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Adventures with Asperger's Syndrome

A blog by Chris Mitchell.

  1. RailEx NE - Railway Modelling as an Art Therapy

    In my last post about one of my favourite pastimes, railway modelling, I looked at its therapeutic benefits. After a visit to RailEx NE, North East England's biggest annual model railway exhibition, I felt it was time to revisit it here in Adventures with Asperger's Syndrome, this time looking at what one may learn about themselves through building a model railway layout as well as uncovering one's artistic and creative abilities.

    'Llantrevelyn', a highly-detailed diorama exhibited
    at RailEx NE, modelled in 009 gauge of a fictional 
    Welsh Valley narrow gauge railway. The detail and back scene 
    add depth to a small physical space
    As well as often being an inspiration to building a model railway layout, a day at a model railway exhibition also shows the aspiring railway modeller just how huge the choice is before them, as said by the late CJ Freezer. RailEx NE showed not only how huge the choice is with so many different model railway products available on the market, but also the wide range of themes and periods layouts can be based around. RailEx NE's range of layout on display featured multiple themes from country/rural to gritty/urban in a variety of gauges ranging from Z gauge (very small) to gauge 1 (large). The 'special effects' displayed on layouts including digital sophistication of sound to simple yet very effective use of scenic detailing and backscenes, which not only add realism to a layout, but also depth. This often creates and illusion on photographs that a layout is bigger than it actually is!

    The increased availability of affordable LEDs for lighting up model buildings, street and station lamps, as well as enabling a model railway to 'come alive' at night, but also add to the multi-sensory experience for the modeller. This is where, to me, railway modelling extends beyond a pastime and becomes a form of art therapy. Obsessions with railways and trains has been a well-known stereotype associated with people with Asperger's Syndrome, but seen in a 'different light', I am finding that when approached in a different way, it can broaden one's horizons and experience.

    Lighting up at night!
    Applying realising when building a model railway, through observation the condition in which real life original scenes from old photographs that modelled scenes are either replicated or loosely based on helps to develop a deeper awareness of what the physical and sensory experiences of them may have, including gaining an appreciation of how different levels of lighting help to create different atmospheres. When placing figures on a model railway, it is a good way for me as a person with Asperger's Syndrome to enhance and apply social imagination by placing them as naturally as possible, looking like they are moving or delivering items, in the middle of a conversation or meeting up. Placing figurines in such way also adds to the realism of the layout.

    Further realism is also enabled by creating a sense of period, which can make a layout almost like an open air museum in miniature. This approach to railway modelling was largely pioneered by the late Roye England, whose work is displayed at Pendon Museum in Oxfordshire. Originally from Perth, Australia, with an interest in England's Great Western Railway, Roye England arrived in the Vale of the White Horse region of south west England in the 1920s. Inspired by the Vale's idyllic rural scenes, England soon noticed that with modernisation gradually increasing in the Vale, England realised that such scenes wouldn't be around for much longer. To preserve a typical village of the Vale of the White Horse the way it would have been in around 1930, England set about creating one in miniature, using largely card, what he described as his main medium for the modelling the past for the future.

    Some finely detailed farm buildings in Pendon Parva
    Starting by taking details of the trains that ran through the vale, England then started to take measurements of the buildings he wanted to recreate in miniature. Taking measurements of cottages in the Vale involved knocking on doors and asking if he could come in and take measurements. Many of the Vale's residents were very obliging, often offering him cups of tea! England's eventual result was Pendon Parva, a imaginary yet highly realistic model of a typical village in the heart of the Vale set in the 1930s. As well as the GWR-liveried trains from the era, rural activities, including harvesting in the meadows are also displayed with an exceptional level of detail. Today, Pendon Parva can be seen in Pendon Museum, Oxfordshire, giving visitors a unique insight into ways of life from the past.

    It is often said that with added scenery, small detailing and realism as applied by Roye England and encouraged by Cyril J Freezer, a train makes the transition from being simply a 'train set' to a 'model railway'. Doing the work involved to make this transition, I have found, takes it further to the point where railway modelling transcends into a form of art therapy. Researching scenes to model, as well as visiting Pendon Parva teach us a lot about the past, but I have also found that from modelling the scenes it can teach the modeller a lot about themselves, including how patient we can be, as well as tendencies to get a bit over eager at times!

    My favourite scene I have modelled, train passing windmill,
    a scene inspired by Weybourne on the North Norfolfk Railway
    Ultimately though what the railway modeller learns about him/herself from the activity enables and enhances creativity. In relation to being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, as well as a creative space it also provides me with an escape to an alternative world that I would perhaps have liked to have grown up in or maybe retire to, where I can be who am I am relation to my Asperger's Syndrome in between coping in the full-sized world!    



        






  2. Ups and Downs, I Daniel Blake, Mike & Angelo and Returning to Rickleton

    As I write this entry, the events of my life together with how it has affected my mental health during July 2017 have been consistent with my experiences of living with Asperger’s Syndrome both pre and post-diagnosis, extreme ups and downs.

    At the start of July, like many other people in the UK, including many also on the autistic spectrum, I experienced the disappointment of being turned down for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) at a Tribunal after my Disability Living Allowance (DLA) had ended in December last year. As obviously disappointed as I was with the decision, what was most upsetting for me though was the stress of the tribunal. After the agony of a six month wait, at the Tribunal I felt more like a defendant on trial in a court of law than a claimant who had been unfairly treated.

    Dave Johns as Daniel Blake
    Contrary to what certain sections of the media and some politicians will have you believe, Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, about the bitter struggle of a man (played by Dave Johns) who is denied employment and support allowance despite being declared by his doctor as being unfit for work, is not an exaggeration. As well as the obvious financial difficulties that removing benefits from some of society’s most vulnerable people, an even bigger danger comes with the unmeasurable emotional costs that it will no doubt bring, including depression and even suicide. Not only will this put more strain on services that society’s most vulnerable depend upon, but will also impact heavily on their families and carers.


    Angelo, played by Tyler Butterworth, prepares to make an 'explosive
    impact' with his power blaster! 
    Like others affected, I am not immune to the stress and trauma that the process has brought for many. After coming away from the Tribunal hearing traumatised, the first thing I did, and something that the age of YouTube has enabled, was take solace in one of my favourite shows as a child, Mike & Angelo! After often having had a day having to deal with school bullies, I would find solace in television. But whereas then, you were restricted to the tea-time hour set aside for children’s television, now one can select what was their favourite show to watch back then on YouTube providing someone has uploaded it. For those unfamiliar, Mike & Angelo was a hilarious comedy about a young American boy called Mike who came to live in the UK with his mother Rita, but their world was turned upside down when they from they had a lodger from another dimension, Angelo! Able to walk on the ceiling and do all kinds of hilarious stunts, Angelo quickly became one of my ‘imaginary friends’. His hilarious mishaps, especially when all his inventions kept going wrong,  gave me an anecdote to what I had often been suffering from being bullied at school. To my delight, I found my favourite ever episode had been uploaded when Angelo entered a TV talent content and his home-made electric guitar blew up the studio, making a rather ‘explosive’ impact!


    In my more recent past, what has often helped me come out of downward spirals, is giving talks and training on Asperger’s Syndrome. As well as obvious life experience of Asperger’s Syndrome pre and post diagnosis, the experience that I have gained from giving talks and training on living with the condition throughout the fifteen years I have been doing it I feel has also enabled me to grow and develop as a person, to the extent that I can give a bit a little of myself to who I am speaking to, which has greatly enhanced the personal joy I gain from it. And not long after such an awful experience, I had the opportunity to do what I felt was the talk of a lifetime.

      Rickleton Primary School, Washington, Tyne and Wear,
    where I attended between 1982-1988
    Though I have had the privilege to speak with the likes of Tony Attwood, Temple Grandin and a few others, what justified this as the opportunity to give the talk of a lifetime was that it was at one of my former primary schools, Rickleton Primary School in Washington, where I attended from 1982-1988 until year five before being moved to Sunderland. Rickleton Primary School opened in 1980 as a new build in what was then a new town, Washington in Tyne and Wear, so I was one of the school’s first pupils. It was the first time I had been back to the school since I had been a pupil there in what was an era largely unrecognisable from now, when mobile phones were a brick-sized status symbol and modern conveniences of smartphones, iPads, whiteboards (we had chalk and blackboards back then) and instant electronic communication that was only largely seen in the sci-fi films and cartoons of the time. Returning to Rickleton after so many years away, it felt like physically that the school had shrunk when the tables and chairs seemed to be so small, and even the classrooms themselves seemed smaller. Remembering what I did of the school as a pupil, being not too different in physical size and shape to the other children and then seeing it as it is now, not only did the pupils and teachers seem younger than they were during my time as a pupil at the school, but the parents coming to collect them also seemed younger than back then! Revisiting my memories stored in my collective un-conscious of being of a pupil at the school and then bringing myself back to the present, it almost felt like being beamed forward into the next century!    

    Despite the social challenges and difficulties I faced, academic and social, as a pupil with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome at the school, I do also have some very positive memories of my time there. I recalled some of these during my talk, including playing the part of a Weatherman called ‘Michael Trout’, (a parody of former BBC Weatherman Michael Fish) forecasting a dull day explaining the old BBC Weather symbols we had learned about in class, the magnetic ones Michael Fish himself used to use that kept falling off! Back when I was a pupil at Rickleton, Autism was barely known of, not just Asperger’s Syndrome, but it was through observations that my former teachers made of me as a pupil that would lead to my diagnosis when I was 20-years-old. Some of these observations made back then are still partly true of me now, especially my pastime of reading and retaining volumes of information which I have a tendency to go on and on about and also that one of few situations where I was able to work effectively with others was in drama, as the other roles I was acting masked a lot of my difficulties. But what myself and my parents are grateful to the school for to this day was the way that they persisted with, even when I was being very difficult as we were with the other schools I attended. As such, I emphasised the importance of early diagnosis, as it can potentially help to reduce a lot of misunderstandings, especially as many of my former teachers often felt more frustrated with themselves, rather than with me, not knowing what to do to get through to me. After stepping back into my past, when arriving home I almost expected to see Stu Francis presenting Crackerjack on television, which I used to rush home from school to see! Especially then as we had to make use of the tea time slot children were largely confined to for entertainment!

    Just like they had in my past, watching Mike & Angelo and giving a talk about Asperger’s Syndrome has helped me out of a downward spiral. I had been thinking about postponing it, after not immediately feeling up to such a thing after the Tribunal experience. Regarding my situation, I will admit that I am fortunate in that I have the security of a very supportive family, but there are undoubtedly many who will be so much worse off due to the controversial government policy of the move from DLA to PIP. Sadly, many affected by the stress that has come with having to go through Tribunal over rejected PIP claims are giving up their fight. This disgraceful change to policy has largely come about due to misconceptions about the level benefit fraud portrayed by sections of the media, whom I will not name specifically, only interested in what makes good copy that is likely to ‘rile’ people who put it at over 20 per cent while government statistics show that it is less than one per cent!

    Speaking at the 2017 ESPA Graduation Ceremony
    What I have experienced over the past two weeks as I write this entry is very like periods where I have gone through a pattern of ups and downs, where the downs have become ups after giving Asperger talks. Speaking to students and their parents/carers at the Education and Services for People with Autism’s (ESPA) Annual Graduation Ceremony, I mentioned that what we learn from coping with such negative experiences can often making stronger. To enable this, most importantly it helps us to face up to difficulties and challenges we face once we feel ready to do so. Once we are able to do this, rather than making life difficult, challenges can make the lives of people with Asperger's Syndrome both interesting and hopefully fulfilling.

    Huge thanks to Colin Lofthouse, Head Teacher at Rickleton Primary School for inviting me back to Rickleton to speak. Special thanks also to my former Year 1 and 2 teacher Miss Anne Hutchinson, who helped me so much as a pupil as well as my brother and sister and parents, and who is retiring after 37 years of service to the school from when it opened back in 1980. I wish her well for her retirement.

    Thanks also to Paul Cook, Principal at ESPA College for inviting me to speak at the ESPA Graduation. Paul is leaving ESPA. He will be a huge miss to ESPA, but we wish him well in his next adventure.
  3. Indelible Memories Part 3 - Angels, Devils and Whitewater: The Power and Majesty of Victoria Falls

    After the placid flow of the Okavango Delta's inlets, I was to experience the opposite with Victoria Falls and the mighty Zambezi River. Located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Known to the natives as Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning 'the smoke that thunders', one can see why the 19th century Scottish Missionary Explorer David Livingstone, historically recognised as the first European to see the falls, described the sight as 'so lovely that angels must have gazed upon it in their flight'.

    Victoria Falls and rainbow, viewed from Zimbabwean side
    As well as spectacular sights for the visitor when seeing the high columns of mist rising from the falls and the rainbows over the falls that it brings, over 150 years after Livingstone sighted the falls, for the modern tourist they also provide temptations of thrill-seeking with a range of extreme sports and activities. Whitewater-rafting, bungee jumping and zip-sliding are just some of the many activities to entice an adrenaline surge, but where Livingstone once though angels may have gazed, the Zambezi's flow allows visitors to get close to the edge, literally, courtesy of the Devil!

    Sitting on the edge of the falls in the Devil's Pool
    On the edge of the falls is the Devil's Pool, an eddy formed by a natural rock barrier, where during low season (September to December), the flow of the river is at a level where it doesn't cascade over the edge, allowing the adventurous to view the falls from right on the edge. The Devil's Pool is reached via a boat trip to Livingstone Island, where Livingtsone first glimpsed the thunderous mists of the falls. To reach the pool, a little swimming and mindfulness of walking is needed, taking care over sharp and slippery rocks, bearing in mind it is a surface resulting from the full flow of the falls during high season rather than being developed for human convenience. Stepping over and around rocks deposited by the flow of the falls during high season, one has to maintain constant awareness of each step before swimming a little to reach the Devil's Pool, where one can literally sit on the edge of the falls in safety under the supervision of a local guide and barring any attempts at selfie stunts which have unfortunately seen visitors fall to their death. By making nature your own while being mindful of your actions, making the natural rock barrier formed by the flow of the falls, one can witness the power of the flow and the smoky mists created by the falls close-up from within. A thrilling experience!

    Hitting whitewater on the Zambezi
    Rapids along the Zambezi made by the power and flow of the falls make it one of the world's most exciting places to go whitewater rafting. As well as it's adrenaline allure, whitewater rafting also provides the perfect opportunity to navigate nature's power and flow by making it your own. Starting from Boiling Point, at the base of the falls, the full course of the Zambezi's whitewater rafting route consists of 24 rapids, ranging from Grade 3 (moderate) to Grade 5 (very powerful). Each rapid presents a different challenge to rafters as well as a very different experience. Rather like within Zen thought, it helps to row with the flow than around or against it. In this way, a whitewater rafting excursion becomes almost analogous to a life journey. 

    Being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I often feel that each day is a new challenge, sometimes difficult, sometimes not so bad. other times it can be confusing. When negotiating a confusing challenge in whatever shape or form, sometimes I find myself having to weigh up arguments in my head between thoughts, almost like 'internal angels and devils'. The confusion often comes when not being anticipate possible consequences of being enticed by the devil's temptations, especially if it is a situation or in circumstances which I haven't previously experienced. Within a sight most likely admired by angels according to Livingstone, also lie the Devil's thrill-seeking temptations. And I was about to experience something for the first time!     


    Entering Oblivion!
    Just before hitting Rapid 18, we were told that there was a chance that the raft might flip. Nicknamed 'Oblivion', Rapid 18 is made up of three powerful waves. Since my first experience of whitewater rafting on Canada's Kicking Horse River in 2003 and having done it on four other previous occasions, somehow I had never previously been involved in a flip. Oblivion though was too powerful and I was caught in my first flip, which could have felt like going into oblivion, but using Oblivion's flow to guide me to calmer section of the river, I found myself able to relocate the raft so that it could be flipped back over and we could all climb back in for the next part of the journey. Whereas at one time I would have thought of such a thing as 'scary', it was a thrilling and memorable moment that occurred in a flash! 

    First Wave!
    Flip! 
    Overturn
    The relative calm after the storm
    After the thrill and spill of my first flip on whitewater, the remaining rapids were much more gentle. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I find that the daily challenges I face, whether they be of a social, anxious or sensory nature are what can make life interesting. Opening to them, including to any setbacks that may occur with them, can thus enabled one to experience life's ups and downs with more freedom, much less constrained by fears and anxieties. In this way, setbacks e.g. depression, however awkward, can become both an opportunity to learn from and new start to a more positive period of life through what we learn by going through and overcoming them.

    The two major rivers I experienced on my adventure through Southern Africa, the Okavango and Zambezi, take completely opposite journeys, one slowly grinding to a halt in a desert and one taking a more conventional and much faster path into an ocean. The different natural obstacles that the flows the two rivers encounter on their journey see them find a a path and outcome suitable to their flow. Similarly, overcoming different challenges that different people with Asperger's Syndrome and related conditions can enable them to take a lifecourse appropriate to their needs abilities with a hopefully suitable outcome. Ultimately, such life events and experiences may disappear into the past. Where they often remain in the present though, is in the form of indelible memories, which will likely remain etched on my consciousness for a long time. 

    A huge thank-you to G Adventuresonce again, including my excellent guides DeWet Theron and Alfie Dovey.

    Special thanks to Iain Harmer of African Wanderer for his insight into the life of the San (Bushmen) people.

