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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

I suspect “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not the last word on beauty, but I don’t deny that there is a subjective element to beauty. What I find beautiful, you might not, and vice versa. So here’s my invitation to you – tell me, or show me, what you find beautiful and I’ll share with you what I find beautiful.

Today, I came across this photo of a tiled roof in a village in Southern France. This is a very typical roof for this part of the world. I find it beautiful. I’m sure there are many reasons why, but I want to pick out and explore just one of them today – diversity.

What I see whenever I look at a roof like this is that the tiles are all different. As opposed, of course, to them all looking identical. I love how they are different colours and shades. I love how some of them have lichens growing on them, and some don’t. I love how they are not all the same size (they are pretty much the same size but it isn’t exact) and I love how they sort of fit in a higgley-piggedly way!

In other words the characteristic which I find so beautiful about these roofs is that the tiles are so diverse.

Diversity is beautiful.

Nature loves diversity. Left alone you don’t get permanent mono-cultures in Nature. Instead you get the display of vast networks of relationships between widely diverse elements, all of which contribute to the success, to the survival and the flourishing, of the whole.

I also love diversity even in tiles because it gives them more “character” – you can distinguish one individual from another. I like that more that factory produced, machine made, production line sameness – don’t “mono-culture” and “mono-tony” have the same root? Isn’t that maybe why I an averse to “mono-polies”?

I’m not a fan of imposed conformity, of the industrial, capitalist age of mass production and mass consumption. I love to see artisans at work here in France…..people with a lifetime of skill, learned by daily practice over years, taught by the most skilled ancestors and passed on to enthusiastic younger generations. I saw a great initiative in France recently where a small town invited two groups of people to a local building every Wednesday – retired people with a skill (an iron worker, a woman who used to sew for a fashion house, a stained glass worker, and others), and children aged about 12 years old. The children were learning these practical skills from these now retired skilled workers during their regular Wednesday time off from regular schooling. Both the retired skilled craftspeople and the children were loving it – it brought joy and meaning into their lives. It also connected the generations and gave both groups a different view of the other generation. Yes, it’s very small scale. There were only a handful of people in each group. But I don’t think that should put us off. Something doesn’t have to be “mass” and “standardised” to be successful. There’s nothing to stop any community taking this idea and fashioning it into their own practical project.

In my local town of Cognac there are several “Boulangeries” (Bakers) and they are ALL different. They might all include a core range of similar products, including baguettes and croissants, for example, but they all do it differently. Each baker has his or her own skill and experience, own strengths and weaknesses, and I know which one to go to for different types of bread, which make the croissants the way I enjoy them, and which make the best patisserie (like eclairs, and other cakes). Here’s the thing – I don’t buy all those different products in the same boulangerie. Yes, I know, you might prefer the “convenience” of a standardised, one stop shop, and that’s your right to enjoy that. But for me, acquiring this local knowledge then using it to find just what I want, when I want, enriches my life.

Diversity – it’s beautiful and enriching.

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We change all the time. The world changes all the time. Nothing is fixed or, so called, “permanent”. I thought about that when I received my residency card here in France recently. I’ve been given what is called a “Carte de Sejour Permanente” – a permanent residency card. That’s me sorted, you might think. Then I notice that it expires in ten years time. Do they know something I don’t? Well, no, thank goodness, it’s just that permanent seems to last ten years in this instance.

That did get me thinking about the whole concept of permanent. Which isn’t something I’ve explored all that much. I have wondered for a long time about the concept of “now” – which is a period of time when we instantly recognise but is devilishly difficult to pin down or define. I mean the moment you think “this is now”, that moment has slipped away into the past and been replaced by an entirely new “now”! But back to “permanent” – I guess we just use this wonder to mean a fairly longish piece of time – in relation to geology we might be talking thousands of years, and in relation to the universe perhaps billions, but, in every single case, we discover that nothing is fixed, nothing really does retain the same, exact features and characteristics (cripes, even the same molecules!) for ever. It’s just the speed of change which alters.

Yet, in our own lives, things happen, and after they’ve happened nothing ever seems the same again. Like you can see in this image of a tree that I’ve shared above. This tree has the most dramatic change of direction which has completely changed its shape forever….ok, for the rest of its life then. And when I see a “lesion” like this I immediately wonder “What happened?” I used to have the same approach with patients in the consulting room. They might come with a problem which had gone on for decades and I always asked them to think back to the time when they felt completely well, then to tell me about the appearance of the first symptoms. That naturally led on to a discussion about what was happening in their life around the time of the big change. I don’t think there’s any way to prove cause and effect in such a scenario but I found it helpful to take the position of “Let’s imagine that what was happening then was significant in bringing about what happened next” That seemed to open the way to a new understanding of illness, it’s significance and possible meaning, which gave a patient the opportunity to change their way of dealing with it to something more helpful, something which might even open the doors to growth and development.

