Nature Observations (lockdown 2021)

leaves

 

We often talk about time as if it is real, yet according to Albert Einstein and many scientists, time is only an illusion. Time is subjective and personal, and everyone has their own concept of time. In Zen Buddhism, the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), also wrote about time or ‘uji’ in Japanese, which is usually translated as ‘Being-Time’. The most common interpretation of the two kanji characters is: “time is existence and that all existence is time.” According to Dogen, we are time, and time is us. Time is a complex subject, and I don’t intend to dwell on it here, but personally, the lockdown has made me become more aware of my relationship with time.

During the pandemic, my digital calendar and paper planners were mostly blank for about 2 years. I had no work events or social engagements to attend, and no upcoming holiday to look forward to. I am sure that many people experienced some sort of anxieties when all the short and long term plans suddenly came to a halt. And with so much ‘time’ on our hands, how were we going to spend it?

Perhaps for the first time in life, I did not have to check my watch, clocks and calendar frequently. I stopped planning, and after a while, time became ‘insignificant’. I could ‘waste’ it day after day without feeling guilty about not being productive enough. When I finally let go of ‘time’, I felt liberated. I learned to slow down and live each day as it comes.

Instead of obsessively checking the clocks for time and calendar for dates, I began to observe time through plants and flowers when I went out for walks during the lockdown. Nature became the measuring device for me.

 

Winter

Perhaps it is a misconception to think that flowers do not bloom during winter. In fact, there are many evergreen shrubs and flowers that thrive in the winter like Snowdrops, Hellebores, Eranthis, Primrose, and Viburnum tinus Eve Price etc. During my lockdown walks, I would come across some blooming flowers despite the cold weather. With less distractions and stimulations, I found joy in identifying unknown plant species during my strolls around London.

 

Hedera colchica  Algerian iris

Hellebores

japanese skimmia  Iris foetidissima

First left: Hedera colchica/ Persian Ivy; First right: Algerian iris; 2nd row: Hellebores; bottom left: Japanese skimmia; Bottom right: Iris foetidissima

 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of winter plants or flowers are the array of vibrant colours. There are bright pinks, reds, violets, and yellows – these are colours normally associated with spring/summer, yet they can be seen during the winter too. Time passes quickly when you place your focus on the surrounding nature rather than on yourself – the lockdown probably created an environment for introspection, yet too much of it would make us too self-focused due to less interactions with the outside world.

 

Red twig dogwoods  red maple leaves

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Eranthis   Mahonia

 Viburnum tinus Eve Price

Viburnum tinus Eve Price  Hellebores

First left: Red twig dogwoods; First right: maple leaves: 2nd: snowdrops; 3rd left: Eranthis; 3rd right: Mahonia; 4th & Bottom left: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; Bottom right: Hellebore

 

Euonymus europaeus  Chaenomeles

Chaenomeles

WEIGELA PINK POPPET

Magenta Hebe

First left: Euonymus europaeus; first right & 2nd: Chaenomeles; 3rd: Weigela Pink Poppet; last row: Magenta Hebe

 

Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant'

Erica carnea, the winter heath

Clematis armandii

Primrose – Primula vulgaris

First: Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’; 2nd: Erica carnea/the winter heath; 3rd: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; 4th: Clematis armandii; Bottom: Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

 

My favourite time of the year is autumn and spring. Around late February and early March, the day light hours would last longer, which means spring is in the air. The gradual increase of sunshine and day light makes a huge diference to the ecology and humans. We start to notice daffodils blooming everywhere, and seeing the golden yellow colour covering the parks immediately uplifts our moods and spirits.

 

daffadils  daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

Daffodils

 

On the grounds, there are daffodils, and when we look up, we would see seas of sumptuous white and pink magnolias over our heads. Magnolia shrubs seem to be ommonly planted in people’s gardens in London as I tend to see them a lot when I walk around my neighbourhood.

 

Magnolia  Magnolia

pink magnolia

Magnolia

White and pink magnolia

 

For those (including me) who yearned to go to Japan but couldn’t for the last few years, the joy of viewing cherry blossom seemed to have become a distant memory. Yet London is also a good place for sakura viewing; even though it is not as spectatular as Japan, the number of Japanese cherry trees being planted in the U.K. have been increasing over the years. As far as I am aware, there is only one white-flowering cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis) standing alone the middle of an open field in Hampstead heath, and when it blooms, it is quite stunning. The next obvious place to view sakura would be Regent’s Park, both inside and on the outer ring.

