Archive for January, 2016

Near where I live now there’s a dolmen. A dolmen is a Stone Age rock structure which looks like a table. It’s got three standing stones, each about ten feet high, and a massive 5 ton slab of stone laid on top as a cover. Originally it’s thought that the walls were filled with slabs of stone, then the whole dolmen was covered with a cairn of stones. The cairn and most of the walls have gone since it was built about 3500 to 5000 years ago.

dolmen size

There’s a small plaque with some information on it, but otherwise it’s just sitting in the middle of a vineyard.

Look at the size of the roof! It weighs about five tons. How on earth did they get it here then hoist it up to sit on these standing stones? Seriously, how did they do that? And where did the stones come from? If they came from far away, how did they transport them? When you step inside things begin to get even more interesting.

dolmen inside

It feels cool and damp inside, and the sun makes it way in casting long shadows as it does so. The sound quality in there is startling. It is such an open structure that it comes as a complete surprise to hear a kind of echo. It feels impossible to resist singing, or calling out, just to hear the quality of the sound.

dolmen view

Nobody knows the purpose of this dolmen. Was it a burial chamber? A structure for the celebration of rituals or ceremonies? We don’t know. Of course, when it was built there were no vines here, so I’m guessing the makers would look out over the fields and have a great view of the surrounding countryside.

dolmen roof

The underside of the roof has these damp patches on it, and between the sun, surrounding puddles, and passing clouds, the wetness on the stone shimmered strongly suggesting the waves of the sea. Which was made even stranger when I looked more closely at some of the stones –

dolmen shell.jpg

The stone is a mixture of limestone and iron, but there are many little fossil shells in it, which, when you are standing on top of a hill in the middle of the Charente, miles from the coast, is pretty bizarre!

I love the way the lichen grows on some of the surfaces….tracing spirals and circles –

dolmen lichen.jpg

Something of the quality of this whole structure forces you to slow down, take your time and just be there. It really feels as if you are in touch with the deep past. I was going to say the distant past, but the strange thing is, when you stand under here, touching the stone, the past doesn’t feel distant at all, just deep….like roots.

dolmen sky

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Have you ever noticed that we seem to be so well equipped with the ability to see faces that we can see faces where they don’t actually exist?

tree eye

I know this is a knot in a tree but I can’t escape the feeling that the tree is looking at me…..the Spirit of the forest?

And we don’t only see faces in living organisms, we see them in rocks too…..


There’s a Stone Age dolmen near where I live. It’s like a huge three-legged table with vertical stones each about 3 metres tall and a 5 ton enormous rock laid on top of them like a table top. I took a lot of photos when I went to explore it but this one particular shot looks for all the world like the profile of a face….perhaps in the same way that owners come to look like their dogs this rock reflects the face of one of the people who created the dolmen?

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Not only was this an unusual cloud effect, but the way it echoed the vineyard below really caught my eye.

Of course, the vineyard is man-made, or at least man-cultivated, and the clouds, as far as we know, are not!

This kind of symmetry is my favourite kind….the kind where one part of reality echoes another.

There’s something else though about this image, or at least the taking of this image, and that’s the “exposure” readings for the vineyard and the sky. They were very, very different. With my camera I took a number of shots, exposing primarily for the sky, which darkened the vineyard considerably, exposing for the vineyard, which obliterated the cloud pattern in the sky, and a “weighted” exposure, which is the one you see here.

What strikes me about this is how when I just look at the same scene, without a camera, I don’t have any of those exposure problems. As I look at the vineyard and the clouds above I see them all perfectly clearly. I don’t have to choose.

How do our brains do that?

Isn’t something as everyday as vision just astonishing?

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weather passing

I saw some weather passing by the other evening.

When I zoomed in it looked even more spectacular –

weather window

….like looking through a small window – or even a letterbox!

There’s something very appealing about wind and rain and clouds and light all at once – particularly when you can see the whole weather system from a distance!

Why does it feel so great and cosy to be warm and comfortable inside your house while the rain hammers on the window, or the wind blows a gale outside? Is it the contrast? Whatever the reason, it seems to heighten the pleasure of being inside doesn’t it?

The other thing I like about seeing the weather passing by like this, is how transient it is. How brief it is. A few minutes later and this photograph would have been impossible. That’s one of the many things I enjoy about photography – the call to action! When you see whatever it is that catches you eye, there’s no point thinking “I’ll come back and take a photo of that some time” – it’ll be gone! You have to be present. You have to act. Now.

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What catches your eye?

What do you notice when you look out of your window, or walk in the area where you live?

