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Unexpected Paris Landscapes
I keep bumping into them.
I’m in Paris this month with my family. It’s not the first time we’ve lived here, and hopefully not the last.
We’re staying in an apartment in Montparnasse, an area we love. When we arrived, the front door to the three-building complex welcomed us with a huge display of potted trees and plants, including sunflowers. It was merely a teaser for what was to come.
As we walked through the entry with Suzanne, a friend of the apartment owner, I got distracted from our conversation by a tiny tin plaque on the wall. It warned of a chat bagarreur, a rowdy cat. Really? I spotted his water bowl over in the shade.
We moved single-file through a narrow passage that led to an L-shaped courtyard at the far end. The courtyard was a verdant tangle of wild geraniums, lavender, juniper shrubs, vines crawling up walls, every kind of small tree you could think of—all in ceramic pots and plastic grocery crates set on the cobblestone floor and window ledges and benches.
I imagined myself sipping wine at the little orange café table next to a door. Or reading a book in the DIY pallet-wood chaise hidden in a corner, watching the butterflies.
A few days later, I was taking out the recycling, and I ran into the gardien, the supervisor of the property. I asked who was responsible for the magnificent garden? “La gardienne,” he said. “Madame. Ma femme.”
I wanted to say I thought it was a genius work of horticulture and design to have created such a beautiful and functional outdoor space with nothing but containers.
But my French is not that good. I asked him to please tell his wife I love all the plants.
He said, yes, she is amazing. But perhaps it is too much.
When strong winds topple over several large pots one night, I set them back up in the morning on my way to the grocery store.
I still have not seen the cat. Ray and Aoife, my husband and daughter, have met him. It turns out he’s nothing more than a big kitten who likes to snooze on the stone steps opposite our front door, in the shade of one of Madame’s trees.
The green space
Last week, Aoife and I went to the Père Lachaise cemetery. I’d never been there, even when my cousin visited us on one of our Paris trips one year and wanted to see Jim Morrison’s tomb, which she wound up doing solo because it seemed like too much walking to me at the time.
En route to the cemetery from the metro stop, Aoife and passed a large metal gate on the other side of the street. A handmade sign said “La TEP Ménilmontant: Terre d’Ecologie Populaire.” I translated this as “land of the people’s ecology.” Interesting! Later Ray said the translation would be more like “public ecological area.”
The gate was open, so we went inside.
Off to the left was a chicken coop and a robust composting system for accepting donations of kitchen scraps and garden waste. A basket of badminton rackets sat on a bench, with a sign inviting users to return them when finished. Next to the wall, a young fig tree had a red ribbon tied around one of its branches.
Winding trails led us through scruffy Mediterranean-like vegetation that seemed to be a mix of intentionally planted and volunteer species, including butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.), which had spread aggressively, as it often does.
Little openings in the brush featured child-size tables and chairs. There was a large area with a volleyball net, ping-pong tables, adult-size tables and chairs, and tiny toy vehicles scattered around for toddlers to use on site.
It was like a giant backyard for the neighborhood.
Murals on the low, concrete walls told the story of the place. In 2016, the city bulldozed the existing sports field and community gardens to make way for a real estate project. The neighborhood residents protested the loss of their green space. There were demonstrations. The residents won.
Per Google, it looks like the building plans are on hold for now, possibly to be reimagined in the future. Of course, it’s a very political situation. One article refers to the TEP as a “mini-ZAD,” zone à défendre, area to defend.
In the meantime, I can’t imagine a more inspiring place to spend summer evenings en famille or hanging out with neighbors, in solidarity with the environmental mission of the place.
Aoife and I left the TEP and finally reached the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise down the street. At the entrance, we joined a group of tourists in reading a list of famous people buried there, names like Chopin, Édith Piaf, Molière, and Proust.
But people were looking at something else as well. A huge outdoor photo gallery documented the different animals currently living on the premises: a fox family, weasels, owls, hawks, crows, robins, and many more. I thought about the bald eagles currently nesting in the tiny cemetery in my hometown, so this was not a stretch. Then again, I live in rural central New York, not in a major city.
The cemetery, built in 1804, is the largest green space in Paris, at 110 acres. There are actual street signs along the paths and alleys to negotiate the enormous grounds.
As Aoife and I ascended the nearly vertical cobblestone pathways, I noticed plants growing everywhere, including inside and on top of the mossy tombs.
I could see a maple sapling shooting up from a crack in an elaborate funerary sculpture. Knowing what I know about tree roots, this tree will become larger and larger until the monument breaks apart completely.
At a clearing with benches, signage encouraged me to read via my phone about Paris’s commitment to preserve and promote biodiversity in the city and combat climate change. Insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides have all been banned, and the cemetery’s gardeners are allowing “la flore spontanée et de la petite faune,” wild plants and insects, to remain in place.
I sat for a while overlooking a pocket meadow that now occupies a former lawn and appreciated the exquisite beauty of the place. But then I started thinking about the how the plants and animals will irrevocably damage the meaningful structures and markers that have been preserved for centuries.
I’m still thinking about this. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps the best way to honor the people and events we commemorate with memorials is to let nature take over after a time.
The little maple sapling I had observed will one day join the urban canopy of Paris, offering its cooling shade to an ever-warming city.
To read Paris’s entire 2018-2024 biodiversity plan, which is truly impressive, go to https://paris.fr and search for “biodiversité.”
Just for fun…
This happened on my way to the grocery store.
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