Friday, 25 April 2014

Dreams of Independence

Will Scotland become an independent nation? The question’s on everyone’s lips. Politicians and businessmen work it back and forth every day hoping to coax some emotion (translation: votes) from an indifferent public. The vote in September is likely to be close.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that SNP --- the party leading the charge for independence, is the Scottish National Party. However the N might as well stand for Nationalistic.

 Nationalism and its cousin Patriotism are in vogue these days. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) along with the vanguard of the Conservative Party  are out flying the Union Jack and trying to get people steamed up about putting Britain first, getting out of the European Union and all its nefarious regulations. Send home all those Polish plumbers, bus drivers and doctors who are stealing our jobs. After the Scottish Referendum, we may well face a referendum on whether to leave the EU. It's the same basic question.

I hate nationalism and patriotism in all their manifestations. The idea that human beings of one country are in some way superior to others is a dangerous illusion that has built oppressive empires and given rise to more wars and suffering than any other idea. Right now blood is being spilled in the Ukraine over it. Europe owes its long peace after WWII to an overall softening of nationalism, the recognition that countries have more to gain by focusing on their common humanity than their differences. Cultural differences? They’re just that --- cultural, acquired over the years through repetition, passed on as traditions, but they are essentially acquired behaviours. They do not make us fundamentally different. We all suffer when bereaved, fear death and pray to our God (or gods) when we feel insufficient. We are all capable of love.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Scotland: the land, the people, the mists, folklore, ghosts, the music, dances. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But the idea of putting Scotland in a box and drawing borders around it, emphasizing a false division with the rest of the UK reminds me too much of the unfortunate division of Ireland into two pieces and its consequences. Let’s not fool ourselves. Scottish Independence (if it happens) will stoke a great deal of resentment on both sides of the new border. After it’s done, a new sense of alienation will linger between the two “nations.” The division of the UK will be a messy divorce with a nasty aftermath.

The Scots feel, with some justification, that they do not get a fair share of the goods from Westminster. But so do the Cornish, the Welsh, the Yorkish and the Northern Irish. In fact everyone outside Greater London gets paltry treatment.  Let’s face it, that’s where the bulk of the votes are so that’s where the biggest spending is, on housing, theatre, music, transport etc. The problem can be solved, but do we really want to try to do it by chopping up the UK?  The battle of Bannockburn, when Scotland threw off the English yoke happened 700 years ago. We can’t go back to those days. Both psychologically and as a nation, we’ve come a long way since then.

Friday, 24 January 2014

First Meeting

 Recently I’ve been wandering down old and dusty corridors to the evening, forty-five years ago, when I first spoke to AndrewGlazewski whose book I co-authored.  It had to be during the Lenten retreat at my school, Divine Mercy College on the Thames, just upriver from Henley.

Book available in March from White Crow Books,  at Amazon, Paul Kieniewicz's website. and other online stores. Read sample chapters.

I’d heard his talks a few years earlier, was intrigued but couldn’t catch his drift so I didn't seek him out.  This year I listened more closely, especially to what he had to say about our sub-conscious, the messages we tell ourselves; both positive and negative. Especially psychological blockages that we’ve erected. Before we got around to talking about God we needed to first understand ourselves. Despite what parents and priests told us, getting to know ourselves, how we work, is not some self-centred preoccupation. If you didn’t know your ego, you could not transcend it. You needed to listen, deeply. Not only to what your subconscious and overconscious were telling you, but to all of nature. Its laws. Then and only then you had a chance of forgetting about your ego. Of receiving Divine Grace.

Interesting stuff, but my problem was more mundane: the physics exam that I’d probably failed and the specter of an unsatisfactory grade. I just didn’t get physics: formulae, constants of linear expansion, latent heat. I tended to multiply or divide numbers and hope for the right answer. While Andrew talked about listening, I fidgeted in the hard chair and worried about my parents’ reaction to an unsatisfactory grade.


Andrew (around 1967)

Early evening, before getting ready for bed I walked down to his room and banged on his door. Why did I want to see him? With his mop of white hair and piercing eyes he looked a bit like a magician. I’d seen him charm away headaches and other ailments. Maybe he could work some of his magic on me? I found him standing by a table cluttered with books and stuff. The room smelled of tobacco as he’d been relaxing with his pipe after a day of talks, mass, evening services and kids like me. He asked me to sit down. I immediately felt at ease with him. With little introduction, I told him about physics? What the hell was going on that physics was such an impenetrable wall? After listening to my woes he picked up his pendulum, a wooden bob hung on a piece of catgut, with a metal bolt through the middle. He held out one hand like an antenna to pick up my vibes, and twirled the pendulum with the other.

“You’ve got quite a blockage there,” he said after a pause. The wooden bob began to dance from side to side, his hand tried to control it. “Look at the way it’s jerking my hand,” he added.

Andrew --- pendulum in hand giving a treatment. 

After a few minutes he dropped the pendulum into an ash tray. “It’s going to take some work to clear it up,” he said. “I don’t have the time to do it now.” He glanced at me as if to say that I would have to do the work myself. After all hadn't he  told us all about blockages and how to remove them?

Something happened in that room. After our first meeting there was no more trouble with physics. I developed a determination to conquer it, make it my field. And unexpectedly physics began to make sense. In fact, it became my best subject. Years later I was to major in it at St. Andrews University.  

Was it magic? Though it seemed like a case of instant healing it was not. Without knowing it, Andrew had opened a door, made things possible. I had to do the spadework myself, but it was now possible once the blockage was removed. The healing was no different than many others I’ve seen, whether by Andrew’s Psychophysical Technique or by Therapeutic Touch. The outstretched hand can clear the blockage in the field but that's no more than opening a door. The one to be healed  has to walk through the door and do the hard work.. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Rewilding Scotland

Over the New Year we visited the  Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie. where you can watch wild animals --- through a fence or from the safety of your car. The park is well designed, the animals have spaces to roam, are fascinating to watch, but they're not free.

Polar bear: "This isn't like the ol' land. Where's the ice?"

Here in Scotland I miss wild animals. We’re not talking about deer and pheasants --- known affectionately as “game”, but bears, lynx, boars, wildcats, wolves and eagles.  Back in the US you often catch a glimpse of them. In the UK, they’re not welcome. Not even eagles which are hunted by some gamekeepers as a threat to grouse. Somewhat typical was the draconian response to three wolves escaping from Colchester zoo last November. Rather than try to catch them, the cops shot them dead lest they gobble up someone’s grandmother. Back in Texas, where they shoot first and ask questions later, the cops nevertheless send stray wolves to Jean at the St Francis Sanctuary where they are cared for.

A Tayside beaver

The mere proposal to reintroduce beavers into Scottish rivers sent goosebumps through landowners, who warned of unspecified, disastrous consequences. Nevertheless despite the protests, the beavers are back in Tayside and Argyll, but not as a result of an enlightened decision. They escaped from captivity, and the prospect of recapturing or shooting them became a political hot potato.

Though I’m passionate about wild animals being in the wild, I liked the wildlife park because it allowed me to see animals like the lynx and wildcat that given their skittishness would be really hard to spot in the wild:. Two enormous polar bears wandered around their prison. They looked depressed. And yet, I sense that their presence there has caused many visitors to think about the plight of others in the wild --- endangered by global warming.

I wanted to climb the fence and have a chat with the wolves, one-on-one, but that will have to wait for another day.

The lynx -- extinct since 1500. Their reintroduction poses little threat to livestock, and could control the deer population.

The debate over re-wilding Scotland pits ramblers versus landowners, sheep farmers versus conservationists, pro-Europeans versus Eurosceptics. Old wounds and grievances are re-opened that go back to the Highland Clearances.  Just how complicated it is, became evident when Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Estate, announced his latest plans to reintroduce bears and wolves onto his land. Because it would involve fencing his property, his proposal immediately drew accusations that he was “creating a kingdom inside Scotland”. Many papers made an issue out his great wealth.  The issue that wolves tend to eat sheep of which there are plenty in Scotland didn't even figure in the debate. The complicating factor is a mistrust of large landowners who own over 80% of private estates, their motives versus the public's right to roam freely.

I admire Lister for sticking to his guns, building his case and trying to talk reason to the diverse groups. Personally, I hope that once he establishes his lynx and wolves, we'll be able to walk in and see them. Why not build some styles over his fence and let intrepid visitors take the risk of being eaten? I want to walk alone through his wood, listen to the wolf calls, even come upon one in the woods, look into its eyes. I could always travel for the experience to Spain where wolf numbers are on the rise, or to the Bialowierzy forest in Poland. But why should I have to travel so far?

 The Scottish hills need to find their own voice, one that we will one day be able to hear.


Saturday, 4 January 2014

Going Cold Turkey on Christmas

And so on December 24th, “Boreas blew a terrific gale” (1)  bent Cottarton’s trees until they were horizontal.  The internet blinked and went out along with the land line. Later we learned that down the road a tree had fallen on the phone line and snapped it. Cottarton was plunged into the Dark Ages.

We are not what you’d call remote. We’re in the country but only a few miles from reasonably sized towns. The land line works well but the internet crawls to where you can barely stream a movie. Mobile phone signal? Well, if you stick the phone to your ear, crawl into a corner of the kitchen, then stand on your head, a couple of bars of signal MAY visit you. And so, doing precisely that, I reported our problem to BT. The operator in Bombay said that the fault would be repaired by January 31. Finally, on  January 2 they came through.

Amber and I often considered offering technology-free retreats, weekend escapes from the burdens of technology: emails, internet, FB, Twitter ---the sense of being connected, which in reality may increase a sense of inner isolation.  After Boreas’s terrific gale had pulled the plug on us, we had a chance to find out what we were missing. I've never thought of us as internet junkies; we're not worried about what people are tweeting or FB'ing about us behind our backs. Nevertheless the lack of connection unnerved us.

Oddly enough, what I missed most of all were weather forecasts. I was nervous living from day to day not knowing if the day would bring a snow storm . I watched clouds gather and disperse without the slightest idea of what they were supposed to be up to. If I wanted to know what weathermen were saying I had to schedule a time to turn on the TV, something I often forgot to do. There was no internet banking! Our overdrawn accounts would have to await the pleasure of BT. No doubt our friends wanted to know if we’d dropped off the Earth; we had no way to tell them that we hadn’t. For recipes we consulted cookbooks, as we used to do twenty years ago. Arguments could no longer be settled by looking something up on the internet. As in the old days, the guy who shouted loudest won the argument. Altogether I realized how often I distract myself by looking up this and that on the internet.

 Distract myself from what? No doubt from silence. Usually that's what we’re trying to escape.

We talked a lot more to each other than we might have otherwise. Laptops and mobile phones  largely disappeared from the living room. Game boards appeared more than in previous years. We did turn on the TV but the dreadful holiday programming didn’t captivate us. News was mostly the body-bag/child abuse variety. The world had to turn without us while we remained ignorant of important developments beyond our borders.

We missed talking to our far-flung friends and family, wondered how they were doing, if everyone was all right. A lack of instant communication breeds crowded thoughts and worries. I had grown up without a phone --- our house didn’t acquire one until long after I left the nest. The postman was our contact with the world, and news didn’t travel fast. If it did --- you really worried. A telegram at your door was something to dread. My parents worried a lot about me while I was in the States, perhaps because we communicated only by occasional letter.

Without our technology, more than anything we feel uncertain. Not knowing. We’ve grown up with the information age, a sense of knowing facts, whether about the weather or about our friends. And we want it all instantly. Not knowing puts us into a space that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable. We don’t willingly embrace it. At least, until a break in that phone line forces us to.

(1) William McGonnaGall, "The Tay Bridge Disaster" See The Anti-Poet

Friday, 20 December 2013

Auntie Science

Far away in the galaxy is an anti- planet, made of anti-matter, where a man walks into an anti-bar, sits down at the anti-counter, orders an anti-beer from an anti-barman, takes it to an anti-table, and then gets into a heated debate with an anti-scientist. 

Lately some people  have accused me of being anti-science which is far from true as I've made my living for many years doing science, teaching science, trying to awaken in students a love of science. However lately the label  anti-science has lately been thrown gratuitously at people who question a point thought to be proved. Those who espouse green politics, are anti-fracking, believe that ESP is an established fact, and who believe in God are often labelled as anti-science. The latter category is used with caution as it includes 90% of the Earth’s population.

True, many environmental activists mistrust scientific studies, at least those funded by tobacco companies, oil companies, Monsanto, and most that are quoted by politicians to bolster their policies. That includes many studies in the latest report on shale gas, asserting that fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes, pollute groundwater or result in extra methane leaking into the atmosphere. Seriously guys, what studies would you expect to find in that report?

