Archive for December, 2016

Twelve project Day Six.jpg

Day six of my twelve images, one for each month of 2016, (the twelve project) brings me to June. Look at this – gathered over a few minutes from the potager, our vegetable patch in our garden. I’ve lived in a second floor apartment for many years, but since moving to France I’m living in a house with a garden. The potager isn’t large but in this part of the world a wide range of plants thrive outside without.

Every vegetable is a revelation. Look at the colours! Sadly, what I can’t share with you are the tastes, but believe me the tastes are every bit as intense, varied and impressive as the colours. Have you ever tasted vegetables which were literally minutes ago still growing in the soil a few yards away? They are different. I didn’t realise radishes had a nippy, peppery taste until I ate the ones which were straight out of the ground. Fresh peas are a totally different flavour from frozen or tinned ones. And that rainbow chard you can see on the right hand side there? I’d never come across that before but isn’t it a fantastic colour? Cut into ribbons and added to a stir fry they are a revelation. The rocket leaves are as peppery as the radishes. I hate bland, tasteless rocket leaves. They seem such a pointless thing to eat, but fresh leaves are zingy. I could go on….you don’t see in this photo some of the other great tasting veggies which matured a bit later than June….the tomatoes which grow in abundance in several different varieties, red, yellow, striped…..the courgettes, oh, the yellow courgettes, totally delicious….and later yet, the squashes, pumpkins, butternut squash and so on…..

There’s something else which has happened from experiencing this food. I’ve become more aware of the seasons, looking forward to certain foods at particular times of the year, I mean in the local markets and supermarkets too, not just from the garden.

I’ve begun to strongly favour food which is as fresh, as little travelled and as little processed as possible. In the markets and shops I look at the origin of the food now and opt for the what’s been grown close over what’s come thousands of miles.

I’m enjoying salads and salad vegetables more than I’ve ever done before. When I was growing up in Scotland salads were dull, boring and tasteless. A couple of lettuce leaves, plus a tomato and some cucumber chopped up and maybe some cheddar cheese. Here in France people have a few salad leaves (mainly varieties of lettuce….yes there is more than one kind of lettuce! Who knew?) with a sprinkling of vinegar and oil dressing, almost with every main meal. Just on the side. It’s delicious. In fact, there’s a restaurant in Bordeaux, “L’Entrecôte”, which has no menu but serves everyone salad leaves with their own special dressing and walnuts sprinkled through them as a starter, and steak and chips as the main to everyone. You can’t reserve a table and there is a queue stretching along the pavement outside every lunchtime and dinnertime seven days a week.

I’m enjoying a simpler level of food preparation and a larger range of foods than I’ve ever done. When the food is fresh and locally produced it tastes so good it doesn’t need much preparation.

And, here’s the final thing. I’m eating most of my meals outside for about four or five months of the year. Both in the garden, and when out and about.

I moved to France from Scotland to savour a different lifestyle. Climate and food are two of the biggest influences on that lifestyle. I think this photo from June captures some of that.

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The photograph I selected for Day Four of the Twelve project reminded me of one of the days when colour and light grabbed my attention. Day Five’s photograph was taken the day that a noise I’d never heard before made me stop what I was doing and open the front door to find out what was on earth was happening.

The noise started suddenly and seemed to completely fill the world. It was a clattering, hammering, thundering noise, like the heaviest of heavy rain but with a harder quality to it. When I opened the door I saw chunks of ice falling everywhere. When it hit the garden table and chairs it played them like a set of drums. When it hit the grass it bounced back up a couple of feet before landing back down again – the grass was covered with white pieces, not like snow, not like frost, but as if a giant bucket of white marbles had been poured out from the sky. I could here a very strange noise which was the sound of the hail tearing through the leaves of the mulberry tree and all the other plants in the garden. Leaves, and bits of leaves, were flying everywhere. I held out my hand and was immediately stung by hailstones.

There was nothing to do but wait till it passed. Of course I grabbed my camera and took some video clips to record both what I could see and what I could hear. It lasted about fifteen minutes, then it stopped, as suddenly as it began. I wandered out and started to look more closely at the ice particles.

Every single one of them was different.

There were ragged, irregular ones, round ones, opaque ones, transparent ones, some which looked like small sculptures and they were a huge range of different sizes. I photographed many of them.

This one particularly caught my attention because it looked for all the world like an eyeball, which was spooky to say the least.

I look again at these photographs and I’m astonished at the diversity. I read many times that no two snowflakes are identical but to see that played out around my feet in these ice particles made that fact all the more powerfully real.

Water. It’s just water. How incredible that it can form into what appears to be an infinitely large range of shapes and sizes.

And what power! I wrecked havoc in the vineyards around here. In a neighbouring village the storm lasted twice as long as here – half an hour – and in that time it destroyed the entire year’s vines.


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Day Four of the Twelve project – 12 images, 12 months, 12 posts over 12 days.

In April the garden filled with colour as the bulbs we planted months ago shot up and expressed themselves with fabulous flowers. There’s an old saying about “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers”, but Nature is never as predictable as that. Nature doesn’t use protocols or obey a limited set of strict rules. But there’s still something in that old phrase, not least a call to remember that wind and rain are necessary factors in the seasonal cycles of plants.

I start every day by stepping outside into the garden. I open all the wooden shutters to let the light in through the windows and I turn my gaze to the garden, the field, the vineyards and the sky. Colour catches my eye. A splash of white, red, yellow or blue. I’m drawn towards it. So on this April morning I was drawn to this particular flower and as I bent forwards to look more closely it took my breath away.

The water droplets beaded along the edges of the pink-fringed petals caught the morning sun and sparkled like precious jewels. The shadows of one petal inside another gave me the impression that light was actually emerging from within the flower itself. The delicate pattern of the pink on the white petals looked as if the flower had been lightly dipped into red paint, some of it running slightly from the edge down into the rest of the white petals.

It looked brand new. Freshly made.

Here in this one flower I could see the emergence of the alchemy of Nature working with the four elements – creating its green stalks and white petals from the earth, drawing the energy of the fire of the sun to grow and unfold itself, gathering the elements from the air to forge them into substance, and all with the life-giving power of water.

And maybe more than anything else, it is utterly beautiful. A true work of art.

How lucky are we to be surrounded by such magic and beauty.

“L’émerveillement du quotidien” – the wonder of the everyday.

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Day Three of the Twelve project – 12 images, one for each month of 2016, used to create 12 posts, one each day for the 12 days of Christmas.

In March 2016, I visited Marqueyssac gardens in the Dordogne. This wonderful place has several, vastly different areas, from woodland scattered with art works, to winding rocky paths on the edge of a cliff, to this astonishing area of topiary.

I’ve seen lots of topiary elsewhere but usually its the odd bush shaped like an animal, or a small planting of bushes shaped into pyramids or spheres, but here…..well, for a start there are more shaped bushes here in one space than I’ve ever seen before, and, more interestingly, they retain a fundamentally organic form. They don’t just look like bushes fashioned to appear like something else. They retain the diversity you usually associate with Nature. The way they grow together also gives a strong impression of a community, or, from a little further back, a whole organism.

This was my inspiration this year for my writing about the two universal forces – whether we think of them as the forces of chaos and order, of wildness and discipline, or of flow and structure, we find them at work everywhere. And here, in Marqueyssac we see how something utterly entrancing emerges when we get a true integration of these two forces.

This has been such a year of divisions. Dualistic, or binary, thinking seems to be on the rise – you have to choose sides. One is good, the other is bad. You can choose science or art, reason or emotions, right wing or left wing….and so on. When we do that with the fundamental forces we end up emphasising order and control at the expense of freedom and wildness, or we choose structure over flexibility, but actually, in the universe, the greatest beauty, and the release of the greatest potential comes when we aren’t forced to choose one at the expense of the other.

I think the clearest way to think about integration is to consider the relationship between our heart and our lungs. They are completely different organs, grown from distinctly different (“well differentiated”) cells. The heart works best as a heart, and the lungs work best as lungs. Neither would do so well if our body chose between them and supported only the heart, or only the lungs. Turns out that the heart can’t be at its best without the lungs, and the lungs can’t be at their best without the heart. They work together for their own, and for each other’s mutual benefit.

That’s the definition of integration which I like best – the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts.

