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Archive for the ‘life’ Category

As I was driving into Cognac early in the morning I noticed this ribbon of low mist lying on the fields just in front of the vines.

I pulled over and took a couple of photos.

When I look at them again I’m drawn into the flow of wonder, to awe, to transcendence.

I begin by wondering how the air is full of water even when the sky is blue and there’s no hint of dampness to feel. How this invisible water condenses to become visible and lies along the face of the earth for a short while before evaporating back into the invisibility of the air.

I find that amazing.

I’m reminded of the writings of the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, who described how what we see as solid substance looks as if it is made of molecules when you look closer with a microscope, how those molecules look like separate atoms joined together once you examine them even more closely. How, with the ability to look inside atoms, once considered “indivisible”, the fundamental building blocks of reality, we discovered many other smaller “particles”, right down to protons, electrons, neutrons, which, in turn seemed to be made up of even smaller “quarks”. But that now we can see even closer and what we see is……nothing. What we see are waves and particles shimmering and sparkling into, and out of, existence.

That fills me with awe.

That provokes the sense that reality is all One, that the so called boundaries and barriers are artificial, transient, insubstantial, and in that moment I feel a dissolving of the Self, a feeling of One-ness with the Universe, a moment of transcendence.

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When I looked out of my window the other day I saw a butterfly sunning itself on the wall. I carefully took my phone out of my pocket and photographed it through the glass. Then I opened the window carefully to try for a better shot, and the butterfly flew off. Gone.

So, here’s the photo I took. It’s not going to win any wildlife photographer of the year awards but look carefully…..you can see the shadows of the butterfly’s antennae.

Isn’t that amazing?

Maybe I’ve seen this before but as far as I can remember this is the first time in my life that I’ve seen the shadows of a butterfly’s antennae.

I’m struck by the sense of delicacy and fragility in this image. A butterfly’s life is not a long one, but a butterfly’s shadow is even shorter! A cloud just has to pass over the sun and the shadow has gone. The butterfly just has to do what butterflies do….flit off somewhere else….and it’s gone.

This sense of impermanence coupled with the delicacy of the tiny slim antennae of the small fragile butterfly combine to make this a very special moment.

It’s one of those intense fleeting experiences of “first and last”. It’s the first time I’ve seen this, and could be the last – both in general terms, and, of course, this is the one and only opportunity to see this specific, this unique butterfly in this particular place at this particular time.

Life if full of these moments. If only we can be aware of them.

Here’s something else I think about this…..in the midst of all this impermanency,  all this transience, all this fragility, I see the vibrant, colourful, intense flow of LIFE – the LIFE that flows through every living creature, every moment of every day. The Life Force. The “green fuse that drives the flower”. Spinoza’s “conatus” – by which he meant the “striving to survive” which separates the living from the inanimate.

It never fails to astonish me. It never fails to stimulate my sense of wonder, of marvel, of “émerveillement du quotidien“.

Life is full of these moments. If only we can slow down and pay attention to them.

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Here’s this year’s crop of pumpkins from the “potager” (veggie garden).

We don’t have a big plot and having lived in a top floor apartment for almost 20 years before emigrating from Scotland to France, we are pretty much beginner gardeners. I love it though.

Last year we planted seeds of several different pumpkin varieties and really come harvest time we had way too much! Still got some roasted pumpkin purée in the freezer for this coming winter’s soup. So, this year we decided to cut way back and planted just three. The butternut squash you can see on the left there, the pretty little orange ones, and that pale green one. (I’m afraid I’m still terrible with names. I could find out if you asked me, but I tend not to bother getting to know their names)

But wait, I hear you say, what about the big guy?! The one in the front with the nobbly bits on! Well, he grew all by himself.

I learned how to turn grass cuttings and garden waste into compost and have been spreading it on the veggie patch each year for about three years now. Last year we read about the “No dig” method of gardening, so took that advice and just spread the compost thickly over the surface of the plot last winter.

Well, clearly there was a pumpkin seed in there, cos this plant began to grow. And it grew, and it grew and it grew! Huge thick green prickly stems, miles of thin, tightly spiralled creepers which caught onto to anything they could reach, and it spread along one side of the patch, turned down a second side, then along a third side, before heading back to its origin. All the time winding itself into the tomato plants, the courgettes, and anything else that was growing there. But despite all this green growth, and believe me there was a LOT of it, it produced just one gourd.

