The King and I attended the coronation yesterday; he from a throne, me from a bedroom. I had not intended to be there. I’m not a monarchy follower. But the Times invited me, and it was 06;30, so I clicked. My English friend, Sue, had said she wanted a channel where the announcers would know the difference between the Prince of Wales and and the Duke of Cornwall (I think this is a title switch for William but I’m not sure). The Times thankfully had no commentary. As I tuned in, a boy’s choir was filling the space of the Westminster Abbey with the sweetest sounds. So I stayed.

While Charles laid his chubby hands on various artifacts symbolizing many virtues — although assembled through sticky fingers and requiring the labor for their composition of who know how many subservient peoples — I brushed my teeth and attended to other morning rituals.

There were many incantations of “Long live the king” and “May the king live forever.” Was Charles III remembering the final days of Charles I (beheaded) and Charles II (suffering bloodletting and plasters of pigeon dung applied to his feet — the source for the latter piece of information was a medical research colleague of my former husband’s at our dinner table in Georgetown — and hoping he might indeed live forever. I wouldn’t blame him. Although he is a couple of years younger than I, he no doubt is giving more thought to his own death. But nowadays we die hooked up to infusions of poisons or our body’s oxygen cycle breaks down (Sherwin Nuland, How We Die).

It was hard to tell what Charles was thinking. He looked bored or as though he might cry or vomit. What are the appropriate facial expressions for such an event?

Charles III was in fact second fiddle to the clergy, just as the monarchy was to the Church of England. The main cleric told God he was Justin somebody of Canterbury. I didn’t catch his full name, but I thought of Justinian the Great, the 6th century Eastern Roman Emperor, whom I can picture from the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna. Charles III’s Justin needed another robed figure to hold a binder with his text which apparently he had not memorized. I guess that’s understandable. This was the first coronation in 70 years, so he had never conducted one himself. The Times cameramen allowed me to see that some bits of the text he was to read had been highlighted with a yellow marker. I have a new-found interest in Canterbury as I’ve recently come to know that my ancestors wills from the 16th to the 18th century are stored there. And I have a recently published book, The Wife of Bath, on my reading list. Such were my thoughts at the coronation.

Justinian the Great in a photo by Petar Milošević

Charles, too, not II, was — like me — changing his clothes. He was helped out of one garb, reveling what looked like his nightgown, and then redressed in a gold bathrobe. I would, without assistance, take off my flannel nightgown with an improvised Scottish plaid and put on my jeans once I finished my morning exercise routine. But the next bit gave me reason to think about my genes.

“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name…” I said the prayer along with Justin mildly amazed that I still know the words (almost) flawlessly. I learned the prayer as a girl but have not repeated it as an adult. I’m fairly sure my kids could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. They might not even know what it is. I was doing sun salutations when we got to the prayer. Yes, this coronation was to be diverse and here I was performing an ancient Indian, i.e., colonized people’s, ritual. Fitting.

My weather report said the day would be warmer than previous days and sunnier. I planned to be out in the garden. as soon as I finished breakfast. By now the newly crowned king and his queen were inside a gold chariot that must have been the source for Walt Disney’s pumpkin-cum-carriage. Outside in London, it was either raining or had just been raining. the streets were wet; rain had splashed the camera lens. My English friend, Sarah, had told me, Bill and Mijo before we ventured out to walk the Cotswold Way some years ago in May, that May was the rainiest month in England. Why had the royal crew chosen May for the coronation when it could hold it anytime. Maybe there is a high probability it will be raining any day in England. Maybe the horses — Lord there were so many horses where were they all stabled when not parading — prefer a cool wet day if they have to carry drummers and trombonists down paved streets.

Disney’s chariot passed through the gates of Buckingham Palace. A bagpipe blew. The King and I were finished. He had his instructions from God about how to behave. I was heading out to play a form of God dictating to plants and seeds my plans for the season. I know, and I suspect the King knows as well, that no matter what our plans may be, forces beyond our control will have the final say. Amen.

A red-tailed hawk is doing neck rolls as he awaits his next meal. He caught my eye when he flew from the sugar maple to the choke cherry. He perched patiently while I scrambled to first get my binoculars and then to replace the battery in the camera I haven’t used in ages. I did get a good look at him and this not very good photo. His head feathers are a reddish brown, rufous I would call them. Sibley calls his breast feathers streaked. All his plumage is fluffing in the wind.

