Japanese artist Makoto Azuma lets his imagination soar in the most uplifting way. Last week the acclaimed Japanese botanical sculptor took off from his high-end Ginza flower shop and headed for the Nevada desert to send flowers up into the stratosphere.
Why? ”I wanted to see the movement and beauty of plants and flowers suspended in space,” he said. It's as good a reason as any for his project, called Exobotanica. See more info in a New York Times story.
A 50-year-old white pine bonsai tree from his own collection was first to head for the heavens under a helium balloon supplied by JP Aerospace, a volunteer outfit that describes itself as 'America's Other Space Program'.
Next up was a bouquet of bright blooms from all around the world chosen specially to stand out against the blackness of space at high altitude. Naturally there were cameras aplenty to record both beautiful ascents.
After the balloons burst (at around 90,000 feet) the devices that held the plants parachuted back to Earth and were retrieved, but not the plants… they were lost up there or presumably fluttered back down in fragments.
You might say, what's the point? Aren't there better things to do in the world? Well, in a time when the world is awash with horrific images, I think pictures like this do us a great service. To see such beauty - the ground beneath and its fruits flying above - does the heart good.
As usual the world’s current major crises are about borders. Where they lie. Who lives on either side of them. Who believes they deserve to own a chunk of land on the other side.
People would not be being blasted by bombs in Gaza or lying dead in the sunflower fields of Ukraine, were it not for men fighting over borders.
We often hear that religion has been the cause of most of the world’s wars. Sure, hard to argue with that. But there's also the business of borders, first invented way back in ancient history by tribes who liked their valley or plain or hillside or slice of seashore, and wanted it to keep it for themselves.
The thinking is that the land I stand on is mine and that bit over there is yours. We’ve worked hard to stake our claim and survive here and this place is now embedded in our stories and our hearts. We may trade and even intermarry with you, but if you make a move to invade us or take what we see as ours, then sharpen your weapons – for we shall fight you for it.
Of course, borders have changed over time – a map showing just how much Europe and Central Asia have altered is now doing the rounds on social media. Armies have rampaged back and forth, men and women have been slaughtered by the million… all because chiefs and kings decided what they really, really wanted was to own and control more territory.
Humans should have seen the insanity of that proposition when the space race began half a century ago. For the first time ever, we could get far enough away to see that there was just one blue world for us all to live on. And that from out there, no borders were detectable at all.
In our heads we see dotted lines separating nations, and washes of colour denoting different countries sitting side by side. Old school atlases matter-of-factly presented these images to generations of children. The 19th century Japanese plate above shows how universal was the idea of division.
These things all said, this is the way the world is.
Not so. They are figments of our imagination. They are no more real than dreams. They are a story we tell ourselves. They are a story we need to reframe if we are ever to put a stop to the bloodshed.
We can look to the European Union as a hopeful sign. Fighting the people next door was once a way of life. But since World War II there's been a remarkable degree of peace and you can now drive over most borders in that part of the world without even showing ID, let alone sharpening your sword.
As with everything that matters, borders have their good and bad sides. Countering the negative stuff is the other truth – that people living within their own enclaves have developed art, language, music, rituals and imagery that is precious to every nation.
We don’t want a world so bland that we lose those things. Working out how to stop the conflicts while still retaining the best of the heritage is one of the biggest challenges for the 21st century.
Some gutsy pioneers are already leading the way by working without bias or preference, regardless of where on Earth they are or who they’re with.
For example, think of the world's many international charities. And the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, and Reporters Without Borders, made up of people willing to risk their lives to follow their calling.
And there’s more – Speakers Without Borders, Mathematics Without Borders, Sports Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, Retirement Without Borders, and – inevitably – Apps Without Borders.
Some of these aren’t humanitarian movements at all but titles of conferences and products – but ‘without borders’ is tag-line that’s spreading. We seem to be liking the concept of a world without divisions. There's much to do but it's an idea whose time has surely come.
Popping back into Europe again for the first time in about five years reminded me all over again of how universal some ideas are.
