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I’ve got a new camera, my first new camera in many years. My old Nikon had started playing up, switching itself off, becoming unresponsive and pretty much every photo I took needed editing afterwards. I’ve gone for a Sony RX100 (can’t for the life of me figure out why camera manufacturers have to give their products such bizarre names, strikes me as a failure of imagination!).

Here’s one of the first photos I’ve taken with it, (yesterday’s pic of Little Owl was taken the same day), and I’m really, really pleased with it. Look at the sharpness of the details.

This photo of a bee seeking nectar and gathering pollen in the process as it buzzes around the flowers of this lovely bramble plant is more than just a pleasing image. In fact, this is the kind of photo to delight me most. I like it for its beauty, but I also like the thought trains it inspires.

Let’s face it, this relationship between the bee and the plant is a superb example of an « integrative relationship ». Remember the definition? An integrative relationship is a mutually beneficial one between two well differentiated parts. This is the essence of health. In fact, it’s the essence of Life. Without these integrative relationships life just couldn’t exist. None of us can survive without others, and without healthy relationships spreading far and wide across a highly diverse web of non-human organisms.

The bee doesn’t have to become more bramble like, nor does the bramble have to become more bee like. It’s not uniformity and sameness which lies at the heart of this success. It’s difference AND the ability to create MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL bonds between them.

Isn’t this a great principle on which to base a society, or, indeed, a civilisation?

We humans haven’t quite managed that yet. We’re still pretty much in the thrall of competition, exploitation, consumption of resources and production of waste.

Mightn’t it be better to swing our attention and energies towards co-operation, mutual benefit, sustainable consumption and the minimisation, if not elimination of waste?

Maybe we need to be a little less arrogant and realise we have a lot to learn from the rest of the natural world.

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Here’s Little Owl sitting on the chimney stack of my house. You know, I used to think owls were nocturnal but Little Owl seems to be out and about during the day as well. He’s looking right at me as I take his photo.

I remember reading somewhere that creatures with two eyes facing forward are predators, whilst those with eyes on the sides of their head are vegetarian. Is that true?

Like us, birds pay two different kinds of attention at the same time. One half of their brain allows them to have broad awareness of their whole surroundings, whilst the other gives them focused attention so they can spot prey, or seeds, or whatever food they seek. This combination of broad and focused attention is something we tend to take for granted but it has a huge evolutionary advantage.

Perhaps related to that birds, especially predators, are able to take the view from above, and to zoom in on specifics, as it suits them. Classical philosophers long ago pointed out the benefits of taking « the view from on high » as well as the ability to focus and concentrate. I remind myself of that frequently as I look at both details and contexts…..it’s what I had to do in order to diagnose diseases, and understand the uniqueness of every single patient.

There is, of course, a huge variety of behaviours between different types of birds, but I do think they inspire us to think about that constant paradox of the need to be separate and the need to belong. Individual birds, like this Little Owl, are usually seen alone, whilst others, like starlings, usually turn up in huge flocks. The robin, the redstart and the hoopoe usually appear in the garden alone, or with either a single partner, or a youngster. But the goldfinches, swallows, sparrows and starlings are rarely seen without a whole bunch of family and/or friends around the them! That always inspires me to reflect on those two human needs which we all share – the need to be an individual and the need to be embedded in complex networks of relationships with others…….of how we develop an identity from our individuality AND from the groups of which are a part.

Hey, isn’t it amazing the places the mind goes to when looking at a single owl?

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Sometimes a single plant just stops me in my tracks. This one did. Have you ever seen anything quite like it? The combination of colour and form is really something.

I was tempted to simply share this photo with you and tell you, briefly, about my astonishment, but, actually looking at it again just now sets off a train of thought which is never far from my mind. So I’m going to share that too.

I think the plant world is severely under-rated by we humans. Plants evolved before animals did and they’ve managed to establish themselves over the whole planet. In other words they’ve learned how to survive, adapt and thrive a long, long time before we humans did! Not only that but they’ve developed the ability to live sustainably. They don’t use up finite resources and they don’t pollute their environment.

But perhaps one of the most astonishing features of plants is how they can suck what they need directly out of the air and use the Sun’s energy to convert what they capture into stems, roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. Sure they gather some of what they need through their roots but photosynthesis is surely their super power.

We’ve learned fairly recently just how interconnected trees are in a forest, communicating directly but also through an incredible symbiotic relationship with micro-fungi…..to the extent that their networked way of living has been called the “wood wide web”.

But there’s more!

Think of the vast diversity of methods used by plants to have their seeds fertilised and disseminated. And how they use colour, shape and scent to attract pollinators and deter predators.

I’m not saying we need to turn into plants but surely the plant world is an abundant source of inspiration. There’s a whole movement now called biomimetics which looks to nature to learn how we might solve our problems.

Think of how all of our food is dependent on plants, and how a plant based diet has been shown time and again to be the healthiest one.

Finally, we’ve only scratched the surface of the healing power of plants.

As I said…..amazing!

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Seeds and stars

When I look at this photo I think of both seeds and stars. It looks like a constellation. I find myself gazing at it for ages seeing a pattern but not able to name it.

I’ve often wondered about that when I’ve learned the constellations in the night sky. How did a “W” shape come to be seen as a queen (Cassiopeia), and how did that other cluster of stars become “seven sisters”? It often seems that the imagined image is way more elaborate than the actual grouping of a handful of stars.

And yet, those patterns, once learned, can’t be unseen. Every winter I watch Orion rise in the East and make his way across the night sky to the western horizon, knowing that come late Spring I won’t see him again until next winter.

So when you look at these star-like seed-heads what do you see? Do any images form in your mind?

I also think there’s a nice symmetry between seeds and stars. Seeds, it seems to me, speak of the future. Every seed is full of potential. A potential which may or may not be realised at some future date. Stars, on the other hand, are so far away that their light takes many many years to reach us, so star gazing is a kind of witnessing of the past. As if right now, you are seeing what was happening on those stars many years ago.

But let me turn that around 180 degrees. Seeds contain the past, their genetic heritage is the result of millions of years of evolution and dozens of generations of ancestors. Stars, on the other hand, have been the source of imagining the future for many civilisations. Human beings have used the regular patterns of the movements of planets and constellations to know when to plant and when to harvest, to know how to navigate their way across the face of the Earth, and, also to make predictions about events in individual lives.

In both these views, seeds and stars stir both our memories and our imaginings.

I find that deeply satisfying.

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My title for this photo is “sun and storm”. What caught my eye, in the hours before sunset was how I could see the dark grey, almost purple cloud on the horizon, and the veils of rain dropping down from the cloud base to the ground, but all of this in the context of a bright clear sky (which you can see in the upper right of the photo) and the bright, shining sun, sitting just between the cloud base and the ground.

So here’s my question. Is this a stormy day or a sunny day?

Or, if you prefer, is this a photo of a storm or bright sunshine?

Trick question really…..because the true answer is « and not or ». But that’s not the way we tend to experience things when we are autopilot is it?

I remember one morning I parked my car in the station car park on the way to work and found that, as often happened, the nearest ticket machine wasn’t working. As I returned with a ticket from another machine I came across a man, furious and upset because the machine wasn’t working. He said to me « This is a terrible day! » I told him the other machine was working and it was only 7am, so if the worst thing to happen to him today was going to be finding that one of the ticket machines wasn’t working, would the day be so terrible after all? »

I guess that with hindsight he might have punched me on the nose! However, he said, thank you, you’re right. When you put it like that I can’t let a parking ticket machine ruin my day!

The thing is reality is complex and nuanced. It isn’t « this OR that ». This tendency we have to bring together our two powers of generalising and labelling tend to run roughshod over that. Once we become aware of the multidimensional and interwoven nature of reality then we can focus more on the unique and the special, on the here and now, on the amazing, rich, AND not OR!

