I came across the term ‘ten thousand things’ recently…and promptly wondered why I had not encountered it before. The ancient Chinese used this phrase to refer to the unfathomable multitude of beings in existence.
The idea of ten thousand things representing a number beyond belief also occurs outside China. In Buddhism it is used to refer to the uncountable number of ways in which life force or Buddha-nature exists. The ancient Greeks had a word for it, myrioi, and this has come to us in English as ‘myriad’, which literally means ten thousand.
In ‘The Zen of Seeing’, Frederick Franck refers to the ten thousand things as being worth seeing and drawing; “It is in order to really see, to see ever deeper, ever more intensely, hence to be fully aware and alive, that I draw what the Chinese call “The Ten Thousand Things” around me. Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world”
And so, when we take the time to look, whether it is with pencil, paintbrush or camera in hand, there is so much around us that we realise we just pass by on a daily basis. How much do you really see? Make time to look – you will find it’s worth the effort!
During my summer workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, I set the participants the task of photographing unexpected beauty. I asked them to create images that demonstrated the unexpected beauty that we can see around us when we take the time to actually see.
Any time we study something attentively, our wonder can be inspired, regardless of the apparent banality of the subject. As Frederick Franck found, “When I start drawing an ordinary thing I realise how extraordinary it is, what a sheer miracle: the branching of a tree, the structure of a dandelion’s seed puff.”
He also suggested that in learning to see more clearly, we begin to see a much bigger picture than we might have expected: “While drawing grasses I learn nothing ‘about’ grass, but wake up to the wonder that there is grass at all.”
This year I decided to complete this task alongside the course participants. I often head straight for the glory of Woodbrooke’s gardens, so instead I decided to explore the house. My first little gem was this piece of glass in a rather narrow door alongside the lift. I loved the way the floral design reminded us of the lush greenery outside.
This next image was an example of one of those times when you turn around and realise that the real interest is behind you. I went up the stairs a little, to see if there might be an interesting vantage point. It turned out there was not, but when I came down I was struck by the beautiful curve of the bannister from above, only seen on the way down this staircase.
My third image was actually a real ‘Aha!’ moment, taken after I had packed my camera away. Again I turned round, looked across the room…and couldn’t resist these paintbrushes!
This spring I took a trip to the north of England. It was a wet and blustery week, but the stormy weather meant that on the good days the skies were stunning. I took advantage of one of these days to make a trip to Lindisfarne.
I had visited the island before, but just with my regular camera. This time I had my little Canon 400D that i had converted to infrared with me. Oh joy of joys! That day put two of my favourite things on a collision course; graveyards and infrared skies!
The Abbey is managed by English Heritage but it is free to wander around the graveyard. With the combination of a fabulous sky and the stark stonework, I was in heaven.
The infrared camera is at its best with a sky that combines strong light and blue areas, which photograph dark, alongside a powerful cloud structure. The recent storm front had resulted in an amazing display of cumulus which worked perfectly as a foil for the gravestones and the abbey.
I love the way that the infrared camera sees more than my eyes do, reminding me of my limitations and the value of humility in the face of nature
Each year I make a point of going to a local woods which is carpeted in bluebells in May. It’s a lovely place to visit at any time, but the bluebells turn it into a magical experience. Here are a few pictures from my recent visit.
This year the bluebells seem to have been particularly amazing. It was a still and warm afternoon, and there was a subtle sweet fragrance in the air, coming from the mass of blooms.
Visiting this woodland reminds me of the wonder of the cycle of life and the transience of everything in the universe. These amazing flowers lie dormant under the soil for much of the year. And yet, if you visit in those couple of weeks in April or May, the ground beneath the trees is completely transformed.
Although we call them bluebells, the ones here are mostly shades of lavender through to a dark purple. I always find them quite difficult to photograph as the camera never seems to do them justice but the images still stand as a reminder to the spectacle, until it is time to visit again next year.
The fourth dimension is a strange commodity. We measure it so precisely that this week an extra second has been inserted in order to keep the atomic clocks in line with our planets movements in space. And yet the experience of time is of something much more fluid. Seconds can feel like eternity. An hour can pass in a moment. And now they say that all of time actually is happening simultaneously and it is just our perception that makes it linear. My head hurts!
