A volcanic enlightenment

Image of Susie Boyt

How did I find myself almost 2,000ft up a smoking Mount Etna? These things don’t just happen. One minute I was reading a slightly too-good-to-be-relaxing American novel called Super Sad True Love Story stretched out on a ruinously sunny courtyard eating a boiled egg from an espresso cup, and the next thing I was squished in the back of a navy Land Rover with two PhD geologists who introduced themselves as “Danilo, the stones guy” and “Emmanuelo, the flowers guy”.

Wary of nature, by nature, this was a bold step for me. For someone who can feel too involved in the inner life of a forlorn-looking cherry tree, picturing its courage and all its sharp regrets, proximity to such an extreme landscape was taxing. But things started gently.

We made our way through the chestnut groves at the base of Etna, which were fresh and luxuriant. There were forests of birches that were bright white rather than silver against the blackened, sulphur-smelling landscape. There were beech, oak and pine trees that were amazingly strong and healthy despite there being very little water for them. Scattered everywhere were pale pine cones, their flattened bases like carved wooden camelias. We collected as many as we could carry. The landscape became blacker the higher we climbed, but large patches of green clung on, some plants even taking root inside huge boulders of black volcanic rock. How was it possible? The stones expert told me that grains that birds eat pass through the birds, then take root and grow, drawing moisture from the dew. Some things really want to live, I thought.

The higher up we went, the more great stripes of black volcanic soil and rock we saw, tearing into the green. Higher still, patches of snow were visible and snow flowers: tiny, daisy-like blooms that have the appearance of snow from a distance. Etna herself seemed brooding and moody. I tried not to compare her to anyone.

The last severe eruption was in 2002, but there have been several small ones this year. It is not that unusual in the towns nearby to see people putting up umbrellas to protect their clothes whenever there’s a falling of small, light black stones from the air.

I was about to sit on a clump of soft green fernlike plants and have a swig of water when the flowers guy shouted, “Don’t sit there! It’s Mother in Law’s Pillow. Looks welcoming, but inside it’s sharp spikes.” Ah. We spied a miniature wild white orchid pushing its way through some blackened soil and admired it.

All around me there were so many metaphors for extreme human behaviour: things to do with utter destruction and powerlessness, but also beauty and survival, unlikely flourishing, strenuous grace and then hidden peril and obvious peril and the question of which is worse.

I despised myself slightly for getting sidetracked by pesky comparisons. It seemed insulting to the strength of what was before me to yoke it to familiar things, when the reality was this damaged and damaging mountain was unlike anything I have ever seen or even imagined. My crazy little credo – that nature could learn so much from people – was proved once and for all to be utter nonsense, but still, these things go deep. We cling to our nonsense with good reasons. Why can you not just have the experience instead of trying to translate it into something that you understand? I scolded myself.

Yet even the climate was a metaphor ripe for the plucking: freezing wind snapping at my ankles and warm breezes blowing at my neck and head. I inhaled warily; from nowhere I had developed a nasty cough. I had an awful feeling that passively smoking Mount Etna might be as bad as 15 years of B&H.

This volcano erupts regularly and, although damage is done to buildings, it rarely harms people, our guides said loyally. By contrast, Vesuvius will go off sometime in the next 2,000 years and a minimum of 50,000 people will perish, they claimed.

“When Etna erupts it’s so beautiful, like fireworks, shooting sometimes 400 metres into the sky,” the rocks guy told us.

“And when you watch it,” I asked, “do you feel utterly insignificant like, I don’t know, an ant, or do you feel somehow that anything’s possible?”

“What you feel is that we all better try to get along, because, you know, we can’t really control anything at all.” It was an inspiring answer.


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