Archive for the ‘narrative’ Category

Irises are the most astonishingly beautiful and attractive flowers. Whenever I see them I think of the story ‘Iris’ by Herman Hesse where he wrote this –

He had a great love for this flower and peering into it was his favourite pastime; sometimes he saw the delicate upright yellow members as a golden fence in a king’s garden, sometimes as a double row of beautiful dream trees untouched by any breeze, and between them, bright and interlaced with living veins as delicate as glass, ran the mysterious path to the interior. There at the back the cavern yawned hugely and the path between the golden trees lost itself infinitely deep in the unimaginable abysses, the violet vault arched royally above it and cast thin, magic shadows on the silent, expectant marvel. Anselm knew that this was the flower’s mouth, that behind the luxuriant yellow finery in the blue abyss lived her heart and thoughts, and that along this lovely shining path with its glassy veins her breath and dreams flowed to and fro.

oh, I loved that the first time I read it and it’s stayed with me for over forty years now.

Iris, in Greek mythology, was the messenger of the gods. Her symbol was the rainbow, which in many cultures is the symbol of hope. But her main role was in carrying messages from one to another. She connected the sea to the sky. She was a bridge builder (not literally but in terms of making connections).

When I thought of her role in facilitating connections I thought of flow, of the to and fro of communication and I thought how much do we need that now? In a time where politics has become more about hate than love, where there are calls for more walls when we need more bridges, when there are demands to close down, isolate and see the ‘other’ as an enemy or a competitor to be defeated.

Oh, how we need Iris, to open peoples’ hearts and minds and to facilitate communication between them.

How we need her, the idea of her, the energy of her, the meaning of her, to create mutually beneficial relationships between different peoples with different ideas, different world views. To make the case for constructive co-operation rather than destructive competition and division….

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Last November I was invited to address the Faculty of Homeopathy at their Congress in Belfast. I prepared a talk entitled “Images of Health. Pictures and stories” based around some of my own photographs and covering the key principles of health which guided me through my career as a doctor.

Here’s the video of that talk. I hope you enjoy it, find it interesting, or even inspiring. (by the way, if Google pops up any ads along the bottom of the video, just click the “x” box to make them go away 😉 )

I wrote a book to accompany this talk. It’s called “Escape to Reality” and I’ve published it (so far) only as a Kindle e-book. You can find it on Amazon.



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Twelve project Day eleven.jpg

On a wall which runs the full length of one side of my garden grows a plant which isn’t like any other plant I’ve ever seen. It’s name in English is “Boston Ivy”, and its a kind of vine. One of my friends calls it “mile a minute” referring to its speed of growth.

One of the things I like most about it is its complexity. At different times of year its shape, colour and appearance is completely different. Right now in the winter when it’s lost all of its leaves it is a web of stems, creepers and woody trunks. In the height of the summer its lusciously green and is literally a-buzz with bees while providing protected hidden spaces for blackbirds to build their nests. There’s a point in the summer where the seed pods all pop and the sound of millions and millions of the pod shells falling through the leaves to the ground sounds for all the world like a waterfall. The first time I heard it I actually went to look for where the water.

But it’s in the autumn when the leaves turn these glorious shades of red, yellow and gold. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. Then once the leaves fall the plant reveals its gorgeous little bluish black berries on bright red stalks. The birds come in their dozens for those!

Having lived here for two years now I see every one of these phases in the context of the ones which came before and the ones still to come. It’s a very physical experience of the reality of stories, or better, of storied reality.


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Day ten of my “twelve project” brings me to this photo which I took in October last year. It’s a picture of the river Charente as flows through the town of Jarnac, which is about a half hour’s drive from the village where I live.

The river gives its name to this whole region, the “Charente” and it flows to the Atlantic passing through the neighbouring region of the “Charente Maritime” on the way. But the river does more than give its name to this region. It is symbolic of, or maybe more accurately, it creates, the pace of life here. People say it flows steadily and calmly, just as you can see in that photo. I’ve been here just over two years now and I’ve never seen it churned up or terribly disturbed. It might happen sometimes but I’ve never ever seen it. Normally when you walk along its banks or look down from one of the bridges, it looks like this.

I encounter the river most commonly in three different towns. My “home town” of Cognac, half an hour to the East in Jarnac, where this photo is taken, and half an hour West to Saintes. In all three of these towns the Charente looks like this. Yet in each of these towns it is also unique and different, because a river isn’t just the water, it’s the banks and the land around the water.