Attention is a complex phenomenon. It’s an interactive, dynamic process. What we pay attention to is partly influenced by our values, beliefs, preferences and prior experiences. Then once we pay attention to something, that attending to acts like a magnifier, increasing our awareness of whatever it is, filling more of our consciousness with it. And that, in turn, sets us up to notice more like that around us.

Water droplets sparkling on blades of grass, leaves and the petals of flowers, all catch my attention. I notice patches of shining water beads on the grass in the morning and as the sun moves across the sky the light “activates” the sparkles on different plants.

One thing I find really draws me into the present is to get up close and personal.

The particular is what absorbs me.

And having the intention to make some photographs somehow makes it even easier to slip into the details of what is right before me and helps me to fill my consciousness with the world around me, right here, right now.

Here are just a few photographs which I took of the water droplets on a single plant in the garden yesterday. Aren’t they glorious? Aren’t they absorbing? Don’t they draw your eye, and your attention right into them?

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I do really love some of the larger Parisian galleries like the Musée d’Orsay, and the Louvre, but some of my most favourite ones are much smaller. The Rodin museum is a long time favourite of mine. I like it best when it’s warm enough to be able to stroll in the gardens there. It has that wonderful combination of Nature and Art which really encourages you to take your time and savour it.

On my last trip to Paris I found another smaller gallery, the Musée Jacquemart André. Look at the main foyer –


And the ceilings…..


I went there to see an exhibition of portraits of the Medici from Florence, but the building itself entranced me.

Here’s one of the many things which caught my eye and surprised me, a wall covered with a tapestry which has had a door cut into it –

tapestry door

Maybe for the owners of this gallery, back when it was a private house, bought and used tapestries the way people use wallpaper nowadays, but they seem like such works of art to me that I was shocked to see a door cut into it. Then when I looked a little closer I noticed the door-handle!


I’m not sure what I think about that!

What do you think? Does this make art more utilitarian? Does it make the everyday practical more beautiful?

Whatever you think about it I think it’s a great example of the extraordinary in the ordinary….”l’émerveillement du quotidien”.

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prisms of light

This caught my eye.

It was a stormy day with the wind blowing strongly from the West. One minute I’d look out and see blue sky, then the next, an enormous black cloud would roll over making it seem that night had fallen early. Minutes later, maybe after a few peals of thunder, a heavy shower, or even some hailstones, the cloud would move on and there was blue sky again.

Then late in the afternoon I looked out and what caught my eye was the colour.

There was this little prism of coloured light between the clouds.

That’s unusual here in the Charente. I go once a week for a French language lesson with a local retired Cognacaise woman and I can’t remember how it came up but I showed her a photo of a rainbow which I’d seen while back visiting family in Scotland. She said she’d seen a rainbow when she was a girl but not since.

That little statement startled me. Then I thought, how many rainbows have I seen since I moved here just over 12 months ago? And I couldn’t remember seeing any.

Can that be right?

Are there rainbows pretty much every week in Central Scotland but virtually none in the Charente?


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Have you ever visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris?


Put it on your list.

It’s one of my favourite places in the world. It was originally a railway station and has been turned into an art gallery on the banks of the Seine. It’s an astonishing building. Quite incredible that anyone would construct a railway station to look like this, but also, quite brilliantly transformed into a gallery.

When I go I like to go straight from the main entrance, down through the sculpture gallery right to the far end of the building where you can find an escalator that takes you up to the fifth floor where there is a fabulous collection of the work of the Impressionists.

Before you get to their work though you pass through the room with the clock in it.

That’s the one I want to share with you today.

Here are three photos I took –



seeing beyond

These all stimulate my thoughts about time and how we relate to it. They conjure up my thoughts about “taking time” – in other words, slowing up, savouring, taking the time to fully experience the here and now, but also, taken in sequence, these three images provoke the following thoughts –

Firstly, how good and necessary it is to spend some time by yourself. Remember Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way”? I often told people about her exercise of making an “artist’s date” – actually scheduling into your diary a piece of time – it might be an hour, half a day, a day – and there are only two rules to apply to that piece of time – you have to spend it alone (no sharing!) – and you have to spend it doing something you enjoy (no chores!). You should then schedule in a regular series of these dates at a frequency you can manage – daily, weekly, forthnightly….whatever. Whether or not you are an artist, I think this is a very, very valuable exercise to try.

Secondly, how good and necessary it is to spend some time with others. There is something truly magical about sharing an experience with someone else – whether that be a visit to a gallery, listening to song, watching a movie, having a meal – we are social creatures, we human beings and sharing experiences with others makes our heart sing.

Thirdly, when we lose ourselves in something….a view, a book, a creative act……we experience “FLOW” – what Czikszentmihalyi wrote about in his study of happiness. It’s that time when we are “in the zone” and time “stands still”. Just gazing through this clock to Montmartre is an entrancing experience.