    Thanks also to Safari Par Excellence for a fantastic experience of Victoria Falls and the Zambezi. 

    Rafting pictures courtesy of Safari Par Excellence.     
  4. Indelible Memories Part 2: Nature's Unconventional Journeys - Bush Camp in the Okavango Delta

    One of my favourite aspects of travelling is passing through a variety of different contrasting landscapes, each of which not only has its own ecosystem, but has different and unique sensory experiences that await the travellers. After Namibia's deserts, crossing the border into Botswana, my next adventure in Southern Africa was to experience one of nature's more unconventional journeys, the Okavango Delta. A unique feature to Earth, the Okavango River, which starts its journey in the Angolan Highlands, is one of very few rivers than doesn't eventually flow into a sea or ocean. Rather, it is 'consumed' by the vast and largely flat Kalahari Desert.

    The flow of the Okavango Delta seen from above
    Travelling through such a contrasting landscape sometimes almost feel like hopping from one planet to another, but in noticing the journey's that the winds and rains have brought, together with the journey's taken by rivers, one begins to notice that rather than existing as separated worlds, the natural processes that contribute to different landscapes and geographical features are interwoven, and thus dependent on one another for their existence. The unique journey, shape and outcome of the Okavango River is best seen from above. Viewing the delta from a 6-seater plane shows not only how vast an area it covers, but how the flow of the delta has formed many islands, and where the extensive wet grasslands that the delta supports merges with vast dry sandy desert, a unique natural mix.

    Mokoro polers in action on the Okavango Delta
    The delta's meandering routes seen from above shows how dependent on the landscape the delta is for its course of flow, but the vegetation and wildlife, from the huge herds of elephants that migrate across the area to the many species of dragonflies and damselflies, are equally dependent on the delta's waters for their existence and survival. Partaking in a bush camp on Chief's Island, the largest island in the delta, gives the traveller not just an opportunity to view this fascinating natural inter-dependency at work, but also to be part of it, including making the flows of the delta your own, as the local Mokoro Polers. Guiding dug out canoes (mokoros), the Polers used the deltas inlets like natural canals, using their sense of presence to guide their mokoros around the reeds and the slow, gentle rhythms of the water's flow and a awareness of the river bed to guide campers to Chief's Island, where I would stay for a night.

    Wilderbeest roaming the Okavango delta's grasslands
    As well as its flows and rhythms, experiencing nature by being part of it during a wild bush camp also involves taking into account possible safety hazards, especially when the camp itself is part of nature. With most of the camps I had been staying on on my travels not only having the conveniences of access to water, electricity and bathroom facilities albeit limited and very basic, but also fenced off from wildlife, on Chief's Island, the camp was out in the open, including being open to wildlife. Throughout the trip and from previous travelling experiences (including a camping expedition in Svalbard earlier in 2016), I had got used to living in and out of tents, even if it was a step outside my daily living comfort zone, but a wild bush camp was another step outside of my comfort zone within a step outside my comfort zone. Often, stepping outside our comfort zone, in whatever way, we experience sensory feelings that we are usually otherwise oblivious to. 


    Water lilies in the delta's inlets
    Being aware of the possible health issues, including the possibility of dehydration, being bitten by an insect or even attacked by an animal, I had initially felt my Asperger tendencies of worry and anxiety kicking in, despite having had the necessary injections as well as having taken malaria pills, that something nasty or unpleasant could happen. In such situations, how well one is prepared with the right supplies including the necessary medicines, sun cream and plenty of insect repellent and enough clean water to last two days in the case of the delta, can play an important part in the quality of the experience. Before the camp, we were told to wear colours that blend in with the colours of the natural surroundings, preferably dark green, brown, dark blue or black so as not to stimulate or distract animals. Realising that the guides and Polers I was with were on hand in case of any such incident and that if I left any animals that happened to pass nearby alone, they would likely leave me and the other campers alone, while being aware of such possible occurrences, I began to embrace the experience a little more, starting with a swim in the deltas's waters. Swimming in the delta's calm waters and walking along its sandy desert bed unveiled a richness of plat life, including reed rafts and water lilies, that the delta's journey has brought to what would have otherwise been vast dry desert, similar to what I had experienced in Namibia. As the Okavango runs through what is otherwise a desert landscape, the river carries very little mud. walking along the sandy river bed, one notices heavy amounts of sand getting caught in the reeds, a process that forms the delta's many islands.

    An elephant family in the Okavango Delta 
    While the high volume of water enables such rich and varied vegetation in the area, their presence also attracts and supports large quantities of wildlife, whose movements often correlate with the region's contrasting seasons, notably elephants. With more than 100,000, Botswana has the largest population of African Elephants, who, led by a matriarch and senior bull elephants, migrate in thousands, along ancient routes from the nearby Chobe, Linyanti and Savute regions to the delta for its constant presence of water and availability of shade from its trees. Watching the world's largest land animals in action, one sees how they make use of nature in their own way, being able to use their trunks, tusks and physical strength to break branches off trees for food, and being able to make use of the inlets for ease of movement and cooling down from the hot sun.

    The Sun sets on the Delta
    The delta takes on a different dimension at sunset, where the colouring of the plant life and landscape changes dramatically in response to fading light, opening up a nocturnal living world in the process. The night I camped out on Chief's Island happened to be Halloween! After the Mokoro Polers treated us to a memorable singing and dancing display, during the night, a hyena passed by the camp, making a ghost-like laugh!





    Part 3 of my African Adventure will follow soon, in which I recall my experience of the power and majesty of Victoria Falls


  5. Indelible Memories Part 1: Dunes, Cave Art and the Milky Way - Camping in Namibia's Deserts

    Of the skills that artists and writers can call upon, as well as creative use of colour and language and eye for detail, is memory, all of which are well-documented strengths of many people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Though I am often told that I have a good memory for knowledge and information, but through simple noticing through being present with each moment, I find that sensory experiences from different landscapes, climates and lighting leaves almost indelible memories within my consciousness. Nearly three months on from my journey through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, I find myself making use of what I have with these to share the memories here on this blog.
    Sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Nambia

    The first part of my adventure through Southern Africa saw me travel up the Western Cape from Cape Town via a kayaking excursion along the Orange River through Namibia's other-worldly desert landscape of Sossusvlei, A wealth of sensory experiences await the traveller who is prepared to open to the landscape and its properties, as well as being able to observe and experience nature's forces in action. As well as dune shapes, the formation of the landscape through journey's brought by the Orange River, where I started my journey into Namibia, and the currents of the Atlantic Ocean has also played a huge part in shaping its distinctive colouring. As part of an ever-renewing process over millions of years, the reddish orange sand we see in the desert today was originally deposited in the Atlantic Ocean via the Orange River, before the ocean's currents gradually brought it back where the wind carried it back inland over time where it has mixed with salt and clay deposits as well as other elements, including iron.

    Dune 45, Namibia
    Almost like the opposite extreme of Svalbard's glaciers, where I was earlier in 2016, sand dunes initially appear still to the naked eye, but are gradually changing slowing in response to the wind, temperature and air pressure. Through getting up close and personal with them though, we can experience how their shapes and texture are constantly changing and renewing them through our other senses.Trekking up Dune 45 (85 metres high), I found that as well as the effects of natures forces on its shape, I also gained an appreciation of nature's effects on the texture of the sand, the density of the sand grains and of the dune itself. Often overwhelmingly hot during the day as I experienced going up Dune 45, at night temperatures in the desert take on a different dimension becoming much cooler, occasionally dropping below freezing point. Cooler temperatures can occasionally bring fog from the Atlantic meaning droplets of moisture can find its way into the sand. This affects the density of the sand, thus also effecting both the sensory experience and difficulty of the walking on it. Having previously trekked on grainy surfaces, including volcano ash, I initially expected Dune 45 to be 'skiddy', but instead, the sand was rather firm. It was still early in the morning so levels of moisture within the sand were still heavy. 

    The Milky Way viewed from Spitzkoppe, Namibia 
    When in tune to sensory experiences of a desert landscape, as well as an appreciation of its physical qualities, one can also notice the range of colouring within the materials that make up the landscape with more clarity as well as how their hue changes dramatically in accordance with levels of sunlight. After the Sun has gone down, another set of colouring gradually becomes more apparent. Far removed from the effects of light pollution and overcast skies, more stars can be seen with the naked eye than usual, including an arm of the Milky Way. With concentrated observation, the colours within the stars, including white, yellow, red and blue also become much more apparent than usual, while the patterns that we often use to navigate our way around the night sky, the constellations, gradually fade within a star-filled sky.

    San cave art, Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
    When focusing on the night sky in the desert, an effect I felt that it had on me internally was that it helped me to expand my usual thought patterns. Being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I do still find that I can be constrained by thought patterns and that my thinking can be clouded by emotions, similar to how my view of the night sky can sometimes be constrained to the constellations as well as hindered by light pollution. In this way, I felt that by expanding my attention externally towards the night sky, it also gave me insight internally to the workings of my mind. being able to understand the local surroundings in a different light, together with fascinating tours of cave paintings throughout my journey also enabled me to understand the world from the perspective of the indigenous San people, commonly known as 'bushmen'.

    San bushmen, Botswana
    It is said that Australia's Aborigines were able to see the moons of Jupiter. This would have been enabled not only by clear skies and an obvious absence of light pollution, but also, as hunter gatherers, their eyesight was well-adapted for such purposes. Similarly, the San have historically relied on the the stars to track down animals when hunting animals for food, fuel and clothing material. The way their eyesight adapted for hunter-gatherer purposes is visible in their art work in rocks and caves across the region, some of which is many thousands of years old. Though in an increasingly modernising Africa, the traditional ways of the San people have largely disappeared, they do give a fascinating insight into human relationship with nature, including how we adapt to it to survive.
      

    Sunset over Sossusvlei, Namibia
    The sensory experiences I felt I had camping in Namibia's desert also gave me an insight into how the San would have had to make use of all their senses for survival purposes in an extreme environment where resources are often scarce, as well as leaving me with memories of what were, for me, new and different experiences. Such memories often find themselves 'etched' within one's consciousness. My most indelible memories of Namibia's deserts though, which the present day convenience of cameras allow us to capture and store, were the night sky sights and the dramatic sunsets.

    Indelible Memories Part 2, in which I recall my experience of the Okavango Delta, will follow soon.

           
  6. Steaming into the Past - The Sherborne Christmas Carol

    One of my favourite aspects of mainline steam-hauled trains is the incongruence that they bring to the present day. Not only are they incongruent to a present day railway scene dominated by modern sprinter, voyager and pendolino units, overhead wires and electronic arrivals/departures boards, but also to contemporary passenger habits, including using mobile devices to check trains times, for which passengers of the 19th and early 20th century would most likely have used Michael Portillo's favourite book - the Bradshaws.

    Black Fives 44871 and 45407 at London Victoria
    In many ways, mainline steam-hauled trains are like time machines that have travelled from the past. But as well as coming from the past, my latest mainline steam experience also took me into the past. Travelling on the Sherborne Christmas Carol, double-headed by former London Midland and Scottish Railway Class 5's (known to many rail enthusiasts as 'Black Fives') 44871 and 45407 The Lancashire Fusilier (named in preservation), what I felt was especially noticeable travelling behind a double header was that there seemed to be thicker clouds of smoke flying past the windows as the train gathered momentum. The late former Poet Laureate and lover of railway journeys Sir John Betjeman wrote extensively about how railways create their own landscapes. Watching the smoke shroud the nearby woodlands, in this way steam-hauled journeys also often create their own scenery.

    The Parade, Sherborne
    Passing through Worting Junction, well-known as a pivotal location during the holiday season on the Southern Railway where holiday season specials either went across the bridge in the direction of Southampton or under the bridge along the former Atlantic Coast Express route to North Cornwall, the train stopped to take on water at Salisbury before heading onto Sherborne. Whereas it felt that the train had come from the past to the present, Sherborne's medieval architecture made it feel like the train had taken me into the past. As described by Thomas Hardy in his novel The Woodlanders*, it is as if some medieval stone masons had been flashed down through the centuries.

    Tombs of Aethelbald and Ethelbert, Sherborne Abbey
    Dominated by its abbey, Sherborne is said to be where Alfred the Great was educated. Though much of Sherborne Abbey that is seen today dates mainly from the 15th century, there is still some evidence of Norman and Saxon architecture. The abbey's north choir aisle contains two tombs that are said to be those of King Aethelbald of Wessex and King Ethelbert of Wessex, elder brothers of Alfred. History perhaps best remembers Alfred as the only English King to defeat the Vikings and burning cakes, but also had a vision of a new kind of kingdom for his time based on his love of reading. According to history, Alfred learned to read from his mother Osburh with his brothers, who read a book brightly illuminated by monks. Osburh said that whoever learned to read the quickest could have the book. The visual appeal of the illumination encouraged Alfred to learn and the book became his, though historians now think that rather than being able to read fluently, he was able to memorise the texts so well. Believing that without learning and Christian wisdom there could be no peace and prosperity, Alfred proposed to make works of literature, including holy texts, accessible to his subjects by translating them from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, over 500 years before the Protestant Reformation.

    Ladybird Books' title Alfred the Great,
    first published in 1956
    This led me on personal trip down memory lane to a formula that was part of my childhood, and of many other British childhoods, Ladybird Books. Memories of Ladybird childhoods may well have been aroused recently through the presence of parody Ladybird titles on the shelves of WH Smiths satirising what the generation that read the originals feel they may since have been through (a midlife crisis) or have become (a hipster). For me though, growing up, Ladybird Books provided me with a beautifully illustrated window to learning, which suited my visual ways of thinking as a child with Asperger's Syndrome (then undiagnosed). Written in a simple language that could easily be understood by children, they were accompanied with beautiful illustrations, of which Sherborne's picturesque streets could well have adorned. I remember being attracted to the illustrations in Ladybird Books on many different subjects that arouse childhood fascinations including animals, historical figures, transport etc. but to understand what was happening in the illustrations, I learned to realise that I also needed to pay attention to the written text, which encouraged me to read and later explore further, something which many of us take into later life with us, including myself. Over a hundred years since the first book published by Ladybird Books, one can only wonder how many lifelong pursuits of learning and exploration began with them.

    Reading about Alfred the Great with Ladybird Books, I also learned about the burh (later called boroughs) system Alfred developed to help defend his kingdom from possible future attacks. Alfred's burh system help to connect towns via fortified roads and bridges (in some cases reusing existing Roman roads), which as well as for defence purposes, also enabled a network of commerce. It is possible that without Alfred's translation programme and development of the burh system, subsequent events that I also learned about through Ladybird Books like the Industrial Revolution and with that, the coming of the railways, both of great importance to shaping the present day society we live in, might not have happened. In Alfred's time, most people rarely travelled much further than the village or settlement the lived in. Often it would take days to travel distances by horse or on foot that, in contemporary times, can be done in a few hours by train, bus or plane. The idea of inter-connection through the burh system would later enable future generations to travel beyond where, at one time, their 'world' would have stopped in a much more accessible, affordable and quicker way when the appropriate technology, railways and later motor vehicles, to make this possible arrived.

    Sherborne Abbey
    A special carols service was held at the abbey for passengers and staff of the Sherborne Christmas Carol. Travelling back to London Victoria, while Christmas tree lights from nearby houses shone through the clouds of smoke Black Fives 44871 and 45407 performed their own Christmas carol - 'Chuffing Home for Christmas'.

    Wishing all readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas and all the best for the New Year.





    *In Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Sherborne is named 'Sherton Abbas'

    Special thanks to the Railway Touring Company for a fantastic day out.





  7. A Midnight Sun Adventure - A Week of Kayaking, Summitt Trekking and Glacier Hiking in Svalbard

    After having experienced a week of days limited to just two hours of sunlight per day in the Finnish Far North, I felt encouraged to revisit the Arctic during the other extreme. This time during Midnight Sun season, where the Sun doesn't set for up to six months. Visiting the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean, I found that not only do the extremes of lighting at northern latitudes have different effects on the landscape, but also on mind and body.

    The Midnight Sun shines brightly over Svalbard's Isfjorden

    A Norwegian territory located on a latitude of 78 degrees north, the Svalbard archipelago is located about halfway between the northernmost part of mainland Norway and the North Pole. Being so far north means that the Sun is still high in the sky as late as 1.00 am, not even going behind the mountains! Spending a week camping under the Midnight Sun on Svalbard not only took me right out of my comfort zone but, being in a largely untouched landscape away from many modern conveniences e.g. wi-fi.

    It is understandable how Norway's landscape of steep-sided fjords, bays and inlets, together with the difficulties much of the landscape presented for farming and overland travel, were made use of as transportation networks by the Vikings. Most likely, curiosity aroused by wondering what was on the other side of the horizon led them to build strong ships to embark on voyages into what then was the unknown. One of the first reminders of the world that the Vikings lived in that Svalbard presents is the Isfjorden, a long fjord that cuts through Spitsbergen (the archipelago's largest island) around where many of its settlements, including the largest Longyearbyen, are based. Apart from the road that links Longyearbyen to the airport, there are no roads on the archipelago, making sailing one of few viable ways of getting around, using the fjords as natural sailing routes. With little of the now known world then explored, heading out to the open sea could very easily have seemed, within their mindset, like heading out to the 'ends of the earth', not knowing what was over the horizon, including encountering any unexpected hazards. Though such mindsets now though are largely a thing of the past with Google maps and satellite navigation technology, there are still some challenges nature presents on which one can't rely on technology to navigate successfully to avoid collisions or pitfalls. Instead, one has to rely on their intuition, concentration and presence of mind, including making use of all five senses.

