o n d a

[ 23:25 saturday 21 june – piscita’, isola di stromboli ]

seated in a deck chair with stars in the soft air above me and waves breaking on the beach beneath me. a candle flickers amidst the succulent mesembryanthemums covering the ground. my mobile phone is perched in the plants in front of me, the only place where it can find a signal. the phone in turn is connected to my computer by infra red. so long as i sit fairly still i have an internet link fast enough for me to be listening to thursday’s “late junction” programme from the bbc radio 3 website. a diverse selection as usual. it kicked off with some old skool ska and has now meandered into brazilian experimental jazz. turning my head 90 degrees left i can see the silhouette of the volcano with the now-familiar red glow in the sky above the right shoulder.

today was the solstice, the longest day of the year. as sunset approached i scampered round taking photos; then as the reddening sphere descended to the horizon i left the camera on a rock and threw myself into the sea, swimming out to watch it set with the silvery water all around me. there was nobody else in sight. wonderful.

there’s a party tonight on the beach at punta lena. i’ll head down there after writing this mail.

righto, time to backtrack a bit. when i arrived here on stromboli at the beginning of february there were about 60 people on the island, somewhat reduced from the usual 400. the rest of the population had evacuated to lipari (main island of the archipelago) and milazzo (nearest port in sicily) whilst hordes of vulcanologists checked out the situation and protezione civile installed an elaborate early warning system.

the top of the volcano was covered in snow. the island was veiled in swirling cloud. a layer of fine grey ash covered absolutely everything. and all around the coast was evidence of the wave which had hit a month earlier. at punta lena twisted remains of boats were piled on top of each other. the mesh fence in front of the power station was bent horizontal. daniella’s newly-planted garden was a bare patch of mud. the kitchen of a house at one end of fico grande had been demolished. sections of a substantial wall which used to stand behind the beach were scattered around at crazy angles. trees had been ripped off their trunks, leaving only ragged stumps. the narrow roads leading up from the beach were blocked waist-high with rocks. the whole front of a house at punta lena was taken off. everywhere the sand-covered ground was dotted with table lamps, pan lids, clothes, cushions and other everyday items, snatched out of their usual context by the water.

returning to casa schuldes, as i wrote at the time, i found the main house happily undamaged. there was a 5cm layer of ash on the courtyard and terraces. inside there was a fine layer of ash on every surface, and inside every cupboard and drawer. the magazzino (store-room) down near the beach was another story. this had taken the full force of the wave. all that remained of the stout wooden door was a foot-long piece of wood hanging from the padlock. inside was a scene of complete devastation. cupboards full of tools, cans of paint, the washing machine, an oil-drum full of petrol, an ironing board, hundreds of cassette tapes; everything had been picked up, thrown around and deposited in a tangled heap. i salvaged some items i found which were still intact but it didn’t amount to very much. the fridge was nowhere to be seen, either in the magazzino or further down the beach. the receding water had dragged it right out to sea.

eye-witness accounts of the event vary considerably. the picture which emerged was like this: a huge ash cloud rose up from the sciara and started drifting over the village, then the sea receded about five metres all round the coast, then the water catapulted back with enormous force, inundating low-lying areas and destroying anything in its path. it doesn’t seem as if the wave was enormously high, just a few metres. what marked it out was its extraordinary force. people who saw it describe the water hitting the coast as if shot from a gun.

there is little consensus about what caused the wave. initially the vulcanologists announced that there had been a large landslide from the sciara in which 5 million cubic metres of material had fallen into the sea, sending up the ash cloud and triggering the wave. this seemed like a reasonable explanation for the cloud but pretty implausible as the cause of the wave, which arrived at many points on the coast from directions inconsistent with a landslide at the sciara. the theory was later modified with a suggestion that the landslide above the water had triggered a larger one below the water (the volcano continues 2km beneath the sea) in which another 15 million cubic metres of material had slipped, and this had caused the wave. this sounds very grand but i still haven’t heard of any evidence for this theory.

the older islanders, on the other hand, say that part of the mountain under the water split away, sucking billions of litres of sea water into the fissure (thus the receding sea) after which the highly-compressed water exploded back out again (hence the super-charged wave). these people are hardly scientists but to me this sounds like a more credible explanation. there are others who believe there was a gas explosion on the side of the volcano deep beneath the surface.

whatever the cause, seeing a familiar environment so transformed is a powerful experience. it imparts a tangible sense of the terrifying forces lying dormant in this environment and the fragility of human tenure here. through february and march there was an unspoken sense of anticipation amongst the people who remained on the island. was there going to be another wave? would it be even more devastating than the first one? initially the protezione civile barred anyone from sleeping in houses less than 20m above sea level. this was ridiculous, and was of course ignored (not least by myself). then as the weeks passed and the sea showed no signs of further untoward behaviour people began to relax and those who had fled began to drift back to their ash-filled homes.

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