Archive for February, 2009

When I took a short walk yesterday I came across a helicopter practising taking water up from a lake and dropping it again as it’ll have to do when it fights forest fires.

I gathered the photos together in iphoto, made them into a slideshow, added some music by Max Richter and exported it as a movie.

Here it is. (I hope you agree the music fits the the photos really nicely)

Read Full Post »

Come take a walk with me up the path towards Mont Sainte Victoire. Let’s start down here by the dam…

mont st victoire

and we’ll take this path…

the path to mont st victoire

The first surprise was seeing a helicopter collecting water from the lake

collecting water

and practising dropping it again

spraying water5

On the way to the top I stumbled across these strange tree roots….


…and these tiny, tiny acorns…


These pine cones were unusual too….

pine cones

This was high enough for me to go today

mont st victoire

On the way back down I came across the first butterfly of the year


and this lovely little ladybird. Look how red it is! Hardly any black spots!


The sun was hot and some of the trees were oozing their sap


There was lots of rosemary and thyme, but very few flowers so I was really pleased to come across exactly these four crocus plants!


What I can’t share with you is the warmth of the February sun, the sweet, fresh smell of the air, or the almost total silence of the countryside up there. You’ll need to go yourself to appreciate that.

Read Full Post »

I’ve walked around the outside of Notre Dame countless times in my visits to Paris. Today, the queue was non-existent so I had my first look inside. Goodness, it’s an incredible building inside as well as outside. I specifically wanted to see what the great rose windows looked like from the inside. Before I show you them, here’s what Notre Dame looks like at night….

notre dame
notre dame

This will give you an idea of the scale of the stained glass windows –

notre dame

And here’s a closer look ….

notre dame

notre dame

And here’s the one opposite!

notre dame

I’m glad I didn’t pass on by as usual today.

Read Full Post »


abundance of snowdrops

February is especially snowdrop month. In fact one of the common names for the snowdrop is “Fair maids of February“. They are beautiful and it’s lovely to see them come through the cold, winter earth. The ones above are not far from where I live. I wandered amongst them taking some photos today. Here are some of the others. The first photo above gives you an idea of how they can form a carpet of flowers. When you get closer you see the carpet is made up of little groups and clumps.


I especially like this small group of three, particularly as snowdrops each have three petals.

3 x 3 snowdrops

And here is a single one close up…

snowdrops closeup

Read Full Post »

I read a lot of non-fiction. Something to do with my being insatiably curious. I often post about the non-fiction books I read, both as reviews which you might like to read, and to share what I learned or what thoughts they provoked for me. But what about fiction? I’ve decided I don’t read nearly enough fiction. So, I’m not going to have any days this year without a novel, or collection of short stories, on the go. I typically read several books at the same time so this shouldn’t mean I won’t be reading any non-fiction for a while.

One of the novels I’ve just read is “The Night Train to Lisbon”, by Pascal Mercier (ISBN 978-1-84354-712-9). If you google it, you’ll find a wide range of extremely divergent reviews. Some people loved it and some found it boring. On the front cover, Isabel Allende says it’s “a treat for the mind”. I agree with her. For me, this book was a treat.

The novel tells the story of a classicist who lives in Bern and who one day encounters a Portuguese woman on a bridge. The encounter is brief but it makes a huge impression on him so when he stumbles across an old Portuguese language book in a second hand bookshop, he just has to buy it. The book he buys is by a Portuguese author named Amadeu de Prado and is a collection of his reflections on his life and his self. Gregorius, the classicist does something impulsive for the first time in his life and walks out of the lecture theatre at work and takes a train to Lisbon, determined to learn Portuguese and find out all he can about Prado.

The two intertwined themes of the book are what hooked me. The first is how we can get to know someone through their text. Throughout the novel are scattered Gregorius’ translations of passages from Prado’s book. You could just skim through the novel reading only these italicised passages and be both inspired and stimulated to reflect on your own life and on how you’ve become who you are. But the other theme is equally fascinating, and it’s how a person is revealed through the stories told by others. Although Prado himself is long since deceased, Gregorius meets up with as many of the people who knew him as he can. They all tell stories of what they remember about Prado and each story reveals something else which helps to Gregorius to understand who Prado was and how he became that person. This is such an interesting truth……how different people have different views, different insights, memories and impressions of one person….and how it’s the collection of these diverse stories which ultimately reveals the reality of that person.

I was also hooked by more personal issues and memories. Like Prado, I’m a doctor who thinks and who writes about his thoughts. Like Gregorius I’m fascinated by books, by language and by stories. I’ve only visited Lisbon a few times but one afternoon particularly stands out in my memory. My trips to Lisbon were to participate in teaching sessions for Portuguese doctors, and on one visit I had a free afternoon while one of my colleagues took the class. An old professor of archeology looked after me for the afternoon. He took me wandering around Lisbon’s old town showing me how the history of the city was revealed in its architecture and its archeological uncoverings. I spoke no Portuguese and he spoke no English. Like all Portuguese of his generation, his second language was French (just as Gregorius discovers in the novel), and my second language too (poor as it is!) is French. So we spent the whole afternoon together, a Portuguese man and a Scot, exploring Lisbon in French! The novel brought those memories flooding back.

