Creativity and Humour

One of my themes in this blog has been the over-dominance of left brain as against right brain in current Western societies. This was the subject of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, reviewed here in 2016. So I was delighted to come across this video of McGilchrist in conversation with John Cleese (of Fawlty Towers fame) on the subject of Creativity, Humour and The Meaning of Life, and their essential relationship with the right brain.

To pick just two points that it inspired for me:

  • Comedy is essentially ‘right brain’, and is not ‘politically correct’ or ‘woke’. Comedy depends on irreverence, and being able to laugh at things that are potentially forbidden subjects. Just think of those TV images of masses of men leading the Soviet Politburo or the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Not much comedy in those solemn faces.
  • Meaning, imagination and inspiration are very much related to right brain. Have you noticed just how boring politicians are on the media when they are in the process of spouting some ‘party line’ that the left brain is following? The only interesting speakers on programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time are those with the freedom to speak out from their own life experience.

You will have your own takeaways from listening to this fascinating conversation between an outstanding academic/psychiatrist and a top class comedian. The video is in 3 parts of around 20 minutes each. The first part follows, and will naturally lead you on to the others..

Green darner dragonfly

UK dragonflies tend to be so active that they are difficult to photograph. But these North American green darners at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas, March 2019, were just basking on the footpath in the sun.

Green darner male

They are so-called because of the supposed resemblance to a darning needle. Any young readers will probably say ‘What the heck is that?’.

The female has a blue tail.

Just look at those amazingly transparent wings!

Beware gators!

There are usually a good number of American alligators, locally called gators, at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas. Most lie in the water, as in the featured image. A few warm up in the sun on the banks of the lakes/swamp, sometimes just feet away from the visitor path. They are pretty docile, and probably well fed, but it is well to be wary.

This proximity does give the opportunity for close-ups of those craggy reptilian bodies.

Brazos Bend State Park, 2019

I think that the open mouth was just a convenient resting position, and not the anticipation of a good snack!

These animals can grow to 4 metres long and weigh over 400 kg.

Common gallinule

We’ve been fortunate to visit Brazos Bend State Park in Texas a number of times over the years. Apart from the more exotic birds (from a European perspective) there appeared to be plenty of coots and moorhens, just as on most lakes in the UK.

However, the loquacious and overactive ‘moorhens’ did not appear to behave at all like those in UK. Yes this was usually the mating season around March, but surely these were not the same species. A web search shows that they are common gallinules, which were given a separate categorisation from moorhens only in 2011. Their mating behaviour is quite spectacular!

Brazos Bend State Park, 2019

See related posts moorhen, purple gallinule.

Moorhen

Moorhens are one of our commonest water birds, and indeed are quite common worldwide, under names such as marsh hen or common gallinule. These members of the rail family appear fairly undistinguished, so are not first choice photographic subjects. I’ve tried over the years, but he result is usually not particularly impressive.

Here a strong low afternoon sun brought out the brown colours in the body, which usually appears black.

Shadow of rail on rail
2021 Knutsford

Their gait is quite ungainly, which does make for an interesting profile when backlit.

2020 Shakerley Mere

Economics catching up?

“Nature is a “blind spot” in economics. We can no longer afford for it to be absent from accounting systems that dictate national finances, or ignored by economic decision makers.”

At last, economics appears to be catching up with the real world. The Dasgupta Review, commissioned by the UK Treasury, has stated what has for long been the bleeding obvious. Our economics is not serving us well by supporting destruction of our natural environment, our home.

“Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of Nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them.”

I’ve lost count of the number of pressure groups that have made this point over the past decades, but here is hope that at least the UK government is starting to listen, and perhaps it may influence the forthcoming biodiversity summit.

Maybe the ice is beginning to melt away – the neoliberal dogma that has ruled over the gradual destruction of nature for 4 decades.

The review quotes that modern saint, David Attenborough:

“Economics is a discipline that shapes decisions of the utmost consequence, and so matters to us all. The Dasgupta Review at last puts biodiversity at its core.”

We all need reasons to hope.

The Fall

Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise after an incident with a serpent and a piece of fruit. I remember it from Sunday School at the local Methodist Chapel. Why did our ancestors place so much emphasis on this story? It comes in Genesis 2, in verse 8, just after the creation of heaven and earth.

And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man…

God creates Adam and then Eve and by the end of Chapter 4 (verse 23), because Eve partook of the fruit of a forbidden tree (it was clearly the woman’s fault):

…the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth…

This was obviously highly significant to the men (well they probably were of that gender) who set down the Old Testament. Why? Well, Steve Taylor’s book The Fall has an answer to this question, not only for the scribes of that era, but also for ourselves and future human beings.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book – first published in 2005 and highly recommended by many reviewers. I guess I sort of thought I knew the story, but it was not with the wonderful vision encompassed by this book. Steve is a psychologist, so his story is imbued with a deep understanding of human psychology, but he has also clearly researched and understood many disciplines to produce a work of this scope. This is a history of the fall and a vision of our potential return to paradise.

