Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring Cleaning

Do you find, as I do, that the things you live with every day are rarely if ever studied?  When did you last look at your pictures?  Seriously appreciate your ornaments?  Enjoy the pattern on your plate?
However, let me tell you what happened to me this week, something that turned such lack of appreciation on its head . . . it was the annual ritual of spring cleaning!

What spring cleaning brought home to me was not merely how fortunate I am in all that's been left to me over the years, but how it all comes together to tell a story . . . my story.  The story of an only child who has slowly accumulated all that remains of her departed family's bits and pieces.

Take the carpet . . . it was a wedding present to my parents, as was the convex mirror.  Take the three, small stools . . . now ideal depositories for my visitors' plates and cups, they once belonged to my grandparents and were used by me, when a toddler, as child-size seats.

Look at the pictures . . . amongst others there's a water-colour that was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Many years ago the artist gave it to my grandfather.  And what scene does the picture portray?  The winding path above The Thames where, as a child, I regularly rode my pony.

On the shelves, alongside books received as presents and those that I've purchased myself, sits the collection of P.G.Wodehouse novels treasured by my father, the Kipling collection much-prized by my mother.

I relax in the  comfortable wicker chair that once sat in my nursery.  The china and cutlery in the kitchen were part of my childhood.  The bureau in daily use was inherited from a much-loved aunt, whilst the clock and barometer were regularly consulted by my grandparents.

But perhaps the most surprising item in my accumulation of family possessions is the boomerang.
This is a genuine, Aboriginal boomerang.  It was brought to this country by my grandfather when, as a child of six, he came here with his parents from Australia.
It would mean nothing to anyone else, it means a great deal to me.
Spring cleaning is over.  Everything is back in its place and will stay there, largely unnoticed, for another year.  But the annual exercise has given me the chance to observe and say thank you . . . thank you to the family who loved me and raised me and who, in leaving me their possessions, gave me my home.
Now . . . where did I put that boomerang . . . ?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Green Music

Have I ever mentioned the fact that my cat and I share our flat with thirty-nine house-plants?

It was never my intention to have such a well-stocked indoor garden, but, over the years the plants have arrived, settled in and flourished. The oldest, a begonia, came from my mother's home. Now in its prime at over forty years old, its abundant growth annually reaches the ceiling before being pruned back in the spring.

Several of the plants are in their twenties and thirties, many are teenagers, only one is a recent arrival. The majority of them were gifts, several were rescued. An ornamental ivy, found expiring in a hotel bedroom, was purchased from the hotel and rewarded me by thriving on its return home. A wilting sapling in a pot, abandoned on a pavement waiting to be collected by the council's refuse van, has now grown into a healthy, small tree.
Each has become a member of the family . . . a plant that comes to my home comes to stay.

I hope it doesn't sound fanciful to say that I see them as individuals, but this is what they are. Not only am I fully aware of their preferences when it comes to shade or sunlight, but they are equally good at making their needs clear on the crucial question of watering.

We know each other, my plants and I.
Or, at least, I thought we did.

What has caused me to think again is a remarkable video. It was sent to me recently by the Damanhur Foundation, an eco-society in Northern Italy.
Please allow yourself a moment to sit back and relax. I can promise you something both moving and enlightening. I can also promise you that, after watching it, you will never again look at your house-plants, or your garden, in quite the same way!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Toddlers with matches

What a difference a tense makes.
I am . . . I was . . . or I will be? We were . . . we are . . . or we might be?
Let me explain.

Those of us brought up in a Christian culture have absorbed a concept into our genes. Forget the Big Bang. Forget all that scientists have recently discovered. Somewhere inside us a voice is saying: "God created the world and it is good."

Note the tense of that sentence, for that is where the problem lies. Subconsciously we believe that the world 'was created', not that it's an ongoing process. We believe that this world we inhabit is the finished article, not a continuous, highly volatile work-in-progress.

Just for a moment, let's put aside that concept and think in terms of ongoing evolution.
What a difference it makes. All at once, man is not the pinnacle of creation (which, looking around at our current floundering, seems highly unlikely anyway) the species homo sapiens is a phase in the divine creative process. Not only that, having been here for a mere two hundred thousand years, we are new arrivals on the planet. New arrivals who, it sometimes seems, don't yet know their own strength. As Janine Benyus put it recently, 'we are like toddlers with matches'.

Toddlers with matches can be dangerously unpredictable. So, what are our chances of adapting to survive in this period of volatile instability? Janine Benyus is President of The BioMimicry Institute, a scientific body that offers guidance on how humanity can benefit from studying and imitating the skills of the natural world. In her view, whilst we have an infinite potential to adapt, we need to change our viewpoint . . . to recognise our vulnerability, becoming students of nature, rather than conquerers.