The problem isn’t one of anti-science, but Auntie Science to whom we look for answers to guide our lives, inform us and form our opinions for us. She makes us feel safe at night knowing that a meteor is not going to fall on our heads; that voodoo is only a superstition. When you’re ill, you can rest easily knowing that someone far away isn’t sticking pins into a doll to make you ill. We expect auntie to answer some of our most perplexing questions. Is there a God? Do we survive death? What am I doing here anyway? We’re even more perplexed to find that not only our auntie cannot answer those questions --- at least convincingly, but that more basic questions such as the safety of fracking or GMO crops remain elusive.

Choose your scientific opinion. A hundred years ago science carried a mantle of authority, verging on infallibility. Auntie had supplanted the Bible, the Pope and other religious authorities. But these days, we discover that she is only human and that there’s much that she doesn’t know. Her authoritative mantle is by now a bit tattered.  When Pontius Pilate faced Jesus and asked, “What is truth?” he didn’t get much of an answer either.

She knows certain things for certain --- for example the geology of the planets, the size and age of the universe, that species evolve somehow or other from primitive to more complex forms. But the more she knows, the more she realizes that she doesn’t know. At least if she is honest with herself, and therein lies the problem. Science is done by scientists. Being human, they have their own desires, feelings, insecurities, questions they want answered, opinions that they want to bolster. They are often beholden to a funding agency, public or private, that wants them to come up with “the right answer”.  As well as representing “auntie” they look to auntie for her authority. It’s a schizophrenic set up likely to result in schizophrenic findings.

Can good science be done? Sure it can, but we have to also accept its limitations; that the scientist’s ego cannot be removed from it. The ego is there when the question is posed, in how that question is pursued and it will somewhat colour the results. In atomic physics it’s well known that the observer cannot be removed from the observed. The atom cannot be studied without reference to a point of view or an apparatus. The act of observation changes the observed data. Jacob Bronowski, in his series, The Ascent of Man said, “There is no 'God’s point of view' ”. Even in pure science the errors cannot be removed from an observation. What then of applied science, pursued with the aim of bolstering a certain belief or political agenda? No wonder that most people cast a skeptical eye on such studies. 

Environmental activists, users of homeopathy or alternative medicines are not fundamentally anti-science. They have very good reasons for their views, not necessarily irrational. A man who sees a ghost knows that spirits are real, and all the skeptics in the world will not convince him that they're only his imagination. The fact is that we've grown in consciousness over the past two hundred years; become more aware. Time was when we took auntie at her word, relied on her to give us a feeling of security about our place in the universe, about our own lives.  Now we realize that she may not know a whole lot more than we.    

Friday, 6 December 2013

Gone Wwoofing!

“Good morning, is this the Cottarton Cottage slave labour camp?” Amber asked, when I picked up the phone, implying that we actually have slave labour here doing our heavy lifting. I was working alongside my helper, and she was concerned that I was overworking him. 

Cottarton --- The summer view

We don’t have slave labour, but we do occasionally have Wwoofers --- not to be confused with an audio component. For our American friends, and other urban readers, WWOOF stands for WorldWide Opportunitieson an Organic Farm. You can look up their website. The spring and summer months see many restless souls wandering the world, wanting to discover it. Not content to be camera-toting tourists, they want to connect with ecologically minded people. Get to know the land from inside-out. Most are college age kids, but there are also occasionally the older types like ourselves. The WWOOF organization connects those people with homesteads or organic farms that could use an extra hand.

Having registered Cottarton on the website as a host (we are an organic homestead), I started to receive tons of email inquiries from prospective Wwoofers. Most were from France, Spain or Portugal. Often young couples, all trying to match up dates and our availability.  Sometimes I get requests from young single women, which is fine by me as long as Amber is here; otherwise it might be awkward.

Time for clearing beds and giving them their winter grass mulch

So far we’ve been very lucky with the young guys who each worked for a couple of weeks here. Perhaps it’s something in the Cottarton air, its magic perhaps, but so far we've had not only hard workers, really willing to help out, but really good company with broad interests, those with a somewhat mystical attachment to the Earth, able to talk about both ordinary and abstruse subjects. Often their English speaking skills are limited and we communicate in a mix of English and French. They’re trying to figure out what they want out of life and this is one of the ways they’re going about it..

