Double Take

'When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there. And the time will come when you see we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you – George Harrison

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Talking About Our Brains by Rowena J Ronson and Nigel Summerley, Photograph by Rowena J Ronson

Talking About Our Brains

by Rowena J Ronson and Nigel Summerley

Open Book by Rowena J Ronson

Photograph, Open Book by Rowena J Ronson

RJR: What does it mean to be strong emotionally? What does that actually feel like? I have been wondering about this more and more recently and I am exploring the idea that it comes about as a result of how we choose to actively wire our brain. On a spiritual level, if we consider that all our experiences are a gift in learning, then if we process them through that lens, our brain can hardwire those thoughts into our foundations. So when the going gets tough, as it often does in life, if our brain has stable, strong wiring, we can feel that in place to support us, like a chemical safety net. We actually are what we create in our brains from our choices of how we view our lives. And so I choose to learn and to take care of my brain so it takes care of me. And as a result I do feel the benefits of those strong foundations. I wonder what you think about all of this Nigel.

NS: If I cut a slice out of my finger, the body will repair even quite a deep wound. I don’t have to do anything for this to happen, except to let it happen, it seems. If the brain is also simply part of our physical body, is it not likely that its inherent tendency is to be strong in adversity and heal itself of any mental wounds? I wonder if it is not a case of us actively choosing to wire our brains in a certain way – is such a thing possible? – but rather, NOT choosing to interfere with the brain’s instinctive intelligence. The problem, of course, is that we use the brain to think – and our negative, confused and neurotic thoughts must make it very difficult for the brain to operate in the same way as a ‘simpler’ part of the body healing and regenerating itself.

RJR: You actually do plenty for the healing of your finger to occur and a great deal of that healing is directed by the brain and the nervous system. I think what you are saying is that it is an unconscious process. The brain is not simply part of the physical body at all. Just as much as the physical body is not purely physical. But I digress. I don’t think we have an inherent tendency to be strong. We are how we are as a result of every single interaction we have while being nurtured by our parents throughout our young years. And of course what occurs in utero, in our genes and our karma play their part too. We are programmed to remember experiences when we are more fearful as a protection mechanism, so children who experience a great deal of trauma, for example, will create brains that a wired differently than those who feel safe and calm. So we can actually possess a traumatised brain from very young, and may not even know it. As for healing from mental wounds, our brain is being bombarded by neurotoxins all of the time. But we might have more control than we think….

NS: Phew… there’s a lot there… Yes that healing of the finger is definitely an unconscious process – “I” just let it happen. This automatic operation of the brain and the body is nothing short of miraculous. But how can you say that the brain is not simply part of the physical body – surely it is, isn’t it? But is the mind something different? And what do you mean by saying the physical body is not purely physical? If you could expand on this? Before I respond on the other things you have just said…

RJR: The brain is not simply part of the body, for many reasons including that the fact that it is evolving all of the time. It is very unique in that way. And we can influence its health uniquely too. Of course there are ways we can look after each of our bodily organs, and by doing so we can certainly change them. But how we look after and influence our brain is completely different. If we think different thoughts, our receptors alter and new pathways are created for use at other times. If we study, our brain responds by learning. Parts of our brain change in size depending on how we use them. And our physical body is also our energetic body but you know all of this Nigel, being a homeopath…..

NS: Well, a former homeopath! I take all those points about why the brain is different. But I would still wonder if the conditioning of the brain from outside sources – and also from within, ie through our use of it for thought – gets in the way of the brain’s natural inclinations and tendencies? I don’t know the answer to this. But there seems something logical in the question. We may think we have some control over the brain – but are we actually messing around with it? You also threw in ‘karma’ as if it were just as plainly evident as genetics and what happens in the womb…. Is there any evidence for inherited ‘karma’ being any different to genetic inheritance? And the question of physical body and energetic body… I don’t know for sure about this. All that seems to be clear is that everything physical is energy or the product of energy. Why differentiate between physical body and energetic body? I don’t want to get away from the discussion about the brain. Are you saying that if we can ‘toughen up’ the brain, then we can be emotionally stronger?

RJR: Once a homeopath, always a homeopath Nigel 🙂  From what I understand, the brain does not have natural inclinations and tendencies. Look to the field of epigenetics and you will see that our DNA is malleable and therefore affected by our environment, which is actually a really good thing and integral to our evolution. So if we take care of ourselves as much as we can in this lifetime, this can and will affect our DNA and consequently how we think and feel and how healthy we are. If we programme our brains to think in a more positive way, we create those connections through our receptors on our nerve cells, which in turn influence our brain chemistry, which makes us feel good. The more we programme our brain to positive thoughts, the easier it becomes because our brain remembers and makes those connections unconsciously. There is a great deal written on this subject now.

NS: From what I understand, the brain DOES have natural inclinations and tendencies. Take a look at sex and violence for starters. Of course, the brain is affected by its environment – which can be for good or ill. The problem that we come back to is: who is this ‘we’ that is taking care of the brain and who is this ‘we’ that is ‘programming’ the brain? Is the ‘we’ separate from the brain? There is a great deal written on this subject, perhaps, but that is also written by the ‘we’, isn’t it? Is it possible to disentangle the ‘we’ and the brain? Talk of programming the brain makes me feel slightly queazy and uneasy. Could it not be that the less we think – and the less we think that we can programme the brain – that the more likely the brain is to operate in its natural state and to find some natural equilibrium – and ultimately to evolve from its primitive state (eg the sex and violence stuff that I mentioned earlier). The brain has not evolved in any way for millennia – and I wonder if it may never do, if humans insist on thinking – and thinking that they can control the brain.

RJR: Not only has our brain continued to develop through the millennia, it develops throughout our lifetime. I am wondering what has made you think that it has stopped developing? And reproduction and survival are not the same as sex and violence Nigel, as you well know. Thinking in terms of ‘we’ and ‘I’ could be considered to be empowering. It is not like we are saying ‘they’. Surely it is a good thing to think that we can influence the health of our brain and therefore our mental and emotional wellbeing? Would you rather feel someone else has the answers, ‘they’ for example, have the answers for you?

NS: I think it has not developed for 5,000 years and maybe longer. (We have kicked this beer can around the yard before.) The evidence? How about the Islamic State beheading videos? How about Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria? How about the everyday gang rapes in India? How about the school massacre in Pakistan? How about the arms trade? Humans have made huge technological advances in the past few millennia, but we are as self-centred, short-sighted and appallingly violent as we always were. We have influenced our brains, but through our misuse of them. I feel that if we could ‘step aside’, maybe our brains would function more healthily. I know you mean something positive about ‘we’ and about ’empowering ourselves’ – but I’m not convinced about the pursuit of ‘power’, even over ourselves. Back to the original question of what it means to be strong emotionally… can we only be strong emotionally if we truly embrace the hopelessness of the state of humanity. Like someone facing death with acceptance and courage, can we face life knowing that the odds are almost completely against humans ever really changing?

RJR: Our collective knowledge is increasing and our brains are indeed changing and developing. This does not mean that our brains do not contain the original reptilian part that is responsible for survival and our impulse to fight or take flight. And yes of course we can be self-centered, short-sighted and violent, but that does not mean our brains have not evolved. Can we only be strong emotionally if we truly embrace the hopelessness of the state of humanity? No. I don’t think so. I feel that humans are changing but that we will always have a shadow. We will always be capable of 360 degrees’ worth of emotions and behaviours. But can we influence how we feel and personally evolve? I believe we can. And I would be interested to hear our readers opinions on this subject…..


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THE ART OF SURVIVAL by Nigel Summerley, photograph by Rowena J Ronson

THE ART OF SURVIVAL by Nigel Summerley, photograph by Rowena J Ronson

Fire Under Water by Rowena J RonsonFire Under Water by Rowena J Ronson

In the morning we walked across the dry, scrubby wilderness of the Rodopos peninsula in western Crete. In the afternoon we returned across the same landscape and it was awash with fresh water.Yet nothing had changed, apart from my perception – thanks to a lesson in survival from my hiking companion, Ernst Tellegen.

Ernst had taught me that not only was water a key to survival, but that even when you thought otherwise, it was all around you – even in this apparently inhospitable environment.

Crete’s sunshine resorts are well developed for mass tourism. I managed to get away from all that by staying in the sleepy seaside town of Kissamos, way out west. But even its quiet, perfect beach and calm sea palled after a while – you can only relax for so long. In short, I wanted some action…

From the beach I had seen the long, mountainous Rodopos peninsula. I had been told by the locals how wild it was, and also how there was a wild guy who would take you out into the rough country there.

