Archive for April, 2020

There’s something of this shrub that makes me think about the human brain. The leafy cortex forming a curved border and the mesh of branches, twigs and stems which look a bit like a neural net.

Deleuze and Maturna wrote about two common models we use to organise our world view – the arboreal and the rhizomal. They described how we use the former to create tree structures everywhere…..those hierarchical constantly branching sets of binary choices. Think of a genealogy chart, and how we refer to it as a “family tree”. But think also of “organisation charts” which lay out the positions within a company, and show the power flows, with the “Chief Executive Officer” at the top. We see it in protocols, guidelines and algorithms, which proscribe the actions to take at every point to get from a starting position to an “outcome” or “goal”.

I love trees, but “arboreal” models of thought and world view make me uneasy. They are too binary for me. At every stage you can go this way or that way, and there is often an implication that there is only one way which is the right way. It assumes that the starting conditions are exactly as the author expects them to be, and the goals or outcomes which the model maker identifies are the best, or most relevant, or most “efficient” ones, so everyone should share them. Like all models the people who make them have certain values, beliefs and world views, but, rarely are those things made explicit. They are also too hierarchical for me. I’m not a fan of strongly hierarchical, centralised power structures.

On the other hand, there is something very appealing about these tree-like diagrams. I probably drew little family trees every working day. I found it helpful to chart a patient’s relationships, siblings, parents, grandparents, partners and children. They often revealed patterns which shone a light on this patient’s illness. And there is no denying the tree-like branching structures within the body – particularly in the lungs and the circulatory system, but not only there.

In Jacques Tassin’s “Pour un Ecologie du Sensible”, he uses a variety of metaphors to show how interconnected all of life is. One of his metaphors is the tree. He says all life is like an invisible tree rooted in the Earth, each branch, each leaf a living being, a part of the same tree. I like that. If each of us is a single leaf, then, obviously we are connected to every other leaf through the over all structure of the tree. I also like his reference to the roots, which we usually don’t see, because it seems very true that we are vastly interconnected in invisible ways.

The rhizome model is more like grass. There isn’t a single trunk, or root. It’s massively interconnected. It’s a “distributed network” as opposed to a “hierarchical structure”. The brain is probably more like that. Every one of our millions and millions of neurones makes up to 50,000 connections with other neurones. Trees don’t do that. I find the network model very appealing. I love the way it reveals a multiplicity of equally “good” pathways. I love how it doesn’t pre-determine either the starting points or the end points. In fact, it’s kind of impossible to see where a brain begins and ends. It’s not even fenced off in the skull!

When I look at this shrub, then, I actually see elements of both of these models – the branching tree structure, and the presence of multiple, connected pathways.

OK, maybe only up to a point, but, hey, at the end of the day, it’s a pretty appealing and inspirational shrub!

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I was so very fortunate to travel to Japan several times over the last decade or so of my working life. Every time I was inspired by the people I met and the places I saw. There’s an aesthetic which seems characteristically Japanese and I find it SO appealing.

This photo is a good example, I think.

I don’t quite know how I’d capture what makes this so beautiful but I think its a simple, small combination of natural and hand-crafted elements.

Here you can see a rock, with some moss growing over part of it, a stone carving in the background and a simple stream of water pouring down into a stone basin (which you can’t see in this image). Laid on the stone is a bamboo ladle of the type you can find at any temple or shrine. It’s resting on two stalks of bamboo tied together with rough, black rope, over which lies a stem of flowers.

Everything looks as if it might have just fallen there accidentally, but you know everything has been carefully placed. I love that combination of natural elements, living and flowing elements, and hand crafted items fashioned from natural materials.

I have a notion that the principles of this aesthetic might become more widespread in other parts of the world if this current crisis inspires people to enjoy and savour the simple everyday pleasures, and maybe also begin to desire a better relationship to the natural world.

Some of the key principles of this Japanese aesthetic are described in wabi sabi – if you want to explore this further!

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When I looked at this image I saw an earthy path with a puddle lying on it. The puddle is beautifully blue because it is reflecting the sky above. There’s an enticingly intricate pattern of shadows on the earth, cast by the sun shining on the leaves of some trees. At the edge of the puddle the reflected green of the leaves borders the sky.

