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Slow seeing

Greenwich Park

Greenwich Park

Yesterday I wrote a poem called the ‘Glow of Slow’. I had been intending to write something else when I sat down with pen and paper, but the phrase came to mind, and I wanted to play with it.

I think that it was front of mind because the days have been glowing recently. When the sun comes out in autumn in England, and shines behind the yellowing leaves on the trees, and shines through the bare branches where the leaves have already fallen, there is no other word that can describe it than glow. And it makes you glow inside.

There is a softness in the quality of light at this time of year, that is very different to the brightness of summer sun. It is a softening into winter, and it is a slowing down. Autumn is a time of slowing down in nature as preparations are made for winter. Even amongst busy, urban lives there is often a desire for a corresponding slow down, but our jobs require us to keep going at the same pace (or in many cases even faster in the run-up to Christmas).

I will seek to keep this glow of slow with me as I travel through my busy days.  As my husband said to me this morning, “Slow is in here”, pointing at his forehead. It is also in our hearts, and our way of looking at the world. “What we see is what we look for”. This is so true. It is true on the obvious level that it is maybe not so obvious as I only saw this clearly the other day – if I see trees and nature, that is because I have chosen to go to the park. I can then choose what I see there as well. So I can choose to see slowly, or I can choose to see fast, which perhaps equates to not seeing at all. Seeing slowly. Apparently in an art gallery the median time spent looking at a painting is 17 seconds. Another study found that the average viewer looks at a painting for less than two seconds, spends ten seconds reading the text on the wall, looks at the painting again and then moves on.

When was the last time you stopped and looked at a tree? When was the last time that I stopped to look at a tree? Properly. Probably when I had a camera in my hand. That is what I like about photography. I remember when I went to Morocco that my camera stopped working at some point because of all the sand. And I missed taking pictures because I wouldn’t have the record of what I was seeing – but I also missed the act of framing what I was seeing, which helped to me to focus on and process what I was seeing rather than just walk on by.

Intentional seeing. That is an area to explore. Miksang is a Tibetan word meaning ‘good eye’ and it has lent its name to the contemplative art of photography, which is about true perception and true expression. Maybe this is where slow comes in – as a way of leading to true seeing.  



At the pace of nature


Leeks gone to seed, Embercombe

I refound this poem this evening. It talks about slow, and the pace of nature. If we are ever in a hurry, it is good to go back to this, and remember you can’t always see the growth that is happening. Thank you to Sharon Blackie for publishing this on her blog, which is how I came across it. 

The Seven Of Pentacles

By Marge Piercy

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.



The satisfactions of learning to slow down

Part 2 of 2


Where might you go on a pocket holiday?

In the first part of this article, I talked to pyschotherapist, counsellor and advocate of slow living Bonnie Grotjahn about the satisfactions of the slow.

Having discussed the satisfactions, I asked Bonnie what advice she would give to someone who wanted to incorporate more slow into their life. She suggested 5 things that you can do as a starting point:

Noticing – This might be a first step.  This could take the form of noticing the impact of what you are doing, noticing when you want to speed up, and how you speed yourself up, and being curious and non-judgmental about this. You notice – ‘I have the impulse to switch on the TV’ – what might you notice from this? It is not about saying, “I must slow down”. You need to be gentle with yourself.

Stepping away from the computer – Having one day a week not doing anything on the computer is a good way of slowing down, taking time on this day to do physical things with attention.

The pocket holiday – One of the main barriers to slow for me is that I think this requires dedicated time. Yet it can be about finding ways to build slow into your day. Bonnie provided the idea of the ‘pocket holiday’. You might be yearning for a holiday and a chance to slow down. But you can take a pocket holiday and stare out of the window for five minutes, or imagine a place that you’d love to be, and this can make a difference.

Bringing slow into our product choices – We can support slow in the economy through the choices that we make, for example being mindful of the products that we buy, trying to buy those that are built to last or can have a second life, rather than being on the fast road to landfill.

Learning to say no (and looking after yourself) – This is such good advice and insight from Bonnie: “In some cases, people both want to and fear slowing down.  What do you fear might happen if you slow down? Or say ‘no’ to a possible activity or demand someone is making of you? It can be worth exploring any messages you might have been given, or beliefs you may be holding, about your value as a person if you ‘do’ less.  I often see clients who need support to feel OK about defining themselves, saying ‘no’ where that would be healthy for them and accepting that – for any variety of reasons including getting older or another change in circumstances – they need to prioritise looking after themselves.”

What are the barriers that might be stopping you from going slow? What are your experiences of slow? The satisfactions as well as the barriers? And what has helped you to slow down?


Bonnie practices at Cotswold Talking Therapies and can be contacted through their website –

‘Welcome, we like you’ – the Icelandic tone of voice

Icelanders have a long history of telling stories. The Sagas of the Icelanders are widely seen as a forerunner of the modern European novel, written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and telling the stories of farmers as well as warriors and kings.

Icelanders have storytelling in the blood – apparently one in ten will write a book during the course of their lifetime. On my recent trip to Iceland with Super/Collider, I didn’t experience Icelandic storytelling first hand, but I did get a strong sense of a distinctive Icelandic tone of voice.

ImageIt is a tone of voice which is direct, but playful in its directness. On the wing of the Wow Air plane, was the message “This is the west wing”. A little something to make you smile as you look out of the window.

ImageThe advertising on the headrests was not for the in-flight peanuts and gin and tonic. It was for the Icelandic clothing company, Cintamani. It read “Cintamani is your attitude that leads to courage, joy and passion on your way to happiness”, and signed off with the strapline “We know the feeling”. What a positive brand message and I really felt that they did know the feeling. That made me warm to them. Again, direct and straightforward in tone of voice.

ImageAnd then at the first hostel that we stayed at, the Bus Hostel, Reykavik – “Welcome, we like you”. There, on the walls. Starting from a positive. Of course, the employees need to live up to these words with matching friendliness (which they did), but these words must act for an inspiration and reminder for employees as much as a greeting to guests.

We were then out to the raw nature of Iceland so didn’t come across many more brand messages. But experiencing some of the force of the weather that Icelanders have to deal with – in the form of sandstorms and gale force winds that blew out car windows (fortunately not ours) – I began to get a sense of where such a tone of voice might come from. The farmer who owned the hostel where we took shelter in the midst of the gale was direct in his speaking – his words ran along the lines of  “you are safe, that’s the most important thing that matters, why are you worried about your car”, when we tried to ask if there was somewhere else to park it. Fair enough. When you truly are at the mercy of the elements whether wind or volcano, then I imagine that you learn to value what’s important.

This reminds me again of the Sagas. Ben Myers writes about the style of the Sagas:

“The style in which The Sagas are written is, like some of today’s best fiction, unpretentious and unadorned. Characters move from A to B to C (often by long-boat), and the narrators remain unemotional and impartial; people live and die without sentimentality or judgment. It is up to the reader to provide that.”

traffic lights

I was also reminded that tone of voice is not just what you say. In Selfoss, the green traffic lights have smiley faces – and the red ones do too.

Leaving Iceland, I was given a final parting line to take away at the airport:

“Without my imagination, I couldn’t go anywhere”.
Vigdis Grimsdottir, Z: A Love Story.

I think my imagination will take me back to the Icelandic landscapes.

Have you come across a tone of voice of a country that has struck you? Please share.

What will 9 billion sustainable lifestyles look like in 2050?

In 2050, there are going to be 9 billion people on the planet, according to current projections. And the choice that we have is what we kind of sustainability we want because as Dr Alan Knight has said ‘sustainability is inevitable… unsustainability is unsustainable’.

What is your vision for 9 billion sustainable lifestyles in 2050? Who needs to be leading this vision – and action towards this defining this vision? What would be your 10 focus points for a sustainable lifestyle?