It seemed like a chance of seeing the real Crete – as it used to be. And to be even farther away from the crowd. As I found when I met up with Ernst, when you explore the Rodopos, you don’t see anyone else. You have a huge chunk of the island to yourself, complete with heart-stop views down over the deep-blue Aegean.

Ernst, 51, from the Netherlands, worked as a handyman and paramedic before settling in Crete in 2010. Realising that the Rodopos was the island’s most unspoilt area, he based himself there and single-handedly built a wood-cabin home in the hamlet of Afrata. He survives by leading day-long survival courses – equal parts walk and talk.

Afrata is the last stop before you go north, into parts that few visit. No roads, no tracks, no paths… it’s rough, tough, forbidding terrain with scrubby, scratchy vegetation and only the occasional tree. The Rodopos is the easterly of two peninsulas that form the Bay of Kissamos, and Kissamos town sits in the mouth of the bay.

So here we were, Ernst and I, hiking many miles away from the upmarket resort-hotels of Elounda, the booze and bikinis of Malia, the ancient remains of Knossos, and even beyond Crete’s far-western city, Chania.

“Where we are,” said Ernst, “we could be the first people ever to set foot.” And this wasn’t bullshit – he doesn’t deal in that. With him, you don’t get the usual stunts and tricks of the “survivalist”. Much of what you learn is about attitude – how to use your brain and trust your instincts.

It’s not a teacher-and-pupil lesson with Ernst showing you something and then you try to do it yourself. It’s more a dialogue on the move, in which he imparts knowledge and insights. It can also be a philosophical exchange about the essentials of life.

“Survival is in the head,” said Ernst. “It’s not 200 ways to make a fire, or eating the intestines of a snake.” In fact, on our trip, eating was not a high priority. At the start, I was offered the pick of five rucksacks. Each had different contents, said Ernst, but all had everything needed to cover the essentials of survival. When I opened my bag, halfway through the hike, I found those essentials did not include a sandwich.

“I never teach people to set traps,” said Ernst. “On TV it looks good – in 10 minutes they have a rabbit and a barbecue. In reality, the animals here – salamanders, lizards, badgers, snakes, field mice – are aware of our presence and will do everything to avoid us.” So we weren’t going to be eating? “You can go three minutes without oxygen, three hours without protection from a harsh environment, three days without water, and three weeks without food, ” said Ernst. No, we weren’t going to be eating.

“The biggest danger is dehydration. Collect water – that is numero uno for increasing chances of survival. If you don’t have enough water, then your body temperature is not regulated.” But where do you find water in the wild? “Trees and bushes breathe,” said Ernst. “In the daytime they exhale oxygen and water. If you tie a plastic bag tightly around a branch with one bottom corner of the bag hanging down, this should give you one cup of water every 24 hours.”

And if there are no trees? “Dig a condensation pit.” He showed me how to excavate a crater 3ft across and 2ft deep, put a cup at its centre, then cover the hole with a plastic sheet, weighted in the middle with a small stone to encourage condensation to run down the plastic and into the cup. Ernst’s most memorable tip was that you can use a condom to carry water: “A good one will take up to 40 litres,” he said.

But didn’t I have to learn to make fire? “If you want to make fire with two sticks,” smiled Ernst. “Make sure one is a match.” And the best way to make fire in the wilderness? “With a Bic lighter.” With a two-bits-of-wood fire plough, you have to practise for days to succeed, he said. “The fire plough is a romantic way of making fire. But if the ship has sunk, and you are on the shore with people panicking and screaming – and perhaps with other people coming towards you looking to eat you – you are not in a romantic mood.”

Ernst’s wit punctuated much of his teaching. “Humour is one of the greatest things on earth – essential to survival,” he said. I even began to see the funny side of the fact that my legs were being scratched to bits by hostile bushes. I had foolishly come in beach shorts, while Ernst wore sensible lightweight trousers.

As we walked through the 30C heat of the afternoon, Ernst came up with surprising gems. “Gut feelings are important – pay attention to them 100 per cent,” he said. “In a survival situation, animal instincts take over – and that’s good.” And he was scathing about costly gimmicks and gear: “What kind of survivor will you be, even if you have millions in the bank? You can have all your expensive equipment and still fall into that ravine and die. But knowing who you are is what is important. The key to survival is knowing who you are and understanding yourself and your needs.”

In the end, Ernst did show me two ways to make fire: one using dry grass and a magnifying glass; one using a firestone (you scrape magnesium slivers from the stone then run the back of your knife down the stone to make sparks to light the magnesium). Both were incredibly difficult.

And he did explain how to eat in the wilderness. “There are three rules for edible grasses: if stem and leaves both come directly from the roots, if the leaves are serrated, and if any flowers are yellow, then you can eat the leaves. They are full of minerals and vitamins A, E and K. Very healthy.”

Ernst reckoned that in any survival situation, you are likely to be rescued within three days (unless you have not told anyone where you are going): “I always tell two different people where I am going. I did that this morning before we set off.”

As well as group walks, Ernst does one-to-one outings, like the one I was privileged to be on. The group trips appeal to the curious who, like I did, want a day of action away from the beach. Those who pay a bit more for a solo trip with Ernst get to ask everything they wanted to know about human survival and to get some intense personal coaching in self-awareness. Either way, it’s a neat adventure.

Some of Ernst’s survival skills relate to the kind of hot and hostile environment we were walking through, but most of his self-preservation teaching could be applied to anywhere on earth – from the desert to the city.

Ultimately, survival is about staying cool when stuff happens. “With all that I know, something can still go wrong,” said Ernst. “The earth is a living creature – it changes continually. The mountains lose stones and rocks by the day – just as the human body sheds particles of skin. That rock that you are holding now, it might be the day that it breaks.”

* Ernst Tellegen (00 30 6940 682656, takes groups of up to eight on his survival walks from €50pp.

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Talking About Our Relationships With Animals by Nigel Summerely and Rowena J Ronson, photograph by Rowena J Ronson

Talking About Our Relationship With Animals by Nigel Summerely and Rowena J Ronson

Dreamer by Rowena J Ronson

Dreamer by Rowena J Ronson

NS: In the past year I have lived in a number of different places, each with a resident cat. It has not been hard to leave the places – or the animals. But while I find I don’t miss the place, I do miss the cat. What is it about the human relationship with a familiar animal that is so important to us? It’s odd because – particularly with a cat – it’s all one-sided and illusory, isn’t it?

RJR: I understand what you mean in terms of how we project our own emotions on to an animal we are in relationship with but that does not mean to say that it is one-sided or illusory. I have developed connections with a variety of different animals in my lifetime, including a pelican, and even though I cannot imagine how he felt, I know that something was going on that touched my heart.

NS: Some people would say this sounds nonsensical – establishing some sort of relationship with a bird. But presumably it is possible to have some sort of interaction with any other creature that is more or less on the same scale as a human (ie it would be difficult with an ant). If you could say some more about the pelican, perhaps that would lead us into some understanding of what is happening – even though we can never know fully.

RJR: The pelican fell from the sky over the bay of Atsitsa, on the island of Skyros in Greece when he was about a month old and his flock were migrating from Africa to Russia. He lived with a family that I know for a couple of years and developed not only a very close and special relationship with them but also with me when I visited. I used to take him for walks, relax on the beach with him and go swimming. He would then walk back up the hill at my side until I returned him to his adopted mother, my friend. We would look into each other’s eyes but, of course, I have no idea what he was feeling, but I know how I felt…. very moved!!

NS: Is it possible that neither human nor animal really knows – or can know – what is going on in this kind of relationship? The fact is that there is something that brings human and animal together, and something that both get from walking side by side together. Perhaps there is an intelligence at work here that is not the intelligence of the human and not the intelligence of the animal? Would it be too much to call this love?

RJR: Universal love perhaps, although it is not the first thing that springs to my mind. I do agree that we don’t know what is going on in this relationship, and we don’t often know what is going on in relationships between human beings either! One thing is for sure, relationships with animals are less complicated. Although this is not always true as some animals bring with them a traumatised karma and however much we struggle, we cannot connect with them. I had that with my cat when I was growing up and my first when I bought my own flat. Both cats had issues! And in truth, we really did not form a relationship at all….

NS: I think it’s interesting, this sort of parallel with human relationships… Yes, we often don’t know what is going on in the mind of the other person… In fact, perhaps never… So then we rely on some sort of mutual instinct, some sort of mutual feeling that indicates when things are all right. In the human-animal relationship, things do seem generally less complicated. Does the animal supply something that the human needs? Or is it a substitute for a human relationship? And do animals come into our lives when we need them, and also when they need us? Interestingly, I started this dialogue by mentioning that I was missing cats in my life, and just after that a cat from several streets away started visiting my home every evening. I have no explanation why – as there was no food on offer! But she seemed to get something from her being there – and so did I. Can you say something more about what “issues” an animal may have?

RJR: My first cat was abandoned by his mother and left under my window. He could never trust anyone after that and would be sitting on someone’s lap and then just turn around and scratch you. We were all covered in deep scratches on our hands and up our arms throughout his ten year visit with us. Pablo was my own cat once I left home, as I mentioned. I had him from very young but I do not know if he was traumatised but he certainly behaved like it. He would hide behind a door and rush out and grab my ankles with his teeth and claws. As a cat lover, I wasn’t put off and I went on to have two gorgeous cats who were brother and sister and they couldn’t have been more affectionate and loving. What is interesting to me is how having an animal affects the dynamics in a relationship. A friend said today that her partner would not let her have a cat because he would be jealous of the attention she would give it. I have heard this before from patients of mine. Are you surprised?

NS: I also had a cat – a rescue cat – who seemed to have been traumatised. He spent the first few months hiding beneath things, and then, for a long while after that, craving affection – which he did by scratching your hand, as if to say: “Stroke me.” In the end he just settled down to being a fairly normal cat – although he always seemed troubled. The jealousy thing is not surprising. Since, the animal-human relationship can be consistently strong, it may well appear to be a challenge to a human-human relationship that may be inconsistent in its strength. Could we also be slightly envious of the way in which an animal can easily be part of a relationship and yet completely maintain its individuality at the same time?

RJR: Perhaps their feelings don’t go as deep as ours as their brains are less complex and developed. I guess resentment doesn’t get in the way of reconnection. But in saying that, I am sure I have experienced cats sulking! Maybe they have shorter memories though…. And I wonder if dogs maintain their individuality as much as cats. What do you think?

NS: On the whole, it seems that animals live much more in the present than we do – and this applies to cats and dogs and pelicans. But this seems to be a more intelligent way to live, so does brain size come into this? Perhaps, as you suggest, animals’ ‘feelings’ are less complex than those of humans. Short memories seem to be an important part of living in the present – with long-term memory being used for things that are really important to survival. Perhaps the more complex human brain allows us to hang on to too much in the long term – in fact almost everything almost for ever. The cliche is that dogs are less individual and egotisitic and more subservient and faithful, while cats are the opposite. This does seem to be the case. The cat that visited me every night for a week recently, and gave the impression that my home was her idea of paradise, has stopped visiting just as suddenly as she started – and has no doubt found somewhere else to grace with her presence. I will remember her – but I doubt she will we remember me.

RJR: I find it interesting that domestic cats have evolved to be in relationship with humans. Their purr has healing properties and sends out a vibration that knits our broken bones together. And I suspect the effect is not just on our bones. I would imagine we release oxytocin when we stroke a cat. So this makes me wonder whether we are ever truly in love with someone or something else or are they just triggers for our own chemical reaction, and that is what we love so much. I am also wondering if dogs are more suited to the extroverts among us. It seems like you have to be pretty sociable to want to engage with the whole dog walking experience. For some people I know, their interaction with others as they dog walk is a major factor in their doggy enjoyment and adds a whole different social dimension to their lives. So maybe it is not so much a dependence/independence issue but an extrovert/introvert one. What do you think?

NS: My inclination is not to reduce love to literal chemistry, but maybe everything in the end is energy and thus chemistry. The presence of, and contact with, cats, dogs and other animals have been shown to have healing benefits for humans; that healing may well be coming from within us, but the animal is the catalyst for this reaction. The introverts with cats and the extroverts with dogs? Well, perhaps that does make some sort of sense. But I think there are also some “loners” with dogs, and some pretty outgoing people with cats. Again, the presence of an animal, especially a dog, but also a cat or a pelican, seems to make human-to-human interaction easier. Does the presence of an animal draw out the self-centredness of the human?

RJR: Not sure what you mean about the presence of an animal making human interaction easier, but maybe superficially in the park as a talking point. I have a patient whose giant poodle sleeps in her bed each night between her and her husband. Tell me more about what you mean about human self-centredness?

NS: I think the presence of an animal obviously makes chatting with strangers more likely, eg walking the dog in the park. (Mind you, so does playing the drums or the guitar, or driving an unusual car.) But it can also be a focus of communication between the most intimate of friends or partners, eg two people might be sitting silently together on a sofa, but as soon as a cat sidles in between them, they are likely to start talking. Whether the giant poodle in the bed has the same effect, I’m not so sure. I think human self-centredness is exactly that – concern about and for what is most important to oneself. Love for another human being, eg a child or a partner, stops or dissolves that self-centred approach. Something similar happens with the feelings that can be engendered by the presence of an animal. When one truly loves someone, that love appears to be unaffected by whether the other person reciprocates with the same feeling. The same may be true with the feelings engendered by the presence of an animal; as we are aware, a cat certainly doesn’t seem to return a huge amount of love or loyalty (while a dog may at least appear to). What happens inside us is not affected. Do we draw the conclusion that it is good to have an animal companion? And what of those who have such a companion but abuse it?

RJR: I am still not quite sure how an animal might be drawing out our self-centeredness. I would have thought it is more the opposite. Without an animal to focus on, especially if we are not living with other human beings, we might well become more self-centered. And I wouldn’t say we can conclude it is either a good nor bad to have an animal companion. I guess I am more interested why someone chooses to have a pet and why they chose the met that they do. And what need it is that they are fulfilling. I always find it interesting seeing people out with their dogs and can’t help but wonder why they have chosen the particular one they have. Their choices I think must say something about them as individuals. Tell me more about what you mean by abuse as there are so many levels and forms of abuse. Locking a cat out in the rain at night could be considering abusive. And is it abusive to be too firm in one’s control of dogs and could the same be said if one is too lapse?

NS: I think all of those things could be seen as abuse. Broadly speaking, abuse would be any example of not treating an animal with respect. I think we do agree on the self-centredness aspect – we tend to be less self-centred when we have an animal companion, or even when we feed the birds or take care of an injured animal. That is what I was trying to say. Having an animal companion may be good for some of us, some of the time or all of the time. Why we choose the animal companions we do is a tricky one – but there does seem to be something in the old cliche of dog-owners choosing dogs that look like them. Perhaps it is only natural that we are drawn to relationships with animals – or people – with whom we have a fair amount in common. But then we can also be attracted by difference – and that may well come into play in our relationship with animals, since animals are very much the inscrutable ‘other’. We can never know them fully – and so perhaps we will never fully be able to explain what happens in our relationships with them. But those relationships can be deep, powerful and mutually beneficial.

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Half Measures by Nigel Summerley, photograph by Rowena J Ronson

We Are What We Focus On

Half Measures by Nigel Summerley

A suggestion to work towards making half of our planet a protected area for wildlife might sound like the slightly bonkers idealism of some teenage eco-warrior.

But the proposal comes from the renowned Harvard scientist Dr E O Wilson. And he’s 85.

So has he perhaps lost the plot? It doesn’t seem so. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to extinction of species and conservation strategies, and what he suggests is the logical extension of what he has learned during a long and illustrious career.

His goal would be to have huge areas free of human interference, in which wildlife could travel north and south or east and west in order to adapt to climate change.

“Islands” of conservation are artificial – and ultimately doomed because they offer no escape, he argues. They can become prisons where disease and disaster can strike animal populations with fatal consequences.

Will anyone listen to Dr Wilson? ” Half Earth is the goal,” he says but it’s how we get there, and whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang onto.”

He knows he’s up against human overpopulation – and no doubt human hubris, greed and selfishness – but he is undaunted. “Battles are where the fun is,” he says.

His particular double take on saving animal species from extinction is daring and brilliant, and surely deserves support from all of us who value the natural world.

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The Garden Heals by Nigel Summerley, photograph by Rowena J Ronson

Dig Deep, Reach High.jpg

The Garden Heals

by Nigel Summerley

The healing power of plants is well-known – to homeopaths and herbalists and allopaths too.

And those who garden know that to be immersed in the world of plants is to be closer to something that is rewarding, beautiful and therapeutic.

Now conventional science has concluded that gardens in care homes could play a crucial role in helping to stimulate the memory processes of those suffering from dementia.

Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School have reported that green spaces helped care-home residents relax, and in particular reduce the agitated states of those with dementia.

They also concluded that gardens provide welcome spaces for interactions between patients and visitors, thus helping to stimulate memories. No great surprise here, really.

The Exeter study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association (and supported by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula), looked at the findings of 17 different pieces of research in this field. This research covered residents at 11 UK care homes, plus services in America, China and Europe.

Now here’s a bit of a surprise…

Dr Ruth Garside, one of the authors of the paper, was quoted as saying: “There’s a lot we don’t know about how a garden’s design and setting influences its ability to affect wellbeing, yet it’s clear these spaces need to offer a range of ways of interacting – to suit different people’s preferences and needs.”

Surely it’s not rocket science… or even horticultural science. Just ask a gardener.

Yes, vertiginous steps and deep ponds and vicious cacti might be ingredients to avoid if frail people are going to be in the garden, but otherwise it’s common sense, isn’t it?

By coincidence, a key character in my recent novel ‘Like A Flower’ is a dementia sufferer in a care home – someone distraught at losing her garden and someone finding some solace in just being able to be outside and to see plants.

Any garden, however humble, can be a therapeutic space. Not just for dementia patients, but for all of us.

* Nigel Summerley’s novel ‘Like A Flower’ – a story of life, death, love and gardening – is available at

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Talking About Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Rowena J Ronson


Talking About Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Rowena J Ronson

Issues of leadership, conflict and deceit came up for me as I watched the long anticipated sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rise ended with the simultaneous escape of the apes into the Redwood forests of California with the virus, created in the scientists’ labs – ironically tested on these fine animals – spreading its deadly infection globally throughout the human race. I started watching Dawn holding my allegiance with the apes.

They seemed to be living a peaceful existence, in harmony with nature, and without the necessity for destroying the planet’s natural resources. Their needs were simple and in tune with their surroundings, their communication subtle and respectful. Conflicts were handled with ease and their leader, strong and compassionate.

In fact it was their leader, Caesar, who really captured my attention. He was a commanding and powerful autocrat who led his tribe with wisdom, fairness and integrity. And if his authority was questioned in any way, he would show his disapproval with his stance and emotions without reserve. I knew he listened to both his head and his heart, and therefore possessed an intuitive nature. and I felt I would be able to trust his decisions if I was a member of his team. I also suddenly had renewed respect for this authoritative choice of leadership. I questioned my more democratic style and the benefits of being open to new ideas.

The other interesting observation I had while watching the film was how my allegiance tended to shift from ape to man and back again. Once I really listened and could see the situation from the perspective of any particular aspect, I would then feel myself edging towards that side of the seesaw. Back and forth I went. Each time, my focus and aspirations were for the rise of the oppressed although in truth, both sides were oppressed and oppressor concurrently.

I find myself experiencing similar feelings watching the current propaganda spilling out across the world about the conflict in Israel and Gaza. The speeches, letters and articles full of opinions, perspectives and fabrications are compelling and manipulative by intention. It is nigh on impossible to see the wood from the trees or to feel real trust for whatever argument is being promoted, and indeed justified, at any one time.

In the age of innocence portrayed during the dawn of Dawn, Caesar said, ‘Ape must not kill ape’ and I wished for more peaceful times, where life was respected and being a member of one’s own race was experienced as an honour and a privilege. Russell Brand speaks of universal connectedness and asks us to question our paradigms in order to make subtle yet monumental shifts in our consciousness. I like his style.

And I would recommend watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for whatever lessons you might learn from the experience.

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Resident Evil

Talking About Evil by Nigel Summerley and Rowena J Ronson

NS: Is there such a thing as evil, independent of human beings. Is the idea of the devil rooted in some sort of reality? Or is it a way of expressing an aspect of humanity – an internal flaw?

RJR: I am not sure what you mean by ‘independent of human beings’, as I am not a believer in heaven and hell or ‘God’ and his antithesis, the devil. But there is no doubt that evil exists in humanity. It is interesting to question whether it is a flaw or just born out of the survival instinct. What do you think?

Charlotte's Web (RJR)

NS: I am not a believer either. But there does seem to be a widespread belief that evil exists as something separate from us, something that we can succumb to or be taken over by. But perhaps this is an excuse – like the scapegoat that was blamed for evil things and then driven away or killed. The potential for evil may well be within us all, no? It seems more likely that it is a psychological/self-centred flaw. But why do you mention the survival instinct? Is it that we are prepared to push our boundaries to encompass almost any act – if it is linked to self-preservation?