    Two such experiences I had in Svalbard included kayaking towards the front of Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen) before later hiking on the glacier using crampons and an ice axe. An active glacier, carving, Esmarkbreen creates its own tides and waves when large chunks of ice break off the glacier into the sea making thunderous sounds which the Vikings could have mistaken for the sound of Thor's hammer! Svalbard's existence was confirmed by Dutch explorers who discovered the archipelago in 1596. It is possible but unconfirmed as to whether it had previously been visited by Viking explorers. Though there is a description of Svalbard in the Viking sagas, meaning 'cold shores', it is perhaps more likely that they refer to parts of Greenland's coastline.

    Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen), Svalbard
    The very name Svalbard may have meant cold shores to explorers over 800 years ago, but being in the Gulf Stream, Svalbard's shores can be surprisingly warm during summer. Kayaking towards the front of Esmarkbreen, I felt I had to be alert at all times using all five senses, listening for thunder sounds from the glacier to anticipate and prepare for  any sudden waves while keeping an eye open for floating pieces of ice approaching. Floating ice for a glacier can be very deceiving to the eye as, often only a small part of the ice is visible about the water surface, so you don't know at first whether an ice chunk is either relatively harmless or a major obstacle. When rowing towards floating ice, I found it useful to, where possible tap piece of ice to see if they could be pushed aside easily or if they were too heavy to move and I needed to steer around. As large pieces of ice carved from the glacier break up in the water they gradually spread out forming a ring, almost simulating Saturn's rings on Earth. Finding space to row a kayak through a ring of ice pieces was difficult and even harder work rowing through it when an opportunity came. With the ice moving constantly in the water, I to to be quick to row through before the gap became too narrow and I would get stuck!

    Practising Crevice Rescue
    After kayaking towards Esmarkbreen's mighty front, the next adventure was to walk up it. As well as an opportunity to practice mindfulness of walking, setting foot on a surface that is not only obviously outside of one's comfort zone, but despite having previously walked on glaciers, Esmarkbreen presented a completely different challenge.Unless one does it regularly, stepping on a glacier feels like learning to walk again and re-learning tying your shoelaces when putting on crampons. For much of the year, Svalbard's glaciers are under heavy snow. Even after much of the snow has melted during summer, there are still patches of thick snow on the ice into which one can sink. Numerous deep crevices in the glacier also present a hazard. Before going any further up the ice flow, groups trekking Esmarkbreen are instructed in crevice rescue should one be unfortunate to fall in. Being roped together in a trek team provided assurance that should you fall into a crevice or get your foot stuck in thick snow to help pull you out if they can.

    Initially, when walking on Esmarkbreen, I found that it was difficult to distinguish between ice and snow surfaces with the eye alone when I got my foot stuck in patch of snow! This was where, for the next stage of the trek that the ice axe became invaluable, almost becoming like a 'sixth sense' to test whether the immediate yard in front of me was solid enough to walk on, or if I would have to take a diversion. All glaciers have their own individually shaped surfaces in accordance with their surrounding conditions, their flow gradually carving their own landscapes within the mountains. As with trekking in any landscape, it helps to adapt to it with an open approach, making using of the forces and properties of nature, including using the ice shapes as steps, and where necessary, carving steps in the ice with the ice axe, while at the same time having a conscious awareness of whom you are roped to, offering assistance where needed.

    View from Varmlandsryggen
    Making the forces and properties of nature your own by adapting to and going with them, it also enables one to see the journeys that natural processes bring, not just down the mountains, but through the seasons, where the effects of Svalbard's five seasons are visible. Svalbard has five seasons, As well as Spring, Summer and Autumn, there is also Light Winter and Dark Winter. During Dark Winter which there is no sunlight for up to five months, known locally as the 'Polar Night'. Though Svalbard must feel like a different world during Polar Night, the effects its seasons bring don't exist in isolation, but are inter-connected with the rhythms and flow of nature and time. Ascending the Varmlandsryggen, a steep 575m, in summer there is still a lot of thick snow at the summit, around which much of the landscape would be covered by during winter. But looking down the surrounding ice flows towards the shore, a different landscape of glacier carved fjords and inlets, permafrost and huge amounts rocks and sediments deposited by melted ice flows (moraine) is revealed. Coming down the mountain, the journeys that the snow and ice bring are revealed when running water is sighted. Most interesting is the route by which the flows of water find their way into the Isfjorden, which isn't often obvious. it often appears that flowing streams from the ice flows seems to suddenly 'stop' at large deposits of moraine before they find their way to the Isfjorden. But just like one finds their own way, at their own physical level, to the summit at Varmlandsryggen or to inner peace in a meditative context, each stream finds its own way into the Isfjorden going through or around the moraine deposits.

    Wild Reindeer
    Bearded Seal
    During a season without darkness, such physically demanding activity was necessary to ensure that I would get to sleep later, but even with such excess physical activity, it felt difficult to get tired under the Midnight Sun. This provided me with a little reminder though of how I used to find it very difficult to 'switch off' and relax most of the time before I started practising mindfulness. Though even now there are times when I still find this difficult, with mindfulness I feel as though I have more control. I felt I managed to sleep under a very bright Midnight Sun, though even when feeling exhausted physically, it took a lot of effort. During the evening hours, campers had to take it in turns to be on watch duty, in case a polar bear, one of few animals that will attack and eat humans if hungry enough, came near the camp. When going beyond Longyearbyen, visitors to Svalbard must be accompanied by a guide with a rifle in case of an encounter with one of Svalbard's 3,500 polar bears. Though on this occasion the King of the Arctic didn't make an appearance, there were some traces that a polar bear had been in the area hunting their prize prey of ring seals, including footprints and seal skin. Wildlife that I did see from a distance though included a bearded seal floating on ice near Esmarkbreen's front and some wild reindeer.

    Gokstad Viking Ship, Oslo
    Returning home via Oslo, I had a reminder of lost worlds I felt I had a glimpse into during a memorable week in Svalbard when visiting the Viking Ship and Fram Museums, the latter dedicated to polar expeditions .During the kayaking expedition, I felt I was able to experience a mentality that existed in the minds of the Viking sailors of 1,200 years ago and during the glacier hike, a mentality that polar explorers of the early 20th century, may well have experienced. Though many written histories still often portray the Vikings as brutal raiders, pillagers and plunderers (many of which were written by those to whom they were fierce enemies), underneath that, as suggested by some of the artefacts in the Viking Ship Museum, there was also a sophisticated civilisation that made great technological advances for their time, especially in shipbuilding. With that they gave us a spirit of travel and exploration, which has taken human ingenuity to testing environments including the North and South Poles and the Moon, and who knows where next? The impressive Gokstad and Oseberg ships in Oslo's Viking Ship Museum, serve as a reminder of how testing human ingenuity in such extreme conditions leads various innovations worth having that make up the present day world we may often take for granted.

    As so often when travelling, something that I felt I brought back from Svalbard was an intuitive awareness and understanding of a completely different environment in which I had to adjust and adapt to regularly. In relation to being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, getting use to environments different from what is the norm for me as well as managing and adapting to change isn't naturally easy for me, but coping with it by being present with it I find enables greater confidence in myself. Having said that, when I arrived home, it took me at least a week to get used to darkness again!

    Huge thanks to Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions and their fabulous guides for all their help and support during the camp.

       





       
  8. Noticing Patterns - From Construction of Ancient Monuments to Classifying Galaxies

    Of things that the human brain can still do so much better than computers, it is in being able to recognise patterns and inconsistencies in data, something that people with Asperger's Syndrome can excel in, including in software scripts. This is why the amateur can still make significant contributions to science, particularly astronomy.


    Stonehenge viewed from the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
    The ability of the human brain to observe and recognise patterns goes back many thousands of years together with the nature to keep the mind both active and occupied, which is evident in the construction of ancient monuments, including Stonehenge. Though Stonehenge’s function is still largely unknown, it is commonly accepted that it served  as a solar calendar. What is also highly likely is that its construction originated from observation of patterns in the movement of the Sun. Over time, another aspect of the human mind would lead us to find out why such patterns occur, one often commonly found in people with Asperger’s Syndrome, curiosity. 

    It can be an easy assumption for one to make that the further known reaches of the universe at inter-galactic level, the technology needed to go so far is only available to professional astronomers working in observatories. Though technology required to collect and process astronomical data is largely the realm of professionals who have access to the equipment needed, analysing and classifying data, including noticing patterns is where the amateur astronomy enthusiast can not only still make a significant contribution the further into Deep Space we explore. In astronomy, an advantage that the amateur can sometimes have is that he or she has freedom from the often rigid nature of professional frameworks and classification systems. In this way public participation can be an invaluable resource to scientific research.

    Hubble's Turning Fork, system by Galaxy Zoo used for classifying galaxies
    At an introduction to Sunderland Astronomical Society’s public open evening, Graham Darke, a long-time member of the society, explained why with Galaxy Zoo. Galaxy Zoo is an online citizen science project that gives the public access to astronomical data obtained from the world’s largest telescopes from the ground based observatories of La Palma in the Canary Islands and Gemini South in Chile’s Atacama Desert to those in orbit including the Hubble Space Telescope. In his introductory talk, Darke explained that as well as the human mind being better at recognising patterns than computers, members of the public often have the spare time to analyse it than the professionals who are busy collecting the dataWith the huge amounts of data on other galaxies throughout the universe being collected, it had initially been thought that to analyse, classify and catalogue so many galaxies would take many years, but courtesy of Galaxy Zoo, more than 50 million galaxies have been classified by over 150,000 people since the project was launched in 2007.

    Within the universe that observable to humankind with current technology, there is estimated to be over one hundred billion galaxies, which are enormously variable in shape, size and composition and yet also similar, ranging from large spiral-shaped galaxies like Andromeda and smaller irregular shaped galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. Much can be learned about galaxies from their shapes, including the possibility that larger galaxies formed due to a merging of two or more smaller galaxies. Also interesting are the surroundings of galaxies, including their gravitational fields and radio waves and X-rays emitted from their centre. Public participation through Galaxy Zoo further has opened up humankind to an ever-expanding universe, including the recent discovery of gravitational waves, caused by merging black holes. 


    Heelstone, Stonehenge. Just behind it there is an arrow
    show the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
    Meanwhile, present-day visitors to Stonehenge marvel at how it was constructed without modern technology, not just in being able to move such large and heavy stones, but also the accuracy of the alignment of the stones are in accordance with the the Sun's position in the sky during different seasons. Traditionally a favourite site for Summer Solstice celebrations, the original purpose of Stonehenge may rather have been to mark the Midwinter Solstice as there is a 'sunstone', or 'heelstone', placed in the direction of where the Sun would appear at the Midwinter Solstice. Whereas in the present day, most of us have access to conveniences to keep us occupied when we feel 'bored' such as smartphones, iPads or indeed Galaxy Zoo, apart from hunting, chanting and telling stories, our Neolithic ancestors would have had little else to do to keep themselves occupied, but to make a game of tracking and recording the positions of the Sun in the sky from sunrise to sunset and the Moon and stars during the night. Without present-day light pollution, they would have been able to see so many more stars on a clear winter's night. So like mass participation in classifying galaxies, 5,000 years ago, it could possibly have been the participation by many prehistoric sky watchers that enabled the construction of Stonehenge.

    It is well-known that being able to recognise patterns through eye for detail as well as working to set set of rules and classifications is where aspects of Asperger's Syndrome can present strengths. Going beyond this, a curious mind, through wanting to find out reasons for why such patterns occur opens us up to new theories and possibilities, including being able to notice interdependent existences, including our own. as with all life, we depend on Earth and the Sun for our existence, yet also exist independently. But to exist independently, it helps to be able to make the Sun's strength our own, including for agricultural purposes (when to plant and harvest crops) as Stonehenge was very possibly used for. Together with the other planets, Earth and the Sun depend on each other for their existence, yet also exist independently. Further afield, the Sun is depends on the Milky Way for its existence, while the Milky May depends on the Local Group of Galaxies and the Local Group of Galaxies depends on the larger Virgo Cluster for one another's existence and their place in the universe. Yet within one another's interdependent existence, they also exist independently, their independence being enabled by interdependence.  


    When applying the ability to recognise and interpret patterns together with curiosity, these factors can become one, thus enabling us to expand our awareness. With our awareness expanded, we can then notice that time and space merge into one from within 5,000 years since the construction of Stonehenge to within billions of years during the formation of the Solar System and further beyond that, the formation and evolution of galaxies of all shapes and sizes.

    Galaxy Zoo, including information on how to participate in classification of galaxies, can be access at www.galaxyzoo.org  

    More about Sunderland Astronomical Society can be found at www.sunderlandastro.com

    To find out how to participate in astronomy locally elsewhere in the UK, you can find your astronomical society at the following link www.fedastro.org.uk 


  9. The Crane Bird Aurora - Night Sky Magic and Messages in the Finnish Far North

    Arriving in Muonio, Finnish Lapland, with its very short hours of daylight in winter and extensive pine forests, one can believe that, of the many present-day etymological theories on the subject, the reason why Finland got its name was because it was thought to be where the known world 'finishes'.
    Snow-covered pine trees in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, Finland

    Similar to what I have found on meditation retreats in forests, within the heavily snowed pine-forest landscape of Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park , there is no obvious horizon. An effect that this can sometimes enable on the mind is that one's mirror neurons begin to turn towards you and where you immediately are. Whereas with a horizon, one may wonder what is on the other side, perhaps questioning whether the 'grass is greener', that you may forget what you have not only where you are but within also.

    Peering upwards through the trees though and looking over the frozen lakes, there is something though that has aroused human curiosity for thousands of years, the night sky. Following a rainy Christmas market in the capital Helsinki and after checking the local weather forecast for Muonio which suggested cloudy skies with intermittent snow, I was surprised to see a clear night sky during my first night in Muonio. But quite often though, when looking for clear skies for astronomical purposes it can be that the weather forecast and the weather as it happens are two very different things. In Lapland, weather conditions can change very quickly from one extreme to another, making it difficult to provide an accurate forecast. I also heard from the local aurora forecast that solar activity had been very strong over the last two days, which meant that there was a good chance that the Aurora Borealis could appear.

    After experiencing a glimpse of the lights from Tromso, Norway, a year ago with a professional aurora chaser and photographer, I was eager to see a clearer and hopefully brighter aurora display from Muonio in the far north of Finland. During my first night in Muoni, I went down to the banks of nearby Lake Jeris, wrapped up warmly in temperatures of around -10 degrees to practice astrophotography techniques with a recently acquired digital single lens reflex camera and tripod. Using an exposure of 15 seconds, used by most astrophotographers as it is the right balance to allow enough light from the stars without making trail movements, when playing back my images, I spotted a green tinge that I didn't immediately see with the naked eye. But refocusing my eyes on the sky, after a few minutes, a faint glow of green slowly began to reveal itself. This time, I had found my own way to the Aurora!


    The Aurora Borealis seen from the banks of Lake Jeris, Finland
    But it was on the second night of my stay that the lights more than just merely turned up, but they were spectacularly bright. Once again, I had the fortune of a clear sky at just the right time indicated by the huge number of stars that appeared, making some of the constellations less obvious. The longer hours of darkness north of the Arctic Circle also contribute to a prolonged display of aurora activity. After noticing a glint of green from my cabin window, walking down to the same spot where I had been the previous night, the lights truly began to reveal themselves.


    A Crane Bird-shaped Aurora, Lake Jeris, Finland
    After applying my external attention and noticing to appreciate what I felt was being present at the 'Greatest Show on Earth', for a brief moment I then took a step back and turned my attention inwards. applying the effect that the forest location initially had on me upon arrival. As well as being able to get in touch with one's feelings and emotion through focusing attention inwards, one can also get in touch with their creative side. Of the shapes I noticed that the Aurora appeared in that night, one resembled an origami crane bird that I had made in Japan. 


    Memorial to Sadako and her 1,000 crane birds, Hiroshima, Japan
    The crane bird became an international symbol of peace in Japan after Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl in who was two-years-old when the atomic bomb was dropped on her native Hiroshima 70 years ago this year in 1945. Exposure to radiation during the blast and its aftermath saw Sadako develop leukemia in 1954. Following treatment, Sadako was given at most a year to live and in that time, she learned how to make origami crane birds and together with her room-mate, made a thousand crane birds upon which she made a wish to recover from her illness. Sadly, Sadako's wish never came true, but the legacy she left leaves us with a warning to humanity of what technology we have invented can do to us if we use it for destructive purposes.

    That night, as well as an obvious sight of beauty, I also felt that in the run-up to Christmas, the Aurora brought a message, to live in peace, thus helping find happiness within.

    Merry Christmas Everybody, and a Happy, Peaceful New Year!
                  






  10. Eye for Detail, Imagination, Creativity and Patience - Mindful Railway Modelling

    Arts and crafts are well-known for their therapeutic qualities, as well as providing a space for one to express their creative side. For many people on the autistic spectrum, it can also be a way of expressing their thoughts, feeling and emotions, especially if their ways of thinking are more visual, making it easier to communicate their needs.

    Mindfulness doesn't necessarily change an individuals interests, pastimes or pursuits, but can change the way one approaches them, thus enriching one's experience. It is well-known that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, have so-called special interests. It is not un-normal for anyone, whether on the autistic spectrum or not, to have an interest from which one gains great enjoyment. But when linked to autism, sometimes such interests can become an 'issue' to others around them with presumptions that they can be isolating or possessive, to the extent that they become associated with stereotyped Asperger behaviour. When taking a mindful approach with more awareness to such interests, whole new visual and sensory experiences slowly unfold, thus deepening one's relationship with their interest and how it relates to their surroundings.