More commonly I detect his presence — and he is a resident here — when his shadow sweeps across the garden. That means I don’t usually have all the time I’ve had this morning to study him perched on a branch. He is a massive bird. This I can tell from his shadow. He is very broad; his tail short and his beak hooked. I’m glad not to be a small mammal in the meadow.

The birds who come into the feeder are not disturbed by his presence, since he is primarily a consumer of small mammals. It’s below freezing this morning, which may explain why he is meal hasn’t yet appeared. I had to leave for a meeting before he left his lookout so I can’t report on his meal.

Birding on Block Island a few years back, a fellow birder, but someone I know only slightly, said to me something like “good thing you got your bulb fixed.”

Our little flock of birders had reached the point at the end of the Island where we would turn around. We were taking a break from birding to marvel at the vista of the Block Island Sound from atop a bluff. It was a picture perfect day.

“Bulb fixed?” What in heavens name was he talking about? Was he even talking to me? I turned from taking in the view of the Sound to look at him just to check. Yes, he was talking to me.

It seems he had read a recent blog post of mine about confounding — much the way he had just confounded me — my car repair man as I paid the bill for replacing a car light bulb with an out-of-context comment. “Good thing I am not a black man…I might be dead,” I had said to the repair man. You can read the post from 2017-07-24 here.

in July 2016, Philando Castile, a Black 32-year old had been fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer after being pulled over for a broken tail light. Castile’s girl friend was in the car with him. In June 2017, a jury acquitted the police officer. That brought back memories for me of the case of Walter Scott who had been killed by a police officer in Charleston after a traffic stop for a broken tail light. Black men frequently die for burned out car light bulbs.

As I paid the very small bill for my own tail light replacement, I could hear Joan Baez singing “There but for fortune go you or I.” That night I wrote a blog about broken car lights.

George, my Block Island birding friend, brought all this back when he posted a note on my most recent blog. I write my blogs for me, but of course posting makes them public. People’s comments often take me by surprise. Somebody’s reading these?

Just as I was thinking again about George, Philando, Walter, Joan and my privilege as a white person able to be fearless even should I neglect a broken car light bulb, I got an email via WordPress with another comment on Meadow Restoration to approve.

This one was tied to a post called August 4th from 2015. Why now? August 4th is approaching but this reader, a person I don’t know, already contacted me when I posted that blog five years ago. She’s a friend of the Crowell Hilaka Preserve in Richfield Ohio that used to be a Girl Scout camp where my friend Sallie Parker was struck and killed by lightning on August 4th 1959. Remembering Sallie was the subject of the blog. The woman from the preserve sent me a pdf of the plaque commemorating Sallie’s death. How did she find my small press blog?

“There but for fortune go you or I” often plays in my head when I think about Sallie. Maybe this is my theme song. As the lightning struck her, Sallie fell on the little girl sharing her pup tent. That little girl would have been me had my parents agreed that I could go from DC back to Ohio to join Sallie for another year at camp.

Blogging for me is largely an exercise in record keeping. When did the monarchs return this year versus last is the customary fodder for my posts. My sister thinks I should hew to the theme of meadow restoration when I post, avoiding light bulbs and death anniversaries. Maybe she’s right, although I feel I can write whatever I want since this is such a personal exercise.

Particularly in these pandemic days I have realized how lucky I am to have a big old field in which to putter and about which to blog. The restoration is as much of me as it is of the meadow. Any reader is taking his chances with my posts.

To my enormous relief, the first Monarch appeared tardily on 2 July. It took me until this week to catch it in a photo. I am beginning to see several.

The fawn is in all-day day care without an attendant in the lower portion of the meadow. I flush it on my way to pick blueberries. I had not realized that it would not be part of a family in its neonatany. That seems to be a word I made up to refer to the long period of development between birth and becoming an adult, but I’m sticking to it.

The fawn’s experience of childhood is quite different from that of a poult. The turkeys form gaggles (“rafter” is the collective noun according to “An Exaltation of Larks“) that roam the gardens and field. Each rafter consists of a odd number of adults and a scurry (my collective noun) of poults. No child left behind with turkeys.

