It was snowing as I returned in early April from a month in NYC. I guess it can’t rain at 22 degrees F. The spinach seeds I had planted in a few warm days of early March before leaving for the city in the anticipation that they would be ready to harvest upon my return, germinated, grew and froze. The lettuce seeds did not even bother to germinate. Only the peas survived that experiment in jumping the gun: they germinated but only now are they finally starting to grow.

By the second week of April, night time temperatures were hovering around but above freezing. Precipitation fell then as rain. On 7 April, notwithstanding the rain, I needed my sunglasses to look out the kitchen window at the grass it was so intensely green. My little bit of Ireland. The grass greened up early but it has been slow to grow. The rabbits have been the only lawn mowers needed to date. I seem to have two rabbits at present. How long can that last?

Maybe the photo does not capture the intensity of the green

Maybe the photo does not capture the intensity of the green

The first-of-year (FOY) chipmunk appeared before Emancipation Day. The lilacs in the dooryard were again not  close to blooming that day, though the branches did have buds. Even today, at the start of May, blooming lilacs are a full two weeks away. Whitman and I following different blooming calendars.

I expect peonies to bloom by Memorial Day but that’s because I grew up in more southerly places, Here I can report that the ruby red shoots have emerged. Likewise, the first asparagus spears have finally appeared. I must be confused, but I thought I was already getting sick of asparagus by this time last year. The first rhubarb leaves are moving from red to green. The sage made it through the winter and one of the two tarragon bushes did as well. Along the road side of the stone wall where three years ago Emily planted four types of daffodils, only one type seems to be blooming — and it started after all the daffodils in other parts of the yard have finished.

The blueberries, both low and high bush, appear to have liked the winter if that’s what setting lots of fruit buds means. I was tardy in pruning them, but spring is arriving slowly as well.

On 18 April, I saw a gigantic bird in the folly. A Harpy eagle, I thought, as I raced to get my bins. By the time I had the bird in focus, it had become a turkey. She was doing what I love to do when the weather warms up: sitting, well, she was standing, on the bench in the folly taking in the late afternoon sun and observing the meadow. The hen has been around frequently since then, although I have not seen her again in the folly.

Female turkey in the herb garden looking smaller than a Harpy eagle

Female turkey in the herb garden looking smaller than a Harpy eagle

Other FOY birds include a male Ruby-throated hummingbird who came to the nectar feeder on 25 April. A male Eastern towhee was feeding on the ground under the front feeder on 27 April. “Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” (the White-throated sparrows) have been highly conversational of late, though their numbers seem to be declining suggesting they have started flying north.

All four pairs of Northern cardinals are in residence. Can they be the very same birds who have been here for several years? One of the males is distinctly more orange in his plumage than red just as in past years.

For the record, the Cabbage white butterfly arrived mid April.

Perhaps to make up for a dry April, the onset of May was raw and rainy. Spring seems slow to bloom this year.

The beach has been almost exclusively mine since the fall. When the three other people who can make that statement have been on the beach with me, we acknowledge each other with a wave or a greeting. Today each ganglia of beach users was isolated in its own  nervous system.

The Piping plovers’ nesting area has been cordoned off in a shrinking space where a hedgerow of Rosa ragusas and poison ivy used to wall off the deep edge of the pond behind until Sandy wiped it out. The only birds I saw were Great black-backed gulls at various stages of development, but I know we’re into mating season. I can see that at my feeders.

The beach is shrunken too. High tide now comes nearly to the boundary of the Plover’s space on the western end of the beach. Moon high tides now creep under the houses on the eastern end. The last moon tide washed great plumes of good sand 40 feet into the parking lot at each of the passageways through the dunes. Of course nothing is fixed, except the trend.

A warm northern wind could not move the blades on the wind mill fast enough to obliterate their shape. But the silicon in the photo voltaic panels on the pavilion roof must have been excitedly hopping around in the presence of the sun’s  photons.  The sky was cloudless.

I read in the newspaper that those pavilion panels create $5,000 worth of power a year. Even the lesser number of panels on my folly have been creating about 30 kWs of power daily. (I hate examples that mix measurements, but I don’t know how many kilowatts are in $5,000 worth of power and I don’t know how many dollars are in 30 kWs a day of electricity. I do know that the 40 or so pV panels on the pavilion roof generates a great deal more electricity than do the 15 on my folly!)

