The Bible stories ~ Come across as out of touch. ~ Let’s try something new!

David Cameron’s ‘Bible’ Speech.

David Cameron recently made a speech in which he recognised the contribution to Britain’s culture and heritage made by the King James Bible and called for a return to ‘biblical values’. 

If one starts from scratch and studies the Bible to find a simple set of moral values relevant to the twenty-first century, one would end up totally confused.

Are we really expected to believe that the first woman was created from a rib-bone taken from the first man? 

Can we understand the first four of the Ten Commandments supposedly given by God himself to the prophet Moses 5000 years ago? 

Can we understand why a ‘loving’ God directs one of his most ardent followers to cut the throat of his beloved son as a sacrifice?

Can we accept a virgin birth?

Can we understand the meaning of the beatitudes – such as ‘Blessed are the meek -for they shall inherit the earth’?

Can we accept that Jesus of Nazareth, (for whom I personally have the greatest respect in relation to his life and teachings,) actually died on the cross and came alive again?

Can we respect a set of values enshrined in various editions of this same book which led to the horrors of the Inquisition and the burning alive of those who followed a slightly different version of these ‘truths’?

The answer must surely be ‘NO!’

If we look to the Church of England for guidance they seem obsessed by such questions as ‘Can a woman or a homosexual man, be a bishop?’ whilst their congregations die out.

At the end of his speech David Cameron stated –

“I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities……and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way. “

I occasionally read (or try to read) articles in The Daily Telegraph written by the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. Unfortunately, they are written in such a difficult to follow, theological, language that, even if I haven’t given up halfway through, I am mystified as to what it was all about.

In my novel, God’s Elephants, the elephant Tembo Jay, who died two thousand years before, left a simple message for all living and future generations of elephants – ‘Be Kind, Be Gentle and Be Fair.’

If these ‘Three Bs’ were to be accepted by modern human society as their moral compass, as proposed in my most recent book, The Ferry Boat – Finding a Credible God’, this would be a good basis for overcoming all the ills of the world.

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Omar Khayyam lives ~ Centuries after he died. ~ A poetic sage

Omar Khayyam.
When I was about thirteen I pulled a tall book with a faded blue-cloth spine, out of my mother’s bookcase and opened it into another world. It was titled The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
The text was originally written in Persian by the poet and philosopher, Omar Khayyam in about 1100 A.D. Omar’s thoughts had been beautifully translated by an Englishman, Edward Fitzgerald in the mid 1800s and my mother’s edition was illustrated by Willy Pogany, who was born in 1882 and worked in London, Paris and America. It was these illustrations that first captivated my attention. In 1952 we had no television and I never before seen such scenes of Mosques, inns, camps in the desert, camels and middle-eastern market places. I looked through the pictures and then read the verses which were printed in a typeface emulating Arabic script.
I was now captivated by the rhythms of the verse. Each line has 10 beats and the first, second and fourth line all rhyme. It was (and is) a wonderful ‘bouncing’ rhythm that I had never experienced before. One of the best known stanzas is:

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

What a wonderful, concise and poetic way of saying, ‘What you have done – is done and can’t be changed, however much you wish you could’.

The very first stanza in the book read:

Awake ! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the stars to Flight :
And Lo ! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

This was probably the first time I had come across poetic allegory. The picture opposite the text helped me realise that the Bowl of Night was the darkness and the cast Stone was the coming of the light of dawn. The Hunter of the East was the sun and the Noose of Light was the first ray lighting up the Sultan’s Turret whilst the rest of the building was still in darkness.

Since then, especially when I was in Africa, and was awake at or before dawn, this superb picture would come into my mind and I would mentally recite the verse.

When I first discovered the book I was just beginning to challenge my religious indoctrination and seek for a Truth that no one seemed to have really found. I was therefore intrigued to read the stanza:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about ; but evermore
Came out by that same Door as in I went.

I worked out that the Doctor and Saint were the thinkers and the holy men of his period and was somewhat pleased that they too did not seem to be able to put forward a convincing definition of the Truth of an after-life to the seeker, Omar.