Such as this - the blue ceilings in corners of 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, scattered with golden stars.
The first time I saw this idea was in Egyptian temples - thousands of years old - painted in a time when the ancients believed that stars winking in the heavens were the souls of the dead.
In Rome a few weeks ago I gazed up at Michelangelo's stunning ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and learnt for the first time that before he started his mammoth four-year paint job in 1508, it too was simply a blue ceiling covered with gold stars.
Deep blue sky and stars - it's the one thing every person in every nation on Earth shares as a canopy. And before electric light, how familiar it must have been. Gazing skywards, by night or day, can give us time to dream and plan and, as we so often call it, 'reach for the stars'.
All these years later it still looks wonderful and still works perfectly as inspiration for anyone who's dreamed big.
It's amazing, huh, how long we can take to get around to reading highly recommended books. My better-late-than-never read this month has been Lloyd Jones's Mr Pip. Seven years old now, it was short-listed for Britain's prestigious Booker prize and then made into a move starring Hugh Laurie.
Haven't seen that, but the book is terrific. I loved, apart from its moving story, Jones's skill in observing the simplest things about Pacific Ocean sea and sky.
In one scene he has an old woman come to school to talk to the kids about the colour blue. She is near-blind, leaning on her sticks, but she wants the children to notice the blue all around them. She says: "Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats."
And: "If blue was an animal or a plant or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything."
What's more, says the old lady it has magical powers. "You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?"
Simple question. Sharp thoughts. What a lovely mind Mr Jones possesses.
That picture's not taken in Bougainville, where his story is set, I snapped it in Fiji. But it's there all the same, that blue he writes about - the gap in the air of all things.
This blog is all about the positive aspects of blue. But of course blue has plenty of playmates in the realm of colour – so many of them that we're almost losing sight of what they mean. Here's a brief look at the confusion colours can cause. So many split personalities!
Way back in the 1950s there was a kid in South Wales who grew up with a liking for music. He had piano lessons and kept on doodling around on the keyboard in his teens. In the end he went to drama school but music still had a hold on him.
On November 7, 1964, passing time at the piano in the green room in the Liverpool Playhouse, he dreamed up a waltz. He can even remember now the smell of stale coffee and how the weather was that day – “rainy, damp and cold”.
Someone came in and asked what he was playing. “Oh, just something I’m making up, fiddling around with,” said the actor.
“It’s beautiful,” said the other guy. “You should write it down.” And that was it. The actor put it on paper, stored it away, and got on with his performing career. He would go on to become the much feted Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Half a century later, watching a classical show on TV, he saw music maestro Andre Rieu conducting one of his spectacular Strauss performances. And suddenly thought that here was the man who could bring his old waltz to life. Hopkins had never heard it played and wondered if he could possibly make it happen.
He picked up the phone.
Rieu constantly hears from composers convinced he will love their work and was about to say no, yet again, when he realized who was making this request. “Send the notes over,” he said.
The notes arrived, Rieu liked what he saw, and in time Hopkins was invited to Vienna to hear his own piece played in public for the very first time.
As the video shows, Hopkins is overwhelmed, his wife Stella is in tears, the audience is rapturous.
Richard Wilkins interviewed the famous actor about that moment for Australia’s Today Show back in 2011.
Hopkins revealed deep modesty as he talked about how he felt that night: “I thought, this is extraordinary. I can’t believe I wrote this. I’m sitting here, this little boy from South Wales… this doesn’t figure.”
I love stories like this about deep surprises, about bolts from the blue. Hopkins’ music came to him out of the blue that day in 1964 – and the experience was so vivid he can remember every detail.
When, half a century later, Andre Rieu got a call from the famous actor it was a bolt from the blue for him too. “I almost fainted,” he said as he introduced the piece to his audience.
Rieu also let slip that Hopkins had never pushed his music out into the world before because he’d been “too scared”.