    Of late, I have begun to notice this with one of my longer term interests, model railways. A pastime that I have been very keen on from when very young, that I have 'shelved' every so often due to other commitments and responsibilities, when returning to it fairly recently with a more mindful awareness, I have begun to notice in more depth the artistic side of the pastime, its relationship to full-sized railways, including adding realism. A theme largely advocated by Cyril J Freezer, the late former editor of Railway Modeller, realism applies not only to making a model railway layout look more realistic through the addition of scenic detail and weathering, but also to train operation, track layout and setting.

    It can be very easy for one to be put off taking up railway modelling in a monetary sense when one sees the retail prices of model locomotives, rolling stock and accessories, including power and control equipment. Space can also be an issue for many. The idea of railway modelling as a pastime confined to the wealthy was a myth that Freezer looked to disprove. Fair enough, when starting out in model railways one may find themselves spending quite a bit of money to acquire one or two locomotives, some rolling stock, track and power appliances as well as time and effort in acquiring some space in which to build a layout.  However, through patience and intuition, going deeper into it need not be too expensive. As well as being in many ways more affordable, techniques Freezer described in Railway Modeller and the many books he published on railway modelling, including scratch-building (making models from readily available raw materials) and kit-bashing (altering or adapting a commercial kit) to fit a limited space, also help add and further deepen an individual uniqueness to a model railway or diorama.

    After many years of enjoying making commercial card building kits by Metcalfe and Superquick, whose products are a familiar sight on many model railways, including my own, I found that I had amounted a large reserve of waste card, including unused patterned card e.g. brick, tiled etc. Additionally, I had also amounted a sizeable stock of modelling materials and tools, including several colours of modelling paints. Though I had previously kit-bashed or put individual touches on card buildings I had made from Metcalfe and Superquick kits, I hadn't previously attempted scratch-building. Through being able to notice and gain an appreciation of the textures of different raw materials that had amounted from my modelling activity, including waste card and wood offcuts as well as a spatial awareness of the scale, including proportions, I saw there was a way I could make use of amounted raw materials rather than them going to waste. Looking at examples from old railway photographs I had seen online or in books, I put together the following small buildings/structures:

    Cattle dock, made from card and matchsticks
    Locomotive coaling stage, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
    Coal depot, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
    An aspect of realism that I have begun to enjoy adding, is placing and in some cases painting figurines depicting people in various leisurely and working roles, including rail enthusiasts with spotters notebooks, porters, a station master and engine crew. As well as adding depth to a layout, placement of figurines and small details, such as trolleys, suitcases etc. also helps to further enhance the imaginative side of building a layout. As well as being a therapeutic activity, painting figurines (many I have painted so far are supplied by Dart Castings) also helps to bring then beyond a figure-shape cast in white metal almost into an individual character.

    An eager rail enthusiast chats to the station master
    Such scenes may be inspired by books or films where rail travel features heavily or in my case, through being interested in recreating rural branch line scenes that were once common throughout Britain until many were closed after the Reshaping of Britain's Railways by the government in the 1960s, when private car ownership and motorways were still largely in their infancy. As well as in miniature, the realism encouraged by Cyril J Freezer has much relevance for full-sized railways in opening us up to lost rail networks in an era where roads have become heavily congested and certain towns, villages and housing estates remain remote from public transport. As well as providing alternatives to car use, local lines can also serve as a link with the mainline networks, including proposed high-speed routes.

    Two young enthusiasts chatting to driver,
    based on a well-known  Southern Railway poster
    For me, railway modelling has been a good way for me to apply imagination to eye for detail, which I have long considered a personal strength. Turning it into something creative though requires a lot of patience cultivated through mindfulness, which I hope will be rewarded the more I work on my layout, which I have named Bretherbury.





      


  11. Going Deeper into the Forest Within - Templestay at Woljeongsa

    People with Asperger’s Syndrome are often described as having difficulty in not being able to see the woods for the tree. Historically, professionals have referred to this as ‘weak central coherence’. Such a weakness though can translate to a strength, eye for detail. Through initially noticing such strengths translated from weaknesses, by starting with what one has, it can open one up to hidden qualities and further possibilities.

    To notice and acknowledge strengths and qualities that one may have, including in relation to how they are affected by their Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, it helps to find an environment where one can step back from the flow, free from distractions. Staying at Woljeongsa, a Buddhist Temple in South Korea, I felt that I was able to notice with clarity where I was able to notice with awareness where strengths Asperger’s Syndrome can have can be expanded upon, including being able to see where small, often obscure detail fits into the bigger picture.

    Main meditation hall and nine-story pagoda at Woljeongsa Temple
    Situated in an expansive fir tree forest in Odaesan National Park, around 140km east of Seoul, Woljeongsa provided me with an appropriate setting for me to help expand my awareness. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I tend to focus on and become interested in very specific details, but seeing where such details fit into a plot or setting can still sometimes be quite a challenge for me. Being able to notice sensations and sounds in a very peaceful countryside environment gave me an opportunity to expand my field of awareness beyond the tree into the woods and beyond.

    It is fascinating as to how when many of us find ourselves in environments that are outside our comfort zone, including the comfort zone of our thought patterns and the daily routines and actions that arise from them. On my first meditation retreat, I was also able to notice how much I continuously talk to myself.  During my stay at Woljeongsa, I felt I noticed as well as how my autopilot mode is often a response to my thought patterns, but also how easily distracted I am by them, and how such distractions can become over-obsessive.

    Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, even now, I still find it difficult to adapt to social situations, including being able adapt to topics of conversation especially where I don’t know anybody so much that behind closed doors I find myself having to almost practice conversation and non-verbal communication. But what can’t be practised behind closed doors is being able to respond in conversations, especially as it is difficult to anticipate how someone may respond to you. In this way, I began to notice how my speech can sometimes feel almost ‘scripted’, perhaps coming across as repetitive, and sometimes out of context through not always being able to read the mood of the conversation or situation.

    For the duration of my stay I was given a temple uniform to wear and I slept on a thin mattress on the floor, in accordance with the eight precepts that Templestay participants have during their stay, one of which is not to sleep on luxury high beds. An effect that I noticed when sleeping on the floor was, and something that the thinness of the mattress contributed to was in being able to notice the sensation of contact of my back against the floor, thus opening me up to being able to notice the effects of my breathing on the body. This was very conducive to me being able to sleep soundly. Quite often, distracting thoughts can keep me awake. But, as I was to find when waking up at 4.00am in the morning going to the Zendo (the main hall for practice) for the first meditation and chanting session, a sound night’s sleep helps to ‘still’ the mind. Whereas a mind distracted by excess thoughts, many of which arise from outside influences, can feel full of waves, a mind that has been stilled through being able to ‘switch off’ in such a way can feel very calm, thus enabling openness. The mind stillness I felt was enhanced during my first sitting meditation practice.  
    In my temple uniform

    As well as morning and evening chanting and sitting meditation sessions, another activity I took part in during my stay included making the 108 prostrations practiced in Zen Buddhism alongside making a chain of wooden beads, adding a bead for each prostration. A prostration is a triple bow made for each 108 actions to help purify 108 defilements (unwholesome states), with the bow and adding of the bead to the chain representing the action. Though such practice may appear to some as just ritual, from a mindfulness perspective, I found it helpful not only in noticing sensations with the body in what was an unusual position and performing an unusual action for me, listening to the English translation of each prostration, it also helped me notice and get in touch with my consciousness. When performing rituals or stretching exercises including yoga stretches, it can be easy for one to be caught on autopilot, possibly also engaging in repetitive movements. Getting in touch though with my consciousness with each prostration though while focusing on the sensations of my physical movement and in putting each bead on the chain, enabled me to be aware of each action. I also felt I was able to concentrate effectively while being mindful of physical movement involved in each prostration.

    Through being able to get in touch with my consciousness in this way, I felt that I was able to look deeper inside myself, and how I can be so oblivious to my consciousness, including emotional feelings. The Vipassana retreat I participated in last summer enabled me to look within myself to an extent that I was able to notice myself more clearly in a sensory context, including how physical sensations to which I am mostly oblivious to directly and indirectly contribute to shaping my thought patterns, which in turn determine my moods and actions. During my experience at Woljeongsa, I felt my awareness went deeper, opening me up to being able to change the way I respond my thought patterns, including noticing the restrictions they can sometimes bring. The openness a calm mind contributed to I felt enabled me to go deeper in this sense, enabling me to notice aspects of my consciousness that normally I am oblivious to.
    Going deeper into the forest, Odaesan National Park


    My visit to Woljeongsa was, physically, a retreat into an expansive fir tree forest, in which the trees depending on each other for their existence together with the fertile land which allows them to grow, yet each also exists independently. Mentally, within I also felt there was a journey into the forest, into which going deeper enabled me to notice the inter-dependent existence of body and mind with much more clarity. 
  12. Being Alive to Each Moment - Sunrise over Mount Fuji and the Zen Way of Life

    In many cultures and beliefs, mountains are considered sacred, including as places where gods and deities reside, where pilgrims and spiritual leaders seek refuge or as heavenly abodes to where the deceased retreat. Mount Fuji, at 3776m Japan’s highest mountain, a subject of many great works of art with its almost symmetrical shape, is considered divine in Japan’s two major faiths, Shintoism and Buddhism, with pilgrims visiting to make mini-shrines to their ancestors to keep them out of reach of evil spirits.

    Mount Fuji peers above the clouds over Lake Ashi, Hakone, Japan
    But mountains also have much in common with humans, not least in that they are ever changing and renewing through the weather and micro-climates that their altitude contributes to. In this way, mountains are almost expressing their emotions as to how they ‘feel’ in accordance with their ever-renewing existence in accordance with changing seasons, rather like how humans may express their emotions through non-verbal communication and facial expressions. Often shrouded in mist, the summit of Fuji can often be obscure to tourists hoping to view it from Lake Ashi, Hakone. In this way, Fujiis a ‘shy’ mountain, rather like how some people with Asperger’s Syndrome can feel.

    As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I find that it helps for me to go deeper into myself to understand my own emotional thought processes including their sources through stepping back from the flow away from distractions, enabling me to look inwards more, thus enabling more control and awareness. Similarly, to experience the features and qualities of Mount Fuji, I felt it helped to go deeper within the surrounding forestry and mists before making the ascent towards the summit. The trek towards the summit opens one up to a highly varied multi-sensory experience, including huge differences in temperatures and different physical sensations from walking on different surfaces and through different levels of sunlight, air pressure and temperature, including noticing cooler temperatures once I had got above the tree line.

    The Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
    Prior to climbing Fuji, during my visit to Japan I had visited the Daisen-In Temple in Kyoto, which features a Zen landscape garden. Made up of white sand and rocks, the Daisen-In garden represents one’s lifecourse as a river flowing into the Great Sea, represented by an expansive spread of white sand, where one is of free of the trappings of greed and avarice. To reach the Great Sea though one must overcome the great wall of doubt, represented by a corridor over the garden. The journey along the stream shows highs and lows of different lifecourses on their way into the Great Sea.  The different rock shapes of subjects flowing down the stream that eventually leads into the Great Sea, including that of a turtle trying to swim against the flow of the river, show that you can’t go against the flow or back into the past. From this, much frustration and suffering can result, but each subject can eventually find a way to reach the Great Sea that they can manage at their own level.

    The Wall of Doubt on route to the Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
    In the Daisen-In garden, I felt I could almost ‘see’ aspects my life before me, at the point of and after my Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, including the regret I remember feeling at what I had missed out on in relation to the turtle swimming against the flow in not receiving my diagnosis earlier in life as well as the uncertainty of how the next part of my life was going to be once diagnosed represented by the wall of doubt. Similarly, when ascending Fuji, such ‘walls of doubt’ appear before trekkers in the form of steep ascents walking over volcano ash and as it was the first Fuji climb of the season, there was still some ice and snow. When walking across slippery surfaces, one becomes much more conscious of the sensations experience with each step, to be able to adapt to different conditions.

    Sometimes, certain physical sensations experienced on a mountain trek can be uncomfortable, including sensations that certain items of outdoor clothing can bring, much different to clothing materials that one may normally wear, including cotton and denim. But rather than resisting them, it helps to open up to them where we can by being with them. When opening to them, we find that we may have a lot in common with the mountain itself, starting with the elements they is formed of, some which are present within our physical body. The different physical experiences I felt when climbing Fuji, which was formed by three volcanoes, also reminded me that the planet itself experiences physical sensations as a result of activity at its molten core, similar as to how we experience sensations at the physical level that arise out of bodily feeling, including tension.

    At Fuji's 7th Station on the Yoshida route
    As with Kilimanjaro, the trek to the summit began through the night, with the intention to reach the summit in time to see the sunrise. With only a head torch to light the first few yards of steep gradient in front of me, I found that my attention became more diverted to how I felt within both mentally and physically, including noticing the drop in temperature and that keeping on walking helped me to stay warm. Though Fujiisn’t as high as Kilimanjaro, what I felt made it as demanding a challenge in its own right was that the route towards the summit, the Yoshida route, was uphill all the way, whereas the Lemosho Glades route I took to Kilimanjaro was up and down, and also had acclimatisation periods. Each mountain though is a challenge in its own right with the different weather and micro-climates it creates, which is why it helps to approach a challenge using beginners mind, including seeing each moment as training, and being alive to it. 


    Magic Moment - Sunrise from the summit of Fuji
    Eventually arriving at the summit, watching the sun rise over Fuji and its neighbouring peaks, lakes and forests was a truly memorable experience. As well as a visual spectacular, it was also a way to see the Zen concept of inter-dependence in action, with Mount Fuji and its formation being dependent on the Sun and it being at the right distance from Earth for Earth to receive enough of its heat to have an active molten core and plate tectonics that enable mountains to be formed through volcanoes. Fuji’s near symmetrical shape which contributes to its visual beauty and thus its place in Japanese mythology, is enabled by it having formed at a junction between three tectonic plates. Meanwhile, the mists, forests and lakes that surround Fuji are dependent on Fuji for their existence, existing independently, but not in isolation from one another.  

    Ash slides on the route down
    Where I felt that more physical sensations though and where I felt I had to come out of my comfort zone more was on the way down. A sizeable portion of the way down involved descending steep paths of volcano ash and sand. More strain can felt on the joints when descending after a climb, especially since keep balance can be hard on a steep path and it can be easier to slip when walking on ash. Motor coordination has often been a challenge for me in relation to my Asperger’s Syndrome, but what I found helpful during my descent down ash slopes was to make use of the surface by leaning back slightly allowing myself to ‘slide’ down the slope, almost like skiing! Through this technique, I felt I was able to get in touch with and find my centre of gravity.

    As well as a physical challenge, the journey to and from the summit of Fuji was also a journey within with regards to the journey through different physical sensations experienced throughout the trek. In this way, mountain treks are analogous to the ups and down experienced in my own life regarding as to how I am affected by Asperger’s Syndrome, similar to the lifecourse expressed in the Daisen-In garden. Coping with different challenges within a challenge, as well as making life interesting, also helps one deepen their understanding and appreciation of their abilities when opening up to them rather than shying away from them. Having said that though, I still feel I have some way to reach a personal state of a Great Sea!

    At the summit
    Special thanks once again to G Adventures and to Fuji Mountain Guides, for their guidance in reaching the summit of Fuji.

  13. Brave Acts of Donkey Work

    Of previous jobs I had prior to Autism Works, one of the most enjoyable and fascinating was working on Durham County Record Office's Image of the Soldierproject. Recently, I took the opportunity to revisit this in seeing the play Man and the Donkeyat South Shields Customs House Theatre. Based around the life of John Simpson Patrick, a stretcher-bearer with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) during the Gallipoli campaigns of the First World War, Man and the Donkeycommemorated a lesser-known yet highly commendable act of bravery a hundred years later with a very passionate and moving performance from the cast.

    Working on the Image of the Soldier Project involved scanning, cataloguing and classifying images and records of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) before linking them to an online database enabling the public to access them, including being able to research ancestors involved with the DLI. What especially fascinated me was finding out more about often forgotten roles of those involved in supporting and supplying soldiers in the front line with food and medical needs, who often had to take huge risks under fire with little or no protection in making sure soldiers fighting in the front line had enough to eat and the wounded were attended to.



    John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey, South Shields
    John Simpson Kirkpatrick (1892-1915), also known as 'Jack', was one such man. Born in South Shields, Jack worked with donkeys giving rides along the beach at South Shields during his youth before joining up with the Territorial Force before joining the Merchant Navy in 1909. In 1910, Jack deserted the Merchant Navy while in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. After working in various jobs as a steward and stoker on Australian coastal ships, Jack enlisted in the Australian Army as a stretcher bearer under the surname Simpson (his mother's maiden name) to avoid being identified as a deserter, possibly in the hope that it would eventually bring him back to South Shields to see his family again.  
    Duffy, a handmade souvenir, made by cast member Viktoria Kay

    At Gallipoli, Private Simpson would put his experience of working with donkeys back in South Shields to good use. In the early hours of following day after landing at Gallipoli, 26th April 1915, while bearing a wounded soldier, Private Simpson saw a donkey and made use of it to carry fellow soldiers. Fearless of going back and forth within the line of fire, Simpson and his donkey helped to rescue more than 300 soldiers, carrying them from the frontline to the shore where they could receive treatment. Private Simpson used at least four donkeys to help carry the wounded, after the donkeys themselves had been killed or wounded in action. On May 19th, after 24 days of negotiating 'snipers alley', Private Simpson himself was killed in action by machine gun fire, aged just 22.

