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Archive for June, 2021

My title for this photo is “sun and storm”. What caught my eye, in the hours before sunset was how I could see the dark grey, almost purple cloud on the horizon, and the veils of rain dropping down from the cloud base to the ground, but all of this in the context of a bright clear sky (which you can see in the upper right of the photo) and the bright, shining sun, sitting just between the cloud base and the ground.

So here’s my question. Is this a stormy day or a sunny day?

Or, if you prefer, is this a photo of a storm or bright sunshine?

Trick question really…..because the true answer is « and not or ». But that’s not the way we tend to experience things when we are autopilot is it?

I remember one morning I parked my car in the station car park on the way to work and found that, as often happened, the nearest ticket machine wasn’t working. As I returned with a ticket from another machine I came across a man, furious and upset because the machine wasn’t working. He said to me « This is a terrible day! » I told him the other machine was working and it was only 7am, so if the worst thing to happen to him today was going to be finding that one of the ticket machines wasn’t working, would the day be so terrible after all? »

I guess that with hindsight he might have punched me on the nose! However, he said, thank you, you’re right. When you put it like that I can’t let a parking ticket machine ruin my day!

The thing is reality is complex and nuanced. It isn’t « this OR that ». This tendency we have to bring together our two powers of generalising and labelling tend to run roughshod over that. Once we become aware of the multidimensional and interwoven nature of reality then we can focus more on the unique and the special, on the here and now, on the amazing, rich, AND not OR!

Maybe if we did that more there would be less polarisation, less hatred and less fear…………..just saying!

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The starlings around here form the biggest flocks. At certain times I can hear a whooshing sound caused by the noise of the air pushed aside as hundreds of them take off at the same moment from one of the surrounding vineyards.

There’s also this big tree on the crest of the hill. It’s a real favourite of theirs. They land on it in their thousands I reckon, creating a huge commotion of calls and cries. It sounds as if they are all talking at the same time! What a noise! You can’t ignore it. Then something strange happens. Over the course of a few seconds the entire flock falls silent. When this happens you can be sure that within the next few seconds they are all going to take flight, and that’s what you can see in this photo.

Of course starlings are also famous for murmurations, where as if they are one giant organism, they swoop across the sky, making rapid changes of direction which gives the impression of a giant shape shifting creature playing in the sky.

What impresses me so much though is their way of constantly gathering and dispersing. They seem restless birds and never settle in one particular spot, or formation, for long.

So they are a great example of how Life is about constant change, unceasing movement.

I know that we all learn that it’s good to pause and be still for a few moments, and that’s true. Especially if we want to draw our attention and focus into the here and now. But the truth is, even in the most settled moments, the most peaceful, mindful minutes of meditation or contemplation, that we are still creatures of constant movement. Our breath continues to flow in and out, our heart continues its constant beat, every cell of your being continues its metabolic processes of nourishment and activity.

One definition of a living being highlights this feature of « self movement ». In other words, what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate is this ability to move, to make movements, to act, without the stimulus of any external force.

Another definition focuses on « auto-poiesis » which means « self-making capacity » After all, it’s not just that our cells, organs and systems are constantly moving….they are constantly adjusting, adapting, repairing and growing.

So as I watch the starlings noisily gather and disperse I’m reminded of these rhythms, cycles and activities which we share with all that lives on this planet. I’m reminded of why I use the phrase « becoming not being » at the top of this site……because life really is a process of constant becoming.

I watch, I listen and I am amazed.

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I’m a big fan of diversity. It’s a fundamental characteristic of healthy Nature. In fact, as David Attenborough points out in his excellent « A Life on Our Planet » biodiversity loss is one of the greatest threats to the existence of our species.

Monocultures in agriculture are unsustainable, requiring ever increasing chemical inputs as the soil becomes exhausted.

Monopolies damage markets.

A team of people who all think exactly the same way loses the ability to adapt and innovate.

Healthy communities are diverse ones if integration is held as important (integration being the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts). We thrive together as we bring to the table our different perspectives and ways of thinking, with a desire to produce the greatest wellbeing for everyone.

Democracy is a great idea if it allows diverse communities within a society to connect, to compromise and to collaborate. On the other hand, autocracies tend to impose one view, one set of values, and one way of thinking on all the others…..something which fosters conflict and, ultimately, leads to the whole system falling apart.

Diversity, as the photo above shows, is beautiful.

So, I don’t think of how to « tolerate » different views, opinions and ideas. I think how to integrate them. I don’t know how else to grow or flourish, let alone, survive.

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Dead or alive?

Look at this seed. I love how it’s heart shaped which immediately makes me think of my own beating heart.

It’s not a big leap from there to thinking about the whole phenomenon of Life. I mean, what exactly is it and how do we know when it’s there? Do those seem strange questions to you?