Maybe if we did that more there would be less polarisation, less hatred and less fear…………..just saying!

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The starlings around here form the biggest flocks. At certain times I can hear a whooshing sound caused by the noise of the air pushed aside as hundreds of them take off at the same moment from one of the surrounding vineyards.

There’s also this big tree on the crest of the hill. It’s a real favourite of theirs. They land on it in their thousands I reckon, creating a huge commotion of calls and cries. It sounds as if they are all talking at the same time! What a noise! You can’t ignore it. Then something strange happens. Over the course of a few seconds the entire flock falls silent. When this happens you can be sure that within the next few seconds they are all going to take flight, and that’s what you can see in this photo.

Of course starlings are also famous for murmurations, where as if they are one giant organism, they swoop across the sky, making rapid changes of direction which gives the impression of a giant shape shifting creature playing in the sky.

What impresses me so much though is their way of constantly gathering and dispersing. They seem restless birds and never settle in one particular spot, or formation, for long.

So they are a great example of how Life is about constant change, unceasing movement.

I know that we all learn that it’s good to pause and be still for a few moments, and that’s true. Especially if we want to draw our attention and focus into the here and now. But the truth is, even in the most settled moments, the most peaceful, mindful minutes of meditation or contemplation, that we are still creatures of constant movement. Our breath continues to flow in and out, our heart continues its constant beat, every cell of your being continues its metabolic processes of nourishment and activity.

One definition of a living being highlights this feature of « self movement ». In other words, what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate is this ability to move, to make movements, to act, without the stimulus of any external force.

Another definition focuses on « auto-poiesis » which means « self-making capacity » After all, it’s not just that our cells, organs and systems are constantly moving….they are constantly adjusting, adapting, repairing and growing.

So as I watch the starlings noisily gather and disperse I’m reminded of these rhythms, cycles and activities which we share with all that lives on this planet. I’m reminded of why I use the phrase « becoming not being » at the top of this site……because life really is a process of constant becoming.

I watch, I listen and I am amazed.

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I’m a big fan of diversity. It’s a fundamental characteristic of healthy Nature. In fact, as David Attenborough points out in his excellent « A Life on Our Planet » biodiversity loss is one of the greatest threats to the existence of our species.

Monocultures in agriculture are unsustainable, requiring ever increasing chemical inputs as the soil becomes exhausted.

Monopolies damage markets.

A team of people who all think exactly the same way loses the ability to adapt and innovate.

Healthy communities are diverse ones if integration is held as important (integration being the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts). We thrive together as we bring to the table our different perspectives and ways of thinking, with a desire to produce the greatest wellbeing for everyone.

Democracy is a great idea if it allows diverse communities within a society to connect, to compromise and to collaborate. On the other hand, autocracies tend to impose one view, one set of values, and one way of thinking on all the others…..something which fosters conflict and, ultimately, leads to the whole system falling apart.

Diversity, as the photo above shows, is beautiful.

So, I don’t think of how to « tolerate » different views, opinions and ideas. I think how to integrate them. I don’t know how else to grow or flourish, let alone, survive.

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Dead or alive?

Look at this seed. I love how it’s heart shaped which immediately makes me think of my own beating heart.

It’s not a big leap from there to thinking about the whole phenomenon of Life. I mean, what exactly is it and how do we know when it’s there? Do those seem strange questions to you?

What is Life? I remember looking at the index in my main textbook of Medicine which I used during my university years. I was surprised there was no entry for “health”. Doesn’t that seem odd? You’d think if the goal was to train doctors how to help sick people become well, or how to heal the sick, then there might be a clear description at least, of health. After all how does a doctor know they are achieving their goal of health without a clear understanding of what health looks like?

That line of thought stayed with me throughout my working life, leading me to explore the philosophy of Medicine, philosophy of Science, the History of Medicine and Complexity Science.

It’s still not easy to say exactly what health is, but I’m sure it’s a phenomenon which is both objective and subjective.

