In May each year we visit the Isabella Plantation. In this floral haven in Richmond Park azaleas blossom along the edges of streams and ponds, where their spring display of a myriad different and delicate colours is simply breathtaking.

At the height of the season earlier this year, Rohan and I stood on one side of the tiny, and aptly named ‘Still Pond’, and looked across the water with its mirror-flat surface. The azaleas opposite were at their magnificent best but as I was staring there was a second image that made me ponder. On the bank ahead I could see the azaleas which were real. On the surface of the water, however, there was the upside down reflection of a tree growing several metres behind the azaleas (see illustration). Clearly the two views were generated differently but somehow it didn’t seem to matter – my mind made the necessary adjustments and very soon the real and the reflected images were seen as one continuum and a beautiful one at that.

Being faced by disparities between the real and the unreal is actually common, and never more obvious than when one uses the Internet to see and talk with others on a screen. I am not thinking here about virtual reality that relies on simulations, rather about being linked with others through the likes of Zoom, FaceTime or Skype and sensing them as real. 

I became very aware of such unreality when I linked up with Thierry, my UK-based French teacher. Before the pandemic, we met for lessons twice a week in person at a local cafe. When the first UK lockdown began in 2020 we switched to lessons on Skype with Thierry at his home in South London and me in my study in Richmond. Very quickly, as I listened and learned, Thierry could not have been more real – this otherwise unreal him had become the norm. Interestingly, the new arrangement had one great advantage, we were able to work together on a text using a shared image on screen!

Last week, after we had arrived in Brittany – yes, despite the  complications presented by Covid and Brexit we finally got here – the unreality of our relationship became particularly striking. I had arranged to have one last session with Thierry before re-establishing my customary face-to-face holiday lessons with Marie, my language teacher in France. Suddenly I realised that my lesson with Thierry was thanks to a link between me in Tréguennec and him in Crete – he too was on holiday. Yet, in the real world we were four thousand kilometres apart and in two different countries. Even if being with him was as unreal as it could be, it just felt normal. The office wall behind him had changed and his shirt was more summery, but that was all.

My musings over reality had actually been brought into focus just before we left for France. We had gone to say our goodbyes to our son Joshua and our grandson RiverAt one moment Rohan showed River, who is now aged 3½years, the photo she has of him on her mobile phone. “Who’s that?” she asked, to which a proud River replied “It’s me”. Rohan then added: “I take you with me wherever I go.” After some contemplation, River turned to us all and said “Why are we real?”

None of us adults knew how to answer his question, not only because he is so very young but because, at least from my personal experience, reality is such a hard concept to define. However, while finding a definition is difficult, knowing which things are real and which are not seems relatively easy. Moreover, for me as I get older, deciding on the difference is becoming increasingly important. 

And, by the way, the Isabella Plantation, which has the air of a quintessential English garden is not as ‘real’ as it might first appear. For example, the wondrous  azaleas come originally from Japan, while the natural-looking garden itself with its flowers, lakes, streams, trees is the product of years of landscaping with elements begun in a boggy area of the Park in the eighteenth century. Finally it’s name, which has been linked to a gardener’s wife or daughter is more likely to be a corruption of the word ‘isabel’ which appears on an early map of the Park to indicate that the soil at that spot is dingy or greyish yellow.

The illustration is a photo taken this May across the surface of the Still Pond in the Isabella Plantation. 

For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Joshua, River, Thierry, Rohan and Vivien

7 thoughts on “Reflections on Reality

  1. That’s a beautiful photograph Joe, and the sense of peace and wonder just in that once dingy small patch in Richmond Park is magical.

    I think ‘reality’ might be the addition that our senses (especially touch and smell) bring into the encounter; friends with sensory disabilities have other senses heightened and zoom/teams meetings have made some feel disconnected from the discussion. Imagine if you were unable to get hugs, a touch or share a tickle with River or a loved one…

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    1. Dear Paul, Thank you very much for your comment. From a Professor of Philosophy with a special interest in ‘perception’ your note means a lot. Yours, Joe

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  2. Wonderful thoughts Joe.
    I giggled when I heard Rivers question to you. His questions are getting very layered and complex and I have the daily challenge of trying to define/describe things I’ve never attempted to put in words. It’s challenging!! How did you answer him in the end?
    Maybe I’ll seek your advice in the next rapid fire round. Haha
    I’m going to have to make a point of going to see those azaleas. Stunning.
    Miss you. Xxxx

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    1. Dear Ali, Thank you very much for your letter. You and Joshua – and us his grandparents – are so lucky to have such an alert and thoughtful River. Have you thought to collect and date his questions over the years? One day he might be a philosopher like his paternal granny and then he could give you the answers. Much love, Joe

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  3. Dear Joe,

    Sorry for taking so long to read this very interesting articles on reflections (from a mirror-like pond and the cognitive process of deep thinking).

    I am totally mind-blown by River’s question! Why do we, i.e., us adults, struggle to understand or, at least, find meaning to a question asked candidly by a 3-and-a-half year-old boy? Maybe because the answer is way above our ability to comprehend what reality entails. This reminds me of a quote by Voltaire: “Judge a man by his questions, not his answers.” River certainly came up with one of the most difficult questions to answer.

    Regarding our last lesson, although it was online (as for the last 16 months), the unusual environment we were in gave it a different flavour! Sorry for the noise of the cicadas and the drill!)

    Bonnes vacances à Treguennec et au plaisir de se revoir en Octobre.

    Amitiés,

    Thierry

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