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Caring for each other

I want to celebrate caring.

I’ve read a fair bit of research into the lives of trees recently, the most recent being Suzanne Simard’s excellent “Finding the Mother Tree”. It seems that far from seeing trees as separate individuals in constant competition with each other for sunlight and nutrients, that reality is more complex, because trees are in fact in constant communication with each other – primarily through the wood wide web of fungal networks in the soil, but also through chemical signals sent through the air.

It turns out that trees are not as separate as we thought. And it turns out that caring for each other is essential to their health and survival.

And aren’t those the exact lessons we are learning from this pandemic?

We are not separate. My actions have consequences for you and vice versa. Political borders are irrelevant to viruses. We live in one vast interconnected planet. What happens in one community has consequences for other communities.

The most impressive thing to witness in this pandemic has been the spontaneous actions of caring individuals – millions of them – from “front line workers” to “neighbours” to professionals collaborating to find tools and solutions.

And the other side of that coin is the pandemic has hit hardest those in society who have been least cared for – the poor, the frail and the marginalised.

That lack of care has made us all more vulnerable.

So let’s counter the dominant belief system that we are all separate and that competition and greed will be good for us all. And say let’s try something else. Let’s put caring at the heart of what we do.

Utility isn’t enough

These are three photos of some houses opposite the first part of the aqueduct in Segovia.

I’m pretty sure these are pretty regular terraced houses and apartments and this kind of decoration on the outside was actually fairly widespread in the town.

The patterns on the first two remind me of those I saw in the Alhambra in Grenada and the third one seems rather understated in comparison but look carefully. It’s a sort of frieze of pairs of deer, each couple standing facing each other, which is pretty engaging. But look at the pair below the window. They’re crouching down so they don’t bang their heads on the lintel! Such attention to detail.

All too often, it seems to me, our particular form of society has become too utilitarian. Surely the easiest, quickest and cheapest facing on these buildings would be a bland render? And how often it seems that cheapness and so called efficiency are the bottom line decisions. But cheap and so called efficient are rarely beautiful. And they don’t nurture the human heart.

So I was delighted to see that creativity, aesthetics and beauty had won the day here.

One thing this pandemic has shown us is that globalised, just in time, so called efficient and cheap ways of meeting human needs are not very resilient. And, hey, even if they weren’t enchanting, even if they weren’t beautiful or nurturing, surely the least they could be was efficient – as in the best way to do something.

So, folks, can we take a cue from this and turn towards ways of organising, managing and working which nurture creativity, stir the human heart, and value all living creatures over profit and short term goals?

We humans are essentially a creative, highly social species. We’ve expressed ourselves with art and chosen to “adorn” or “embellish” what’s around us since time immemorial. And when we allow those creative and social energies to flow, we flourish.

The storks have flown

Do you associate certain birds with particular places?

I know that now that I live inland, whenever I visit a coastal town I’m quickly aware of the cries of gulls. I noticed that when I visited Edinburgh recently where their calls added to the sense of familiarity I was experiencing revisiting the city I’d spent so many years in, in the past. And even when in the middle of the city they made me think of the sea.

I also associate the caw, caw of crows calling in Tokyo – which every time I was there surprised me and gave me a sense of returning to somewhere familiar.

Around this part of south west France buzzards are perhaps the most striking and distinctive birds, both when I see them riding the air currents and call their high pitched call high, high above, and when I drive past a vineyard and see one perched majestically on one of the poles at the end of a row of vines.

When I was in Segovia last week one of the first things I noticed were the vast ramshackle nests sitting on top of church spires, bell towers, high roofs and tall trees. The storks have gone now, flown off to Africa or the Middle East for the winter so the empty nests remind me of the characteristics of travel and migration shared by so many living creatures.

Fly past

I was framing my shot to take a photo of this fountain (even though there was no water flowing) when I noticed the jet plane high in the sky above. I waited a couple of seconds then pressed the shutter.

So when I look at the image now I see what seems to be fish out of water, held by a child. The fish seems focused on the plane and it’s mouth is wide open as if it is gasping in amazement.

Well, it’s just a little fun of course but it does get me thinking about how different our lives are in relation to the environments in which we live.