    John Simpson Kirkptarick, a man who gave his life so that others could live, has since been the subject of many petitions to be awarded a Victoria Cross or Victoria Cross of Australia. A hundred years after his death, the cast of Man and the Donkey Jamie Brown, James Hedley, Viktoria Kay, Gary Kitching, Dean Logan and Jacqueline Phillips made a very passionate and compelling case for John Simpson Kirkpatrick to be given the recognition his very brave actions were worthy of. Despite being reviewed in an inquiry, Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour, the tribunal for this committee decided in 2013 that no further awards were necessary as Simpson's bravery was representative of all other stretcher-bearers of the 3rd Field Ambulance.
    'Lest We Forget', an ANZAC wreath in Brisbane, Australia

    Though Simpson's story is well-known in Australia, back in Britain, including in South Shields, until recently Simpson's heroic deeds at Gallipoli have been nothing more than a historical footnote. Sometimes, history can have a short memory when commemorating those who gave their lives so others may do their duty and survive during conflict. Attention to detail, a quality expressed by some people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, shows us that historically, much less honours have been given for exceptional bravery by those from non-fighting personnel involved in conflict. What I remember feeling so pleased with after the completion of the Image of the Soldier project was that it gave aspect of war was given the recognition that it deserved. As respected military historian Andy Robertshaw said at the launch of the project, military history isn't just about soldiers and guns, but also the personnel supporting them, including engineers, signallers and those supplying food and medicine to the front line, who often have to be just as brave.

    Over 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, now is as good a time as any to recognise and commemorate this often forgotten aspect of military history, looking at those who both risked and /or gave their lives, so that not only others could be saved, but also enable peace for future generations.  The Image of the Soldier project still provides a very invaluable resource to show us what our ancestors both fought and served for. Meanwhile, after the impact of Man and the Donkey residents of and visitors to South Shields, will likely take a moment to notice Simpson's statue with a strong sense of commemoration and pride for a forgotten local hero.

    In memory of those who lost their lives during the First World War 1914-1918


    RIP Jackie Fielding, director of Man and the Donkey, who tragically died just as the show finished its run following a brain aneurysm. No doubt she will have been delighted with the reception the show has had and the performances of the cast.     








  14. Eclipses and Expresses - from spotters guides and planispheres to mobiles and app technology

    I will likely remember the dates of March 20th and March 21st 2015 for many years to come! Two exciting events happened in the space of two days relating to two of my favourite interests, starting with the Partial Solar Eclipse and then watching the steam-hauled Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express in action along the Durham Coast Line. To see and enjoy both events, I didn't have to go very far from home!

    Both astronomy and railways are often described, and even now still sometimes stereotyped, as 'Aspergic' pursuits. For me as a person with Asperger's Syndrome who enjoys these pursuits, albeit in not as obsessive a way as I did when younger, they go much further than their ability to be the 'special interest' of just a few people. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I do still find it easy to become immersed in their depth and detail. But they both also have visual appeals that conjure up different feelings and even emotions. Astronomy has its mystique with the appeal of venturing into the unknown while railways, especially steam, has a nostalgic and romantic appeal. What they both share though is a sense of wonder we can get like a child seeing something as if for the first time, inducing feelings of childhood innocence, enabling them to capture the imagination of the public.

    The Sun 'smiles' through the clouds 
    Despite cloudy conditions in much of the UK, millions took time out to experience a partial eclipse of the Sun, where in the northernmost parts of Scotland the Moon covered up to 97 per cent of the Sun. I was fortunate enough to get a good view of it from Roker Beach in Sunderland. As had been forecast, the sky over Sunderland was cloudy to start off with but gradually began to thin just enough for the Sun to shine through as the Moon began to move across. As well as with my interest in Astronomy, watching the eclipse also turned out to be a fascinating way to practice mindfulness. While concentrating on the interaction of the Sun and Moon, when holding this in awareness, I also felt that I was able to notice it's effect on the sky, down to where I was standing. The surrounding clouds darkened very slightly. Though it was as obvious a 'blackout' as those in the line of totality which passed through the Faroe Islands and Svalbard high up in the Arctic Circle would have experienced, I still felt that I could notice degrees of initial darkening and later brightening effects as the Moon eventually completed its passage across the Sun.

    Like many thousands, I had made the journey to Cornwall in August of 1999 to experience the last time a total Solar Eclipse would be visible in the UK until the year 2090. As many of those who went to Cornwall to see the event may likely remember, after three days of clear skies, it clouded over during the moment of totality, but experiencing a minute-and-a-half of natural blackout was quite an experience. Obviously, with technology available we are able to forecast when future eclipses will take place, but in ancient times, as such a natural blackout could happen suddenly, it must have been a huge shock for it to go dark for up to two minutes, as well as a big step outside one's comfort zone. that would likely have been based on the day starting with the sun rising and finishing with its setting. Some historical events have shown that such steps outside of its comfort zone can have interesting effects on humanity, including bringing peace! This famously occurred way back in 585 BC during a battle between the Medes and Lydians in present-day Turkey, when the two armies stopped fighting and agreed a truce. For animals, it is a big step outside their comfort zones as when it turns dark during an eclipse. While many farm animals start looking for a sheltered place to sleep thinking it is night time and birds stop singing and look for higher perches, nocturnal wildlife, including owls and bats, may suddenly become alert!

    As advised, I viewed the eclipse using solar filters, which I had kept from the 1999 Total Eclipse. The filters sharpened up the image of the crescent sun very effectively. During an eclipse, it really comes 'home' to you as to where you are in the Solar System, as, with clear skies, you can visually see the planetary system of Earth and Moon in motion, including how fast orbital speeds are when seeing the Moon move across the Sun. In the Solar System, only on Earth can such a phenomenon occur as the celestial bodies involved are of the right size and orbit at the right distances to create the optical illusion where the Sun and Moon look like they are almost the same size in the sky, despite in real terms one being thousands of times bigger than the other! Though we can calculate when and where such phenomena will occur, what we can't be quite sure of are weather conditions on Earth during the time and place of an eclipse. Fortunately, on this occasion I got to see the Sun smile on what was also International Day of Happiness, which made me very happy!

    No. 62005 heads the Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express
    The second experience over this period of two days that also made me very happy was the steam-hauled Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express in action passing Easington Colliery in County Durham. Readers of this blog will be familiar with how much I enjoy actually being on a mainline steam-hauled train journey, but really other then when the train is going around a long curve, though you hear it, you don't see the steam locomotive in action when on the train. Featuring former London and North Eastern Railway engines Class K4 2-6-0 No.61994 The Great Marquess and Class B1 4-6-0 No.62005 in a push-pull arrangement, one pulling from the front and one pushing at the back, the Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express provided a fantastic site for onlookers who had gathered to see it in action.

    Unlike with modern rail traction, where the motors are inside or underneath the locomotive or unit as they are in the sprinter units and diesel-electric freight locomotives that passed by as I waited for the steam to arrive, when seeing a steam locomotive in action, especially if its cylinders are on the outside, you can see its workings in action, seeing the steam exhaust as it pushes the pistons around. Not to mention, if you have a good view of the stretch of track on which a steam-hauled train is running, you can see it coming from afar with its 'head' of smoke! While the popular postcard image of a steam train passing through a scenic setting pleases many an eye, from observation of the head of steam and smoke and hearing the sound, the more experienced watching eyes and ears can tell how hard the locomotive is working from the more smoke and noise it is making, and may almost 'feel' the gradient profile of the line.

    What was especially great about seeing both an astronomical and railway-related event in the space of two days was that I didn't have to go very far from home at all to see them. Quite often, when we think about what we would like to see and do, our attention tends to focus on places and events far away that we overlook what is closer to home. Ironically, subjects that involve far away worlds and long distance journeys brought me closer to home. As well as seeing Roker beach in a different light, I also saw some of the Durham Coast Heritage Trail in Easington. Being able to enjoy such pastimes close to home adds to its accessibility, while their simplicity allows them to be enjoyed by many, rather than them being confined to any stereotypes commonly applied to those that do enjoy them, including people with Asperger's Syndrome like myself.

    George Philip planishpere and night sky guide
    Though in reality human fascination with astronomy goes back almost to the dawn of humanity itself while railway enthusiasm is almost as old as railways themselves, where growth in participation in Astronomy and Railway Enthusiasm is often attributed to is in their post war 'booms'. Largely perceived as a 'hobby for the rich' before the Second World War, with the availability of mass-produced and affordable telescopes together with the dawn of the space age with the launch of Sputnik (1957) and Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space (1961), public participation in astronomy grew. This led to the availability of publications for beginners, including George Philip's Signpost to the Stars and starter packs including star maps and planispheres, adjustable start charting instruments that display the stars and constellations visible in the night sky at a given time and date.

    Publications from the Ian Allan ABC series
    Meanwhile, the postwar era also saw the nationalisation of Britain's railways (1948). With this came the introduction of a national numbering system for Britain's locomotives which in turn, saw the publication of spotters handbooks, including the Ian Allan ABC series. The popularity of this series saw a whole generation of enthusiasts get to know the major railway junctions and centres throughout Britain. At the same time, Britain's railways were going through major changes with the phasing out of steam and the Beeching cuts. Not wanting to see their favourite steam locomotives being broken up, the spirit of rail enthusiasm contributed to the preservation movement and the development of steam heritage railways, enjoyed by many today.

    So many night sky and railway related past times most likely started out with the 'apprenticeships' of finding appropriate spots to view the stars or watch trains in action. With today's technology, stargazers are able to find out what is visible in the night sky with mobile apps such as Google Sky Map and Star Walk and railway enthusiasts are able to find out when and where steam-hauled charter trains are running through websites such as www.uksteam.info, while Satnav technology enables one to find and plan a journey to a good vantage point.

    For me though, the most enjoyable part of these two subjects has been the correspondence with others who share enjoyment of them with me, which has largely been enabled by interaction via social media. The power and popularity of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, enables those who enjoy these pursuits to be constantly updated as to events and also to connect with others who seek similar enjoyment from them, and may very well see future generations obtain similar enjoyment from them.      



        
      

            



  15. Decoding Human Convention, Emotions and Out-of-Synch Development

    As you will have likely seen, last month saw the passing of Leonard Nimoy, who will likely be familiar to many readers of this blog as he was to millions worldwide as the original Star Trek crew's Mr Spock. a character popular with many adults with Asperger's Syndrome. Coincidentally, the evening before Nimoy's death was announced, I was talking about the character he famously played in a lecture to the MA (Hons) Autism students at Northumbria University, looking at how Spock often appears to have similar confusions in understanding human courtship that many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, feel they have and can relate to.

    Those who have attended one of my Asperger's Syndrome workshops may well remember the 'boomerang exercise', where I ask two audience participants to describe to one another what the item is and what it is used for. Normally, if two participants speak and understand the same language, such a task should be easy, but one is taken out of their comfort zone when I say that one of the participants has to imagine that they are an extra-terrestrial visitor to Earth, and don't know any human languages or social gestures. The task is then made substantially harder when one can't use language, but the other can. Participants often describe how they find the experience both confusing and frustrating. but this is how it can sometimes feel like to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome.

    Similarly, as a Vulcan working within a human crew, Mr Spock experiences similar confusion in recognising and interpreting the many shapes and forms of communication in non-verbal form which are often also just as invisible to many people with Asperger's Syndrome, including eye-contact and facial expressions. Like people with Asperger's Syndrome, to be able to function socially among Earth people, Spock finds he has to learn their non-verbal social cues by observation as they aren't natural or habitual as they are to the Earth people with whom he shares a starship. In this way, people with Asperger's Syndrome are almost like 'actors', learning non-verbal social cues from practice.

    Spock with his human mother, Amanda
    The 'social blindness' Spock often experienced working within a human crew also puts in in a position where he is able to observe human behaviour from an outside perspective. For Nimoy to play Spock, it would almost have been like an 'actor playing an actor', which would have enabled both himself and the character he played to provide an examination of humanity, including what it means human. Often forgotten though is that Spock's mother was human, so Spock had some human characteristics, which were often hidden by his Vulcan social presentation, one of which was empathy, something which again people with Asperger's Syndrome are often described as lacking. In reality though, many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, feel as though they have a lot of empathy, often more so for others than themselves. Some are also known to become over-emphatic to the extent that someone else's problems or issues almost become theirs. Often though, it tends not to come across to others as feels of empathy and understanding are often hidden by absence of facial expression, which sees people with Asperger's Syndrome come across as unintentionally 'cold'. Balancing and recognising external expression with internal feeling is a difficult art for many people with Asperger's Syndrome to master.        

    When we think about it, that we have ways of addressing and recognising each other, names, and in some cases titled hierarchy, is simply only human convention. Equally confusing in making sense of non-verbal communication for people with Asperger's Syndrome can be unawareness of what their own non-verbal presentation, which could possibly result from any sensory issues they may face in a social situation or anxiety triggers. Anxiety triggers that a person with Asperger's Syndrome may experience in a social situation could involve being worried about how they are being perceived by others around them, or perhaps from frustration of not being able to understand or relate to certain topics of conversation.

    The original Star Trek crew meet Sargon
    From anxiety, bodily tension often arises, making one feel uncomfortable in their physical body. Such bodily discomfort often reminds me of a particular episode of the original Star Trek's season two, Return to Tomorrow, in which the crew encounter a telepathic being, Sargon, who comes from a lifeless planet. or at least the planet is devoid of life in forms that the crew of SS Enterprise know it to exist. Existing in the form of energy contained in a sphere without substance, Sargon, his wife Thalassa and his former enemy Henoch are oblivious to physical sensations that are familiar to life forms that inhabit physical bodies, where they arise and pass frequently, some of which are more or less noticeable than others. However, when Sargon, Thalassa and Henoch inhabit the bodies of Captain Kirk, Dr Mulhall and Spock respectively, after initially experiencing the joy of what it is like to feel sensations again after so many thousands of years, they then start to feel rather uncomfortable.

    Looking at the energy without substance form in which Sargon exists, one can't help wonder what shapes and forms in which extra-terrestrial life may exist. Could it be possible that there is intelligent extra-terrestrial life that doesn't have a 'face' as humans would recognise, but has cognitive ability and/or syntax? Unfortunately, distances across space, and more crucially time, means that there is only a very remote chance that projects such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) could succeed within a human or extra-terrestrial time frame. For instance, an extra-terrestrial civilisation may have died out by the time radio messages beamed from Earth reach the planet it inhabited. Similarly, humankind may well have died out long before any radio messages sent by an extra terrestrial civilisation reach Earth.

    Pattern of message beamed towards star cluster M13 from the Arecibo Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico, 1974 
    Back on Earth, within human time, as an adult with Asperger's Syndrome, I feel that I experience it much where physical age and socio-emotional development seem to by 'out of synch'. Spending much time learning how to interact in the social world, often leaves little scope for learning about emotions and the heart, as well as understanding those of others around us. Understandably, many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, may feel that, contrary to what their chronological age suggests, at the same time they may feel they are not socially or emotionally mature enough to make certain decisions about their life, that others of a similar chronological age might have already have experienced.

    Such out-of-synch development also raises some interesting questions about autism and Asperger's Syndrome in later life, for both people on the autistic spectrum and others around them, including their families or next-of-kin. To help service providers prepare to meet the needs of chronologically older adults on the autistic spectrum, with funding from Autistica, Newcastle University, is inviting potential participants, including people on the spectrum themselves as well parents, relatives, carers etc. to be part of its Adult Autism Spectrum Cohort. More information on this much-needed project can be found at http://research.ncl.ac.uk/adultautismspectrum/


  16. Condensing Eight and Two Centuries of History - Magna Carta and Waterloo

    Following my last blog entry about astronomy, a subject in which hundreds of years as they are measured on Earth are merely microcosmic, realising that 2015 sees the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in feel it is appropriate for this to look at hundreds of years in the context of human history. Not only are hundreds of years a long time in human terms, but the hundreds of years that have followed these events show us how interlinked a process history is, as a opposed to a series of isolated events.

    A tendency that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, can often have is in being able to see detail, however minute, not initially seeing the bigger picture or chain of events. In clinical speak and as described by Professor Uta Frith in her public lecture at Newcastle University last December, this form of perception is often referred to as Weak Central Coherence. Frith also did say though that despite the use of the word weak, Weak Central Coherence is also a strength in being able to see detail. Rather than Weak Central Coherence, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I like to describe it as 'eye for detail'. Eye for detail combined with cultivated awareness helps to see the wider context as to where the detail fits.

    The tendency of going off on a tangent presents a bit of challenge to me in writing this entry. The two anniversary subjects that it is about are indirectly made possible by one another and their relevance to the present day are separated not only by hundreds of years but by many details into which it is easy to become sidetracked into, which my old school reports suggested that I had a tendency to do, including into those irrelevant. So to condense it down, in some instances, I may skip across hundreds of years in a single paragraph or sentence, which Shakespeare described as 'compressing years into an hourglass'.