Then, I thought, hold on, there’s something odd about this. That puddle is a really, really strange shape. It’s almost a triangle. Something’s not right here.

So, I looked more carefully, and a different interpretation leapt out at me.

This isn’t an earthy path, and that isn’t a puddle.

This is a photo of a pond. The water is so clear you can see right through to the muddy floor. The shadows are cast right through the invisible water and the reflected sky is on the surface of a pond, not a puddle lying on the earth.

When I realised this I was quite surprised. No matter how hard I look I still can’t see any water lying over the earth. The reflected sky, however, reveals the water. It makes it more obvious.

This got me thinking (well, if you’ve read a few of my posts, you’ll be familiar with how my images provoke my thoughts). It got me thinking, I wonder how often I don’t see reality because I don’t look carefully enough? I wonder if taking my time allows me to notice the peculiar, and how often it’s the peculiar, the strange, the thing that doesn’t fit, which is the key to the door of perception.

There are two lessons in that thought…..slow down, and be open to what’s different, what seems peculiar.

I guess a lot of the way I engage with the world is at a superficial, faster level, with an eye open for what’s familiar, what I know already…….that way I can quickly tell myself I know what I’m looking at, and move on. I’m sure those mental behaviours are valuable, but I do think they are over-used.

That’s my lesson to myself today –

Remember to slow down and savour.


Remember to look out for what is strange, rare, or peculiar.

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When I stepped out to close the shutters on the windows a couple of nights ago I looked up and saw Venus and the Moon shining so brightly they were almost dazzling. When I looked closely I could see the full black disc of the moon with just a thin silver crescent on the lower right edge. Above the Moon sat Venus, like a queen on her throne.

Both Venus and the Moon are symbolically and mythologically linked with the feminine. And, oh how we need that energy now. Actually, oh how we are seeing the flourishing of that energy now.

Taking a perspective from myth, symbol and spiritual experience, I have always found it helpful to think of two energies, two streams or channels of flow, within each of us at an individual level, within our societies, and, within Life. We call these two forces the masculine and the feminine. I’m not talking about gender or culturally determined social roles for men and women here. I’m thinking instead of something much deeper, something more fundamental.

I wear a yin-yang symbol around my neck. I’ve worn it for decades. Although I was born in Scotland and brought up in the Church of Scotland during my childhood years, by the time I was a teen I discovered Buddhism and Taoism. I bet the way I came across those schools of thought is pretty unusual. It was in reading the novels of Jack Kerouac. Books like Dharma Bums and Satori in Paris. I guess we all have our own particular paths and stepping stones which we’ve followed to develop our beliefs and values. I have never called myself a Buddhist or a Taoist but I’ve read a lot of books about these and other Asian philosophies. They are a constant source of inspiration for me.

Probably the single most powerful and useful concept I learned in those readings was idea of yin and yang. The feminine yin and the masculine yang, sometimes referred to the receptive and the active principles. I don’t intend exploring these ideas in detail here but when I look up at the Moon like this I immediately think of the yin-yang symbol.

Interestingly, when I looked up a couple of night ago and saw what I’ve photographed in that image at the start of this post, I saw vastly more yin than yang.

That seems appropriate. I see signs of a strengthening feminine energy all around.

I’m sure there are whole books exploring these two forces but one simple version which I’ve found helpful is to think of the male energy as “provide and protect”, and the female as “nurture and nourish”. Remember, I’m not talking gender or gender-based social roles here. I think these two forces exist in all of us and an imbalance produces illness and dysfunction at both the levels of the individual and of society.

In the UK Thursdays at 8pm have become the time for people to get to their window or front door and “Clap for the Carers”. This is an astonishing new level of recognition and collective expression of support and gratitude. It’s not only happening in the UK. It’s happening around the world. And it extends out from front-line nursing, medical and care staff to all kinds of workers who are now seen as “essential” – all the people without whose daily efforts society would collapse. I saw a photo online today of someone’s garden gate in a French town. The person living there had made a variety of posters, covered them in plastic to protect them and pinned them up on their gate post. One said thank you to the refuse collectors. One said thank you to all the health workers. One said thank you to the postie.