What is Life? I remember looking at the index in my main textbook of Medicine which I used during my university years. I was surprised there was no entry for “health”. Doesn’t that seem odd? You’d think if the goal was to train doctors how to help sick people become well, or how to heal the sick, then there might be a clear description at least, of health. After all how does a doctor know they are achieving their goal of health without a clear understanding of what health looks like?

That line of thought stayed with me throughout my working life, leading me to explore the philosophy of Medicine, philosophy of Science, the History of Medicine and Complexity Science.

It’s still not easy to say exactly what health is, but I’m sure it’s a phenomenon which is both objective and subjective.

However, that’s a digression, because what I encountered when exploring the absence of much consideration of health in Medicine, I came across a parallel issue in Biology. Try finding an entry for “life” in a biology textbook. Seriously – if you find one, let me know! Despite biology being pretty much a science of life, it seems science doesn’t find it that easy to say what life is. Or even when it’s there.

Which brings me back to this seed.

Is this seed alive?

Do you know that nobody can tell you the answer to that. There is no way to know by just looking at this seed – at any level – or by doing any measurements. The best science can do is to take a whole bunch of seeds and predict what percentage of them will turn into plants if nurtured. It can’t tell which particular seeds are “viable” or “alive” and which are as dead as a grain of sand.

There is only one way to find out – plant it, care for it, nurture it, and see if it grows.

Life, it turns out, reveals itself only in the experience of living.

Isn’t that amazing?

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Finding our way

I read a beautiful review by Robert Macfarlane yesterday. It was in the New York Review of Books and he was reviewing three books about navigation, wayfinding and landscape.

He gave several examples of astonishing navigational powers in several creatures, and of course, it’s hard to fail to be amazed by how a tiny migratory bird can travel thousands of miles and back between two particular places in the world. At least that’s my experience of the redstart who comes back to my garden every Spring, to give just one simple example.

Researchers have found magnetic particles in the beaks of migratory birds and similar structures which allow creatures to potentially detect the electromagnetic fields which encircle the planet, but they still haven’t figured out exactly how they use that ability.

It turns out there are highly specialised nerve cells in our brain which allow us to know both where we are in 3D space and to make maps of our surroundings so we can find our way easily from room to room and along familiar streets without having to stop to think about it.

But here’s the bit that really grabbed me.

Humans don’t possess inbuilt compasses, but we do have something arguably more powerful: storytelling.
Our remarkable navigational ability as a species is closely connected to our ability to tell stories about ourselves that unfold both backward and forward in time.

Robert Macfarlane in NYRB reviewing Wayfinding by MR O’Connor

Isn’t that a great insight? Our navigational super power isn’t tiny magnetic sensitive particles in our brains. It’s our ability to tell stories.

Without this ability we’d never have been able to share with others what we’ve learned, what we can imagine and where we are.

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In the pink

I live in rural South West France, in a department called “Charente” which is the name of the slow moving, chilled out, river which runs through this land.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of the landscape around here is vineyards. The rows and rows of vines are dedicated to the production of an alcohol called cognac, and the town of the same name is just a few kilometres from where I write this.

From the vineyards to the distilleries, the barrel makers, bottling plants and marketers, to the agricultural machinery and distillery equipment manufacturers and sellers, to the professional blenders, the groups of vineyard workers pruning, tying the vines along the wires, spraying the plants with herbicides and insecticides or tending to their fields with newly fashionable “bio” methods of viniculture, to the tasters and storytellers who turn these complex honey coloured liquids into magical hints of memories and desires, this is a whole complex web of human activity which forms a distinct culture.

I haven’t even begun to consider the non-human elements of this culture….the geography, geology, and ecology of this land.

Perhaps one of the most striking phenomena of this place is in the sky, however. I haven’t counted them but I’d be surprised if most years the majority of evenings in the year display pink, red or crimson skies at sunset.

You might think it’s so common that it becomes background, barely noticed, rarely acknowledged. But you’d be wrong. Night after night I notice the reddening of the sky, seeing the colour of the light change as it illuminates the pale stone walls, the dark leaves of the mulberry tree, or any clouds passing by.

I notice it, I get up, look out the window and, more often than not, go outside.

A couple of evenings ago the moon, waxing towards the full, appeared behind a thin pink cloud and I took this photo.

Well of all the hundreds of sunsets I’ve seen here over these last few years, this is the first time I’ve seen the Moon, veiled in pink.

It’s that sort of daily encounter with uniqueness and beauty which gets me wondering and delighting in just noticing what we call “this time and place”, or “this present moment”.

“L’émerveillement du quotidien”

Is there a better way to live?

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With you

I saw this mural yesterday when I was visiting the little village of Talmont on the West coast of France. The wall belongs to a shop selling sundials, and the words along the top which translate as, « without you, I am nothing », are probably referring to the Sun.