    Magna Carta Moument, Runnymede, Surrey
    When going into the details of historical events, one may eventually read into their origins, and it is surprising how many such significant historical events together with many present-day rights and civil liberties have their roots in a document handwritten on sheets of sheep skin (vellum). Signed by King John at Runnymede following a dispute with a group of rebel barons in 1215, the Magna Carta, or 'Great Charter', itself originated from a sequence of events with King John's unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his ancestral lands in France culminating in a disastrous and costly military expedition in 1214, escalating his barons distrust of him. The singing of the charter that followed saw that the king would be under law and lay the foundations for modern democracy not just in present-day Britain, but throughout the world.

    Though in the broader spectrum of human history, going back thousands of years, many of the earliest known ideas of democracy and representative government originated in ancient Greece, many democratic principles and civil liberties familiar in our lives today can be traced to Magna Carta's detailed clauses, including Clauses 39-40 that focus on liberties and properties, permitting no free man to be seized except by law and the state not to help itself to private land. As described by the respected historian David Starkey, though the document contains extensive detailed clauses, it lacks any great statement of principle, leaving its principles hidden within its finer details.

    The format of Magna Carta, being full of fine detail but lacking in weight-carrying statements has left it open to different interpretations, resulting in it being a subject of dispute among ruling elites and its importance as a mandate resurface in both times of peace and war. All of which has led to a course of history that has seen two invasions by invitation, a civil war and further afield, a war of independence and a revolution. After signing Magna Carta, King John's appeal to the Pope to have the charter annulled led to the First Barons War, which saw England's lesser-know 'invitation to invade' when rebel barons attempted to install Prince Louis, son of Philip II of France, to the throne as their 'anyone but John' candidate. The lack of a rival claimant to the throne had only strengthened King John's power.

    Magna Carta's purpose of keeping the King under law wasn't truly to awaken until over 400 years later when Charles I, whose belief in the divine right of kings, saw him ignore both the Magna Carta and parliament trying to rule like an absolute monarch. To enforce Magna Carta, a civil war lasting seven years was needed, followed by the king's trial and execution. The freedoms that Magna Carta sought to protect were then denounced by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's unpopular puritanical regime, resulting in the Restoration of the Monarchy after Charles II returned from exile. Magna Carta would resurface once again towards the end of the 16th century when religious tensions mounted with James II secret conversion to Catholicism opened the way for the better known invitation to invade in 1688, which history would call the 'Glorious Revolution', when William of Orange and James II's daughter Mary were offered the crown providing they accepted both Magna Carta's terms and the sovereignty of parliament.

    While royalty gradually conceded power in Britain, on the other side of the channel, royal absolutism held firm in France. Meanwhile, Magna Carta's principles were taking root across the Atlantic in Britain's American colonies, with the charter forming the basis of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, won in 1783. While the American Declaration of Independence can be seen as a 'descendant' of Magna Carta, the French Revolution that took place a few years later (1789), can be seen as a 'child' of the American Wars of Independence. French involvement in the wars of independence together with the loss of its North American colonies following the Seven Years War (1756-1763) had contributed to huge debts, placing a heavy burden on the French peasantry, which the Court of Versailles appeared oblivious to. With no Magna Carta or equivalent, violent revolution was needed to overthrow royal absolutism.

    Lion Mound overlooks the Waterloo Battlefield, Belgium
    The collapse of the Ancien Regimein France would later see the rise to power of Napoleon and his ambitions bringing the whole of Europe, including Britain which he famously described as a 'nation of shopkeepers' under his rule. The Napoleonic Wars that followed lasted over 12 years resulting in over six million casualties,saw Napoleon gain and regain domination of Europe until his eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) in present day Belgium by the Allied Forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshall Gebhard Lebrecht von Blucher. Wellington wanted everyone involved in the battle to have a medal to be designed by master engraver Benedetto Pristrucci. Due to its size and weight, the medal was never completed. But 200 years later, the London Mint Office has issued 500,000 free medals to mark the battle's bicentenary.

    One of 500,000 free medals issued to mark the Bicentenary of Waterloo
    As well as peace in Europe for much of the next 50 years after Waterloo, a legacy that emerged from the Napoleonic wars, currently a topical and divisive issue in British politics, was the concept of a unified Europe, sharing the same principles of government, units of measurements, a single currency and civil code. I rarely cover politics in my blog entries due to its divisive nature which sometimes 'overheats', but something I will say is that while the present day system of European unity, the European Union, isn't without its controversies, I am grateful that it has contributed to preventing full scale war in Europe on the level of the Napoleonic Wars or the two world wars. That said, the current situation in eastern Ukraine will be a test of its ability to uphold peace and security. Recent times have also seen rights and freedoms, many of which have their roots in Magna Carta, come under threat with the war on terror, in which tensions have been heightened by recent events including the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France and cafe shootings in Denmark and Australia. Such rights are often overlooked during times of insecurity, making Magna Carta as relevant in many ways now as it ever has been.

    Interlinking historical events often ends up with one's walls being covered in flow diagrams, as the walls of Clare Sainsbury's (author of Martian in the Playground) hall of residence room at the University of Oxford was! Being a visual thinker, flow charts often help. What this particular writing exercise has shown me is that, as well as interlinked, as Leo Tolstoy described, history is an inexorable process, a continuum, which one man alone cannot influence. There are theories and principles from the past that have relevance to the present day, as well as mistakes from which to learn for the benefit of humanity.
  17. From your own backyard to the edge of the Solar System and Beyond

    When we think of the terms space and astronomy, some of the first visual images that tend to come to mind are of worlds far away. In many ways, astronomy starts much closer to home, not just with what one can see in the night sky on a clear night from their back garden, but also from natural features common in everyday life, including pebbled rocks and ripples in sand. Such features are usually considered unremarkable because they are a common feature of our natural surroundings, especially for those of us who live near the coast, but when we see similar features on other worlds in the Solar System, we get excited!

    Pebbled rocks on Titan photographed by Huygens
    Note their similarity to pebbled rocks on Seaburn Beach, Sunderland



    Images from the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, taken by the Huygens probe in 2005 showed pebbled rocks on the surface generated excitement as they confirmed the existence of surface liquid, the only place in the Solar System apart from Earth where surface liquid has been found. Though rather than water, Titan's lakes are made up largely of methane, ethane and propane. More recently, the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/C-G showed rippled landscapes similar to sand ripples commonly found on beaches on Earth being constantly shaped and reshaped by the tide. Such findings arouse excitement in the world of astronomy as they provide insight into what an early planet Earth may have been like when it was forming, long before it could support life, but while conditions that would later enable the planet to support life were developing, including the presence of water in solid, liquid and gas form together with a climate and atmosphere conducive for life to evolve into its many forms present today, including us.

    Ripples on Comet 67P/C-G photographed by Rosetta
    Again note their similarity to ripples on Seaburn Beach

    Like railways, a subject that has featured much on this blog, astronomy is also considered and sometimes stereotyped as an Aspergic subject, perhaps for the level of detail and data it involves and the different colours and features visible on different planets and the shapes of the constellations. For some, including for myself when younger, may be an escape from coping with the ever-confusing social world on Earth looking out to where there may be worlds far away across space and time where they feel they would be more accepted, especially if they feel that aren't accepted in the society they live in or feel frustrated at not being able to make sense of the social world. This may also explain inspirations for science fiction, another past-time enjoyed by many people on the autistic spectrum.

    As well as people with Asperger's Syndrome, it is a subject that has in recent times opened up to wider audience with the effect of Professor Brian Cox's documentary series and Stargazing Live. Locally in the North East, general interest and participation in astronomy also appears to have increased through Northumberland National Park together with Kielder Water and Forest Park being awarded 'Dark Sky' status and Look North weather forecaster and reporter Hannah Bayman's enthusiasm for the subject, including its effects on the weather, and in turn, how it affects our daily lives, often when we are least aware of it. Public participation in astronomy locally in Sunderland was evident during Sunderland Astronomical Society's 'Jupiter Night' last month held at their Cygnus Observatory located at Washington Wetlands Centre where a sizeable crowd turned out to get a look at Jupiter and the night sky's other sights through the several telescopes available.

    Sunderland Astronomical Society's Cygnus Observatory
    At first the sky was cloudy but it cleared up later and visitors were able to get some good views of Jupiter and its moons through the Cygnus Observatory's 14-inch reflector telescope and also of Comet Lovejoy before it disappears from sight, after which it won't appear again for over another 8,000 years. As well as the sights of the night sky, something that the event showed was both how great a social and family activity astronomy can be, including families affected by autism, especially if the skies are cloudy. Many people on the autistic spectrum can experience meltdowns or panic attacks in crowded places. Though avoidance of such situations is understandable, the lack of a viable alternative to being around others can also lead to social isolation and anxiety. Sometimes a way of learning to cope with such situations is to experience them at first in such an environment where they are with someone who understands their difficulties and where they are around like-minded people perhaps at an event related to an interest, and can provide a release from stresses and anxieties. With patience, social skills that develop over time through experience of such events can help one cope with and become more confident and assertive in social situations.
       
    Readers of this blog may well remember me talking about how one of my favourite aspects of astronomy is how the stars in the night sky being as they were so many years ago can in effect represent your past while you are tuning into the present in a mindfulness context. One of my other favourite aspects of astronomy from the perspective of curiosity is how astronomical discoveries alter humankind's perception of the universe, including human convention on naming, classifying and cataloguing new worlds when they are discovered, and how knowledge gained from space exploration can often radically alter previous theories and pre-conceptions we may have had about the Solar System, the universe and our place within it. On such theory that had been suggested in the 19th century was that water arrived on earth courtesy of comets. This theory had briefly resurfaced with the Rosetta Mission, but though Rosetta's observations showed there was water vapour present on Comet 67P/C-G, it contains a higher level of deuterium than hydrogen than water vapour on earth has, making the theory that water arrived on Earth via comets unlikely.

    Three such important discoveries that have radically changed human perception of the Solar System and the wider Universe include William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781, the first planet discovered with the aid of a telescope, Edwin Hubble's 1923 observation that showed Andromeda as a galaxy beyond the Milky Way and most recently, the confirmation of the existence of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, a region of many small, icy worlds orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. Though many other important astronomical discoveries have been made, these three particular discoveries opened human perception up to a much bigger Solar System, and in the case of Hubble's observation, a bigger Universe. Such discoveries have seen us alter previous theories and opening up further possibilities for us to approach using beginner's mind. This may involve building on present theories or taking apart old theories, altering them completely. As well as altering perception of the Solar System, the discovery of the Kuiper Belt, also altered human naming convention which saw the downgrading of Pluto from being the ninth planet from the Sun to being a 'dwarf planet' that orbits the Sun with many other companion worlds in the Kuiper Belt. Similarly, over 200 years earlier, Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered by Guiseppe Piazzi in 1801, had been considered a 'planet' until within two years, two more bodies with similar sizes and orbits were found and astronomers began classifying them separately as 'asteroids'.

    The 2006 Definition of a Planet published by the International Astronomical Union that 'downgraded' Pluto was merely an exercise in naming convention, with little to do with science. Though naming conventions are necessary to help us identify different worlds, sometimes just from such terminology it is easy to develop assumptions of what they may be like, and may turn out very different when observed up close. With the Dawn spacecraft due to visit Ceres (now 'upgraded' to dwarf planet status) next month and New Horizons due to visit Pluto, together with its largest moon Charon and the Kuiper Belt region in July, 2015 could be a fascinating year for astronomy with new knowledge to be gained from largely unexplored worlds and regions of the Solar System. Providing we learn from experience and mistakes, including the loss of the Beagle due to land on Mars in 2004 and the technical difficulties the Philae lander had when landing on Comet 67P/C-G, further space exploration this century could shed much new light on the Solar System building on knowledge already accumulated from previous missions.

    Such missions can play a part, not just in arousing further interest in astronomy, but further general public interest and participation/engagement in science, a mission of Professor Brian Cox in his recently appointed role as the Royal Society's Professor for Public Engagement, whose own astronomical inspirations came from the Apollo Moon Missions and probes to the planets when growing up in the 1970s. Public awareness of and participation in science involves more than just scientists themselves and those who come from scientific backgrounds, but also the enabling of those like myself who have little scientific education or experience beyond GCSE level, or who, like me, considered themselves to be 'hopeless' at science at school, to make invaluable contributions. Such a wide range of public participation in science is important as science affects us all in various ways, directly and indirectly.

    Kielder Observatory, Northumberland
    Starting from observation of your natural surroundings on Earth and what can be seen in the night sky from your backyard, curiosity may lead one to enquire deeper into astronomy and its related sciences. As well as at the top level through the Royal Society, at grass roots level developments like the Kielder Observatory (the vision Gary Fildes) and local astronomical organisations including Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and many others throughout the country also serve an important role in enabling access to those who wish to pursue it further.

    As access to the night sky is free, astronomy is well placed to enhance public engagement in science, as it is a science to which the amateur can not only make a significant contribution to but obtain much enjoyment from. Just to get simple enjoyment out of it, one doesn't necessarily have to spend a fortune on state-of-the art equipment, a notion that the late former Sky at Night presenter Sir Patrick Moore helped to dispel, as much can be seen with a small pair of binoculars or even the naked eye on a clear night from your backyard. Above all, as Jupiter Night showed, it is also highly enjoyable as a family and social activity.

    Special thanks to Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and all involved in organising Jupiter Night and their hospitality.



  18. Sunrise as a New Start, Applying Beginners Mind to a New Year

    Welcome to my first blog post of 2015! By tradition, at the turn of the calendar year, we like to make new years resolutions, which by now, being over a week into the new year, we may likely have already forgotten about! 

    While setting such resolutions to improve our lifestyle is by no means a bad thing, as it can give one goals to aim at, what one also has to be careful of is not to find themselves ‘lost’ within goals or resolutions to the extent that one becomes frustrated or even depressed if new year’s resolutions don’t turn out how one hoped. Alternatively, people with Asperger’s Syndrome may experience high-level anxiety with the uncertainty that a new year brings. From a mindfulness perspective, a more helpful approach to resolutions can be to focus on making resolutions or setting goals to do the work involved in enabling them, thus enabling us to be in the present as it unfolds.

    Sunrise seen from Seaburn, Sunderland
    When making our new year’s resolutions, we often see the start of a new calendar year as a new start or a new beginning. Personally though, something that I feel I have learned from 2014 is that a calendar year can be broken down to a whole set of new starts or new beginnings, down to each day being a new start, starting with sunrise, which can be pleasing to the eye. With careful observation, one may notice that each sunrise is unique. Watching sunrise over the course of a few days you will likely notice that position from which it arises over the horizon changes slightly. More visibly, the effects each sunrise has on the sky and landscape vary dramatically.

    Sunrise over the Ganges, Varanasi, India
    Watching the sun rise over the Ganges in Varanasi, India, one of Hinduism’s most sacred sites, the sky transforms with a distinctive orange hue, which in turn reflects off the water surface. Meanwhile the many thousands of pilgrims begin their meditation and yoga practices as the day gradually dawns. According to legend, Varanasi was founded by Shiva, who in Hinduism is seen as the ‘destroyer’ or ‘transformer’. Shiva takes the form an angry god who will eventually destroy the Earth, but can also be seen as a regenerative force. Similarly, in day-to-day life, when faced with ever-alternating circumstances, depending on how we confront them, they can either feel like a force of destruction or regeneration, an opportunity to make a fresh start. The latter approach can open up new possibilities which could see Asperger-related strengths flourish.


    Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, something that I find even now is that I do still have a tendency to find myself lost within obsessive thought or over-reliant on routine. Though mindfulness has helped me to notice when I feel I am lost within such thought patterns and when I am reliant on routine, I find that it is easy for expectations develop including when I set out to do various tasks that I do regularly, when doing a gym workout, when pursue I read about a particular interest/pastime or when I approach different mindfulness exercises that I practised over the last few years. With expectations, a comfort zone begins to develop, which can be hard to let go of.

    After questioning as to why such expectations develop as well as investigating their origins, an approach I have found helpful when starting afresh is to apply Beginners Mind (Shoshin). A concept in Zen, Shoshin, enables one to put aside knowledge and experience gained, however limited or extensive, and to be able to see ourselves in relation to our surroundings, almost with the imagination of a child of seeing something for the first time. It is not un-normal for people with Asperger’s Syndrome to have accumulated vast amounts of knowledge on a topic of interest or to have the ability to process excessive information. But sometimes though, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, one can find themselves ‘trapped’ within such knowledge and experience that it either creates expectations as to ‘how it should be’ or feeling that you already know something or know how something works, it can hamper your curiosity and you start to feel frustrated through boredom. Being ‘trapped’ within knowledge and experience can also see preconceptions develop when looking for new experiences.

    It isn’t to say though that to apply Shoshin involves completely forgetting knowledge and experience, but rather Shoshin involves being able to use knowledge and experience gained to face up to and cope with alternating circumstances as they unfold. This is why it helps, when making a new start, whatever your personal circumstances, to start with what you have regarding abilities, strengths and weaknesses including those related to Asperger’s Syndrome. Letting go of any preconceptions and expectations, allows us to open up to different experiences in both new and familiar situations, which could also lead to developing an ever deeper understanding of ourselves in relation to our surroundings, as well as well as any un-noticed strengths of personal qualities we may have and how we can apply them to good effect.