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

A white-flowering cherry tree/ Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in Hamspstead heath

 

cherry tree

cherry blossom

cherry trees

cherry blossom

Cherry trees in Regent’s park

 

The lesser-known sakura viewing spot is the residential neighbourhood, Swiss Cottage. The open space in around Hampstead theatre and Swiss Cottage library features rows of white-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis) and pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’). When the flowers are in bloom, they do look quite spectacular and make you feel you are in Japan for a second. Since it is a recreation space, it may even be possible to have a viewing picnic party there (weather permitted).

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom  cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

The stunning pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) in Swiss Cottage

 

In spring, we would often see a lot of beautiful camellias in various colours, especially Camellia japonica, which is the predominate species of the genus. Besides that, we might be able to spot some ravishing rhododendrons or azaleas ( particularly at Kew Gardens) blooming in people’s gardens.

 

Camellia Japonica  img_5512 

camellia

img_5643  img_5321-min

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Camellia – Top & 2nd rows: Japonica Camellia

 

rose

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

buddleia

primrose

First: rose; 2nd & 3rd: Rhododendron; 4th: buddleia; botton: primrose

 

If you are not a fan of showy ornamental plants/flowers, there are plenty of wild spring flowers that are captivating too. Personally, I am quite fascinated by gorse/ulex (commonly seen around the UK especially in Scotland), which is an evergreen shrub with bright yellow pea-like flowers and spiny leaves. The flowers are eible and can be used as a medicinal tea, as well as a natural dye, producing a yellow colour on the fabrics.

 

Forsythia

gorse

Top: Forsythia; Bottom: common gorse

 

Spring is also the season to enjoy various lilac/blue/violet flowers like Ceanothus, Periwinkles, wisteria, lavender and bluebells. Ceanothus are popular garden shrubs in the UK, and their lilac flowers are particularly impressive.

However, when it comes to popularity, wild bluebells certainly rank quite high up on the list. Besides cherry blossoms, the bluebell seasons are highly anticipated by many too. It is quite easy to spot bluebells in spring, but the best places to view are still in the woods. Whenever I see a stunning carpet of blue in the woodlands, I would feel instantly quite ecstatic. There are two main types of bluebells in the U.K.: the British bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the native ones are being protected by law as they are under threat now.

 

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Periwinkle

bluebell

bluebells

bellflower

Top & 2nd: Ceanothus; 3rd: Periwinkle; last three: bluebells

 

When I immerse myself in nature, I could see the cycles of nature and life. Flowers bloom, wither, and are replaced by other species as the seasons change. When there is a beginning, there will be an end… though the cycle will continue to repeat itself indefinitely. It does not matter if we can’t figure out what ‘time’ is, the more important thing is to live in the present. We are now living in a more precarious and unpredictable world, hence we ought to enjoy each day as it comes. If you feel down/ stressed/ anxious, why not head outside and spend time in nature to get lost in time? I highly recommend it.

 

Lockdown walks in London (Winter/Spring 2021)

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath, 28th Dec 2020

 

It is January 2023, and I have not updated my blog for about 2 years. Although a lot has happened in the past three years, everything seems like a blur to me now. How did I pass my time during the lockdown days? When did the lockdown end? I don’t recall much now. Luckily, I did take many photos during that surreal period, and now I am looking at them trying to recall my weekly activities. After being stuck in Hong Kong for most of 2020, I returned to the U.K. at the beginning of Dec 2020, just days before the second/ third lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson. In hindsight, I would not have returned if I had known that there would be another lockdown. However, I was lucky to have missed the initial lockdowns in 2020, and only had to endure four months of lockdown in London, which turned out to be not as challenging as I had imagined.

 

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath  hampstead heath

winter

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath from winter to spring

 

For months, I did not take any public transport and I walked everywhere. I walked to Camden Town, Hampstead Heath, Paddington, Oxford Street, Regent street, Covent Garden, Kings Cross etc. I saw a London that I have never seen before – deserted. Yet it enabled me to appreciate the city’s beautiful architecture, especially around Oxford Street. Perhaps the hardest part for me during the lockdown was not being able to meet up with friends (apart from a couple who live near me), and I had to rely on the weekly farmers’ market for some human interactions (not via zoom or Facetime). And over the few months, I became rather obsessed with cooking – though as much as I enjoyed creating new dishes, I was completely sick of eating my own cooking by the end of the lockdown.

 

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

Primrose Hill

 

Walking around London during the lockdown made me notice the surroundings more – I started to see all the architectural details that I had missed in the past. Usually I would not look up while walking down Oxford Street as I am more concerned with avoiding the crowds around me. Yet without crowds or heaps of tourists, I was able to saunder down the streets and appreciate the historic architecture in the city.

 

Regent's Park

Regent's Park  Regent's Park

Regent's Park

regent's park

Regent’s Park

 

Oxford Street and Camden market are places that I would normally avoid as I don’t really like crowded places. However, during the lockdown, it gave me joy to wander through the empty (and rather eerie) Camden market. Meanwhile I also felt sympathetic towards the shops and businesses, and was particularly sad to see my favourite eateries/cafes in the neighbourhood close down due to the pandemic.