One other parenthetical comment that I trust is apocryphal but frighteningly entertaining: I heard on the radio, I think, that an energy advisor to Trump said we should be cautious about using up the sun if we plan to develop alternative sources of energy! There’s a worry I don’t have to assume.

I’ll stick with my concern about whether the power production at the pavilion will reduce the carbon foot print of the beach and its users fast and fully enough so that we can all find some habitat we like there when summer rolls around.

 

Something’s wrong when you’re taking honey off a hive in March. This is the make-or-break season for a hive. You’d never take its food stores. If you’re extracting honey now, it means you have a dead hive. I actually have two. All the glitches that I invariably encounter when extracting — foundation that separates from its frame when spun is a good one — pale in light of the loss.

Today, I took honey from one super of one hive. It produced about 10 pounds of honey, minus what’s in my hair, on my clothes and, I hope, mopped up from every kitchen counter, cupboard handle and the floor. I feel badly about all the honey that doesn’t make it into a jar given how hard the bees worked to produce it.

The honey is better than the last batch I took a couple of years ago. It’s the right viscosity. The color is good — not dark and not light. It tastes like honey from an old field, by which I mean good.

I covered the entrances to the hives still in the meadow with screen to prevent robbing by other bees. I plan to save at least some of the honey that’s still there for the new bees who will arrive in May. I’m not sure what I should do with the frames that held the honey I took today. I didn’t think this through very well. Maybe the wet frames need to go in the fridge? This problem could make honey in my hair seem like a cake walk.

The next wrong could be ants.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Come to think of it, the folly I am wanting to appreciate in this post is the second folly I’ve made on this property.

Let’s dispense with the first. It was a practice effort really, at spending money on a project few others could seen any value in. The first folly was built by the other Susan’s then boyfriend, now ex, Michael. For the record, he never returned to the Kennel House after that assignment. It still stands, however. This first folly consists of pressure treated 4 x 4s that form a low retaining wall signifying the edge of the meadow under the wild cherry tree. When Michael built this folly, the tree was a sapling; today it’s 50 feet tall. The wall runs along where a segment of the old split rail fence line used to divide the grass from the meadow but, after years of service, was in a state of dilapidation. Every summer, I took more segments of the fence out of commission as the meadow delineator, re-adapting whatever pieces were salvageable as vegetable garden fence or, for a while, a backdrop to Winkie’s Rose of Sharon from the Great House.

The second folly is the one I want to commemorate here. Today was to be its first public engagement. A book discussion for the RI Wild Plant Society was to convene on its platform at 3:00 pm. Predictions of dire weather and a small number of registrants figured into the decision to cancel the event.

But the folly has proved its mettle with the family this summer. Silently, almost imperceptibly, it furnishes the electricity for the main house all summer. I paid a small bill in April but no payment has been due since then. (The bills will return as the sun moves closer to the horizon for a shorter day and the household demands for electricity to run the geothermal heating system return.) My economist friends point out the folly of boasting about this since the initial cost of the construction of the structure and installation of the PV system will not soon be offset by the null electrical bills. But my practice is not to let such nay saying diminish my happiness with what is much ore than some utility infrastructure, although it is that too.

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How many pupae fortified themselves in those hammocks (there is a hint below)?

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How many berries to do you need to pick to take a snack to the folly?

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How many babies got rocked to sleep?

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How many naps were taken in the folly?

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How many afternoons passed while reading a book in a hammock surrounded but not enclosed?

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How many flora and fauna could be observed from the “blind” of the folly?

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Neither of my follies fit within the tradition of French, English or even American follies, although I discussed that here before. The newer one comes closer to fitting into the tradition of garden temples, despite its utilitarian, exposed structure design, because of the way it is used as a haven, a retreat, a place of quiet (unless you happen to be joined by pupae and berry pickers).

I’m drying the hammocks out in preparation for bringing them inside for the winter, in case the folly hammock season is over. It has been a glorious summer, made more so by the latest folly.

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