Archive for January, 2022

This is my last photo from a January. This one taken over a decade ago. What caught my eye at the time was the cracking of the soil. In mid winter I didn’t expect to see such dry ground, so I took the photo.

However I look at the photo again today and I notice the little green plant in the bottom right hand corner. My attention has shifted.

Perhaps this is because I watched David Attenborough’s Green Planet last night which focused on plants which grow in deserts.

Yet again he revealed the most astonishing reality of Nature. Even what appears to be acres of sand devoid of life is not empty at all. Along comes a rain for the first time in twenty years and up spring a host of flowers. It’s truly amazing.

What I realised watching that episode and looking again at this photo is that we really do live in a living planet. There is life everywhere, sometimes in a dormant phase, but even in the most inhospitable looking environments there is life.

Where there is life, there is hope. Hope of survival, hope of recovery, hope of resilience, hope of growth and flourishing.

That’s something to celebrate. And to remember.

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The near pavilion

Winter time for me in Scotland was a time for walking in the dark. When I lived in Stirling and worked in Glasgow I commuted daily by train. Getting to the train station from home involved a 30+ minute walk, and in Scotland the winter days are short, so I’d set off in the dark and I’d return home in the dark.

My morning walk took me past Kings Park, a park I knew well having grown up not far from it. In the early hours of a January day I could see nothing of the park from the road. But I knew that, at one point, I passed the tennis courts and their club pavilion.

On one particular morning there were lights on at the pavilion. I took this photo. I love this. The pool of light is very limited so what you can see of the pavilion is also very limited. It’s as if it was floating in an inky black world.

Maybe it’s just the way my mind works but I immediately thought of two novels – The Far Pavilions by M M Kaye, and An Artist of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Of course the worlds described in those two books are very, very different from the one where I walk past Kings Park on a dark January morning, but that just enriched my experience of that day’s commute.

Does that happen to you? Does a particular place or view conjure up certain novels for you?

I love that human characteristic where perception mingles with memory and imagination and adds layer upon layer to an ordinary moment in an ordinary day…..l’émerveillement du quotidien.

How often, it seems, it’s we who conjure up the wonder in the everyday.

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Making and choosing paths

I have a lot of photographs of paths. And every one of them is unique. I especially like the paths which weave through forests and knowing, from Japanese research, that forest walks boost your body’s natural defences is just a bonus. I’d enjoy a forest walk even if it didn’t do that!

There’s something about turning your attention to the path which heightens your awareness of the here and now…..a bit like turning your attention to your breath, or to your feet whilst practising mindful walking.

In some ways paths are like rivers….the path is both the ground you walk on and at the same time it’s borders, or banks. The edges of the path are an important part of the path itself.

The garden of the house I’ve just bought is wild. It’s had minimal attention for many years so I’m going to have to spend some time reclaiming parts of it from thickets of brambles, vines, creepers and overgrown bushes. It’s not all like that I should add but a big enough part. I have a notion to create a bit of a forest garden there but, first of all, a bit of taming and path creation.

I guess most of the time in Life we follow paths already laid by others so there’s something special about starting out to make a path where none exists.

Any tips or suggestions?

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Yesterday I shared a January view from my old apartment. It was very foggy that day, which made the image very atmospheric but hid the mountains. Here’s another view from the same window. This time without fog, and with the sun turning the snow pink.

My views from a top floor window across to Ben Ledi always reminded me of one of the teachings of classical philosophy – the view from on high.

This teaching is sometimes described in terms of climbing a hill and looking down over the whole valley below, or by imagining a flight into space and looking back at the Earth.

It’s the perspective which lets you see a bigger picture. It enables you to be more aware of the contexts and environments.

It’s also the way to see a moment in time within the flow of a longer period (perhaps leading to that other classic teaching – “this too shall pass”)

This is, actually, our natural, first perspective. We begin with an awareness of the whole, and only after that abstract elements, or narrow our focus to reduce the amount of information we want to consider.

Think about that. Reductionism, looking at parts, is not our primary view and doesn’t reveal reality. Reality is whole. It exists invariably intertwined with layers and layers of connections, contexts and environments.

