Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

Common sense would tell you the world is made of things. We are objects surrounded by other objects. The left hemisphere of the brain is great at narrowing our focus so we can separate some of what we are looking at from its environment, and its connections. So I can stumble across this beautiful dandelion seed-head and focus the lens of my camera right onto “it”. Isn’t “it” gorgeous?

But then and object, or a thing, needs to have some kind of consistency for us to see it. I mean, look what happens a second or two later, when the wind blows –

It’s changed already! And why did it change? Because something happened. Some of the seeds blew away when the wind blew. So if I want to understand this “thing”, this “dandelion” that I’m looking at, I need to see more than what the first image can show me. I need to know that these plants we call dandelions have evolved a method of multiplying and thriving – they have created these astonishing little means of dispersal of their offspring, of their seeds. So when the wind blows, as it always does, these children of the parent plant will fly away to land somewhere else, maybe far away, maybe close by –

and then the cycle starts again with each seed germinating, pushing its roots down into the dark earth, and it’s leaves and flower up to reach the sun, and the bees and the butterflies and who knows how many other kinds of insects will come along and spread the pollen in the yellow flowers to fertilise them and produce these magnificent seed-heads again.

So this is what this object, this thing, called the dandelion does. And it’s hard to know to where to begin its story, but maybe we begin by following one single seed, blown on the wind. We don’t know which way the wind will blow, how far the seed will travel, whether or not the ground it lands on will enable it to germinate and whether or not it will be able to successfully grow into a green leafed, deep rooted, yellow flower and whether or not the insects will cross pollinate it with its neighbours, whether near or far, and produce seeds of its own.

So many unknowns.

But also, and here’s the point, so many happenings.

So many events.

So many occurrences.

This object, this thing, which we call a dandelion. Is it really reasonable to think of it as a thing? Or is it more useful to consider it as so many happenings.

That’s the point I heard the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, make in his interview with Krista Tippett, in an OnBeing podcast. Have a listen. He puts it more beautifully than I do. He says the universe isn’t made of stones, its made of kisses. (Not things, but happenings)

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As I was out walking the other day I noticed an interesting alignment of places.

Right in front of me was a vineyard, just beyond that, over the high wall, a graveyard, and just beyond that stood the church.

How interesting, I thought. Here’s some kind of representation of Life – the world of the “spirit” (in this case Cognac and Pineau), the world of memories of those who are alive no longer, and the world of the “Spirit” (in this case Catholicism).

The vineyard in this part of the world is more than a job. It’s more than a business. It’s a way of life. All year round the vines and the ground they grow in need tending, need cared for. I wonder what percentage of the land in France is dedicated to producing grapes to be turned into alcohol? I wonder what percentage of the land surface of the Earth is used by human beings to make alcoholic drinks? Wine, beer, whisky, vodka……and so on. I bet it’s a lot. I’m reading a book about the influence of plants in the colonisation of “the Americas” by the Spanish in the past. Actually it’s a book about the influence of the knowledge of plants rather than simply of plants. How the native peoples of what we now call Mexico, Central and South America, had learned what particular plants could do. What influence they had on the human body. And how they used them to treat diseases, to create altered states of consciousness in rituals (to allow them to access the world of the “dead” and of the “Spirit”), and how they used them in the rituals of sacrifice and justice (the poisons). I’m only in the beginning section of the book but already I’m finding it a real eye opener – the two way processes of influence between the “old world” and the “new world”, between native “indian” knowledge and “continental, European” knowledge and how each was changed by the other.

We see the use of wine in the rituals of the Catholic Church. And we certainly see the place of alcohol in drinking to the dead, at their funerals and in their remembrance.

The graveyards here are often surrounded by high walls. This particular one has one gate set in a large archway. It’s often locked. I’m not sure if that’s to keep people out or just to protect the tombstones, some of which are enormous. You can see a couple of them over the wall in this photo. They are like tiny buildings. When there are many of them like that in one graveyard it gives the whole place a feel of a little town. A walled town.

The churches here are mostly Catholic churches. France might be a secular state but the Catholic traditions are well embedded in national festivals and Public holidays. Many of the annual calendars distributed by local businesses or newspapers include the name of a saint on every single day of the year, and the local newspaper has on it’s back page, beside the weather forecast and other useful details, like the times of sunrise and sunset, also which saint’s day it is today. Even if church-going and belief in God has declined a lot here, as it has done in most other European countries, the cultural influence of this tradition remains strong.