The most enjoyable books are like that I think. There is something about them which can be appreciated by many readers and there’s something about them which resonates personally, or connects with the reader’s own experience or memories.

Read Full Post »

friendship gate

As I was opening a gate to get into a field where I’d seen some standing stones, these bright colours caught my eye. Someone had tied these threads onto the gatepost. I think it’s a “friendship bracelet” and I’ve really no idea why it ended up here instead of around somebody’s wrist. Maybe it fell off and another person found it in the road or the field and tied it here to make it more obvious to the owner should they return. But maybe the bracelet was tied there deliberately by the owner. I like to think the latter explanation is correct because when I saw it I immediately had the thought “friendship gate” which made the entrance to the field feel particularly welcoming. Strange, but that’s how it felt.
I got thinking about the tying of knots and how a knot can bind two objects (or two people!) together. I also got to thinking how tying this bracelet to this gate had acted like a multiplier, or magnifier, of an event. However, it came to be there, somebody, instead of just leaving it lying on the ground where it would soon be washed, or blown, away, had fixed it to that specific place. The event, the leaving of the bracelet in this particular place, was no longer over in a moment, or even in few hours, but now, the event stretched out in time, so many days after someone else could encounter it. It also magnified the event in terms of how many people it touched. I’ve been touched by it, even though I’ve no idea who made, or bought, or left the bracelet here. And now you have too, because I photographed it and wrote about it and you’ve come along and looked at the photo and read the words.
All because somebody tied a knot.
That got me thinking about other knots…..
celtic knot
This is a typical Celtic Cross. There are thousands and thousands like it in Scotland. I love the Celtic knots design. I love it because it has no clear beginning or end, it’s pleasingly balanced, yet totally fluid. It’s hard to actually look at a Celtic knot and keep your eyes still. You are somehow compelled to trace the path of one of the lines, often getting distracted where it crosses other lines and finding yourself following one of those instead, returning to your original line only at the next junction. I love the interconnectedness it so clearly illustrates, and I love the looseness of the knot as well. It’s more like a weaving than a knot somehow.
These stone knots last for centuries. We’ve usually no idea who actually carved them, but they left their marks, and they left them in ways which touch the lives of many, many others over countless years. These stone knots stretch time for me also. They connect me to the past, to roots, to ancestors, and in so doing, somehow, they make the lives of those ancient peoples feel closer.

I was born and raised in Stirling and one of the major landmarks in Stirling is a knot – the King’s Knot (although local people often refer to it as “the cup and saucer”). Here’s a view of it taken from the castle walls….

King's Knot

The King’s Knot is the remains of a garden. The garden now is earthworks and grass, but originally, back in the reign of James IV (the 1490s probably), it was laid out with flowers, herbs and bushes. For some strange reason, I’ve never wondered why it was called the “King’s Knot”. Well, of course, I knew it was a garden for the King, but why a “knot”? Then I got to thinking about knots today (who knows why?) and I decided to write a post about knots. Having decided to write about it, I had to go off googling and find out why on Earth it was called a “knot”. It took a bit of searching but eventually I discovered that these knots are a variety of labyrinth. They were often laid out with herbs, or with small box bushes and were formal gardens created to be enjoyed in a manner very similar to that of a labyrinth.

Have you got any favourite knots?

Read Full Post »

Essence of Glasgow

Read Full Post »

That reductionism is limited, however, does not mean it is not powerful, amazingly productive, and tremendously useful scientifically. We simply need to understand its place, and recognise that we live in a very different universe from that painted by reductionism alone.

So writes Stuart Kauffman in “Reinventing the Sacred” (ISBN 978-0-465-00300-6). I agree with that. As a medical doctor who practices in a field of medicine which values an understanding of patients from a holistic perspective, seeking to know, not just the diseases they might have, but to know the individuals who have those diseases, I find reductionist approaches both useful and insufficient. As Mary Midgley says in “Wisdom, Information and Wonder”,

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

The key point Kauffman seeks to make in his book (he is a complexity scientist) is how our relatively new exploration of complex systems in non-reductionist ways has revealed characteristics which fundamentally change the way we understand reality. The central characteristic is, he feels, “emergence”.

…while life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus, life, agency, value and doing are real in the universe. This stance is called emergence……….Emergence is therefore a major part of the new scientific worldview. Emergence says that, while no laws of physics are violated, life in the biosphere, the evolution of the biosphere, the fullness of our human historicity, and our practical everyday worlds are also real, not reducible to physics nor explicable from it, and are central to our lives. Emergence, already both contentious and transformative, is but one part of the new scientific worldview I shall discuss.

The other major characteristic he describes is how Nature does not conform to “natural laws”, and so the world is not nearly as predictable nor controllable as we have believed (well you only need to read about this year’s economic crises to see that’s true, don’t you!)

Kauffman explains how emergence is a quality of unceasing creativity, and he explains how unpredictability challenges the supremacy of reason as a guide to life. When you first encounter them, these are radical ideas for a scientist, but the more you learn about complexity as a way of understanding reality, the more you realise how reductionism does not equal science. Science is a greater way of thinking than that, and its the modern concepts and methodologies which are expanding science beyond its limited and reductionist constraints. He shows how “ceaseless creativity in the evolution of the biosphere” undermines the Newtonian concept of “natural laws”.

We will soon find its analogues in economic and cultural evolution, which, like the biosphere, are self-consistently self-constructing but evolving wholes whose constituents are partially lawless.

(This book was published in January 2008, and therefore written well before the economic crises of the last year)

This is a radically different scientific worldview than we have known. I believe this new scientific worldview breaks the Galilean spell of the sufficiency of natural law. In its place is a freedom we do not yet understand, but ceaseless creativity in the universe, biosphere, and human life are its talismans. I believe this creativity suffices to allow us to reinvent the sacred as the stunning reality we live in. But even more is at stake……We must come to see reason as part of a still mysterious entirety of our lives, when we often radically cannot know what will occur but must act anyway. We do, in fact, live forward into mystery.

I do resonate with these ideas. Emergence is a fascinating concept. To connect it to the concept of ceaseless creativity and beyond that to the notion of God as Creator is an interesting step. Somehow, though, it doesn’t quite work. I am with him in the awe-inspiring inspiration of ceaseless creativity. I think human beings, other creatures, Nature itself are endlessly fascinating and can, in fact, never be wholly known. But to use “God” symbolically to represent this phenomenon doesn’t work for me. I do like how contemplation of emergence, however, can help us to put reductionism in its place. In fact, reductionism can be more, not less, useful, if instead of trying to understand absolutely everything from that single standpoint, we use it in appropriate contexts and never consider that it gives us the whole “Truth”.

I also resonate with the idea that the acceptance of the inevitabilty of uncertainty makes us aware of the ineffable. In so doing, it makes both the mysterious more real, and reality more mysterious.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be a great book. But that’s not where I’ve ended up. I’m grateful to Stuart Kauffman for this work though, and coming from the perspective of a scientist gives his ideas a particular and a unique value. But in terms of “reinventing the sacred”, I think poetry, art, photography, music, and stories do all that so much better. Take a look at the photos of the frozen Scottish countryside I posted earlier, read “Anam Cara” by John O’Donohue, or “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery, get in touch with what the French call “emerviellement” in your daily life (in the “quotidien“) and tell me if you agree. Yes, the new science of complexity can make us a bit more humble again, has a good chance of firing up our sense of awe, but I think it takes both Art and Philosophy to really put us in touch with the sacred again.

Read Full Post »

This morning the sky turned an unusual, lovely, almost lilac colour. Pleasing. Very pleasing.

The colour of sunday morning

Read Full Post »

People often use the word myth as if it is the opposite of the word truth. It’s juxtaposed to reality. You hear that a lot. An explanation about something is dismissed as a myth, meaning that it’s not true, not a fact, that’s it’s unreal. It’s quite strange how we’ve developed this way of using the word myth, because that was never the original meaning of the word. In Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth” (ISBN 978-1841957036) she says

Human beings have always been mythmakers [because] we are meaning seeking creatures.

Myths then, are a kind of story, a particular kind of story which has the potential to cast light on some aspect of life, some potential to make something clearer, to improve our understanding.

Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives – they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.

Mythology is about enabling us to live more intensely……it expresses our innate sense that there is more to human beings and to the material world than meets the eye.

I think this a key problem for us now at this stage in human development. How do understand both objective and subjective reality? How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? The great advances of materialistic naturalism (as Havi Carel) would call it, has advanced through a reductionist approach to reality. It’s based on the belief that everything can best be understood by considering the parts, the components, from which it is made. That’s brought great advances in our ways of being able to understand and interact with the physical world, but when pushed to an extreme it creates a world view which denies the importance, even the reality of anything which cannot be measured, counted, or described objectively. That’s created a sense that the life itself has no meaning, that individual lives have no purpose, and that the priorities of living are about accumulation and consumption of material objects. Now the whole system is in crisis. Prime Minister Gordon Brown says we have never been here before and nobody really knows how to progress.

Karen Armstrong says, “Mythology and Science both extend the scope of human beings.” She’s right. these different ways of grasping reality complement each other.

A myth is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully it is a valid myth.

Wouldn’t you like to read myths which did that?

She concludes –

We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow beings

We need myths that help us to realise the importance of compassion

We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude to see beyond our immediate requirements

We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »