In the shadow of the volcano

by Kai Schnier

Above (Issue I/2019)

As the Italian volcano Etna was starting to spit out what would become her most powerful eruption in 300 years, Giuseppe Marziale was just coming down off the mountain and had reached Zafferana Etnea. That was on December 14, 1991. In the small city on the eastern flank of Etna, there was a deathly silence. Most of the inhabitants and any tourists had heard the warnings on radio and TV and, just like Marziale, they were making their way to safety.

But a couple of old timers had decided to wait it out. One of the old Sicilians was an apple farmer. “Why are you trimming your apple trees when the lava is going to destroy everything anyway in a few hours?,” Marziale asked him. “If the mountain wants to take my farm, the mountain will take it,” the fellow replied. “But up until then it’s my job to trim these trees. I am just doing what I must and Etna just does what she must.” And with that he picked up his garden shears and continued working.

Since 1985, Marziale has spent six or seven days a week working as a guide at the shelter Rifugio Sapienza, 1,900 meters up the southern side of 3,350 meter high mountain and for him this anecdote is at the heart of Sicilians’ attitude toward the volcano.

“The people who live in the shadow of Etna live in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the mountain,” he explains. “They have respect for it and they understand the dangers, but they also somehow hold it in high esteem.” That feeling is also conveyed in the way the Sicilians speak. You don’t actually hear the word “etna”, a derivation of the Greek for oven, very much on the island. Instead the locals talk about “a muntagna” (the mountain) or, in a gentler tone, “la bella” (the beautiful one).

The fact that the volcano’s reputation has not really suffered over the centuries, despite 150 eruptions that have claimed almost 80 victims, has a simple reason: To the Sicilians, the mountain is more of a lifeline than a life-taker. Its mineral-rich slopes make for some of the most fertile soil in Sicily and some of largest fresh water supplies in southern Italy rest beneath them. 

“A muntagna” also has a part to play in the boom that Sicilian wine is experiencing. The volcano creates a special micro-climate, with the clouds from the Mediterranean climbing up its flanks and releasing rain on the upper slopes, all of which serves the grapes very well.

This really helps people like Flavia Messina, who founded a small vineyard in the area of Cavanera around two years ago. After studying in Rome she returned to her Sicilian hometown aged 35 years, just like so many of her counterparts. “For young Sicilians like me there are only really two options if you want to stay on the island and be successful,” she explains. “Working in tourism or working around Etna.” Her plan seems to have worked out. “Most of the vineyards, pistachio groves and orange plantations around the volcano are blooming,” she notes.

A large part of the population in Sicilian cities like Palermo and Catania live in constant danger of poverty but for the locals working around Etna, things are good. “For us the volcano is like a mother. Sometimes she is angry but most of the time she cares for her children,” Messina notes. Most of the Sicilians don’t spend too much time thinking about what might happen if “mama” got really furious. “If you don’t know the place then maybe you’re scared,” mountain guide Marziale always tells the tour groups that follow him up the mountainside, pointing out the clouds of smoke coming from the volcano’s crater. “But don’t worry. A little bit of smoke isn’t even close to a catastrophe for us Sicilians.”

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