And that’s what I see when I look at Marqueyssac gardens – discipline and wildness, structure and chaos, beautifully integrated.

Even without any of these thoughts, these gardens would have been wonderful to visit. Take your time. I spent about three or four hours there and could probably have spent longer (if I’d started earlier!) What an experience! It stays with me, not simply as a memory, but as an inspiration, a series of images, a stimulus to my imagination and my thought.

Places like these are the special places on the Earth – they act as our muses. They lift our spirits, and reach deep down into our souls.


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Day Two February.jpg

Over twelve days, starting on December 26th, I’m selecting one photograph from each month of 2016 and sharing it here with you. My choices are based on the images themselves, plus what they represent about my life here in France.

Down in the bottom right hand corner of France, the region in the south east which borders onto Italy, is a town called Menton. I’ve visited it a few times in my life and have always liked it. I like its fabulous synthesis of French and Italian culture. I love the colours of the buildings, the views of mountains and sea, the variety of cafes and restaurants, and the ease with which you can pop over into Italy and back. Once a year, the town of Menton holds an event called the Fête du Citron. It lasts for three weeks with a parade through the town each Sunday, a night parade midweek, installations of sculptures made from oranges and lemons, and various other events. In 2016 the theme of the event was “Italian cinema”.

I’ve never seen such immense sculptures made from fruit. They are absolutely astonishing. Some are the size of buildings, some are pulled through the town during the parades, and all are simply, astonishingly colourful and beautiful. But here’s what made the biggest impression on me – the celebration.

Maybe it’s because of the shocking and disturbing terrorist attacks and the appalling stories of brutality and oppression reported in the news in this era but to see thousands of people parading sculptures, no, whole scenes, made from orange and yellow fruit, through the streets of the town, with the buzz of the admiring crowds, the loud Italian movie theme music, the marching bands, the street dancers, the joyous smiles and laughter on the faces of participants and spectators alike…..it was SUCH an antidote to all that horror. This celebration. This delight in dressing up, singing, playing music, dancing, creating works of art, this enjoyment of the spectacle, is such a unique human experience. Yes, it seems some humans have a very mean-spirited, anti-life approach to living, but here was a great example of that opposite pole. Here was a celebration of beauty, colour, music, art, storytelling, dancing, singing, and laughing together.




Wow, am I grateful to have been able to participate in this celebration of being human.

February 2017, the 84th Fête du Citron will have a theme of “Broadway”. It’s likely that, like this year, about a quarter of a million people will visit and share the celebrations.


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Day one January.jpg

Towards the end of the year we tend to come under the influence of Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, who is usually represented as having two face, one facing back, and one facing forwards. That’s where we get the name of the month “January“. He is also god of gateways, doorways and transitions. As I transition from 2016 into 2017 I decided I’d look back over the twelve months of the year and select one photograph I’d taken for each month. I’d choose on the basis of liking the photograph as an image, but also because that moment in my life was a special moment, a day I want to remember because it was an “ordinary day” where it felt “extraordinary”.

I’ve been living in France for a couple of years now so I thought this would also be an opportunity to share something of my experience of the quality of life I’ve been blessed to find here.

Here’s my moment from January.

I’m living in rural France, in a traditional Charentaise style of house at the end of a short road which becomes a trail through the surrounding vineyards. Having lived in a second floor apartment in Scotland for many years before moving here, living in a house with a garden on the edge of the countryside is a huge change for me.

Maybe on the main differences is how much I notice Nature now. There are a lot of birds around here, and many of them are species I’ve never seen before. I’m learning not just what their names are, but what their French names are too, and I’ve bought a beautiful huge book about the birds which live in this part of France. Sometimes its their movement which catches my eye, the way they fly over the garden, or the way they hop back and forth between the trees, the bushes and the grass. Sometimes its a flash of colour, a splash of blue, or yellow, or red. Sometimes its their song or their call which grabs my attention and I scan the landscape to see who it is who is calling.

I discovered that you can buy bird food in the local garden centre, so I bought a bag of these “fat balls” and hung them from the mulberry tree which had shed all its leaves at this time of year. I found that if I hung the balls from the branches, it was mainly beautiful tits and finches which came and clung on to the netting while pecking away at the food.