I’m seeing those sentiments expressed every day now. I’m seeing and hearing people say thank you to others every day now. Saying thank you and declaring support. Showing appreciation. How ironic, you might think, given how under-valued these very jobs are. Often they are poorly paid with precarious job contracts and work which is under-resourced. If there is one sliver of silver lining (like at the edge of that moon up in the sky just now) then I hope its a re-evaluation of what is important in society and how we resource and reward those who make life possible.

How often are women the ones who are the carers – both from nursing and caring professions, but also in child care, teaching, in nurseries, and on the checkouts in the supermarkets? This is a strong feminine energy and these new “heroes” we are asked to clap for, are more often “heroines”!

Of course, there are many, many men who are doing essential jobs too, from the refuse-collectors to the lorry drivers, delivery men, farmers, emergency services and those who keep the power supplies and communication systems flowing. Employment and work activity is too gendered. Are we ready to recognise that more clearly?

There’s much to think about and discuss about the economics of work and social life, and I do really hope this pandemic is shining a light on the dysfunctions which have made us more vulnerable as well as laying out new paths to follow as we go forward.

I think there is a surge of the yin – we are seeing an increased emphasis on the importance of relationships, of caring and of collaboration.

Can that surge flourish? Can it change the landscape? Can it move us away from acquisition, consumption and competition? Can we build a new world by pouring our energies and resources into nurturing and nourishing…not just bodies, but minds and spirits too?

Venus and the Moon…..your time has come!

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When we moved to this house in the Charente five years ago, one of the most attractive things was a glorious “Boston Ivy” growing up the ancient tall wall which divided this garden from the one next door.

We rent this property and the landlord asked me to keep the vine trim so it didn’t grow over the top of the wall. Over the years I got quite good at it, but during the seasons where the leaves covered the vine it was pretty challenging to trim at the top. I was at the very top of an extending ladder and reaching above my head to trim to runaway creepers. A friend of mine calls this plant a “mile a minute” plant because it grows so quickly. She chose a good name for it.

Through the seasons this vine brought lots of life to the garden. Several birds nested in it every Spring, and it buzzed with hundreds of bees in the Summer. In the autumn whole flocks of starlings would descend on it to eat the berries. It gave me experiences I’ve never had before, the most amazing of which was late summer when the seed pods would pop just after the sun has passed to the other side of the wall. The first time I heard them it was like a waterfall and I was convinced water was cascading down it from the top. It wasn’t. It was the sound of thousands upon thousands of seeds and seed casings crashing down through the leaves.

Last December, after a storm, we heard a loud noise and went outside to look. This is what we saw.

Virtually the entire wall had collapsed, taking the vine with it.

It was a real shock and for a long time I’ve been grieving for the loss of wonders of that glorious vine. This gaping hole looks very like an open sore. It’s a wound. For reasons which are too technical to bother about here, there has been no progress in having the wall repaired.

So, here we are, some four months on. Spring has come again and although the wall is still a pile of rubble now, the vine has woken from it’s winter slumbers.

I have to say – it is starting to look WAY better!

I know that when the time comes and the neighbour gets builders in to repair the wall, the vine will be removed (at least that’s what our landlord says). But until that time, I’ll continue to delight in the LIFE of this incredible plant. (And, yes, I think we all realise the plant might have had something to do with the fall of the wall!)

So, this has been a metaphor for me. It began with a traumatic, sudden catastrophe. Then we had to live with the wound. Now we are seeing the recovery of the vine and how it brings beauty back. How it transforms something ugly into something glorious.

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This photo of this wee guy on the stone all alone in the middle of the pond caught my attention again today.

Look at him. Look at his posture. He’s stretching his neck to raise his head as high as he can make it go.

That got me thinking about the stories of boredom, tiredness, and loneliness which seem to be everywhere just now.

It’s true, we are experiencing unprecedented amounts of physical separation these days. I know it’s referred to as “social isolation” or “social distancing” but I think there’s a fair body of experience now to demonstrate that social contacts have increased, not decreased. They’ve just moved into the non-physical dimension. Phone calls, text messages, WhatsApp and other messenger services, FaceTime, Zoom, and other video calling technologies are all surging. Goodness, if only they’d open the post offices, stationers and newsagents maybe we’d start writing and sending letters and postcards again!

