Seems like it's been a long time since Germans have become paralyzed with fear over something. Life here's so comfortable that the media have to invent crises and disasters, and often the only thing that presents itself is tainted raspberries or genetically-modified food or bird flu. Headlines suddenly sprout: "Tainted-raspberry Crisis Spreads Terror in Brandenburg!" "Avian Flu Set to Destroy Civilization!" "H1N1 Virus Carves Path of Death and Misery Through Unsuspecting Middle Class!"
But it's been disappointingly quiet around here lately. So let's take a trip down memory lane! In 2006, morgues overflowed and canned-food riots erupted because of nature's latest remorseless kill-bot, the Dornfinger or yellow-sac spider. Here's the fleshy beast:
You can tell that this spider became an obsession in German-speaking Europe because the German Wikipedia article on it (g) has (deservedly) won a prize. In 2006, which must have been a particularly dull summer ('Coalition Approves Preliminary Draft of Proposal for .00034% Pension Contribution Rate Adjustment'), some reporter saved the day by discovering that the Dornfinger spider's natural habitat was moving north owing to global warming, bringing Austria and Germany within its spidery crosshairs.*
Finally, something to wet our collective pants about! Dornfinger triggers Hysteria, screamed one typical headline. The article notes that after a series of breathless press reports in Austria, 190 people streamed into the hospital in Linz in one day claiming to have been bitten by one, although only 8 'even came close' to displaying the symptoms. The spider's bite, needless to say, is non-fatal, although you might have a day or two of discomfort.
The German media's falling down these days. We need a crisis, and we need it fast. What'll it be this time? Horsemeat in your Wurst? Genetically-modified Lederhosen? The creeping menace of philtrum fungus? Come on, lazy reporters, start spreading the panic.
The weather on Sunday was so obscenely pleasant that the local park was crowded. So I veered off into the adjoining Stoffels cemetery (g) a large cemetery created in 1876 in the south of Duesseldorf. It's a minor masterpiece of cemetery design, with rolling hills and dales that create many small enclaves, and a huge variety of trees that keep it in autumn glory for months.
In addition to conventional graves, there's a field for urn burials and for ash-scattering. There's also a large memorial for 1,230 Dutch people who were killed in concentration and forced-labor camps during World War II, one of many such cemeteries in western Germany. The graves are located in a semi-circle around a central sandstone pillar listing the names of concentration camp in which many of the victims died.
Over the weekend I visited friends in Cologne and decided to bike back. I took a leisurely tour through the Zonser Grind, a nature reserve in the form of a fat peninsula into the Rhine. It looks like this from the air:
It's even nicer up close: the landscape is made up of a broad pebble beach on the wide, slow-moving Rhine, then come grass-covered dunes and rows of poplars and stump willows (Kopfweiden) in which owls, crows, and orioles flit about. It's pretty hard to reach, not only because it's a peninsula but also because the base of the peninsula is taken up mostly by factories, both working and apparently abandoned. You have to endure a lot of industrial grimness before you enter nature. The result is that, even during fine weather like yesterday's, you'll easily be able to find a meadow all to yourself.
Looking for more information about it, I quickly came across the official government portal for nature reserves in Northern Rhine-Westphalia,which lists the legal details (g) concerning the status of the reserve. From this page, we learn that the "digitalized area" of the reserve is 392.4 hectares, while the "official area" is 328.59. We also learn that the designation as a nature reserve will expire in the year 9999.
So visit the Zonser Grind while you can, since you've only got 2,882,405 days before someone obliterates it with an orgasmatron factory.
And now, for a few photos of late summer/early Fall foliage taken in the Rotthäuser Creek (g) nature preserve near Düsseldorf. The preserve follows a lush valley in which a small creek runs. The farmers at the creek's edge blocked it every couple of kilometers to make fish-breeding pools, making the entire area swampy and green. At the northwest end of the preserve is the Abshof farm (g), which cultivates local fruit varieties and an endangered race of sheep local to East Prussia and the Baltic states called the Skudde (g).
By the way, can anyone identify the mushrooms in the photos? Are they edible?
Picking up a theme from a few weeks ago -- how the old saw about puritanical America versus liberal Germany needs to be updated -- here are the results of a few recent opinion polls on whether marijuana should be legalized. About the U.S., the L.A. Times reports:
Slowly but surely, Americans seem to be making peace with the pot pipe.
According to a poll released by Gallup on Monday, 50% of Americans surveyed say marijuana use should be legal — up from 46% last year. This year, 46% percent said it should be illegal.
Those numbers mean that, for the first time in the poll's 42-year-history, Americans who say that marijuana should be legal outnumber those who say it should be illegal.
Societal acceptance of marijuana has come a long way since 1969, when Gallup first posed the question "Should marijuana use be legal?" Back then, only 12% of Americans favored legalization of the drug. From the '70s through the mid-'90s, support remained in the 20s, but it has been climbing steadily
The Spiegel reports a recent German poll showing that only 26% of Germans favor legalizing marijuana, as opposed to 36% who wish to keep it a crime. The remainder want it designated as an Ordnungswidrigkeit, which is basically a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine, similar to a parking ticket. Thus, overall, a majority of Germans favor reducing the punishment for marijuana to something less than an actual crime, but only 26% are willing to go as far as Americans are.
Count me among that 26%/50%. Marijuana doesn't cause physical dependence, cannot cause overdose, and does not contribute to violent behavior. In other words, it's about as harmless as drugs can get -- much less harmful than nicotine and alcohol -- and has only been prohibited, I would argue, because those who originally used it were stigmatized outsiders (blacks, foreigners, hippies, the young). Like single-malt whisky or a fine Bordeaux, pure, fresh cannabis sativa is a feast for the senses. Why governments are continuing to waste millions of dollars and euros prohibiting it is beyond me. But note that more Americans are asking themselves that question than are Germans, at least for now.
I'm as dismayed as the next civic-minded person by the Anglo-Saxon world's unhealthy Nazi fixation, but it's worthwhile remembering there are some not wholly illegitimate reasons for it. One is how exciting this era was: one of the world's most advanced nations decided to basically wipe the slate clean and force-march itself into a new era of enforced social order and technological mastery. The intellectual framework driving this momentous transformation had room for any number of batty or semi-batty notions: medieval folktales, nudism, anthroposophy, runes, time travel, etc. Anyone with a crazy-yet-völkisch scheme for social progress could get a hearing, and sometimes funding.
In his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, Cardiff University historian Jan Bondeson mines obscure German periodicals to reveal the Nazis' failed attempt to breed an army of educated dogs that could read, write and talk...
According to the book, scientists envisioned a day when dogs would serve alongside German troops, and perhaps free up SS officers by guarding concentration camps. So to unlock all that canine potential, Hitler set up a Tier-Sprechschule (Animal Talking School) near Hanover and recruited "educated dogs" from throughout the country. Teachers claimed a number of incredible findings. An Airedale terrier named Rolf became a mythic figure of the project after teachers said he could spell by tapping his paw on a board (the number of taps represented the various letters of the alphabet). With that skill in hand, he mused on religion, learned foreign languages and even asked a noblewoman, "Can you wag your tail?" Perhaps most outlandish is the claim by his German masters that he asked to serve in the German army because he disliked the French. Another mutt barked "Mein Fuhrer" [sic] when asked to describe Hitler. And Don, a German pointer, is said to have imitated a human voice to bark, "Hungry! Give me cakes!" in German.
Germany's love of dogs may have blinded the Nazis to the outlandish goals of their project. "Part of the Nazi philosophy was that there was a strong bond between humans and nature. They believed a good Nazi should be an animal friend," Bondeson says. "Indeed, when they started interning Jews, the newspapers were flooded with outraged letters from Germans wondering what had happened to the pets they left behind.
Which brings me, in turn, to my scheme for Instant World Peace™: in the future, all wars must be fought by dogs instead of humans. I confidently predict that just one evening newscast of mutilated, gasping, blood-spattered dogs twitching their last on a battlefield will accomplish what 5000 years of recorded human suffering haven't.
* Appalling title, I know. By the way, 'the' Nazi Dogs exist.
Frogs, that is. They had foregathered in a pond on the grounds of the organic garden of the people's university (Volkshochschule) and began croaking lubriciously, which I captured with my portable sound-thingy: