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Archive for April, 2017

Yesterday I posted about the leaves appearing on the mulberry tree in my garden.

The day after I looked at these unfurling little leaves unfurling from the swollen ends of the woody twigs I took another look. I noticed something strange about the leaves now. They had strange tufts of what looked a bit like green hair now. Then when I looked closer I realised that these new forms were the beginnings of the fruit.

These are mulberries, or, maybe its more accurate to say these are “becoming mulberries”.

Aren’t they the strangest looking creatures?

Over the coming days and weeks they will swell and change colour ripening as a dark, dark red, almost black fruit. The first year I lived here was the first time I’d seen them and I didn’t actually notice them until they were ripe. My initial impression was that they were little bugs on the tree but I quickly discovered that they were in fact fruit. The second year there were hardly any at all. But this year it looks as if almost every single leaf has its own fruit. I’ve never seen so many.

I know that this fruit doesn’t quite undergo the metamorphoses of butterflies whose life stages seem to belong to different creatures. But seeing this fruit at such an early stage makes me think of how we all change so much throughout our lives.

This is one of the reasons I have that byline at the top of my blog – becoming not being. Living creatures are so hard to pin down. They never stop changing, growing, and developing. And we can never understand anyone by just considering one small part of their life, one small timespace of their life.

We are all unique in so many ways. Seeing the unfolding emergence of an individual over the course of a whole life is one of the greatest, most exciting, gifts anyone could have. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to get to know and work with so many patients over the course of medical career.

How amazing Life is!

 

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We have a large mulberry tree growing in the middle of the garden. It’s huge leaves make a perfect canopy to shade you from the glare of the summer sun.

In the autumn they fall massively giving me ample opportunity to enjoy a bit of “rake-y” – the meditative experience of raking up the fallen leaves. I find that deeply satisfying!

In the winter time the tree is bare, all branches and twigs but its shape against the moon at night is entrancing.

Now in the Spring the new leaves are starting to grow. The first of them began to emerge last week. Look at this one! I could have picked one of several dozen like this but I stopped to photograph this one.

It astonishes me.

Out of the end of this stick of a twig first a swelling green bud appears, then these leaves start to unfold themselves. Really they are so tiny compared to how they will look when fully grown. The biggest leaves will be larger than your hand. But for now, this emerging leaf is so small it’s only just begun to acquire the recognisable shape of a leaf.

Look at the colour of it in the sunshine! That light, bright green, somehow just shouts “I’m alive!”

As I looked at it I remembered the time Richard Feynman asked the question “Where do trees come from?” and shocked the listener by answering “They come from the air”. Here’s an article which includes the video of him talking about this very subject. He says most people would answer “They come from the soil” but he says it is more correct to say they come from the air, because they are made mainly of carbon which they capture from carbon dioxide which is in the air, and from water which comes directly from the sky as rain, or through the soil after it’s fallen from the sky.

Isn’t that an astonishing thought? We humans certainly can’t do that. We can’t make solid massive forms like trees out of the thin air.

 

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I take a lot more photos in the countryside than I do in towns, but I took this one recently while out in Limoges. Like so many French towns and villages there remains a medieval heart which can give you feeling of stepping back into the past. But it’s not like visiting a museum. Oh well, yes, there are dying and almost dead villages in France where it’s hard to get in touch with any sign that you are in the living present. Those places are not so comfortable to visit. Move along now, nothing to see, keep on going. But in places like Limoges the old is inhabited. It’s alive. What I like most about a place like this is a certain character. This isn’t a “high street” of chain stores, replicated like some kind of parasitical virus which replaces individuality and diversity with monotony and sameness. It’s alive with small restaurants, bistros, boutiques, and shops selling art materials or hand crafted works.

This second photo, also taken at night (just for the atmosphere, you see) shows a huge mural covering the gable ends of two buildings near the covered market (‘Les Halles’). This is one of the best examples of this kind of art I’ve ever seen. I love not just its scope and size but the playfulness of the details. Look carefully at the two windows, bottom left, and you’ll see both a model, and an artist painting her.

Why am I thinking about these images of a town at night? Well, in ‘Le Monde’ at the end of last week there was an article about cities. Right at the start of the article they mentioned Wellington Webb, former Mayor of Denver, Colorado, who apparently once said

“The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century, a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.”

The Huffington post has an article which takes the same quote but talks about “the decade of the city”.

I thought that this idea was pretty interesting, not least because I’ve become increasingly troubled by the rise of inward-looking populist “patriotism” recently. The constant barrage of hatred and negativity towards “the Other”, especially “immigrants”, “asylum seekers” and “foreigners”. The kind of narrative which seems particularly strong in England now as it walks away from its neighbours and colleagues in the rest of Europe. Indeed, some commentators who try to explain how the Leave voters won, suggest it was a particularly English issue. After all Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar all voted strongly to Remain, but the English and Welsh went for leave. This particular take on the issue which is focused on issues of England suggest there is a strong sentiment of patriotism in England which has still to heal their loss of Empire. Whatever you own take is on the Brexit issue, it was this particular thesis which came to my mind when I read Wellington Webb’s analysis.

Yes, indeed, the 19th century was a century of empire for the English (portrayed as the British), and the 20th saw two World Wars of nation state against nation state. But isn’t it true that as the 20th century came to a close and the 21st began, the multicultural, innovate hubs of development and power increasingly became the cities? In fact, isn’t that one of the other critiques of Brexit, and populism….that the populations who live outside of the great cities feel ignored and forgotten by an urban elite? London, for example, voted to Remain, whilst most of the rest of England voted to Leave. Why was that? Was that something to do with the multicultural nature of a big city?

The other thing that popped into my head while thinking of cities, was this poem –

T S Eliot in his “Choruses from ‘The Rock’ 1934” wrote

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’

What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together

To make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community’?

Well, yes, some people are attracted to a city to make money from other people, but for many it does indeed become “a community”. But aren’t all towns “communities” in the same way? What makes a city any different?

Early in my career I worked as a GP in a small village in Scotland. There were three villages in one valley. The one I worked in, the next one a mile away, and the third one at the top of the valley about three further miles away. All very close in other words. I’ll always remember an old lady telling me that she came from the village a mile away, but when she got married she came to live in my village. “But I couldn’t stand it. I had to move back”. And she did. A mile away, but a BIG difference. And when I left that village to move to Edinburgh to live and work a young woman patient asked me what Edinburgh was like. I was surprised at the question because she was almost thirty years old. Then I remembered that many in the West of Scotland stick with the West of Scotland, so I said, oh you don’t know Edinburgh, maybe you know Glasgow better (about half an hour away)? She said, no, she’d never been there either. I asked her if she’d been to any big towns in her life and she replied that she’d been to one on the coast once for a day trip. (It was a town, not a city).

So I’ve known for a long time that people identify with the places where they are born and many are fiercely loyal to them. People, like Londoners, or Parisiens, or Edinburgers (???) might be intensely loyal to their cities, but are they any more so than those who live in towns and villages?

Well, that’s not really what I got to thinking about actually. What I got to thinking about was the idea that their was something potentially progressive about the idea of an era of empires, then nation states, and now, the cities. What I wonder is whether or not the cities offer us an opportunity to shake off the “patriotism” of “nation states”, many of which in the world are just lines drawn on maps. We don’t put lines around our cities in the same way we do our nations. We don’t give rights to certain citizens in a city but not to others on the basis of whether or not they began their lives in this particular city. Isn’t there something to learn from that? Can’t we all just be human beings living together in a particular place instead of dividing us up arbitrarily into “immigrants”, “expats”, and “citizens”? Couldn’t we say that everyone who lives in the same part of the world is an equal? With the same rights and responsibilities as the others? Do we need to divide the world into “us” and “them”?

Because it’s not that cities are the best way for people to live together, not at all. But maybe there are principles from city living which are distinctly different from those of empire-living or nationstate-living which might help us find ways for us all to share the whole planet in less divided ways?

I don’t know. I’m not proposing any answers here……just wondering.

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While wandering through the old part of Limoges the other day I came across this statue. There are many, many religious statues in France, and mostly they don’t catch my attention for very long. But on this occasion someone (“Dan” or “Dam” “the street poet” according to the signing at the end of the text) added his, or her, own words and, for me at least, enhanced the original work of art. Maybe some people will be offended by the addition of this message to a classic image of “La Pietà” but it does quite the opposite for me. It deepens the sentiment of sadness that I think we all feel when we hear the daily stories of killing from around the world.

I’m only learning to speak to French, and this particular text is the work of a poet so I’m not sure how to translate it literally, but here’s my take on it. (I hope I capture the poet’s sentiment)

We all live on the same planet

Let’s stop shooting ourselves in the head.

Let’s learn to love each other

Or at least, to accept each other.

Maybe if you are French speaker you can do a better translation than me. Maybe if you live in Limoges, you know who wrote this and added it to the statue.

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I was eating some berries at lunch time – strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Stopping to take a closer look…….look at the shape of a star on this blueberry.

Well, it turns out this is pretty standard. All blueberries have this element of their appearance.

Have you noticed that before?

Have you seen that little star there before you pop the berry into your mouth?

Noticing is one of the lessons I’ve learned yet again from this little ordinary, everyday experience, but there’s something else here.

That something else for me is a reminder that we are “all made of star stuff”. From the origins of the universe, the time of the energies before the formation of hydrogen and helium, to the evolution of stars, those great powerhouses of fusion producing the first larger elements, magnesium, lithium, carbon….all the way up the Periodic Table to Iron….to the next great leap – the supernovae. As the supernovae exploded they produced all the other known elements of the universe.

From our Sun, to our Solar System, to our precious, tiny Earth, all emerged from these first elements. That carbon, that oxygen, that hydrogen, all the elements you might find in one little blueberry….it all came from the stars.

As best we know, from the beginning of our planet Earth, not a single new natural element has appeared. All of us, from blueberries, to you and me, are made from those original atoms, created by aeons of fusion and fission, of cycles of combining together, and cycles of blowing apart.

Takes my breath away….

And you know what? The blueberries taste great. I enjoyed combining their star stuff into mine…….

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Richard Louv once coined the expressing “Nature Deficit Disorder”, arising from not spending enough time in Nature and proposed a treatment – “Vitamin N” – a dose of Nature. In Japanese research there have been discoveries showing positive chemical changes in the human body in relation to the immune system and a settling of inflammation when practising “forest bathing”, which consists of spending some time in a forest.

I like those ideas and so, last week, on a sunny day, we took a trip into the Limousin, found a nice forest, and had a walk.

Do you do that from time to time? I thoroughly recommend it. I mean, who really cares about the biochemical markers of immunity and inflammation when spending a bit of a day amongst the trees is just such a treat anyway? But it’s good to know the benefits are so deep.

Le Monde group has just launched a new publication entitled “Sens et Santé” – I like how French words often have several meanings all at once – “Sens” can mean “sense” or “meaning” but also “direction” (“santé” is health). One of the larger, beautifully illustrated articles in the inaugural issue focuses on “forest bathing”, describing how you can take time to become aware of the sounds, the sights, the smells, the feel of the trunks of the trees, and even, if you are so disposed, to spend a little time meditating.

Of course, I wouldn’t go without my camera, but that’s just my personally favourite way of raising my level of awareness. I notice more when I have a camera in my hand and an intention to take photos.

Look at this particular tree. I posted about a strange shaped tree a few months back, wondering what had happened in its life to bring about its peculiar shape. Well, here’s another one to stop me in my tracks and get me wondering….what on earth happened here?

And immediately another thought pops up – what resilience! What an incredible power to overcome what looks like it could have been a fatal event, to grow again, not just a new trunk, but six of them! Wow! There’s an inspiration!

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When I lived in a village just outside of Stirling I would look out of the bedroom window of my top floor apartment every morning and I’d see Ben Ledi. The shape of the mountain became very familiar to me but I was struck by just how different it looked every single day. Some days the clouds were so low I couldn’t see it at all. Some days its summit was dusted with snow. Some days the clouds or mist dressed it differently. Other days it was the changing colours of the earth in the moving sunlight which caught my eye.

Since moving to rural France my view is completely different. I look out onto a garden which is surrounded by vineyards which stretch to the horizon at the top of the hill. Each season shows me a unique different view of the vineyards and I’ve already grown to love the characteristics of every one of them. But my “every day” now begins with a view of the garden and, in particular, of the very varied bird life which spends time here. Many of the species are new to me and I’ve never been very good at naming either creatures or plants – at least not in naming them scientifically. I think there’s something in me resists labelling, categorising and putting living forms into boxes. But another part of me is curious and wants to know – just what is this?

I can have that experience noticing a small yellow flower in the grass, or spotting a brightly coloured little bird pecking at the seeds in the bird feeder. My experience is that every day is different. My experience is that every day I see something that amazes me, something which is literally awe inspiring. The French have a great word for that experience – émerveillement. It means to wonder, to marvel, to delight in, to be in awe of, to be amazed by. The first time I encountered this word was in a phrase – “l’émerveillement du quotidien” – kind of means, the wonder of the daily, the everyday. It’s a philosophical phrase and I’ve quickly adopted it as one of the core principles of my life. Not that I’ve had to change anything to adopt this principle. It’s more that this core principle reinforces one of my most natural, instinctive habits. I’m an insatiably curious person and I’m constantly noticing the world I live in….and wondering about it.

So, you can imagine just how excited I was yesterday when I looked out of the window at lunch time and saw this large bird standing on one of the fence posts. I went for my camera and saw he had moved to the pillar at the corner of the garden and I had enough time to zoom in and get these photos. It wasn’t until I did that that I could see what he held in his claw.

At first I was quite shocked. I’ve taken photos of little birds pecking at seeds many times, and even some catching worms, but this is the first time I’ve seen and managed to photograph a bird of prey with its prey. Well, this is how it is for these creatures. We humans are part of that lengthy food chain where one creature consumes another to survive. Only the plants in this world survive without preying on any other living creatures (and not even all plants do that exclusively either).

But just let’s return to wonder and amazement. Look at the beauty of this bird. Look at the patterns and colours of the feathers, the yellow circle around his eye, his yellow feet. Look at that eye! What an eye! And look at that beak! What an astonishing combination of beauty, elegance and power!

I did set off into books and google afterwards and as best I can tell, he’s a kestrel.

Made my day!

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