Archive for the ‘narrative’ Category


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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In the Spring of 1784, Armand Marie Jacques de Chastenet, marquis of Puységur, discovered that Victor Race, one of the peasants who worked on the marquis’ land, had pneumonia. The marquis had become interested in the work of Mesmer and “animal magnetism” so decided to see if he could help Victor back to health using this new method.

Victor fell into a trance and began to speak. But to the astonishment of his master, he didn’t speak in his usual patois, but in perfect learned French instead. Not only that but he talked about subjects that an illiterate peasant couldn’t have known about.

What happened next is even more astonishing. The marquis and Victor became a therapeutic couple. The marquis would ask an ill person about their symptoms….he’d “take the history of the patient”, and, in trance, Victor would pronounce the diagnosis and prescribe treatments.

Neither of these men were able to carry out the acts of healing by themselves, but together, they could.

This was one of the first recorded episodes of “lay mediumship” in Western civilisation.

I think that’s a remarkable story and I know of other instances from within my own lifetime where such astonishing collaborations occurred.

But even setting aside the somewhat “supernatural” aspect of these tales, isn’t there something like this going on in every therapeutic act? Isn’t every therapeutic act a collaboration between the patient and the therapist. Without each other they can’t achieve healing, but together, they have the chance to become something unique and greater than either of them. Together they can gain a greater understanding, and together they can find answers they couldn’t find alone.

I think we forget that in modern medicine, thinking that the doctor can do it all by him, or her, self. Thinking that one person has all the answers, ready made, so to speak.

There can be some of the most astonishing examples of magic happening when two people form a bond and work together for a common purpose.

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night sky flower.jpg

I’ve just finished reading Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature” which is her biography of Alexander von Humboldt. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a big read but a great one. I must confess I’m one of the apparently many who has never heard of Humboldt but am I glad I know something about him now.

One of the most amazing things about Humboldt is how he saw, described and wrote about Nature as a complete interconnected web, and he did this at the end of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th centuries. What an insight! What a vision! What an understanding! His enthusiasm for Nature and his insatiable curiosity are infectious, even now. But it’s his underlying fundamental insight which thrills me most. He describes ecology before the word was even invented. He sees the damage caused by short term economic greed and, more than that, he describes the environmental consequences of these short sighted actions. He demonstrates how the interconnected web of Nature means that these simple minded grabs for wealth will produce long term, far reaching negative consequences for many.

Seeing our world and everything in it as intimately, inextricably interconnected is the basis of holistic science. This is a science of wonder, exploration and discovery. He uses the best scientific instruments of the time to measure whatever he can measure, but he does something which scientists today so often fail to do. He uses the measurements to discover the connections. He puts things together rather than dividing them up. He sees nothing as existing in isolation. In other words he uses reductionist methods in a holistic way.

Reading about him is one of the clearest examples ever of integration. The two halves of his brain both worked brilliantly together. He pursued the new and climbed the highest mountains to see the world as a whole (right cerebral hemisphere). He measured, analysed and categorised (left cerebral hemisphere). Then he put it altogether in a vast web of contexts (right cerebral hemisphere again). What a great demonstration of using the whole brain. Of course I’m simplifying here. I’m sure he didn’t use his brain in such a linear fashion, but, still, I think it’s magnificent.

I thought about him again as I looked at this wonderful flower (see the image above). It’s called “Night sky”. Isn’t it stunning? Doesn’t it immediately show you how the human brain both discovers and creates connections?

That we can see the starry heavens in the soft purple petals of an earthy flower…….


Here’s a short video clip of Andrea Wulf talking about her book –

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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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