Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Spring in Time

It takes a chest infection and a week of sitting around indoors to appreciate fully how quickly the spring is moving. Even before I got sick, the world around here was golden, with primroses dotting the banks and vast drifts of daffodils and celandines everywhere I looked. The marsh marigold beside our back door was bursting with thick buds, the first violets were appearing and the first few white flowers of stitchwort were starting to emerge in the rapidly-greening hedgerows.

Just one week later and the marsh marigold is now a mass of glorious flowers. Stitchwort numbers have doubled, the violets have trebled, there are already wild strawberry flowers appearing. Scurvy grass is suddenly flowering where last week there were just glossy green leaves: the wild garlic leaves are well and truly up and the dog’s mercury now has its sprays of flowers—those humble little things too tiny for the naked eye to register as such but flowers, nonetheless.

Ten days ago there were no chiffchaffs; on today’s walk I encountered eight of them, singing lustily from eight different trees spread evenly across my three-mile route. I fancied, in my anthropomorphic way, that they might be singing about how glad they are to be back: glad to have left the south before it hots up too much: glad to have made the journey safely back from the macchia to these English woods of oak and ash, beech and sycamore. There are other warblers again too now, singing from the about-to-leaf-out branches of the goat willows. And the robins, who never venture far but spend their winters quietly alongside us, are well into their glorious annual songfest now.

Soon there will be bluebells—their leaves are now well up. And today I searched for a hint of the wild orchids. No leaves yet except in that certain place in a nearby bank where I knew one would have already emerged. Why that plant is so far ahead of the others I’ll never know but it always is. And when I parted the ferns and peered down into the tangle of undergrowth there it was, sure enough, its exotic-looking spotted leaves already in position, patiently awaiting the flower spike that always comes.

In the worldview of many indigenous people, such as Native Americans and Australian aborigines, time is perceived not as a linear progression but as cyclical, with patterns that appear, disappear, reappear. Living with that worldview also involves living with a sense of responsibility for maintaining balance and harmony. It comes with a feeling of deep embeddedness, a knowing that we humans, as one species among millions, are part of the very fabric of the Earth. As part of the Earth, we can never be separated from it. Thus it behoves us to take care of whatever other parts of it we come into contact with, whether directly or indirectly. For if we harm the Earth in any way at all, we are harming ourselves. 

Being outside, walking these green lanes in the fullness of spring, I find myself remembering other springs, just like this one. As I walk, springs past present and future merge together seamlessly and just for a few precious moments I know what it is to live in cyclical time. These celandines, as they fade and reappear, shining golden again in the sun, year after year, are eternal celandines. They are the celandines of my English Dreamtime. There is only one timeless spring, a pattern that appears, disappears, reappears in endless celebration of the life force. There is just one chiffchaff, a bird who was and is and always will be, singing those two joyful notes again and again from the top of the tallest tree.

(Chiffchaff photo by Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Behind the Scenes

A few years ago, Big Pharma’s push to have everyone taking cholesterol-lowering statins was starting to make news all over the place. See for example this article in the New York Times from 2008.

More recently, there has been more and more news emerging about the downside of ingesting these drugs. More and more warnings against starting on them. More research into the dangers. I was reading about this, often, in the ‘natural health’ magazines. But following the recent publication of two scholarly articles about the dangers of statins in the hallowed columns of the British Medical Journal, the pushback has started in earnest.

A report in the BBC today says that: “A leading researcher on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs has accused critics of misleading the public about the dangers of taking them.
Prof Sir Rory Collins said two critical articles published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) were flawed. But BMJ editor Dr Fiona Godlee said they were well researched. The drugs are already offered to about seven million people in the UK who have a one-in-five chance of heart disease in the next decade. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says the scope for offering this treatment should be widened to people with as low as a one in 10 or 10% risk to save more lives. Its recommendation follows a study which was overseen by Professor Collins' team at Oxford University. Prof Collins criticised articles in the BMJ by John Abramson from Harvard medical school, and Aseem Malhotra, a UK cardiologist, who both claimed statins caused harmful side effects and did not reduce mortality.”

Professor Rory Collins is the lead investigator of the Heart Protection Study - the largest trial in the world of cholesterol-lowering therapy. According to the official press release, the funding of £21 million for the study was provided by the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC), the British Heart Foundation (BHF), and the pharmaceutical companies Merck & Co. Inc. and Roche Vitamins Ltd.

The Medical Research Council website tells me that: “Alignment with industry remains at the heart of the MRC's strategy and delivery plans and there is continued commitment to develop and sustain close and productive collaborations with companies in the UK. …The MRC has promoted partnerships with more than 500 companies, ranging from the large pharmaceutical companies to small and medium sized healthcare companies. To date, collaborative efforts have resulted in the development of 518 products and interventions, with 23 of these currently in wide-scale adoption.”