Isn’t strange that time doesn’t pass at a constant speed? Despite what clocks seem to tell us?

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last leaf

There’s a growing body of evidence that using your brain is good for your brain. Who’d have thought it?!

There’s also a growing body of evidence that what is good for your brain is good for you. The old mind-body duality is breaking down in the light of neuroscientific findings about the connections between the brain, the rest of the nervous system, and the rest of the body.

Using your brain is one of the key themes of this blog. I believe it’s just too easy to drift through life in zombie mode, influenced by others, manipulated by others, controlled by others. And yet, I also believe it very, very possible to make our own choices, to become “self-directed”, conscious creators of our own, unique stories and, hence, lives.

One of the most commonly promoted ways to use our brains is “mindfulness“. A sort of clumsy word which describes a certain state of awareness.

You can practice “mindfulness” by learning certain meditation techniques, and/or, you can do what Ellen Langer says, and “seek novelty”. 

I find that choosing to be aware, stoking the natural curiosity for the day, seeking “l’émerveillement du quotidien” is one of the easiest, and most delightful ways, to achieve this – this is the main way I try to be “mindful”.

There are two related techniques which help me to live this way. They both date way back thousands of years but both work just as well here and now.

Here are two photos to illustrate the techniques.

The first one is the one at the start of this post. It’s “the last leaf”. There’s a mulberry tree in my garden here in France and this is my second season of raking up and gathering the leaves as they fall. The first year I arrived here I wasn’t prepared for this phenomenon. This tree really sheds a LOT of leaves. I confess, I found that clearing up the leaves was a bit of a burden. But this year? This second season for me? I’ve loved it. Pretty much every other day I’d take the rake and gather up the leaves into huge canvas bags and every other week I’d make a trip to the “déchetterie” (“the tip”, we’d say in English). I enjoyed taking my time, rummaging through the different shapes, sizes and colours of the leaves. I enjoyed seeing the green grass again once the leaves were gathered, but quickly, of course, the grass would recreate a “wabi sabi” appearance with just two or three newly fallen leaves adding interest and attracting attention.

As more and more of the tree shed its leaves I decided I’d like to photograph the “last leaf”. That’s my first image in this post. And that’s the first technique – “live today as if this is the last” – that’s not as morbid as it first sounds…..due to the constancy of change, every day is unique, and the truth is, you will never have a chance to live this day, exactly like this, ever again. So it might be a good idea to savour it. To notice what you can, to hear what you can hear, touch what you can touch, smell what you can smell, take your time to taste and savour the food you are eating.

Because this will be your last opportunity to do so.

Here’s the next image –

first leaf

We have twin birch trees in this garden, and when the wind blows in the autumn, they shed, not only leaves, but lots of small twigs and branches. Yep, most of these head to the “déchetterie” too, but Hilary picked some up, finding their shapes pleasing and used a couple as a table decoration. There was a little water in the bottom of one of the vases she used, and look what happened! A few days later, there was a new leaf!

So, here’s the second image, “the first leaf”, and the second technique, “live today as if it’s the first”.

That’s true too. Due to the uniqueness of every day, of every experience, of every moment, whatever you encounter today, you encounter for the first time. Sometimes that’s not so obvious. Our habits and our routines deaden our awareness and we become oblivious to the small changes which can make a big difference.

You have never lived this very day before. So why not approach it with the sense of wonder, curiosity and amazement which you did so naturally as a child? (This is “l’émerveillement du quotidien” – the wonder of the every day)

I mean look at that little twig! It’s grown a leaf! A perfect, bright green, little leaf! Isn’t that amazing? I wondered a wee while ago about how difficult it was to know whether a seed was dead or alive, but I didn’t wonder about these (apparently discarded) twigs. They were dead as far as I knew. But add a little water, and, hey presto! Life magically emerges!

If you don’t stumble across something new, something for the first time, today, you’re just not looking.

So, there you go, two photos, two ancient techniques, “last and first”, and a step in the right direction from “zombie to hero“!

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changing weather

I stopped to take this photo partly because the drama of the dark rain cloud half filling the sky caught my eye, but also because I instantly thought about the yin yang symbol – half dark, half light, capturing the essence of constant change.

But when I look at it now what springs to mind is the old question about a glass of water – is it half full, or half empty? And what does that say about the way you see the world?

So, what do you see here? A brightening sky of spreading blue? Or a darkening sky of spreading grey?

Whichever it is, of course, this too shall pass – the blue will be covered with rain clouds again, and the rain clouds will pass on by to reveal the blue.

But I do wonder, how our world view influences our view of the world…..and how that affects not just what we notice, but how we interpret what we notice?

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