However, surely it’s not so specific. After all, we wouldn’t just be nothing without the Sun, we wouldn’t even exist in the first place…..no Life on Earth would ever have been possible without the Sun.

So, I’m reading this phrase as something I’d think about in terms of other people. That reminds me of the African word, Ubuntu, which means, I think, « I am because you are ».

This French phrase comes at the same idea from a different perspective and it’s got a dash of romance added to it too, hasn’t it? Isn’t the kind of thing you might say to your lover.

You could argue that it’s an exaggeration. I wouldn’t be « nothing » without you, and you wouldn’t be « nothing » without me. But we would both be considerably diminished without each other.

I hope, dear reader, than your life is enhanced by your stopping by here, enjoying my photos and my words. Thank you for being here. I can tell you my life in enhanced by sharing this with you. And that’s why I’m doing this……

My life is more, because we share these few minutes with each other…..and your « likes » and lovely feedback ripple through my days.

So, maybe we wouldn’t be nothing without each other, but we would certainly be less.

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Kindness

Five years ago I was in Madrid, sitting in one of the many plazas enjoying a glass of wine and I noticed a statue getting a lot of attention. It’s a statue of the poet, Lorca, where he is setting free a bird. You know how certain statues have highly polished parts because so many people have felt compelled to touch them over many years? There are just some statues which call out, silently, to be touched. The ones which touch the people who come near, I suspect. Like « Greyfriars Bobby » in Edinburgh. Well, Lorca’s statue seems to be one of those.

I was particularly struck by this little girl’s response to the statue. Look how she is cuddling Lorca? She’s the very picture of affection.

I’ve looked at this photo many times and every time it touches my heart. It puts me in touch with those flows of kindness, tenderness and affection which run through us all.

I know we are surrounded by stories of cruelty and violence. I know human beings can be capable of the most despicable acts. But there’s something else which runs through us all. You could call it love. You could call it socialisation. You could call it empathy. You could call it the desire to care and be cared for.

It’s present from the moment of birth. No baby would survive without it. No child would thrive without it.

We humans are no solitary creatures. We have achieved what we have achieved as a species. We learn from each other, teach other, support each other, work with and care for each other. If we didn’t, we’d all perish.

I don’t know, I just think it’s worth remembering that from time to time. After all maybe the future depends on our strengthening that connection with our « better angels »

What do you think?

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I love this photo. The way the sunlight catches the breaking edge of the waves turning the foam several shades of white, cream and gold delights me. It draws your eye right there – to the leading edge.

I don’t think of the world in terms of separate objects any more. Instead I see flows, intersections, meetings and connections. I see relationships and experiences. I see becoming, not being.

All that exists is impermanent. It’s not just that we humans are mortal, it’s that the whole of Nature is in a constant process of cycles of birth, growth, maturity and death. Transience makes every moment special.

Shifting my gaze from apparently separate objects to change and interaction enables me to see the contexts in which all exists. It focuses me on inter-dependence, on connections and collaborations.

I was thinking of this as I watched David Attenborough’s superb A Life on our Planet on Netflix. Have you seen it? I highly, highly recommend. One of the best things he’s ever done. I found it moving, thought provoking and optimistic. If you don’t have Netflix you can listen to the audiobook version on Audible, or, you can read the book.

Perhaps his key point is the importance of biodiversity which our current societies and economies are in the process of destroying. Because all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent we need biodiversity for the health of the entire planet. In fact we humans won’t survive without it.

It’s that combination of diversity and connections which is, I think, the key, and I reckon he is right when he tells us that the solutions are all there right in front of us. If we want to discover how to thrive, not just survive, then we should learn from Nature, and a great place to start on the path to sustainability is to support and develop both diversity and integration – by which I mean « the creation of mutually beneficial bonds »

When we do that we’ll be living on the golden edge.

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World views

When I see a spider web heavily laden with dew in the morning, or after the rain, it’s the sparkling jewel like quality which catches my attention. But when I look more closely I’m transfixed by how every single water droplet acts as a tiny lens.

Whichever lens you look through you see pretty much the same scene. But if I was considering this more carefully I’d realise that each lens is in fact unique. There might only be tiny differences but they are measurable.

However the fact is that the differences are tiny. No matter which little lens you are looking through you are seeing pretty much the same scene.

So this reminds me about three important truths. First, we all perceive and experience the world from our own unique individual subjective perspective. Second, we are all sharing the same world. We don’t live in, or experience, totally separate ones. Third, we are all connected.

Ever since I read about Indra’s web I think of that when I see a be-jewelled web like this, so it’s easy to slip from the pure beauty of the particular web into a universal experience of dissolution into a sense of One-ness.

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