March 2009


Is the earth alive? That depends on the criteria you use to determine life. Certainly not if you include criteria such as the ability to reproduce. But respond to stimuli? Respire? Those criteria are a little more difficult to determine. Certainly the earth is alive in a way that no other planet in our solar system is alive. And certainly it supports life as perhaps no other planet in the universe can. And that we owe to what happens not on the earth, but under it.

I will leave it to Ward and Brownlee, authors of Rare Earth to whom I owe this understanding of the process involved, to explain more clearly: “The final composition of the earth had several crucial structural effects. First enough metal was present in the early Earth to allow formation of an iron and nickel rich innermost region or core that is partially liquid. This enables the Earth to maintain a magnetic field, an invaluable property of a life-sustaining planet. Secondly there were enough radioactive metals, such as uranium, to make for a long period of radioactive heating of the inner regions of the planet. This endowed Earth with a long-lived inner furnace, which has made possible a long history of mountain building and plate tectonics, also necessary to maintain a suitable habitat for life. Finally the Earth was compositionally capable of producing a very thin outer crust of low density material which allows plate tectonics to operate. The thickness and stability of the Earth’s core, mantle and crust could only have come about by the most fortuitous assemblage of the correct elemental building blocks.” (Rare Earth, p. 50/1).

There’s that Anthropomorphic Principle again. It is nothing short of amazing how often it turns out that “fortuitous” circumstance lies at the core of all of the most essential ingredients of life, from the strength of gravity to our position in our galaxy (see previous posts on these topics). Can this all be circumstance or is it Design? But I digress: “The atmosphere was formed by out-gassing from the molten interior, which released volatiles originally carried to Earth in planetesimals bodies as well as by delivery from impacting comets. The composition and density of the atmosphere are influence by the amount and nature of the original accreted material of the Earth, and recycled by tectonic processes. The oceans of the Earth are a by-product of the out-gassing and formation of the atmosphere, and assist in regulating its composition.”

A self-regulating system, in other words. To this extent I agree with others who imagine that God started the Earth going and now simply watches benignly: the ‘God as Watchmaker’ view of the Creator. Certainly God has wisely and wonderfully made all things so that they could run without His having to do anything else. But that is not the God He has revealed Himself to be. He takes an active and personal interest in His creation, because He is an active and personal God. That may not be the current popular view of God, but then again, popular opinion never did count for much in the discovery of truth, did it?

It was popular opinion that the earth was flat, or perhaps sitting on the back of an elephant (Incidentally, that was never the Biblical view, anti-Christian slander notwithstanding. Three thousand years ago, long before Galileo, the Psalmist wrote that “God hung the world upon nothing”). Popular opinion now holds that the earth is an insignificant speck of dust with nothing to distinguish it. Proper scientific understanding teaches us otherwise. The earth with its remarkable sun and its amazing life-giving tectonic forces is perhaps the rarest thing in the universe, and we should certainly take better care of it.

We will be turning off our computer and lights now – not that we run much electricity anyway – and we encourage you to do the same. It won’t save much, all told, but it is a way of raising consciousness of the problems that we face as a global community.


I have a theory: the nicer your holiday, the harder your week will be when you return to work. Thanks to my mom and my sister, and the kindness of my extended family back in England that I hadn’t seen for four years, I had a really nice holiday. That explains my week back at work.

Pam was kind enough to invite a friend from Cambodia to stay with her for a week, and as a result has a very nasty bug that just won’t quit, and I have been jet-lagged, sick and exhausted all week. Of course a bad week in Malaysia is like an all-expenses paid cruise of the Caribbean: its not to hard to take at the worst of times.

All the same it is good to have that week behind me. This morning I actually woke up before the alarm (5.30am, thanks for asking. You?) and got my exercises in before I got up. Haven’t be able to do that all week, so I must be getting better. And it is the weekend, so I will be able to get caught up on a boat load of marking, so things are looking up. How’s your week been?



My flight from Humberside Airport to Schlipol in Amsterdam was very brief, but I had a six hour wait before my next flight to KL. What do you do with six hours in Amsterdam? No, it is not a trick question, but it would make a good conversation starter. The last time I passed through Amsterdam was with the teaching team I travelled to Malawi with. Most of them went on a tour of the Red Light District. I went to the Van Gogh Museum. I assure you, I had the more pleasurable experience.

