Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 27, 2017

National Library Week: Work to Be Done

I’m looking forward to the annual observance of National Library Week, April 9-15.

Longtime readers know I’m a fan of libraries. Libraries matter to people around the world, and not only provide access to books, but community resources and important tools for learning and development, with assistance from professional librarians.

I’ve visited libraries across the U.S. and around the world. Some are grand edifices with long, illustrious histories; others are in cities, towns, remote villages or even simple boxes for sharing books in residential neighborhoods.

Albuquerque Little Free Library M Vincent 4148

Every community is different, and libraries reflect the character of a community. They range from the sprawling diversity of a metropolis like  Los Angeles, whose Central Library is the hub for a system of 72 branch libraries ….

LA Central Library Brad Nixon 3444

… to a place like Las Vegas, New Mexico, population 14,000, where the 1904 Carnegie Library in its lovely square still serves the town.

Las Vegas Carnegie Brad Nixon 0817

The Carnegie Foundation enabled the construction of 2,509 library buildings around the world between 1883 and 1929. I’ve written about a number of Carnegie libraries, listed in “Categories” in the right-hand column. This year, during National Library week, I’ll write about 3 Carnegie libraries still serving their small communities: one in southern California and 2 in rural Indiana.

The Carnegie libraries have a special place in my universe, because both the library in my hometown (still serving the town) and the one at my university (also extant, converted to other uses after my time there) were built with Carnegie funds.

Miami University

As I’m always at pains to say, my admiration for Mr. Carnegie’s libraries isn’t unalloyed by awareness of his faults. His mills and works operated on harshly capitalist principles; human concerns took a back seat to profit and efficiency, sometimes to a horrific degree.

Still, Carnegie had a fierce appreciation for the role that access to books (hard-won, for him) played in his rise from abject poverty to extraordinary success. He acquired one of the world’s largest fortunes through ruthless business practices, but he dedicated an immense portion of it toward learning and intellectual advancement: much of it to libraries. Let some other arbiter judge the net balance. Hundreds of the libraries still operate, like this one in Ephraim, Utah.

Ephraim Utah Carnegie Willard Nixon

The reason I’m writing this prelude to Library Week is that there’s something to be done before it arrives.

I ask all my U.S. readers to take action before April 3.

Another wealthy and powerful individual in the U.S. is now in a position to influence the support for libraries. He, however, is determined to end support for them.

The president of the United States proposed a fiscal year 2018 federal budget that would end federal funding for libraries, closing the principal federal agency that does the work, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). While libraries receive funds from a variety of sources, federal support is one component — unless the president has his way.

The House of Representatives apportions funds for the IMLS through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and supports the provision of school books and materials for the country’s poorest children through Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL). The president’s proposed budget terminates both programs.

The president proposes, but Congress disposes. Legislators are our representatives, not the president’s. Time is short before Congress acts. Call your representative and encourage them to sign two letters of support now being circulated: for the LSTA and the IAL. If you can’t call, send an email.

You can find your Representative’s contact information by entering your ZIP Code at the following link:

There is a civic principle at stake, not just an economic one: Are we a nation of businesses and profit centers, or are we a nation of people? Do we value things beyond what contributes to some bottom line, perhaps to the intellectual welfare of our fellow citizens?

Representatives need to hear from you by April 3. Your phone call will probably be answered by a friendly staffer. Identify yourself by name, as a registered voter in the XXXXX Zip Code, thank the Representative for his/her ongoing work, and encourage them to sign the two letters being circulated supporting the funding of the LSTA and the IAL. It takes one minute.

I look forward to celebrating National Library Week with you. With your help, we’ll still be supporting them.

For my readers in other countries, you might send a note to any U.S. citizens in your circle, bringing this matter to their attention.

You can show your support for the IMLS by tweeting the hashtag #SaveIMLS. The president likes tweets.

Do you have observations about the importance of libraries? Please leave a comment.

Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Little Free Library photo © Marcy Vincent 2017. Lebanon, IN and Royal Center, IN library photos © John Nixon 2017. Ephraim, UT photo © Willard Nixon; all used by kind permission.

Here is more information about supporting libraries through the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services:

Below are links to my blog posts about the libraries mentioned above:

Little Free Libraries

Los Angeles Central Library

Las Vegas, New Mexico

Ephraim, Utah; Miami University (and others)

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 24, 2017

Ye Bigge Sleep, Conclusion: Convergence à Nice

Summary: It’s my toughest case yet: An apparent 14th-Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only the 2nd ever discovered. Genuine or fake? It’s my job to find out. From Los Angeles to Bologna, Venice and Croatia, everything has come down to having all the players in one place: Nice.

For links to earlier episodes, see below.

I sat as far back in the restaurant in the Vieille Ville of Nice as possible.

Nice Brad Nixon 6829

I’d been in Nice for two days and had nearly everything arranged. If Chip Wroxton didn’t walk through the door, I could still pull everything off, but I hoped he’d show.

I’d set some wheels in motion before I left the monastery on the island of Kosljun in Croatia, more of them as I drove back to Trieste, then caught a plane to Nice. There were a lot of moving parts.

Everyone but Wroxton was in place, ready to meet at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis the next afternoon. It had taken a lot of phone calls, a lot of persuasion, and more than a little creative storytelling to convince everyone they needed to be there. Not everyone got the same story, but they came. I hoped the motivation I’d given Wroxton had been enough to get him off his canal boat in England.

Outside, there was brilliant winter sun.

Nice Brad Nixon 6828

I recognized him ─ barely ─ when he walked in, peering into the dark interior after the brilliant sunshine of the square: tall, loose-limbed, still slender; older, of course, grown into the stoop-shouldered, donnish man he’d been in training for as a young Medievalist when we were students at Göttingen. He sat down and looked at me.

“So … good to see you and all that. Will you tell me exactly why I’m here in France, of all places? You need me to look at a manuscript you can’t bring to England?”

“I’ll give you a preview,” I said, and set the first facsimile page I’d printed on the table.

He looked at it for ten seconds, looked up and said, “Cotton Nero A.x. If you need me to tell you that, then you’re slipping, old man.”

“Here’s a detail of lines 1686 and -7,” I said, setting down the second page.

He myndes ȝe bigge sleepe

That bides but an more nyght

“Bloody hell. What’s this? ‘The Big Sleep?’ Is this some sort of prank?”

“If it is, no one’s laughing, and the prankster’s trying to pass it off as a previously unknown manuscript of Gawain.”

“Not bloody likely, with voiced final e’s like that. It leaps out and gobsmacks you.”

“Once a certain investigator found it, of course.”

“Then if the investigator is so brilliant, why did he drag me to a country without a single decent glass of beer in it?”

“My client would like corroboration from an authoritative working scholar. I stretched a point and described you as ‘working,’ and the British Museum believed me.”

“The BM?”

“My client.”

