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Winter 2014

Table Talk

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Stephen Greenblatt

We went to the Dolomites last winter, during my son’s vacation from his school in Rome. On our way back to the city, we stopped at Bolzano— the Tyrolian name is Bozen—to see the corpse of Ötzi, the five-thousand-year-old iceman to whom a whole museum is dedicated. Bolzano is famous for Ötzi and for the fact that the Nazis chose it as the site of one of the principal Italian concentration camps, counting, I suppose, on the support of the German-speaking population.

The sight of Ötzi (in a kind of high-tech icebox) and his belongings, recovered from the ice about twenty years ago, is still floating around in my mind. He was thought at first to have died of natural causes, but he turns out to have been killed: an x-ray taken years after he was pried from the ice disclosed the arrow in his shoulder, shot from behind, from which he bled to death. At the time of his death he was old by Copper Age standards—about forty-five—with fatty deposits in his arteries from eating too much meat, intestinal worms, a torn meniscus, and signs of something like acupuncture. DNA analysis revealed that he was lactose-intolerant.

Ötzi’s clothes and all the things he carried with him—in a chamois-skin quiver, a leather belt pouch, and a backpack with a bent-wood frame—are on display. These are much more interesting, in fact, than his corpse: an incredibly long yew bow and viburnum sapwood arrows, an antler needle, a precision tool for producing flint blades, birch containers for embers wrapped in maple leaves, fire-starting moss, something like vitamins and other pieces from a medical kit, a copper-bladed axe, a stone-tipped dagger and sheath, a bearskin cap, goatskin leggings, beautifully crafted bearskin shoes that allowed him to walk in the mountains. There must have been hundreds, even thousands of years of technical experiments and advances behind the stuff he carried and wore.

While we were in the mountains on our week-long vacation, my wife and my son skied, and I went on long snowshoe hikes. On the last day, feeling adventurous, I embarked on a very long walk, across a high ridge between two towns. I was by myself, but the trail was clearly marked on my map, and on all of my other walks I inevitably encountered other snowshoeing hikers and was able to stop along the way for a bowl of orzo soup at a pleasant mountain refugio. This time I remarked to myself after an hour that I had seen no one; then two hours without a soul. But I saw on the map that a refugio was at no great distance from where I calculated I must be. In fact it took me almost forty-five minutes more to reach it, and then to my surprise I found that it was shut up tight. I thought at this point that perhaps I should turn back—it was very cold, probably in the low teens, perhaps colder, and the water in my water bottle had frozen—but I looked carefully at the map and could see clearly that I was more than halfway to my end point and I figured I was only letting myself in for more work to go all the way back. So I kept going and reached a place where, to my great relief, there was a sign pointing clearly toward my destination. I turned in that direction, but I noticed with some dismay that no one had been on that trail for a long time, certainly not since the last big snowfall, so that the snow was deep, soft, and uncompacted. That meant that I had to break the path myself, extremely hard work with showshoes, since you sink in and then have to pull your foot up and out and forward. Still, I looked again at the map, confirmed that I was going in the right direction, and saw that not too terribly far from me there was another fork, one which held out the prospect that someone would have been there before me and made the going easier.

It was really hard going, and I began to pant and sweat, despite the intense cold. To keep myself occupied, I started to count my steps, first by fifty and then by one hundred and then by five hundred, trying to figure out how many kilometers I must have covered and where I would come to the fork. I thought about my mother saying in her old age, “I’m tired, I’m so tired.” Finally, I reached the longed-for fork: again, a reassuring sign. But then I saw that the sign pointed down into the forest—up to this point I had been on what must during the spring and summer be a dirt road and hence easy to follow—and I saw too that no one had been there before me. There was nothing to be done, and I entered the forest, following the blazes painted on the trees every few hundred yards. But the trail descended sharply, and I began to be afraid that I would miss one of the blazes and have to double back, something that the steepness of the descent and my increasing exhaustion would make difficult. Still, every time I began to feel at my wits’ end, I would make out a blaze and keep going. It did, however, occur to me that I would wind up frozen in the snow, like the iceman whom we planned to stop and visit on our way home.

Obviously, I didn’t wind up in a block of ice. After another hour or hour and a half of slogging, I came out onto a high ridge and looked down at the town to which I was heading, where I would find my hotel with its spa in which the German guests all take off their clothes, and the Italians and French and Americans all prudishly remain in bathing suits. But if I had ended up in a display case, I wonder what the museum five thousand years from now would make of the contents of my backpack.

Stephen Greenblatt is the author of The Swerve, Will in the World, and many other books. He teaches at Harvard.

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