I think it’s not just that it is calming to watch the water flowing so steadily, it slows you down. It slows you down by capturing your attention so that you stand and gaze at it for a while, or you are drawn to wander along one of the miles and miles of footpaths which follow its course, and as you wander it seems the river is keeping pace with you. It’s wandering too. Or is it the other way around? Do we unconsciously fall into step with the river? It slows you down another way too, because when it flows this way the surface is typically highly reflective. Look at the reflections in this photo. It was the sparkle of the sunlight on the lily leaves which initially caught my attention this day, and it was only just after that that I noticed the reflections of the little clouds floating by. It inspires you to reflect.

I love rivers. I grew up in the town of Stirling in Scotland. The River Forth winds its way towards, through and beyond Stirling like a great ribbon, or maybe a snake. You can see it best from Stirling Castle. Standing at the castle gazing down to the Old Bridge, following the curves of the river with my eyes as I look towards the Ochil Hills is one of my strongest memories. It’s one of those scenes which embeds that place in my identity.

I love the symbolism of rivers, how they are never the same two days in a row. As Heraclitus said “you can never step in the same river twice”, reminding us that every moment changes and every moment is unique. I love how you can’t look at a river without imagining both where it has come from and where it going to. It’s like a story. It is present in front of you now, but it brings into this present moment, the past, from the springs in the hills, through its journey of days or weeks, and it holds within it all the potential to become the river it will become as it flows towards the sea.

I can’t think of rivers without thinking of the incredible water cycle of the Earth. How the rivers flow to the sea, how the wind and the sun lift the water into the air, how it condenses to make clouds which then dissolve into rain on the hills and the mountains to create the streams which flow together to create the rivers again. I like that I can see at least part of that in this photo with both the river and the clouds sharing the same space in my picture.


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I’ve lived here for two years now, so this is the third time I’ve seen the vineyards turn golden like this. The vines are fascinating all year round but in this season they are particularly beautiful.

I was just recalling some of the thoughts I’ve had which have been directly inspired by this countryside. The landscape around here looks just like this. It is so different from the wild mountainous landscape of Scotland. But once the grapes are harvested, the processes involved in turning them into cognac are very similar to the ones used to turn barley into whisky. The culture of blending, tasting and savouring cognacs is very, very like that of whiskies with each distillery producing distinct flavours depending on the ground on which the plants were grown and the work of the master blenders in the distillery. Two or three hundred years ago some of the distillery workers from Scotland came to this part of France and applied their knowledge and skills from whisky production to the local cognac.

The vineyards around here are old. There’s a noticeboard just outside this village telling the story of how in the 1700s particularly hardy vines were brought here from America to improve the local crops. The vineyard where the noticeboard sits is called “the field of experiences”, or, probably a better translation would be “the field of experiments” (I think I prefer the “experiences” over “experiments”, but that’s just me).

From these two little discoveries I realise how the distinct, unique character of this environment has been influenced by other parts of the world, other peoples, other plants. Nothing exists in isolation.

The “vignobles”, or vine workers, are busy all year around. The harvest was completed last month and one of the next tasks is tending to the individual vines, to remove any less healthy ones, any which have passed their best. I was startled by this work the first day I encountered it because it can involve using a tractor with a type of drill attachment to dig out certain plants. It sounds more like roadworks than fieldworks. Throughout the year the vine workers tend to each plant over and over again. Every single vine is pruned by hand. That’s another thing which surprised me. I don’t think farmers attend to each plant individually in a field of grain. I’m not sure that would be possible. But these vines are not like fields of grain. They are, more obviously, rows of individuals. From a distance, as in these photos, it is hard to see them as individuals, but to the vine workers every single plant requires their full attention.

That balance between the one and the many is something which is often at the front of my mind. I thought of it often in my work as a doctor, always mindful that even if this next patient was bringing me a story of a particular disease or disorder, they were always more than “another case of…..”. They were always a unique individual who required my full attention.

One final thought, before I finish today…..I’ve learned that although the landscape around here features vineyard after vineyard, that each vineyard too is different. One of the most important differences is the soil. Take a look at this map –


Each of these coloured areas produces a completely different flavour of alcohol. The large distilleries which produce their own distinctive blends of cognac will select certain amounts of grapes from certain regions, knowing that the flavours of each region are very different. Those differences have a lot to do with the different soil types, and a lot to do with the micro-climates created by the particular landscapes and locations.