But what a gourd! Look at it! It’s the biggest of the lot!

So, it seems, the garden is better at producing it’s own crops than I am at managing it! Who knew??

I think that’s one of the things I like best about the garden – the surprises, the number of times it makes me wonder, stirs up feelings of awe, and fills me with joy! Then fills me with the tastiest vegetables I’ve ever eaten. Seriously who knew tomatoes could be so varied and tasty? That cucumber was so refreshing and delicious, that radishes were so SPICY! I could go on…….but I won’t!

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See this large rock just above the harbour in Biarritz? How does the sea make it to the shore when this rock is in the way?

The most obvious way is to go around it.

And that’s what most of the water does. It makes it way towards the shore, and back out to sea again by breaking against the rock and flowing around each side of it.

That’s one way to deal with an obstacle, with something standing in your way…..find a way around it.

But, wait, look at this…..

…the water has found another way as well.

It goes THROUGH the rock!

I suspect this has taken a very, very long time for wave after wave to make its way through a small crack in the rock, widening the gap slightly every time it passes through. But look at it now. Sometimes when a more substantial wave hits the far side of the rock it flows directly through the gap. Doesn’t happen every time. Just when the waves are big enough.

So, there’s the other solution. Keep going. Keep pushing up against the obstacle, looking for a gap, an opportunity, a way through, and once you find it, come back again and again. Each time, it’ll get easier. Each time the gap will get wider, the way will become broader.

Something else…..this is just beautiful to watch. Mesmerising even. Over the course of a few minutes you can see how the rock and the sea sculpt each other. It’s a delightful relationship.

Oh, and something else……Michel Serres, a French philosopher who died recently, used to describe human beings as “anticipation creatures”. I recently listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Onbeing, where the science journalist, Erik Vance, talked about “the drugs inside our head”. He was discussing the poorly understood but fundamentally important phenomenon known as the “placebo effect”, and one thing he said was that our brains are “prediction machines” (well, I hate the metaphor of “machine” applied to living organisms, but you get the point…).

Both Serres and Vance are talking about our incredible ability to spot patterns, so that we can predict the future. OK, not too far into the future, and not with 100% accuracy, but we don’t just notice the world, we anticipate it.

As I stood watching this phenomenon of the white surf gushing out of the mouth in the rock, I was quickly captured by the experience of anticipation, watching the swells on the surface of sea further out, trying to predict which would turn into waves big enough to pour through the rock.

It was hard to stop.

It was delightful.

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“And not Or” is one of my favourite principles. It’s the basis of integration, synthesis and creative evolution. “And not Or” deals with paradoxes and opposites, not by eliminating one of them, but by relating the one to the other.

I took the photo above in the Santa Clara convent in Tordesillas. The building is one of those many examples you can find in Spain where a sacred space created by one religious group is taken over by another one, but instead of destroying the previous architectural and artistic features, the new group adds their own.

What you see today is the result of centuries of art and belief, creating something quite unique, something which has a narrative quality. You can read the story of the place and the cultures into the what we can see now.

There are obvious Islamic art motifs and designs in this panel (although, as a Scot, I’m always reminded of Celtic designs when I see these looping, intertwining designs in Islamic art). I’ve seen that kind of art a lot. But in this particular panel there are three creatures in the central strip. That’s very, very unusual for Islamic art, and the guide book tells me they are “medieval” or “gothic”. They are a really odd group of creatures, each one a “chimera”, an imaginary creature which has body of parts of completely different creatures. In the middle is a mermaid, on the right a centaur, and on the left, well, I don’t know what you call this sort of chimera, but it’s a human-lion hybrid. Chimera are particularly strange examples of “And not OR”!

Throughout the Santa Clara convent there are very strong elements of Islamic, Catholic and Gothic imagery and design. It can be jarring in place, and it can be quite sublime in others. I’m not sure what makes the difference. The main chapel has an astonishing gold ceiling of elaborate “mocarabes” design, with an enormous altarpiece of Mary, several saints and other biblical figures facing you as you enter. There are ceiling to floor drapes of deep red cloth covering the rest of the walls. I must say, on seeing the red cloth hangings I was instantly reminded of the scene towards the end of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” where Agent Cooper has a very disturbing dream!

