Illness Project, Six Months In

I have just spent a fun and fascinating week being investigated in hospital. I’m not sure this is how one is supposed to experience hospital, but that was how it was: the food was delicious and I had a view of the Edinburgh Tattoo fireworks. It might have been different had the various tests to rule out serious complications unearthed any new demons, but I appear to be safe. This seems a good moment, six months after the crippling joint pains of what turned out to be Lupus first appeared, to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned from my “illness project” so far…

Give me a broken rock, a little moss…
And I would ask no more; for I would dream
Of greater things associated with these,
Would see a mighty river in my stream,
And, in my rock, a mountain clothed with trees.
John Ruskin
  • The only limit to your horizons is your imagination.
  • Show-offs are naturally cheerful in debility because it’s the only way they can still impress people.
  • It is difficult to do an ECG scan through breasts.
  • Serious misfortune is as necessary as a good education to give a lucky and privileged individual confidence in their convictions.
  • Physiotherapists are magicians.
  • Lupus gets its name from the belief when it was first discovered in the eighteenth century to be caused by a wolf bite. Cool!
  • Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels are rubbish.
  • The CT scanner is by far the most exciting piece of hospital equipment: like a trip in the Large Hadron Collider.
  • I can still remember almost all the words of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat after thirty years.
  • The staff of the Department for Work and Pensions are in fact quite helpful and sympathetic, and not mere Ian Duncan Smith robots out to meet welfare sanctions targets.
  • If I had to choose between an iron lung or an unhappy marriage, I would choose the former.
  • However often you take paracetamol, it doesn’t get any easier to swallow.
  • It is difficult not to regard the size of the bottle for a 24 hour urine sample as a challenge.
  • If you can’t sing or move your fingers, you can still make music on the swannee whistle.
  • It is difficult to find the spleen on an ultrasound scan.
  • Church folk are hilarious when you are ill. NO I DON’T NEED PRAYED FOR!!
  • Most interesting side effect so far: Tramadol makes your nose cold.
  • Shakespeare’s classical plays are splendid.
  • If you have to have a fasting blood test, it is wise to lie down.
  • The environmental crisis is more important than anything, and should be at the top of everyone’s agenda – not just those lucky enough to have nothing else to worry about.


The Pope, the Poor and the Plankton: Reasons to Read Laudato Si

This article began as “ten reasons you should read Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment”, although it descends into a more rambling analysis. I hope nevertheless it contains some useful insights and pointers for my environmentalist and Christian friends alike, and encourages you to read the whole thing. I have deliberately written it before any of the other commentary on it (which I now look forward to doing with interest), so I don’t know whether it will echo much which is already being said, or provide a fresh alternative angle. Like all my recent articles, I’ve written it with dictation software, which occasionally inserts howlers of mishearings, so if I have failed to fish all of these out they might provide amusement.

It is written to you. “I wish to address every person living on this planet” (3).

From the start, Francis makes it clear that nature has a value qualitatively equivalent to humanity, and emphasises that humanity is part of nature: “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements” (2).

There is no sense of religion-science debate: rather, religious insights emerge from the scientific knowledge. “We have forgotten is that man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (6). Francis explains the four-tier structure of the encyclical. First, “the best scientific research available today … provide[s] a concrete foundation”. His analysis of the problems, possibilities and myths surrounding GM crops struck me as particularly balanced and well-informed (133). Then, “principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition … can render our commitment to the environment more coherent”. This ancient sociological wisdom provides a key to understanding the “deepest causes” of the scientific environmental crisis, and to developing a modern “approach to ecology which respect our unique place as human beings … and our relationship to our surroundings”. Finally, built on this, are the solutions, rooted in education, “Convinced as I am that change is impossible without motivation and a process of education”. (15) Francis points out that divisions are often not between religion and science, but within them: it is necessary for “religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature”, and “dialogue among the various sciences is likewise needed, since each can tend to become enclosed in its own language” (201).

It has moments of poetry. “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation” (9). “An authentic humanity … Seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door” (112). “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor persons face” (233).

Things you thought were modern ideas turn out to have been mediaeval catholic practices. For example, did you know St Francis was a wildlife gardener? “Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty” (12).

A theme running throughout Laudato Si is the human injustice caused by the environmental crisis. For example, migrants fleeing “poverty caused by environmental degradation… are not recognised by international conventions as refugees” (25). “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (30). “We have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49).

Yet Francis also emphasises throughout the intrinsic value of nature, and the sinfulness of our destruction of it, independent of any human involvement. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, no convey the message to us” (33). “We seem to think that we can substitute and irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (34). “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems… Biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things” (190).

A third theme is the spiritual necessity of nature to humanity. “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature” (44). “Jesus worked with his hands, in daily contact with that matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship. It is striking that most of his life was dedicated to this task … which awakened no admiration at all” (98).