I sketched out the entire story for him, start to finish, concluding with the fact that the next day, Wroxton would examine the MS to corroborate my evidence that it was a forgery. His testimony and one other scholar’s would be used with mine for the BM to determine if there was fraud involved, in which case an antiquities detective of the French police and a representative from Interpol would take over the case.

“Who’s the other scholar?” he asked, making my day. I smiled at him.


I saw him flinch before he could stop himself.

“She’s here?”

“I saw her in Bologna. She looked at the MS there.”

“How is she?”

“Oh, you know, brilliant, charming, beautiful: same ol’ Luciana.”

Poor Wroxton looked as if he wanted to put his head in his hands. I laid it on.

“She asked if I’d seen you … how you were.”

“Hell. I don’t believe you. She wouldn’t ask. Didn’t you say that if I helped you solve this case there’d be a reward?”

“Not exactly what I said. I said it should be rewarding.”

“Spending a couple of hours reading scribbled Middle English doesn’t sound particularly rewarding.”

“Be patient, Wroxton. It might be more interesting than you expect.”

“Enough of this. I need a drink.”

I gave Wroxton a card with the address and all the contact information for the next day, and told him I’d see him at the University at 1:30 the next afternoon.

The Final Confrontation

I got out for a run in the morning through the Promenade des Arts, trying to clear my head.

Nice Brad Nixon 6814

My mind was racing, playing out the next few hours in advance … and all the things that could go wrong. If this didn’t play out, I’d have wasted a couple of weeks of constant travel, considerable money and the time of some busy people.

At one o’clock, I found the classrooms that had been arranged in one of the university buildings. Soon after that I was joined by Davidson Gettle, my British Museum contact. With him were Capitaine Gerard Parerre of Interpol and Lt. Cloiseux of the French National Police, responsible for investigating piracy and antiquities theft. Cloiseux had arranged our meeting place with the university.

I reviewed the plan with them. The officers went along with it, although they clearly weren’t happy taking direction from an American civilian on their own beat.

Wroxton showed up on time, met Gettle, and I sent the two of them off to a classroom next door with the erstwhile Gawain MS so Chip could examine it. I was confident he’d find the same thing I had, but Gettle wanted authentication.

I left Parerre and Cloiseux for my appointment, walking to the building next door: a conference center where a three-day literature symposium was in progress. One of the presenters was Luciana Notastere, and it was her presence that had suggested Nice as the place I could assemble all the pieces of my case. She was also the shining beacon that had provided me with the means to attract Udo Vaht into plain sight.

I spotted him in the busy atrium: older, heavier, still the big head of dark hair, hawk nose, deepset eyes. He did me the favor of pretending to be glad to see me, and I did the same for him. I explained that we had half an hour before we were to meet Luciana on the scholarly matter she wanted to “consult” us about, and we sat on a bench in the atrium while I spun my tale to him.

Luciana had sent me a draft of her address, and I’d used it to create an imaginary problem of scholarship that — I hoped — sounded believable and fit somewhere within the realm of Vaht’s limited range of expertise. I only had to be convincing enough to get Vaht to believe Luciana was really interested in our opinions. I knew that the mere opportunity to spend an hour with the incandescent Signorina N. was enough motivation for any man who knew her to fly to Nice.

She came out of the conference hall doors, spotted us and walked toward us. The atrium was full of people, but no one could capture attention like Luciana: still lovely. Una bella figura was too pallid a phrase.

We stood as she approached and greeted one another. I’d seen her less than a week before. Vaht hadn’t seen her for forty years, so far as I knew. I started us walking back to the building where the policemen and Gettle were waiting, ostensibly to go to “an office” where we could talk. Luciana did a good job of sticking to small talk with Vaht, catching up on the years that had passed since we’d shared those doctoral-student days in Germany. She knew what was up with Vaht and the manuscript. I knew she wasn’t happy with the role of femme fatale I’d cast her in, but she made the best of it.

When Vaht started probing about the purported scholarly matter, I explained that Luciana had a Medieval manuscript with some puzzling lines in it. It would be the subject of a panel discussion during the next day of the conference, and I had thought to bring our former colleague into the consideration of the matter.

Vaht seemed to buy it, and then we were at the door of the classroom.

It was showtime. I opened the door, waited for Luciana to enter, then Vaht, walked in and closed the door behind me.

Gettle, Parerre and Cloiseux were seated where I’d assigned them: at the closed end of a U-shaped arrangement of tables, like a hundred seminar meeting rooms Luciana, Vaht and I had sat in during our academic careers. The men stood.

“Dr. Vaht,” I said, “Please meet Dr. Gettle, Capitaine Parerre and Lieutenant Cloiseaux. They’re interested in the manuscript we’re discussing, too.”

There was one other person in the room ─ someone Vaht knew: Ms. Valerian from the scriptorium Vaht directed in Croatia. Ms. Valerian looked sheepish, confronted by her supervising professor. I’d told her what was going to happen. Vaht looked stunned.

I got everyone to sit, but remained standing, walked over to Gettle and picked up the Gawain manuscript from the table in front of him.

“A few weeks ago, Dr. Gettle and his colleagues sent me this manuscript, which appears to be a 14-Century parchment copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s on 14th-Century stock, and the bindings are of the right period. Dr Gettle’s institution was invited to acquire this item for a considerable sum. If it’s genuine, it’s only the second known copy of the document in existence. They asked me to determine its authenticity.”

Vaht was watching me. I could tell that Parerre and Cloiseux were watching Vaht ─ closely.

“Dr. Notastere examined this manuscript and reached the same conclusion I did. There is one difference between this text and the original, and it is remarkable because it’s utterly inconsistent with the 14th Century English present throughout the rest of the text.”

To his credit, Vaht said nothing, although he was probably trying to think of a way to simply stop what was happening. He was outnumbered.

I turned to the head of the table.

“Tell me, Dr. Gettle, did our additional authority, Dr. Wroxton, agree with the opinion Dr. Notastere and I had?”

At that, for the first time ever, I saw Luciana Notastere lose her composure.

“Che cosa? Wroxton?”

“Yes. He’s just had a look at it, Luciana. He’s in another room, but we’ll see him later.”

Gettle said that, yes, Dr. Wroxton found the same incontrovertible difference.

“So, Udo,” I went on. Does this manuscript look familiar to you?” and I set it in front of him.

Vaht looked down at it, but didn’t touch it. I didn’t expect him to simply give himself away, so I pushed on.

“Since you happen to be in charge of a workshop that produces facsimile pages of Sir Gawain on actual 14th-Century parchment, is there any possibility that this book is a modern copy, assembled from pages stolen from your workshop?”

He looked at me with an expression that suggested he disliked me.

“I don’t see how. We have extremely robust security measures around our work products.”

I thought he’d stop, but he went on.

“Besides, if there are differences in this text and the original, they are not from our atelier. We produce only exact facsimiles.”

Ms. Valerian was already blushing. She knew her moment had come, and I didn’t blame her for being unhappy about it. I picked up the book from in front of Vaht, set it in front of the young woman and opened it to the spurious lines.

“Line 1686 here reads, ‘He myndes ȝe bigge sleepe.’ Ms. Valerian, what does that line read in the original?”

Without hesitation, she had it.

Sir Gawayn lis and slepes.”

“Please let everyone here know why it is that you know a specific line in the poem so well, Ms. Valerian.”

Ms. Valerian showed her mettle, and didn’t wilt. She held her head up and looked at the men sitting at the end of the table.

“I did the lettering on that specific page. I changed two lines so that we could identify the book as our work, and to prevent it being represented as an original.”

Now the most soul-satisfying moment of my career had arrived. Not only was I going to solve my case, but I was going to deliver a long-deserved coup de grace to a pretentious, dishonest scoundrel who had been a thorn in my side when I was an eager, naïve aspiring scholar.

“To save you the embarrassment of explaining it, Ms. Valerian, I happen to know why you replaced those lines with ones that don’t follow pronunciation conventions of the English dialect used in Gawain.”

Ms. Valerian’s eyes opened wide. They were extremely attractive, dark eyes, but still no match for Luciana’s.

“It’s a joke, isn’t it? You and your colleagues figured out that Dr. Vaht has difficulty remembering that final e’s aren’t pronounced in the dialect of the original Gawain poet. He always has, since his student days. We all noticed it, even then.”

The one overt reaction in the room was from ─ of all people ─ Luciana. She burst out in a howl of laughter, then quickly covered her mouth with her hands. Ms. Valerian was trying to keep her expression under control, but I suspected she might be on the verge of tears. It was an embarrassing thing to admit to, playing an in joke on a mentor’s failing.

“I think at this point I can only ask one more question, Ms. Valerian, and then I think the other men in the room will take over the questions. You told me in Kosljun that Professor Vaht himself removed this book from the monastery and took it with him?”

Ms. Valerian nodded. At that moment, Lieutenant Cloiseux stood up.

Assez! Merci, Monsieur Blaknissan. You are correct. Our turn for questions, please. You and the Professoressa may go.”

I nodded at everyone except Vaht, waited at the door while Luciana went past me and stepped into the hallway. She folded her arms and leaned against the doorjamb.

“And now are you going to tell me about Chip Wroxton, since you pretended you hadn’t seen him when you were in Bologna?”

“I told you the truth. I didn’t see him until yesterday.”

“Here? In Nice?”

“You know, Luciana, when I told Wroxton you’d seen the manuscript, he asked me the same question: Were you here in Nice? It’s almost as if the two of you would like to see one another, even though you’ve been pretending that’s not the case for about twenty years.”

“Perhaps it’s none of your business.”

“Oh, really? Two of the smartest people on the planet unable to figure out how they might both have careers and still have one another, too? It’s getting a little late in life to keep being stubborn, Luciana. Maybe if you walk into the next classroom down the hall there, where Chip Wroxton is waiting to find out if he’s needed for further authentication work, the two of you might be able to figure something out. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get you both in the same place, and I’m waiting for you to go open that door.”

Luciana Notastere looked at me with those eyes of hers. She didn’t smile … not exactly. She nodded, placed one hand on my arm for just a moment, then walked past me to the next door. She looked back at me one time, then turned, opened the door and walked in. I hoped she and Wroxton would have a more enjoyable question and answer session than Dr. Vaht was having at the moment. They had a lot to discuss.

Not every case ends as satisfactorily as that one. I’d started out hoping I’d actually been holding another copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in my hands. That didn’t work out. Everything else turned out pretty well. I might be able to pay my rent for a change. And even old Wroxton might’ve found the experience “rewarding.”

I had a plane to catch.

Special thanks to the readers who voted in the polls and sent me to Bologna and Croatia. You played a big role in helping solve my toughest case. Grazie, merci, thank you.

Previous Episodes:

Click here to read Part 1: My Toughest Case.

Click here to read Part 2 Stolen Parchment.

Click here to read Part 3: Beauty and Intellect in Bologna

Click here to read Part 4: La Serenissima

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 22, 2017

Glacier National Park: Wild, Majestic

Perhaps you have those days. You wake and wonder, “Where would I truly like to be?”

Perhaps your imaginary place looks something like this:

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-3

That view was shot in Glacier National Park, in northern Montana. Glacier does, in fact, look like that: the impossibly wild, beautiful country one dreams of.

Glacier NP Willard Nixon 121

Glacier National Park covers more than 1 million acres, encompassing portions of 2 mountain ranges, glaciers, lakes, rivers, a variety of ecosystems which vary across the park’s 7,000 feet of elevation, and is home to numerous species of birds and wildlife, including grizzly and black bears, mountain goats, deer and elk.

Most of Glacier’s nearly 3 million yearly visitors see only a narrow slice of the immense park, because much of it is wilderness, requiring backcountry hiking.

Don’t be dismayed. Even if you’re equipped to hike only a few miles from the road, there is enough of Glacier to fill as many days as you can devote to it. There are innumerable trails in every portion of the park. It’s a U.S. National Park, meaning that the trails are well maintained and clearly marked (at least until the current U.S. administration eliminates funding for the National Park Service).

All the photographs in this post were shot on day hikes. Let’s go.


In some lower portions of the park, you’ll hike through cedar forests (red circle, along with Avalanche Falls).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2732 Cedar forest

One cedar forest area lies along Avalanche Creek

Glacier NP Willard Nixon 042 Avalanche

The relatively easy trail gets you to Avalanche Falls

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2735 Avalanche Falls

The falls is fascinating seen from above, looking down at the water boiling through the rocks.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2737 above Falls

I regret that we can’t follow every trail in such detail. Let’s travel farther into the park.

The sole paved route through the park is the 50 mile long Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was a marvel of engineering when it opened in 1932, and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Glacier NP Willard Nixon 088

(The road is visible as a horizontal line along the mountain at the lower right of the photo above.)

The views from the road are … only pictures can begin to describe them

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-7

While upthrusting geology is responsible for the high peaks, many of them were shaped by — what else? — glacial action. There are some enormous examples of glacial features in evidence, including this dramatic hanging valley, complete with waterfall:

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-6 hanging valley

That scooped out upper valley was gouged by a tributary glacier, which would have flowed into a larger glacier in the lower valley. Once the Ice Age ended, only the valleys remain.

There are active glaciers in Glacier National Park — around 25 or so —for now. Here is Jackson Glacier (map, green circle).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-8 Jackson Glacier

Due to our warming planet, there will be no active glaciers left in GNP by about 2030. There will still be ice and snow, but no active glaciers. Global warming is real.

These pictures were shot in early September, 2008. The mountains show about the minimum amount of snow, at the end of summer. However, snow can fall at upper elevations at any time of year, including midsummer. We encountered relatively heavy snow and dense cloud in Logan Pass, 6,646 feet that September.

Coming down from Logan Pass, we reached the point at which the St. Mary River flows into Saint Mary Lake. A number of trails diverge from there, and we hiked several miles to see St. Mary Falls, just visible at the bottom of this photo (map, purple circle).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-12 St Mary falls

Here’s how the the falls looks when you get close.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2767 St Mary Falls

Going-to-the-Sun Road ends at St. Mary, but it’s a short drive north outside the eastern edge of the park to re-enter at Many Glacier, an area filled with lakes, trails, campgrounds and Many Glacier Lodge on Swiftcurrent Lake (map, white circle, center).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2785 Many Glacier

That is one of several lodges in the park, with accommodations, dining and services. At this writing, there is no boating anywhere in the park, due to invasive mussel populations in central Montana. Check the park website for updates.

There are several glaciers visible from the area, and we took an easy nature trail around the lake, admiring the shifting views of the mountains

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2788 Swiftcurrent tr

The long ridge between the peaks is another glacial feature, an arete, carved by ice.

Along that trail, in some scrubby trees along the edge of the lake, we had what I hope will always stand as the most harrowing wildlife encounter of my hiking career. A mother Grizzly and her cub crashed up from the lake through the trees in front of us. To avoid hyperbole, I officially state that they were 40 yards in front of us. They seemed closer, but I don’t want to exaggerate. She was an extremely large beast, and fortunately either didn’t see us or ignored us. Dad and I quietly backed up and made a long circle around them.

No, I don’t have a photo. I was was busy making myself scarce.

If you can, plan to continue north from the Many Glacier area into Canada. Glacier National Park adjoins Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Together, they comprise the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park. There are spectacular landscapes, mountains, lakes, wildlife, waterfalls and days’ worth of exploration awaiting you in Waterton. I wrote about it here. To get an ongoing view of the Waterton area, visit the blog of local outdoorswoman Hiking Jess.

South from St. Mary, toward the southeastern corner of Glacier, is another entry point: Two Medicine (below bottom of map). There are more lakes, mountains, trails campgrounds and exploration awaiting you. One interesting trail leads to Running Eagle Falls.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 3052 Running Eagle

The falls is noteworthy not just for its picturesque quality, but for the fact that the river emerges there from a subterranean passage and simply appears out of the ground.

There’s a fascinating Native American legend associated with the name of the falls. I encourage you to pay a visit to the Montana Beauty blog for the story and more photos.

1,000 words can’t begin to describe Glacier National Park, but I hope you’ll go and see for yourself. Finally, I can use the photo that’s served as one of the main headers for Under Western Skies since I started the blog, in its proper place: the mountains over Saint Mary Lake at sunrise.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2773 from St Mary

Have you been? What tips do you have? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos are 35mm Kodachrome, may it rest in peace. Some photos © Willard Nixon 2017, used with kind permission.

The header photo of the foggy lake is a composite of two photos showing Lake McDonald, looking north, near the western entrance of Glacier National Park. September, 2008.

The demise of the park’s active glaciers is all but certain. However, even more dire threats loom at the hands of the current U.S. administration, with soulless idiots who do not believe in science in charge of federal agencies with scientific objectives. Call your legislators to insist that we not end support for National Parks, not only for our recreational use, but for the preservation of environments, habitats and the plants and creatures who live there. If we don’t protest, they will be mines, ranches and logging operations, not preserves. Thank you.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 18, 2017

Chuck Berry: Hail Hail, Rock ‘n Roll

Chuck Berry died on March 18. Not the originator of rock ‘n roll, and perhaps not The King of Rock ‘n Roll, outright, but rock royalty, beyond a doubt: creator of some of the music’s most indelible lyrics, tunes and motifs.

Like anyone who’s picked up a guitar in the rock era, I’ve played and sung my share of Chuck Berry numbers, whether sitting in my bedroom with an acoustic guitar or blasting away with rag-tag trios and quartets in kitchens, living rooms and garages.

A highlight was my annual participation in an ensemble of musicians from around the world — typically more than a dozen countries: the rollicking, massive Global Jam. We played music in a wide variety of genres, but as any performance reached the finale, we dug deep to get a crowd of hundreds of people — representing a couple score of nations — out on the floor, dancing in front of us.


(The 13 musicians in that single photo hail from 9 different countries.)

Music was the language we all had in common. What music did we play to bring the evening to a crescendo and sum up the joy of being together, celebrating the incandescent joy of life?

What else?

His mother told him, “Someday you will be a man,

And you will be the leader of a big ol’ band.

Many people comin’ from miles around

To hear you play your music when the sun goes down.

Maybe someday your name will be in lights

Sayin’ ‘Johnny B. Goode tonight’!”

Go, go — Go, Johnny, go!

So long, Chuck. Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2017. “Johnny B. Goode” © Chuck Berry

I wrote about the Global Jam several times. Click here to read the introduction to an impressive set of musicians.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 17, 2017

The Golden Gate Bridge: What Holds It Up?

There is probably no bridge that’s been photographed more than the one in California that spans the Golden Strait between San Francisco and Marin County: the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golden Gate Brad Nixon 4349

It’s massive, a stunning design in a dramatic setting. The Golden Gate abides. My overcast-day photo isn’t especially dramatic. I’m certain you’ve seen photos of the bridge shining in glorious California sunlight, wreathed in fog, shot from every possible angle. In 6-1/2 years of writing about California, though, I’ve never mentioned or shown a picture of one of my state’s most iconic sites. Here’s some background to enrich your visit when you go.

History and Context

Completed in 1937, the Golden Gate was the world’s longest suspension bridge main span until 1964. It is, if ever the phrase rang true, an engineering marvel, christened one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Engineers.

Golden Gate Bridge Facts:

Total length: 8,981 feet | Longest span: 4,200 feet | Width: 90 feet | Height: 746 feet

Golden Gate Bridge Design and Engineering

It’s a simple concept: Two cables anchored on either side of the 1-mile wide Golden Strait are held aloft by two steel towers. That carefully engineered, draping curve defines the bridge’s distinctive look and bears the weight of the suspension system, roadway and all the vehicle and foot traffic (yes, you can walk across it).

“Form follows function” says an old adage, and the Golden Gate exemplifies it.

That’s it: only two cables, each 36-3/8 inches (92.4 cm) in diameter. Here’s a photo of a cross section of cable displayed at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center* on the San Francisco side.

Golden Gate Brad Nixon 4344

When you look more closely, the cable isn’t simply one immense cylinder of steel.

Golden Gate Brad Nixon 4347

It’s comprised of 27,572 strands of steel, each one running the full 7,650 feet of the cable.

That’s what holds you up when you drive or walk across, and provides the enormous strength and flexibility for the suspension system.

The vertical lines descending from the main cables are referred to as “vertical suspender ropes,” and are also complex. Click here for some explanation.