The ground hog has not made himself visible for over two weeks. More importantly, the plants in the vegetable garden have not been decimated. In fact, I took a grocery bag full of yellow and green squash and a large bunch of chard to the Jonnycake Food Pantry — the first of several such deliveries I predict. I’m daring to hope that the ground hog found the Kennel House inhospitable after the installation of the 4-foot fortress and has departed for greener pastures.

A single baby bunny did not get a mention in the returning section of the previous report. However, I had one. And following the reproductive realities of rabbitdom, the colony now has two members. The 1/4 inch hardware cloth also keeps them out of the vegetable garden, but they (and I) are content with their consumption of clover blossoms. Like deer, adult rabbits don’t seem to invest too much effort in raising their young, perhaps because they so frequently find their lives truncated by a predator’s meal plan.

Scott blew Oscar’s cover. Or, more precisely, Scott began the spring restoration of Oscar’s borrowed meadow by mowing sections back to their proverbial studs. Now Oscar, the neighbor’s cat who, despite my protests, spends the preponderance of his time in my meadow satisfying his hunger for birds, mice, voles and frogs, is disoriented, if I interpret circling and circling and circling cat behavior correctly.

Before meadow mowing photos above; mowed below. Can you find Oscar in the mowed shot? Hint: in the middle ground heading towards the unmowed little bluestem.


Early spring brings changes in addition to the annual mowing of rotating sections of the meadow. The Red-winged blackbirds returned in time to be counted in the Feeder Watch Project (mid February). They didn’t start with their reliable “spring’s here” gurgling call until a few weeks later. (Do they await the calendar arrival of spring?) The first American robin came back for St Patrick’s Day; now there are at least three hopping, stopping, listening then lunging.

Days now begin with an hour’s worth of birdsong although the full chorus isn’t assembled yet. The peepers are calling insistently from sunset until well into the evening from the trees beside the pond.

Buds are swelling with the longer daylight, the grass is greening in the rains and the Sanguinaria canadensis (blood-root) is blooming.

But away from the meadow, early spring this year has been like no other. I can almost sympathize with unwelcome Oscar circling aimlessly aghast at what has happened. “His” meadow, like “my” world, has been mowed down. Of course, the meadow will regrow. What are the odds that the larger world will do the same especially in a season? I hope greater than it feels right now.



So far this season has been hurricane free. But a week ago Saturday at the grocery store I thought I must have missed the warning about an advancing storm. The checkout lanes were uncustomarily long; people’s shopping carts were pilled with containers of water.

The water buying was not in advance of a storm but to counter a water crisis: much of the community’s public water system had become compromised by the presence of E. Coli.

I bought my few groceries but no water. I still have several gallons of water from last year that I’d love to use up. It was also possible I would not be afflicted since I draw water from my own well.

In the early days of this nuisance, information about the extent and instructions on the required reaction was hard to find. An emergency robo call from some authority garbled the name of the  website to check. Nothing was mentioned about private wells. The internet was more helpful. It offered 2 suggestions:  boil water for one minute before drinking, and take a shower without ingesting any water.

I boiled some water. But soon it was clear my well was not implicated. A week and a day later, I poured the boiled water on the plants.

The messages of subsequent robo calls, of which there have been at least 2, have been audibly clearer. The boiling of water for those on the public water system is to continue until further notice. And we are advised not to take water into our mouths when showering.

A notice that the Y posted about showering.

The showering practice reminded me of traveling in developing countries and of Georgiana.

Georgiana was a regular in the commuters’ locker room in the main complex building of the World Bank. We commuter locker room users were a traipse of globe trotters familiar with the practice of showering with one’s mouth closed.

Georgiana’s participation in the locker room community was interrupted at one point when she was assigned to the country office in New Delhi for a multi-month stint. Upon her return she called out from a shower stall: “Remember you’re showering in drinking water.” Her message became a rallying cry in the locker room even for the shortest showers.

I often think of Georgiana when I shower, especially when I stay in for too long. And I’ve told plenty of people beyond that Bank locker room to consider the quality of the water they’re using when showering.

Of course, I hope my fellow citizens on the public water system get potable water again very soon. But I also wish Georgiana could call out so everyone in America could hear. It’s a message we need: natural disasters such as big storms aren’t the only events that threaten our access to what we’ve come to see as basic entitlements.