Oh yes, the Heart Protection Study press release is at great pains to point out that “The study was, however, designed, conducted and analysed entirely independently of all funding sources by the Clinical Trial Service Unit (CTSU) of Oxford University.” Independently? One of the co-directors of the CTSU is Prof Sir Rory Collins. And the CTSU also gets some of its core funding from the Medical Research Council, (and some from Cancer Research UK, which also goes in for ‘corporate partnerships’)

And you still think Big Pharma isn’t pulling the strings?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My New Copper Trowel

My new copper trowel arrived in the mail this morning.
It is truly a thing of beauty. When I unwrapped the parcel and took it out, it positively glowed. As I held it in my hand and admired it, it seemed almost a shame to put it into the ground.

We already had a trowel like this that we bought several years ago. But since we have two gardens—the one next to our cottage and an ‘allotment’ down the lane, in our neighbour’s field—only one of us at a time could use it. So last week, we made the big decision to buy a second one. At £30 for a small trowel, this was no small decision. These trowels are guaranteed for 25 years and in 25 years from now I shall be 102. It would be nice to think that I shall still be out there messing about in the garden at 102, but I think it is a fair bet that this trowel is going to outlast me by decades. But, as the poet said, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’ And now we are a two copper trowel family.
The Austrian engineer, forester and wise elder Viktor Schauberger, best known for his discoveries of the energetic properties of water and his design of beautiful, functional flowforms, also did research into the use of copper in gardening tools. He came to the conclusion that cultivating the soil with copper implements rather than steel ones would be more beneficial to the Earth and lead to healthier plants. In his writings, he listed several reasons for this.
§                Minute amounts of copper create the conditions for beneficial micro-organisms
§                Copper tools penetrate the soil easily. Copper has a low coefficient of friction, therefore there is less tendency for clay to cling to the tool
§                Copper is not magnetic so it does not disrupt the electrical fields in the soil
§                Copper tools be kept sharp with a whetstone, file or by peening (hammering the edge against a steel anvil)
You can read a whole lot more about this concept—and about Schaubergerhere
The other thing about the use of copper tools in the garden is that it is said to deter slugs. And here in our damp corner of south-west England, that is certainly a plus.

I carried my shiny new trowel up to the garden and I knelt down and stuck it in the soil. Kind of reverently. But isn't that how gardening should always be? Reverent?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Exploring Islands

I have been absent from this blog for a lot of weeks now and that is because I have been indulging my passion for travel, especially in the Mediterranean region and especially in Italy. 
This autumn, Sky and I returned to both  Sardinia and Sicily and explored five small offshore islands that we have never visited before. Here is my account of our travels: 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Engaged Elderhood

One day recently, two things that came into my email inbox at the same time set me thinking about the way old age is commonly portrayed in our culture these days. The first was a post by that indomitable blogger, Ronni Bennett, whose 'Time Goes By' blog about aging is read and relished by hundreds of people every day. In this post, headed 'An Old Age Better Than I Ever Expected,' Ronni wrote: "I never expected to feel as alive and vibrant and spirited and vital as I do at this time of my life." She was remarking about something that many of us have often said and felt but probably don't proclaim loudly and publicly and frequently enough, i.e. the discovery that elderhood has the potential to be one of the most enjoyable and satisfying of all life's stages.

Why should we expect it to be otherwise? Well, as Ronni goes on to say: "There is little if anything in our culture that would lead me to believe I would feel this good about being an old woman. The media relate to old age almost entirely via health, poor health - and mostly about dementia."

And she's right. The awful image so commonly presented by the media seems to be that once you finally give up the (obviously futile) effort to 'stay forever young', all that is left is just a slow countdown to death. Old age is portrayed as a time of sharp physical and mental decline, withdrawal from the world, misery, illness, incontinence, loneliness, incapacity, feebleness and dementia.

Which brings me to the second item in my mailbox. It was a helpful suggestion that since I edit a newsletter for elderwomen and have a website about women and aging I might like to add some links to useful, elder-related websites about...yes, you guessed it: illness, medication, incontinence, incapacity, dementia...

What the writer seemed not to have noticed was that my books, websites, newsletters—and sometimes this blog—are all focused on the hundred and one far more important aspects of this section of our life journey: our attitudes, our feelings and experiences, the role of elders in the community, the culture and the world, our personal and spiritual growth...and so on. Not on indigestion remedies.

Yes, for sure if we can no longer walk upstairs we may need to install a stair lift, but if so we simply Google 'stair lifts,' read some reviews and do some comparison shopping, just like we do for every other major purchase. We may want to find out more about prescription drug side-effects but the Internet is full of info about those (and also full of good advice about how to live healthily and drug free at any age). Why on Earth should I want to fill up my links page with info about the relative merits of various brands of incontinence pads just because my readers are all over fifty?

As William Thomas says in his brilliant book What Are Old People For? getting old does often necessitate a search for work-arounds that enable us to keep functioning optimally—in fact he sees elders as walking advertisements for the wonderful human capacity for endless adaptability. This ongoing process of adaptation to each change in the ever-changing body doesn't begin at 44 with the first pair of reading glasses however. It begins in toddlerhood, with shoes to protect our tender feet, bibs to catch the drool, high chairs to keep us from falling on to the floor and pull-up pants for toilet training. It continues through orthodontic appliances, tampons and nursing bras, dental crowns and hiking poles and all the way through to Zimmer frames. Humans are clever animals and we have become really good at finding ways to augment our bodies' functions and deal with their impairments and inconveniences. But these logistics of our lives are not what defines them. It is meaning that defines them. It is meaning that gets us up in the morning and meaning that makes our hearts sing.