These slivers of information won’t be the first thing that occurs to you when you regard the eye-popping, jaw-dropping out-and-out bodaciousness of the Golden Gate Bridge, but I have nothing to rival all those calendars, posters and spectacular photos you’ve already seen. I hope you get to spend time in San Francisco and the Bay Area. I know when you do, you’ll make it a point to see the bridge. Now you know what holds it up, leaving you to concentrate on shooting a truly memorable photo. Enjoy!

Have you seen it? What was your impression? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Golden Gate Bridge statistics courtesy Wikipedia.

*To visit the Welcome Center, take the last exit before you start north across the bridge. There are other things to see there, including old gunnery emplacements and the 1938 Round House Cafe. The center is part of the widely distributed Golden Gate National Recreation Area of the U.S. National Park Service.

That is my cue to mention that as I write (March 16), the president of the United States today unveiled his proposed budget for Fiscal 2018. It includes a draconian 12% cut for the U.S. Department of the Interior, which will impact the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is a good time for all American travelers, outdoorsmen and women, hikers, campers and citizens who care about our environment, history and culture to call your representatives to let them know that you disagree. The amount of money to be saved (approximately $1.5 billion) during the following year is less than the U.S. military budget for a day. Thank you.

P.S. Those budget cuts will eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in addition to a 31% budget reduction for the Environmental Protection Agency. In case you needed any additional motivation to call.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 15, 2017

Joshua Tree NP: The Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) — backed by granite monoliths — are the marquee celebrities of Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6293

However, the park spans two deserts (Mojave and Colorado), a range of elevations between 2,000 and 5,800 feet, encompassing a variety of landscapes and multiple ecosystems with diverse plant and animal life.

In the transition zone between the higher Mojave and the lower Coloradan deserts, a long eastward slope from the Hexie Mountains into the Pinto Basin is a perfect environment for Cylindropuntia bigelovii, the Teddy Bear Cholla.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6279

The area is named the Cholla Cactus Garden (blue circle on map).

JOTRmap Parkwide 28

There’s a level, easy nature trail through the cholla, immediately accessible from a parking lot along the road that leads southeastward from the upper portion of the park to Cottonwood Spring. Click here for the map on the NPS site.

Cholla cacti are common throughout the Sonora Desert (of which the Colorado is a part), and you’re likely to encounter them in southern California, portions of Arizona and New Mexico and northwestern Mexico.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6271

Do not attempt to “encounter” them too closely. Despite the cute name, they aren’t at all “fuzzy;” those spines are extremely sharp and will easily pierce your clothing and then your skin with extreme prejudice.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6281

One of my favorite aspects of hiking the southwestern deserts is the light gilding the cactus spines.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6262

To take advantage of that phenomenon, we made a point of getting to the Cholla Cactus Garden just as the setting sun was about to touch the top of the mountains, shining almost horizontally through the expanse of cacti. The scene exceeded our expectations.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6264

To the east, the basin was still in full sun, backed by the Pinto Mountains.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6275

As compelling as that view was, my attention was riveted by the cacti.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6276

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6272

An interesting aspect of the cholla life cycle is visible on the ground. The cacti are surrounded by small “cholla balls.” (click on these images to enlarge)

They’re pieces of cacti that have broken off. Many take root and grow into separate plants.

You’ll typically see cholla from 1 to 5 feet tall, but as this photo shows, they can grow higher than I can reach, which is about 8 feet.

Joshua Tree Marcy Vincent 6297

The desert is always changing, everlastingly beautiful.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6269

Joshua Tree is extremely large: more than 1,200 square miles, much of it true wilderness. Don’t try to see everything by spending all your time driving: You’ll fail, and miss the best thing, which is finding some places to get out and let the park embrace you — it’s too vast for you to embrace it.

As I’ve said many times before, one of the consolations of the natural world is the silence. In Joshua Tree, as everywhere, it’s sometimes enough to simply stand and admire how the light falls.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6287

© Brad Nixon 2017. Photo of me measuring cactus © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Two recent posts from Joshua Tree NP:

JTNP, Pictures Are Not the World

JTNP: Valentine Greeting from the Desert (including more cactus varieties)

To U.S. readers: The current administration is arming itself to eviscerate a broad swath of protections and support for clean water and air, wild lands and public well-being. As you learn of such actions, call your elected representatives and express your opposition, and your reasons. Remind them you’ll be voting in the next election. Thank you.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 13, 2017

Hold the Phone. (Where Should I Hold It?)

Our phones were inoperative here at UWS intergalactic HQ for several days last week. An enterprise that is all about communication is hampered without telephones. Another reminder how reliant we are on basic infrastructure technology.

I’ve lived long enough to see radical changes in telephone technology. As a kid, we had a rotary dial phone (Millennials, look it up) connected to a “party line:” A number of houses in the area shared a single phone line; if your neighbor was on the phone when you picked it up, you heard their conversation. If you needed to make a call you asked them to hang up.

I was a late adopter of a mobile phone for a number of reasons. I traveled for business, but my company was slow to provide phones.

There’s a classic reason that companies are slow to adopt technology, whether it’s phones, email, or, years ago, photocopying: Executives who make the decisions don’t need them.

I heard the CEO of the multi-billion-dollar company I worked for express scorn for employees who wanted mobile phones. They were unnecessary, he said: an expensive, pointless luxury.

Why did he think that? Because someone took his calls for him and gave him messages. If he needed to talk to anyone (me, for instance), he didn’t call me, his assistant did that. And if I was in the restroom, someone would dash in and yell, “The CEO wants you!”

He didn’t need a phone … or email. His assistant handled that, too. So, I had no mobile phone for a long time. Technology of all sorts battles executive perspective. It took a lot of pleading to convince my very first boss that we writers might benefit from word processors. A typewriter was good enough for him (his assistant did a lot of his typing).

Phones, though, are hugely important. They’re a core tool for managing not just work, but our lives, through both voice and text: to know where the kids are, tell your supervisor you’re running late, call the plumber or the doctor’s office or any of a thousand other basic things.

With the growing ubiquity of mobile phones, one sees this sight less and less:

pay phone Brad Nixon

That’s a pay phone. Not only that, it has a phone book. Two endangered species.

One does see them in less-advantaged neighborhoods, where not everyone has the budget or the stability of life to own a phone and a telephone account. Pay phones persist because people need phones, especially if they’re working two jobs, juggling day care, school schedules, plumber visits, doctor appointments and the vexations of a harried life. A personal mobile phone is an enormous advantage.

Enter a member of the United States House of Representatives, commenting on an important topic in the U.S. right now: health care.

Those of you in other countries may be aware that the U.S. has taken its first slow steps toward providing universal healthcare insurance for all citizens, not simply as a private commercial enterprise. The new federal administration is determined to remove many — if not all — of those provisions.

Defending the likelihood that health insurance prices will now rise, that legislator said, “Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. So maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest in their own healthcare.”(1)

To an extent, that representative was coming from the same mindset as my former CEO. He could probably get along without a phone, because he has a staff, interns, a cadre of people who’ll take care of things. The rest of us don’t. In fact, our phones are probably more important to us than is his to him. But our health care matters, too. Not spending $650 on a new phone doesn’t make up for insurance that likely costs about $400 – $600 per month or more.