This time I went to the Reichs Museum. It had been years since I had seen it last, and I read that there were a couple of Vermeer’s from the States on loan that I hadn’t seen before. I paid an extra five euros for the audio tour, and it was well worth the coin. The narrator was Jeroen Krabbe, a veteran European character actor (The Fugitive, Transporter 3), whose brother is an artist and who clearly loved the Dutch Masters. His insights were charming and valuable. Did you know that the red in Rembrandt’s painting was derived from crushed lice only found on a certain cactus? Or that Vermeer used real lapis lazuli for his blue? That combined with the thin cracks caused by aging catches the light causing the tablecloth in the picture above to appear almost iridescent.

The Dutch were indeed masterful painters, and represented a huge leap forward from the sterile canvasses of the Medieval Age. In some of their techniques they presaged the work of the Impressionists with their innovative layering and brush techniques and their brilliant use of light. With time at a premium I could only catch the main attractions of the museum, but it was well worth the effort to get into town, and time spent with Rembrandt is never a waste. What a student of human character he was! And Vermeer, such serenity of soul; it does one good just to get lost in his inner spaces.

The streets of Amsterdam were crowded with pedestrians, trams and the ubitquous bicycles. As with most European towns, cars were mercifully almost completely absent. I had a pleasant late lunch (art comes before food with me) overlooking the square and caught the fast train back to Schlipol with plenty of time to spare. I sat beside two pleasant British women who lived in the Yorkshire Dales, of all places! The plane was quiet, and I got some much needed rest. Pam had prepared the closest thing to a turkey dinner that can be managed in this country, and it was good to get back to Malaysia.


What has always amazed me about England is that in a country no bigger than British Columbia, with a population of 70 million people, there can be places in the heart of the country where there is virtually no one around. On my last day in England I excused myself and took off for a drive into the Yorkshire Dales, a national park around two and a half hours from where my sister lives in Lincolnshire.

The drive was nothing short of wondrous: beautiful scenery on a bright, sunny day with relatively little traffic. I drove through little towns with tiny pubs and humpbacked bridges, along narrow roads with stone walls through rolling brown and green hills dotted with sheep. And it was like that for hours! It was utterly charming and delightful, a wonderful tonic for the soul.

Coming home was a little less delightful. I made the mistake of thinking I could get home more quickly on the M1. Major mistake. It was a three lane parking lot, nothing more. I got off at the very next exit, which fortunately was only three miles down the road and headed for the back roads again. Rosey had loaned me a decent road atlas and I wove my way home on some very pleasant country roads with no trouble at all.

At the end of the road, just a few miles from my sister’s place, I stopped for a terrific pub meal: broiled plaice and roast vegetables at The Red Lion. Pubs are still by far the best places to eat in England, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. All together a great trip home, my only regret being that Pam wasn’t able to join me in it. But Air Asia has just secured the right to land in England, so there may well be a next time!

Road Sign

This is a road sign just a few miles down the road on the way to Lincoln. It is the name of a town, not directions for use of local amenities, although the ‘please drive carefully’ works in either case, don’t you think? A little further along the road you get to Ownby by Spital, and then Normanby by Spital.

If that tickles you funny bone, as it does mine every time I pass by, beyond Lincoln on the road to London is the town of Lower Bottom. I understand that there is also a Middle Bottom and a Little Bottom close by. Cheek by jowl, as it were.

Last night on the ‘telly’ there was a news item of a local fair featuring a four mile horse race that has been run every year since 1519. At the same festival there was a cheese rolling contest, where teams take one metre diameter rounds of cheese and roll them down a hill. In order to keep them going the teams roll down the hill beside the cheese, and here was the newscaster doing a straight up account of the contest as all these cheeses and all the contestants tumbled over one another in a chaotic fall down a very steep hill. It was hilarious!

It is this combination of the very historic and the very silly – the sublime and the ridiculous, if you will – that gives England its charm: the pomp and circumstance of the longest monarchial dynasty on the planet, as well as the home of Peter Sellers, Monty Python and Mr. Bean.

Mom, Jack and Verity

Mom doesn’t get out much anymore. Travel is a problem when you are ninety, even in a country that takes care of its elderly the way Britain does. So Mom had never seen the latest edition to her growing family, Jack Chappell, the first-born son of my nephew Colin and Verity Chappell, until yesterday.