In that sense I think that the events of our lives change us. The most significant events change us dramatically and for the rest of our lives. Death of a loved one, giving birth, serious trauma……you know the kind of thing. All of that, for the individual concerned leaves a permanent change – it can’t be erased. But the way forward with that is learning to create different responses from the ones which have trapped us in suffering. In other words, we can’t change the past, but we can change the way the past impacts on us by choosing to respond differently.

This pandemic is going to change us all……has already changed us all. There won’t be any “return to normal” even if many people desire that…..and nor should there be. Because this event is an opportunity for us, individually and collectively, to reflect, ask ourselves what we were doing that might have contributed to the particular experiences of the pandemic and what we might do differently now to not end up in the same place again.

We have a chance now to reassess our values, our beliefs and our behaviours. To change our priorities, to demand change in our economic, political and social systems. I hope we do that. We’ll all remember 2020. I hope we remember it as the year which led the world to take a different direction.

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The first white asparagus of the season are arriving. The main lunchtime news had an item about the white asparagus from the “Landes” region yesterday, showing the first harvest. This is one of the most impressive differences for me about coming to live in South West France and it’s about food. Firstly, before I came here I don’t remember the annual seasonal arrival of any foodstuffs feeling like an “event”. I’m not even sure I could tell you what were the main seasons for anything in Scotland. But there are a number of distinct foods which appear seasonly here in France. Secondly, I don’t remember the seasonal arrival of any foodstuff being covered by the national news. Both of these phenomena are just normal here.

So, here we are in March and suddenly it’s the beginning of the asparagus season. First of all, the white asparagus. This season will only last until June so you’ve just over three months to enjoy it. In other words, it’s not just about the seasonal arrival of a particular fruit or vegetable, it’s that the season is exactly what you’d expect – about a quarter of a year – then you need to wait till this time next year until the local, fresh, harvest appears again.

I took this photo a few years ago at one of the markets in Aix en Provence. I’d never seen that much asparagus before! Well, I’ve seen displays like this quite often in different parts of France since then (always, of course, at this time of year). In fact, in the weekly market in Rochefort, which isn’t too far from where I live, I heard a vendor behind a display like this shouting “Aspergez-vous!” – which would translate as “Asparagus yourself!” – nope, I don’t think you’d find that verb in a French dictionary. It was just his personal creativity and enthusiasm on display.

I don’t think I’d ever tasted asparagus before I came to live in France, and I certainly didn’t know there was both white asparagus and green asparagus. But I love it now – both kinds! I love it simply boiled with lemon juice drizzled onto it on the plate, and I love the white especially in a risotto. What a treat!

So here’s what I’ve learned from this experience – that when you eat food in its season, food which hasn’t travelled too many kilometres, food which hasn’t been processed, it tastes superb. Not only that, eating that food becomes something of an event. To eat it when it arrives in the market in season you experience a kind of excitement, a sort of thrill, which is added to the actual taste of that food. Applying this principle enhances my enjoyment of the food I eat, and when it comes to diets and “healthy eating”, enjoyment is not a supplementary option. It should be at the heart of the decision making. (This is a reverse to that old adage about the best diet being the one where “if it tastes good, spit it out!”)

I’m now more aware of variety in my diet. I’m more aware of how far the food has travelled. I’m more aware of wanting to choose what’s been produced locally where I can – and I’m happy to expand that concept of “local” depending on what the food is! (Corsican clementines are another of my all time favourite seasonal foods for example).

OK, so let me be clear. I don’t eat ONLY what is seasonal and local. But I have an awareness of those factors and I’ll deliberately choose them when I can. And yes, I know, not everyone has the same culture as the one I’m experiencing here. France has markets with local and seasonal produce really in every town….even quite small towns. That isn’t the case back in Scotland, and it might not be the case where you live. However, the culture of local small producer markets was always one of my favourite things about France when I used to come on holiday here and knowing that certainly influenced my decision to emigrate and to come and live here. (I emigrated to live in a different culture, a different language and a different climate)

How is it where you live? Are you able to access seasonal foods? If you are, I really recommend it. And, oh, yes, I’m pretty sure that a diet with plenty of seasonal and local plant based foods in it is a healthy diet. But I don’t think there is any one good diet which is best for everyone. I think it’s great we are different and we can make different choices.