I had to read the Rubaiyat many times before I understood that he eventually gave up and sought the answer in drink.

He expressed this thus:

You know, my Friends, how long since in my House
For a new marriage I did make Carouse :
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

I did not find his solution at all acceptable and have spent much of my life still seeking that truth.

An earlier stanza of Omar’s starts:

There was a Door to which I had no Key
There was a Veil through which I might not see…

Looking back I can identify with these last two lines exactly. In 2012 I published a book titled The Ferry Boat which tells of my search and the conclusions I reached – very different to his. It has been an interesting and fulfilling search and I would like to record my deep appreciation of the help I had from his thoughts as recorded in that fascinating book. There are so many memorable and quotable stanzas that I have been tempted to include many more and found it hard to resist.

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The Sapients of Earth.

Sapience is defined in the Wikipedia as ‘wisdom, or the ability of an organism or entity to act with appropriate judgment’.
‘In fantasy fiction and science fiction, sapience describes an essential property that bestows “personhood” onto a non-human. It indicates that a computer, alien, mythical creature or other object will be treated as a completely human character, with similar rights, capabilities and desires as any other human character.’
A ‘sapient’ is therefore some being who should be treated in the same way as a completely human character.
Throughout history, we arrogant humans have believed that we are the only creatures on this planet who possess significant wisdom; so much so that when Linnaeus was naming our species he chose ‘Homo Sapiens’, which translates as Wise Man. No other creature was given a name which include ‘sapiens’.
If aliens from another planet had landed on Earth, say 25,000 years ago, they would have found four groups of creatures with very large brains which would have seemed to be worth trying to communicate with. These would have been humans and elephants on the land and whales and dolphins in the seas. At that time the humans would probably have been outnumbered by each of the other three. Now, of course, humans vastly outnumber the others, largely because we have killed so many of them and expanded our numbers incredibly.
I am a writer and my work includes novels with both human, dolphin and elephant characters. In researching the lives of these creatures prior to writing the books, I became increasingly aware that all of them had far more in common with humans than I had suspected. They all seemed to live in groups and families which cared for the others in a way the best of humans do. They seemed to have a huge capacity for Love, not just among their own kind but were eager to extend this to humans, at such times when we did not threaten them in any way. I searched for a name which would identify them as special in this way and discovered the word ‘Sapient’.
These animal sapients appear to have a ‘thinking power’ and ‘memory capability’ far in excess of all other creatures I know and I came to the conclusion that they are special in the same way that we regard all humans to be. If this is true they would be expected to have some characteristic in their make-up that is notably different from other creatures. They did – and it was not hard to identify. Whales, dolphins and elephants all have huge brains with convolutions similar to those in the human brain.
I was also struck by the fact that they generally live in close-knit family groups although, unlike most modern humans, these family groups were usually led by an older female (the matriarch). Could it be that we too once lived in families or groups led by a women, rather than a by a man which has been the human pattern for most of our recorded history?
A further similarity was that the young of all these creatures were dependant on their mothers for several years and were unable to fend for themselves until they had been taught many skills. Whales, dolphins and elephants have a natural life-span of some sixty or seventy years, very similar to our ‘three-score years and ten’.
A few years ago I read a suggestion that dolphins should be treated as ‘honorary persons’ and given the same protection and respect for their rights as we humans have awarded ourselves. In thinking about this proposal it seemed to me entirely proper that there should be ‘dolphin rights’ similar in concept to ‘human rights’. It may be true that, within their own communities, dolphins have established such a concept of which we are unaware as we do not (yet) understand their language. Whether this is so or not, I believe that we should establish a clear and internationally accepted set of human to dolphin rights which would include freedom from fear of death and of captivity, and a right to a clean environment. Who could argue against this?
If you are reading this, you will know enough about the appalling way humans have treated whales and dolphins over the centuries – and indeed are still doing it in some parts of the world. Gentle, intelligent whales and dolphins are still being killed and eaten in Japan, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands and by Inuits in Canada and Alaska. It is surely time that a clear definition of whale and dolphin rights should be put before the United (human) Nations!
In a similar way, the African and Indian elephants should be granted a similar status, protecting them from being killed for their meat and ivory and also be protected from encroachment of their habitat and freedom from captivity in the same way that we try to protect fellow humans.
When I have floated these ideas to friends they usually agree but then try to add their favourite animals to the list. Proposed candidates include dogs, cats, horses, tigers, wolves, bears and pandas. I had clearly not made my point well enough! Whilst I agree that all animals (including those we eat) should be well treated and respected for what they are, my proposed sapients are notably in a different class for the reasons outlined above.
However I will admit to an area where I have a problem. There are several primates who could also be considered for inclusion, yet I don’t feel about them in a similar way to my proposed sapients. These are gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees. All of these are already protected by international conventions although this has not ensured that they are safe from habitat loss and even being killed for ‘bushmeat’.
Bearing in mind that, if too many creatures are given ‘sapient’ status, the whole concept is devalued – where would you draw the line?