Plenty to get me wondering – this triad of vineyard, graveyard and churchyard.

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We have a large mulberry tree growing in the middle of the garden. It’s huge leaves make a perfect canopy to shade you from the glare of the summer sun.

In the autumn they fall massively giving me ample opportunity to enjoy a bit of “rake-y” – the meditative experience of raking up the fallen leaves. I find that deeply satisfying!

In the winter time the tree is bare, all branches and twigs but its shape against the moon at night is entrancing.

Now in the Spring the new leaves are starting to grow. The first of them began to emerge last week. Look at this one! I could have picked one of several dozen like this but I stopped to photograph this one.

It astonishes me.

Out of the end of this stick of a twig first a swelling green bud appears, then these leaves start to unfold themselves. Really they are so tiny compared to how they will look when fully grown. The biggest leaves will be larger than your hand. But for now, this emerging leaf is so small it’s only just begun to acquire the recognisable shape of a leaf.

Look at the colour of it in the sunshine! That light, bright green, somehow just shouts “I’m alive!”

As I looked at it I remembered the time Richard Feynman asked the question “Where do trees come from?” and shocked the listener by answering “They come from the air”. Here’s an article which includes the video of him talking about this very subject. He says most people would answer “They come from the soil” but he says it is more correct to say they come from the air, because they are made mainly of carbon which they capture from carbon dioxide which is in the air, and from water which comes directly from the sky as rain, or through the soil after it’s fallen from the sky.

Isn’t that an astonishing thought? We humans certainly can’t do that. We can’t make solid massive forms like trees out of the thin air.


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I was eating some berries at lunch time – strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Stopping to take a closer look…….look at the shape of a star on this blueberry.

Well, it turns out this is pretty standard. All blueberries have this element of their appearance.

Have you noticed that before?

Have you seen that little star there before you pop the berry into your mouth?

Noticing is one of the lessons I’ve learned yet again from this little ordinary, everyday experience, but there’s something else here.

That something else for me is a reminder that we are “all made of star stuff”. From the origins of the universe, the time of the energies before the formation of hydrogen and helium, to the evolution of stars, those great powerhouses of fusion producing the first larger elements, magnesium, lithium, carbon….all the way up the Periodic Table to Iron….to the next great leap – the supernovae. As the supernovae exploded they produced all the other known elements of the universe.

From our Sun, to our Solar System, to our precious, tiny Earth, all emerged from these first elements. That carbon, that oxygen, that hydrogen, all the elements you might find in one little blueberry….it all came from the stars.

As best we know, from the beginning of our planet Earth, not a single new natural element has appeared. All of us, from blueberries, to you and me, are made from those original atoms, created by aeons of fusion and fission, of cycles of combining together, and cycles of blowing apart.

Takes my breath away….

And you know what? The blueberries taste great. I enjoyed combining their star stuff into mine…….

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Richard Louv once coined the expressing “Nature Deficit Disorder”, arising from not spending enough time in Nature and proposed a treatment – “Vitamin N” – a dose of Nature. In Japanese research there have been discoveries showing positive chemical changes in the human body in relation to the immune system and a settling of inflammation when practising “forest bathing”, which consists of spending some time in a forest.

I like those ideas and so, last week, on a sunny day, we took a trip into the Limousin, found a nice forest, and had a walk.

Do you do that from time to time? I thoroughly recommend it. I mean, who really cares about the biochemical markers of immunity and inflammation when spending a bit of a day amongst the trees is just such a treat anyway? But it’s good to know the benefits are so deep.

Le Monde group has just launched a new publication entitled “Sens et Santé” – I like how French words often have several meanings all at once – “Sens” can mean “sense” or “meaning” but also “direction” (“santé” is health). One of the larger, beautifully illustrated articles in the inaugural issue focuses on “forest bathing”, describing how you can take time to become aware of the sounds, the sights, the smells, the feel of the trunks of the trees, and even, if you are so disposed, to spend a little time meditating.

Of course, I wouldn’t go without my camera, but that’s just my personally favourite way of raising my level of awareness. I notice more when I have a camera in my hand and an intention to take photos.

Look at this particular tree. I posted about a strange shaped tree a few months back, wondering what had happened in its life to bring about its peculiar shape. Well, here’s another one to stop me in my tracks and get me wondering….what on earth happened here?

