Saturday, 6 April 2013

Transcending Trouble

It may not feel like spring, but the year is on the turn - delicate crocuses have thrust their way through the iron-hard soil in my garden and the blackbirds have commenced building a nest in the ivy on the back wall.  Even without the external indicators, it is impossible not to think of renewal and growth - since last weekend I have been surrounded by eggs and images of chicks and ducklings.  To escape the traditional Easter chocolates, we had some eggs with small cardboard figurines inside, which grew crystalline “fur” and “feathers” once a solution was drawn up through the paper by capillary action and then evaporated.  

Outside, the roses are beginning to awake, small scarlet leaves sprouting from what only a couple of weeks ago looked like dead twigs (more capillary action as they begin drawing nutrients from the soil up through their stems).  Given the burgeoning new-life surrounding me, I would not have be overly surprised if a Phoenix had flown across the the garden on its pilgrimage to Heliopolis.  As it was, I had to make do with a sparrow-hawk, that settled on a branch near the bird-feeders, much to the concern of the blue tits.  An extraordinary sight in central London.

However, despite the signs that spring is finally on its way, the seemingly never-ending snow and cold is wearing.  Just like the grinding impact of the current economic environment within the UK - the austerity measures that have been introduced are impacting on all and some will feel it even more keenly as from today when major changes to the UK benefits and tax system are introduced ( ).  We need to be resilient - both in and outside work.  No wonder I have been thinking of the Phoenix - the mythical bird that rises from ashes to thrive.  It is perhaps the archetypal symbol of resilience.  Interestingly, like many resurrection legends, the myth of a bird that is reborn after cremation is a global phenomenon - although the story and the attributes of the bird itself vary slightly from continent to continent.   

Phoenix depicted in 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary
The Phoenix is universally depicted as a solitary and wonderful bird.  In Western Europe we usually think of the Phoenix as described by Ovid:

"Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself.  The Assyrians call it the Phoenix.  It does not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odiferous gums.  When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm tree.  In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes out its last breath amidst odours.  From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long as its predecessor.  When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent's sepulchre), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun."
Belgian €10 coin to commemorate 60 years of peace in Europe

and Tacitus adds to this:
"The first care of the young bird as soon as fledged, and able to trust to his wings, is to perform the obsequies of his father. But this duty is not undertaken rashly. He collects a quantity of myrrh, and to try his strength makes frequent excursions with a load on his back. When he has gained sufficient confidence in his own vigour, he takes up the body of his father and flies with it to the altar of the Sun, where he leaves it to be consumed in flames of fragrance."
Ancient Egyptians revered a Phoenix-like bird called the Benu, whose name means "to rise".  In appearance it resembled a heron or stork with long legs and it was associated with the Sun god.  There is speculation that the myth of the bird rising from ashes originated from people observing flamingoes in East Africa - they live on salt flats, where the searing heat is too severe for eggs to survive if laid on the ground.  The birds build high mounds on which to raise their offspring.  Although the knoll-top is marginally cooler than the parched surface below, the shimmer of heat around the hillocks can resemble smoke and give the semblance of fire.  Flamingoes are part of the family Phoenicopteridae, from the generic name Phoenicopterus or "phoenix winged".

In Chinese mythology the Phoenix, called the Feng-huang or Fung, which translates as the "vermillion bird" or the "substance of flame", was the symbol of the Empress (usually when depicted in conjunction with the Emperor's dragon). It is formed of various elements and is highly symbolic - its pheasant's head with a cock's comb symbolises the sun, its back (supposedly that of a swallow) represents the moon, its wings are the wind, its tail the flowers and trees and its feet the earth.  In addition it is used to represent the five virtues - its comb is for righteousness, its tongue utters sincerity and, according to ancient Chinese ritual, 
"its voice chants melody, its ear enjoys music, its heart conforms to regulations, its breast contains the treasures of literature, and its spurs are powerful against transgressors" 
Chinese embroidery of a Phoenix, c1860
It is not just in oriental mythology that the Phoenix is used to symbolise ideals.  In the West the Phoenix has been used both as a image for renewal and immortality and also to depict the “exceptional man”.  For much of the past month I have been researching one such person, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  I will be presenting him as a case study on leadership at an executive development programme at the end of this month.  