What’s really at work is the notion that health care insurance must be paid for, not provided as an entitlement, stemming from a long-held belief by the already-entitled that insurance is something to be earned — merited. One should have a job that provides insurance (like being a member of Congress) or earned wealth of some other type, insulating one from messiness like not having enough money. If one does not, one does not deserve medical care. Let them eat cake.

Scrooge said it best: “Are there no prisons? ….And the … workhouses. Are they still in operation? …. If they would rather die … they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

So, if your elected officials tell you to save money in order to afford the doctor bills by “holding the phone,” perhaps you should tell them to hold it, instead.

If they ask where they should hold it, then you can quote one of the 20th Century’s great philosophers, Jack. Jack said it best (you may see an advertisement before the clip plays):


And hold the chicken, too, Representative.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Clip from “Five Easy Pieces,” 1970, © Five Easy Pieces Productions.

(1) For quotation attribution  see at this link.

N.B. This is the 600th post on Under Western Skies. I thank you for exploring with me. There is much more to see, read and do under that arching dome of blue.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 10, 2017

Down in the Boondocks

Earworm Alert: This post mentions a 1965 popular song which may resonate in the minds of some readers and repeat endlessly in your head, requiring anti-earworm measures. Take appropriate precautions.

I suspect it’s a common human trait. There you are, digging a ditch to drain your field, trying to fix dinner while the kids are wailing in the other room, looking for some papers you need for an appointment tomorrow. What is in your head? Some inspiring canon by Bach, or maybe the third movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony? Mel Torme singing “Too Darned Hot,” David Bowie in a big live version of “Heroes” or The Kinks killing it with “Waterloo Sunset?”


It’s some inane, irritating and utterly moronic thing: maybe “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies or “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” they made you sing in 3rd grade … over and over. Some song your roommate played incessantly until you simply decided you’d ask your girlfriend to marry you so you could go live somewhere else.

Our media-rich 21st Century has cluttered our brains and aural memories with this stuff. Stuck in traffic on a blistering August day, my internal disc jockey wouldn’t give me Bach or Beethoven or even Neil Young, when I needed them most. I’d get the theme song from “Maverick” or “The Mickey Mouse Club” (and I know them by heart: thank  you, brain).

One song in particular resides in my personal Earworm Hall of Fame, and it’s the same for all 6 surviving members of my family. First, two bits of background.

First, the English word “boondocks” means back country or, by extension, a remote (and usually backwards) place: viz. nowheresville.

It came into English from Tagalog bundok, which means mountainous brush or back country. U.S. military personnel fighting in the Philippine–American War (1899-1902) picked it up and it entered the vernacular.

Secondly, when my four siblings and I were kids, our parents took us on a driving trip for a week or two (once three weeks) each summer. I’ve written about this lucky history of mine before. It made us all travelers and readers of maps. I saw 32 of the 50 U.S. states with my parents (although when they took me on the first trip, there were only 48 states).

In 1965, we drove south from Ohio, across the Mississippi River and into The Ozarks, a beautiful area of forested mountains. We camped in those days, partly because it was far less expensive than hotel space for 7 people.

One night we set up camp on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas (Bull Shoals-White River State Park). Bull Shoals is a large manmade lake, created by a dam that was the 5th largest in the world when it was completed. The lake covers 45,000 acres as deep as 210 feet, and it’s a mecca for water sports and fishing.

We were in a developed camping area, not far from the park headquarters, which included a small service area for campers with vending machines and restrooms.

It also had a jukebox. We didn’t know that, but we were about to find out.

As night fell over rural Arkansas and stars bloomed in the sky, far from city lights, that rustic park office became the hangout for some number of people. Whether they were locals or campers, I cannot say.

What I can tell you is that they shared an inordinate passion for two current popular songs. One was “Bread and Butter” by the Newbeats.

He likes bread and butter, He likes toast and jam.

That’s what his baby feeds him, ’cause he’s her lovin’ man.

Timeless. Pithy. Trenchant.

The other song was a poignant, soul-searing ballad about the pangs of frustrated, star-crossed love. Romeo and Juliet, but set not in Verona but in a place very like Bull Shoals, Arkansas itself: “Down in the Boondocks.”

Down in the boondocks
Down in the boondocks
People put me down ’cause
That’s the side of town I was born in.
I love her she loves me but I don’t fit in her society
Lord have mercy on the boy from down in the boondocks.

Billy Joe Royal, breaking hearts, climbing the charts.

Whether the jukebox volume was simply loud or actually piped into loudspeakers for the enjoyment of everyone within half a mile, it started some time after dark. There we were — Mom, Dad, my 3 brothers and sister and I — rolled in our sleeping bags in the big canvas tent.

First one song, then the other. Then the Newbeats again, then Billy Joe. On and on it went.

How long? I cannot say. It seemed like hours. Perhaps not, but human perception of time, particularly when exposed to pain, is subjective. “When will it stop?” one asks, but only the torturer knows, and the sufferer must endure.

Ever since, “Down in the Boondocks” has lurked in my brain, emerging sometimes when I wake up, persisting, haunting me through the day. Programmed into my aural DNA.

If you meet Dad or one of my siblings, you’ll like them. They’re smart, accomplished, witty people. Two are professional musicians, and we all enjoy music.

Just don’t mention “Down in the Boondocks.” Or, if you do, duck.

Now, everybody:

One fine day I’ll find a way to move from this old shack
I’ll hold my head up like a king and I never never will look back.
Until that morning I’ll work and slave
And I’ll save ev’ry dime
But tonight she’ll have to steal away
To see me one more time

Down in the Boondocks ….

What’s your killer earworm? I know you have one. Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017.

“Bread and Butter,” 1964 by Larry Parks & Jay Turnbow. It spent 2 weeks at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and was a hit around the world.

“Down in the Boondocks,” 1965, by Joe South. Number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 8, 2017

Joshua Tree NP. Pictures Are Not the World

I have two things to say about a recent visit to Joshua Tree National Park. First, some photographs I shot there.

I made images so wide that all detail is lost in the vast expanse …

Joshua Tree pano Brad Nixon

… and so close-up that I have to explain what it is.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6219

(the texture of a granite boulder)

I stopped the car and shot out the window …

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6220

… I hiked trails …

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6226

… I walked up one of the highest peaks in the park, Ryan Mountain, and photographed the desert below.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6188

One afternoon we hurried across the miles to catch the Cholla Cactus Garden backlit by the setting sun.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6272

The next day at sunset we watched a climber (circled) race the advancing shadow of a mountain up a cliff …

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6316

Then we drove to Keys View to catch the sun setting beyond the peak of San Jacinto Peak (10,834′, left) and Mt. San Gorgonio (11,503′), the Coachella Valley in shadow a few thousand feet below.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6339

Later, in nearly full darkness, The Counselor and I walked a trail as the temperature dropped into the low 40s, hoping we’d encounter some nocturnal wildlife: jackrabbits, cottontails, maybe a bobcat (preferably not a mountain lion). There was one bright planet, but also stars innumerable, winking in the violet sky, beyond the ability of my camera or skill to capture them.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 1

Those photographs represent the things I want to say.

First, Joshua Tree National Park is an extremely large and diverse landscape, spanning elevations from near sea level to 6,000 feet. The largest portion lies in the Mojave Desert, while another is in the Colorado Desert, part of the Sonoran Desert. It is beautiful, as all wild places are. Much of it, in fact, is genuine wilderness, but you can spend many days exploring it without the need for backcountry hiking. Further, the landscape, vegetation and wildlife you’ll find vary greatly depending on the time of day or season of the year. It’s impossible to imagine exhausting the marvels of the place. Go if you can.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6089

Second, trying to convey the richness of the world in any number of photographs — however well-planned, expertly composed and adroitly shot — is an impossible task. When we point our cameras, we are — inevitably — selecting, framing and limiting what we see, without the full range of vision, the scope of all our senses, the ineluctable ability of the human mind to synthesize it into the experience of being there.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6127

A photograph is a two-dimensional mechanical representation of a portion of something I see. However careful, skilled and flat-out lucky I am, I don’t truly capture the world. I can’t put you in the scene, standing on the gravelly, eroded granite of a stream bed, making the hour-long walk up a mountain, standing still to hear the wind blow and feel the temperature drop as evening falls. I show only a slice, not the landscape spreading in all directions as the sky deepens to azure, viridian, purple and, finally, blackness full of stars.

We can only go to see the desert light, feel the warmth of a stone heated by the sun, hear the wind and walk there, whenever we can. If someone decides that money for preserving wilderness lands or green space or a neighborhood park needs to be spent on mining or logging or development or waging war, tell them what you think of that idea. Do not let them take the world, because it doesn’t belong to them. We belong to it. If they take it, there will be only pictures of extinct animals and lost landscapes. Pictures are not the world. It — and we — would be lost.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 6, 2017

Ye Bigge Sleepe Part 5: The Croatian Island Monastery

Summary: It’s my toughest case yet: An apparent 14th-Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only the 2nd ever discovered. Genuine or fake? It’s my job to find out. There’s the issue of Medieval parchment, possibly stolen from a Croatian monastery, which led me to Bologna, Venice, and now to that monastery on a remote island in the Adriatic. For earlier episodes, see below.

The young man who’d piloted the small launch to the island of Kosljun helped me climb out onto the dock. The water was calm, but he certainly didn’t want this odd American to end up in the Adriatic and complicate his return to the marina at Punat.

I used two of my ten words in Croatian to thank him, looked at my watch and with eyebrows raised, confirmed our return time with two more ─ “Dva sata:” two o’clock  ─ and started up the stone walk to the Samostan Monastery.


Kosljun island is an extraordinary place: a 16-acre island in a bay of a much larger island ─ Krk ─ on the coast of Croatia.


Its only inhabitants are the monks of the Franciscan monastery.

I’d had an interesting 24 hours since leaving Venice. There was, to my dismay, no ferry service across the Adriatic in the winter, which was how I’d planned to reach Croatia.

A train to Trieste had been the first step. Trenitalia got me to Trieste Centrale station in a little over 2 hours, which I spent planning how to reach Kosljun. I eliminated a train (the Hapsburgs declined to build railroads along the Adriatic coast), or bus (difficult interconnections) and I’d ended up making a picturesque drive in a rented Fiat Panda on the well-maintained 2-lane Route E61 through Slovenia to Rijeka, rolling through the beautiful countryside past small villages.

I gritted my teeth at how brief a time I’d have in either of two countries I’d never visited. I pulled off the road at the village of Gradišče Pri Materiji and drank a coffee (kava in both Slovenian and Croatian), just to say I’d been in Slovenia, rather than driving through without my feet touching the ground.

I’d reached the old port city of Rijeka just before sunset and stole a couple of hours to stroll around the city that had been Celtic, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish (under Charlemagne), Croatian, Venetian, Austro-Hungarian-Hapsburg, Yugoslav, German, Yugoslav again and now independent. I had to get back to the hotel room to assemble my notes and scraps of knowledge into a sensible plan for the visit to the monastery the next day. I needed to find Udo Vaht.


I entered the 16th-Century monastery, and found I was expected, as I’d hoped. I was led to a small paneled office, where I met Brother Cyril, the chapter’s equivalent of a public relations official.

Dressed like a businessman rather than anyone’s image of a monk, Brother Cyril was middle height, mid-fifties, balding, with a dark bushy unibrow above a full aquiline nose: a serious-looking man.

I’d told Brother Cyril on the phone that I was researching Medieval parchments for the British Museum. That was at least half-true. I simply didn’t explain that I was really looking into what had been written on a specific set of parchment pages, and that they were probably forgeries.

With an archive of over 50,000 ancient books and manuscripts on parchment, vellum and paper, the monastery was accustomed to visits from scholars. I was a scholar, but with a hidden agenda.

I told the monk that the museum and I were particularly interested in reports of a large cache of 15th Century parchment reportedly removed ─ perhaps stolen ─ from the monastery in recent years.

“You have impressive credentials from the BM and Professoressa Notastere, Mr. Blaknissan,” Cyril told me. “She contacted us yesterday to advise us that you’d consulted her.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. One more reason to relish the acquaintance with my long-ago fellow student.

“Yet you’re incorrect. That parchment has never been missing. It was removed from the archives for use in our manuscript restoration program.”

I had to question the truthfulness of a monk. I’d interviewed a man in Los Angeles who claimed to know the stolen parchment had reached there, as well as Leopardo in Venice, who thought the same thing.

“I see you doubt me,” he said, and explained that the monastery trained conservators in restoring ancient manuscripts. Aspiring conservators worked under skilled curators and visiting scholars who were responsible for textual accuracy. They were using that very parchment in their work.

“Our current visiting scholar, in fact, is in your field of Medieval English and Germanic languages. Perhaps you know of him: Professor Vaht.”

I managed not to roll my eyes, choke or simply laugh out loud. “Professor Vaht,” indeed. I’d been right. Vaht was there. It was the consummate con of a lifelong swindler: passing himself off as professor of anything. Vaht wasn’t qualified to direct a high school language class, let alone a scholarly enterprise involving ancient languages.

When I asked about “Professor Vaht’s” current project, Brother Cyril suggested we go to the “scriptorium” so I could see for myself.

“Unfortuately, Professor Vaht is away, but you can speak to his assistant, Ms. Valerian.”

Brother Cyril stood up and led me at a brisk pace down a series of hallways, across an inner courtyard, through a low doorway into a tall-ceilinged room with stonework arches above, limestone pillars along the sides, and about a dozen work tables occupied by mostly young people writing on slanted work surfaces. It was, indeed, the modern equivalent of a Medieval scriptorium, perhaps in a room that had served the same purpose 500 years earlier, only with artificial lighting and, judging from the sound, forced air heating.