There’s a French TV programme where they take a celebrity to a remote civilisation somewhere for a couple of weeks and film the experience. It’s actually very touching and usually by the end of the fortnight you can already see the intensity of emotional connection which has been made. One time they filmed themselves showing three different groups the programmes from each of them. One group lived in huts on stilts in the sea, one high in mountains and a third lived in snow covered lands. The reactions of each group to the programmes about the lives of the other two groups was really something .

They were utterly amazed, and you could see that, like ourselves, watching from Europe, it was really astonishing to see such different environments and the way people lived in them.

What always touched me most about that programme was that it seemed for all of us there was a mix of just not knowing what on Earth it would be like to live in such a different way and the deep sense of rapport and empathy we felt.

I think it’s great to be amazed. And I think it’s great to be reminded that we all live in different ways, in different ecosystems, but that we are all sharing this one small planet together.

Integrative flow

There is a lot of division and polarity in our societies today. Way too often reality is presented in simplistic black and white, dualistic terms. “Them and us”, “right or wrong”, “right or left”, and so on. It’s stoking both fear and hatred.

Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe the old “divide and rule” adage is in full sway? Maybe such ridiculous over simplifications are done for effect – to distract, to stoke outrage, to instil fear.

I’m always very suspicious of such views because reality is not like that. Reality is both complex and diverse. It can’t be chopped into pieces and put in two boxes.

That’s not to say that opposites and polarities don’t exist. They do. There is wildness and discipline. There is chaos and order. There is flexibility and rigidity.

The thing is I am healthy when those polarities exist in an integrative flow. You are healthy when your whole being is in an integrative flow. The planet is healthy when the diversity exists in integrative flow.

What is integrative flow? When two well differentiated parts create a mutually beneficial bond.

Too much chaos and everything falls apart. Too much order and the system loses its flexibility and its ability to adapt to constant change.

Look at this photo of a garden. There are two clear areas here. The well trimmed, shaped topiary of the bushes and the wilder, sprawling branches of trees. Together they create an astonishing beauty.

We need diversity. We need différence. We need polarities. But we need them to exist in integrative flow.

A moment

When I was working as a GP in Edinburgh we had two clinic premises, one near the university and the other down at the shore in Portobello. One of my favourite routes between the two was the road around the base of Arthur’s Seat. As I’d drive along that road hurrying from one set of appointments to another I’d often spot someone sitting on one of the park benches and I’d think “Wouldn’t that be bliss?” But it seemed I had no time to take such a pause.

Ever since I was a student at Edinburgh University I’ve loved spending time in the Royal Botanic Gardens. One of my most favourite places in the world. I love the diversity of plants in the different areas of the gardens but I especially enjoy spending time amongst the tallest trees.

Last week I visited the Palace gardens in La Granja, in Spain which has lots of forested areas. Really a complete delight. Look at this bench, one of several scattered around the fountains along the many paths winding their way through the trees. Isn’t this just SO appealing?

This image makes two points for me. It reminds me of the importance of spending time amongst trees….something well known now as a healthy activity. And it reminds me of the importance of “taking a moment”.

We need to just slow down a little from time to time. We need to pause and reflect if we aren’t to be driven on semi-automatic by the wishes and Will of others.

It’s only when we stand back a moment and appreciate the “necessary distance”, as Iain McGilchrist calls it, that we can break the automatic feedback loops and become truly aware of the here and now.

Why not take a moment? Even right now, after reading this.

A seasonal image

I know it seems that the seasons are not so distinctly different these days as they seem to be in my childhood memory banks but I still love how the natural environment clearly demonstrates the cycles and rhythms of life.

I visited the Royal Palace in La Granja near Segovia in Spain this week. It has amazing 1500 acre gardens with thousands of beautiful, very old trees.

However, on a much smaller scale, this chestnut and an autumn crocus in full bloom caught my eye and between them they just say – we’re in autumn now.

Yes, I know that if you’re reading this in the Southern Hemisphere you’ll be noticing signs of Spring, and I rather like that – I like that wherever we are on this planet we can see the signs of seasons moving from one to another but what we actually see and experience depends on exactly where are.

I love that melding of what we share and what we experience differently which creates the uniqueness of this present moment.

But especially I love the sense of “telling the time” by observing the plant kingdom around me. It has the effect of instilling a deep sense of harmony in me, a feeling of resonance, of “tuning in” and of connecting.

In short, a simple natural “tableau” such as this single crocus and single chestnut dissolves my personal boundaries and fills me with the sense of being connected to what’s greater than me.

Out of the box

I’m pretty sure this wee plant seeded itself on top of this metal plate but it looks as if the iron frame has been an attempt to fence the plant in.

But look! This plant isn’t going to be constrained so easily. It’s made it’s way out through a little gap and is already discovering a second exit.

Many years ago on my morning commute I sat next to a student on the train. The student was revising for a science exam and the definition of science which she was rehearsing really struck me at the time.

It had the following steps –

  • Observation
  • Description
  • Explanation
  • Prediction
  • Control

So I was with this for the first three steps – observation, description and explanation. This is completely consistent with what I love about science. It’s about noticing, looking carefully, describing what you see and trying to explain it by way of trying to understand what you’re looking at. All of that fits with a science of wonder. A science which is humble and curious.

So the next two steps were the ones I found, and still find, controversial, and frankly a bit misguided – prediction and control.

Wow! Prediction! Good luck with that! Hasn’t this pandemic shown us how often our predictions are wrong? Hasn’t the emergence of more and more extreme weather events shown us how difficult it is to predict rainfall, floods, forest fires, hurricanes? Not to mention volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

The truth is prediction quickly becomes inaccurate the less focused and limited it is. The further ahead we look the less accurate our predictions. But more than this, all of Life, all of Nature, all individual human existence is a complex, open system. What happens in this real world cannot be reduced and abstracted without being falsified. All is interconnected and the webs of connections allow the open flow of particles, energy and information unceasingly. Prediction in detail over time isn’t possible.

That’s why the shift towards industrialised Medicine is so wrong. Nobody can predict the life path or future health of any individual with accuracy and nobody can be sure about the outcomes of treatments at an individual level either.

Which brings me to the last point – control.

We live in a society obsessed with power and control. We do not control NATURE. We do not control LIFE. It’s an illusion.

So it’s refreshing to see that complexity science is leading to a resurgence of a science of wonder and hopefully that shift will begin to let us put the control myth back in its box and replace it with a determination to care instead.

Back home

It’s been a long day, folks. I left Segovia in Spain about half seven this morning and drove to Saint Jean de Luz in the south western corner of France to see some relatives and have lunch.

Then late in the afternoon I headed north. I got snarled up in very, very slow stop and start traffic around Bordeaux. It’s really unusual to be able to drive round Bordeaux without hitting traffic jams. It’s been like this as long as I can remember but today the amount of traffic heading north was unprecedented. I began to wonder if the rest of the world knew something I didn’t. Was there a mass exodus underway? And if so, where to??

So by the time I pulled into the driveway the sun had set. There was a gorgeous tobacco glow just over the horizon and a crescent moon was sitting there in the pink.

It’s good to travel. It’s good to spend some time in another culture and try a different language. But it’s good to come home again.

Well I almost missed posting today and I know that some of you are already wondering where I’ve got to. So this is me, back home, marvelling at the astonishingly different, deeply familiar last few minutes of the last light.

A sense of place

I’m visiting Segovia in Spain again for a few days. Ever since I first came here I’ve had a sense that it’s a special place.

I’m sure you’ve had that kind of experience where within minutes, maybe even seconds, of arriving somewhere new to you, you might have a strong feeling about it. That strong feeling might be a sort of belonging. I had that in Marrakesh which completely surprised me. I’d never had a strong desire to go there but I deeply felt that I belonged, or more that I had lived there before. Weird.

It might be a bad feeling. I once visited a small town in France which had been a centre for tanneries. I don’t think I knew that before I got out of the car and within minutes we all decided we didn’t want to be there and left. It was only after that, that we read about the history of the town and learned about the stinking tanneries.

But then other places instantly feel just right. For me, Segovia is one such place.

There’s no doubting the power of the Roman aqueduct here. I mean you really couldn’t miss it, could you? It’s astonishing in its size, construction, beauty. Gradually, metre by metre, it allows water to flow naturally downwards from the countryside to the town, and it worked for centuries. A testament to human creativity, to Will, determination and strength.

I think it’s the main influence for me in making this town such a special, attractive place.

What towns have had the biggest instant effects on you? Which villages, towns or cities feel special to you?