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Archive for the ‘from the viewing room’ Category

twelve-project-day-eight

Day eight of the Twelve project takes me to August 2016 (I’ve selected one image for each month of 2016 and I’m posting one a day for twelve days). The big thing for me in August was my first ever visit to Spain. The Spanish border is just four hours drive from where I live in France so you can leave first thing in the morning and have lunch in Spain. I’m not going to write about that whole trip and all the places I visited here but I’ve selected this one image because it captures one of the main threads of that story.

This photo is taken in the Alhambra in Grenada. If you’ve ever thought of making a “bucket list” of places you want to visit before you die, then I highly recommend putting the Alhambra on that list. It’s best to buy your tickets in advance (here’s the official site for buying them online) and you have to select both the date and the time you want to visit. There are a limited number of tickets for each half hour period of the day to manage the flow of visitors. Here’s the number one tip – buy tickets for the 0830 entrance – its the first entrance of the day before it starts to get too busy and way too hot.

This one photo reminds me of several of the things I loved best about my visit.

The shapes of the windows and doors. There are so many in the Alhambra and Generalife site. You can wander from room to room as you wish, unless you are on an organised tour in which case you have to go with your chosen crowd. I prefer to explore freely. Every room you enter has beautiful, enticing windows and doors. You’re drawn to them, both to look through to see what’s on the other side, and to pause and admire their shape, design and decoration.

The decoration – there are just the most astonishing patterns in the stonework and the plaster everywhere. They reminded me of the Celtic knots and Pictish patterns on the ancient stones in Scotland but they are different from both of those. One glance at them captures you. They are beautiful at that very first look, but then you’re drawn into them, exploring more of the detail and noticing how the patterns both repeat and evolve. If you look at the walls, archways and frames in this photo you won’t see a single area left unadorned. The whole place is like that. Room after room. But look down too under the double window and to the left of it….see the mosaic pattern of the tiles? That’s the other major design feature here, the tiles. There are so many different tiles creating so many different patterns in so many different combinations…..the diversity, the creativity, the workmanship….breathtaking.

Through the double window here you can glimpse a garden and that’s one of the things I loved best about the Alhambra….the courtyards and gardens, with trees, flowers, bushes, fountains, pools, paths and benches. The fact that the windows and doors are all wide open to the outside spaces breaks down the boundaries between the inner and outer parts of the palace.

Light and shade – the shadows, the reflections, the contrasts of light and shade are as varied as the patterns on the tiles and walls. I don’t know if they designed the place to give you that experience of light and shade but I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.

I know there are many, many, beautiful places to visit in the world. Too many for any of us to experience in one lifetime. But despite the crowds the Alhambra made a huge impact on me. A lot of my photography is of Nature  but this was one of the places where it was the unique creativity of human beings which was almost overwhelming.

We humans really can create the most beautiful, varied, delightful world when we work together with focus and determination.

Patience and persistence – I’d say these are two of the skills I learn to practice every day living in the Charente – and those are the very two skills needed to create beauty. Slowing down, paying attention to the details and enjoying every single moment to the full.

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Towards the end of the year we tend to come under the influence of Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, who is usually represented as having two face, one facing back, and one facing forwards. That’s where we get the name of the month “January“. He is also god of gateways, doorways and transitions. As I transition from 2016 into 2017 I decided I’d look back over the twelve months of the year and select one photograph I’d taken for each month. I’d choose on the basis of liking the photograph as an image, but also because that moment in my life was a special moment, a day I want to remember because it was an “ordinary day” where it felt “extraordinary”.

I’ve been living in France for a couple of years now so I thought this would also be an opportunity to share something of my experience of the quality of life I’ve been blessed to find here.

Here’s my moment from January.

I’m living in rural France, in a traditional Charentaise style of house at the end of a short road which becomes a trail through the surrounding vineyards. Having lived in a second floor apartment in Scotland for many years before moving here, living in a house with a garden on the edge of the countryside is a huge change for me.

Maybe on the main differences is how much I notice Nature now. There are a lot of birds around here, and many of them are species I’ve never seen before. I’m learning not just what their names are, but what their French names are too, and I’ve bought a beautiful huge book about the birds which live in this part of France. Sometimes its their movement which catches my eye, the way they fly over the garden, or the way they hop back and forth between the trees, the bushes and the grass. Sometimes its a flash of colour, a splash of blue, or yellow, or red. Sometimes its their song or their call which grabs my attention and I scan the landscape to see who it is who is calling.

I discovered that you can buy bird food in the local garden centre, so I bought a bag of these “fat balls” and hung them from the mulberry tree which had shed all its leaves at this time of year. I found that if I hung the balls from the branches, it was mainly beautiful tits and finches which came and clung on to the netting while pecking away at the food.

Look at him. Isn’t he beautiful? Life astonishes me. Every day. I look at a little creature like this and I’m in awe. I wonder at the diversity of Life, at the emergence of Life in the creation of the Universe. I wonder at the beauty we can see wherever we look. It delights me.

