O R I O N MARCH | APRIL 2014 16
Berlin, “history is still physically and emotionally present,” says the film director Wim
Wenders. The past shudders at every corner,
it sings on every street, it thinks its way into
the present, from Brecht to Einstein, from
royalty in a direct line to the Holocaust.
Frederick the Great’s father believed in authoritarian child “care” with that enshrined
code of obedience that contributed to the
rise of totalitarianism. When Frederick
was a teenager, his father forced the boy to
watch as he beheaded his son’s best friend
because the two of them had tried to run
away from the domestic tyranny.
I’m writing this from the old observatory in Potsdam where Einstein once
worked, now called the Albert Einstein
Science Park. It’s better in German:
wis-senschaft, literally “knowledge-scape,”
means science or research, but it implies
knowledge as something discoverable by
thinking for oneself. Its lack, in Hannah
Arendt’s far-reaching analysis of Eichmann’s “inability to think,” was what allowed fascism to flourish.
The train from Potsdam chugs through
stations of terrible history, through Wann-see, where the Final Solution was planned,
the platform lettering in that Gothic script
that in my mind is forever associated with
the Nazis. Next stop, Grünewald, where
thirty-six thousand Jews were put on
trains to death camps.
Language, as much if not more than
geography, can jolt us into the past. Take
thinking — thinking for oneself — being
able to think. The word think comes from
the same root as the word thank, so think-fulness is a kind of thankfulness. Mindfulness is a kind of gratefulness. Grace,
of course, is related to gratitude, and in a
state of grace, thanking becomes thinking:
to think is to give thanks, to say grace not
just at the moments of splendor but at the
ordinary times, the potato moments.
So . . . why the potatoes?
Following bad cereal harvests, Freder-
ick the Great issued some fifteen potato
decrees to encourage people to eat them.
There was some religious resistance: give
us this day our daily potato wasn’t in the
script, and potatoes were from the heathen
lands to boot. But Frederick had a cunning
plan. He ordered fields to be planted with
potatoes, and people were told that they
tasted so delicious they were only for the
king’s table. Guards were posted around
these fields of tuber-gold but were or-
dered to turn a blind eye when the peas-
ants — hungry, curious, envious — nicked
as many as they could.
I have a heart-shaped potato in my
pocket, which I’ll take to Fred tomorrow,
thinking of him, thanking him, saying an
etymological grace. A
Jay Griffiths is the author of Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, forthcoming from
Snapper on the
I wAs drIvIng home from the airport
when I saw it: in the lane opposite mine,
on busy Route 101, a huge snapping turtle
was emerging from the forest, about to
step onto the road.
I pulled over immediately. You can’t
hesitate in a situation like this. In the time
it took me to park and dash across the
highway, the snapper had already placed
one of her armored feet on the painted
line demarcating the road’s shoulder.
Had she been a di=erent species, I
would have simply picked her up and carried her across. But this won’t work for a
big snapper. Her shell was at least two and
a half feet long. She was too heavy for me
to lift, and if I tried, she’d bite me, hard.
Neither could I induce her to turn around
and go back into the woods behind her.
Female turtles undertake migrations to lay
their eggs in the fall and spring, and some
scientists think they are following ancient
pathways used for thousands of years. If
she wanted to go in that direction, there
would be no convincing her otherwise.
If I were going to save her life, I would
have to stop her—now. The only tool
in my trunk that could be of use was an
umbrella, which I quickly unfurled, and
placed, like a bright blue curtain, in front
of her face. The umbrella stopped her
cold. What now? How could I get her
across? Pulling a turtle by its tail or legs
can injure its spine, and a big snapper
won’t usually give you a chance anyway.
With powerful, clawed back feet, the turtle
grabs your hands and rakes them across
the sharp, serrated back edge of its shell.
Then it turns around and bites you.
I couldn’t get her to step into the um-
brella’s bowl and pull her across, either.
She was too heavy and would have torn
through the fabric. And the handle was
too short for safety —snappers jump. But
nor could I a=ord to let go of the umbrella.
The gathering wind would blow it away,
and the turtle would have headed into
tra;c. I had to stay with her, I thought,
realizing I could be doing this for a very,
very long time. There might eventually
be enough of a gap in the tra;c for her
to cross at her natural pace, perhaps after
nightfall, but that was hours away.
Bloody hell! Too many stupid drivers
who don’t care enough to watch out for
animals on the road. I began to curse
them under my breath as I prepared to
sit vigil on the side of the road.
And then the cars started pulling over.
“Need help?” a dark-haired woman
with two kids in her station wagon
called from her window as she waved
and pulled over in the oncoming lane.
A blond woman in a blue car also pulled
over. “That turtle must be one hundred