Archive for March, 2020

Before the Mulberry tree in my garden gets its leaves each year it casts wonderful shadows on the grass. I was thinking about them when I started to read the book “Penser comme un arbe” (Think like a tree) by Jacques Tassin. He starts out by setting the evolutionary scene where we humans evolved in the trees and reflects on how much the human body is constructed using tree-like patterns. Like the one you can see in this shadow. Our circulatory system which carries the blood all around our body branches and branches just like this, splitting into ever smaller arteries and capillaries, then coming back together the way a river gathers all the streams which feed it, along ever bigger veins until it connects the blood to the heart and the lungs again.

Our lungs are like this. Branching first into left and right, then into the different lobes, down the bronchi and bronchioles to open out like bunches of grapes in the alveoli.

Trees are the lungs of the Earth, cleaning the air of pollutants, gathering up CO2 and emitting Oxygen. Interesting to think of the respiration of a person and the respiration of the planet using similar patterned structures (OK, up to a point, the trees don’t have lobes and alveoli, but their leaves provide the maximum contact with the air, just as our alveoli do that job too.)

Our lymphatic system, so crucial to our body defences uses the same “arboreal” pattern, just like the circulatory system.

Our nervous system too, with the continuously branching structures of nerves and the way each neurone in the brain reaches out to contact thousands of others.

There is something magical about our relationship with trees, isn’t there? It really does us good to be amongst them, to look at them, to contemplate them, to smell and touch them. The Japanese “forest bathing” has been studied to show the beneficial effects on our immune systems of substances emitted by the trees in the forest.

Jacques Tassin talks about studies which show the beneficial effect on children with ADHD of spending some time in the forest, and, perhaps even more surprising, the calming effects on the heart rates of people contemplating images of trees…..in other words, we get a benefit from just looking at them, even when we can’t be physically present with them.

So, I thought I’d share a few photos I took in a Cedar Forest just north of Aix en Provence.


Finally, look at the tree right in the middle of this shot. The sign by the path was labelled “Candelabra Tree”.

Do you have any favourite trees?

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It’s so many years since I read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that I can’t remember how old I was at the time, but the concept of the “bardo” really struck me and stayed with me ever since.

The bardo is the gap (if I understand it correctly). It’s the gap between the in breath and the out breath. Do you ever notice that gap? Try it. Don’t try to change it, just try to notice it.

Then, here’s something harder, try to notice the gap between two thoughts.

Have you ever noticed how thinking is so incessant?? How our minds constantly run from worry to worry to memory to concern to plans to, just, well, thinking…….it’s like it never stops. But no single thought goes on for ever does it? So they all must have a beginning and an end, just like stories do. Is there any space in between? Are their any periods at the ends of your thoughts, or has all the punctuation disappeared?

This time, this time of Coronavirus, is, for many of us, a bardo.

I live in the Charente region of France. Since Tuesday midday daily life has tangibly changed. All the cafes, bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, have closed. All shops apart from “essential” shops, have closed. Nobody is allowed the leave the house without a signed form, an “attestation”, stating why you are going out – and it has to be one of the limited, allowed reasons.

It sounds like Sunday around here.

Sundays near my house have always had a deep quietness. You know how you can tell it’s snowed before you look outside? Because the snow damps down all the sounds? Well, it’s sort of like that, but different……it’s an absence of most of the sounds of human activity. It’s been sounding like that every day since Tuesday. I guess we’re in for a “month of Sundays”. It’ll be a blue moon next!

This bardo, this pause, this suspension of the routine is waking us up to a lot of things. Or, at least, it’s giving us the opportunity to waken up to them. It’s giving us the opportunity to reassess what is important to us. And one of those things is love and connection. Have you seen any of the videos of Italians or Spanish people out on their balconies in the cities? Clapping, singing, making a noise together? We need to be connected. We are intensely social creatures. OK, maybe a lot of that has to shift online just now, because we are confined to our houses, but it still strengthens the importance of our relationships.

It does something else too. It shows us that we really do live on the one, single planet. Remember the “blue marble” image?

There are no real borders.

There are no real boundaries.

We humans just make them up.

We are connected. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, eat food grown in the same soil.

Maybe it’s time to think again about how we do that.

Of course, I understand, that this is not a bardo for everyone. The health care workers in particular are facing and already dealing with exhausting, increasingly demanding challenges. But maybe that too can be a lesson learned. Maybe we should pay health care workers more than we pay footballers, bankers and “celebrities” for example? And there are plenty of other people working hard to keep us fed and safe too.

Maybe it’s time to change the system, away from grab and hoard to valuing, savouring, caring and sharing?

Hey, there’s plenty to think about……just –


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When I took this photo I was attracted to the white flowers, but when I looked at it on my computer it seemed to me that the white flower in the middle of the shot had turned into a butterfly.

When I looked closer, it hadn’t.

But like some of those optical illusions, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it! So, now whenever I look at this image the first thing I see is a white butterfly, which transforms itself before my eyes into a flower. Given that perhaps one of the key characteristics of butterflies is transformation, that seems strangely appropriate.

OK, I know butterflies don’t transform into flowers, or vice versa. Well, not directly anyway. (You could argue that everything which exists on Earth is made from the same atoms which have made everything else) However, just seeing that has taken this image to a new level for me.

In a few short moments I can let my mind follow the path of a butterfly, its eggs, its caterpillar stage, its chrysalis, and on to a new butterfly. And I can let my mind follow the path of the flower, the insects which come seeking sweetness, the pollen spreading, the new seeds forming and scattering, a green plant shooting up through the dark earth, and a new flower stretching out its petals under the warmth and light of the Sun.

And it all seems WHOLE. I see an intertwining of Nature’s cycles and rhythms unfolding before my mind’s eye.

I hope you can too.

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I took this photo recently when visiting the Caumont gallery in Aix en Provence (before France closed down!).

I was attracted to the light shapes on the wall of the building opposite. The one on the right looks like a cocktail glass, but the other two are vaguely like kanji – which, given that the gallery had a special show of Japanese prints, is highly likely!

When I look at the photo now I’m reminded of two things – a famous painting by Magritte

And, a photo I took in the New Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen of ancient biblical scripts written in Aramaic and found in Palmyra.

The room with the scripts showed the letters projected across the images on the walls as a soundtrack played of someone speaking words in Aramaic from the book of Genesis. That was one of those moments where the hairs on my arms stood up on end and my eyes got watery.

I have long since had a love of words. I have hundreds of books. I read all the time, often several books at once. I love stories and I am insatiably curious. When I qualified as a doctor I bought a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica with my first month’s salary. I know wikipedia might have surpassed that now but I can still get the thrill of serendipity by leafing through its pages and falling down a knowledge rabbit hole. At work I looked forward to every Monday morning because I knew it was the start of a week where patients would come and tell me their stories. Every single one of them unique.

I taught in Japan at one point and tried to learn a little Japanese. I didn’t get very far but I am still enthralled by their three alphabets – yes THREE! I chose to emigrate from Scotland to France when I retired to have the experience of living in another language and I’ve got a little collection of favourite French words for which I can’t find any direct English translations, or where the English translation feel somewhat inadequate. I love that. (Emerveillement would be my first example!) I’ve also been trying to teach myself Spanish over this last year, just because I’ve discovered Spain since moving to South West France, and have had a number of fabulous road trips there (I’m using the Duolingo app).

Words, and stories.

I’m also quite an avid reader of poetry, and I recently heard a fantastic interview with the American poet laureate, Tracy K Smith, on Ezra Klein’s podcast. Highly recommended!

With more and more of us having to put our normal lives on hold and stay at home I think this is a great opportunity to explore more books, more poems, more stories, words and art. Are you finding that too?

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There’s one thing this pandemic is showing us – we all share the same world.

We all live in this Earth together. What begins in one place quickly affects all the other places.

This infection will run its course, and it will fade away, but I think it’s pretty likely there will be other episodes like this.

Modern medicine often boasts of its success in conquering bacteria. With the invention of antibiotics we had begun to focus on “non-communicable” diseases instead – heart disease, cancer and so on. But we never really had the equivalent of antibiotics for viruses. We have some (as in HIV treatment for example) but we still can’t treat the vast majority of viruses. Maybe one day we will have the treatments. But look what’s happened with antibiotics….. because we’ve been misusing antibiotics in farming and in treating viral diseases which don’t respond to antibiotics, they are losing their power. We need a different model of health care.

Is there a Health Service in the world which has enough resiliency and adaptability built in to cope with these waves of illness? It doesn’t look like it, though it was pretty amazing to see the Chinese building whole hospitals in six weeks. For most of the world these services are run on a bare minimum (or below) basis. The truth is we don’t have enough doctors, enough nurses, enough hospital beds, enough equipment. And that’s what this particular virus is revealing. Although only a small minority of people will get seriously sick with it, the actual numbers overwhelm the hospitals and services very quickly. And once they get overwhelmed then everyone who gets ill loses out.

This pandemic is revealing other things too – it’s not only health care which is threadbare and inadequate. From the globalised “supply chains” of goods, to the daily vulnerability of workers, families and small businesses, resilience and adaptability are seriously ¬†lacking.

I know that for now the priority is to try to slow the spread of this virus and to treat and care for as many of the sick as possible, but soon it will be time to ask ourselves what we can do to make a better world.

  • What are we going to have to do to adapt?
  • What can we do to be more resilient?
  • How can we look after each other better?
  • What should we change?

How about we explore these questions together in the days and weeks ahead?

Meantime……from midday today I’m in lockdown here in the Charente. France has closed all the bars, cafes, restaurants and all “non-essential” shops, and now it’s quarantined most of us in our houses. I’m not afraid but life is not going to be “normal” for a long time. So, here’s one thing I can do – share my beautiful photos, my daily “√©merveillement”, and my caring heart more often.

I’ll be posting more regularly from today.

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You know these seeds which helicopter down from the trees? Strangely one-winged and decidedly “wonky” looking?

Well, maybe humans wanting to make something which would be carried on the wind wouldn’t design it like this, but, hey, Nature’s designs are the best!

So, sometime, maybe last autumn, this little seed spirals its way from a tree, who knows which tree, and tumbles and flies and skips and zigzags its way through the air, to land here, on the forest floor. Then, a few months later, who knows how it knows, it wakes up, yawns and starts to stretch, feeling that Spring is around the corner.

And look at it now!

Out of the pod uncoils a long stem, probing down through the moss to find nutrients, and begin to grow itself into a tree!

I mean, do you ever stop and consider something like this?

Have you any idea how it happens?

We can’t even tell if an individual seed is alive or not, is viable or not, until it wakes up and begins to develop. Isn’t that incredible? That we can’t even tell if it alive or dead? Nobody can.

Then how do the cells start to divide and “differentiate”? That means start to develop into the different cells which will produce all the different parts of the tree.

One of my most favourite and most memorable lecturers at Edinburgh University was the Professor of Anatomy, Professor Romanes. He used to start a lecture with a box of coloured chalks and one of those giant rotating blackboards which gave you one screen after another. By the time he finished he’d produced what were no less than works of art showing each different kind of cell, each different kind of tissue, in a different colour. We were transfixed.

He gave a series of lectures on embryology taking us through the various stages of development of a foetus from a fertilised egg cell to a ready to be born baby. I remember thinking at the time, and those thoughts are still with me, “how on earth does that happen?”

I mean, how on earth does a single fertilised cell divide and multiply and differentiate to produce all the organs, all the tissues, all the parts of a human body, and every one of them in the “right” place?

It utterly amazed me.

It still does.


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This is a photo I took while travelling to the north of Scotland a few years ago.

Both the dark foreground of the land and the foreboding rain-filled clouds in the sky could make a scene like this oppressive.

If both what’s right at our feet and right above our heads is gloomy and threatening it’s hard to stay positive and calm.

But look! That’s not all there is to this scene. There’s the crack in the clouds, the long strip of bright silvery light with sunbeams pouring down onto the water and making it glow. The water surface dazzles like the Sun itself.

Beyond the light a whole palette of colours emerge in the sky, shade after shade of blue.

In a bright blue sky, none of this would be visible.

In a completely overcast sky, none of this would be visible.

This is life, this is the world we live in.

There is always foreboding and darkness, and there is always hope and light.

The incredible thing is, they are often here at exactly the same time and place.

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We humans are great at spotting patterns. We join things up, put features together, make connections to create and see forms, structures and behaviours. We’ve done it for centuries, gazing up into the night sky and joining the dots with invisible lines to make constellations which we can find, follow and associate with time and place. We’ve used that skill to navigate, to know when to sow and when to harvest, to find our place in this world and to wonder and dream about the infinite universe.

There’s one particular kind of pattern that we are really, really good at spotting – a face.

We have a whole area of the brain dedicated to spotting and recognising faces. We see them……even where there aren’t any human beings! Like in the ochre forest outside Roussillon in the South of France. As I wandered around it, I saw faces everywhere. Do you see them too?

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Coronavirus, epidemic, pandemic, deaths, school closures, travel bans, hospitals overloaded, patients in the corridors, floods, fires, plagues of locusts, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, snowstorms, climate change, immigration, deportation, walls, cancer…….

It’s not hard to make a list of threats, to find things to be afraid of.

Every headline screams – be afraid, be very afraid!

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best”

Sounds good advice, huh? Said this way around the first thing to do is focus on the worst, then once you’ve done that you might get around to dragging up a bit of hope. Said the other way around you hope first, but what you do, what actions you take, are determined by imagining the worst.

Is this a good way to live?

Imagining the worst every day? Feeling fear every day? Feeling anxiety every day?

Maybe not, huh, but isn’t it just common sense? Isn’t it just “sensible”?

One day I was out walking along the Mediterranean coast and I looked up at this immense grey rocky cliff and a patch of yellow caught my eye. I zoomed in with my telephoto lens and took this photo. Wow! Look at this single, beautiful yellow flower. I was about to write “delicate, little flower” there but stopped myself because “delicate”?? I don’t think so. How did that little seed, blown there by the wind, or dropped by a bird, find enough to sustain it, enough to keep it alive, enough to make it burst out of its shell and stand tall and reach for the yellow sun and spread its petals to say to the world “Here I am” “I am alive”.

People die without hope. I’ve seen it. Many times.

If my mind is flooded with daily fears, if my thoughts swim in an ocean of dread, what kind of day is it going to be today? What kind of life will I experience? And what if this is “my one wild and precious life“? Is this how I want to spend it?

What’s the alternative?

Denial? Delusion? Escapism? I suppose so…..but I think there are better options –

“Hope for the best, and adapt”

If we start the day with hope, make our plans based on hope, then we set off positively. If obstacles appear, accidents happen, luck runs out, then we can adapt. I used to commute from Stirling to Glasgow on the train every day to go to work. I never set off thinking “maybe I won’t get there”. I never went to Queen Street Station after work thinking “maybe I won’t get home”. I never planned for the worst, then got round to trying to hope all the dreadful things wouldn’t happen.

Well, I didn’t always get there, and I didn’t always get home. One day the G8 Summit was held in Gleneagles. The authorities closed Stirling down. No trains. No buses. Motorways blocked. I didn’t get to work that day. One day at work it started to snow. It snowed and it snowed and it snowed. By the time I finished work there were no trains leaving Glasgow. The buses were all full, then there were no more buses because the motorway was blocked. I found a hotel room using my smartphone, stayed the night, and next morning, stopped off in Marks and Spencer for a new shirt on my way to work.

Many, many times, trains were cancelled or ran late. Many times the train would stop in the middle of the countryside for half an hour, or an hour, or sometimes, even longer. The journey wasn’t always as straightforward as it should have been. But I still never set off thinking “maybe I won’t get there”.

So that’s one way……

“Hope for the best, and adapt”

Here’s another –

“Look for the good and adapt”

This isn’t quite the same because it isn’t based on a starting point of hope. It starts with an intention. An intention to seek, to be curious, to be on the look out for what delights, and what amazes. To find “L’√©merveillement du quotidien“. Because it’s always there. There will always be beauty to discover, music to excite or delight, scents and flavours to savour, textures to relish. There will always be acts of kindness, acts of courage and acts of love. You can see that all the time. In how many terrorist attacks do we see the cruelty of one person, followed by the courage, kindness and love of many, many others.

What if every day I look for the good, and when obstacles, accidents, infections, bad luck come my way, I find a way to adapt?

I look at that flower, flourishing (because that’s what flowers do, isn’t it, they flourish?) in what looks like barren adversity, and I think, well, that’s amazing, that’s beautiful, that’s life.




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