A light bulb icon appeared on the dashboard of my Jetta alerting me to a burned out bulb somewhere unspecified. A house guest and I were about to drive across the Jamestown and Newport bridges and along various highways monitored by state and local police for some ecotourism and socializing with other friends. Servicing the car was not part of the plan.

After two more days of traipsing around the state with a burned out light bulb, I took the car to the dealer. An hour later as I settled the bill ($4.51 for a left brake light bulb and a few dollars more for labor to install it), I said to the agreeable, young, white man in the service department — a person who knows me as a regular customer just as I know him as the young man in the service department, as a “person in my neighborhood” according to Mr. Rogers, “Good thing I am not a black man. Instead of settling this transaction with you, I might be dead.”

My comment did not fit the circumstances. The young man chuckled hesitantly. No doubt he was thinking, “What did she say?” But he quickly processed what I meant, switched from any light-hearted tone to seriousness and said, “You’re right.”

Suppose I had still been driving my previous car — a 1993 Nissan named Minima. She was an excellent car but not as communicative as the Jetta. When a turn signal went out, the blinking noise the signal made changed from slow to fast. Aha, you’d say, turn signal is out. But I recall no other warnings of burned out bulbs. It could have taken me a very long time to realize a bulb was not working.

If I were a dark-skinned male driving an uncommunicative car would I have to do an inspection of all the lights every time I drove the car in order to stay alive?

I rattled the VW service department man. But we both will likely survive routine burned out car bulbs. In that moment, we both knew it.





April 3rd: A male Eastern Bluebird sat atop a bird nesting box in the meadow causing my heart to skip a beat especially since I knew that a House Sparrow had begun to build a nest in the box. Would that I could speak Bluebird to let him know that I’d do everything I could to keep the House Sparrows at bay. Just before the Bluebird arrived, I had been debating which of the several practices I have tried in the past to follow this year to make the House Sparrow feel unwelcome or, better yet, to go elsewhere far away. Given my success rate, the Bluebird might well have decided not to accept any offer of protection from me. After all for all my schemes, I still have a population of House Sparrows. This Bluebird sighting was therefore both a FOY (first of year) and a last of year. Indeed, he has not returned.

April 15: A male Wild Turkey nibbled insects in the herb garden and the adjacent lawn. I have not seen Turkeys again since then but, unlike the Bluebird, I know he and his relatives will be around into the fall.

April 16: A ground hog munched on the grass in front of the back house. I watched hoping to see whether he would lead me to his burrow. Something finally spooked him, and he dashed in the direction of the canoe, where he has resided in past seasons. Time to review my neighbor, Marilyn’s, trap setting technique. I’d like this to be among the last-of-year sightings but, like warding off House Sparrows, that could be a pipe dream.

May 2: I harvested the first asparagus stems. Every dinner for the next 6 weeks will include asparagus. Towards the end of the season, the mailman may find offerings of the veggie in the mail box. A friend reminded me I could drop off extra stalks at the Welcome House or the Jonnycake kitchen.

May 2: The Sugar Maple beside the porch leafed out. I submit a blurry photograph as proof. The wind was blowing — that’s my excuse. The other Maples will be a week or so slower in leafing out. I should report the dates to the New England Leaf Out (NELO)  project.

May 3: A male Tiger Swallowtail sat on a branch of the wisteria bush. Don’t tell my native plant colleagues who argue that natives attract and support wildlife better than non natives. Two immature but native Lindera benzoin or northern spice bushes are growing out immediately next to the forsythia but they seem too twiggy to have hosted the Swallowtail caterpillar, although spice bushes are said to be the larval host. On May 3rd last year, I saw the first Monarch butterfly in the meadow fluttering near the ground as though it could not fly. It was, in fact, laying eggs. The Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, is popping through the ground in the meadow. I hope the butterflies return in the coming days.

May 4: A pair of House Sparrows are the only birds to have completed a nest in a bird box. I removed 5 eggs. Tree Swallows are noisily starting a nest in a newly sited bird box — now in the middle of the meadow. They have used this box in its previous locations for years.

May 5: Other Rhode Islanders have reported the return of Baltimore Orioles so I hung my Oriole feeder with an orange and Concord grape jelly. Within a couple of hours, both a male and a female were feeding.