Verity was kind enough to bring both Jack and my sister Rosey into Lincoln and we arranged to meet at an inn on the outskirts of town, not far from the cathedral area where Mom and Dad used to live. It was a happy occasion for all, but especially for Mom, who was charmed by Jack’s sunny disposition. Afterwards I took Mom out for her favourite meal: pancakes with Canadian maple syrup and ice cream!

Great Grandma Wise

I am in England while Pam is still back in Malaysia. The reason for my visit is my mother’s birthday. She is turning 90! Doesn’t look it, does she?

Mom is part of what has come to be called “the heroic generation”: those who fought Hitler in the last great war; many of whom died in places they had scarcely heard of before the war started. My father fought in Africa and India, running the motor pool at Cheringa in what is now Bangladesh, which was the airbase closest to the front line against the Japanese in Burma. While we were in Bangladesh ourselves I visited the cemetary where over half his regiment were buried in that conflict.

Needless to say Mom and Dad survived that war, Mom going through the Blitz in London and manning radar stations in the south. Married during the war, they were reunited after a separation of five years and began a family. I am the youngest of their three surviving children that emigrated to Canada in the mid-fifties to escape the privations of post-war England. With nothing more than courage and hope they began anew in Canada and built a life that saw all three of their children to a post secondary education that a devastating war had stolen from them. They retired back to England, and Dad passed away while we were in Germany in the mid-nineties.

All three of their children married and had children, giving them seven grandchildren. Three of those grandchildren are now married, giving them five great grandchildren. That’s fifteen people on this planet that owe their life and their heritage to this truly heroic couple. Only one of them remains, and at ninety Great Grandma Wise is still as sharp as she ever was, with all her faculties and memories intact. It has been a real delight to visit with her again.

Lincoln Bailgate

Spring has already arrived in England. The daffodils and crocuses are in bloom and the grass is green. Colin, my nephew, is eager to get on his fields and get the Spring planting underway. The warm Gulf Stream brings heat early to this part of the world, and the sun is up by six and beginning to have some strength.

On the cobblestone streets of this quaint provincial town are streams of shoppers, tourists and tradespeople who have barely missed a beat from their regular rounds since last autumn. Everyone complains bitterly about how cold it was last winter here, but there really was only a couple of major dumps of snow, and even that disappeared pretty quickly. Hardly worth a headline in a Canadian newspaper.

Street life is therefore possible for almost the entire year, and as a result there are little stores and shops, teahouses and pubs on almost every corner. Lincoln Bailgate, the part of town closest to the cathedral, is particularly thick with them, although Lincoln High Street is similarly busy. The Bailgate and High Street have been closed to traffic for years, as long as I have been coming here. People move around freely, from shop to pub without having to risk injury by dodging cars and trucks, as we do in Canada.

Because of our weather, our lack of city planning, our obsession with the automobile and our indolence, we in North America have allowed our street life to be choked by featureless malls. That hasn’t happened in England, nor in Europe. They have kept their charming individuality and the sturdy independence of their shopkeepers in defiance of the modern trend toward a uniform blandness. In terms of the quality of social life this gives, they win, we lose.


I was not born in Lincoln, but in Colchester, which is just outside of London. But as I was six when we emigrated to Canada, Colchester means little to me. Lincoln, on the other hand, was where my family settled when they moved back to England. First my sister, who married a Lincolnshire farmer, then Mom and Dad, when his company closed up shop in Canada, and relocated him back here. I have been coming here every two to five years to visit my family ever since.

Lincoln is everything you think of when you think of England; old, quaint and green. There are few hills in this farming county, but on top of the largest sits the imposing Lincoln Cathedral. Construction began in 972, and continued for some three hundred years; fathers passing their skills and their position in the guild to their sons for generations. The result is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture anywhere in Europe.

Coming here evokes a mixture of reverence and relief: reverence for the spiritual and historical traditions of my British heritage, and relief at being free of the terrible burden of that heritage. The beauty of Lincoln’s cloistered galleries carries the claustrophobia of its suffocating rituals that eventual choked the life of the Spirit of Christ’s church in England. Malaysia, with all of its draconian laws, has done less to inhibit the life-giving message of Christ’s resurrection and glory that the weight of that dead ecclesiastical tradition. All of England suffers from that irrepairable loss.

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