Scared? One of the world’s most admired actors? What a good thing it is for the rest of us far less accomplished people to know… that even the brightest amongst us have their own fears and insecurities. And that maybe all we need to do too is pick up the phone, like he did.
This story is a few years old but even old stories are worth repeating. I latched onto it only because it got posted on Facebook, a “blue” institution (what other colour could its logo be?). Sometimes Facebook drives us crazy but in its most stellar moments it allows millions of people to connect around the world in the best possible way.
We tend to think it's only today's artists who push boundaries and think outside squares. But every now and again it does your heart good to go back in history to admire something stunning from more than 500 years ago. Like this piece – Botticello's Cestello Annunciation, which hangs today in Florence's Uffizi Gallery.
I love it.
It blends crisp modernity (all those crisp frames and angles and geometric floor) with a kind of science-fiction vibe. Outside, a stark tree towers above distant dreamlike castles.
Then, at centre front, a crouching angel with waves of energy streaming beneath his wings show how he's just dropped into the room, knees cushioning his swift descent.
It's a shock and awe moment. 'Get away from me!' Mary's hands are saying. 'It's okay!' Gabriel is urging. Of course, this being the Renaissance period, when the Madonna seems always to have been depicted as utterly calm no matter what, her face is no more animated than a doll's. No gasps or screams from this girl. The action is all in their bodies. Swap their robes for something fitted, new and funky and they could be dancers mid-movement in a 21st century nightclub.
Her cloak is deep blue, applied with the period's most expensive paint. It was made from powdered lapis lazuli, hacked from a mine in far-off Afghanistan and hauled all the way to Europe. Only this blue was good enough for the Madonna then and the only possible choice for an artist at the peak of his big-thinking powers.
PS Many more wonderful old European paintings at the Web Gallery of Art
Art speaks volumes in this lovely piece. It's by a woman who grew up in Pakistan, wed an American and moved to the States. The marriage did not last but she'd studied textile design in Pakistan and went on working at her passion for mixed-media art to become an assistant professor in Indianapolis.
When Anila Quayyum Agha was growing up in Lahore there were beautiful mosques everywhere, all filled with magnificent pattern and design, but she never saw inside those buildings. For a girl that was impossible. Only men and boys were allowed in.
On a trip to the Alhambra palaces in Spain a few years ago she saw at last, in person, the Islamic art that had been denied her as a child. All fired up. she returned to Indianapolis and began to create this beautiful thing, her 'Intersections' cube. A year in the making, it's a two-metre square laser-cut wooden cube with a single light in its centre. Hung from a gallery ceiling, that light spreads its beauty all around.
What a wonderful metaphor for the life of a girl whose early years were so constrained and restricted - and whose family became scorned and marginalised because her engineer father happened to work for President Bhutto, who was overthrown and hanged.
Agha's spirit could not be boxed in. Now, see how she shines. It has messages for all of us who've ever felt hemmed in.
Ironically, when she entered her piece in an art contest it scored only third place. But since then images have been posted and re-posted on the internet, drawing approval from all over the planet.
Thanks to @CKightlinger and the Sky Blue Window blog for alerting me to this cool example of truly expansive thinking.
Anthropologists have been very excited lately about the discovery that humans living 7000 years ago had striking looks, sporting a blend of blue eyes and dark skin.
The full story is here on the National Geographic site, along with the artist's impression you see at left of a possible blue-eyed cave boy.
In studying the DNA of a skeleton found in a cave in northern Spain, researchers found that our ideas of what colours European humans commonly carry are pretty muddled.
In our minds we have blue-eyed, pale-skinned blondes as the inheritors of genes from Scandinavia and northern Europe, with Mediterranean people being pretty much of the brown-eyes-and-dark-hair persuasion.
It's a wrong impression, it seems, as the new work on genetics reveals blue-eyed hunter gatherers with dark skin were common all over Europe way back seven millennia ago.
You might think well, so what? But attitudes to eye colour are intriguing.
The term 'blue-eyed boy', meaning a precious person who can do no wrong, has its own odd history. Using it, as we do today, to mock someone who is seen as a pampered favourite, reveals an attitude that could have its roots in ancient Rome.
Michele Pastouraux's fascinating book, Blue: the History of a Colour, tells how blue eyes were considered almost a deformity in Rome or at the very least a sign of bad character. "In women it indicated loose morals," he wrote. "In men it was seen as an effeminate, barbarian or laughable trait." Blue eyes were associated with those bad-boy Celts from the north who were intent on destroying the Roman Empire. Being a blue-eyed worker on the Appian Way then must have sucked.
Yet today, of course, blue-eyed beings are much admired whether they're movie stars like Cate Blanchett or the giggling infants in the baby-care ads.
No wonder James Cameron went one step further and chose blue for the entire bodies of his gentle, peaceful race of forest dwellers in his 2009 blockbuster, Avatar. With three Avatar sequels yet to come, we'll be seeing plenty more blue.
What does an astronaut do when he comes down to Earth? Well, writing a book is a good marker for the start of a new life – especially when you're already as famous as Chris Hadfield, the ISS commander whose solo rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity has scored more than 20 million views on YouTube, and counting.
His book about what life is like up there is really just as much about how to live life down here. See the title's underline: "What going to space taught me about ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything."
Sounds like another self-help book, huh? It is in a way, but An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth is a different sort of self-help story, and not merely because it reflects on how it feels to zip around the planet aboard a vehicle as big as a football field, going so fast you cross the vast Pacific Ocean in a mere 30 minutes and seeing the sun rise and set 30 times per day (15 of each).
The difference comes from how Hadfield puts a fresh spin on tired maxims we hear so often from motivation experts - such as how important it is think positive.
That's far too wussy for astronauts. Risk is so huge in their game that the only attitude that works is knowing all that things that can go badly wrong, knowing exactly how to fix them and then practising and practising every move.
It makes Hadfield big on "the power of negative thinking". It's not, he explains , that he's a pessimist, but that, "my optimism and confidence come not from feeling I'm luckier than other mortals, and they sure don't come from visualising victory. They're the result of a lifetime spent visualizing defeat and figuring out how to prevent it."
Then there's the common caution not to sweat the small stuff. Back up the bus, says Hadfield. Becoming an astronaut is so tough (6000 applied for posts last year; only eight got in the door) that every tiny detail counts. He reckons that even in more mundane pursuits it pays to pay attention. "If you're striving for excellence - whether it's playing the guitar or flying a jet - there's no such thing as over-preparation. It's your best chance of improving your odds."
Another common tip we hear is that 'making it' comes from standing out and sounding confident. Colonel Hadfield, by contrast, sees three main personality types. There are the minus ones, who are actively harmful and the creators of problems; zeroes, who have neutral impact and don't tip the balance one way or another; and the plus ones, seen by others as people who add value. Everyone wants to be one of those. But says Hadfield: "Proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you'll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform. This might seem self-evident, but it can't be, because so many people do it."
His advice: be a zero. Practise humility. Work hard. Do your best. "If you really are a plus one, people will notice – and they're even more likely to give you credit for it if you're not trying to rub their noses in your greatness."
The book is bigger than all of this. It's chockablock with fascinating details about the incredibly complex, gruelling and exhilarating business of learning how to get out through the blue into orbit, and return, and run the International Space Station in between those two insanely perilous events. You'll learn stuff you never knew, and some funny little details and rituals as well. For instance, who knew that on their way to board Russian Soyuz rockets for the trip out to orbit, every astronaut stops to pee on the right rear tyre of the bus? Why? Because Yuri Gagarin did it. (Not so easy for female astronauts - they take a sample in a little bottle to do a dutiful sprinkle).
Hadfield proves to be as good at writing smart, entertaining text as he is at singing in space. He'll not venture out there again, having hung up his astronaut helmet. But watch for lift-off on the speaking circuit. He'll be in orbit in no time, scoring plus-ones all the way.
Hi, I'm Lindsey Dawson.