Read More »

Water, ice and snow

The recent cold spell means that Shakerley Mere is part frozen, giving rise to patterns of water, ice and snow.

The common resident black-headed gulls sunbathe on the ice, awaiting walkers with food to offer.

Of course, at this time of year their heads are not black.

The gull on the right shows the dangers of bleaching from the low winter sun.

Fallow deer at Tatton

Tatton Park is home to two species of free-ranging deer. Most easily seen are the spectacular red deer, which often congregate near to the Knutsford entrance. More numerous are the smaller fallow deer. These are much more timid, so tend to stay away from the areas popular with people.

Recently, this grazing group presented a pretty picture, with one sentinel alert and standing guard – probably checking our dog was on his lead.

There’s a comparison of antlers for male red and fallow deer in this post.

Goosanders at Shakerley

Our recent walk around the local Shakerley Mere showed some unusual visitors, in addition to the usual ducks, Canada geese, grebes, swans and the odd heron. There were cormorants in the trees, but also three unusual ‘ducks’. It soon became apparent that these were not dabblers, as they sped around the lake much faster than a mallard, diving under water for periods in the manner of grebes. Their speed made for difficult photography. This was the best one, at the limits of my pocket superzoom.

These are goosanders, also known as common mergansers in the US. Their long serrated ‘saw bills’ are ideal for catching fish.

According to Wikipedia these are seaducks, equally at home in salt and fresh water.

Galileo’s Error?

Galileo Galilei is thought of as the founder of modern science. “One of his most significant contributions was his radical declaration in 1623 that mathematics is to be the language of science.”

Before that time there was mathematics, but there was also the recognised ‘inner world’ of sensory qualities. The latter was excluded from the emerging science.

The triumphant march of science, with its handmaiden technology, since then, suggests that this was a useful simplification.

But what have we lost? Since Galileo’s time the measurable objective has significantly eclipsed the sensed subjective – not only in science, but across society and in our relationship with nature.

We clearly cannot blame today’s ecological and economic crises on Galileo, but I’d suggest that the trend he set in motion led to the problems we now grapple with. We need a new balance between subjective and objective, which other theorists have suggested is a balance between left and right brain hemispheres.

Incidentally Galileo’s simplification also created the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’, by excluding subjective consciousness from science.

Led by quantum theory, science has, over the past century, increasingly come to the realisation that this does not work. Objectification of everything leads to meaninglessness. Basically, mathematical models tell us little about the intrinsic nature of things.

How often, in politics do we see ‘managerialism’, where everything is measured and managed by number, being rejected by the people, in favour of more passionate and idealistic inner-directed politicians. Could this be a part of the natural rebalancing that is going on in the human psyche? It won’t be all ‘good’ – see eg Trump and Brexit…

This reflection was inspired by Philip Goff’s book Galileo’s Error, a well-written, readable and fascinating reflection on the history and philosophy of science and the foundations for ‘a new science of consciousness’. The case for different ontologies of materialism, dualism and panpsychism comes down firmly in favour of the latter. Well worth a read!

Featured image is 1636 portrait of Galileo by Justus Sustermans, via Wikipedia.

Hope reprise

I make no apology for reblogging this quote from the Vaclav Havel, the much loved last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic. I believe it speaks particularly to the difficult times we face, worldwide. It is through hope that we will chart a way through.

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world.
Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.
Hope is not a prognostication.
It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is.
Hope definitely is not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Amen.

 

New Renaissance vision – 25 years on

I recently came across this short unpublished article I wrote towards the end of 1996, reflecting on The Knutsford Lectures 1993-1996 on Visions of a New Renaissance, previously described in this post. It was an ambitious attempt to capture the spirit and outline of the needed New Renaissance, inspired by what the 19 individual speakers had said. The limitations of my perspective and the lack of suitable outlets meant the article was never published.