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Swimming with dolphins ~ An experience that is ~ Life-altering.

“Swimming with a Dolphin is a Life-altering Experience.”

A few years ago I regularly gave talks to Rotary, Probus and similar clubs about my varied life to date and the philosophic ideas that had come from this. The title of these talks was ‘Dolphins in my Bath’ which was intended to intrigue the prospective audiences. I took this title from an amusing quatrain (which I would quote – to groans from the listeners) by John Bilsborough, a fellow poet from South Wales.
‘Lucky is the man who hath
A pair of dolphins in his bath
It’s pleasant in these times of strife
To have some porpoise in your life.’

The essence of my talk was how I had drifted through life unsure of where I was going and why – and how this had changed after I swam with a wild dolphin off the coast of Pembrokeshire.
The actual event I recorded in my book , The Ferry Boat – Finding a Credible God, which I repeat here:-
Whilst getting myself back together, [after a traumatic business experience] another deeply significant event occurred. I went to stay with my sister and her husband in Pembrokeshire, painting their house to earn money to pay some bills. My brother-in-law ran a diving school and had a fast boat with an outboard motor. One afternoon my sister asked me, ‘Would you like to come and swim with our dolphin?’
It seemed that a wild dolphin had decided to live in a nearby bay and loved to swim and play in the water with humans and was known locally as ‘Simo’. I was kitted out with a wetsuit and we motored out in the boat from the village of Solva to find him. We had gone less than a mile before Simo was sporting in our wake and when we anchored he swam around, obviously inviting us to join him. Bottle-nosed dolphins are big – Simo was about fourteen feet long and more than twice the girth of a human. In my experience up to that time, one always had to move carefully in the presence of large creatures in case you startled them and they kicked out or otherwise hurt you.
It was not like that with Simo. There seemed to be an invisible signal coming from him which was saying, ‘Don’t be afraid of me. Come in and play – I won’t hurt you.’ There was also a feeling that I can only describe as ‘dolphin-love’ radiating from him. I dropped over the side and he swam all around, diving down and leaping over my sister and me for about half an hour until I was tiring and swam to a nearby rock where I sat, half-submerged, to rest. Simo came and laid his head in my lap whilst my brain crackled with his attempts to communicate with me. Without a common language, all I could do was try and reciprocate the waves of love flowing around me. It was a day that has influenced my thoughts and beliefs ever since. I would wholeheartedly agree with the statement, ‘Swimming with a dolphin is a life-altering experience’.

Yes, I know a dolphin is not a porpoise, but I definitely found a purpose in my life following that encounter. Several things happened. The experience of unrestrained love coming from that dolphin made me much more aware of the power of this force and I was much more ready to give Love to other people and receive it back, often magnified in some mysterious way. I quote again from The Ferry Boat’ –