I recently had a weird experience of the past linking into the present…which was of course the future at the time that this chain of events was set in motion. I teach in a room with a big, ticky old-fashioned clock. Which, of course, needs to be wound up. Some one must do this regularly, because the clock generally obliges by giving us a fair indication of the time. However, during last weeks class, it stopped. At precisely 6.04pm. Which may not seem like a strange thing, but its now the second time this has happened during that class, at almost the same time, too. And I find myself pondering the chain of events. At some point in the past, someone wound the clock up just the right number of turns for it to stop during my class. Perhaps I am odd, but that reminder of the past in my present felt a little weird. A reminder of how even the smallest thing we do today will have an influence in the future, for good or for bad. A reminder to be mindful in all we do, for who knows how how present will alter someone else’s future?
“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
A day out on the Severn Valley Railway is one of my favourite excursions from Birmingham. This historic line dates back to 1858 and it originally ran for 40 miles between Hartlebury and Shrewsbury. It closed in 1963 but The Severn Valley Railway Company reopened the line to passenger services in 1970 and now operates between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster.
The beauty of a trip on the railway is that there is always something to photograph, whatever the weather brings. On a warm sunny day there are walks from stations along the line and if the day dawns cold and wet there is always the option to stay on the train! I can spend hours engrossed in the details from a bygone era that you find on the platforms. I love the milk churns, trunks and quirky advertising signs.
The trains themselves can offer a challenge to the hopeful photographer as the combination of black shiny paintwork and bright white steam can exceed the dynamic range of the camera, resulting in blown highlights or dull shadows. If it’s not a day for taking in the big picture I focus on the smaller details and no matter how often I visit there is always something new.
My last visit turned out to be a lovely day. Just after arriving at Kidderminster Station, I rushed to get my camera out of the bag. You might have assumed I was about to photograph the approaching steam locomotive, but no, I wanted to record the reflection in a nearby puddle before the sun hid behind a cloud. The time before that the forecast said dry but the rain never stopped. As a result I came home with pictures of rain-splattered platforms and reflections inside the carriage.
When we journey with an open mind there is always something to entice us to explore further.
Autumn can be one of the best seasons of the year for spending time with a camera in hand and I always make sure to schedule a trip to an arboretum to revel in nature’s fantastic autumn display. This year I found myself struck not just by the beauty of the colours but by the sheer tallness of the trees. How amazing is it that they can grow up so very high, on what is actually a relatively narrow trunk, in their quest for sunlight? And why hadn’t this really struck me before?
The secret of course is in the foundation of the tree; the roots growing deep into the ground creating a stability that allows the tree to appear to defy gravity. Back in school biology classes I remember learning about gravitropism, the way in which different cells of the tiny seedling respond to gravity. Roots show a positive response and head downwards, whilst shoots show a negative response and grow upwards. As the tree develops, the strength of the physical structure enables it to build more cells on top of the ones below, creating an ever stronger and taller structure that can resist the downward pressure of gravity. The ever-present search for light leads the way upwards and hey presto, here I am marvelling at the height of the tree.
I think in my days of studying science, I found my wonder replaced by understanding. Science seeks to demystify and deconstruct, looking for answers and positing hypotheses. Once a logical explanation is proposed, the wonder seems to go out of the situation. These days I prefer to marvel at the sheer magnificence of existence on our planet and reconnect with the underlying wonder in it all. Perhaps I don’t need a camera to do this, but I do need to let myself be open to being amazed by all those things I know have a mundane explanation, and my camera sure helps.
I have been reflecting this week on a news article about the amazing find of cave art in a rural part of the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi. There are paintings of people, animals, and stencils made by blowing paint around hands held against the cave wall. Due to the growth of stalactities over the paintings, it has been possible to date them…to 40,000 years ago.
The researchers suggest that the development of art demonstrates the beginnings of human intelligence as we understand it, that we are distinguished from other living creatures by are capacity for art and abstract thought. Art is the basis for invention, imagination and the exploration of the possibilities of our world that have contributed to our progression from those cave dwelling hunter-gatherers to the modern techno-beings that we are today.
The timescales are hard enough to conceive, let along the huge leap from hand stencils though centuries of creative expression and technological development to the artistic medium that is digital photography. Today I hold my camera with awe and marvel at how far we have come. Wonder is a humbling state of mind.