Until Mount Etna Speaks

The Mind  |  The Scene   |   David Rounds  |   April 19, 2011, 5:30 pm

Until Mount Etna speaks, no one will know
Which village on the mountain’s slopes
Will be the next to be destroyed by lava.
It’s said that every village on the mountain
Must take its turn, once in a century.
Material for building, though, is right at hand:
And once the lava cools and turns grey-black,
The people saw it into blocks
And reconstruct their village with what buried it.
Premium wines, it seems, are coaxed from grapes
Grown on these slopes. And so these colonists
Are stubborn, and they won’t be moved
From what they’re pleased to see as their own mountain.

Touring Sicily one spring, we stopped to see Mount Etna.
I’d been a bit reluctant, but our friends
Were keen on walking near the crater.
And so we drove up through the villages,
Up past the tree-line, to the lifeless wastes.
We took our lunch at a grey-black hotel
That stood at the road’s end. A cable-car
Swept us up to a shelf. A shuttle bus
Was there to bring us to the lava-fields.
I put my backpack in the bus, then took it out again.
I told our friends to go ahead without me.

How could I explain to them
That I could feel the power of the mountain
Seething beneath our feet?
An utterly foreign energy,
Mindless and soulless, perilous to life
Not from hostility but from indifference
And from an overwhelming strength—
The raw force of the inorganic world.
My thoughts shouted at me: “You don’t belong here.
I was embarrassed. I said nothing to our friends,
Not wanting to be thought ridiculous.
Yet as the cable car was sweeping me back down,
The stabbing terror was so like a heart attack.
That for the first time in my life I thought my death was near.

Perhaps I’d have dismissed this intuition
Had I not seen, some two months later,
A news report that Etna was erupting.
A new crevasse had opened in its flank,
And through the fissure, there on my TV,
Streaks of fire were bolting out into the night.
Rivers of orange rock were boiling down the slopes,
Burying the hotel where we’d had our lunch in
In a matter of seconds.

The more I learn of our fragility
The more I find myself remembering Etna.
The great sweeping force of life, which courses
Through us all our days, can be no match
For wind and cloud, for ice and ocean current—
For all the lifeless forces of the planet.
The biosphere’s a film spread thinly round a ball of fire.
And like those villagers on Etna’s slopes
We’re all colonists here, all tenants,
Signers to a lease whose terms we dare not break
Lest we risk eviction.

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