of these chemicals are toxic when taken in large amounts but we are really not good at the lire joined up thinking kind of research – we find it harder to show cause and effect when substances are around in lower levels over longer periods, and we are very, very bad at discovering the effects of multiple substances present concurrently – the so called “cocktail effect”.

Maybe as technology and knowledge increase we’ll learn to solve those problems and demonstrate the real world effects of the complex chemical cocktails which are present in all our water, all our air, and all our soil.

Meanwhile, maybe it’s a good idea to try a bit harder to prevent all kinds of pollution in the first place. Like the water in the “source”, that seems clear to me.

If you’re familiar with some of the posts on my blog here, you’ll probably know that just across the road from where I live there’s a Roman Spring. In French, it’s called “la source”, and I’m pretty keen on that word.

I often go across and spend some time there. Last summer we had a long and pretty severe drought and the water stopped overflowing from the pool into the aqueduct, but after a particularly wet start to the year, it’s flowing abundantly again.

Look at this photo I took of the water as it pours over into the aqueduct. Look down at the bottom left of the image. I’m fascinated by the shape of the water there. As water pours over a ledge like this it often takes the shape of continuous sheet, so it looks a bit like a textile, a piece of material. But in this instance that sheet has curled up at the edge so you can see the water rise up from the ground, curve round, then dive back down to disappear over the stone.

In fact, if you look closely you’ll see parallel lines, or ridges, in that curl.

Isn’t this just amazing? How these millions of water molecules flow together to create temporary, but quite elaborate, shapes, appearing almost like objects you could reach out to, and gather up.

I can’t help but think of how much a delusion it is to see reality as a construction built from separate fixed objects. How reality is in fact a constant flow of interacting forces which give the appearance of stuff which can be grasped, held, and stored.

Nothing is permanent. Nothing is separate. Nothing is fixed.

And one more thing….what utter beauty emerges from the creative interactions of natural forces.


Look at this blossom! There are several trees around here which are absolutely laden with blossom. They won’t last long, but aren’t they glorious?

I know that cherry blossom holds a special place in the hearts of Japanese people, and at this time of year the TV and newspapers publish maps of the country tracking the appearance of the blossoms from the south to the north of the country. I’m not aware of any other country where that happens.

Like the Japanese I celebrate the blossoms for two reasons – their beauty, and their transience. The blossoms bring me great joy. They delight me and inspire me. They amaze me and bring me right down into the here and now to wonder at their glory.

They are fabulous for reminding us of the importance of savouring the day, of fully living in, and appreciating, the present moment. They are great for remembering just how special are living forms of all kinds, not least because they constantly change and grow, but because they are not here forever.

But there’s another lesson here – abundance. Nature loves to do abundance. Nature isn’t into meanness. It’s our system of economics and management which creates scarcity and pares everything back to bare essentials in the interest of something called “efficiency”….which isn’t efficient at all in terms of adaptation, resilience or growth.


It feels like Spring here in South West France. The French word for flourishing or blossoming is épanouissement, and it’s used when referring to both plants and people. In the former case it’s about when the flowers appear. It means “opening up” just like the buds unfurl to stretch out their petals and reveal the full flower. In human beings it’s used in the field of personal development to refer to the movement towards ever greater fulfilment – to becoming the best you, you can become, the most fully developed, evolved, grown and mature expression of your unique self.

I only saw the absolute beauty of this tiny flower when I got down on my knees beside it. From human standing height it looked like this –

Looking at these two photos one after the other makes me realise the importance of the individual. The beautiful carpet of blue at the edge of the grass attracted me to walk over to it. As I stood and took a photo it looked like a floral version of the night sky. Down on my knees, as if in prayer, filled with wonder and delight, I saw the complex, utter beauty of the single flower.

As often happens, these experiences set off a train of thoughts. For example, I thought of the hundreds, no, thousands, of patients I met in my working life and how one by one they presented their utterly unique selves to me; how I never saw two people completely the same; how every one had a unique story to tell; how every single individual deserved the fullest attention, the greatest care and the most complete compassion.