I often wonder about our relationship to the physical world. How the environment, the water, the climate, the shape of the landscape, all influence us, how we, as human beings respond to and, in turn, shape the very environment in which we live.

We hear quite a lot about “identity politics” at the moment. Over the summer I read a piece of research which investigated the beliefs and attitudes of young French people to explore what influenced their identity. The conclusion was that the strongest influence on their identity was geography. They felt French because they lived in this part of the world called France. Not because they belonged to a particular race or religion, but because they lived in this land. That gives me hope.


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I stepped out through the back door of the cathedral in Segovia and onto a large paved terrace surrounded by stone lions. When I turned to look back to the tall arched doorway I noticed that the plain glass doors which hung in the doorway perfectly reflected the buildings across the street. I took a photo.

When I loaded up the photo later I noticed that there were some strange lights above and on the roofs and when I zoomed in I saw more clearly that behind the reflection of the tiles and the satellite dishes some of the cathedral’s stained glass windows shone through the glass door.

That got me thinking……

Here in this one photo is an interesting idea. For centuries the church has created the images and the stories to tell people what the world is like, what life is like, and how they should live. With captivating art and gripping stories it presented a particular view of the world. More than that, really, because in presenting that view and spreading it so widely, it created a reality for the people who lived in it.

But look at those satellite dishes.

Who is creating the images and the stories now? Who is telling people what the world is like? What life is like? And how they should live?

Who is presenting a view, and spreading it so widely, that it’s creating the reality for those who live in it?

With the rapid development in communications technology, with powerful mobile phones, connected computers, the internet, social media, memes, images and videos which “go viral”, some writers say we have created a whole new layer of the environment in which we live – the “noosphere” (the sphere of human thought). The truth is we’ve always had a noosphere. We’ve always lived, we humans, within this environment of human thought.

There are the image creators and the story tellers who fashion the patterns in this environment, and in so doing, they influence many others.

We have a choice. We can be the image creators and the story tellers, or we can be passive consumers. If we choose to be passive consumers, whose world, whose idea of the world, are we choosing to live in?

If we choose to be the image creators and the story tellers, what images shall we share? What stories shall we tell?

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petal web

Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme who developed the new story of the universe talk about three core values which seem to be embedded in evolution. It’s a really interesting and different take on evolution. The story we have heard most over the last hundred years or so is one of a random, harsh, competitive universe full of “stuff” or materials which somehow have stuck together to make ever more complex objects which can each be studied and understood in isolation from each other.

That story never resonated with me and it can be argued it has more to do with the dominant politico-economic model of capitalism and “the market” than it has with science.

The three values Berry and Swimme articulate are differentiation, subjectivity and communion. Their claim is that take away any one of these three and the whole universe as we know it collapses. Brian Swimme also claims that we can use these three values to check if our actions are in harmony with the evolutionary direction and activity of the universe. In other words they can be considered as fundamental values which help us to assess and judge our behaviour and that of others (including politicians and economists).

Differentiation.  The universe started differentiating from its earliest moments. We don’t look around and see a homogenous mush – we see clusters, or “objects”. But the universe doesn’t just produce what Swimme calls “articulated constellations of energy”. It produces UNIQUE articulated constellations of energy. No two galaxies, no two stars, no two creatures are identical. Producing uniqueness turns out to be a key universal value.

Subjectivity. Everything has an inside. Even the simplest atoms are self-organising, self-maintaining phenomena. The particles within the atom are held together and organised by the atom itself. This self-organisation reaches its most complex in human beings. We are all “autopoietic” – we are “self-making” creatures. We self-defend, self-organise and self-maintain. Yet this interior “self” remains unknowable. We can’t see it, can’t define it, can’t pin it down. This interiority is what enables us to see every object as a subject.

Communion. Thomas Berry used the word “communion” to describe the relationships which exist everywhere. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is connected to other things. We all live in a vast web of relationships.

This all leads to Berry and Swimme describing the universe as an “communion of subjects”, or as a “communion of differentiated subjects”.

Try this idea out for yourself. What does the world look like through this lens? What sense do you make of life which part of a “communion of subjects”?

When considering any political policy, any scientific description, any choices you might make, what happens when you set them in the context of  the three values of “differentiation, subjectivity and communion”?

For me, I experience a shift from fear to curiosity, from senselessness to meaningfulness, from isolation to belonging…..how about you?

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