 

chalk farm

camden town  camden town

camden town

regent's canal

camden tow

camden town

camden town

Camden Town and Regent’s canal

 

At the end of winter, Hampstead Heath and Regent’s park were becoming as packed as Bond Street before the pandemic, and I started to change my walking routes. Instead of going to parks, I did more walks along the Regent’s canal. I headed east towards Kings Cross and west towards Paddington along the canal… these walks lasted only a few hours but they were uplifting especially on a clear and sunny day.

 

kings cross

kings cross

Kings Cross’s Coal Drops Yard

 

Two years on, it seems unlikely that we will experience another lockdown soon (fingers crossed), and what I miss most about that period is the sounds of nature ( like birds chirping while walking down the streets) and cleaner air. The pandemic made many of us (city dwellers) evaluate our relationships with nature and our cities. It is hardly surprising that many Londoners decided to move to the countryside during/ after the pandemic. Nature has healing power, which is why so many of us turned to nature during an anxious and unpredictable period.

 

abbey road  abbey road

covid

Little venice

Little venice

paddington

paddington

paddington

Top: Abbey Road; Second: Maida Vale; 3rd & 4th: Little Venice; 5th to bottom: Paddington

 

According to a report commissioned by the City of London Corporation, London is the greenest major city in Europe and the third greenest city of its size in the world. The metropolis contains 35,000 acres of public parks, woodlands and gardens, hence 40% of its surface area is made up of publicly accessible green space. Our public green space is precious, and I hope Londoners will continue to cherish and protect it.

 

london  bbc

regent street

carnaby street  carnaby street

oxford street

riba  riba

Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street; Bottom: RIBA

 

mosque

img_5138

img_5153

img_5162

img_5169

Top: The London Central Mosque; Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle

 

covent garden

covent garden

Covent garden

 

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

A long walk around Chorleywood and Hertfordshire in spring

Six years on: Peng Chau revisited

Hong Kong skyline

ferry to peng chau

peng chau

 

After my trip to Japan was cancelled due to COVID19, I was stuck in Hong Kong for many months… and like many locals, I felt rather claustrophobic after spending days on end indoor. Luckily, unlike the U.K. and many Western countries, there was no lockdown in the city, hence it was still possible to roam around town – at your own risk.

When the covid cases dropped and the hot summer was over ( I found it hard to cope with Hong Kong’s humid summers), I was able to do more outdoor activities again. I decided to revisit Peng Chau after a six-year gap (see my earlier blog entry here), as I thoroughly enjoyed the island’s tranquil and unspoilt environment. Has the island changed over the last six years? Yes, certainly, but currently it is still less ‘developed’ than other islands such as Cheung Chau and Lamma Island.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

One notable difference from my last visit was that there were considerable more visitors due to the global travel restrictions. Stuck within the small city, many lcoals are starting to appreciate nature and fresh air, and they are desperate to get out of the urban jungle – who can blame them? In the past, Peng Chau was probably the least visited Outlying Islands in Hong Kong as it is the smallest and the least commercial. However, the pandemic changed everything, and even Peng Chau has become a hot spot for local tourists.

When I visited six years ago, the island’s eateries were divided into two categories: big seafood restaurants or small cha cheng tengs. Western-style cafes were almost non-existent, let alone bars… now there are a few more cafes including a cosy Island Table Grocer Cafe (9 Peng Chau Wing Hing St) and a tiny Japanese tea room, Daruma Chaya (38 Wing On Street).

 

peng chau

peng chau daruma chaya

peng chau  peng chau

 

There was not much to see at the dilapidated Grade III listed former leather factory six years ago aside from a plaque commermorating the island’s once booming manufacturing industry. But over the past few years, a local resident, Sherry Lau, rented the 4000 square metres factory and began to convert it into an art hub filled with junk collected from the island. An alleyway off the Wing On Street would lead you to ‘My secret garden’, featuring some interesting junk art, street art murals, and an antique shop (also an Airbnb). It is very unusual to see junk yards like this in Hong Kong, and I am glad that Ms Lau took the initiative to transform the derelict space into something so unique. It seemed very popular with local tourists as it certainly was a selfie hotspot during my visit…

 

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

my secret garden

peng chau

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

‘My secret garden’/former leather factory

 

Since Peng Chau is a very small island (0.99 square kilometres to be exact), it is easy to walk around the island within a few hours. I went up to Finger Hill first, the tallest point of the island, but the view here is a bit disappointing, so don’t get your hopes up too high. Personally, I prefer walking along the Peng Yu Path, a coastal path where you would pass by many empty sandy beaches with Hong Kong’s skyline as the backdrop.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