    New light on unsolved mysteries? Sunrise on Easter Island
    We tend to associate seeing something for the first or only time in our lives with a rare occurrence or phenomena e.g. a total eclipse of the Sun, but applying Shoshin to events in day-to-day life, such as sunrise and sunset, can enable us to see the uniqueness as if it were for the first time. Noticing the different position from which the sun rises and its effects on the sky and landscape, including different degrees of colouring and other optical effects. Watching a sunrise at over Easter Island’s mysterious Moai statues not only sees the sunlight transform the colour of the compressed volcanic ash from which they are carved, but the effects of the dawning of the day provides s reminder of a characteristic people with Asperger’s Syndrome may have that can be a regenerative force, curious mind regarding the many unsolved mysteries of the statues and the island itself, including when and where its first settlers came from.

    Soshin, enabled by curious mind, can help to open a whole new range of possibilities for a new calendar year by being with each experience as it unfolds, rather than being hampered by preconceptions that can lead to high-level anxiety.       

      
  19. Happiness and Well-being at Christmas

    As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who enjoys and appreciates the traditional message and values of Christmas, it saddens me to see how pressure and anxiety that has resulted from ever excessive commercialisation has contributed to making Christmas a difficult time for many people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Together with this, the traditional values of Christmas, including goodwill and happiness, have become ever more consumed by desire. Additionally, social isolation that many adults on the autistic experience, especially if they have no immediate family around them or are not close to their family can make one feel excluded from what is supposed to be a joyful time.

    Recent trends such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Manic Monday have sadly not only made a mockery of the true meaning of Christmas through exploiting desire regardless of any harm that it can cause including heated arguments of customers competing for sale items leading fights breaking out to the extent that police have had to be called into supermarkets and stalls together with a customer being injured by a falling television set, but they have also extended problems that people with Asperger’s Syndrome can experience including high level anxiety.

    Anxiety that a person with Asperger’s Syndrome experiences when entering a crowded shopping centre together with sensory issues can be problematic enough, as well as they can be for people not on the autistic spectrum. But another anxiety-driving force that can be a strain on people with Asperger’s Syndrome at Christmas is the pressure to buy Christmas presents, including anxiety driven by worry of what particular item to buy for a friend or relative or whether they will like what they give them.  When becoming constrained by pressure to buy presents, one can become lost with the anxiety that pressure brings that it is the thought that counts with presents and gifts.

    Thought that goes into Christmas gifts helps to foster genuine friendships and social relationships, which starts through getting to know someone, a friend or relative, that you gain an appreciation of their likes and interest and they get to know and appreciate yours, knowing what makes each other happy, which can say a lot more about fashionable gift items with high-profile brand names that television and print adverts are forever screaming at us, almost trying to brainwash us, to go out and buy, even if it involves fighting and arguing over it on Black Friday. As well as buy gifts, it appears to me as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome that the commercialisation of Christmas is almost encouraging us to ‘buy’ friends, through’ impressing’ someone at Christmas with the last novelty item. It is well-known that many people with Asperger’s Syndrome not only feel that they have difficulty in forming friendships, but also difficulties in understanding the concept of a friend, including at Christmas where a genuine friend is someone whom you may give to and receive gifts from based on knowing each other rather than being taken advantage of by someone ‘acting’ as a friend for what they can get from you. A person with Asperger’s Syndrome who feels lonely at Christmas and who desires friendships or companionship may well be vulnerable to this.

    By reflecting on the values that Christmas is supposed to be about, including generosity, goodwill and happiness, instead of an anxiety-driven frenzy, Christmas can become a time where people with Asperger’s Syndrome can feel included, including their bringing personal happiness values to the meaning of Christmas, which can not only aid their personal development but can also be a time where the creativity that people with Asperger’s Syndrome can be expressed, including in using abilities and interests to make or create Christmas gifts.

    Embroidered Christmas decorations made by Tara Kimberley Torme
    A good friend of mine, Tara Kimberley Torme, who is also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, enjoys embroidery, including making embroidered Christmas decorations each year, which  I have had the delight or receiving as an early Christmas gift. The personal enjoyment that Tara gains from the activity as well as the therapeutic qualities it appears to have for her gives me plenty of personal happiness as well as her, and I also get much out of appreciating the effort that goes into making such thoughtful gifts. Such joy and appreciation reflects well on others, almost like a gift of self-esteem and happiness of making someone's 'day' on which there isn't a price.

    As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, something that I find helpful at Christmas, especially with coping with desire and temptation induced by excess commercialisation, is to simply start by noticing what triggers temptation or feelings of low self-esteem over the Christmas period, so that you can notice what can lead to you becoming constrained by anxiety and depression. This can then allow you to balance triggers by focusing on personal values you may have that make you feel happy generally, not just at Christmas, not least because the traditional values of Christmas, including goodwill and generosity are just as relevant after the Christmas decorations have come down.


    Though Christmas is a time when we think about either what we want or what to get for family and friends gift wise, it can also help us to remember what we already may have at Christmas and that one of the best gifts we can give is ourselves, including our time to those who may otherwise experience Christmas isolated or alone. To enable this, it helps to gain an understanding of personal qualities we may have through compassionate understanding,  so that we can give the best of ourselves to others at Christmas as well as realise and accept the personal values of others around us where possible, including personal qualities people with Asperger’s Syndrome can bring and where any creative abilities they have can flourish, enabling inclusion, which can be as great a gift as a novelty item.     
  20. Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Fayre and Paddington Bear

    If you have been watching Michael Portillo's latest series of Great Continental Railway Journeys you may have heard him say when travelling on Europe's last existing commuter steam train in Poznan, Poland, that for a rail enthusiast, seeing a steam locomotive on a preserved heritage railway is like seeing an animal in the zoo, but seeing it run on the main line, doing what it was originally supposed to do, is like seeing an animal in the wild, where it is meant to be. Once again this year, I have had the thrill to ride on a mainline steam-hauled train, this time the Worcester Christmas Markets Express from Paddington.

    Peter Pan Statue, Kensington Gardens
    Within walking distance of Paddington Station, the statue of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, in Kensington Gardens provides us with a little reminder that the delight of fascination and excitement that a child experiences when looking at what is around us often moves on with us into adulthood. Where I personally experience this is not only through the excitement of seeing a steam train arrive at the platform, but also through seeing how incongruous a steam hauled train looks in a major mainline station, surrounded by more familiar present day rail traction including high-speed pendolinos and sprinter units, a sight normally more common on model railways. With its old fashioned steam-heated carriages also giving off steam, a steam-hauled charter train in a present day mainline station almost looks like a magic train that has travelled forward in time to a familiar location but with unfamiliar surroundings, with the water cranes/columns that served them long since gone and the old-fashioned split-flap arrivals and departures boards long since replaced by modern LED boards.

    60009 Union of South Africa heads the Worcester Christmas Markets Express
    Hauled by an engine familiar to readers of this blog, 60009 Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express took me through some lovely countryside and later brought me into contact with some interesting characters. Sir John Betjemen, the late former Poet Laureate, described railways as creating their own landscapes, which often blend in effectively with their natural surroundings. For me, steam trains can also create their own atmosphere with their sound and smoke. Giving off huge clouds of white smoke which could be seen flying past the carriage windows, Union of South Africa created a dramatic look to the surrounding countryside when the smoke shrouded the trees, reminding me of Peru's cloud forests, apparently from where a certain bear came from who was found by the Brown family with a suitcase and a jar of marmalade at the station from where my train journey started, and where he was named after.

    Worcester Cathedral, overlooking the River Severn
    The rhythmical sound of a steam engine while running together with its whistle is pleasant to the ear, but when the train arrived at Worcester's Shrub Hill station, while waiting for clearance to proceed to the depot to prepare for the return journey, passengers got a reminder that as well as provide power, steam technology also provides musical entertainment. While stationary, Union of South Africa's air compressors, which supply air to the breaks, made a sound like a calliope, almost as if one of Worcester most famous residents, the composer Sir Edward Elgar had orchestrated the sound composition himself! Born in Lower Broadheath, five miles from Worcester, Elgar's father owned a music shop at the end of Worcester's High Street where the young Edward Elgar grew up. A statue of Elgar (1857-1934) now stands near its original location. which overlooks Worcester's most famous landmark, Worcester Cathedral, founded the year 680, though its earliest existing features date from around the 12th century.

    Friar Street, Worcester
    Just like the steam-hauled train appeared to have moved forward in time to a world largely unrecognisable from its service days before motorways, the beautiful Mock Tudor architecture of Worcester's Friar Street appears to have almost stood still in time while the city's commerce and culture, as in most other towns and cities, have changed in and around it, bringing with it the usual chain stores, restaurants and cafes. Meanwhile, the former street names inscribed under the present day names serve as a reminder of city's medieval past as a city dominated by guilds. Along a very busy Friar Street, dominated by the sounds and scents of the Christmas market stalls, carol singers and troubadours, it again looks like another era in time has travelled forward to an unfamiliar world dominated by motorised road traffic.

    With Paddington Bear at the railway station from where he got his name!
    After enjoying the culinary delights of the Christmas market, the bells of Worcester Cathedral then reminded me that it was time for me to make my way back to Shrub Hill station for the journey back to Paddington. When I reached Paddington, to my surprise, I found that someone of the furry variety had followed me back from Darkest Peru! The smoke-shrouded countryside that I had seen on the journey to Worcester was a sign - Paddington Bear had followed me back to England in time for his new film coming out, after he had been back to Peru to see his Aunt Lucy! He said he managed to find his way onto the train hiding in Santa's sack, and he enjoyed the train ride though he was disappointed that they were service free mince pies rather than marmalade sandwiches!

    60009 Union of South Africa at journey's end in Paddington 
    There is something not just about railways themselves, but also their journeys that feed imagination, inspiring great works of art including the works of Terence Cuneo, literature with works like The Railway Children and poetry by the likes of W.H. Auden and Sir John Betjemen. Imagination fed by railway experiences has also been known to create delightful characters, including Paddington Bear himself. The different experiences that railway journeys bring, including the places that they take you, sights seen from carriage windows and the people you may meet on a railway journey and stories they have to tell. As well as a multi-sensory experience with the steam sound and steam heat of the train and the sounds and scents of Christmas in the markets, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express also felt like a journey through a set of time warps, going through the 1950s, to Victorian and Medieval times before coming back home to the digital age of the 21st century, and not forgetting the personal aspect of the journey from a childhood fascination that has continued with me through to the present.

          
    A tribute to Phillip Hughes at New Road, Worcester 
    RIP Phillip Hughes (1988-2014), who tragically died after being struck by a ball playing cricket for South Australia against New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield match in Australia. Hughes, 25, who had a spell playing for Worcestershire in 2012, will be a huge loss to both Australian and world cricket.



  21. South America Part 3: Lost Civilisation - A Visit to the Navel of the Earth, Easter Island

    After visiting some of the most remote and uninhabitable parts of the South American mainland, it seemed appropriate to move onto Easter Island, the world's most remote human inhabited island. In an age of technology, including orbiting Earth observation satellites, there are very few uncharted lands or islands and there are certainly few unknown human civilizations or settlements now, if any at all. But even in the modern age, some parts of the planet are still thrillingly, and in the case of Easter Island, intriguingly remote.

    I had decided very late to add Easter Island to my trip, when I realised that it was not only reachable from Chile's capital Santiago, but Santiago is the only place from where it can be reached directly other than infrequent flights from fellow Pacific island Tahiti. Even from Santiago, it five hours by plane. Realising that it might be a while before I am in Santiago again, if at all, I felt that I needed to take the opportunity to visit a such remote and very mysterious place and I was so pleased that I did for the fantastic experience I was to have.

    Moai statues, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
    The first time I came across Easter Island was, when growing up, being interested in astronomy, for a time I had an obsession with UFOs and aliens and read about how it was once thought that the mysterious Moai statues on Easter Island were built by visitors from outer space! In relation to Asperger's Syndrome, not that I or my family knew it at the time, I also had a tendency to be very gullible, believing just about anything read or was told, including stories about UFOs, many which turn out to be aeroplanes, satellites or unusual cloud formations as well as that some of the world's great unexplained mysteries, including the Moai statues and the Nazca Lines in Peru, were the work of extra terrestrials.

    However, now that I am older and hopefully a bit wiser, I am now able to appreciate and understand that such explanations often arise out of human imagination, when there isn't an immediate obvious or logical observation for statues on an island so remote from known human civilisation or patterned lines that only have a meaning from above. Visiting Easter Island though, I found out how geographical remoteness can influence the human conciousness, including how those who inhabit such a remote island see themselves in the world.

    Ranu Kau Volcano, Easter Island
    Long before Dutch sailors came across the island by chance on Easter Monday in 1722, hence the name 'Easter Island', a civilisation had been in existence for over a thousand years after the earliest known settlers are said to have arrived on the island in around 300-400BC from the Polynesian islands. The native name for Easter Island is Te Pitoote Hanua, which means the Navel of the Earth. Just like the navel on the human body arises and contracts as the breath comes in and out and maybe subject to physical sensations, the earth is subject to physical sensations, including volcanoes, how Easter Island was formed.

    Birdman Cave Paintings
    Understandably, being surrounded by endless-looking oceans with no land mass or other sizeable islands in sight, early inhabitants of Rapa Nui must have felt they were either at the centre of the world or that the inhabited world 'stopped' at the island, Easter Island's isolation allowed the rituals of its civilisation to continue relatively undisturbed for over a thousand years, including the annual Birdman competition (tangata manu) where partipants would swim to the small islands of Motu Nuti and sea stack Motu Kau Kau to collect the first egg from returning the sooty terns (manu tara). Winners of the Birdman competition would not only be entitled to gifts of food and other tributes, but the clan they came from would have sole rights to collect that seasons harvest of wild bird eggs. Seen from the perspective of modern health and safety standards, it was a dangerous event. Many participants died falling off cliffs, drowning and some were killed by sharks.

    Moai carvings at the quarry at Rano Rakuru
    The Birdman competition was eventually suppressed by Christian missionaries in 1860. Meanwhile, the 887 Moai statues in place on the island today have survived the ravages of time, though the effects time has had on them are visible. Carved from solidified volcano ash deposited in Rano Rakuru quarry and mounted on stone platforms, the statues were a form of ancestor worship. Their faces face inland to watch over and protect the people with a site at Ahu Akivi, apparently seven men waiting for their chief to arrive, being an exception. Closer inspection reveals a sophisticated social class hierarchy with taller the statues and the the higher the platform it is built on meaning the further up the class system those the statues were built in memory of were. Interestingly, some of the statues also have a hat or top-knot, carved from red ash from another quarry, to represent islanders who had red hair, which was considered sacred.

    Sunrise at Ahu Tongariki
    When civilisation on Easter Island was first seen by the Dutch sailors in 1722, who incidentally noted that some of the islands inhabitants had red hair, for its time it must have been like finding life on another planet and for the islanders, seeing a spacecraft arrive from another planet. for me, after travelling through the other-worldly landcspaes of Bolivia's Salt Flats and Chile's Valley of the Moon, which could easily be mistaken for other planets, I almost felt the same effect seeking out a lost and mysterious civilisation on an island so remote that its existence could almost easily have been over-looked. Though it remained unknown to the outside world for over a thousand years, mysteries still remain on Easter Island, including how its earliest settlers found their way to the island, curiosity of which keeps the mind active.

    Special thanks to G Adventures for their wonderful hospitality again, to tour guide Kike Munoz and to Easter Island tour guide Mata'u for his passion for his people's history.        
  22. South America Part 2: Walking on the Moon in Bolivia and Chile

    As part of his role as Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Marek Kukula's role involves visiting schools to give presentations on the subject. A question he is often asked is what is his favourite planet? When pupils may expect him to say Jupiter or Saturn, they get a surprise when he says Earth, just as I did when I had the privilege to hear him speak at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland two years ago. On the next part of my South America adventure going into Bolivia and northern Chile, passing through a diverse range of spectacular landscapes, I could see why the planet we live on is Kukula's favourite!

    A rainbow halo around the Sun seen over Lake Titicaca
    One of the many reasons why Earth is Kukula's favourite planet is because of such diversity of landscapes and also that, still to human knowledge, not only is it the only planet known to support life, but supports life in a variety of different shapes and forms from plant and animal life to microbiological life forms. When crossing Lake Titicaca, South America's deepest lake on the Peru-Bolivia border, I was met with another reason for Earth to be one's favourite planet, how the elements within its atmosphere interact with the light from its star, the Sun can produce such beautiful sights in the sky. As seen in the Sacred Valley, such interaction produces rainbows, but at Lake Titicaca, I was fortunate to see something much rarer, a rainbow halo around the Sun! This optical phenomenon is created when sunlight shines through ice crystals in the atmosphere, with the crystals acting like prisms, both reflecting and refracting the light to create the shape.

    On the surface, the interaction of physical elements together with the obvious abundance of liquid water together with variation in temperature and climate combine to create a diverse range of dramatic natural landscapes that are also found on other planets in the Solar System, something which I saw in action in Bolivia and northern Chile, a relatively small geographical area in Earth terms. I started my journey through other-worldly landscapes with Bolivia's Valley of the Moon, a short drive outside the country's largest city and unofficial capital La Paz in which I saw a landscape of tall spires comprised of clay that many thousands of years ago formed the bottom of a lake that eventually dried up, a little reminder that South America's tropical glaciers may likely disappear within the next 30 years and what the whole planet Earth may look like if its seas and oceans evaporated.

