Monday, March 21, 2011

The Age of the Inmates

Sometimes I look up something I know—but only know in a manner of speaking, by name and distantly. That happened yesterday in the context of the Usedom (see the last post). The town of Usedom—a small palace, 2,000 souls—is on Usedom the island; its eastern part belongs to Poland, the rest to the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Now Mecklenburg is one of sixteen German states (Länder). Most foreigners divide that country into West Germany and East, the latter the old Democratic Republic. Words like Bavaria and Saxony are widely known as regions—which of course they are—but not as states in our sense. And Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is not a household-word. Prussia, of which it was once a part, is. Germans—and those who’ve lived there—know it better. As I was pondering such matters, one of those vaguely meaningful associations came. They happen to those of us getting on. I sighed and thought: The age of the inmates…

Oh, the age of the inmates, I remember quite freely:
No younger than twelve, no older than seventeen.

These opening lines of Bob Dylan’s song, Walls of Red Wing—a song I featured a few days ago—have been coming back in this sort of context for many decades now. For me the thought simply means that some people, and peoples, and cultures, and regions are ancient beyond words—and some no older than seventeen. And that things are often relative to age.

The feeling came back again this morning. The New York Times greeted me with a color image of a huge red smoke and fire plume produced in Libya yesterday by a Tomahawk missile worth one million dollars. It had been launched to destroy some vehicles. Odd emotions surface in those early moments when I’m still coping—coping with the need to wake up again, and it’s still pitch black outside because the Supermoon has set. Present there was also the thought that Germany has sixteen states of which most people would have difficulty naming more than three. Because things are relative—and relative to age and distance, relative to time and space.

Germany’s land area is 138,000 square miles. But 82 million live there and nearly 600 per square mile. But think of it this way. With sixteen states Germany’s population per state is 5.1 million compared to the average per state in this country of 6.2 million. Comparable. But next consider that Texas has nearly 269,000 square miles. You could fit Germany into that space twice—with just a tiny sliver spilling over into Oklahoma. But Texas has a mere 24.1 million people, not quite 100 per square mile. To make another comparison, you could carve two-and-a-half Texases out of the land area of Libya (679,359 square miles). Yet only 6.4 million people live there and its population density is 9.4 people per square mile, less than a tenth of Texas’.

The age of the inmates? Human settlement in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, documented by megalithic tomb sites, goes back to the fading Ice Age 10,000 years ago. In Texas? There the Mississippian Culture emerged around about 1000 AD. And Libya? Well, the Neolithic Berbers frolicked there as early as 8000 BC. Frolicked? Yes. Things change as we move backward in time. When the Mecklenburgers of the post-Ice Age built their first stone tombs, Libya was a kind of paradise of lakes and forests teeming with fish and wildlife. And what did the Libyans do in their leisure time? They drew and painted lovely giraffes and gazelles on rock formations still surviving to our time.

I think I’m finally awake.
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Images from Wikipedia, the map here, the cave painting here.

1 comment:

  1. This post, in a mot peculiar way, captures a lot about the feelings I, too, had upon seeing the paper on Sunday morning.

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