Archive for April, 2023

Telling the world

As I had lunch outside one day this week, I heard a loud birdsong and looked up to see this swallow perched on the tv aerial.

He’s been there every day since, singing his heart out, broadcasting his presence, celebrating his existence, telling everyone his one unique story.

I don’t speak swallow but from what I know about these birds there’s a good chance he’s been down in Africa all winter and has flown over the desert, across Morocco and the Straights of Gibraltar, up through Eastern Spain to finally come back to this garden, here, in the Charente Maritime, a garden he left last autumn.

I find this both delightful and astonishing. That this little creature can make its way thousands of miles to Africa and back to the exact same garden amazes me. Of course, I don’t know if this particular bird, singing today from my rooftop, is one of the ones which swooped over this garden last summer, but I believe a good percentage of these birds do exactly that, returning to the same place, so there’s every chance he’s been here before.

Nearby, at the same time, I hear the call of a Hoopoe, yet another bird to make this annual journey of migration.

These returning birds put me in touch with deep natural rhythms and remind me that the everyday really is full of moments of wonder and awe.

This weekend I’m in Stirling, Scotland, for a family gathering to celebrate the 90th birthday of my mother in law. It’s a brief visit, just for the weekend, but I, too, have migrated from one part of this planet to another. I, too, return, periodically to the place of my birth.

I’m not perched up on a tv aerial but I am here singing my own unique song, telling my particular story with these, my relatives, my children and all my grandchildren.

That, too, delights and amazes me.

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Living gardening

Some time last year, I don’t remember exactly when, while visiting family back in Scotland, I went to one of my most favourite places in the world … The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. At one stage in my life, during my student years, I lived only a few minutes walk from “the Botanics”, and went there at least once a week. Occasionally I took along a book to sit and study in the quiet surrounded by trees and shrubs.

When I visited this time, we had a little browse of the shop at the entrance gate and I spied a little packet of about twenty bluebell bulbs. Well, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for bluebell woods and so I thought, I’ll plant these back in France and start my own bluebell wood.

Part of the long neglected garden which came with the house we bought here in the Charente Maritime just over a year ago was so wild it was a dense thicket of thorns, creepers and saplings. I made some inroads into it over the year, and when it came to bulb planting time I popped the little bluebell bulbs into an area at the edge of the trees.

Well, Spring came, and up came a flourish of daffodils and tulips, but no sign of any bluebells. I hadn’t been organised enough to put labels next to where I’d planted the bulbs and only had a rough idea of the area I’d planted them in. But, nope, no sign of a single one.

I’ve learned by now that gardening is a bit like that. You can prepare the ground, plant bulbs, sow seeds, put in some actual plants, but which will survive, which will thrive, and which will disappear? You don’t know. Nobody does.

Oh well, I thought, I’ll get some more next time and try again.

However, a couple of months on and, surprise, surprise, looks what’s popped up! Some bluebells! And they’re looking pretty healthy! What a delight!

Gardening teaches you to accept uncertainty and to learn that nature isn’t under your control, but with attention, care and patience, you can create an immediate, present environment to live in which will delight and surprise you.

Many years ago I was a GP in Edinburgh at the outset of AIDS. We didn’t know what it was at first, but it spread pretty quickly in Edinburgh. There weren’t any good treatments at first and I remember one particular patient who’d just received his diagnosis. I asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life (knowing we were talking months, probably not years) and one of the things he said was “I’m going to create a garden”. We talked about it for a while. There was a garden where he lived but he hadn’t touched it since moving in, and now, he said, he’d create a garden which was an expression of his preferences and values, and the people who he knew and loved would see it as a continuation of his existence after he had gone.

I’ve always remembered that conversation and I think lots of people have a similar idea. We have the opportunity to plant, encourage, care for and nurture, a small patch of this Earth, and often it can indeed become part of our legacy as well as our way of living the little life we have.

As I look at these first bluebells I think of “the Botanics”, the many memories from there. I think of Scotland and of woods and forests. Just a few little flowers reinforce my sense of a life lived, and give me a vision of a future which will stretch far beyond my single lifetime.

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The medium

In the natural spring across the road from my house the water is crystal clear. During the summer drought the level dropped so it wasn’t pouring into the old Roman aqueduct for a while, but mostly it’s high enough to spill over the edge all the time.

There are plants which grow under the water in the pool. All year long. Sometimes they reach the surface and spread across it, but mostly they seem content to survive and thrive below. You can see them so clearly.

As I was contemplating this scene I thought of the old saying that fish are not aware of the medium they are swimming in. I must say I don’t know if that’s true. They may be acutely aware of it, able to detect all kinds of differences within it which we can’t see. Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s either not there, or it’s irrelevant.

A big study of drinking water quality in France was reported this week and it showed that over half the samples, taken from all round the country, revealed traces of a dangerous fungicide, one which was banned a few years ago, showing us how long these chemical pollutants can hang around. In fact, several chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they never seem to disappear. The study also revealed around 157 different pesticides in the water. Truly, we have dumped, and continue to dump, an awful lot of potentially harmful stuff into our water.

But then we do the same with the air, and with the soil.

How aware are we of these pollutants? Not very. We don’t look for them very much. How aware are we of the effects they might have in our health and the health of our loved ones? Not very. We don’t really know. Typically we know many of these chemicals are toxic when taken in large amounts but we are really not good at the lire joined up thinking kind of research – we find it harder to show cause and effect when substances are around in lower levels over longer periods, and we are very, very bad at discovering the effects of multiple substances present concurrently – the so called “cocktail effect”.

Maybe as technology and knowledge increase we’ll learn to solve those problems and demonstrate the real world effects of the complex chemical cocktails which are present in all our water, all our air, and all our soil.

Meanwhile, maybe it’s a good idea to try a bit harder to prevent all kinds of pollution in the first place. Like the water in the “source”, that seems clear to me.

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If you’re familiar with some of the posts on my blog here, you’ll probably know that just across the road from where I live there’s a Roman Spring. In French, it’s called “la source”, and I’m pretty keen on that word.

I often go across and spend some time there. Last summer we had a long and pretty severe drought and the water stopped overflowing from the pool into the aqueduct, but after a particularly wet start to the year, it’s flowing abundantly again.

Look at this photo I took of the water as it pours over into the aqueduct. Look down at the bottom left of the image. I’m fascinated by the shape of the water there. As water pours over a ledge like this it often takes the shape of continuous sheet, so it looks a bit like a textile, a piece of material. But in this instance that sheet has curled up at the edge so you can see the water rise up from the ground, curve round, then dive back down to disappear over the stone.

In fact, if you look closely you’ll see parallel lines, or ridges, in that curl.

Isn’t this just amazing? How these millions of water molecules flow together to create temporary, but quite elaborate, shapes, appearing almost like objects you could reach out to, and gather up.

I can’t help but think of how much a delusion it is to see reality as a construction built from separate fixed objects. How reality is in fact a constant flow of interacting forces which give the appearance of stuff which can be grasped, held, and stored.

Nothing is permanent. Nothing is separate. Nothing is fixed.

And one more thing….what utter beauty emerges from the creative interactions of natural forces.

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