May 6: Lilacs first in the doooryard bloomed. Seven years after transplanting these Lilacs from the southern dooryard to the northern one, the plants have bloomed in abundance! The old stand never produced as many blooms; all the blossoms are white.

May 6: A male Hummingbird arrived at the feeder I put out yesterday!

On ticks: I removed what I think was a black-legged tick from my inner elbow about 2 weeks ago. The next day, I found a full grown dog tick climbing the porch door jamb. I found another dog tick (I hope) on the frame of the northern door to the living room. All three are taped to the fridge. A warm winter, and for my money more importantly a wet April, seems to have provided excellent growing conditions for these nasty pests.

On ants: The carpenter ants invaded the kitchen again at the beginning of April. But after a visit from Narragansett Pest and time. As of today (June 10), I don;t seem to have any more ants. The fruit flies have arrived at the compost bucket, however.

On rodents: The Grey Squirrel population is growing. The Red Squirrel appears to remain a bachelor and is as neurotic as ever. The Chipmunks were out in force starting in April. Mice have not been very willing to take the peanut butter from the basement traps. The groundhog (is he a rodent?) is looking very well fed although I have battened down the garden perimeter fence and Scott and I built a special fence around the raised bed with lettuces and other leafy greens.

The news here is all more than a month old but I’m posting it anyway since this blog is my way of record keeping.

Why didn’t President Rouhani of Iran and Prime Minister Renzi of Italy meet at Ikea? The idea was floated in a cartoon in which a bewildered Mr. Rouhani, with boxes in the background, asks, “Where did you bring me? Ikea?” That would have been a more fitting backdrop for the 17 billion euro deal the Iranian president struck with Italy while in Rome than the Capitoline Museums.

Time is pushing Boxgate, as the brouhaha was called, into history after a brief media stir. Photo of the boxes. But I still find it intriguing, although not for the reasons others have explored.

Elisabetta Povoledo reporting in the NY Times wrote: The statues, in a corridor leading to a grand hall in Rome’s renowned Capitoline Museums, were encased in tall white boxes ahead of a news conference that Mr. Rouhani held on Monday with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy. One of the statues was the “Capitoline Venus,” a Roman copy of a legendary fourth century B.C. work by Praxiteles; some of the other sculptures were of ancient Greek and Roman gods, dressed minimally, if at all. Povoledo goes on to quote the columnist Michele Serra who wrote in La Repubblica: “The problem is that those statues — yes, those icons of classicism and models of humanism — are the foundation of European and Mediterranean culture and civilization. To conceal them is to conceal ourselves.” To not offend the Iranian president, he wrote, “we offended ourselves.”

You likely know that Mr. Rouhani did not ask about Ikea but instead said diplomatically: “I know Italians are very hospitable people and try to do everything to put their guests at ease, and I thank them for this.” Maybe you also know that no one in either Italy or Iran claimed to have made the request that the statues to be covered.

Roger Cohen in an opinion piece for the Times a week after the event Boxgate wrote: “Italy’s decision to cover up the nudes at the Capitoline Museum in deference to the sensibilities of the visiting Glasgow-educated Iranian president has been widely interpreted as final proof of the capitulation of Western civilization to theocratic Islam.” But Cohen was more interested in a different issue namely that neither side would say who asked that the statues be boxed. “One thing,” he wrote, “can be safely said: Nobody will ever know.”

Mr. Cohen was a correspondent in Rome for some years in the 1980s. He describes an Italian phenomenon in which investigations — he was writing about terrorist cases — dragged on for years. “Facts grew murkier, not clearer. It would take decades to arrive at convictions that did not resolve doubts. Italy has never had much time for the notion that justice delayed is justice denied.” He decried Italy’s predilection for “elastic truth.” Of Iran he writes: Iran, too, distrusts clarity. It is a nation whose conventions include the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative.

What intrigues me, however, is whether this incident is a minor moment in the chaffing of cultures that breaks down one civilization’s art to yield up another. My frame of reference is what was called in my days as a student of art history the barbarian invasions. Wikipedia says that, depending on your viewpoint, you’d call the centuries I have in mind, namely the 4th to the 9th centuries AD, the Barbarian Invasion or the Migration Period. In those centuries, late Antiquity turned into the Early Middle Ages. The question of what caused the transformation seems to be as unsolved today as it was in my day; just dabble in Wikipedia.