Holistic understanding is our natural default but our culture promotes disconnected views of reality – short term and partial. Maybe that’s why it keeps failing.

I believe our future will be secured by reclaiming our ability to see connections, to take a longer time perspective and by taking the view from on high.

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Winter distancing

We’ve had one of the coldest Januarys I can remember here in South West France. In the seven years I’ve been here I can only remember the odd frosty morning but this year it’s been minus a couple of degrees centigrade every morning for pretty much the whole of January.

Along with the frosty mornings sometimes we have a freezing fog which just lolls over the countryside all day long. It was like that yesterday and, so far, it’s the same today.

So it seems appropriate that as I browse photos from Januarys gone by, I come across this one. This is a photo I took from the window of the place where I lived for many years before emigrating. We lived on the top floor of a nineteenth century converted carpet mill. The flat had big arched windows and we looked out across the Carse of Stirling towards Ben Ledi and the mountains to the north. It was a view which changed every day.

This particular winter the snow fell and stayed on the ground for many weeks. There’s a real beauty in a snowscape and I think the mist adds to the atmosphere, to the feel, of this image.

This is the kind of scene I associate with winter. But the reality is most days winter is not like this, not in southern France, and not even in Central Scotland.

Our minds work this way though, don’t they? A particularly impressive scene becomes the marker, or representative of, a larger period or area. It’s only when we stand back, or apart, that we see the “bigger picture”, allowing us to be more aware of the uniqueness of whatever is right in front of us, here and now.

That’s our super power – our ability to put a little distance between ourselves and our experience so we can see both the particular and the whole.

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Yesterday was celebrated in Scotland (and in many other countries) as Burns Night. Here’s a photo I took of a statue of Robert Burns. This particular statue is in Stirling so it’s the one I walked by most frequently in my life.

I’ve often reflected on the fact that one of the statues in my home town is of a poet. Do you have any statues of poets in the town where you live?

It’s common in France to find statues of poets and writers, which, I think, adds to the sense that literature in general is an important part of French culture.

The other statue of a poet which comes to my mind is that of Lorca, in Madrid.

But I’m sure there will be some commemorated poets you’ve encountered in your travels.

How often do you read poetry? I hope it’s not just once a year! Do you collect your favourite poems anywhere? I gather mine in a beautiful notebook, and I described that here. I recommend that. Taking time to copy out a poem by hand allows you to spend more time with it, to relish it. And having your own personally curated collection allows you to find your favourite poems again quickly.

Did you watch “Afterlife” on Netflix? I don’t think it’s for everyone. The appallingly bad language will put many people off and it’s been criticised for being unnecessarily crude, and I think those two factors will be insurmountable barriers for some viewers. However, I enjoyed it, found it deeply moving in place and challengingly thought provoking. At the end of series 3, Lisa records a video message for Tony to see after she dies, and, in it, she recites the famous poem, “Do not stand at my grave and weep”.

Honestly, it’s devastating! But if you want to experience the power of poetry I recommend it. Here’s the clip….(have a box of tissues handy)

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Human impact

Taken at the same time as yesterday’s photo, here’s another staircase down the side of the dam.

What strikes me so powerfully about this image is the contrast between natural and built environments. The central element in this photo is the concrete stairway with the zigzag shadow of the iron handrail giving it the appearance of a giant zip!

To either side of the staircase we see the growth of a diverse, seemingly random number of plants, from flowers to substantial bushes. I’m guessing nobody planted any of this.

The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The human creation is full of straight lines, looks rigid and fixed. There isn’t the slightest doubt that either the staircase or the wall of the dam have been placed there. They didn’t grow and they won’t grow. In fact, we know that over time they will degenerate, break down and crumble.

Nature, or Life, on the other hand thrives by grasping opportunities and adapting. That vegetation you can see will most likely grow and spread if left to its own devices.

This world we live in offers up the possibilities of life. It supports and promotes survival, growth and thriving.

Don’t we, the human species, need to get on board with that project and pour our energies and creativity into supporting sustainable life on Earth?

You don’t have to look far to see the effects of industrialisation and capitalism on the planet…..the combination of consumption and destruction is an ugly one. Abandoned mines, polluted lakes and rivers, plastic infested oceans…..it’s quite a tally.