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This is the Kamo River which flows through Kyoto. I took this shot because I liked the colours of the trees on the bank, and the reflection in the river of the clouds floating on a blue sky. I still like it for those reasons. However, I’ve found that, in the many years since I took this photo, that I’ve returned to it over and over again. I’ve used it to illustrate what I think are some of the most fundamental lessons of the universe.

On one bank you see trees, and a pathway running between the trees and the river. The trees are diverse. They are different species, different shapes, and different colours. For me they represent diversity and a “natural” habitat. You could argue they represent “wildness” – that universal force which continuously strives for growth, difference and diversity. It’s a “multiplicity”, not a “mono-culture”.

On the other bank you see houses, hotels and offices. This is the built environment. It is planned, constructed and ordered. Yes, I agree, the buildings are not all the same, and there is a saving grace in the Kyoto architecture. In some parts of other cities the buildings really are “cookie cutter” in their shape and construction. Let’s say this represents a second universal force – that which organises and builds.

Thomas Berry, in his “The Great Work”, describes these two forces beautifully and points out that an excess of “wildness” produces destruction, chaos and disorder….things can fall apart, whilst an excess of “discipline” produces too tight limits, narrow boundaries and a level of organisation which makes life impossible. I see this story represented in this photo.

Right down the middle of these two forces we see a calm, harmonious, “integrated”, flowing river. This is the “sweet spot”, that place where the interplay of these two great forces produces both Life and beauty. In this photo, there is even a bridge connecting the two. The bridge is a connector, and it’s through the creation of “mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts” that we experience “integration”, harmony and growth.

You can think of a life journey sailing down this river, sometimes veering off towards more organisation, and sometimes off to the other bank to find diversity and wildness. As we navigate our way between these two opposites, we experience a full life, a rich life, a life of depth, meaning and purpose, a life of beauty and joy.

The final thing I’d say about the universal lesson I see in this photo is that it encourages us to appreciate the “whole”, not to judge one bank as “good” and the other as “bad”. After all, if we only had one bank, we wouldn’t have a river……we wouldn’t have a life.

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I love this photo of a tree in winter. Without its leaves you can see how the tree has a classic structural pattern – a pattern which we call “branching” – no doubt in reference to where we see this most – in trees!

This is a pattern we see in many, many places. You can see how water runs down the mountainsides in small streams which gather together into larger streams, then rivers, until one big river makes its way down to the sea. You can also see it at the coast where rivers form an estuary. You see it in root structures under the ground, as well as in bushes and trees above ground. And, perhaps more for me because of my lifetime work as a doctor, you see this pattern throughout the human body – in our circulatory system, in our lymphatic system, in our urinary system, nervous system, our liver, and especially in our lungs.

So when I see an image like this I see something “universal” – something fundamental. It gives me a glimpse of some of the underlying structure of the world. And I find it beautiful. I love how seeing this in the tree brings to mind all those other locations – out in the countryside and within the human body – so that the single tree elicits a broader and deeper reality.

Mind you, we mustn’t get carried away and think that this is the only kind of structure we find in the universe. Of course it isn’t. It’s just one of THE main ones. Equally, or maybe even to a greater extent, we uncover the patterns of networks and webs.

And in those places where we find a beautiful merging of both of these core forms.

Deleuze and Guattari clarified this best for me when they described these two structures as “arboreal” and “rhizomal”.

Take a look around you and see where you can spot them. It’ll help you to become more aware of how often you use these structures when you think, and when you try to make sense of your world.

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This pandemic is giving us a really clear experience of living within limits. We experience that as a series of constraints. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable. We want to be free, don’t we? Free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without a care in the world.

Wouldn’t that be bliss?

But, wait, isn’t that kind of naive? Because there is no such thing as living without limits. We are never free to do absolutely anything we could imagine or desire. That’s a fantasy. Or even a delusion.

I found myself thinking that as I looked at this old photo of a thin layer of cloud hugging the contours of Ben Ledi.

I have just read “Ou suis-je?” by Bruno Latour where he describes some of the limits we live. One of those is what scientists call “the critical zone” – which is the space in which Life can exist. It’s an astonishingly narrow space. You can probe down into the Earth about ten kilometres and you’re down to rock where nothing lived, and you can soar up into Space about ten kilometres and beyond that the atmosphere becomes so thin nothing can live there.

The actual numbers aren’t that important. What is amazing is that all of Life exists within a very, very narrow zone. I don’t know if you’ve seen a photo of the Earth from Space which captures the thinness of the atmosphere. Let me find it for you.

There you are.

Well that’s the image which came to my mind as I looked at my photo of Ben Ledi.

We all live within these very narrow limits. We share, with every other living organism, this astonishingly thin “critical zone”.

The fact that living with limitations has become such an intense experience for so many during the pandemic has woken us up. We live in One interconnected world, a world of precious and limited resources. Now we have to learn to change the way we live – to change away from consumption and destruction to sustainability and creativity.

The pandemic has also shone a strong light on inequality showing us, perhaps more clearly than ever, that too many people are struggling to live with financial and social limitations which make them most vulnerable to serious illness and death.

So maybe now is a good time to think about the reality of living with limits and start to make the changes which increase the chances of better lives for more of us, rather than keeping our eyes closed and hoping for the impossible.

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When I look at this photo I think “This is what life feels like, and this is what life really is”.

What I mean is this – look at those bubbles (I’m going to guess that when you looked at this photo the first thing you noticed were the bubbles). Each one looks perfect, and perfectly separate from the rest. Each bubble is distinct, different in size, different in location, different in the exact way it reflects the light, and also, although you can’t see this in a still photo, each moving along its own distinct, and different path (there are hints of that in the flows of water currents which you can see creating that marbling effect between the bubbles).

We feel like this. Separate, distinct, different. We feel, and we are, unique. There are no two of us with identical characteristics, identical stories, living in exactly the same time and place having exactly the same experiences. We have a membrane which seems to separate us from the rest of the world. On the outside, that membrane is our skin. On the inside it’s mucous membranes lining our lungs, our digestive system and our urinogenital system. Inside, and within, that, is our immune system, a distributed network of cells and chemicals which recognise “foreign” substances and protect us from their potential harm.

But actually, we are not separate. Those membranes are porous. They are not impermeable. And that’s for a very important reason. They enable us to connect. They enable us to interact with others and with the rest of the planet. They enable us to ingest nutrients, inhale oxygen, expel waste materials and exhale carbon dioxide, amongst many other exchange processes. So, to see them as simple barriers or borders is wrong. They do distinguish what is “me” from what is “not me”, but they enable my life by enabling these, and multiple other connections and flows.

Look again at these bubbles. Where do they come from and where do they go? They emerge from the water itself, and they dissolve back into the water they emerged from. So do we. We emerge within the rest of this “natural” world, come into existence for a brief period of time, then we dissolve back into the great web of being from which we came. In the part between birth and death, that part we call life, we don’t disconnect from that great web. We live in communion with it. We live as part of it, not apart from it.

Life is flow – flow of molecules and chemicals, flow of energy, flow of information. Our existence is a delicate but distinct dynamic interplay of those flows, creating the appearance of separateness and difference, but never disconnecting from, or existing apart from, the whole.

Our lives are distinct and beautiful, but they are not separate.

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Why do we open up? Why do we “unfurl”? As I wrote the other day, my word of the year is “épanouissement” – which means to flourish, to blossom, to fulfil – we follow that path by uncurling, unfolding, unfurling, just like these ferns. And why do we do that? Because, just like these ferns suggest – it enables us to connect.

Opening up, vastly increases our chances of making meaningful, healthy, nourishing connections. Closing down does the opposite.

There are times we need to enfold ourselves, to close down, curl up like a hedgehog for defence, but actually, much, much more, we need to do the opposite. Because without making connections we die.

We do not exist in isolation. Even if it feels like we are being asked to do exactly that during this pandemic, what we’ve discovered is that it isn’t possible. None of us can live without the vast world wide web of others…..without whom we wouldn’t have shelter, food, water, comfort or care. It’s the natural state of affairs – connectedness. And connections aren’t worth much unless they act as channels of exchange – of materials, energies and information.

When I look at this photo, I don’t just see two ferns unfurling, opening up, but I see two ferns touching gently, almost as if they are having their first kiss.

Isn’t this what we need to grow in our world? Not grow our consumption of “stuff”, nor grow our production of waste. We don’t need to grow our destruction of ecosystems. We’ve been doing that all too well. It’s time to change course, isn’t it? To grow our connections, our “integrated” connections – the ones which enable mutually beneficial relationships to thrive. We need to grow our capacity for care and creativity. We need to grow our passion for love, tolerance and acceptance. And to do all that we need to open both our minds and our hearts.

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This pandemic with its lockdowns (or “confinement” as we call it in France) has been, and continues to be, tough for a lot of people for many reasons. It’s the biggest global disruption of our way of life that most of us have ever experienced. So many “normal”, “everyday” and “routine” activities and experiences disappeared over an incredibly short period of time. Apart from the disruptions of work, family and social life, we’ve seen an end to “mass” everything – no crowds of spectators at sporting events, no theatre or cinema audiences, no music concerts, no festivals…..well, I’m sure you can add to that list.