    Salar de Unuyi at Sunset, Bolivia, note the distinctive polygon shapes
    The next adventure though, crossing the Salarde Unuyi, the world's largest salt flats, in Bolivia was special. Effectively a vast white desert made out of salt, when I arrived at Salar de Unuyi, I felt like I had landed on another planet after just having visited one of its moons! Just like within a lot of human activity, including art and architecture, within nature there are many patterns. Both patterns created by human activity, the salt piles for salt production, and patterns formed by nature, the polygon shapes are visible on the flats. Whereas as humans we like patterns for decoration, consistency or in my case in relation to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome, to enable predictability, in nature, patterns unfold as they are meant to, sometimes with distinctive shapes as shown in the polygon patterns on the Salt Flats. These beautiful patterns, which could almost easily be mistaken for human art, form as a result of the concentration of different elements present in the flats including lithium, magnesium and potassium.

    What very fascinating to me from a mindful noticing perspective is how landscapes respond to its surroundings, including its response to sunlight and changing weather conditions. naturally white, the salt flats can appear a dark yellowish colour at sunrise and sunset and light blue during twilight hours. During rainy season, the flats flood, forming a natural mirror which reflects the sky. When not attempting photographic stunts with toy dinosaurs or bottles of wine as many visitors to Salar de Unuyi find themselves immersed in, the vast open space and emptiness of the salt flats being away from distractions is enough for one's mirror neurons to turn towards them. Staring by noticing the effects of nature on landscapes as they arise and fade, when we turn the quality of this noticing towards us it becomes much easier to turn to and notice our inner thoughts and feelings as they arise and fade, including noticing how little attention we pay to them and how we may have a tendency to act on them when we are least aware. The emptiness started to fade when approaching Isla Incahuasi, a rocky outcrop in the centre where giant cacti grows and where coral like structures and fossils are present, again showing the continual now of the ever-evolving process of how the salt flats formed, being a deposit of a lake where living coral was present that dried up and how multiple different lifeforms evolve adapt to ever changing conditions, with the cacti having developed to grow with efficient water use.

    Sand dunes in the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Chile
    After Salar de Unuyi, the next dramatic landscape I visited was Chile's Atacama Desert, home of another Valley of the Moon. Coming from the vast white emptiness of Bolivia's salt flats, the blood red sand dunes, lava domes together with the Licancabur Volcano in the background were a complete contrast. Again, it was like visiting another moon. As well as a complete contrast from Salar de Uyuni, it was also a totally different landscape to the Valley of the Moon I had visited in Bolivia, though they have something in common with how they get their name having been visited by Apollo Astronuats Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who would famously become the first humans to walk on the Moon. Chile's Valley of the Moon not only has features in common with the Moon with its dusty dunes, but also has features in common with Venus with lava domes and Mars with its wind-shaped rock formations.

    Sunset over the Atacama Desert
    Through a visit to Chile's Valley of the Moon, one can almost have a tour of the inner Solar System without leaving Earth, with the only obvious absence being the atmosphere and weather systems of these three very different worlds. While watching the Sun set over the Atacama Desert, it came home to me about my own and general living existence after seeing deposits of many different elements, including elements present that make up the physical form of the human body, that in contrast to what we say about when we are born we 'come into the world', in accordance with Zen thought, it is more so that we come from the world, from the elements it is made up and in accordance with Hindu death customs as in nature, we go back to when we die. Potassium, sodium and magnesium present in the salt flats which are also present in the physical make-up of the human body and many other elements necessary for life in any shape or form to exist  of enabled by conditions that result the right amount of light and heat given out by the Sun, For the Sun to give out the right amount of light and heat, it must eventually die, another reminder that nothing is fixed or permanent.


    Showing the effect of the sunlight on landscape, a dark colour during daylight (top), Licancabur turns red at Sunset (below)

    Part 3, the concluding part of my South American Odyssey, will follow soon.






     
  23. South America Part 1: Coca Leaves, Orchids, Micro-climates and Macchu Picchu

    After being blown away, including in one instance almost literally by Patagonia's winds, during my first visit to South America, I made a point to return to the continent at some stage after feeling that my first visit had opened me up to a whole new part of the world, with plenty of new experiences to be sought. As I have found from previous adventures, sometimes the location delivers much more than the trip notes, and in this way, my second visit to South America certainly did not disappoint.

    Starting in Peru, I embarked on the Inca Trail after visiting Cusco, the former Inca capital, to acclimatise to the altitude. Trekking through nature while passing historical ruins was a fascinating experience. For me, trekking is a good way to practice mindfulness of walking, through noticing the sensations from each step along the path while simultaneously opening up to and noticing the climate and conditions around you. Together with coca leaves, that many living in the Andean region chew on to make up for the lack of oxygen in the high altitude and a favourite with tourists, opening up to the air around you while bringing attention to the breath can help adjust to the high altitude, including taking deeper breaths where possible, enabling as much oxygen to reach the heart as possible.


    An orchid in bloom along the Inca Trail
    Focusing on the sensations experienced in the present helps one to tune into the present moment, but at the same time, much of the present day trail, which runs through the region known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is of original Inca construction, chronologically over 500 years old in some parts. Walking along the paths used by the Incas, including the Inca runners who relayed messages in the form of rope patterns between settlements, one can either almost feel that time has stood still along the route with the distinctive shapes of the terraced Inca settlements having survived intact or with the absence of inhabitation, the legacy of a civilization long since lost within time. But when one focuses attention to the bloom of the present moment, including noticing the variety of orchids in bloom along the route, the notion time compromised of past, present and future interweaves into a continual now, where on closer inspection, the effects of time brought by both human activity and the every alternating micro-climates in the region can be seen.

    Rainbow Bridge across Sacred Valley of the Incas
    Within close proximity of the Sacred Valley are three different environments including the high altitude of the Andes through which the trail runs, the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin towards the East and towards the west the cloud forests, forests shrouded in mist. Whereas in the rainforests the competition among interlocking trees is for sunlight, in the cloud forest the competition is for soil, Peru's cloud forests are also home to the spectacled bear, South America's only species of bear. From this, I found out where 'Darkest Peru' is, from where Paddington Bear came from before finding refuge with the Brown family at 32 Windsor Gardens in London! Each micro-climate in the region brings its own weather, which brings constantly changing weather conditions from bright sunshine to wind and rain, which also brings its effects with it that have been known to play upon human imagination, including producing spectacular rainbow bridges across the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Rainbow bridges were believed by the Incas to connect the living world with the spirit world high up in the mountains, where the souls of the deceased resided, similar to the Viking belief that they connected the living world with Valhalla.

    Winaywayna Inca Settlement
    It is well-known that many people with Asperger's Syndrome struggle to cope with change, one of the reason why I take on such challenges. In recent years, I have found that by facing up to constant change through being present with it helps me cope more effectively, whereas resisting can lead to high-level anxiety. More recently, I have begun to notice that through facing up to such constant change also helps to notice and open up to thought patterns, which like the Sacred Valley's micro-climates are constantly changing. Observing the terrace formations in the Inca settlements, one is reminded of how sustainability of a civilisation can be enabled through working with physical landscapes and local micro-climates, through adapting to and making use of them. The terraced formation in the Inca settlements not only blends effectively into the mountainous landscape, but also allows for different micro-climates with different amounts of irrigation to take place in which a variety of different crops could be grown, including maize and sweet potato.

    The Oh My God Steps
    Like with other trekking challenges I have done, including Kilimanjaro, within the challenge itself are many different challenges, which can have effects on the mind, where sometimes the mind sees it differently to how it actually is. When trekking Kilimanjaro, the almost vertical-looking Barranco Wall is one such challenge. Towards the end of the Inca Trail is what are locally called the 'Oh My God Steps', a set of 50 almost vertical looking steps. Such sights can induce doubt in one's mind as to whether they can overcome such a challenge, especially after having done much of the hard work already!

    The experience of a mountain trek has been described by some, including myself, as being analogous to one's life, a range of different sensory experiences over a period ranging from a few days to a few weeks together with ups and downs, both the physical ups and downs of the route together with the mental ups and downs experienced throughout the journey. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, a little reminder this brought home to me was how one is affected by the condition differently at different stages of one's life, as well as how one's relationship with issues that the condition presents changes, including finding ways of coping with it.

    After overcoming the Oh My God Steps, I reached the Sun Gate from where Macchu Picchu can be seen in the distance. Whereas during the day, Macchu Picchu, being one of the world's great historical sites, is constantly busy and crowded with tourists, by the time I reached it, it was virtually deserted as it was nearing closing time, almost like it would have been when it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. After being able to see it so clearly, the following morning when I returned to explore its interior, it was hidden behind mist, which was another reminder of how our thought patterns alternate between being clear and clouded. Mindfulness though is simply noticing this and being present with it.

    Clear...

    ...and clouded



    Part Two of my adventure will follow shortly - watch this space!


  24. Second Time Around, One in a Million - Great North Run 2014

    The course was familiar, but the experience was different. Once again, the Great North Run was a great day out for participants and spectators alike. As with with each Greta North Run, there are many inspiring stories behind why participants take on the challenge and heart-warming stories about spectators coming out to cheer on family and friends as well as support the runners with cup of water and jelly babies. But in 2014, there was something extra special about it, not only was it won by a Briton for the first time in 29 years, but the event also saw its one millionth finisher cross the line.

    From its relatively humble beginnings in 1981 through former Olympic Bronze medallist Brendan Foster's vision of encouraging public participation in running, when 12,000 runners competed in the first Great North Run, not only has it evolved beyond simply a local event to the world's biggest half-marathon as well as spawning a series of Great Run road races, but has also made huge differences to the lives of many, not just to participants who may have taken up the challenge in an attempt to benefit their health both physically and mentally but also the many charities that have benefited from the awareness and funds raised.

    After having enjoyed the experience as a participant first time around in 2012 for the Daisy Chain Project, I was keen to do it again after I had summitted Kilimanjaro the year after for the same charity, feeling I needed an achievable challenge after such a feat to motivate me to keep up my physical fitness and mental well-being, after having learned in the past that it doesn't help to live in the past by picking out favourite times and moments, but rather by continuing to be active in a number of ways, in my case through reading, writing, mindfulness practice, physical activity, I find helps me to stay present in the moment by being with the experience as it unfolds, thus opening up to new and different experiences. 

    Though as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, reflecting common descriptions of what many people with the condition, I do still find predictability and routine conducive to how I am but I do find variation every so often within routine and predictability stimulating. When applying mindfulness practice to doing an activity, task or physical exercise, including a set routine workout, it then becomes possible to open up to new experience by noticing the variations in sensations and bodily feeling. From such noticing, it then becomes possible to notice that each actual bodily experience of a regular activity, task or physical workout is unique, The routine and principal may be similar, but the experience, particularly at the sensory level, varies dramatically.
    Then - approaching the last mile in 2012

    And Now - Just after completing the run in 2014
    As well as being motivated by previous enjoyment of participation in the event another of my goals of going in for it a second time was to be able to apply beginners mind to the experience, to see if I could still go the distance two years later as well as to provide a motivating factor for me to continue to practice and train. I felt I by getting touch with beginners mind regarding mindfulness practice during my ten-day silent Vipassana retreat helped me to open up to a different experience at Great North Run 2014 at a sensory level. During my first time, I felt that the encouragement from the crowd was the main factor for me being able to complete the 13.1 miles successfully, but second time round, while the crowd encouragement again helped as it undoubtedly did for the thousands of other runners, I felt it was more so personal confidence that I felt came within at the start once I got going, which I was able to maintain physically for the full 13.1 miles.

    Though Mo Farrah finished first and did Britain proud, for me, the real winner at the Great North Run each year is the event itself. All the way from the elite runners, those going for a personal best time, those looking to just to complete the 13.1 miles and lets not forget those out for a bit of fun in fancy dress, the Great North Run is an event that participants can both experience and enjoy at their own physical level and as well as in respect of their individual circumstances. Each individual runner has a story to tell as to why they are going for it, including those doing it in memory of a friend or relative. It was therefore fitting that the one millionth finisher, Tracey Cramond from Darlington, was doing it to achieve the 13.1 miles for the Butterwick Hospice in memory of her late mother. 

    Now let's sign off with a bit of local pride! First of all, the other winners at the Great North Run are the fantastic and very supportive crowds, who each year put the 'Great' in the Great North Run and secondly, the event has achieved one million finishers ahead of some rather illustrious places - London, New York and Sydney!

    This year I managed to complete the run in two hours and eight minutes, two minutes faster than my first time in 2012. Running in aid of the National Autistic Society's Newcastle and Gateshead Branch, I have managed to raise over £150. A huge thank you to all who have donated, you are making a difference to many families affected by autism in the Newcastle and Gateshead area. Donations can still be made at www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR2014/ 

            
  25. Trainspotting, Steam, the Settle and Carlisle and Eccles Cakes

    The stereotype of Asperger's Syndrome and trainspotting is well-known, as is the stereotype of it being largely a male-dominated pastime, but chances are that until recently, very few will have known that one of the hobby's pioneers was an 18-year-old girl, Fanny Johnson, who recorded train numbers from a station in London back in 1861, in what was effectively one of the first trainspotting manuals. The National Railway Museum's latest special exhibition shows that trainspotting, or 'railway enthusiasm' with reference to some trainspotters, including myself, preferring to be described as railway enthusiasts*, goes back to the fascination many developed when modern railways began with the Stockton-Darlington (1825) and Liverpool-Manchester (1830), far from being the post-war fad it is often described as.  

    As well as being described as an Aspergeric subject for its structure, symmetry of the tracks and sleepers, timetables, colour/imagery, trivia/facts and general detail associated with it, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome I also find train travel very conducive to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome, whereas I often find road travel on congested roads, particularly when I am driving myself, very stressful. Meanwhile, on a train, most of the time I can relax and on certain routes, watch and enjoy the scenery, something which I have recently had the privilege to enjoy on one of Britain's, and one of the world's, most spectacular railway journeys by steam, the Settle and Carlisle.

    Taking on water at Appleby
    Hauled by 60009 Union of South Africa, the Cumbrian Mountain Express started its journey from Carlisle before making a brief stop to take on water at Appleby before ascending towards Dent, England's highest mainline station at 350m above sea level and Garsdale, passing through some beautiful Cumbrian countryside and farmland. As readers of this blog may be familiar, 60009 Union of South Africa also hauled the Tynesider Special from Newcastle to London King's Cross last November. As with the East Coast Main Line route, I had previously travelled along the Settle and Carlisle route on modern rail traction. Again, though the route was vaguely familiar from
    Beautiful Cumbrian Countryside
    previous journeys, the experience of it by steam was different. Whereas with up-to-date suspension on modern rail traction, the traveller is largely oblivious to the gradient profile of the line, when travelling by steam, one can hear just how hard the locomotive has to work to ascend steep gradients, which is as for thrilling for passengers as the scenery. When ascending Ais Gill summit, the highest rail summit in England at 723m, one can almost hear the fireman's sigh of relief!

    Crossing Ribblehead Viaduct
    The highlight of the journey for me though, and many fellow passengers were in agreement, was crossing the celebrated Ribblehead Viaduct. Practically a pilgrimage spot for photographers and railway enthusiasts alike, one of the first sights that passengers on s steam-hauled journey along the route see in the valley below just before crossing the viaduct is numerous tents, pitched by those keen to get a sight of the steam train crossing the 440 yard long structure's 24 arches. More than simply a photographic icon or an engineering monument, Ribblehead Viaduct and its remote location between three peaks, Whernside to the north, Ingleborough to the south and Pen-y-Ghent to the east also has a poignant side regarding those who built it between 1870 and 1874. Subjected to harsh weather and dangerous working conditions, it was said that, on average, at least one life was lost per week working on the viaduct together with many other workers (navvies) succumbing to epidemics, including smallpox, that ran in the shanty towns that grew up around the construction site. Tributes are paid to the more than 200 people known to have died during the construction through a monument in St Leonard's Churchyard, in nearby Chapel-le-Dale.

    Being able to enjoy spectacular natural scenery from the relaxed environment of a train is just one of many advantages of rail travel, more of which are becoming apparent with certain modern day conveniences. Christian Wolmar, railway historian and writer, in a talk at Morpeth Town Hall described railways as being well-placed to take advantage of current travel habits and preferences, including being able to access the internet via mobile devices while on the move. Wolmar also said that though an advantage railways also have in the UK all-party support from politicians, one of the main questions that politicians have regarding railways is will they pay for themselves? In reality, railways rarely pay for themselves financially, but they can potentially bring many social benefits that balance sheets can't measure, including reduced road congestion. Another social benefit that I personally railways can bring regarding travelling to work is through feeling less stressed when arriving at work unlike the stress one may face driving through rush hour travel. This can then also become a commercial benefit as lower level staff stress is likely to lead to higher productivity.

    60009 Union of South Africa at Appleby
    Another factor that has enabled the position that the UK's railways are in to accommodate changing travel preferences and habits is that certain routes, including the Settle and Carlisle, that could very easily have been closed have remained open to serve as important commuter routes as well as pleasure journey. Another example is the West Highland Line that runs from Glasgow to Mallaig, which includes the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct. Both routes have remained open partly due to steam-hauled tours, an old-fashioned form of railway traction that I personally feel still has a role for today's railways. Without these lines, places like Dent, Garsdale and Mallaig would be largely isolated.

    Many thanks again to the Railway Touring Company for their hospitality on board the Cumbrian Mountain Express.  

    Tea and Eccles Cake, the perfect snack for a steam-hauled journey!
    *A reason why I prefer 'rail enthusiast' is because my personal interest in railways isn't just about the trains, but also the places they serve, railway architecture, their technology/innovation, and their history, including their social benefits such as enabling Eccles Cakes to be enjoyed beyond Eccles, Lancashire.