These religious insights reflect back on the need for science: “Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems … Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect … Each area is responsible for the care of this family. This will require undertaking a careful inventory of the species it hosts, With a view to developing programs and strategies of protection” (42). Good news for the IUCN red list; and is it coincidence that this paragraph number is the answer to life, the universe, and everything? In assessing environmental impacts of project “it is essential to give researchers are there do you roll, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broader academic freedom” (140). Francis has no time for a backward-looking, anti-technological approach: “it is right to rejoice in [technological] advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us … How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?” (102). The problem with technology is when it becomes an end in itself. “It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology” (108). I like this kind of insight, which liberates the reader to examine their own lifestyle and values. “A decrease in the pace of production and consumption can … give rise to another form of progress … It is a matter of openness to different possibilities which do not involve stifling human creativity and it ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels… To find every new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items… would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial” (191-2).

None of this requires believe in a Christian God, or indeed a God at all. When Francis writes about Christian theology, he deals with the question of its relevance head on: “why should this document, addressed to all people of goodwill, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?” (62). His answer is certainly not, because Catholics are right and other people are wrong. Rather, it is that is it distinctive insights of catholicism form one piece of the patchwork of human wisdom: “solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality” (63). “Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writing is simply because they arose in the context of religious belief? It would be quite simplistic to think that ethical principles present themselves purely in the abstract, detached from any context … The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language” (199).

I was struck by the thoughtfulness with which he treats potential secular readers: having explained why he prefers the word “creation” to “nature”, he nevertheless speaks of “nature” throughout, aware that the word “creation” would jar on a secular reader every time. Francis is not hoping that by reading this you will be converted to Christianity, but that you will learn something interesting. He encourages readers to turn the light of sceptical thinking with which they might critique religion onto the assumptions of scientific rationalism: “Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality” (115). “The fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality” (138). If you don’t believe in God, you will disagree with Francis suggestion that “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God”; However, you might agree with the problematic attitude he identifies: “romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence”, and you might be prompted to ponder your own solutions (119).

When it comes to global politics, Francis does not mince words. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been” (54). “An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour” (55). Yet the psychology of our irrational behaviour is explicable: “as often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear” (59). He subtly explores the power dynamics of the local and global to identify levers for change, to explain how “all it takes is one good person to restore hope!” (71). His comment “there can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (118) comes from a Christian perspective, but states in different words the insight I heard from a practical ecologist describing how to achieve conservation ends: “Conservation is 20% biology and 80% public engagement”. This chimes in with something I have been pondering for a while, that conservation organisations could benefit greatly by learning from the methods of the missionary church, and relying less on business models – not in doctrine, but in people organisation. The tiny, individual action might seem unlikely to “change the world”, but “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tend to spread” (212). There is a dynamic of change which it sets up in ourselves and in those around us.

Francis is equally uncompromising when it comes to the Christian contribution to environmental destruction: “We Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures … We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures” (67). He quotes texts from throughout the Bible to demonstrate that, “clearly, the Bible has no place for tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” (68). Religion is no use if it merely serves itself: “More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to have more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us” (216). Christians require “an ecological conversion, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (217). People who call themselves Christians yet fail to care for nature have not really encountered Jesus Christ? That’s pretty radical stuff. I love it.

These virtues and right relationships are often contrasted with romanticism: “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings” (91). “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people” (92). St Francis’ love for nature, which cannot love us back, was no more “romantic” than Jesus commandment to love your enemies: “fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us” (228), So we can and should “love” the natural world.

The crux of Laudato Si, it seems to me, is Francis’ call for “an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (137). He further explains separate elements of this “integral ecology”. There is the need for a threefold balance of “environmental, economic and social ecology” (138) – a political trinity I have admired elsewhere. There is “cultural ecology”, a section which puts into words why it makes sense for me to be a historian and an ecologist: “it is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense” (143). Integral ecology has a kind of fractal structure: at one end, “it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organised international institutions” (175); at the other, there is the “ecology of daily life”, the tiny detail of human society: the “admirable creativity and generosity… shown by persons and groups who respond to environmental limitations by alleviating the adverse effects of their surroundings” (148). Francis loves the word “subsidiarity”.

An “integral ecology” will take into account all these elements. Francis demonstrates the application of these principles in some down-to-earth examples: “environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition … It should be part of the process from the beginning” (183). “In any discussion about a proposed venture, a number of questions need to be asked in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish?… For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay these costs and how?” (185). All this requires and the emphasises the need for “a path of dialogue which requires patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that realities are greater than ideas” (201). The key leave it for a change is the one Francis mentioned in the introduction: education.”If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple” (215).