So, like a growing number of people, I prefer the phrase “physical distancing” to “social distancing”.

Whatever we call it, many of us are perched on our own rocks in the middle of the world pond. Just like the wee guy in the photo.

But look what he is doing.

He’s got his head lifted as high as it can go. He’s trying to touch the sun with his nose. Trying to catch whiffs of delight in the air. I cut the grass in the garden again a couple of days ago and I was immediately blessed with that gorgeous scent of cut grass. Delightful.

What happens when we lift our heads and look up?

We see…..


Look at this one hovering in mid-flight. I see a lot of buzzards here in the Charente. (This photo was taken in Kyoto years ago by the way). I can look up and watch them circling way, way up in the atmosphere, their high pitched calls resonating across multiple vineyards. I love to see them soar, dive, and glide through the air. I see kestrels here quite a lot too. They hover in, what has become to me now, a very familiar distinctive way. Takes my breath away every time.

Or maybe we see the leaves in the trees (depends which season your part of the world is in now) – here’s one of dozens of photos I have of acer leaves (again, taken in Kyoto, years ago)

I think they are stunningly beautiful. I adore the shapes of these leaves. They look like stars. A galaxy of stars against a blue, blue sky.

Or maybe you can see the clouds and notice the rain falling in a thin curtain draped from the sky to the earth.

There’s something else about this lifting the head…..its the opposite of “hang dog”. It’s the opposite of closing down. It’s an opening up.

Try it.

Drop your chin to your chest, gaze down at your body and the ground below you. How does that feel?

Now lift your head up, stretch your neck back and open your eyes wide to what is above you. How does that feel?

The thing is, we actually need both. There are times we need to centre ourselves, withdraw and experience the solitude. And there are times we need to lift up our heads and open up to the world we are living in.

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I wonder how much attention you pay to the shapes at your feet? To the surfaces you walk on, the paths you follow, the ground you stand on.

These tiles impressed me because they contain two pairs of contrasting forms. The hard straight edges and right angles of each tile, disrupted by the continuous flowing curves. And the areas of smoothies and roughness on every tile. I love those contrasting presences. Each enhances the other. And not or.

This stony path I walked along in Japan once had the most unusual border. How many paths have you seen which are bordered by straight, continuous lines of concrete, metal or wood? Here, the border is discontinuous and each tile is a soft curve. Together they give the impression of waves. They made me think of the boundary between the sea and the sand, rather than a man-made hard edge.

In a moss garden in Nara, I came across these paths, each one made of irregular stones. No two stones cut to the exact same shape and size. The paths wind. They don’t take the absolute “most efficient”, shortest route between two points. Isn’t a straight line defined as the shortest distance between two points? And they are all punctuated by large, smooth, circular stones, of various sizes. The whole thing was utterly delightful. You were unconsciously led to wander and to linger.

Oooh, what lovely words – wander and linger.

I do think the shapes, textures and forms of the ground we stand and walk on influence how we move through the world.

What do you see at your feet today?

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Last year there was a wave of complaints from people about “over-tourism”. Several cities, like Venice, Barcelona, Prague and Edinburgh were accommodating so many tourists that locals felt life was becoming difficult. There were even problems with the number of people visiting the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Well, this year, look what’s happened. Nobody last summer could have seen this virus coming, and none of us have lived through an experience like this, but as I read yesterday about Spain, Italy and France all experiencing a complete collapse of tourism and making plans to prevent holiday travel into their countries for the foreseeable future I couldn’t help but be amazed at how much things had changed.

That also got me thinking about the old phrase “Be careful what you wish for. It might come true.”

I’ve visited Japan a number of times and one thing which has always struck me is the practice of writing down wishes and hanging them up in temples and shrines. That photo above is of one such simple wish. Often you’ll see a whole tree covered in little paper wishes like that.

In some shrines, wish-making is more organised and focused. For example, in Nara, I came across this one –

I understand these particular ones are from married or engaged couples and are hopes for a good future for their relationship.

Though, it would seem some non-Japanese speaking guy didn’t quite understand that….

Of course, I don’t know if the author of this wish (and where did they get that different, non-heart shaped plaque?) was referring to their grandma, mum and big sister, but it sure struck me as strange!

