Sunday, April 24, 2005

Dinner, anyone? 

This appeared in the garden out of nowhere yesterday, the way mushrooms are wont to do:

According to my little pocket guide to mushrooms and toadstools, this is a Morchella Elata. The guide goes on to say: “As far as true mushroom gourmets are concerned, the Morels are easily the best of the edible spring fungi although unfortunately none of them are very common.”

So if they're rare, where did half a dozen of these suddenly spring from? My guess is that the spores came in with a pack of bark chippings, used to cover the beds and keep the weeds down. Quite likely, since the guide says "found under conifers" and the bark has a strong pine fragrance.

Just above are these delightful little flowers, known, for obvious reasons, by the common name of bleeding hearts.

Hmmm… the mushroom in the picture looks a pretty good match for the one in the garden, but, delicacy though it may well be, I don’t trust my recognition skills enough to try cooking it. Just in case those hearts are bleeding for someone who was rash enough to try.

Saturday, April 23, 2005


I was going to write about something else. Two other things, actually:

Catherine left a comment which caused a few neurons in amongst my grey matter (the ones that are still active, that is) to fire and make some unexpected connections, all to do with that imperceptible but sometimes very real gap between self and surroundings, and I promised I’d say more when I’d put the thoughts together. I started that, found some interesting links, and left it all on my computer at work

Then, having been back from the hills for over a week, I find myself well and truly back in the daily routine – or what I called the cover-up known as normality. From this perspective, it’s hard to know which take on life is… is what? Right? Valid?

But another little thought is tugging at my sleeve, telling me it needs to be heard first. Like those two above, it follows on from my earlier “Belonging” post. I was both surprised and gratified to get such a response, but I fear that in both the post and the comments I allowed some different threads to get tangled up. Well, I suppose in the messy thing we call life, threads are inevitably tangled – in fact, to pretend there are even such things as individual threads at all is only our crude analytical way of making sense of experience. Nevertheless, I think the tangles allowed some muddles to creep in.

There’s belonging, and there’s ageing, and there’s doubts about identity. And they’re all tied up together, sometimes, and they’re distinct, sometimes.

Ageing is just a biological fact. But some of its inevitable symptoms gave rise to my feeling that I’d lost something of the sense of belonging in the hills. Loss is a powerful, elemental emotion. It’s not the absolute value of the thing lost that matters; it’s the strength of the attachment that drives the degree of the loss. And although I’d only lost a tiny part of that belonging-ness, the attachment is a very powerful one. So although I’m not blaming age, or its effects, that feeling of something lost still has to be dealt with.

Sometimes I wish we could communicate without using labels, but ultimately I suppose language is largely a collection of labels, and speech would be very long-winded without them. Take the label ‘mid-life crisis’. In three words, it attempts to sum up something that might easily be a crucially pivotal time in someone’s life. It’s a valuable abbreviation – how else could you express such an involved, convoluted phase of life so succinctly? – but it’s not a uniquely identifiable malady like influenza or a broken leg. Re-evaluations of who we think are, or who we want to be, can occur at any time of life, and are often triggered by change – a change in job, new parenthood, a change in relationship, or something more subtle such as life era.

I was talking of threads, and I’m in danger of losing this one. I think what I was trying to say, for my own benefit as much as anyone’s, is that there are no equivalences, no hard cause-and-effect links, between all these tangled aspects of living. Pull one strand of spaghetti hanging over the edge of the bowl and many others move – they touch and rub over each other, but they’re not necessarily connected.

Did any of that make any sense?

New kid on the block 

How fickle I can be! Neglecting my old established friend, the blog, to go and hang out with the new playmate a.k.a flikr.

76 photos uploaded at the last count, but slowing down now as I need to scan some more slides. Time for a break.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Glass overflowing 

suzanne left me these two comments on my earlier post about belonging.
I thought them much, much to good to leave tucked away there out of view, so with her permission I’m bringing them out here into the light:

"I feel like an alien
in all this
because I really came into flower
some years back
when I was 55

feel now
more like I did when I was
and the world was filled
with Wonder
and I was there
in the midst of it
open eyed
and taking as much of it in
as I could

this time in my life
is as filled with energy
and purpose
as that one was

for which I daily
do a little happy dance

my experience is
that perspective
gives shape
to the manifestation of reality

so I developed
a perspective
that attends to

in the small detail
and the great
and the cosmic

and . . .

I am the happiest person I know
so I figure
I'm doing something right"


"really andy
when I read posts
and comments as there are here
to write
about how awesome
ageing can be

I don't know who started
this other libe of thought
that growing old is
a waning and withering
off into
dribbling doodering senility

inhabited by the barely functional
and unbeautiful

it has come as one of the two
greatest surprises of my life
(the other being how grand
I found birthing
and mothering to be)
that this time in my life
should be
so sumptuously full
of feasting

I mean
especially those
who find the
middle life crises label apt
it doesn't have to be
or painfilled
or boring
or . . .

(O the list goes on)

there is less and less time
for dwelling
on the negative
or looking at the world
through lack colored lenses

that's better left
if it must be
to adolescence
when one thinks
she/he has all the time in the world

there isn't all the time in the world
for any of us
quite specifically
lifetime limited humans

so best
I believe
to seek
actively ferret out
all the wonder
that lies around
and unused"

Thank you, suzanne

How close is the horizon? 

Munching on my lunchtime apple and randomly clicking – as you do – on a link to a blog I hadn’t visited for a while, this made me sit up and take note:
“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind — computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people — artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers — will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys."

Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind

I hope he’s right. Could be my time has come… ;-)

I remember, maybe eight or nine years ago now, seeing the first glimmerings of a new paradigm being created in tiny pockets of organisations. Words like holistic, balance, creative and even spirituality started to be heard without always being laughed off court. Those glimmerings are still for the most part faint and isolated, but I’m sure there are more of them now than there were then. So maybe things really are changing, and maybe too the pace of that change is hotting up. I wonder how close the tipping point is? One thing’s for sure: engaging in the conversation will help accelerate us towards it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


The eagle-eyed amongst you may notice the flikr icon over to the right...

Thanks to Euan, I've finally taken the plunge to get more of my photos online. Just a few for today, more to follow...

Monday, April 18, 2005


Maslow hit on something deeply significant when he placed our human need for belonging as the first rung of the ladder off the essential foundations of physical survival needs, a rung that has to be secure before stepping further up to higher emotional and spiritual needs. Once our survival is assured; once we have air, water, food, shelter, security, our need for belonging becomes critical; belonging in a place, with a partner, in a job, in a community. Belonging, for most of us, is inextricably bound up with one of the deepest questions that any of us face – that of revealing to ourselves our own identity. Belonging reinforces our sense of who we are.

I felt oddly out of sorts at times whilst away last week, camping in the Lake District with my two lads, and the feeling of malaise only strengthened when we got home again. I couldn’t figure it out at the time; sure, there were some petty, niggling complaints nagging at me, but they shouldn’t have resulted in such a pervasive ill-at-ease feeling. They were all trifling things and I felt guilty at letting them get to me.

All the same, I couldn’t deny that they DID get to me. It was only after being back home for a few days and able to think more objectively, that the underlying issue began to show through the murk of my unsettlement. These issues had all eroded my sense of identity, and of belonging.

For the first time in ten years since we started going hillwalking together, back when they were eleven and thirteen years old, my two sons were forever ahead of me, having more energy to get up the slopes and stronger joints to get back down them again. My right knee was giving me a lot of trouble, so much so that on the descents I had to stop and rest it every ten minutes or so to let the pain subside. The reminder that my frame is committed to a different kind of downward slope and is only going to deteriorate further over the coming years wasn’t exactly welcome.

I know I shouldn’t grumble – I’ve been lucky to stay so fit for so long – nevertheless it felt as though a door once wide open was beginning to close and before much longer I might find limits put on my freedom to roam the hills.

(Mind you, on the positive front, sleeping on the ground on a camping mat did wonders for my back, which gave no trouble at all – in fact it felt better than it has for weeks, all trace of the lower back pain having vanished).

Then, although I’ve been wearing varifocal (progressive lens) glasses every day for a couple of years now, this was the first time I’ve worn them continuously for hillwalking. I’d avoided them before because of the tunnel vision effect that varifocals give, but this time there was no way I could read the map, see where to put my feet and take in the view, without them. The trouble with varifocals is that they give a blinkered view – peripheral vision is very poor, and with head down so as to see, through the right part of the lens, where to place my feet on rough ground, the surrounding scenery became blurred and indistinct. So I have clear memories of the intricate details of the paths we walked – the rocks, boulders, scree, streams crossed, but only hazy – literally – memories of the mountains through which we walked.

And thirdly came the frustration at having insufficient time to take photographs. Snapshots, yes; photographs, no. Photographs take time – time to observe, time to absorb the feel of the landscape so as to gain – hopefully – an insight into how best to record it on film, or in pixels.

Oh, and whilst I’m at it, I’ll gripe about the inadequacies of LCDs and EVFs. I do miss the real viewfinder of my old-fashioned analogue SLR. This shot was in focus; many more weren't. I'm still learning the foibles of this new camera.

In spite of their seeming triviality, these petty issues had the power to shoot tiny darts deep into my self-perception, attacking my identity as hillwalker and photographer, and upsetting my sense of belonging in the mountains. I felt separated from them, by the fact of my own physical limitations, and subsequently by my continuing to hold those limitations in awareness. Not dramatically separated; I was after all physically present up in the hills I love so much, nonetheless I felt set slightly apart.

I’d had such hopes too – maybe setting unrealistic expectations – but a mere handful of days every twelve to eighteen months is not enough and I know I try to cram every last ounce of appreciation into that short time, inevitably setting myself up for disappointment. So I’d looked forward to feeling once again that sense of belonging I’ve always felt in those rugged, wild landscapes – but this time, the landscapes seemed to hold back from me. Just a little, like the faint edge of distance and coldness hinting that an old friend has now found new companions.

But in spite of that, down in the valley with the hills rising abruptly all around I knew I’d be happy just to live – to be – in a place like that, knowing the presence of the hills as old friends. I could develop a sense of intimacy with that landscape, getting to know every rock, every tree, every turning of the path.

We drove back home with my sense of identity and of belonging in the hills weakened and uncertain. And things were no better at home. I’ve lived in this town for twenty seven years, yet I feel no ties to it. It’s familiar, but that’s all. I have a few acquaintances here, but no friends. No roots; I don’t belong. I remain a loner, on the edge of communities – involved, but a little remote, almost aloof.

And trying to re-engage with work on Friday only reinforced just how alien my work feels to me. In twenty-eight years, though twelve jobs in five organisations, I’ve only had two positions, lasting less than a year each, where I’ve felt I belonged, felt as though my true identity could blossom instead of being stifled at every turn. The first of those jobs was terminated abruptly when the company underwent the convulsions of downsizing; the second, for inexplicable reasons, I left voluntarily. I still don’t know whether that was the most courageous or the most stupid career decision I ever made. But that’s another story.

Friday was definitely a low point. I worked from home so that I could put the tent up in the garden to dry (we’d broken camp in pouring rain) but ended up hanging it in the garage as it rained here as soon as I’d put it up. All these three aspects of life - my greatest pleasure, my home and my job - came crowding in on me, telling me I don’t belong: a fleeting visitor only to the hills, a fish out of water in my job, and a stranger in my home community.

And now, returning to blogging after a week away, the questions of belonging and identity loom here also. I’ve threatened several times to abandon this blog yet I know what it is that keeps me here every time: the sense of identity that it gives, and the sense of belonging to the community of bloggers. Yet even they are unclear senses; I feel their presence less than I would feel their absence if I stopped.

All of which though leaves me, rather like this tree, no closer to finding answers to those twin questions: Who am I? And where do I belong?

Sunday, April 10, 2005


Should have been packing gear for tomorrow.

Just caught sight of this out of the window:

glow all but faded,

barely time for a hasty shot.

(and next time I'll remember it's pointless to use ISO400 when the camera's on a tripod and nothing's moving; it just produces unecessary graininess)

16 April addendum:
I still have a lot to learn about digital photography. It dawned on me, rather belatedly, that there's a lot of good free image processing software out there. Noiseware did a very impressive job of cleaning up this shot.

Going North 

It’s going to be quiet (okay, even quieter – I don’t exactly make a lot of noise) around here for a bit. I’ll be off into the hills of the English Lake District tomorrow for a few days much-needed break away from it all, camping at a beautiful spot at the head of Wasdale, at a site run by the National Trust. According to the website, "Camping at Wasdale … is the ultimate escape from modern day living". I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but it is quite remote; the site lies near the end of a quiet road that runs along beside Wastwater - the deepest lake in the UK - up to the head of the valley, so there’s no passing traffic. Half a mile further on at the very end of the road, Wasdale Head is a hamlet with just a handful of buildings; beyond that, footpaths leading steeply upwards are the only way onwards, and fell-tops are the only destination. I’ll be very happy to abandon the car for a couple of days and rely on more traditional means of locomotion.

It’ll only be a short break – my two lads are coming with me, and the only way we could get all three diaries to coordinate was to limit the trip to four days: one spent travelling there, two for walking in the hills, and one coming back. It worries me a little that with such a flying visit I’ll be so intent on making the most of the time that I wont stop rushing around; wont allow time to relax and allow peace and serenity to soak in. Maybe awareness of that risk will help to defuse it. I had a taste of the slower pace that prevails there a moment ago when I rang the warden to confirm that the site is open. I expected a simple “Yes” - the polite but hurried response of someone anxious to close the conversation, forever under pressure of too much to do. But instead, he seemed in no hurry and opened a conversation about weather prospects.

Talking of which, there could be other things soaking in – the weather forecast suggests that the question isn’t whether it will rain, but when and how much. That’s hardly surprising given that we’ll only be a few miles from Seathwaite, supposedly the wettest place in England. And with near-freezing strong to gale force winds potentially on the agenda for the hilltops, there may not be much meteorological peace or serenity either. But that’s all part and parcel of hillwalking in the UK, whatever the season.

See y'all in a while - I’ll back on Thursday, probably physically exhausted but hopefully also spiritually replenished. If the view that awaits us when we emerge from our tent looks like it did last time we stayed there, there’ll be a good chance of the latter:

Friday, April 08, 2005


I’ve always loved mending things. And the more improvisatory the fix, the better – especially when the only cost is time and skill. I find a lot of satisfaction in returning something to usefulness, transforming it from a worthless doorstop into fully-functioning form. It’s almost like bringing things back to life.

Mending appeals for many reasons – it appeals to my frugal nature, the avoidance of waste appeals to my environmental-consciousness; there’s even an almost spiritual appeal in allowing an artefact to fulfil its place in the world, instead of being thrown on the scrap-heap. But the reason I’m posting this, if I’m honest, is none of those - fixing things appeals also for the sheer sense of pride in skill creatively applied.

My daughter’s camera had stopped working – the film wouldn’t wind onto the take-up spool. Examination under a magnifying glass revealed that a tiny plastic hook that should protrude from the take-up spool to engage in the holes along the edge of the film had broken off. It was unlikely to be repairable economically (or indeed at all) by a repair shop, so there was nothing to be lost by having a go.

The copper-coloured speck dead-centre of this picture is my improvised replacement – a tiny barb fashioned from a piece of copper wire, super-glued into an equally tiny hole drilled in the spool. Amazingly, it seems to work, so I’m feeling rather pleased with myself. Not to mention that I'm also saving the cost of a replacement camera...

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Photos of skies rarely capture the scale; the firmament loses something in the translation down to postcard size - although this one of Doug Thompson's must come pretty close to the feel of the original.

Skies really need to fill your field of vision, as they do in reality. A classic case of the whole being so much greater than the sum of the parts.

All I have here is a part:

I just had time after getting home from work to dash upstairs, point the camera out of the window, and click, before the clouds covered the sun. Only after I'd seen it on the PC did I think of doing a panorama, but by then it was too late. Another day...

qB also though tonight's sky worth photographing. Her vantage point was just a few miles further south (I think).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


“I’d like a return ticket, please.”
“Where to?”
“Back here of course!”

My mind might have been working along the same lines as that old joke as I walked the length of the concourse at Stansted airport – a very long, thin concourse - past the international arrivals, past the departure gates, to the domestic arrivals, to meet my daughter returning from Majorca. After all, where was she returning to? Back here of course; that’s domestic, isn’t it?

Or perhaps I’d absent-mindedly homed in on another word association. I stood gazing at the screens showing domestic arrivals, momentarily puzzled and wondering why they showed only UK flights. Oh, I see… domestic… that’s like home, as in ‘BBC Home Service’, not as in ‘homely’? Doh… She might object to the description, but I see her as more homely than international jet-setter. That may change, of course.

Or maybe my mistake reflects the shrinking world – Western Europe being identified in my mind as ‘domestic’, with international equated to inter-continental?

So, trying to look purposeful, as you do in such circumstances, I wandered back the length of the concourse, (if wandering purposefully isn't a contradiction in terms), pretending the detour was part of some hidden intent, and strolled into the coffee shop.

If ever you need cheering up, I can heartily recommend finding a comfy chair within sight of airport arrivals (international is probably preferable for this), a cup of good coffee (Stansted is particularly good on this score, as the Costa coffee outlet – far superior to Starbucks, although not as good as Café Nero – directly flanks the arrivals gate), and half an hour to watch – discretely - the smiles and hugs as family and friends greet each other. I defy anyone to come away without feeling the glow from that reflected warmth.

Monday, April 04, 2005


Pedals stopped
at traffic lights, early
on a grey spring morning.
An interlude
where mind wanders
for a while.

Close by
out of sight
a diesel railway engine’s roar
deepens and shrills.
Look up -
a rusty wire fence,
a white-painted wall,
then nothing: a horizon close enough to touch.

Some quirk of sound and sight
unearths a far distant memory.
Past and present slide
over each other,
merge, match,
and in a snap, are one:


A railway line meets the coast;
the engine roars, moves on,
and we stand a moment, disoriented
amid suitcases and holdalls
and all the paraphernalia
of the beach.

Just the other side
of that fence and wall
is the sea!

This side:
Familiar, square-edged, dull.

That side:
Big, wide skies,
land fluid, endlessly dissolving;
feet dabble across one horizon -
walking a line of ending
and beginning –
another horizon beckons…

Then traffic lights change,
seaside fades back to memory.
Just a bite of moist salt air,
an echo of a seagull’s cry
still remain.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


For Photo Friday...

Friday, April 01, 2005

Little details 

It seems to be the norm nowadays to move house every few years. Or at least a few times during a lifetime. But sixty years ago, things were different – life was slower, society was more stable; moreover houses were cheaper, so it was easier to afford a home you’d grow into. For over fifty years, my parents lived in the same house that they had bought when they got married; three children were born there, grew up, and one by one left to start homes of their own; eventually then the house became too big for my parents needs and they moved into a bungalow – the only time since leaving their own parents’ homes that they’d moved house.

So it was that my childhood was marked by a strong sense of permanence and stability, and over the years the minute details of that house and garden became deeply embedded in my memory. The garden particularly; I have an odd collection of mental snapshots of trivial little details: a particular pattern of cracks in the concrete path, flaking rust on the frame of the swing made from angle iron from the old Morrison air-raid shelter; the cracked and faded green paintwork on the garage door that had long since lost it’s gloss; the delicate variation of shades in a pink and blue hydrangea; a low, curving wall of granite blocks with steps leading down into a sunken area that always filled with water after heavy rain.

(This is the only photo I could find - the snow must have made it special and therefore worthy, to an eight-year-old, of photographing)

Of course, over the years there were changes; one such was when we turfed over an area that had been the vegetable patch during the Second World War. Just around the corner from us, a big old house was being demolished to make way for blocks of flats. It had once had beautiful gardens and the lawn had so far escaped being torn up by the demolition plant, so one Saturday when the site was free of workmen, my Dad and I went over there armed with spades and pulling my soap-box cart with a large board on top to recover some of the turf (we didn’t have a car then). I was intrigued at this – Dad always took such a firm moral stand, but clearly he didn’t consider this to be theft since the grass couldn’t really be said to belong to anyone any more. I forget how many trips it took, but we got enough to cover a sizeable area. You couldn’t do that now, of course – building sites are deemed to be too dangerous and have high wire mesh fences or wooden hoardings around them. But back then, we were free to roam, and no-one came to any serious harm.

But I digress. I was talking about changes…

The garden as it was when I first became aware of it was what I always thought of as the true garden, as though it had been created thus, complete with it’s cracked concrete paths and sometimes rickety fences; the changes always seemed to take something away, and they always remained changes, even after many years. Somewhere buried underneath them lay the bones of the garden that first grew into my consciousness, hidden under new turf and crazy paving.

Some changes could be almost shocking – like when the exterior doors and window-frames of the house were repainted pale yellow and white, instead of being the once-bright, now-faded mid-green I’d always known. It never seemed quite the same house after that; the old green-painted house no longer existed except in memory. It had been taken away and replaced with this new yellow-and-white house. It might have looked the same, but it wasn’t.

So to the present. I’ve been at home today, working (some of the time); since everything I needed to do today could be done on a laptop, why spend 2 – 3 hours travelling only to sit alone in a dismal office? So I sat on the garden bench in the sun enjoying my lunch, and looking around realised that the tiny details of this garden have become as fixed in my memory as those details of that garden in which I grew up. It’s the little imperfections that lodge in the mind and make it unique, make it ours. Tufts of grass growing out of a crack in the concrete patio, moss on the shed roof, dark stains of damp lichen around the base of the pots around the patio’s edge. No longer fresh and new – it’s showing the wrinkles of age. It has Character.

Funnily enough though, unlike that childhood garden where the original was what was real and the changes only moved away from it, hiding my familiar garden, here it’s the other way around – it’s the present that is real, and the past has been evolving, building towards this point. Before, when we first moved in, it was someone else’s garden. Over the years, almost every part has been remodelled in some way; we’ve made it ours.

Now, 19 years of allowing the details of this garden to sink their roots deep within us has made this very much our garden. It’s part of us, and we’re part of it. With the possibility looming ahead (currently about 50-50) of losing my job and consequently having to move, I’ll miss it if we have to go.

Spring springing... 

It must be something to do with the time of year. First it was the frogs, now it's the snails - S. discovered this nursery when clearing out an old flowerpot.

What is it about the young of a species that makes them attractive? Snails aren't exactly my favourites (especially with hostas in the garden) yet the sheer tiny-ness of them evokes the "Aaaahh...!!" response. I wonder how old those little... er... hermaphrodites are?