And immediately another thought pops up – what resilience! What an incredible power to overcome what looks like it could have been a fatal event, to grow again, not just a new trunk, but six of them! Wow! There’s an inspiration!

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When I lived in a village just outside of Stirling I would look out of the bedroom window of my top floor apartment every morning and I’d see Ben Ledi. The shape of the mountain became very familiar to me but I was struck by just how different it looked every single day. Some days the clouds were so low I couldn’t see it at all. Some days its summit was dusted with snow. Some days the clouds or mist dressed it differently. Other days it was the changing colours of the earth in the moving sunlight which caught my eye.

Since moving to rural France my view is completely different. I look out onto a garden which is surrounded by vineyards which stretch to the horizon at the top of the hill. Each season shows me a unique different view of the vineyards and I’ve already grown to love the characteristics of every one of them. But my “every day” now begins with a view of the garden and, in particular, of the very varied bird life which spends time here. Many of the species are new to me and I’ve never been very good at naming either creatures or plants – at least not in naming them scientifically. I think there’s something in me resists labelling, categorising and putting living forms into boxes. But another part of me is curious and wants to know – just what is this?

I can have that experience noticing a small yellow flower in the grass, or spotting a brightly coloured little bird pecking at the seeds in the bird feeder. My experience is that every day is different. My experience is that every day I see something that amazes me, something which is literally awe inspiring. The French have a great word for that experience – émerveillement. It means to wonder, to marvel, to delight in, to be in awe of, to be amazed by. The first time I encountered this word was in a phrase – “l’émerveillement du quotidien” – kind of means, the wonder of the daily, the everyday. It’s a philosophical phrase and I’ve quickly adopted it as one of the core principles of my life. Not that I’ve had to change anything to adopt this principle. It’s more that this core principle reinforces one of my most natural, instinctive habits. I’m an insatiably curious person and I’m constantly noticing the world I live in….and wondering about it.

So, you can imagine just how excited I was yesterday when I looked out of the window at lunch time and saw this large bird standing on one of the fence posts. I went for my camera and saw he had moved to the pillar at the corner of the garden and I had enough time to zoom in and get these photos. It wasn’t until I did that that I could see what he held in his claw.

At first I was quite shocked. I’ve taken photos of little birds pecking at seeds many times, and even some catching worms, but this is the first time I’ve seen and managed to photograph a bird of prey with its prey. Well, this is how it is for these creatures. We humans are part of that lengthy food chain where one creature consumes another to survive. Only the plants in this world survive without preying on any other living creatures (and not even all plants do that exclusively either).

But just let’s return to wonder and amazement. Look at the beauty of this bird. Look at the patterns and colours of the feathers, the yellow circle around his eye, his yellow feet. Look at that eye! What an eye! And look at that beak! What an astonishing combination of beauty, elegance and power!

I did set off into books and google afterwards and as best I can tell, he’s a kestrel.

Made my day!

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The first thing which caught Hilary’s attention was a movement on the other side of the fence. But what was it? A cat? No, it was a bird…..this bird…

It’s often movement which catches our attention, or at least it’s change. Something changes. You’ve had that experience where you only notice a noise when it suddenly stops haven’t you?

One of sign of Spring here is that a barn owl starts to nest in a box embedded in the front of our house. Each evening this week, once it’s dark, I notice him flying past. Well, I say I notice him. I’m not looking out of the window but all of a sudden I say “That was the owl flying past” because I caught something out of the corner of my eye. The moment I turn to look, and I mean the absolute split second that I turn to look, I see nothing. He’s past already. So how did I see him? It wasn’t just a blur of movement. I recognise it’s him. Not a blackbird, or a pigeon, or a bat. It’s the owl. Then one evening this week I looked out when I thought I’d seen him fly past and there he was in the tree, sitting looking back in through the window at me. And in that moment, he was gone. Flown away.

Somehow I see him before I become aware of seeing him. It reminds me of lying in bed one sunday morning and waking to the sound of church bells. I counted “Seven, eight, nine” and then they stopped. I looked at the clock and it was nine o’clock. But I was only aware of counting “seven, eight, nine”, not “one, two, three…..” you know what I mean. So, when did I first perceive the church bells? Right from the first one surely. But I was asleep and I had no conscious awareness of hearing them at all.

Those experiences fascinate me. They are tiny glimpses into how much goes on at the subconscious level in our minds. How awareness comes just a little later….

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