When we think deeply about Love we realise that it has a unique property – unlike chocolate cake, Love multiplies when shared; e.g, a returned smile or a shared hug does not deplete the stock of Love of either party but seems to increase it for both. The more you think about it and relate this to one’s own experiences, the truer it seems.
I found that I wanted to write poetry and stories in such a way that other people could share my experiences and imaginings and enjoy these through my writing.
I realised that the search for ‘security’ in life is unlikely to be achieved and composed the following Haiku (a concise Japanese verse form, that I call a Kernel of Truth.)
True security ~ Comes from the acceptance of ~ Insecurity.
My sense that Simo was trying to communicate with me as I sat on that rock with his head on my lap led me to write dolphins into my first three novels (making up The Dorset Squirrel trilogy) where an important part of the story is the ability of some of the squirrel characters to communicate telepathically with the dolphin characters.
These fictional dolphins became so popular that I planned a book where there were both human and dolphin characters and the theme was ‘interspecies communication.’
During the research for this book (published in 2000 as Dolphinsong) I went on a whale and dolphin watching trip to the Azores where – not only did I swim with a bottle-nosed dolphin mother and her calf but watched in awe as huge sperm whales surfaced and dived not far from the boat. Perhaps the most memorable experience on that trip was when hundreds of dolphins were spotted heading towards us, leaping and diving in the sparkling sun-path, obviously joyful at finding us and relishing the opportunity to take turns at riding our bow-wave. Their joy was infectious and I lay on the foredeck, my head over the side, only a few feet from the nearest and looking directly into its huge eye. Somehow it drew me into its joyousness and projected what I can only describe as intense Love in my direction. This magical experience lasted for several minutes, then at some signal, unseen or unheard by me, they were gone. All dolphin experiences leave one with a sense of privilege and after that encounter, a strange spiritual glow stayed with me for hours.
Yes – swimming with a dolphin is a life-altering experience but a word of concern from The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. If you swim with a dolphin in the wild as I have done, the dolphin has complete freedom to swim away if it wishes. Fewer dolphins are kept in captivity now but many are and people are charged significant sums of money to swim with them. These captive dolphins still seem to project their love to the swimmers even though they have been imprisoned in small pools just for this purpose. This must be a very forgiving love!
In Dolphinsong, the captive dolphins learn to sing ‘Songs of Truth’ which embody their most intense thoughts. One of the characters, Grace of FairIsle sings this song:-

I, FairIsle, call to Thinking Men –
See us for what we are.

Not competition for your fish
Not fools to entertain your young
Not handy hulks of oil and flesh
But creatures of intelligence
Deserving something better from our land-based friends
Who occupy dry portions of this planet, humans will call Earth
But which is mostly Sea.

We know that you have eyes to see
And ears to hear.
We know that you have brains to think.
We know imagination flourishes in men.
We hope that you have souls to feel compassion too.
Please, use your hands to signal
STOP
And let us live.

See us for what we are
A peaceful, gentle, cultured people of the Sea.

In my recent Blog, The Sapients of Earth, I suggest that dolphins, whales and elephants are granted the status of ‘honorary persons’ and accorded similar rights as humans by the United Nations. Now I am inclined to go further. If we accept that these intelligent and loving creatures are worth granting such a status should we not also accept that they should also be represented at the United Nations Assembly?
We humans could establish three new nations – The Whale Nation, The Dolphin Nation and The Elephant Nation. Of course, until we crack the communication problem between these creatures and humans, we would have to appoint wise and respected humans to speak on their behalf, much as humans can appoint advocates to speak for them when necessary.
I would love to still be alive when we had learned to speak with dolphins as the humans do in Dolphinsong, possibly through music as they do in my book.

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To learn more about Dolphinsong, click here.

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Looking for elephants

Image 

Author Michael Tod looking for elephants during a research safari in Botswana.

(He’s behind you!)

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Elephants’ Graveyards ~ Treasure-troves of ivory ~ Did they once exist?

Elephants’ Graveyards. Fact or Fiction?

The fable of elephants’ graveyards is long established in European and Middle-eastern storytelling. It was probably most popular when elephants were still portrayed as dangerous beasts that should be killed on sight and, as a reward for such hazardous work, the hunter would be rewarded with the valuable tusks. Writers such as H. Rider Haggard, whose stories I loved as a teenager, made the killing of elephants for their ivory a perfectly acceptable way for an English gentleman to restore the families’ fortune.