Look at him. Isn’t he beautiful? Life astonishes me. Every day. I look at a little creature like this and I’m in awe. I wonder at the diversity of Life, at the emergence of Life in the creation of the Universe. I wonder at the beauty we can see wherever we look. It delights me.

Thank you, little bird, for sharing this part of the world with me.

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I stepped outside to open the shutters this morning and was stopped in my tracks by the fog. Yes, of course, I SAW the fog when I opened the door, but it was the SOUND of the fog which stopped me.

I stood there and thought “Is this Sunday?” (It isn’t, it’s Tuesday), because in this part of the world, sundays have a very particular sound – a sound of silence. But this was different. It was like the sound of snow. Except it wasn’t. When you stand outside in the snow the world has a distinct quality of silence. A kind of muffled silence. This silence was different from that. It wasn’t a silence which muffles, it was a silence which made the world clearer.

How can a silence, a fog, make the world clearer?

I didn’t have an answer to that question so I did what I usually do. I got my camera and took a couple of photos. Don’t the vines look like dancers in this photograph? Doesn’t the grass look richly green? The fog brings the foreground closer. Ah, yes, maybe that’s the answer. By hiding the distance with a veil, the fog has concentrated my attention on the near. The here. The now. The present.

I listened for a few moments. Nothing. Silence. No wind, no rustling of leaves. Then the sound of a pigeon with its squeaky wings flapping above me. But I couldn’t see it. Silence again. Then out of nowhere a flock of maybe thirty or so starlings, rushing from one tree I couldn’t see to another. A sudden appearance, as if from nowhere, and gone again in a second, to nowhere else.

I peered over the fence and thought I could see a solitary bird perched on one of the vines. I zoomed in my camera lens and saw it was this –


A few late leaves, still standing strong, reaching upwards to a sun we couldn’t see. (“We” being the leaves, the vines and me) Isn’t there something strangely beautiful about such a view? The lack of detail makes the details which I can see even more powerful. Not vivid. But powerful.

Oh, what a delight. What a blessing.

Thank you, Fog, for this intensity, for this moment which made me feel so alive, so filled with the delight and wonder of the sounds, the sights, the scents, the coolness, of here and now – what a present!

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I was out for a walk recently and took this photo. The winding road lit by the morning sun caught my eye. The road draws us along it, doesn’t it? We instantly, and largely unconsciously, follow its path through the vineyards, turning at the top of the hill to disappear over the top and behind some trees. Yet beyond that lies another hill, less distinct in this light, with a tower standing high on the right. What is that? What’s over there? Where does this road go?

It feels like there is a story here in the making. It feels like we are being encouraged to look into the future, to see what “lies beyond”. That’s such a great thing to do. Our brain thrives on novelty. The right hemisphere, in particular, is always on the lookout for the new, always paying its broad attention to the world around us, sensitive to changes, to new sensations, and seeking to connect us to them.

The other side of that metaphor however is “who laid that road?” Because if I want to go and explore over that hill and see what’s there, chances are I’ll automatically, without thinking about it, follow exactly that path. And there’s something else we all do every day. Follow the paths that others lay for us. We hear a lot these days about propaganda, about the slant on reality pushed by mass media owned by a handful of people, and rumours, lies and conspiracy stories spread through social media. Which all raises the question, “how am I to make my way through this life?” “Whose stories, whose paths, whose directions, am I going to allow to determine the paths I’ll take?”


Here’s another image. I took this one while walking to the Saturday market in a nearby town. This is the Charente river. It looks like this pretty much anywhere you encounter it as it flows through this region (which is also called “the Charente”). It flows with a kind of ease. It rarely looks turbulent. People in this area use it as a metaphor for a way of life. No, maybe more than that, people in this area are influenced by the physical appearance and behaviour of this river in a way which encourages them to live “the slow life”, or, as is often said around here “soyons zen” (“let’s be zen” – relaxed, chilled out, calm).

I think I prefer the metaphor of the river to that of the road. The road seems more fixed somehow. Heraclitus famously said it isn’t possible to step into the same river twice. That’s so clearly true because you can see the water flowing by and you know it’s not exactly the same river now as it was even a few minutes ago. That teaching applies to everything in life of course. Even if a tarmac road isn’t all that different from day to day, you’ll never repeat exactly the same experience of travelling that road.

