World Origami Day

I completely managed to miss Blog Action Day 2016 in October, but all was not lost, as I could mark World Origami Day on 11 November instead.

In modern times, origami has been used as a beacon of hope, with the tradition of folding one thousand cranes. Many fold cranes hoping for healing. Others fold them hoping for peace, so 11 November is a particularly apposite day.

Last year, I created the origami “Soul Cube” (2015) to help me reflect on my self and my activity in the world. Like many others, I have a powerful critical voice in my head, so I needed a way to access that deeper nurturing wise voice that speaks words I need to hear. This year, I offer it in the hope that others will find it fruitful.

You can download the images here and print it yourself, or contact me for a ready printed sheet. All instructions are included.


Download outside image | Download inside image

1. Cut along the dotted lines
2. If you wish, decorate what will be the inside (yellow) or outside (blue)
3. Fold the square to create a cube
4. Breathe into the cube to inflate it
5. Sit with it in both hands for a time, and allow healing words and wisdom to surface from your unconscious into your conscious mind
6. On these strips of paper, write messages that your conscious mind needs to hear and remember
7. Roll up the messages and post them into the cube
8. Place the cube somewhere in view to help you remember



Silent Spring

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In its honour, I am spending a couple of hours walking around my neighbourhood listening for bird song. In the meantime, here are three short posts I wrote a year and a half ago, reflecting on the book:

White to Carson

I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading of a diptych of eco classics; today I finished Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne, and started Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.

White’s book is in the form of letters, and he often hopes they “may not be unacceptable” to his two correspondents! He was a meticulous observer of birds, weather and other phenomena, and went some way to interpreting and understanding his observations, for example in the wonderful passage on house martins cited in the introduction. His methods were at times questionable, involving shooting many of his subjects! And his theories did not always fit the facts, for example why clear nights are colder, or whether swallows migrated or hibernated. But science is a process of developing theories and collecting evidence to test and accept/reject/refine the theories, or developing new methods of collecting evidence which may lead to radical new theories. Hence White is not content with just observations, but continues to seek understanding and applications: “The standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge… The botanist… should be by no means content with a list of names; he [sic] should study plants philosophically, should investigate the laws of vegetation, should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation; and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on the phytologist.”

Carson I suspect is just as meticulous. So far, she has been describing the pesticides and herbicides – DDT, malathion, dieldrin, etc. It’s incredible (now at least) to think that some of these chemicals used on food crops were closely allied in structure to the nerve gases developed by Germany and used during the war.

Silent springboard

After a bit of a hiatus, I have finished reading “Silent Spring”. After her early description of the pesticides and herbicides, Carson goes on to describe their effects on ground water, soil and insect life, plants, birds, other wildlife and domestic animals, rivers and inshore waters, human organs and cell-level processes; the brutality of various spraying programmes in the US and their horrendous results; the common availability of chemicals and the build-up of small-scale exposures; the negative effect on the ecological balance and the build-up of resistance in the pests; and finally, alternative pest control methods. All is beautifully written and meticulously references the latest scientific findings.

Predictably, the chemical industry and scientific establishment (funded by the chemical industry) responded ‘robustly’, as described in an afterword to my edition of the book. Carson was attacked for being a hysterical woman, unqualified to write such a book, and for writing for the public, “a calling the scientific establishment consistently denigrated.”

But the attacks only increased the PR for Carson’s book, and it changed the world. While reading, I caught myself thinking more than once: “I hope someone does something about this”. Which of course they did. President Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims, which led to an immediate strengthening of the regulation of chemical pesticides, arguably a more significant action than the launch of the Apollo programme. And the book is widely credited with helping to get the environmental movement going.

Now in the 21st century, “Silent Spring” is again being criticised by writers who claim that “environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom”. Others say that this is “a cynical ‘better living through chemistry’ campaign, intended to discredit the environmental health movement”. And I would ask how much economic freedom do we have, living as we do on one planet and bound by a web of relationships?