The synthesis, or evolution of the building through different cultures and religions also reminded me of the Santa Maria La Blanca church in Toledo. Here’s a photo of took there a few years ago…

This synagogue was built with muslim architects and was later turned into a church. Now, that must be pretty unusual. It’s a remarkable space, produced, surely, according to the same principle of “And not Or”.

The main reason I’m attracted to “And not Or” is that it is creative. It builds, develops and evolves through the relationships between the past, the present and the future.

“Or” divides. It sets apart and, all too frequently, opposes. It seems to me we have way too much of that in the world nowadays – “us or them”, “immigrants or nationals”, “Leavers or Remainers” (Brexit), “Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump” – fill in your own pairs of divided groups here!

I don’t think these divisions are healthy. We all share this one small planet, all emerge from the same astonishing Universe Story. Cooperation is at the heart of evolution. Yes, competition exists too, but it’s rather over-emphasised in human history. Without the cooperation of atoms, molecules, cells, organs, systems, organisms and environments, none of us would exist.

So maybe it’s time to tip the scales a bit, and give more energy to cooperation than competition.

“And not Or”

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We humans are pretty good at making maps. We do it all the time. Dr Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, describes the three commonest maps we make in the frontal cortex of the brain – a “me” map, a “you” map, and a “we” map. You might wonder about the use of the term “map” there, arguing that we create “images” rather than maps, but let’s not get bogged down on that one. I like both terms (one of my favourite principles in life is “and not or” – 🙂 )

The thing about a map is that it shows contexts and connections. It shows us where we are, where we might want to go, and helps us to imagine how to get there.

I was in Tordesillas, in Northern Spain, recently and visited the “Treaty House” which displays a number of ancient maps. Here’s one set which particularly grabbed my attention.

It’s a set of panels describing the known world at the time – the world of the “Occident” followed by a set describing the unknown world – the world of the “Orient”. Take a look –

In this first section you can clearly make out Britain (although Scotland hasn’t really become known yet!) and you can see the areas we now call Portugal, Spain, France, Scandinavia and so on.

The next one extends the first one to show Italy, Greece, Turkey, “The Middle East” and also more of the North African coastal countries.

For a medieval map it’s surprisingly accurate. It might even have helped people to find their way from one place to another.

But then check out these two panels of the “unknown”, “Orient” –

At first there are elements we recognise – The Nile, The Caspian Sea, but the further East we go, the more the map becomes an expression of a creative imagination.

Isn’t that fascinating?

I’ve never thought of mapping out what I don’t know before. After all, where would I stop? The older I get, the more I realise how much I don’t know – how much WE (we humans) don’t know. But it might be a fun idea, don’t you think? To sketch out some maps of the unknown…..

The personal maps of “me”, “you” and “we” are constantly being updated, constantly evolving, and we create them from both what we know, and what we don’t know…..from our memories, our present day experiences, and our imaginations.

Map making turns out to be a dynamic and fundamental ability. I wonder how aware we are, on a day to day basis, of the maps we have made, the maps we are making, and the influence they have on our lives.

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Sometimes we stumble across patterns which catch our attention. I think we humans have a tremendous ability to spot patterns. We see them in clouds, on pebbles, cliff faces, well, pretty much everywhere. Here are some on a single tree.

That first one looks like an owl to me. The next one looks like an angel.

And the third one, looks like one of those ancient Chinese drawings of mountains.

I suppose what we see is influenced by what we’re already familiar with, and I suspect it’s influenced by a host of other factors too.

But what particularly delights me about these serendipitous discoveries is that seem a kind of art. Not the kind of art a human being makes with a brush, or a pencil, or even a musical instrument, but the kind of art which we make by noticing. It’s the weaving of perception, memory and imagination, and it has the power to delight, to astonish, to move…..as all art can do.

It’s also an incredibly collaborative form of art. It’s the tree, the rock, the shell, the cloud, forming in constant interaction with its environment over time, coupled with the human perceiver.

Would it be art if no human noticed it?

I wonder.

That’s a bit like the old “does a tree falling in a forest make a noise if there’s nobody there to hear it”, isn’t it?

Well, it seems to me that this particular kind of “found art” is like seeing a rainbow. It wouldn’t exist without the observer.

I don’t want to wander too far down a philosophical road here….I just want to share a moment or two of delight. Enjoy!

 

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