RJR: How easy it is to think of it as separate from us. It is such a great way for no one to take responsibility for anything. In saying that, I do believe in possession, so in some instances I guess evil can be perceived as a separate entity. I believe we are all capable of anything, yes. But I am not sure we are all capable of evil, although I guess we are all susceptible to being possessed. I am sure you will have something to say in answer to that comment! There is a difference between self-preservation and evil, surely? It may be born out of survival, but it is not what motivates it…

NS: If you believe in possession, then it seems like you are having it both ways… Evil is not separate but it can possess us…? Either it is separate or it is not, surely? I agree that we are all probably capable of anything – or certainly we can never know for sure what we may be capable of. Self-preservation at all costs must lead ultimately to violence – and perhaps also to evil? First, I think we need to clear up this “possession” thing. If we are possessed, what is it that possesses us? And if it is separate from us, what is it, what is its nature and where does it come from? Could we go into this a bit more?

RJR: I would say that it can be separate and it can be part of us. I believe that evil spirits can possess us. Or have I been watching too many films? I also believe that one can be possessed by good spirits too. So in answer to your questions, I believe we can be possessed by spirits, be they evil or otherwise. I am guessing you don’t share my belief?

NS: Saying that evil can be separate from us and part of us seems to be contradictory, although I suppose it is not necessarily so. If you feel that we can be possessed by spirits – either evil or good – then what is the nature of these spirits? And again, this seems contradictory because you were saying earlier that we sometimes look to blame an outside agency for the way we are or the way we behave. I think there is something in this feeling of “possession” but perhaps it is possession by thoughts or feelings that we like to think could never be a part of us?

RJR: I agree that most people do not take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts and resulting behaviour. I am not sure we are conditioned to do so. It is only when people are in crisis and they do some personal development work that they learn the skill. I have learned in life, and I work with my patients with the model that we need to take 100 per cent responsibility for our behaviour. We cannot take responsibility for how the person in the dynamic with us reacts, as that would be controlling and would imply that they should be responsible for our behaviour, which in turn is disempowering. Evil is something else, though, isn’t it – or would you put aggression and lying for example, under the evil umbrella?

NS: Yes, it’s far easier to blame someone else or something else for our behaviour. There may be something in the self-preserving, self-justifying nature of the brain that predisposes us to that? Awareness of what we do and what is being done to us presumably holds the key to placing responsibility where it belongs? Aggression or lying (and other types of “bad” behaviour) could be described as evil or not, depending perhaps on the context or the degree or the result. But I wonder if evil is a mystery that we cannot solve. Is it a word we use to describe aberrant human behaviour stemming from the more primitive actions of the brain and from lack of awareness? Or could it be something that “possesses” us from outside. The latter seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But then what lies behind the way the human brain and behaviour have developed? Is it too fanciful to think that forces of “good” and “evil” may have been involved in our emergence as human beings?

RJR: The idea of forces of “good” and “evil” being involved in our emergence as human beings makes no sense to me. Is there a religious explanation that you are referring to, and if so, can you tell me more?

NS: Not exactly a religious reference, although I suppose that is the basis of much religion – the idea of the opposing forces of God and the Devil. And that can be a metaphor for the human condition. I suppose I come back to the question of whether or not there are forces of evil and good at work in the universe? And is life born out of that? Or is the universe ‘detached’ – neither good nor evil. Or is it good/evil? Or are good and evil ‘human’ terms that have no real meaning in the universe?

RJR: There are opposing forces throughout the universe. In fact, everything exists through polarity, light and dark, but that is not the same as good and evil, is it? Or is it one and the same? I agree the concept of good and evil is human terminology. Other animals are not evil. The reptilian and oldest part of our brain provided us with our basic survival animal instincts. It is from the more evolved parts of our brain that evil has manifested. When we observe animals it is all too easy to project human emotions on to them, but a cat is not evil if it scratches you. We all hear of stories of people who seem completely heartless. I watched last night the new film Monument Men. Forces of good and evil are clearly seen throughout.The selfless men who helped rescue our culture heritage from the nazis. The gold collected by the nazis from the teeth of the Jews.

NS: I am left thinking and feeling that ‘good/evil’ is a red herring. The terms good and evil are simply human creations. There is darkness and light in all things – and perhaps if we are aware of the darkness within us, we will move and act more in the light.