Observing boiling frogs

Two more thoughts on Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”…

The book was first published in 1962, and the science and understanding of cell-level processes has moved on hugely in the last 50 years. But Carson’s description of e.g. the specialised roles of enzymes in mitochondria, and small facts like bone marrow producing 10 million red blood cells per second (the current estimate is 2.4 million) highlight again for me how “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14; NRSV).

And a quote: “Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his [sic] lifetime. For these reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” As with chemicals, so with climate change. Are we in danger of becoming the proverbial frog that, when placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, doesn’t realise its peril and is boiled alive? Or do we observe nature carefully, and learn that real frogs would probably jump out of the pot… and so could we?


Blue, the colour of home

Solnit, Rebecca (2006) A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

I was lying on my back in the garden. It was thirty years ago, so my memory is hazy. But I remember it being 10pm and still light, so it must have been close to midsummer. The sky was a deep blue, cloudless; no distance to focus on, to measure. I lay on my back and stared up towards the sky, and lost myself. My eyeballs were engulfed, squeezed in their sockets. My brain reeled with vertigo as my body floated bluewards.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of the blue of distance: “For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

She writes powerfully of desire, as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance, of cherishing the desire and loving the distance. She quotes Simone Weil: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”

And she writes of the history of blue in art, which prompted me to catch up with the recent BBC programme A History of Art in Three Colours, Blue.

The programme takes a tour of the arrival of lapis lazuli rocks in Venice, fragments of sky used to produce the pigment ultramarine, literally ‘over the sea’; of Giotto, the first to use blue to portray heaven in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua in c.1305; of the masters that followed Giotto and applied blue only to heaven or the Virgin Mary; of Titian, who liberated blue from the “shackles of religion”; of Picasso’s blue period.

The key theme is that of Solnit’s: blue is all around us in the sea, sky and horizon, and we are beguiled, because the “great blue beyond” is unattainable. In Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which had a strong influence on German Romanticism, the blue flower symbolises inspiration, love, desire, and the striving for the infinite and unattainable. Yves Klein wanted his patented colour International Klein Blue IKB79 to be a means of escape from materialism, to be deep, rich, open and liberating. Engaging with his paintings is less a search for meaning, more a way of experiencing and enjoying freedom.

But the programme ends with Earthrise, the photograph taken by Bill Anders as Apollo 8 orbited the moon for the fourth time. Blue is now no longer the colour of other worlds. It is the colour of our own planet. Here is the irony: that blue is used to portray the divine, the infinite, and the unattainable wide blue beyond, while it is in fact the colour of home.

Solnit is saying that even when we reach that point which had been the horizon, or those remote mountain ranges, they are blue no longer. As I write, I look out of my window, and see blue only in the sky. There is little natural blue as I walk around my suburbs or in Ludwell Valley Park. So my questions are whether the blue of distance can, like a Klein bottle, curve round on itself and lead me home; whether my intellectual blue skies pondering can lead me to a deeper present; and whether I can learn to love the distance, because it reveals my desires.

Some 15 years after I lay in that garden, I pointed my camera at the cloudless blue dome above the island of Iona and took a photo. The print shop didn’t print it, and I didn’t notice until it was too late to ask why. Perhaps the staff took it upon themselves to quality control it, or perhaps the print machine couldn’t focus to resolve the colour, or perhaps it couldn’t compute blue skies in Scotland in April. But in that ‘thin place’, the sky was present to me and I to the sky. And so I want my home to become a thin place, and I want always to see with the blue-tinted contact lenses that I put in my eyes each morning.


St Loye’s Chapel

I had a quick look at the forecast first thing – scattered showers all day, but should be alright in the early afternoon. At about 3.30pm, there were patches of blue sky, so I headed out down to the ruined chapel.

It’s a pleasant little segment in Rifford Road, set in a garden surrounded with metal railings. There is a bus-stop in front, and it is very ease to miss the chapel altogether if you don’t know it is there. There is a cross close to Rifford Road, and the chapel is set back. Despite the garden, it really butts up against the houses to the right.

The weather was changeable. As I starting taking photos, it started to rain, but the shower went over quickly and the sun came out. It was almost too bright.

There’s not very much left of the chapel – most of the NE gable with quatrefoil window, the SW gable with pointed arch window, and the SE wall with three pointed arch windows. It is useful to have the camera to record stone-work. Much of the stone looks as though it came from Heavitree Quarry, but there were many other types of stone there, including a smoother red stone. Plus cement, looking like a bad repair job on the pointing.

But the camera got in the way of getting a sense of the place, how much it is overlooked, or whether there are hidden nooks.



Woodwater by night

I spent a day immured in the office at the computer, feeling wintry-cold while it rained and rained. By night-time, I was completely frowstie at being stuck indoors. I watched a BBC4 programme “Romancing the Stone” on modern sculpture, and as it had pretty much dried up, decided on some mythogeography. Going for walks at odd times, like 10.30pm, follows mythogeographical principles, after all.

So I took my camera, and headed out to Woodwater Lane to take photos of light on rain. At least, I didn’t have a clear idea that that was what I was going to do, but I noticed the streetlight-shine on the tarmac. It became recording images of lights on wet, my shadows, street and car lights, the darkness of puddles against the reflective tarmac. I have had my digital camera for years, and am still learning how to use it. It’s good, but not one of the posh ones, so its ISO settings are limited.

Stepping out of my front door, the night felt warm and gentle. There was very little breeze, and it was quite humid but not noticeably too muggy. The day had quietened – traffic, rain, people, birds. I saw one single person, and one couple. There were occasional cars and buses, too many to walk down the middle of the road much. I prefer tail-lights to headlights; they are less confrontational.

I went down as far as Wonford Brook, where I hung over the downstream side of the bridge trying to take photos of the disturbed water. The red guiding light from the camera reflected like sparks shooting off a fire, or wriggling red worms. The photos of the flash reflections were much less interesting, and I couldn’t capture the night-time rippling sound either.

The mindsets for attentiveness and for photography are different, so I was not so aware of sights, sounds, smells until walking back up the road. The rain was dripping in the trees. There was a faint whiff of cow/countryside/manure, then a strong whiff of cigarette, catching in my throat.

On the way home, I decided against exploring alley ways – some are lit, some are not, all are threatening. But it is not the path, darkness or light that is threatening. It is the human being who might be lurking there.



Sonic branding and the Daily Office

I’ve been watching some of the highlights of the Euro2012 football tournament. The online clips, at least on the BBC website, all start with the flowery Euro2012 logo and a burst of five notes ba-da-ba-bup-ba. Earwigo earworms, also known as sonic branding, “building a relationship between the product and its target market through the latter’s ears”, or “How … advertisers capture your soul with just five musical notes”. Sonic branding is traced back through the advertising jingle to Richard Wagner’s leitmotifs. I expect he’d be delighted to have that legacy.

For my own soul music I go back even further, to the psalm tones of Gregorian chant, the five (or so) musical notes of the intonationmediation and ending. I was missing the psalms, so in the last few weeks I’ve started saying a daily Office again. It’s a very short Office, that I know I will find manageable. I have based it on Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book for Beginners, but using inclusive language (publishers take note), changing some of the psalms and collects and adding a bit of topping and tailing. It’s very flexible. I can change it if something isn’t working properly or I find a better way of doing it, or a change is otherwise needed. For example, the psalms need a bit more rejigging. And not least, it started life as being words only, but I’m planning to add the psalm tones and antiphons. Having them in front of me would be easier than making them up as I go along, as I find myself doing now.

As Augustine said, “those who sing, pray twice”. This is the relationship that matters.


The migrants’ return

This week I am happy because “my” house martins have returned. It happened on Tuesday. As I was sitting at my desk, suddenly there was a rush of gurgling and chuckling, and I looked out of my window to see madcap aerobatics. According to the RSPB website, they usually return to the UK in April. So 29 May is really late, and I had given up hope of seeing them this year.

I was at Mucknell this time last year, enjoying the swallows. I thought it possible that the martins had given up the neighbourhood, including the nesting site in the eaves over my bedroom window. But it turns out that they had merely been delayed; the weather being so appalling in April and the first half of May, I suppose they holed up in Africa for a bit longer.

So now I can look forward to a summer of lying in bed listening to the chuckling chatter, looking for the tiny heads poking out of the mud nest, and standing vacantly at the window watching the aerobatics.


Games people play (continued)

My last post was cut off, just as I was saying something rude about Hollywood! Either I was censored, or I wittered on for too long. Here’s what I can remember of the rest.

“So whereas films kept us in touch with naivety and hope, and were an antidote to cynicism, video games keep us in touch with engagement and ownership and are an antidote to exclusion and silence.”
Hmmm… I’m going to interpret “silence” here as not having a voice and being disempowered as a result, rather than the silence that we desperately need and is desperately lacking in today’s western world.

Andy’s argument here follows on from the previous quote. I confess I have little idea what he is talking about, regarding both films and games. If Hollywood is not cynical in the way it feeds unrealistic pap to the masses, then I’m a 9ft-tall blue alien.

Regarding the inclusivity of gaming, one of the comments on Andy’s TEDxExeter talk was:  “Now I want to engage with ‘Flower’ (but I’ll need a PS3 first…)”. Now a Playstation 3 console costs about £230 on Amazon, and then there’s the cost of the games. There’s a substantial barrier right there, especially when compared with the availability of free reading in the library or a film for £7. There are plenty of online games, of course, but I’m not sure that it would be allowed to play them on library computers – shhh! So I want to know what you mean by antidote, Andy, and how it would work. Thanks!

I think there was one more quote and response, but I’m afraid it’s gone for ever now. So instead, I want to add a bit of explanation of why I stopped playing games. Well, that’s easy – I had no time at university, and computers were at a premium. But why didn’t I start again when I got a job, and PCs etc were becoming more readily available? Because I saw one of my colleagues playing what I think was Doom in his lunchbreak, and thought it utterly repulsive. And because I was making my way through Eliot, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy etc etc. So there we are.


Games people play

Way back when I was a teenager, we had a BBC Micro, and I recall playing quite a lot of games, primarily Elite. In 1984, Elite was a ground-breaking game, including 3D wire graphics and quite a sophisticated game-play universe. The player was a commander of their own space ship, and the goal was to amass enough credits to move from being harmless, to mostly harmless, through various other levels that I’ve forgotten, to become elite. But because the game was a mix of Monopoly, Asteroids and Star Trek, the player could get there in many different ways. There was the route of peaceful and law-abiding trading in food and minerals, and maybe a bit of asteroid mining. Or there was the more risky but higher-reward trading in slaves and narcotics, piracy and bounty-hunting, which might also attract police attention and a ‘fugitive’ status. Later in the game, you were offered a few optional missions to other galaxies, and might meet new and threatening alien ships. Personally, I found that firing on space stations and picking off the police as they emerged was a highly effective strategy. Then when I got bored, I could deploy my escape pod and its insurance policy guaranteeing a new ship and the slate wiped clean.

At TEDxExeter, however, the talk I found the most difficult was Andy Robertson about “Sustainable Perspectives on Video Games”. It was nearly impossible to grasp what he was talking about and try to blog it at the same time, not least because I thought I was probably disagreeing with him. But for that reason, it was the talk I thought I most had to re-watch and engage with.

My engagement started with an exchange on Twitter. I haven’t yet managed to achieve eloquence, depth or politeness on social media, but I nevertheless present the exchange here as it encapsulates a few of my responses.

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@ccanw @GeekDadGamer Have you seen this #TED talk? [link to talk]

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden what did you think of that talk?

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Interesting angle, but still can’t help viewing games as to be grown out of (Elite on BBC Micro in my day) #ducksquickly

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden maybe you’ve not played the right games with the right people? How about this for starters? Flower PS3 [link to trailer]

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Very pretty, but I’d prefer to spend my time on say Dartmoor with the real scents and sounds [link to my Mucknell blog]

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden Oh yes me too. But as a response to those spaces (like books/films) I think it’s interesting. Also for those without access?

‏Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Ah yes, books, and making space for imagination. Readers do more work than authors. What about game creators and gamers?

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden I think gamers have even more power than readers. Because of the player-owned nature of games.

Tweet from @ClareBryden
@GeekDadGamer Interested to know what you think of Pottermore

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer
@ClareBryden I think I need to set aside some time to really dig into it. I’m not that keen on the gameification thing in general.

Andy’s talk garnered quite a bit of interest, including from Canon Anna Norman-Walker, who runs Holy Ground at Exeter Cathedral. So last Sunday…

Tweet from @GeekDadGamer:
Putting my #TEDxExeter talk to the test by introducing Flower PS3 into Exeter Cathedral’s Sun 13th 7pm service.

…and despite having a bad headache, I went along. There’s no room here to blog my response to the service. I just wanted to acknowledge that I have barely played a video game in years, so what follows is fairly hypothetical. But I have watched the Flower trailer, linked above, and I did have a go at Flower at the service as we just about completed level 1. For the time being, I’m just going to respond in more detail to some quotes from the talk.

“In can be found ground-breaking cutting-edge ways of making sense of being human.”

Andy gave an impressive list of games and their back-stories, and I am willing to believe that it would be possible to live out some of these stories and learn to make sense of some of the relationships portrayed. From what I have seen of Flower, on the other hand, it’s difficult to understand how this might be. The city is portrayed as a soulless and grey, and the flower’s dream as a rural idyll. In both there is the evidence of humans – buildings and car lights in the city, ex-neolithic piles of rocks and wind turbines in the country – but there is not a single human being in front of the camera, and as a result, the gamer is dissociated from, rather than involved in, both. There is no incarnation here.

“The nature of games mean that we get involved with the stories they’re playing… So unlike books or films, and for me faith, video games provide a natural foothold into them so I can become the owner of the stories I’m experiencing, rather than an outsider.”

Different forms of media have difficult demands and potentials. It rarely works well when a book is adapted as a film or a game, or a screenplay turned into a book. The best of all of these media draw the reader, or watcher, or player into the story.

Research has shown that while reading, the reader actually experiences the story in the part of the brain that experiences real life. Reading is therefore a means of rehearsing life, and experiencing situations, emotions and people that I might not otherwise experience. (I wish I could find the link to this research.) But it is, of course, not a replacement for real life. Although the reader has great latitude in imagining the setting and characterisation of the story – which is why film adaptations rarely work – the reader is still constrained by the unfolding of the story arc.

I’m not sure that the gamer can quite become the owner of the story either, as the goal of the game is always pre-set by the developer. Maybe I’m wrong, because I’ve not played many recently. But for all that Flower allows me to float on the breeze and enjoy the scenery, the player still has to visit all the flower colonies and find the tree in order to complete level 1 and progress in the game. Andy sees games as still being in their infancy, but there was more latitude in Elite back in 1984.

It’s interesting that Andy includes faith as a story he cannot own, and I hope to be able to ask him why. My first thought was of Philippians 2.12: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling“. This is to take the verse out of context, as it continues “for it is God who is at work in you”. But this is also out of context, and I suggest you read the whole letter (not to mention the rest of the Bible!). What do I think at the moment? First, if I don’t own my faith story, no-one else will. Second, there is a difficult line to tread between achievement and abdication. I am wary of the ‘ladder’ type of spirituality, in which we progress steadily to enlightenment or perfection. My experience is more of increasing desert and dark night, punctuated by the occasional shaft of light. But we don’t give up the struggle. Many write of abandonment to God’s will, which I suppose is to be desired but is immensely difficult. It’s certainly poles apart from abdication.



Christmas Day

Lunchtime walk, evening meal. Seen at 1pm on the Exminster Marshes, and the Exe Canal and Estuary around the Turf Hotel and Topsham: one heron; two cormorants, and at least one other on a loop, maybe more; two mute swans, another two mute swans; teal and shelduck; Mr & Mrs Merganser fishing by the lock; small flock of and scattered avocet; many many probably sanderlings, like midges across the mud’s surface; redshanks and curlews; grey plover, we thought; various herring, black-headed, greater black-backed gulls; something startled, with a striking white bar on its black tail; various coots, mallards, robins, magpies, pigeons, small brown birds; two interweaving flocks of lapwing; one angler; two canoeists; mum, dad, daughter and miserable-looking son-in-law; several dog walkers and cyclists. Heard likewise: the call of an oystercatcher.