However, there have been two positive developments which I’ve read that many people have experienced – one inner, and one outer which enhances the inner. Pardon? Let me explain.

With the shrinking of our horizons, physical and social, many of us have been spending more time in contemplation – yes, maybe deliberate meditation or other such exercise, but, also a more general reflection. A kind of reassessment and revaluing. It’s given us the time and space to become more aware of our habits and routines and ask if we want to re-establish them when the time comes (when the pandemic is over).

What patterns of behaviour, what modes of living, what activities have been disrupted that I don’t want to re-establish? That I want to let go off.

What new patterns, rituals, activities do I want to create instead? What new ways of living do I want to begin?

This un-asked for, and, frankly, pretty unwelcome, pause, is a real opportunity for both awareness and change. You don’t need to have a meditation space, like the man in this photo, to do that, but maybe there’s something inspiring in this image anyway? Maybe it would be good to create, if possible, a place, a space, which we find is conducive to contemplation and reflection? Or maybe we can do that wherever we are?

That’s the inner – this is an opportunity to develop our inner selves – to pay some more attention to our physical and mental health and our lifestyles. To become aware of our habits of thought and feeling and ask ourselves if we want to develop along different paths now.

The second is about what we call “Nature”. You know, I’m a bit uncomfortable about talking about “Nature” as if Nature is a thing, and more than that, as if “it” is a “thing” “out there”. We are part of Nature, not apart from Nature. But then, we’ve sort of forgotten that, as a species, and maybe that’s one of the problems which has brought us to this pandemic. So, maybe this is a great time to reconnect, to re-engage, to re-orientate ourselves with regard to the “natural world”.

I’ve found that noticing the cycles of the flowers, the vegetables, and the trees, has become something I am much more aware of now. I’ve found that I’ve noticed many more species of birds in the garden. I’ve noticed that when I’ve had the chance a walk in vineyards, in amongst some trees, or along a sandy beach on the Atlantic coast, then I feel a huge boost. That shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve written before about the recognised benefits of spending time in the natural world – to the extent that some people now talk about “Nature Therapy“.

There is something truly life enhancing about becoming more aware and more engaged with “the natural world” and from “forest bathing” to spending time in open spaces we know that such activities boost the chemicals in our bodies and minds which influence our immune system, our moods and our thought patterns.

So, connecting better to the “outer” enhances the “inner”.

Again, you don’t need a beautiful Japanese garden like the one in this photo, (although, isn’t that gorgeous?) – but I recommend taking advantage of this time and space to develop your inner self, and your connected self, by grabbing or creating every opportunity you can get to do so.

Contemplation and Engagement with the Natural World.

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In many ways this is a very simple photograph. What do you see?

Having ignored the “rule of thirds” in my composition, I’ve put the cherry blossom bang, smack in the centre of the image. It’s literally right in front of your eyes. It’d be pretty hard to respond to the question “what do you see?” without referring to the cherry blossom, don’t you think.

But I’ve long since had a fascination for appreciating the whole over the parts, and in this photo, I think it’s equally difficult to ignore the presence of the “background” – the bamboo – even though I’ve blurred that background for the purposes of contrast.

When I look at this I definitely see “cherry blossom in front of a bamboo forest” – well, I was there at the time, and I remember that. You might not be aware that the bamboo is part of a whole bamboo forest, but you can certainly see bamboo stretching in all four directions to every edge of the image.

This insistence on seeing both the foreground AND the background to have full appreciation of the scene, is consistent with my desire to always take into consideration contexts and environment when I encounter anything. For example, in my work as a doctor, a patient would “present” to me their symptoms, and with my knowledge, plus any relevant physical examination, and, if necessary imaging or tests, then I would make a diagnosis – probably the diagnosis of a “disease”. A “pathology”. But that was never enough. I had to see the presence of this foregrounded disease in the context of the backgrounded personal life story. I had to “situate” the disease into the time, place and meaning of this individual’s life. If I wanted to understand, not just the “illness” as the whole experience of the patient, but how it came about, what impact it is having, and how it might change this person’s perception of themselves and their life, then I had to see them “whole”, not limit my focus to the the “presenting” parts.

I think this same principle applies throughout the whole of life. If I want to understand anything about my life, about others, about this planet we all live on, then I need to see the “whole”. It’s not good enough to reduce reality to a data set, a package of characteristics and elements. I always need to consider the connections, the relationships, the contexts and the multiple layers of environment and meaning. I know that doesn’t sound as quick and easy as focusing just on a part or two, but, hey, who said reality could ever be reduced to what was quick and simple without losing all understanding? Not me.

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