We can do better than this I’m sure by turning our focus towards care and beauty, and away from short term greed and long term ugliness.

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Stairway to…..

I took this photo at a reservoir in the south of France one January and looking at it again today I thought of the title “stairway to the deeps” because as I contemplated the image my gaze moved down the steps into the water.

I must say this pandemic has, at times, felt like a descent to the depths. It’s felt like being submerged, surrounded by uncertainty, living with threats and restrictions, a slide down into obscurity. It can still feel like that.

However every staircase exists to enable travel in two directions, so you can look at this the other way and see an emergence. It’s possible to see those dimly visible steps as the first glimpse of improvement. Soon we will climb up and step clear of the waters.

It’s also easy to see this image as a metaphor…a stairway connecting our unconscious to our conscious mind.

What with all the social distancing there’s been a lot of isolation which has produced both periods of sadness but also, for many, opportunities to reflect and reconsider values and goals. For some that’s thrown them into higher level states of anxiety or chronic despair, but, hopefully the re-evaluations are leading to some positive life changes – changes in work patterns, changes to where someone lives (I’m thinking here of how many have not gone back to the jobs they had, how many have sold their city dwellings to go live in smaller towns or in the country, and so on)

The truth is polarities and opposites are at the heart of reality. Life is never “only this” or “only that”.

We’re up and down that bloody staircase a million times a day! Or so it can seem.

Well Life is movement. That’s it’s nature. And every descent will be accompanied by an ascent. Which brings me to my final point. The staircase itself is beautiful and it’s the moving up and down that is our everyday life.

I guess we’re all trying to find a rhythm that works for each of us.

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The power of myth

I came across this group of photos today. Each is a unicorn picture taken in and around Stirling Castle several years ago, one January.

It got me wondering again about the place of myth, and particularly, mythical creatures, in culture and society. A quick browse online reveals that only a tiny handful of countries have mythical creatures as emblematic. The vast majority of countries have adopted real animals in this role. The other thing that struck me was that Wales also has a mythical creature – the dragon. But England goes for a lion. Two Celtic nations, two mythical creatures.

There are two series of unicorn tapestries that I’ve seen. One in Stirling Castle, and the other in the Cluny in Paris. I love them both. They are immense works of art and overflowing with symbolic creatures and plants.

If you ask French people what they think of when they think of Scotland the commonest answer, I find, is “castles and ghosts”. Oh, and “mists and mountains”. All four of these, it seems to me, spark the imagination.

Is this why I love stories so much?

Is this why I have such a strong belief in not just the power, but the importance, of imagination in life?

Symbols, myths, legends, stories, art, poetry, music and dance…..such essentially human characteristics and activities. Sometimes I think we need to reclaim that place for imagination, expression and creativity in our societies.

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Looking at water

One of my most favourite activities is looking at water! Maybe you share that fascination and delight?

This first photo is from the Bracklinn Falls that I told you about. There’s a beautiful bridge over these falls and you often see people standing on the bridge, mesmerised by the sight and the sound of the tumbling waters.

I think when you allow yourself to be captured by the sight of water, you slow down and start to notice more…more colours, more shapes, more ever changing flow and movement.

I know a still photograph doesn’t do justice to the experience but look at how many colours there are in that image! So many more than we see “at first glance”.

This second photo is the Mediterranean. Again, see the colours! What a palette! Standing at the edge of a sea or an ocean is just as mesmerising, just as enchanting, just as meditative, as watching water in a waterfall.

This third photo is the River Forth in the town of my birth, Stirling, with the Wallace Monument in the background. Rivers are especially fascinating, not least because, as Herodotus said

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man

Isn’t it kind of mind boggling to think of a river as a “thing”, to give “it” a name, like we name cats, dogs, people we know? Because what exactly is this river we name? The water in it, which is never the same water, minute by minute? The banks, which change over days, weeks and years? When you look at the River Forth from Stirling Castle you see an astonishing trail of winding, looping water – loops which change over time? Is the river named because we can trace its origin in the hills and its destination in the sea?

Whatever we think a river, it’s clear “it” isn’t a fixed “thing” at all…..and that’s what I find fascinating about water. It’s always changing, always “becoming not being”.

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