A commentator I heard on the radio commended Francis for telling Catholics to turn to the heating down and stop driving. He doesn’t. Francis, unlike the commentator, understands the difference between law and grace: “we are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness” (226). He does not command changes in action, but in attitude, and predicts that different behaviour will flow from changed hearts: “a person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating or wears warm clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions … Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it … can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity” (211). At present, “a constant flood of new products can exists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything” (113). A consequentialist morality, says Francis, will be insufficient to motivate people to action: it leads too easily to a passive “gaia” approach. “What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough … simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity” (160).

At the same time, there is no ambiguity about what needs to be done: “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuel – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – need to be progressively replaced without delay” (165). There is no question that the Pope is knocking the heads of states’ heads together: “international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility” (169).

I don’t like everything in Laudato Si. In particular, the patriarchal paradigm jars on me: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world” (75). But such passages, in awakening my indignant disagreement, do more to inspire my own creative thinking than the passages I agree with. If I don’t like Francis’ “figure of a Father”, how would I solve the problem instead? I thought he was a bit romantic about “indigenous peoples”, as if they were a better type of people than us – an unfortunate implication since Christianity affirms that every individual is equal in the sight of God. I would have preferred “indigenous cultures” (179). But these are minor points, and I mentioned them only to show that I was reading critically.

Francis’ title for Laudato Si comes from St Francis’ famous song of praise with all of nature. At the end of his encyclical, Francis restates this reference to end on a note of hope: “in union of all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God … Let us sing as we go” (244). Sounds a good plan to me.

Life with a capital L

Well, here’s a thing. The cocky Eleanor, always bouncing off the walls and doing anything she wants to, has been felled by an autoimmune disease. You know when you bang your knee or sprain your wrist, and it goes red, hot and painfully swollen, and you lie awake at night groaning and demanding ibuprofen? My body has decided that any of my joints should inflame like that whenever I indulge in too much exertion – and the rest of the time should creak uncomfortably like a granny’s. Over the past two months, the definition of “too much exertion” has descended from three-mile runs and all-day typing, to sending a tweet and going to the shop. It’s also spread from my hands and feet to my knees, elbows, shoulders and jaw – and tongue, which seems an unfair classification of “joint”. I’m off to see a specialist next week with blithe promises of diagnosis and treatment, hopefully before my immune system classifies my vital organs as joints. But right now, I feel as if I’m dying, and from my knowledge of autoimmune conditions, there’s some chance that I am.

I’ve never been ill before, and it has afforded various interesting reflections.

One is, that for the first time in my life I’m quite impressed with myself. The autoimmune thing appears to have developed on top of a badly underactive thyroid. I’ve felt dead tired for years, but whenever I put it to anyone they said, look at all the things you do! You’ve done a PhD, bought Blair House, you sing three choral services on Sunday and go running and walking, and do all this environmental stuff. Last September I walked 20 miles over Lochnagar, and jogged the last four miles. There’s clearly nothing is the matter with me: I’m just lazy. Well, it seems I wasn’t lazy, I was achieving a considerable feat of mind over matter. I might have killed myself, but I’m quite impressed.

Secondly, I’m pleased at how quickly I’ve chilled out into the being ill thing. At first when I realised that this wasn’t going away, I was hugely grumpy, frustrated, feeling that my only method of keeping demons at bay was a frenzied activity and exercise. I couldn’t bear to let people know I was ill, and go through all the dreadful charade of people asking me how I am and screwing up their faces in socially-acceptable sorrow when I say I’m getting worse. As an alternative, I laid in angrily to my friends’ political pronouncements on Facebook, but this was tiresome work. After about a month of this, I got bored of myself. The doctor had officially sanctioned laziness, and actually I quite enjoy staring out of windows, so I began to enjoy the luxury. I bought an iPad, which lets me write by dictation so I’m not silenced by my arthritic hands. It’s only a small switch in attitude for the stupid things people say – whether politics on Facebook, or sympathy for illness – to seem comic rather than irritating. The weather is warm. My parents and friends are looking after me. The world has become a very chilled-out and funny place.

But the best thing – the best thing of all – is that after a week believing I’m dying, my attitudes to death are just the same. My integrity has passed the test. I still think it is a ridiculous waste of time to fundraise for cures for rare diseases when we are facing a once-for-all mass extinction of life on our planet. I am still far more frightened of ecocide than of my own death, which is why I can talk with what some people seem to find shocking glibness about the possibility of the latter. The ultimate horror all my life has been the growing expectation that I would die in an environmental catastrophe, aware that spring never would come again, future generations never would grow up, birds never would sing over my ashes, and worst of all, that I had been amongst the last generation which failed in its responsibility to restore life. The possibility that I might actually just quit the scene now, irresponsibly, while there is still ample opportunity for humanity to rescue nature, would be the ultimate skive.