One significant change took place since my last visit and it is the new addition of residential developments on the island, notably the row of luxury residential houses overlooking the sea near the pier. I can’t say that I am surprised by this because property development is contantly taking place in Hong Kong. But I am wondering if the island will lose its charm as more (wealthy) outsiders move here. Will the island become another Discovery Bay, which is full of expats, upmarket restaurants and bars? Six years ago, I was charmed by the island’s unspoilt, low-key and calm environment, but I wonder if this is under threat now – I sincerely hope not.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

When I headed back to Central at around 5pm, the waiting area at the pier was completely packed and social distancing was all out of the window. And to my surprise, every seat of the ferry was taken despite the fact that this was a weekday afternoon… Not being able to travel meant that bored Hong Kongers are seeking out local sights to visit, and hiking has become one of the most popular activities during the pandemic. It would be fine if people respect nature and the environment, but many of them don’t, which is very frustrating. I think the pandemic has made many people realise the importance of nature in our lives, but outdoor ettiquette needs to be followed too.

I wonder how Peng Chau is going to evolve in the future, especially if more people are looking into moving out of urban areas after the pandemic. Perhpas its limited infrastructure is stopping people from moving here, I guess only time will tell.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

papaya  plant peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

Peng Chau’s tree, plants and flowers

 

 

A global pandemic is the time for reflection and change

sky

 

 

Like everyone else around the world, my life has been vastly disrupted by Covid-19. I was traveling in India for a month until early March, and luckily left before it started to spread, which eventually led to a nationwide lockdown on 25th March. Then I arrived in Hong Kong days before the government imposed a 14-day quarantine for all inbound travellers. So far so lucky.

Sadly, my three-month stay in Japan had to be cancelled/postponed. All the courses that I enrolled onto were postponed to next year, just like the Olympics, which may or may not happen. I have been stuck in Hong Kong for months because all the flights were grounded until July, followed by a hike in all the airfares back to the U.K. I have no idea when I can return back to the U.K., and it is causing a bit of a problem for my work. Uncertainty is causing anxiety for everyone, and we somehow have to get used to it or even learn to embrace it.

How and why did it happen? When will this all end? Where do we go from here? What is our future going to be like? There are so many questions but very few anwers or even solutions. A majority of the population on this planet has never experienced a pandemic before, and we struggled to cope, physically and mentally. Yet it didn’t happen out of the blue, many scientists and visionaries had predicted it years before it happened, including Bill Gates. In 2015, Bill Gates gave a talk at the TED conference, aptly titled: “The next outbreak? We’re not ready”.

 

 

 

In Buddhist teaching, the law of karma refers to the law of cause and effect: that every volitional act brings about a certain result. It is the law of nature. In this case, we only have ourselves to blame. The cause of the pandemic is complex, but it is the result of human actions, regardless of whether they were intentional or not. Our planet has been sick for some time, and yet we continue to destroy and abuse it, and perhaps this is nature’s retaliation on us. I truly feel that nature has been too kind to mankind, and this is a stark warning sign for us all.

When governments place economic growth and technological developments as their top priorities, while disregarding the environmental impact on the planet, an imbalance would occur. This imbalance did not happen overnight. We are now dealing with numerous issues that have been accumulating over the past few decades such as climate change, pollution, electronic and plastic waste, deforestation, resource scarcity, antibiotic resistance, and overtourism… the list goes on. These are all man-made issues. We are killing our planet and we need to stop it asap.

During the pandemic, most planes were grounded, which meant that the air quality around the world improved as a result. Besides airplanes, luxury cruises were halted, road traffic was reduced substantially because of lockdowns; suddenly everyone has to go back to basics. Actually we don’t have much choice. This is the time to reflect and focus on what is most important to us. It turns out that most of us value our health and families more than money, work, fashion, and holidays.

I believe that crisis can bring opportunity and change. I only started my business due to a personal crisis; my suffering made me stronger and more motivated. If I hadn’t hit rock bottom, I probably would not have had the courage to start a business. All of us have the ability to changes our lives, and I believe the time is now. Instead of moaning about lockdowns/staying indoors, you can take the opportunity to do more indoor activities, and spend more quality time with our families. Often I would go into hibernation in winters, so staying in is not an issue for me.

Slowing down or being stagnated does not always feel comfortable, but it is essential sometimes. Maybe we need to accept that the world has been heading down a wrong path for decades, and now we need to readjust in order to find a more balanced path. I was quite pessimistic about our future before the pandemic, yet now I feel that there is still hope… if we become more aware/consicious of our actions, then we can make positive changes for ourselves and the environment. At the end of the day, our enemy is not the virus, but ourselves.