Animal attraction

Manege, Jardin des Plantes, ParisTerm 6

It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège?  Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?

Tai Chi in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.

Skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions.  Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Bird skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Turtles, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Spines in Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris

The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology, Paris

Prehistory, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Fossils on the first floor

At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this.  It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human?  I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.

Feet of Bactrian camel, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Feet of Bactrian camel – thick pads between the toes stop it sinking into the sand
Deer skeleton, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Deer use strong muscles in the hind legs to jump. Front legs act as a pivot for changing direction.

There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement.  And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché  standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.

Model of human foot, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.

Arteries of the brain, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.

Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.

Dodo Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Vertebrata by Quentin Garel
Vertebrata by Quentin Garel

Growing up

Peacock umbrella at Kew GardensTerm 6

In the dog days of winter I long for colour and warmth, and the place for both is at the annual Orchid Festival in Kew Gardens.  On a grey and rainy day I made my way to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which was toasty, welcoming and packed with vibrant Thai-themed displays. Walkways and stepped paths led through a multi-coloured indoor pleasure garden, hung with delicate umbrellas, flowered archways, evocative animal scenes and stunning floral arrangements.   Avoiding selfie takers, family groups and the Room of Carnivorous Plants, I bathed in the tropical temperature and soaked up the bright hues, chasing away my late-winter blues.

Temple Kew Orchid Festival

Orchids in barrow at Kew

orchid arch at Kew

Thai umbrellas at Kew

After a while I became aware of the detail of the blooming orchids  – delicate gradations of pattern and colour blending with curved petals to form captivating shapes, almost symmetrical and yet not quite, each one individual.  And in amongst the foliage were gardeners carefully watering, monitoring and nurturing the plants, ensuring those in bloom stayed at their best, and the ones yet to emerge had the right conditions to flourish during the short life of the festival. orchids in close up

orchid petals

pale yellow orchids

As I continued my eye was drawn away from the gaudy flowers and towards the less showy leaves of the resident plants that thrive in the conservatory all year round.  In the past I wouldn’t have paid these much attention.  But now their spreading and flexible surfaces remind me of the way I’m uncurling and opening out as I get deeper into my training.  I see the anatomical everywhere and noticed in the leaves their long spines and ribs with a sense of openness and space, mirroring what’s happening within me.  They seemed firmly planted yet free to expand upwards and outwards towards the light, not bursting with colour like the orchids, but with a clear and strong presence in the conservatory.

large leaves

leaf

leaf

Leaves

In a way the process of training is like being a plant tended by thoughtful gardeners.  It’s no hothouse after quick results, but a warm and safe environment for three years, encouraging curiosity, exploration and growth. Teachers notice our clinging habits, and encourage us to let go and send roots into more nourishing ground.  Their hands and words guide wayward spines and limbs into a more dynamic and integrated shape. With daily attention they gently provide what we need to send us upwards, strong, light and open, firmly rooted but flexible.

Soon an outside Alexander gardener -our external moderator – will come to check me over. She visits twice, now towards the end of my second year and once more during my final term.  This time she’ll want to see how I’m progressing, whether I’m fully embedded in Alexander soil and how I need to develop over the coming year to bring me into bloom at the right time. Two years have passed since I started my training and it’s a year since I began this blog. Slowly but surely I’m growing up.

Kew red flowers

Kew red flower

Umbrella with orchids

Water buffalo at Kew

Flower lizard at Kew Gardens

Kew orchid festival

Flowers at Kew

 

 

Everything in cycles

Bike wheels suspendedTerm 6

London in 2018 is a riot of red, orange and yellow as bikes for hire hit the streets. The first to arrive a few years ago were Boris bikes, named for London’s then mayor.  They began their life decked out in blue, now they paint the town red to match new sponsor branding.  These are lumbering heavy creatures, elephants of the bicycle world. When not in use they idle in fixed docking stations across the capital. They never get punctures, are almost unbreakable and highly reliable.

'Boris bikes' at their docking station

Two lighter competitors have recently flown in: bright yellow Ofo from China and luminous orange Mobikes.  These have no fixed home, but flock together like parakeets in designated resting places, or sit cheerfully outside coffee shops and pubs. I’ve found them waiting singly and hopefully in parks or by the canal, never there for too long before being picked up and taken for a ride.

Orange Mobikes

I too progress through town on a bike. I learned to ride in childhood, and still delight in balancing and moving on two wheels. As student and commuter I cycled for many years to cover distance cheaply and independently.  I had no sense of how I moved and just wanted to get from A to B.

In the midst of pregnancy and family life I upgraded from bike to car. Back and neck problems duly put paid to regular bike rides and I stopped calling myself a cyclist. By the time I returned to my drop handlebar bike I’d begun Alexander lessons and nothing was quite the same.  My back was stronger and longer, I moved differently and saw myself, and cycling, in a new way.   My bike and I, after 27 years together, didn’t have much in common and parted company.

Since then I’ve played the field and been out on quite a few Boris bikes. Mostly these have been short functional experiences. Sometimes there are several in a day, though I’ve never seen any bike more than once. Just occasionally one of the family borrows my bike ‘key’. Then weekends perk up, and my journey history shows me returning in the early hours from the other side of town.

Last summer I had a longer fling on a German cycling holiday.

My holiday bike

Through cobbled streets and stormy nights we were very compatible, and I knew I was ready for something more permanent.  I returned home, and after much online searching thought I’d found ‘the one’.  We moved in together a couple of months ago and seemed right for each other.  By now Alexander thinking and improved body use was part of me, and it felt easier and less effort than before.  But it was not to be.  After just six weeks of bliss my bike was stolen from me by another, and I’m on my own again, older and wiser.

I chalked it up to experience, and decided I needed advice before putting myself out there again. I went for a lesson with cyclist and Alexander Technique teacher Barry Collins.  We discussed bikes and cycling while he worked with me in the chair and on the Alexander table, before moving to the standing bike set up in his teaching room. I came away from the session with a wealth of practical wisdom: what to look for in a new bike, how to set it up, where my weight should be as I ride, how to position myself on saddle, pedals and handlebars, and how to keep freedom and length as I cycle.

Back on Boris bikes, I’m riding with greater ease, hills are less challenging, I enjoy cycling more and I’m moving faster with less effort. I understand better how my body works in cycling and I’m ‘thinking in activity’ as I go. I’m ready for a new bike, but looks and performance don’t matter as much as before. When we finally get together I’ll know better what to do, and it’ll be as easy as …

Bikes parked in London

Bike on canal boat

Bike storage in central London

White ghost bike commemorating a cyclist who died at this road junction
Not all cyclists return home
Bike trailers on the car-free German island of Hiddensee, waiting by the quayside for the ferry
Bike trailers wait for the ferry on the car-free island of Hiddensee