Read the full post at:

Questions, values, stories

Questions, stories, values

The questions that we ask determine the stories that we create, tell and live. The stories that we share reveal our underlying values. Our values, in turn, shape the questions that we ask.

It is now frequently being said that we need to look again at the questions that we are asking, create new stories and get back in touch with the values that matter to us. In order to do this, we need to learn to ask the big questions, which will unlock the powerful stories, and enable us to share a common ground of values.

If we use this model, the effect that this will have in our communities where we live or work is:

  • to engage people in conversation, through the questions that are asked, and the questions that these questions provoke
  • to unlock motivation to act through the sharing of powerful stories
  • to generate ongoing action based on a collective sharing and understanding of values.

These are the activities that we need to be engaged in if we are going to meet the challenges that we currently face, such as ensuring that every business, organisation and community is in carbon descent in the next 700 days. Below, I will explore each of these three areas, their inter-connection and how they are key to driving action.


“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”. (Albert Einstein).

Einstein knew a thing or two about solving problems. Yet asking penetrating questions is frequently overlooked in the rush to get to answers – even if the answer won’t be clear because the question is not clear.

In their paper, ‘The Art of Powerful Questions’, Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs give examples of powerful questions, and the key outcomes that resulted from those questions. Watson and Crick asked the question ‘What might DNA look like in 3D form?’. The outcome was the discovery of the double helix. Ray Kroc asked ‘Where can I get a good hamburger on the road?’. The outcome was the creation of McDonalds. Powerful questions are the drivers of innovation.

We need to become skilled in asking these powerful questions if we are going to make the shift that is required in the way that we live and the way that we do business. Marilee Goldberg in her book, ‘The Art of the Question’ said ‘A paradigm shift occurs when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it’. Dr Alan Knight, founder of and a member of the Sustainable Development Commission, spoke at the Goodenough College Challenge of Sustainability conference on June 13th 2009. He said that the question that was going to be asked at the Copenhagen conference in December was ‘How can we reduce our carbon impact by 80% by 2050?’ However, simply doing less of what we are currently doing is not going to achieve the levels of carbon reduction that are required. He therefore posed a new question, ‘What do we want 9 billion sustainable lifestyles to look like in 2050?’ There is currently no vision for what 9 billion sustainable lifestyles will look like. Surely, if you are embarking on a strategy, you would have a vision of what you are setting out to achieve? How can we undertake a mission of this size, without having a vision? The major piece of the jigsaw is missing.

The nature of the question determines the level of engagement as well. What story would you prefer to hear – or tell – or act on: the story of how to reduce carbon use by 80%, or the story of 9 billion sustainable lifestyles? What appeals to the imagination about either of those questions? The story of 9 billion sustainable lifestyles grabs my interest because of the human aspect.


Do you know what the secret to the Obama campaign was? Stories. And it wasn’t the Obama story parroted by people up and down the country. It was individuals telling their own story and answering two questions: ‘Why are you here?’ (taking part in the Obama campaign). And ‘what matters to you?’ Obama Camp trained the volunteers who mobilized the volunteers at grassroots level. The first thing that volunteers learned how to do was to tell their own story in two minutes. If they could tell their own stories powerfully, about what had moved them to become part of the campaign, then they in turn could motivate and inspire others to get involved.

If powerful questions are under-utilised, then stories are absent too. We need to begin sharing our stories with each other as a way of explaining why issues are important to us, and setting the context for the action that we are taking, if we are going to inspire others to do the same. To be reminded of the power of story in action, watch Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 – he seamlessly links personal story, with wider values, with the challenges faced by the country, with the urgency of a call to action. Marshall Ganz was one of the architects behind the 2008 Obama campaign, and you can hear him talk about the principles behind the campaign and the importance of stories in this video.


The third component of the circle is values. Marshall Ganz has written:

“The irony is that access to our moral sources is exactly what we need to create the possibility of winning. One of the key lessons of the social movements of the past — of the left and of the right – is that their power grew out of the moral energy of their people (not just their organizers), their readiness to take risk, and their resourcefulness – all of which was rooted in turn, not in “self-interest” in any obvious sense, but in the values at stake.” (Read full article here.)

If we share stories about why we are taking action, then we are at the same time sharing the values which are driving our action. A shared sense of values is more likely to result in ongoing action, as the values provide a deep-seated foundation. As we go through the cycle of questions, stories, values, the questions will begin to change and become more powerful as we reconnect with our values and what is important to us. And our actions will grow in power too.

What are you doing for the next 700 days?


Crow tipi, Hay-on-Wye

Crow tipi, Hay-on-Wye

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Hay Festival at the end of May. Known originally for being a literature festival, it has broadened into a wider festival of ideas. And, for the second year, the Festival welcomed Hay on Earth. Hay on Earth is an innovative type of conference, bringing experts and stakeholders from a diverse range of organisations together and using systems approaches to create practical plans and projects to tackle climate change, carbon reduction and the need to build security of food supply.

Andy Middleton of TYF/EcoSapiens who ran the conference emphasised the importance of asking powerful questions – a subject that I will return to in a later post. Andy effectively focused our attention on the task at hand by pointing out that every business, organisation and community in the UK needs to be in carbon descent by 2012. That equates to about 700 working days away. And there is no plan. 

So my question is – ‘What are you doing for the next 700 days?’ A washing line hung at the back of the stage, with markers from now to 2012, provided an effective, mind-focusing backdrop, as we worked on generating ideas on how we could effectively engage communities in action. And at the end of the two days that I attended, we hung our ‘to dos’ on the washing line. Ideas ranged from allotment projects to ‘community chests’ to fund social enterprises to hubs to facilitate connections.

One of the key themes that emerged for me that was that in order to effectively engage communities, there needs to be a sense of community built on shared values in the first place. Again, I will return to this theme. One project that is in place already is Green Valleys, which aims to enable community groups across Wales to reduce their carbon emissions and generate electricity and revenue from hydro power, one of the most abundant natural resources. Here’s to many more innovative projects such as this in the next 700 days.

Reskilling for sustainability

I am now writing a weekly blog on the relaunched SustainabilityForum.

My first post is on the reskilling that is required for sustainability – and identifies listening as a key skill that we need to develop.

Read the full blog post here:

I will, of course, continue blogging on a weekly basis on this site too.

Happiness and sustainability

At the UK Aware show on 17 April 2009, a key theme amongst speakers, both amongst the London Leaders, people working in London on sustainability projects, and the panelists for the Big Carbon debate, was the need for creativity in tackling issues around sustainability. Alan Knight, one of the Commissioners of the Sustainable Development Commission, raised the issue that we need to improve the quality of the narrative around sustainable lifestyles in order to make them attractive to the public. He posed the question of what does a sustainable lifestyle look like that is cool, hip, trendy, sexy. 

I agree that there does need to be improvement in the quality of the narrative, or storytelling, around sustainability which really begins to capture the public’s imagination. However, I don’t think that it can be sold as another product, as another consumer option. The answer may lie elsewhere and may actually have been given at the event itself, although I didn’t recognise it as such at the time.Mukti Mitchell, who hosted the panel, has been living a low carbon lifestyle for the last ten years, and he said that he ‘has never been happier’ and he would be hard-pressed to meet a person happier than himself. 

Maybe Mukti is blessed with a predisposition towards happiness. But it seems to me that this would be an avenue worth exploring. If we are truly talking about sustainable lifestyles, then we need to be talking about quality of life. And it is not just a question of the government talking about it to people, it is about engaging people, asking them to think what would improve the quality of their life, what would make them happier – and it may well be that many of the options involve more sustainable living. It is not such a ‘glossy’ sell, but one which has to be more ‘sustainable’, in many senses of the word, in the long run. And what is more sexy than happiness?