And I thought about the societies we live in today, with ever increasing inequality and injustice, with a rise of xenophobia and so called populism which advocates for good things for some, and the exclusion of the other.

And I wonder, isn’t it obvious that if we want economies which flourish, then we need societies which flourish, and that’s only going to happen if we maximise the chances for the greatest number of people in society to flourish.

And I wonder, is there a good moral or rational argument to deny flourishing to anyone in any society? Isn’t the way to a better world, through a focus on the creation of the conditions which will maximise “épanouissement” for as many people as possible?

Indeed, why create the conditions for growth of only some, but not of others? Don’t we want everyone to reach their full potential as a loving, creative unique human being?

Paying attention

As these glorious hyacinths transition from showing the delicate colour to the full bloom beauty of this……

I got thinking again about that advice to be present, to live in “the now”, to enjoy the moment, because if we hadn’t focused on the future several months ago we wouldn’t have planted the bulbs which are now producing these glorious flowers.

So if we live in the moment without a thought to the future, then, how’s that going to go? Yet if we focus all our attention on the future, then we’ll miss the rich delights of the everyday.

This need to be present whilst thinking ahead reminded me of the practice of Medicine. When a patient came to see me I had to be fully present in order to understand them properly. In those moments I had to make a diagnosis, a prognosis and initiate a treatment. When they came back for a review I had to be fully present and prepared to let go of the previous diagnosis, prognosis and/or treatments if the situation had changed, whether for the better or the worse.

The key to the dilemma was non attachment….the practice of letting go of prior assumptions and assessments as the situation changed.

When I was training to be a GP, a consultant Obstetrician I was working for, told me, one day in a labour ward, that “obstetrics” meant “to stand and wait”….then moments later called for gloves and forceps to intervene!

Watchful waiting might capture it. We don’t have to intervene or act all the time. Sometimes it’s best to be present and engaged with an eye on today and the days ahead in the same moment, ever ready to be flexible so we can adapt and change as the need arises.

I read a paper today about prostate cancer. The researchers divided patients with prostatic cancer into three groups….one to get surgery, another to receive radiotherapy and a third to have “active monitoring” (a kind of watchful waiting). All three groups had the same 10 and 15 year survival rates, both from prostate cancer, and all other causes of death.

I think of all that as I admire these hyacinths and think where we’re going to plant the autumn bulbs we’ve just bought.

It seems being present and thinking ahead are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they blend together beautifully.

It’s International Women’s Day today so I thought I’d share this photo which I took in the nearby village of Saint Savinien. It’s a sculpture of a young woman reading a book. Maybe it’s nothing spectacular but as I am always on the lookout for “l’émerveillement du quotidien”, (the wonder of the everyday) I find this hits the spot.

Reading is certainly part of my everyday and I can’t resist a good bookshop. In this part of the world, where the climate is so pleasant, I find it’s a great joy to sit and read outside, surrounded by birdsong.

I’ll read anywhere really….in my study, in the garden, at a cafe, in the train etc. How about you? Where’s your favourite place to read?

Let me mention some books written by women which I’d say are amongst my favourite books ever. I have a lot of poetry books by Mary Oliver. She’s a great favourite of mine. I also have several volumes of Liz Lochhead’s poetry and hearing her perform is one of my best memories.

I have many books by Mary Midgley, who was one of England’s greatest 20th century philosophers. If you haven’t read any of her work, I’d recommend starting with “Science and Poetry”.

Madeline Miller’s Circe is a brilliant re-telling of Classical Myths and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books are amongst of my most favourite fantasy fiction.

If you’d like an introduction to the works of Montaigne you won’t do better than to read Sarah Bakewell’s superb “How to live”.

“The Deficit Myth” by Stephanie Kelton utterly transformed my understanding of economics, and Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” is a simple, and quite brilliant way to see what kind of economics we need to create a more sustainable, more just, society.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. I’d highly recommend the works by any of these women.

How about you? Would you like to share any of your favourites?