Thank you, little bird, for sharing this part of the world with me.

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I recently rediscovered Charlie Chaplin’s “great dictator speech”. I’ve never seen the full movie but this scene is where the man who looks like the dictator makes a speech to the country and says what he actually thinks (not what the actual dictator thought!)

There are a couple of sections which really stand out for me and seem more relevant now than ever.

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

I believe that. We seem to live in a time of rising hatred and fear, of increasingly divided societies, but is it helpful to generalise so much? To see a world of “us” and “them” rather than a world of richly diverse individuals? There may be individuals who do really want to live by others’ misery, not their happiness, but that’s not been my experience in life. It’s not hard to encounter everyday, simple acts of kindness. But there’s not enough emphasis on that is there?

Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery ,we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.

We humans have created a way of living together based on competition and greed. But aren’t we just as capable, if we so choose, to create a way of living together based on kindness and gentleness?

Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.

You are not machines! You are not cattle!

Well that is right at the heart of the reason why this blog is called Heroes not Zombies. We humans are unique, amazing, fabulous creations. The machine model goes nowhere near an explanation of what we are like. We are not like machines. We are more like “complex adaptive systems“. And by saying “you are not cattle” he means you are not “the group”, “the herd”, “the tribe” even, or any such generalisation. There has never been anyone identical to you, not now, not before and there never will be. Your personal experience of this life is utterly unique. You can’t be reduced to a statistic.

You are a “one off“, not a “one of”, a unique human being, not an example of a “kind”.

I don’t know, but I think it’s worth remembering that these days…..

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I recently came across Rebecca Solnit’s contemplation of the colour blue through the Brainpickings site.

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue. For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

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If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

I got to thinking about a couple of photos I took recently in Spain, one in Grenada and one in Segovia.

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She talks about how artists used the colour blue, and cites the following classical paintings amongst her examples –

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Isn’t the blue of distance in these paintings really beautiful?

Here are another few examples from an old French book which we have at home –

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fields of gold

Fields of gold….this is what they look like where I live. Aren’t they spectacular? And don’t they go so well with a wide blue sky?

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The first year I came to live here I kept driving past them thinking, must stop and take a photo sometime, but, somehow, I always had something more important to do. “I’ll catch them next time I pass by” I thought. But I didn’t. And when finally I decided to make a special trip out to photograph them, they were gone. Or almost. Heads down and turning brown. Just didn’t have the same appeal. So I missed them. Didn’t take long to miss them. It turns out they don’t look like this for very long.

I learned that lesson.

So when this caught my eye recently……

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….I pulled over and took a few photos.

As I stood looking out across the field up to the top of the hill I recalled the scene on the beach at dawn in the movie, “City of Angels”, and I thought, “How amazing that this field of little seeds transforms into a carpet of tall green stalks and leaves, which, one day (or at least it seems to happen in one day), the sun comes up and these glorious golden flowers unfold to greet it, bathing their petals in its rays which warm their rich, abundant crops of seeds.”

Flourishing.

How flower like.

I believe we are here to live like that. To flourish. To reach up, unfold, respond to the sun, the rain, and the wind. To emerge and to engage with a full becoming….becoming the unique and singular creatures which we are, and to express our uniqueness in full awareness of our communion with the rest of nature.

There are terrible stories around just now. Stories of acts of cowardice and killing. How are we to respond to them?

With fear? Closing down? Making our lives smaller?

Or with LIFE? Opening up, living our lives to the full?

Maybe I can learn from the sunflowers. Maybe I can stand up, radiate with the beauty of the life force which surges through me. And flourish.

Let me use that astonishing capacity which I share with all human beings – the ability to make conscious choices.

I choose to relish this moment, this day, this present, because if I put it off, I might miss living altogether.

I choose love instead of hate.

I choose to create instead of destroying.

I choose to be grateful for this “one wild and precious life“.

I choose to share my delight.

 

 

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sundial

A number of things struck me as I looked at this sundial.

The first thing I did was look at my phone to see “what time it is” and my phone said midday. Yet, the sundial said ten o’clock. How come? Is the sun slow today? Or did someone make a mistake when they carved out this sundial? Or has time changed since this sundial was created?

The next thing I noticed was that the sundial starts at 4 am. That’s quite early for France. I know up in Scotland in the summer time it will be light by then but in Paris? Maybe….I don’t know. Perhaps more strangely though, it seems to finish about 3 pm. Surely that wasn’t anywhere near sunset, even centuries ago! So there must be a reason they didn’t think it useful to measure time after three in the afternoon. Or was it just that the sun didn’t cast any shadows on this particular sundial after that time in the afternoon..?

Henri Bergson, the philosopher, wrote a lot about time and he mentions two kinds of time – measured and experienced. I hadn’t thought about time that way until I read him. But it’s true, we humans haven’t always measured time. With our sundials, our clocks and watches, we divide everyday life into pieces, naming the pieces as hours, minutes or seconds, and counting them. But this is completely man-made. It’s totally artificial.

In reality time passes, not in discrete pieces, but as a continuous flow. This chopping it up into bits is a human invention. I’m not saying it hasn’t been useful to do that, but it’s just a bit of a surprise when you suddenly realise that. We could have agreed to chop it up differently. Couldn’t we? Have you ever thought about that?

I saw a watch for sale the other day. It was called a “slow watch”, not because it ran slowly but because the face had 24 hours on it and it only had one hand which moved slowly from hour to hour. Maybe that’s not so different from this medieval sundial!

Bergson talked about experienced time as “duration” – we experience time passing, but we don’t experience it passing in a steady, consistent of constant way do we? Sometimes “time flies past” and sometimes “it drags”.

Csikszentmihalyi, describes “flow” as being a particular experience of time. I love his description of that. Here’s his TED talk about it –

 

So how do you experience time?

Might be fun to stop and think about that a few times over the next few days and see just how differently we experience, or make, time in our own lives.

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FRANCE CAVE DRAWINGS

Part of Lascaux famed cave drawings are photographed in southwest France, during a rare visit, Friday, July 25, 2008. Clusters of black fungus have been spreading over the drawings said scientists in 2007. The stains were the latest biological threat to the Lascaux cave drawings, which were discovered in 1940 and are considered one of the finest examples of prehistoric art. Carbon-dating suggests the murals of bulls, felines and other images were created between 15,000 and 17,500 years ago in the caves near Montignac, in the Dordogne region. In 1963, after green algae and other damage appeared, the caves were closed to the public. Only scientists and a few others are allowed to enter at certain times. (AP Photo/Pierre Andrieu, Pool)

I recently visited the Lascaux caves which are about a three hour drive from where I’m living now. I’d heard of them but I hadn’t realised they were as close as this.

You’ll see from that photo above, which isn’t mine, that the incredible wall art in the caves was deteriorating quickly due to the effects of fungi and carbon dioxide brought in by visiting tourists, so the government closed the caves to preserve them and did something astonishing.

They built an exact replica of part of the cave network, faithful down to 5mm, using teams of artists to recreate the artwork using the same kinds of pigments used by the original artists on artificial cave walls.

The caves were discovered in 1940 when a group of boys were exploring a forest. A storm had blown down some trees and one of the fallen trees had opened up a hole in the ground under its roots. Their dog disappeared down the hole so they went after it, quickly realising it was a tunnel into caves. After retrieving their dog, they went back home and got lamps, returning to squeeze along the dark tunnel until it opened up into a cave. Can you imagine how astonished they were when the light from their flames lit up the huge paintings of bulls, bison, cows, horses and deer which covered the walls and ceiling of the cave?

There was a lot more down there than what the boys found in the first cave. The paintings are thought to have been created up to 18,000 years ago and had remained, perfectly preserved, once the cave network was sealed off by the forest.

Lots of questions immediately spring to mind – how did they manage to paint such life-like depictions of animals under the ground in the darkness using just small lamps for light? They covered not only the walls but the ceilings. How did they get up there? They used the contours of the cave walls to make their paintings seem three dimensional. How did they have the imagination and the skill to do that? And WHY? Why did they put so much time and effort into the creation of this fabulous art?

It didn’t take long before the effects of thousands of visitors started to degrade the art work so the government sealed it off and created Lascaux 2, a replica. If you click through on that link you’ll go to an interactive tour of the re-creation.

So, I went down the stone steps with a couple of dozen other visitors and a guide. In the ante-room after the great doors were pulled closed, our eyes adjusted to the low level of light and the guide talked us through the story of the discovery of the Lascaux caves and the creation of Lascaux 2. Then he opened the far doors and we all squeezed down a narrow passageway between rough walls of rock. The passageway opened up into the Hall of the Bulls, so called because of the four, almost life size paintings of bulls which completely cover the ceiling of the cave.

He switched off the lights and lit a cigarette lighter. As the small, single flame cast its faint light up onto the walls and ceiling you could swear the animals were moving. It was quite cold down there and without artificial light it would be pitch dark.

We spend the best part of an hour exploring the cave and hearing about the different paintings.

So, you’re thinking. You just visited a replica? How did that feel?

You know what? It was magical. I thought it might be a bit Disney-like, but it wasn’t. You know what it was like? It was like standing in the middle of an art installation. That’s exactly what the replica is. It’s a work of art designed to communicate to you something of the experience of the artists. And that’s what this replica represents, isn’t it? A work of art. Created by unknown artists almost 18,000 years ago….

So there it is…one work of art, touching the viewer, stirring some kind of feelings which the artists had after they’d been inspired in a similar way by other artists, long gone, who left these astonishing creations.

Here’s my final thought. Isn’t it just wonderful that we humans create art? Not for a sum of money, fame, or some utility, but to…..what? Interpret our world? Interact with our world? Make sense of our world? Express ourselves, just because we can?

 

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