Discovering this piece led me to consider, what has changed in nearly 25 years. Was the outlined vision valid? Are we any nearer to it? Here’s my brief assessment, against the categories in the Emerging Vision section of the above paper i.e.:

  • Sustainable ecology.
  • Ethical behaviour and social responsibility
  • Local economy and community
  • Appropriate scale and human scale
  • Open science
  • Soul and spirit
  • Love, compassion, nonviolence
  • Holistic views
  • Living philosophy
  • Imagination, inspiration, arts

I have to say that, despite some encouraging features, it seems as if we are further away from a New Renaissance than we were 25 years ago. Consider just three points:

  1. Dominating everything else, the failure to effectively act on environmental sustainability and climate change for 25 years has led us into an increasingly perilous situation. We, particularly governments and moneymakers, have failed the test of ‘acting as if future generations matter’. On the other hand, far more individual people are acting as if they do; the pendulum is moving.
  2. Behind this is the dead weight of materialism, mechanism and reductionism, continuing to dominate science, governance and economics, stifling the emergence of soul, spirit, love, compassion, true values.
  3. The conflict between large scale and human scale is still heavily over-balanced in favour of the mega-projects, big government, industrial-scale farming and against human communities, particularly indigenous, and local solutions. Human inequalities increase as a result of an economic/governmental system that systematically increases them.

It does not have to be thus. We are creating the new world day by day, in our thoughts and resulting actions. The New Renaissance is a spur to our forward thinking. Take at look at SciMed‘s current New Renaissance initiative!

And I have to be encouraged by the direction taken by international organisations, and particularly the forthcoming Davos Agenda, plus this year’s schedule of global conferences. Covid-19 appears to have catalysed the understanding that the current ‘system’ no longer works, and a new direction is necessary for the whole of humanity, based on working with nature, inclusion and social justice, and trust between nations. A reason for hope!

The Fight for The Fens

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Read More »

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Read More »

Tatton in the rain

It rained all day today, never stopping as I walked around Tatton Park. It was still worth carrying the little camera in my pocket for this chance picture of pooled water on the grass, with trees, lake and grey sky in the background.

Tatton Park in the rain

The scene was actually a bit duller than the picture looks, due to clever camera and adjustment with Paint Shop Pro.

The prominent trees are mostly oaks.

Greylags

One of the benefits of a small town such as Knutsford is that it you can relatively easily walk out into the countryside. Here we came across hundreds of geese in a grassy field, all feeding away.

The greylag geese in the foreground were somewhat outnumbered by the Canada geese in the background. According to the RSPB, these birds are probably resident, although there are migrant populations up in Scotland. These large birds have characteristic pink legs, orange bill and interestingly patterned plumage.

My Fens

I grew up in the city of Lincoln, and was aware that much of the surrounding county of Lincolnshire was flat. And I sort of knew about The Fens, the drained area of farmland around and between the huge estuaries of the Humber and the Wash, that comprised much of the county – ‘the sticks’ we townies used to call it. The Fens also extend down to Cambridgeshire, as shown in this rough map.

Rough Map of The Fens

My family was involved in The Fens. My father worked as a designer of pumps. Now why was there such a company in Lincoln? For drainage. Uncle Bob managed drainage in The Fens. Uncle Charles worked in the engineering teams ensuring continued flow in the drainage waterways, which passed through much of the surrounding farmland, draining water into the River Witham which ran down to Boston. My great grandma lived in Bardney, where we went for walks around yet more drainage channels. My country family, with their broad flat accents, seemed to live in a different world away from the city.

There was even the Sincil Drain running past the Lincoln City football ground, where I went every Saturday. The ground is known as Sincil Bank.

Yet despite all this, and cycling around much of the countryside, I never learned much about the history and geography of the area. My technical education was more oriented to learning about the new and upcoming technologies rather than all this old stuff, and history and geography were soon dropped in favour of maths and science.

So then I went to university at Cambridge, to discover that I was still in an area of flat fields, which were also fens. I even got an evening bar job serving at a country pub in Fen Ditton, and great fun it was too.

I cycled to Cambridge from Lincoln, to move my bicycle from one place to the other. It was flat most of the way. You might think that made the riding easy; on the contrary, strong winds coming across flat fens meant a rather more extended journey than anticipated. I stopped for a rest at Crowland Abbey near Spalding, not realising what a significant place it was in the area’s history. Why was there a large abbey in the middle of this flat farmland?

Cambridge was even more fen country than Lincoln. Regular fog in winter, bitter cold when the east wind blew across from the Urals. This would have been a hard environment before the coming of the cities and farms. In fact, The Fens would have been one big bog.

While I was at Cambridge, my father’s pump company was taken over by another one in Bedford, which lay not far from the southern edge of The Fens. They moved to Bedford, but hadn’t quite escaped The Fens.

After I married we moved west, to Cheshire, and I forgot about my origins in The Fens, until I was given a book telling the history of this area, which is quite fascinating, as I will describe in a future post.

Featured image shows the channelled River Nene, near where it runs into The Wash at Sutton Bridge (2020).
The rough map of The Fens is by Jb?, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons