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I took this photo one winter in Scotland. It’s a particular kind of image which really pleases me. There is straight line running across the entire scene and splitting the image into two parts, but the two parts, at first glance, don’t seem enormously different.

However, there are clear differences. The foreground field is flat and the earth beneath the snow forms parallel lines running up to the border from the front of the photo. The field over the border is on a hillside and it’s markings are like contours of a map of a hill. The snow on the hill is whiter than the snow on the field and, somehow looks deeper.

Between the two there is a border zone. That appeals to me. There is not a solid wall or fence, more a rough line of stones, containing an unworked area of land partially marked off with a fence. In fact, as I look more closely now, I think that line of stones is the top of a dry stone wall and there is a dip in the land just beyond it.

Apart from the trees at the bottom and the top of the image the only “Life” in the picture is one sheep and one tree, both in that in-between zone.

That reminds me of the fact that Life itself exists in a kind of in-between zone. The zone between order and chaos. Thomas Berry describes this beautifully in his “The Great Work” where he calls the two forces of the universe “wildness and discipline”.

When first the solar system gathered itself together with the sun as the center surrounded by the nine fragments of matter shaped into planets, the planets that we observe in the sky each night, these were all composed of the same matter; yet Mars turned into rock so firm that nothing fluid can exist there, and Jupiter remained a fiery mass of gases so fluid that nothing firm can exist there. Only the Earth became a living planet filled with those innumerable forms of geological structure and biological expression that we observe throughout the natural world……….The excess of discipline suppressed the wildness of Mars. The excess of wildness overcame the discipline of Jupiter. Their creativity was lost by an excess of one over the other.

For Life to exist there needs to be an ordering principle, something which builds and creates, turning small, apparently disconnected pieces, like atoms, into elaborate complex networks, like the multicellular human body and the astonishingly interconnected human brain.

But too much order is counter to Life. Rigidity isn’t much good without flexibility. We live in a changing universe. Year by year, month by month, week by week, day by day, even second by second. We have a word for that kind of phenomenon – dynamic. The universe is a manifestation of a dynamic, living, breathing, integration of order and chaos, of discipline and wildness.

All of Life exists in this dynamic, “far from equilibrium“, zone. It never stands still. It’s never “complete”, “finished” or “done”. It’s a flow, a process, a complex, vastly inter-connected network. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to pin down definitions of “Life” and “Health”. They aren’t fixed objects.

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I think I prefer bridges to walls. Bridges connect. Walls divide. Bridges cross the natural borders of rivers and valleys. Walls hide what lies behind them.

There’s a saying in the Charente, where I live, that to live “enclosed” is to live a happy life. That’s not not an exact translation from the French, but the meaning is that you need a basic level of privacy to be content. The classic country house in this region has a courtyard surrounded by extremely high walls, and the entrance is usually a huge arched wooden doorway. You’ve no idea what you will find until, and if, you are invited in. I don’t know if the style of property preceded the old saying, or vice versa, but they certainly fit well together.

This wall, the one in this photo, is, however, beautiful. At least, I find it so. It captures some of the essential features of beauty for me. Something not too regular. Something that doesn’t fit so neatly that you couldn’t move an inch. Something that doesn’t strive to achieve a mass produced, standardised, so-called perfection.

I like how all the bricks are different. Did they emerge from some machine? Or do they bear the traces of human hands? I think it’s the latter. I like that they don’t even lie on top of each other, but side by side, each row separated by a thick layer of mortar. I like that the mortar has pebbles embedded in it. It reminds me of the shore. And the shore reminds me of the sea.

These bricks, this mortar, these pebbles, all have a history. Every one of them. They came from somewhere and still carry traces of their origins and their adventures. They stimulate my imagination and my memories.

Most of all, I find this beautiful because it conveys the Human to me. The hands in the soil, in the sand, the individuals who honed their skills of building and assembling. I see beauty everywhere in Nature, but there’s a special kind of beauty which emerges when human beings create, when children, men and women turn what they find into something else without obliterating its origins.

Who knew? Even walls can be beautiful.

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Last week, one day, while sitting in the garden having a coffee, we looked up and saw what looked like a rainbow all around the Sun.

Have you ever seen anything like this?

I hadn’t.

Do you know what it is called?

A corona.

Can you believe that? A corona round the Sun during a pandemic of coronavirus.

Seriously?

There it is, up there, behind the mulberry tree, clear as anything in the morning sky.

Now I think that’s pretty spooky.

But there’s more…..because don’t you think this looks like a giant eye? Doesn’t it look like a iris, with a white pupil?

Well, you know what? This is reality. These are the kinds of things which actually happen. Maybe only once in a lifetime. But they happen. And it feels special, feels a privilege, to witness it.

Reality looks like this. It’s amazing every day. You just have to be present and aware and you’ll see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something wonder-full every day. Everything you notice will seem to connect to something else, and those connections, echoes, memories, symmetries, imaginings…..well, they are quite simply breathtaking.

If you don’t believe me. Just try it. Find out for yourself.

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When you really look, there are a lot of strange features in trees. Look at this one!

What is this? You think maybe it’s an ear? Can the tree listen to the birds singing their welcome chorus to the dawn every morning, chasing each other excitedly through the forest, and calling goodnight to each other at sunset? Or maybe it’s listening to the other trees. To the sounds of the wind in the leaves. Or to the sound of another tree falling. What do you think a tree would hear, if it could?

Maybe it’s not an ear, but a mouth. What if it is a mouth? What sounds could a tree make? What’s the language of trees? Do you think they communicate with each other? Actually, they do. A lot! Just not by using either mouths or sounds. Trees in a forest are connected above and below ground. They communicate through the air by sending out a variety of molecules, especially to alert other trees to the presence of a predator. Under the ground their vast root systems have gigantic webs of fungi embedded in them which extend the number and distance of connections between them many, many fold.

I like the phrase that certain tree specialists use – the “wood wide web” – it provokes an image of an intricately, multiply connected, living network really well.

Every living organism, animal, plant, or any other form of life from the other “kingdoms”, survives and thrives through communication and connection.

I like to contemplate three flows which travel into, through, and beyond every single person, every single animal, and every single plant – flows of materials; energy; and information. These flows connect us all. They know no borders. They wax and wane across this entire, small planet. We couldn’t live without them.

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Have you ever watched birds take off from, and land on, water?

These two photos were taken on the Lake of Menteith in Scotland a few years ago. They make a nice pair of images. As swans swim around on the lake you don’t really hear much noise. They’re pretty famous for gliding over the surface, apparently effortlessly. (You can’t see that their legs are paddling like mad below the surface)

But when they take off and when they land, boy, do they make a lot of noise! They splash and clatter as their huge wings beat the air.

It strikes me that these transitions, as the swan moves from the air to the water surface, and vice versa, are times of huge effort. Yet they do both with an astonishing grace.

Look at the first photo where a swan is taking off. It looks elegant and stylish. Streamlined even. Straight as an arrow. As it just leaves the water it continues to move parallel to the surface for a few beats before it soars up into the sky.

Then the second photo where one is landing also has a certain elegance, but not the same elongated, streamlined form. It’s long neck has an arched shape which gives the whole creature the appearance of a crescent or a bow.

An arrow as it takes off, and a bow as it lands.

Today is the end of the “confinement” in France. The Charente, where I live, is one of the “departments verts” (green regions) which means the virus isn’t so present in the population (it’s not been that present here since the start of the outbreak, probably not least because this a rural, less densely populated part of the country), and the pressure on the health services locally is not great. The government are using an interesting measure which picks up, to some extent, aspects of both of those criteria – the percentage of patients presenting at hospital who have suspected Covid-19 symptoms. The lower that percentage, the less active the virus is deemed to be, and, of course, the less need for hospital care. The government have also been at pains to say that this is the beginning of the “deconfinement” – just the start of an easing of restrictions.

We landed in lockdown (confinement) very abruptly at the beginning. It was announced one evening, that from midnight that night all the restaurants, bars and cafes would close, and within a couple of days, the full lockdown was in effect. Take off out of lockdown (deconfinement) seems to be much more gradual.

I’d expected to feel quite different this morning, but I don’t. The fact that there have been high winds and heavy rainfall since overnight last night is one of the reasons why I’m feeling not much has changed. It’s not that tempting to go out today! But the other is, that in Cognac, like most towns this size in France, the market and the shops are closed all day every Monday. So, there’s not much point in going into town today to see how it feels. Tomorrow might be different.

I’m very aware that this is now a transition phase. My life, although restricted for the last couple of months, has attained a certain stability and quiet calm. Now the limits have been pushed out a bit. I can go out without the need to print a permission slip to show to any policeman who might stop me, and I can travel freely up to 100 kilometres from home. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to use all the freedoms I’ve got now, though. For example, I could make a trip to the big city – Bordeaux. But do I want to get on a tram with a lot of other people and walk down much busier streets, whilst all the restaurants and cafes are still closed? I don’t think so. And I still can’t leave the country (although, frankly, I have zero interest in an airport and flight experience for now!), and I can’t yet drive to other parts of France. The beaches, museums, cinemas and theatres are all still closed too. So, it’s France, but not France as we know it, Jim.

I’m wondering if I, and the rest of the country, can transition with as much grace and elegance as these swans. Or is there going to be a lot of noisy flapping around? Especially if this is just the first transition in a whole wave of transitions to come.

How is it in your part of the world?

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I showed you a photo of a wounded rock the other day to illustrate how whatever impacts our lives changes us forever. Here’s another similar image. This time it’s a tree.

Look at the shape of this tree! What’s happened here? It’s quite extraordinary. I’ve never seen such a dramatic “folded” form within a tree. What caused this? We’ll never know.

But it’s changed this tree forever. This astonishing fold is way more than the twists and turns in a ordinary day. Perhaps for that reason it makes me think it’s relevant to this time of pandemic and physical distancing where our societies, our lives, have closed up.

I’m sure we are all preparing to write the next chapter of our stories, but, first of all, it seems, we’ve closed the book. At least while we close our eyes and rest.

The time will come, soon, maybe, when we pick up the book again, open it up to the page we last read. Will the next chapter be a continuation of the story so far? With the same characters, the same plot, the same themes? Maybe not.

Maybe the characters will have changed. Some will have grown in importance, some will have shrunk. Yet others will have disappeared.

I suspect this twist in the plot is a big one.

Time to re-consider, re-evaluate, and make new choices. We might have thought we had a good idea of the way the plot was developing but, whoah! we weren’t expecting this!

Exciting, huh?

Or just plain scary?

What do you think? There’s no getting away from it. The story is going to change now. There’s no going back. Just forward. Maybe we’ll pull some of the characters and themes out of the story so far and develop them in completely unexpected ways. Maybe there’ll be some equally dramatic twists ahead. I think it’s up to us. You and me, and everyone we know.

What shall we create now? What shall we say? What shall we do?

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It might be Spring time in the Northern Hemisphere but this pandemic has the feel of autumn to me.

One way I think of the cycle of seasons is – Spring is the time of life emerging anew, Summer is the time of flourishing and growth, Autumn is the time of harvesting and paring down, and Winter is the time of conservation and hibernation.

Oh, sure, there is SO much more I could say about the seasons and that wee synopsis is only one particular perspective, but it’s the one which comes to my mind when I look at this photo.

This is clearly an autumn photo. You can tell that from the browned and fallen leaves. It’s late autumn, I’d say, because some of the leaves are pared right back to their skeletons.

This skeleton leaf intrigues me. You’ll have read my thoughts on the two basic structures which Deleuze and Guattari describe – the “arboreal”, or “tree-like” branching kind, and the “rhizomal”, or networking, web like kind. Well, this little skeleton leaf reveals both. The larger fibres are clearly arboreal, branching into ever thinner, smaller strands. But between them, the smaller fibres make webs. If you look carefully you can see that. The smallest fibres create networks with multiple connections and nodes.

“And not or” – my favourite moto.

The underlying structures of Nature are both.

That’s what caught my attention when I looked at this photo, but that led on to thinking about this time in our world when it seems to me everything has been pared back. This paring back has revealed something – the underlying structures and frameworks of our societies.

I wonder if you see the same thing? What has this closing down, this minimising, this paring back, revealed to you?

Here are two of the things it has revealed to me.

  1. The importance of the Feminine. Now, when I’ve talked about this before I’ve been at pains to be clear I’m not talking about gender. I’m talking about the two great flows of reality to which we attach our myths of the Masculine and the Feminine. What do I mean by that? Simply, and concisely, for now, I mean the “Provide/Protect” energies and the “Nourish/Nurture” ones. I’m going to push this simplistic thought a step further – we have seen a shift in focus from Production to Care. I know this is too simplistic and that there is also a huge emphasis on “protection” too just now. I also know that a lot of what we call “production” isn’t really very productive (I’m looking at you, you people who drive the financialisation of everything, producing wealth from wealth in computers and papers, rather than from the soil, and the physical reality of the world). But bear with me for a moment……this crisis is revealing what every society needs to function, and who the people are who do that work….and I want to focus on the feminine here, because it’s mainly women who are carers, nurses, teachers, cashiers and cleaners – most of whom are vastly under-recognised, and poorly paid. (Yes, I know there are lots of important, even “essential” jobs which men do – including all the ones above, but also ones where men seem more prevalent than women – delivery drivers, power workers, waste and water workers etc). But none of that takes away from the main point I want to make which is I hope what has been revealed will lead to real change – change which values people and relationships more than consumption, change which values women more, change which values caring more, change which values “essential workers” more. “And not or”, for me, means we need both of these flows – the Masculine and the Feminine, the Provide/Protect AND the Nourish/Nurture, but we need to shift the balance.
  2. The failure of neo-liberalism. The idea that we are all selfish individuals ready to fight everyone else to grab the biggest share of everything for ourselves and “the market” is “self-regulating” which will, if left unregulated, deliver the best of all societies, has, I believe, been found wanting. None of our countries have entered this pandemic prepared. Hospitals have been closed, Public services have been cut massively, and the poor and vulnerable have been forced into ever more precarious lives. So, there’s my second hope – that a new economics and new politics will emerge – a more sustainable, healthy one. I hope we’ll see a shift away from mindless growth for growth’s sake, to choosing to grow better ways of living together in our one, small, shared planet.
  3. Thirdly, I’d like to see a shift in emphasis away from hierarchies and “arboreal” centralised systems to more networked, “rhizomal” communities of relationships. It seems the centralised, command and control, “just in time” structures have been found wanting – despite claims they are the “most efficient”, and that ordinary people and communities adopting personal hygiene and physical distancing behaviours have shown their strengths. My third hope, then is for a resurgence of community, local, devolved, and diverse structures of society. “And not or”, remember, I think we need both. We just need to shift our balance.

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