One of the things that made Shackleton an exceptional leader was his ability to adapt and change his plans when the situation demanded it.  His initial mission was to walk across Antarctica but, once it was clear that that goal was impossible, he embraced the new challenge of getting his 27 companions safely back to civilisation.  He focused entirely on the new objective, even ordering his men to abandon scientific equipment (such as microscopes and tools for collecting specimens) that was heavy and cumbersome to transport.  He involved his men in decision making, kept the potential trouble makers close to him (even sharing the same tent) and was creative in devising solutions to obstacles.  I believe that part of the reason for his success was that he demonstrated almost indefatigable focus and energy to achieve his goal.  His commitment and his mens’ trust in his intention and efforts to get them home safely must have inspired the weaker men to keep going.  According to witnesses at the time he never expressed any doubt - it is only later, on reading his personal diary, that it is clear that he had some concerns.  On the destruction of his ship, the Endurance, by pack ice, he commented to the men
"Ship and stores have gone - so now we'll go home."
but in his diary he wrote, 
" a man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground, I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civilisation."
Like Tacitus' Phoenix, Shackleton applied himself to the task ahead.  He overcame daunting obstacles and distances, to achieve his objectives and care for his men.  He epitomises the Japanese Phoenix, a symbol of fortitude, rectitude and fidelity. 

Phoenix, Image from Imari Porcelain ware
Photo courtesy Nihon Toji Taikei magazine, Vol. 19 (Imari Ware)

So, as you admire the scarlet leaves of the roses, challenging the cold and commencing regrowth for this year, contemplate their flame-coloured sprouts and be inspired by Shackleton and the Phoenix...

(but don't symbolically give them wood ash to encourage them.  Roses prefer acidic soil and hence are more likely to appreciate coffee grounds to perk them up.) 

young rose leaves

Embroidered silk panel with Phoenix


  1. Kate - as ever you bring a depth of writing to your posts that leaves me envious of your knowledge and your writing style.

    I think the phoenix is an interesting consideration given the current economic climate and I can't help but thinking that actually those with their hands on (or indeed off) the levers of power and standing them gingerly tweaking them waiting for some kind of phoenix intervention. I wish they would just pull one properly and be damned!!

    My knowledge of Shackleton is similarly limited but the thing I can't help thinking having read your post is whilst he showed absolute focus and energy in achieving the new objective to his team on what level did he mourn the bid for the pole and did he percieve their actions as a failiure overall? Do you have any further insight you can share?

  2. Kate

    A really inspiring article-as always! Wonderfully erudite and a polymathic tour de force. Reading your pieces makes me feel so inadequate! Keep it up. Doesnt look like we wgoing to catch up today-what a shame!

  3. If I may, I'd like to offer my thoughts in reply to Rob's question on Shackleton. I've read an awful lot on the man, including his own writing and I firmly believe that he did not allow himself the luxury of regret or allow the fear of being perceived a failure to distract him. He had already been lionised by the nation so he had no particular ambition for personal glory. The clue comes in the names of the expedition: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. This was, for him, about national pride and, with Amundsen having already claimed the Pole for Norway, crossing the continent was the only prize left. He was able to switch focus as the situation developed and he would have recognised that ensuring the safe return of all hands under such conditions would have an enormous impact on the morale of the nation, heroic failure being by then a well-formed part of the British psyche. One other clue lies, I think, in his final trip south. He died of a heart attack while the expedition ship was moored off South Georgia. They were on their way to undertake scientific and surveying activities, not on some glory seeking final fling in the dying embers of Empire.