The names of the Migration Period styles are synonymous with the names of the populations moving around Europe: Hiberno-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Merovingian, and Carolingian. The migrants of today’s world are in motion from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Eritrea, Sudan to name a few places. I easily forget, since I can jet most anywhere in the world, that the Hellenistic and Roman worlds were well connected too. Places in the Middle East — let’s cite Palmyria since its been in the news of late for the destruction of cultural artifacts — spent part of its long history as an outpost of the Roman Empire exposing Roman art forms to those of Byzantium transforming, over time, nudes into funerary figures. All that interaction lead to reinterpretation of visual ideas.

Kenneth Clark, (The Nude, pages 119-126) attributes the Aphrodite of desire to a divinity from Syria. He describes important differences between the Hellenistic Aphrodite of Praxiteles and the Roman Venus who went into the box. Interestingly, he sees — and I’d agree now that he has pointed this out — that the Roman copy is prudish in comparison with the Hellenistic original.

Boxing the nudes of antiquity is, to my mind, a better form of obscuring the past than the iconoclasm of blowing up, say, the Buddahs of Bamiyan, since the works can be unboxed once the danger/offense has passed.


But the way in which the art of one culture is influenced by migration and political, including religious, forces from other cultures is my interest in Boxgate. André Malraux wrote in The Voices of Silence: “Creative art is given direction by the future and illuminated for us by what future brings to it. Its life story is the life story of its forward-looking works.” I take this inelegant even ungrammatical (poorly translated?) statement to mean that each age reevaluates the art it inherits according to its own sensibilities.

Boxgate was the backdrop for meeting of politicians not artists. A western sculptor today would not be copying a Hellenistic or even a Roman statue. He’d be encasing a shark in a vitrine (Damien Hurst) or fabricating balloon dogs (Jeff Koons) despite his Hellenistic heritage. Maybe Boxgate was a conceptual cultural tidbit too small and too close for us to see as part of an evolution during which what lingers from our humanist heritage will become unacceptable to the world we’re evolving into. Perhaps the next time a theocrat is visiting Rome he will not notice the object of physical desire from Antiquity because she will be wearing a chador. Unless, of course, the meeting is held in an Ikea showroom.


Being old and forgetful has its advantages. Since I’m making this claim based on my personal interpretation of both my age and my particular brand of forgetful, let me add that these advantages assume that the society I live in is free, tolerant and based on the rule of law. Recent events in Lebanon, Egypt and, of course, Paris, require this additional caveat. The liberal values I want to live under into my dotage can not condone the loss of innocent lives for attending a concert, supping in a cafe, flying home from vacation, shopping.

The length of my age can be measured in the number of pursuits in which I have dabbled. Being forgetful has required the maintenance of a small library of essential works from those dabbled-in subjects.  Together these advantages provide a way to reflect on a short sojourn in Paris immediately following the horror of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks.

Rain wasn’t expected until the late afternoon, so my old friends Bill and Mijo and I took off in the morning from their 20ième arrondissement sabbatical quarters to walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq to Saint Denis. We did a Rosie Ruiz taking the metro to the Jaurès stop, cutting the length of the walk down to about 5 km.

Our hike started at the bottom of the Basin de la Villette. Bill and Mijo pointed out a folly that is part of the Parc de la Villette. It seems la Villette’s architect, Bernard Tschumi, consulted with Jacques Derrida, the deconstructionist. The collaboration lead to the construction of a number of follies in the park.


A folly at la Villette

Beyond la Villette, we ran into a closed section of the canal path that required a detour through a new urban forest that promises to restore a neglected brownfield area in the northeastern corner of the city into a series of thriving habitats by 2030. Mijo noted that we will be too old to verify whether this happens.


We had to ask for help to get back onto the canal path. Although we were now in the Commune de Saint-Denis, most people felt the distance to the Basilica  was too great to walk. They also did not seem to know how to get onto the canal path, although it lay just to the west of where we were. Clearly it is a road less traveled. We soon learned why.

Above the detour, our hike took us past the Stadt de France, where Germany and France had been playing soccer when three terrorists — part of the coordinated attacks of 13 November and wearing explosive belts — were prevented from entering the stadium by security guards because of those explosives or, perhaps, just becasue they did not have tickets. Each detonated his belt, however, one also killing a nearby bus driver. President Hollande was in the audience at the stadium. No one attending the event was injured.


Stadt de France under the white roof on left

This section of the canal path abuts a seedy wholesale market on one side and derelict industrial area on the other. After some distance, the path on the western side turns into a jogging and biking route that eventually lead us to the village of Saint-Denis. Known in the first half of the 20th century as “la ville rouge” for its communist party affiliations, the commune now includes a large Maghrebian population.

In its heyday in the 12th century, Abbot Suger oversaw the enlargement of a Merovingian church into the first full embodiment of the Gothic style. Even on a gray day, the lightness of the interior is striking. Formerly solid walls have been opened with windows, and the columns delineating the nave from the aisles reduced to slender ribs rising gracefully to arches and vaults that in this new style are supported on the outside of the structure.

Being old and forgetful I once knew a great deal more about Suger, his building, and the abbey’s historic relationship to other religious centers, notably Chartres, and Merovingian and French monarchies. But that Tuesday morning it was not possible to refresh my memory by visiting the tombs and the crypt. They were still in lock-down mode after the terrorist attacks. Perhaps the government knew that before dawn the next morning Parisian police would besiege an apartment near the Stadt de France where terrorists were indeed found and killed.

Once home from my travels I pulled Erwin Panofsky’s translation of Suger’s account of his activities as Abbot of Saint-Denis, the Liber de Rebus in Administratione Sua Gestis, from my small library. Panofsky writes in his introduction to the work: “Rarely — in fact, all but never — has a great patron of the arts been stirred to write a retrospective account of his intentions and accomplishments.” He notes that men of action and men of expression have resorted to autobiography and self-interpretation, but not patrons. “The Hadrians and Maximillians, the Leos and Juliuses, the Jen de Berrys and the Lorenzo de’ Medicis decided what they wanted, selected the artists, took a hand in devising the program, approved or criticized its execution and paid — or did not pay — the bills…A special concatenation of circumstances…were needed to bring into existence the documents produced by Suger, and preserved by time’s mercy.”

I also checked my undergraduate professor, Peter Janson’s, History of Art, who writes mostly about the interior of the church, although as a student of art history I was more interested in the sculptural program on the western façade and would have appreciated a fuller description of that portion of the church in my refresher course. The façade has been renovated since I was there last. I took some photos.

Between Panofsky and Jansen, I replaced any lament at not having an encyclopedic memory with the joy of returning to something I once studied, admittedly with vastly less thoroughness, but, as with any rereading, a different appreciation. Now as I reread, I  paid attention to the fact that Panofsky only translated the Introduction and Second Part (as he calls it) of the Liber de Rebus. He justifies his decision because that part dealt with “the remodelling and interior embellishment of the church” whereas the first part dealt with “the improvement of the Abbey’s economical condition.”

The grown-up me — having parted ways with art history because, as an endeavor, it did not concern itself with how art fit into society, and having spent a subsequent career on the edges of the field of economics and the role of finance in development — would love to know more about how Suger improved the Abbey’s financial condition. Perhaps this section could have been retold in as fascinating a manner as Amitav Ghosh portrayed a 12th century Jewish merchant and his two slaves trading throughout the Middle East in his book “In an Antique Land.”  Or perhaps a scholar like John Michael Montias could have used Suger’s economic essay as the basis for a social history as delightful and informative as his “Vermeer and His Milieu” in which he pieces together a remarkable portrait of 17th century town life and art in Holland. By the way, he discovers that Vermeer had one primary patron who bought nearly half of his mature works.

Back to Saint-Denis and the terrorists. The town hall wore a banner that read: La meilleure résponse à la barbarie, c’est de faire face ensemble.


“Barbarie.” In my long life I have seen too many unspeakable crimes though, luckily for me, they  have been at a distance. Such crimes are against all of humanity and not possible to forget. “…de faire face ensemble.” No book in my library explains what they mean and how to banish them forever.

Can we hope we share despite differences of culture and religion sufficient repulsion at the barbarism and enough collective interest in our various pasts and futures that we can stand together against it? I’m ready for signs of such progress before I get any older.