Rather than being preoccupied with what we are losing, the key to an old age full of meaning is to look at what we are gaining and also at what we are giving. As Jung taught us, the second half of life is about individuation, about growing fully into our potential selves. And it is about sharing with the world the fruits of our personal harvest. Elders, rather than withdrawing from the world outside their skins are at their happiest and most fulfilled when they are engaged with that world. I call this 'engaged elderhood.' Our beleaguered planet, right now, needs all the engaged elders it can get.

So if there is anyone out there who dreads getting old and really does believe that old age is nothing but dyspepsia, aching joints and damp knickers, let me assure you that it doesn't have to be like that at all. Honestly. And if you don't believe me, read Elderwoman. Or, if you are male, pre-order this great new book by my friend Alan Heeks called Out of the Woods: A Guide to Life for Men Over 50. Alan's book is due for publication on September 19 and can be pre-ordered now from the author's website in the UK or from Amazon in the US.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Making a Mark

My Teva sandals have a distinctive tread on their soles and when the summer sun softens the tar patches along the lane the little kid in me can't resist pressing my foot's pattern into them. Then, next day, I look to see if my footprints are still discernible. They almost never are of course. By the time the sun has left the lane and the tar has cooled, they have long since been obliterated by tyre tracks.

Yesterday, though, I found one. The boots of those few others who had passed that way had missed it and, since it was near the centre of the lane, so had the vehicles. I felt strangely pleased.

I detest graffiti. Yet in a way I understand the impulse to leave a mark. So would I step in wet cement? No I wouldn't, out of consideration for others and because I would feel terribly guilty afterwards, just as I did when I was thirteen and carved my name on a beech tree. But I would think about it. I would imagine doing it. The temptation would be there to make a mark and then come back later to look at it as it set into that which, in this world, passes for permanence.

What is it about us humans that makes us so keen to leave our mark? Is it the ego's denial of mortality that urges us to create something that will outlive us even though we know that whatever it is will, like the statue of Ozymandias, eventually follow us along the path to oblivion? Nothing is eternal. Permanence is an illusion. Everything changes in every instant. The quantum universe is nothing but a vast, restless dance of energy and we and all our works blink in and out of existence like fireflies in the dark of unimaginable space.

I know that. I know that in another decade or two (or less probably) I shall be gone. Oh I shall live on a bit longer in the memories of those who knew me, particularly those who loved me. The books I have published will remain in print a few years maybe, and some of my traces in cyberspace might even persist till after I am dust. But as that which constitutes this separate me dissolves back into the All-That-Is, it will soon become just a faint outline, like yesterday's tar footprint, and eventually it will be as gone as a cup of seawater tipped back into the ocean.

Since some of my books were written with a helpful purpose, I hope they will remain a while. But apart from that, does any of this really bother me? Well, not so much, any more. I think I am learning at last the futility of trying to make a permanent home out of today's evanescent reality. And here is where I think I differ from the kid with the spray can who scribbles his tag on the wall and scuttles away. Because for me, as well as the tactile pleasure of a sandal pressed into soft tar, it is not so much about longing for permanence as it is about coming back and looking again. It is about wondering what will be different tomorrow. It is about noticing and being fascinated by— and yes honouring—the inevitable process of constant change and unpredictability that lies at the quantum core of everything. Even if the looking makes me sad.

Here's a sonnet I wrote thirteen years ago that seems to fit well...

I am so old that I remember green
grass hillsides where now mushroom villas crowd;
blue, endless space, and rising skylark seen
dark silhouetted, singing to a cloud.

Behind neat privet hedge, hydrangeas bloom.
Video library. Fast food for sale.
Car parks and garages. No longer  room
here for the spinney, or its nightingale.

Yet the old beech still stands, and in her bark,
carved long ago by thoughtless, teenaged hand,
my name, scar-tissued to the faintest mark,
may just be traced. At last I understand

forgiveness. Fifty uncomplaining years
the tree has waited for these healing tears.

'The Mark' © Marian Van Eyk McCain, 2000



Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Summertime Flowering

This year, as the unusually late spring nudged up against the first days of summer, we have seen an amazing array of wildflowers along our lanes and hedgerows. The bluebells, which are usually long gone by this time of year, lingered long enough to co-exist for several weeks with the first pink flushes of campions...
...and even now, in a few shady places, there are still a few primroses to be found, and even celandines.
Mind you, at this time of year, the campions and the buttercups reign supreme.

There is stitchwort everywhere I look, and the white theme will become ever more dominant over the coming weeks as the various wild carrot species start to take over the scene completely. Meanwhile, in certain places the wild orchids are appearing. And soon, now, there will be meadowsweet all along the verges and the fragrance of honeysuckle will fill the air. 

Our hawthorn tree is blossoming and so are the apple trees. Bees are buzzing and swallows are swooping.
And as I walked around taking all these pictures yesterday, I couldn't help thinking...
How sweet and wonderful it is to be alive at this glorious time of year!