Connected to that particular shrine in Nara is one where the focus is on women’s health and wellbeing.

Back here in France, last year, I came across these wishes on an island where the main industry is oyster farming.

It’s interesting how many of these practices are perhaps not so much wishes but love hopes. They are declarations of love and an expression of desire for that love to last.

But not all, are about love. This person clearly loved their holiday on the island so much they’d like to live there full time.

In many parts of Europe you can find the padlock version of the love hope/wish –

I do find it heartening that so many people choose to focus on a relationship and their hope/wish for sustainable love when they make these public declarations. The first time I came across the padlock version on a bridge in Paris I found it really incredibly moving.

So, I wonder what you are wishing for at this strange time in our lives.

And I wonder what will change if your wishes come true.

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This is a stream I saw in the Japanese town of Nara several years ago. The water flowed in such an unusual way in this stream. It was more than a trickle but almost less than a steady flow. The bed of the stream had been made by laying many stones close together, mainly smooth, round-ish stones. The interaction between the water and the stones created this really fascinating texture. Quite unlike any stream I’d ever seen before.

In Scotland the streams (burns) and rivers flow over huge irregularly shaped rocks creating white foam and loud crashing noises. This stream flowed quietly, the water hardly making any sound as it slipped over the smooth surfaces of the stones. Where I live now, in the Charente, the river is well known for its constant smooth flow. It is never still, but it never breaks into foam or makes a noise. This stream in Nara has some similarities to both of these waterway forms.

So, as I look at this image now, I recall standing in Nara taking this photo. I can hear the gentle sound of the water over the smooth stones, but I also bring into my mental space waterfalls in the Trossachs, and a river just a few kilometres from where I am now. I love how the mind weaves the memories a specific scene with multiple others which had something in common – in this case, flowing water, but also turbulence and calm.

Then I notice the moss covered stone in the bottom right of the photo and I immediately recall another photo I took near this stream.

When I first stumbled across these I thought the tree had laid two eggs!

I imagined them hatching out millions of years into the future…..what kind of creature would emerge? Some tree-dragon?

The smoothness of these stones is just like that of the ones in the bed of the stream, and their mossy covering makes them look just like that larger stone at the bottom of the previous image.

I delight in following threads of similars.

Which ones will you notice and explore today?

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It strikes me that this is a pretty good image for this present moment.

All our boats are tied up at the dock. Empty. Nobody there.

Actually, when you look really carefully there is somebody in the pagoda. It’s hard to see them. I have the impression they might be a ghost!

Moored is the word we would use to describe the situation these boats find themselves in. They’ve been carefully set aside, brought home, tied up to the dock to keep them safe. I guess we’re all a bit moored just now, aren’t we? Although, frankly, an increasing number of people are feeling quite the opposite – un-moored!

But let’s stick with this image for a wee bit longer.

I see nineteen boats arranged around this platform, and, yes, it bugs me that they aren’t aligned by number – what does that say about me? – but, worse than that, one of them is number 23 – and I can only count 19 of them! Are there are at least four missing? Where are they? Are they OK? So, already, what at first glance looks like a completely peaceful scene, with the reflections of trees, clouds and blue sky on the surface of the still, still water, starts to become a little…..unmoored?

Then I see the blossom of the tree above the boats, and instantly, I’m back to enjoying the beauty of the scene. My gaze follows the hidden path to bridge, and across to that gorgeous pagoda, itself perfectly reflected in the calm lake. Then I notice that indistinct person, that ghostly presence, and I start to unravel again.

Now, here’s the thing, until today, every time I’ve looked at this image I’ve seen and experienced nothing but calm, and I’ve delighted in its beauty. This “un-mooring” is new. It doesn’t come from the photo itself. It comes from where I am, here and now.

Well, this is a great truth…..whatever we perceive, whatever we see, notice, appreciate and experience, is always, but always, an interaction between our “self” and what is around us. This is the way I understand the teaching that there is no real world “out there”. This is how I understand relativity. It’s not that there is nothing objective, or that nothing exists unless I see it, hear it, or otherwise sense it. It’s that my lived experience of reality always, but always involves my memories and my imagination.

We co-create our world.

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