However, that’s a digression, because what I encountered when exploring the absence of much consideration of health in Medicine, I came across a parallel issue in Biology. Try finding an entry for “life” in a biology textbook. Seriously – if you find one, let me know! Despite biology being pretty much a science of life, it seems science doesn’t find it that easy to say what life is. Or even when it’s there.

Which brings me back to this seed.

Is this seed alive?

Do you know that nobody can tell you the answer to that. There is no way to know by just looking at this seed – at any level – or by doing any measurements. The best science can do is to take a whole bunch of seeds and predict what percentage of them will turn into plants if nurtured. It can’t tell which particular seeds are “viable” or “alive” and which are as dead as a grain of sand.

There is only one way to find out – plant it, care for it, nurture it, and see if it grows.

Life, it turns out, reveals itself only in the experience of living.

Isn’t that amazing?

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Finding our way

I read a beautiful review by Robert Macfarlane yesterday. It was in the New York Review of Books and he was reviewing three books about navigation, wayfinding and landscape.

He gave several examples of astonishing navigational powers in several creatures, and of course, it’s hard to fail to be amazed by how a tiny migratory bird can travel thousands of miles and back between two particular places in the world. At least that’s my experience of the redstart who comes back to my garden every Spring, to give just one simple example.

Researchers have found magnetic particles in the beaks of migratory birds and similar structures which allow creatures to potentially detect the electromagnetic fields which encircle the planet, but they still haven’t figured out exactly how they use that ability.

It turns out there are highly specialised nerve cells in our brain which allow us to know both where we are in 3D space and to make maps of our surroundings so we can find our way easily from room to room and along familiar streets without having to stop to think about it.

But here’s the bit that really grabbed me.

Humans don’t possess inbuilt compasses, but we do have something arguably more powerful: storytelling.
Our remarkable navigational ability as a species is closely connected to our ability to tell stories about ourselves that unfold both backward and forward in time.

Robert Macfarlane in NYRB reviewing Wayfinding by MR O’Connor

Isn’t that a great insight? Our navigational super power isn’t tiny magnetic sensitive particles in our brains. It’s our ability to tell stories.

Without this ability we’d never have been able to share with others what we’ve learned, what we can imagine and where we are.

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In the pink

I live in rural South West France, in a department called “Charente” which is the name of the slow moving, chilled out, river which runs through this land.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of the landscape around here is vineyards. The rows and rows of vines are dedicated to the production of an alcohol called cognac, and the town of the same name is just a few kilometres from where I write this.

From the vineyards to the distilleries, the barrel makers, bottling plants and marketers, to the agricultural machinery and distillery equipment manufacturers and sellers, to the professional blenders, the groups of vineyard workers pruning, tying the vines along the wires, spraying the plants with herbicides and insecticides or tending to their fields with newly fashionable “bio” methods of viniculture, to the tasters and storytellers who turn these complex honey coloured liquids into magical hints of memories and desires, this is a whole complex web of human activity which forms a distinct culture.

I haven’t even begun to consider the non-human elements of this culture….the geography, geology, and ecology of this land.

Perhaps one of the most striking phenomena of this place is in the sky, however. I haven’t counted them but I’d be surprised if most years the majority of evenings in the year display pink, red or crimson skies at sunset.

You might think it’s so common that it becomes background, barely noticed, rarely acknowledged. But you’d be wrong. Night after night I notice the reddening of the sky, seeing the colour of the light change as it illuminates the pale stone walls, the dark leaves of the mulberry tree, or any clouds passing by.

I notice it, I get up, look out the window and, more often than not, go outside.

A couple of evenings ago the moon, waxing towards the full, appeared behind a thin pink cloud and I took this photo.

Well of all the hundreds of sunsets I’ve seen here over these last few years, this is the first time I’ve seen the Moon, veiled in pink.

It’s that sort of daily encounter with uniqueness and beauty which gets me wondering and delighting in just noticing what we call “this time and place”, or “this present moment”.

“L’émerveillement du quotidien”

Is there a better way to live?

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