The river forks at this point where I took the photo. You can see some of it heading off to the left, whilst the rest heads to the right. Life is very like that too. We come to these natural branches, these forks in the road, and we have to choose which one to follow. I think its true that there isn’t necessarily a right choice and a wrong one, and if we at least choose consciously we can feel more “in the flow” in our own life.

Finally, look up into the sky of this photo of the river. There’s a third metaphor about travelling through a life. The contrails in the sky show us where the planes have been (approximately….these trails move and begin to disappear from the instant they are created), but they don’t show us where the plane is going (well, only very vaguely). This reminds me of how we make sense of life by looking back. We understand the present moment in the light of our life so far, the experiences we’ve had, the decisions we’ve taken.

As best I understand it we also make sense of the present moment by factoring in the possible futures we can imagine, so maybe all three of these metaphors have something to contribute – the road, the river, and the trails in the sky…..


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I recently rediscovered Charlie Chaplin’s “great dictator speech”. I’ve never seen the full movie but this scene is where the man who looks like the dictator makes a speech to the country and says what he actually thinks (not what the actual dictator thought!)

There are a couple of sections which really stand out for me and seem more relevant now than ever.

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

I believe that. We seem to live in a time of rising hatred and fear, of increasingly divided societies, but is it helpful to generalise so much? To see a world of “us” and “them” rather than a world of richly diverse individuals? There may be individuals who do really want to live by others’ misery, not their happiness, but that’s not been my experience in life. It’s not hard to encounter everyday, simple acts of kindness. But there’s not enough emphasis on that is there?

Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery ,we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.

We humans have created a way of living together based on competition and greed. But aren’t we just as capable, if we so choose, to create a way of living together based on kindness and gentleness?

Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.

You are not machines! You are not cattle!

Well that is right at the heart of the reason why this blog is called Heroes not Zombies. We humans are unique, amazing, fabulous creations. The machine model goes nowhere near an explanation of what we are like. We are not like machines. We are more like “complex adaptive systems“. And by saying “you are not cattle” he means you are not “the group”, “the herd”, “the tribe” even, or any such generalisation. There has never been anyone identical to you, not now, not before and there never will be. Your personal experience of this life is utterly unique. You can’t be reduced to a statistic.

You are a “one off“, not a “one of”, a unique human being, not an example of a “kind”.

I don’t know, but I think it’s worth remembering that these days…..

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The other evening the faraway glow of the sunset and a tiny sliver of moon both caught my eye at the same time. So I stepped outside with my camera.

I’ve got some shots of just the sunset, just the moon, and the sunset and the moon in the same frame, but this one includes the foreground and I love it all the more because of that.

Here I can see the last leaves of the mulberry tree in front of the now bare plum tree with the silvery sliver of moon hanging high above them as the sun, which has by now sunk below the horizon, casts such a gorgeous palette of reds, oranges, tobacco and yellow, and the lights of the neighbouring village begin to twinkle before the stars do.

I love the setting sun, and I love the dawn. I love that rhythm of day becoming night, and night becoming day. I love that we can’t pin either the dusk or the dawn down to a precise time, in the way that the meteorologists tell us the exact time of the sunset and the sunrise. I love how the light disappears so slowly and reveals just some of its diversity which is hidden in the white light of noon. I love how it reappears in the same way it disappears but in an entirely different place.

I love the phases of the moon. Look closely and you can see the whole moon in this photograph. Here’s a close up which shows you that more clearly


This isn’t a fantastic shot, but it’s handheld and spontaneous. It does show the whole sphere of the moon and the white crescent is more obviously the reflected white light of the sun than we sometimes realise. But just think how this photo was taken at the same time as the one above. That deep, deep red light of the setting sun caressing the Earth, and that radiant, dazzling white light of the now hidden sudden bouncing off the Moon.

I love the autumn too. Like the Spring it’s a season which makes you more aware of the rhythms of the Earth, and in particular, more aware of the constant nature of change.

So in this one moment I see the rhythms of the seasons, of the sun and of the moon.

I rather like that!

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