So . . . we'd be wise to descend from our pinnacle of self-importance. We are not the ultimate, the 'be all and end all', we are a stage in a cycle. And even that isn't the full story. We are not a static stage. We are an evolving stage in an evolving universe.

I don't know about you, but, when faced with this reality, I find myself tempted to behave like Nero: to turn my back on the flames and to pick up my fiddle. But, to a large extent, we are the toddlers who lit those flames.

Might it not be the time for us to put aside our matches and, guided by the advice of BioMimicry, look to the caterpillars for inspiration?
If caterpillars can evolve from a life of rapacious greed, surely it's possible for us to follow their example . . . a time, perhaps, to start thinking and living as butterflies?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Let Sleeping Ducks Lie!

Speaking as a very
proud 'mum', may I offer you a story to make you smile?
As you know, Chloe has three daily walks in the garden. Walks that culminate in a visit to the pond where we feed the ducks with their favourite, chocolate-flavoured, breakfast cereal. Chloe and the ducks are very familiar with each other.

Returning from a meeting in Central London the other evening, I was greeted by an indignant cat whose afternoon walk was long overdue. It was getting a little late, but she has me well-trained and out we went.

Two very sleepy ducks were seated on the ground by the pond. As we arrived the female duck, fully aware of our arrival and close proximity, sank her plump body slowly to the ground, poked her beak into the feathers at the back of her neck, and fell fast asleep!

Chloe was utterly taken aback. But, deep in her subconscious, some ancient code of the Bengals was clearly instructing her that cats don't jump on sleeping ducks.
To my considerable surprise - matched with equal pride and delight - she backed quietly away. Moments later, seated on the wooden seat beside which the duck was sleeping, she indulged in some quiet reflections of her own.

The moral of the story? That contentious and combative humans could learn a lot from cats and ducks!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Too clever by half

Do you share my affection for the Disney classic, 'Fantasia'? I've loved it ever since I was a child. I'm sure you know it.
Do you remember the moment when the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, launches the Philadelphia Orchestra into the story of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'?
In his master's absence, the Apprentice, Mickey Mouse, has the inspired idea of magically producing a troupe of active brooms to save him the menial task of cleaning.
It's only when the brooms develop equally inventive ideas of their own that the chastened Apprentice learns his lesson - the lesson that it's far easier to create than to control!

I thought of those wayward brooms on several occasions last week. The first was on Wednesday when I was listening to the 'Today' programme.
In the middle of cleaning my teeth, I was brought up sharply.
What was this about artificially-engineered organisms?

"One of Britain's top research priorities," we were told, "is the extraordinary new field of what's called 'synthetic biology' where scientists design and create artificial DNA to produce everything from medicines to fuels to materials."

The reporter went on to say that the government hoped that this new science would play an important part in economic growth. Environmental campaigners, it appeared, were warning of the risks of creating artificially-engineered organisms. But this piece of information was only added as an afterthought.

Later in the day, I came across another rather startling news item on-line. With growing apprehension, I read:

French researchers have shown how to apply the ideas of 'optical cloaking' - the endeavour to make a Harry Potter-style cloak - to the thermal world.
"We can design a cloak so that heat diffuses around an invisibility region, which is then protected from heat," Sebastien Guenneau explained.

My sense of unease was further fuelled on Thursday morning. Once again listening to the 'Today' programme, I heard an interview in which Professor John Pickett explained field trials were under way of a genetically modified variety of wheat. This wheat, it appeared, had been designed to reduce the damage done by aphids. It was, the professor insisted enthusiastically, wholly beneficial and nothing could go wrong.
"Nothing? You can say that as a scientist?" queried the interviewer. Professor Pickett insisted that the chances of anything going wrong were miniscule.

I'm sure that Mickey Mouse would have said exactly the same.

Elsewhere last week there seemed to be constant debate on the contentious subject of energy. It's widely hoped that shale gas (regardless of the risk of fracking-induced earthquakes) will reduce the West's dependence on overseas oil. In addition, synthetic, man-made DNA is providing algae with synthetic genes in order to create an artificial form of fuel.
Every country would appear to be sending out the same message: whatever the cost in terms of risk and uncertainty, energy supplies must be increased in order to fuel mobility and, at the same time, promote competitive economic growth.
But is this wise?

As a species we are clever. There's not the slightest doubt about that. Our top scientists are brilliant. But do we want more cleverness? Do we even want more brilliance?
Surely the crying need in our troubled world is for wisdom?

May I suggest the unthinkable?
That we stop modifying genes, that we pull back from tampering with creation by means of synthetic biology, that we pause for a moment . . . just a moment . . . and reflect.

What is it that really needs to change . . . who is it that is crying out to be modified, refined, and remodelled . . . which is the species that needs to evolve in order to live lightly on the earth . . . might it not be us?