Brother Cyril gestured and a petite, slender woman dressed in black came toward us.

“This is Ms. Valerian, Professor Vaht’s assistant,” he said, and introduced me to the young woman, who might have been in her late twenties.

“Central Casting?” I thought, “Get me an archetypal Serious Beautiful Female Aesthete:” straight black hair, thin long nose, kohl-black eyes, black turtleneck sweater under a gray herringbone jacket, black pencil skirt, red beret. That beret slew me.

Cyril excused himself, saying he had an appointment, leaving me to start at the beginning with Ms. Valerian, explaining my interest in the 15th-Century parchment “we at the British Museum” (pulling out all the stops) had thought was stolen and perhaps on the open market.

“Why would that concern you?” she asked.

Hint of an accent: Slavic? Nearly perfect English, though.

“Good question.” I gestured to indicate the activity in the room. “A skilled forger could use it, just as you seem to be, to create an extremely valid-seeming and hard to detect forgery of an ancient manuscript.”

That got precisely the reaction I expected: Valerian bristled.

“We aren’t forging documents. These are students in the first phase of training, learning the basic techniques of creating and applying inks that they’ll use in their careers to restore damaged manuscripts.”

“So they’re practicing forgery of a sort, differentiated only by the fact that, presumably, it’ll be done under the auspices of a museum or a collection.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. Conservators aren’t forgers.”

“Okay, so much for conserving. What role do you and Udo play here?”

“Ud … Professor Vaht?”

“He’ll always be Udo to me. I was at school with him: Göttingen … before you were born.”

She recovered from her obvious surprise.

“The document they’re practicing on,” indicated the people in the room, “Is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Professor Vaht’s an authority on the text, and it’s also my field of study. I’m finishing my PhD. in philology.”

My turn to conceal surprise.

“These people are copying Gawain? From what source?”

“The reproductions U. of Calgary has online. We print high resolution copies with their permission.”

That left me with a lot of questions.

“Do they all work on the same page, or do they work on separate pages and do you ever end up with a completed MS?”

To her credit, Ms. Valerian raised one dark eyebrow. I’d be willing to bet she practiced that in a mirror.

“If you’re suggesting these get assembled and make their way to the black market or something, I’m through talking to you.”

“You didn’t answer my questions.”

She lost her concentration and forgot about the eyebrow, squinting at me, instead. Less attractive.

“Most of them are repeating one of about a dozen pages. We created one entire set of sheets early on to serve as an example.”

“Could I see it?”

“Professor Vaht has it. He’s traveling. A conference, I think.”

I didn’t think Professor Vaht had that “example” manuscript. Maybe he had at one time. I rather thought that I, in fact, had it, right in my briefcase. I had a big choice to make. I stalled.

“So all the copies of all the pages are identical to the original Cotton Nero MS. in the BM?”


“Tell me, Ms. Valerian, since this is your field of study, are there examples in the bob and wheel sections of final e’s being pronounced in order to scan correctly?”

“I hardly think so. It simply wasn’t the idiom.”

“What about in lines 1686 and -7 on folio 113/117 verso?”

“I hardly know it from memory, but I doubt it.”

I’d decided. There was an empty work table near us. I stepped to it, set my briefcase on it and opened it. I lifted out the manuscript and opened it to the page I wanted without looking at her.

“Look at this version with me, then,” I said

When I turned to her, Ms. Valerian had lost her veneer of practiced sophistication, retained that squint and added an open mouth, gawking at me.

“Where did you get that?”

“It was sent to me.”

“What the hell!”

She bent over, scrutinizing the page. Only a small number of trained people can actually read that faded, unfamiliar writing. She, apparently, was one of them.

I asked, “Are you looking at those lines that are distinctly different from the original MS?”


“And does their presence there tell you anything?”

She straightened up and looked at me.

“We inserted those lines as a safeguard that the manuscript could never be represented as an original. Like cartographers who put a spurious place name in a map to prove that a work is theirs … prevents copying.”

“So this is likely the manuscript you believed Professor Vaht had with him?”

“I know it is.”


She paused. I might’ve made a mistake, showing her the book. She was obviously a smart woman. She might be capable of getting herself ─ and Vaht ─ out of the spot they were in, if she could concoct a believable enough story.

“I did that page, myself. I put it in the assembled manuscript, for the reason I told you.”

“You wrote those lines … not Vaht?”

Now she looked ─ I swear ─ sheepish, looking at a damned manuscript written on sheepskin.

“I thought it would be funny. You know, ‘The Big Sleep’ … like a mystery?”

Holy saints and sinners, I thought. Vaht had just been caught out by his own assistant’s innate honesty.

“So, you intentionally made the lines scan incorrectly?”

“Probably overkill, but just to make it obvious.”

“Obvious,” I thought. Maybe to about ten people in the world. Fortunately, I was one of them.

“Ms. Valerian, do you know how to reach Udo? It’s extremely important that I speak with him.”

“Email. I don’t have a mobile number for him.”

I closed my eyes and thought. Which day? I’d have one shot.

“Please tell him there’s an urgent need for him to be in Nice on Tuesday. His former colleague, Luciana Notastere, is giving an address at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, and needs to consult with him in person. I’ll write down the particulars for you.”

“You know Dr. Notastere?”

“Another former classmate of mine.”

Suddenly the learned, accomplished and polished-seeming Ms. Valerian looked young and scared.

“Am I in trouble?”

“No. You’re not. You’re actually one of the good guys today. You’ve done me a big favor, and you did it in the most admirable possible way. And, by the way, nice joke. I get it. One of my favorite books.”

I packed up the manuscript and headed for the dock. I had three days to get a lot of things accomplished. I had to let Luciana know that she’d have unexpected auditors for her presentation. I was happy I’d seen the notice for her conference in the hallway outside her office in Bologna. If there was anything that would get Vaht and me in the same room, it was the incomparable Professoressa. And I thought there should be one other person present, too ─ if I could find him.

Before my boat got me ashore at Punat, I was on the phone. I had to get to Nice, and a lot of other things needed to happen, too.

Click here to read the conclusion of “Ye Bigge Sleepe:” Convergence à Nice

© Brad Nixon 2017. Photograph of Samostan Monastery © Berthold Werner via BY-SA 3.0 via creative commons.  No other use or copying permitted without citing Mr. Werner’s ownership. Maps © Google.

Special thanks to the readers who voted in the previous poll and sent me to Croatia. An extremely productive suggestion!

Previous episodes:

Click here to read Part 1: My Toughest Case.

Click here to read Part 2 Stolen Parchment.

Click here to read Part 3: Beauty and Intellect in Bologna

Click here to read Part 4: La Serenissima

If you’re interested, you can access the Calgary Gawain facsimile by clicking here.

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