And so I look at our land after our latest companion left and see that trees have been planted, the grass in the field cut, beds cleared and mulched, firewood chopped, fences mended, all sorts of tasks that would have taken me weeks to do on my own. Last year my companion built a flight of steps down to our creek. Our latest companion cleaned up the paint on our antique seed boxes. I suspect that as Amber and I advance into the age of creaking bones and thinning hair, I’ll be calling more for help from those kids who want to connect with the land and share our life here for a spell.

Seed boxes inherited from Dickson & Turnbull, the Perth seed company. On long winter nights our work companions helped us restore the old paint.

So far we haven’t maintained contact with our Wwoofers. Like  proverbial ships that pass in the night, they don’t meet up again. For two weeks we share stories, interests, inspire each other, and work side by side in the field. Sometimes we do some counseling; after all we're gray-heads who supposedly have figured out what life is about.

When we say "good-bye" at the train station or bus stop, there's a feeling on both sides that there's been an exchange of energies, that  both parties have benefited and that something good happened. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Aldous Huxley --- Utopian Visionary

 Why is Aldous Huxley popping up on the Cottarton Blog? It’s because, unlike with JFK and C.S. Lewis,  the 50th anniversary of his death, is about to pass unnoticed. At least in the British press. Also, because when I was 18, I read just about everything he wrote, novels, essays, non-fiction and biographies. More than any writer at the time he shook up my youthful idealism, forced me to question my assumptions about the way things are. The book that burst upon me like an explosion was not “Brave New World”. Everyone reads that in high school and comes away convinced that the world is even more fu**ed up than they'd supposed. No, it was “After Many a Summer dies the Swan”.

On the outside, it’s a science fiction yarn set in California, about a rich man who resembles William Randolf Hearst, living in his castle, and scared of death. His doctor is trying to solve this problem, at least find the cure to aging and death. Unexpectedly they discover that a British Earl may have already solved the problem a couple of centuries earlier. That he might even be still alive! Laced throughout the book are conversations with an elderly chap, loosely modelled after the philosopher J. Krishnamurti, a long-time friend of Huxley, who asks – what’s the point of living longer? People don’t improve with age. In fact, time itself may be our worst enemy. Time, idealism, human suffering are all rooted in the human ego. The worst people are not the uneducated yobs. Those who inflict the greatest harm, enslave nations, lead wars are the idealists, the patriots, those who are convinced they’re doing good. In fact, their “God” is no more than a projection of their ego.

The next book I picked up was “Island”, Huxley’s last novel. It’s set on an island in the Indian Ocean where a utopian society has developed. Not because of a change in a political system, or by any outside imposition, but as a result of a spiritual transformation. It begins with education --- the right sort of education that is rooted in an understanding of the human being, both the physical, psychological and spiritual nature. There’s no religion and no dogma on the island. Most people take occasionally a hallucinogenic such as LSD, not as a recreational drug, but as part of a journey of self discovery. Huxley held that the use of hallucinogenics, taken after proper preparation, could open up a person to experience states of consciousness that we all naturally have but for whatever reason cannot usually access at will. However not everyone needs such an initiation. Some people are naturally high, or can slip into such a state through meditation. Such a religious experience can transform a person by showing them new perspectives, new vistas.

As with all utopian novels, “Island” suffers a little from being dull. A typical novel is usually driven by the conflict of the characters. It is not the best medium to explore a world where the characters don't experience conflict. Huxley was attempting an impossible task, which he largely pulled off. These days, dystopian visions abound and form the backbone of the science fiction genre: movies, novels and video games. A general feeling pervades our society, and our media that the world is going to sh**. The reason for this plethora of dark material is not because such is to be our destiny. I suspect that it springs from an overall feeling of alienation, a feeling of being alone in a universe that doesn’t give a damn for us. That message is regularly reinforced by luminaries such as Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and other science profs.

To see things differently takes vision and imagination. Huxley was a man of great vision which is why, despite Brave New World, he could see the possibilities for a better world. One where things could go right. He wasn’t na├»ve or Pollyanish about it. He knew that the solution lay not in any political, social or idealistic solution but in the transformation of the human being. Not a trivial task.