Sicily is a region of astounding natural beauty manifested in infinite forms. I and – more strikingly – the entire city of Catania and surrounding area (that’s 25% of Sicily’s population) currently live in the shadow of one of the most active volcanos in the world. Thus far, Mt. Etna has for me served as little more than the silent, smoking centerpiece of my sprawling terrace view but historically this region has been subject to her whims, and she is a capricious one indeed. 2 to 3 times a year I’m able to enjoy a more intimate encounter with Etna when I venture up her lunar slopes with my American students in tow. This is easily the most enjoyable activity I do in my job, and even after multiple visits I look forward to every excursion. We are led by local geologist Sandro Privitera, whose sunny demeanor and charming accent belie a deep disillusionment with his native Sicily. Today he made the apt comparison between the geological future of the Ionian Sea and the prospects of someone who is born in this land; indeed, neither subject has any future, apparently. The Ionian Sea will slowly disappear as the Eurasian and African tectonic plates continue to collide, to be replaced by mountains that in many many years will be as high as the Himalayas. As for the Sicilians: Sandro advises you to get out while you still can, for this is a “failed country.” But I digress.
Sandro brings Mt. Etna to life. I was once told that when Sicilians give explanations they often illustrate what they recount with vivid metaphors. I don’t know how frequently this is true, but it is a prominent feature of Sandro’s descriptions. Etna, he explains, is just like us: she was born, she is living and breathing, one day she will die. As she ages her appearance transforms; with each subsequent eruption she grows and changes form, and the Etna of today is not the same Etna of 50, 200, 1000 years ago. If you draw a knife lightly down a person’s arm a cut will form and blood will slowly seep out; so too with Etna, whose veins pulsate just below her surface, and whose sides often split in long, narrow fissures out of which lava flows. Etna, with her long history of passionate explosions, has captivated Sandro, who describes the mountain as “his girlfriend” and his work with her “his marriage.” I’ve often heard him say to the students when talking excitedly about one spectacular eruption or another that he’s witnessed, that he’s never lived in a house from which he didn’t have a full view of his grand Signora, and that she is the first thing he gazes upon when he wakes up in the morning. Given my affection for Sandro, whom I’ve known for three years now, I can’t help but be a little jealous when he talks about Etna like that.
Today we took a fantastic walk, first ascending a crater dating back to the 1800’s, then crossing a forest of birch trees that Sandro tells us look very much like a kind of birch that grows in Northern Europe but is in fact endemic to Etna. It has a soft white bark that snakes upward from the pitch black lava soil, and it is lovely. The forest opened up onto dark and craggy expanse of solidified lava from a 1928 eruption, only sparingly sprinkled with moss, brush and ferns that have slowly begun to push their way back to the surface. Etna’s two highest craters towered over our shoulders as we pushed onward to the northeast. Our jaunt ended at the edge of the remnants of a hotel that had the misfortune of being constructed directly on top of the famous 2002 eruption’s primary fracture, and was subsequently completed buried in lava. It was hot and the sun was strong today, but I’m glad the students pushed through the longer hike, one of the nicest ones I’ve done on the mountain.
As we walked Sandro quietly plucked litter from the path, as he always does, and with each piece of trash I noticed his jaw clench. Unsurprisingly, we began chatting as a group about man’s uncivil nature – a common refrain in all of Italy but even more so in Sicily, where a wide disrespect for public spaces can be observed. Sandro simply commented, in no uncertain terms, that he has come to a point in his life where he “hates humankind.” How discouraging it is for me to see how the challenges of this country and this region in particular have broken him down. With his immensely warm personality, his passion for his life and his work, the awe and respect that he feels toward nature, he embodies every trait I’ve ever admired in the Italian and Sicilian people. But there you have it: Etna and Sandro Privitera provide the umpteenth example of Sicily’s great inconsistencies, and if I’ve been able to grasp anything in my short time here, it is that this mystifying place is defined first and foremost by its contradictions.