When people get debilitating or life-threatening illnesses, people rally round. The religious people pray for their recovery, while the secular people, or the more practical religious, go for sponsored runs in aid of medical charities, and everyone proclaims how unfair it is that a talented young life should be cut off in its prime. From my perspective, any god who attempted to glorify himself by miraculously healing me would be a blinkered, pampered, western, middle-class idol. Anyone who throws themself into fundraising for autoimmune research need to sort their priorities out. And as for unfairness, I have lived one of the most privileged lives in the history of life on this planet. Any unfairness runs the other way.

This is why I have decided to take advantage of the interest and sympathy that attaches itself to illness, to ask you a favour: take a lead in making the restoration of nature society’s first priority. At present, humanity is not life, but a rogue species. Focus all your prayers, practical effort, righteous indignation, ingenuity and energy on saving Life with a capital L. The destruction of nature and biodiversity is not an aspect of the environmental crisis (as, for example, climate change or overfishing is an aspect). The destruction of nature IS the environmental crisis, in all its aspects, and we are part of nature. It is time for us to stop being a rogue species, and become a restorative one. Raise money with sponsored events. Lobby Parliament: change the political agenda. Examine your lifestyle. Form societies. Plant trees, as if your life depended on it. Your life does depend on it. Don’t weep and pray for me, I’m all right. Weep and pray for all endangered nature, and for yourselves, who are part of its endangering. There’s still time for salvation. If you don’t want to do it because you are convinced by my arguments, do it because I’m ill and I’m asking it as a favour in return for entertaining you on Twitter over the years.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how the environmental movement could be more effective, and I had hoped to try out these ideas into practice before putting them in print. But I’m no more afraid of looking stupid in a good cause than I am of dying, so I hope to write some more on this subject soon and get the ideas out there. When I unexpectedly recover, try them out, and they all fail miserably, nothing will have been lost except my dignity. And that is a chance worth taking, on the offchance of saving Life. If you take them and improve them and make them work, I’ll have done something worthwhile.

As my favourite philosopher John Ruskin said, “There is no wealth but life”.

PS. Don’t worry about Blair House. There may be some delay but it will be refurbished and reopened. I am simply the front of a large team who are all hoping to remain where they are in the background!

Blair House: plans, dreams and pretty things

I wrote in my previous post about the field centre, Blair House. Long loved and now in my possession and awaiting refurbishment, I hope that next year it will buzz with children, scientists, old friends, new friends, discovering the beauty and biodiversity of Glen Doll.

There are many aspects to the refurbishment of Blair House. One is that after years of talking about such things, I want it to be an example of excellence of an environmentally-friendly building. But another thing is funding it.

Perhaps I should have anticipated this moment by spending years learning to be a crack environmental property developer, but I haven’t, I’ve been designing Christmas cards and historical maps and writing novels. Now it’s time to turn all that creativity to good account because these are all available to buy, and all proceeds will go towards Blair House. They’re only small amounts, but all the little contributions add up and begin to make all the difference between impossible and possible.


If you have a Kindle, check out my new novel Ursula. It’s only £2.58, of which I receive about 70%, and it’s the best way you can support Blair House because I don’t have to do any work (eg posting it!), and because every sale boosts its Kindle ranking and thereby encourages others. Also, people seem to think it’s quite good. For example a slight literary acquaintance who wanted to support Blair House was surprised to discover it was “beautifully written and very funny” and (good heavens) his “book of the year”. Like me, Ursula is a bit difficult to categorise, you just have to read it and find out. I’d also be most grateful if you left a rating or review on Amazon.

Christmas Cards

I’ve always designed my own Christmas cards, and for the past ten years I’ve been designing them on commission and to sell, and now have around 25 designs here in my online Shop.

They are packed with references to Christmas carols, history, poetry, biodiversity and Edinburgh. There are angels dancing in San Gimignano, Father Walter Scott with mice, John Donne with a polar bear, Magi on bicycles, stained glass, choirs, spiders in santa hats, a whole series of very creative commissions featuring a spaniel, calligraphy, watercolour illustration, and Celtic and Medieval illumination. Each year there are a new designs, including this year one celebrating the conclusion of my PhD, featuring Christmas in Regency Edinburgh.

Have a browse.

Layers of Edinburgh

My final fundraiser is the historical map of Edinburgh’s Old Town I created in the year I decided to become a historian rather than an illustrator. It contains as much history, literature and pictorial jokes as I could possibly fit onto one A3 sheet of paper, folded into a postcard-size pocket-map. Can you follow the walking route? Can you find the unicorn? buy one — or to hell with it, buy five!

Blair House

Whether you like the look of Ursula, Christmas cards or Layers of Edinburgh, all these things will help to enable me to re-open Blair House as a warm and environmentally friendly field centre to inspire new generations in Glen Doll. Buy them – if you like them – and tell your friends. If you have questions or want larger quantities, Twitter @eleanormharris is always a good way to get hold of me, or email