June 30, 2018
Remember these lines from Shakespeare (The Tempest)?
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange…
In the course of human history, the sea has brought many changes. In the month since our last post, we and Serafina have been back in our element, working farther north in Italy than she has ever been, and reacquainting ourselves with life at sea, and even in the sea!
Last week we completed our longest open water trip of the year, a 32-hour, 150-mile passage across the Tyrrhenian Sea from Ponza – a small island between Naples and Rome – to a lovely bay on the east coast of Sardinia. We were again reminded that the open water is indeed rich and strange. Sometimes the sea is so quiet that the surface is like a smooth skin over the rippling muscles of a giant, hairless creature, like a dolphin, or a python, or like peristalsis on the shiny surface of one of the earth’s internal organs. And what a surprise when dolphins come along to play. At night the skies are so clear that Mars is utterly distinctive, like a tangerine in a basket of ping-pong balls. The moon and stars shimmer in the water as well as in the sky, and the Milky Way paints a broad white path among them.
Of course, it’s important to note that the sea itself changes. That was brought sharply to mind by our visit to Herculaneum, just south of Naples. This remarkable site, northeast of Vesuvius, was a prosperous Roman seaside city in 79 A.D., when it was covered by a burning pyroclastic flow of debris from the eruption of Vesuvius. That same eruption destroyed Pompeii, burying it and its inhabitants in ash and giant rocks ejected from the crater. But Herculaneum was not destroyed, just strangely preserved by the lighter, very hot and fast-moving material. Even wooden beams were preserved, cooked in an anaerobic environment into blocks of carbon, utterly resistant to insects and decay. It is still only partially excavated.
Houses, furniture, and yes, people, were frozen in time. A very touching scene is the skeletons, including those of children, crowded into what had been ocean-front shelters, where they had been waiting for evacuation by sea. A lot can be said about this impressive site, with amazingly undamaged artifacts of Roman life 2,000 years ago – but for that Wikipedia is hard to beat. What relevant here is that this former beachfront is now quite far from the sea.
It points out very clearly how dramatic sea level changes can be, even over what are geologically very short periods of time. Most everyone knows that there have been huge changes in sea levels – over 300 feet (100 meters) – in the last 20,000 years (that’s how the first humans got to the Americas). But climate changes, melting and forming glaciers, have acted to changes shorelines significantly in much shorter periods. Something to think about as global temperatures rise.
Some further thoughts were stirred by another remarkable site we visited further south in Calabria – Paestum (originally Poseidonia) – a major city founded in what’s now modern Italy by Greek refugees in around 600 B.C. It has three of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world and thousands of perfectly preserved artifacts of that civilization. Between wars, invasions and climate change (which may have made malaria a major problem for the low-lying site), it was abandoned about 1,000 A.D. and not rediscovered until the 18th Century.
The Greeks were just part of the vast sea migrations that formed the country now known as Italy. Phoenicians, Carthaginians (i.e. North Africans), Vikings, French, Spanish and others all brought their languages and traditions to be melded into the mix that only became a nation in the late 1800s.
Of course, in addition to reading the news, we’ve seen some beautiful places, and the bays and beaches of Sardinia can’t be matched. But Sardinia too proves the falseness of the idea of an immutable civilization to be preserved from alien influences. First, as far as anyone knows, there were Sardinian natives (originally from Africa), who built thousands of huge, conical towers called Nuraghi – some ten thousand of them, of which some 7,000 still survive. Fortresses, or temples, no one knows for sure, since their builders dissolved into a stream of Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Etruscans, Romans, Vandals, and penultimately, the Spanish “Aragonese.”
Other beautiful places, like the old trading town of Amalfi have been through their changes as well. It grew to some 80,000 inhabitants by the 11th Century AD, only to be almost completely destroyed by wars, conquests and, in 1343 a huge earthquake and tsunami. Now with a population of about 6,000, the “civilization” of Amalfi has been completely overwhelmed by tourism. It is no more what it was than Disneyland is the orange groves it was built on.
A friend recently brought my attention to a comment by the American bigot and reactionary (yes, there are more than one of those) Pat Buchanan. Buchanan recently said, “How does the West, America included, stop the flood tide of migrants before it alters forever the political and demographic character of our nations and our civilization?”
Guess what Pat, it’s too late! Speaking just about America, what about those Irish refuges of the “potato famine” (including surely some Buchanans), who flooded the US in the 1800s, forever changing “our civilization.” And how about the Italians who fled starvation and poverty around the turn of the 20th century? And how did tortilla chips become the favorite food of flag-waving football fans? And what about those poverty-stricken Irish refugees learning, in New York, to eat corned beef, brought to New York by poverty-stricken Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, the Ukraine and Poland? And what about all those Africans, imported on slave ships, and their impact on “our civilization”? And where did “Irish potatoes” come from, anyway?
Sadly, the stigmatization of refugees has become a prominent part of the modern political scene, and not just in the U.S. The hope expressed in the last blog that people who supported the 5-Star Movement would revolt against Salvini’s racist hatred has actually occurred to some degree on a grass-roots level. But the leaders of that vaguely “progressive” party have stood by Salvini’s side as he has cruelly imprisoned refugees at sea.
A perfectly preserved 2,000-year-old Roman statue from Herculaneum expresses exactly what I think of these “leaders” and their kidnappings of children, and drownings of refugees at sea.
Despite the state of the world, it’s certainly worth mentioning that Birgit had a birthday on Ischia, one lovely places around the Gulf of Naples.