I have always loved elephants, even my tiny clique of friends when I as ten years old was called by ourselves, ‘The Elephant Gang’, though it is probable that none of us, in 1947, had ever seen a live elephant! When I came to do the research for my novel, God’s Elephants I frequently came on references to these fabled graveyards and looked into these to see if there was any truth in these legends. The idea that elephants knew that they were dying and made their way to some sacred spot, did not seem to be supported by the evidence but that did not prevent me incorporating the concept into my novel. (Authors are allowed by tradition to do this.)

There was evidence that considerable numbers of tusks had been found massed together in various parts of Africa and this has been explained by the following. Elephants live for about sixty years and during this time they grow and wear-out six sets of teeth. Unlike our teeth, theirs move forward in their jaws and are ground down by chewing on hard wood and by the soil attached to the roots of the grass they eat. As each set of teeth wear out they are replaced by a new set which move forward to replace the worn-out ones. Eventually, there are no new sets and the elephant starts to die of starvation. When the ageing elephant can no longer chew the usual foliage, it makes for a swamp where the reeds are soft enough to eat with bare gums and the water and mud support its tired old legs. Eventually it dies there, as did generations of elephants before it, its body eventually sinking below the surface and decaying or being eaten by crocodiles and catfish. After considerable time even the bones break down and only the almost indestructible tusks are left on the bed of the swamp.

Here they accumulate over centuries until a climate change or an alteration in the flow of a river leave the swamp to dry out, exposing the tusks which could be lying there in their hundreds or thousands. It is easy to see how the discovery of such a horde could lead to the legend of ‘ A Place Where Elephants Come to Die’. And in a literal sense it was true.

I also found another more prosaic reason for tusks to be gathered together in one place. Throughout most of Africa, dead wood is rapidly devoured by termites, often called ‘white ants’. Cattle-owning tribesmen would build stockades of wooden posts around their villages to keep out lions and other predators. These would last only a few years before being eaten away by termites and would then have to be replaced. If a native found a tusk, or more probably a pair of tusks, lying in the bush where an elephant had died or been killed, he and his fellow villagers would carry or drag the tusks home and plant them upright in the stockade to replace failing timber posts. Eventually the whole stockade would consist of vertical tusks, immune to the predatory termites and a sound defence for the villagers and their stock for generations.

Such large rings of tusks would last for centuries and, if the village was wiped out by disease, a natural disaster or an attack by an enemy tribe, then the ring would, over many years, collapse into a circle of tusks lying in the encroaching bush. The huts and other structures made of wood and thatch would by then have long disappeared. Finding such a circle of tusks in uninhabited country could easily have contributed to the legends of Elephant Graveyards.

It is a sad fact that such tusk-protected villages were sometimes found by Arab slave-traders who realised the value of the tusks themselves and who increased their trading profits by forcing the enslaved natives to carry the tusks to the coast on their way to slavery.

In my novel, God’s Elephants, the local San Bushmen, at some unspecified time in the past, worked with the local elephants to create a place safe from such robbery by slave traders and ivory hunters. The elephants call it ‘The Place of Peace’ and do make for it when they know that their lives are coming to an end.

Ivory is special in some difficult to describe way. Even though one knows that an elephant has died to provide the tusk from which some artefact or trinket has been carved, one cannot help feeling that the substance itself has some magical quality.

(Writers have a name for a concept or idea that is central to their story – a conceit. I was unaware of this until I started writing and it does mean something other than the usual meaning of this word.) One of the conceits in God’s Elephants is that elephants generate so much love that they store the excess in their tusks and they believe that humans have so little love in their lives that the reason they kill elephants is to steal theirs.

Wildlife films of elephants finding dead elephants with intact tusks, frequently show the live elephants running the tips of their trunks along the tusks of the dead ones as if they were reading some message hidden there. A second conceit in my book is that the life of an elephant is recorded in their tusks and the life-story of a dead one can be ‘read’ by a living one.

My fictional elephants also believe that a very special elephant, that they call Tembo Jay, lived among them some 2000 years earlier and taught them how to live by the mantra, ‘Be Kind, Be Gentle and Be Fair’. But that’s another story!

Actually, it’s not – it’s an important part of this one.

Click here to learn more about God’s Elephants.

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