The Old Blind Sun

May 14, 2023

“Place is, at a basic level, space invested with meaning in the context of power.” – Tim Cresswell

The newest mountain in Europe – unimaginatively named Monte Nuovo – is a 132-meter-tall cinder cone on the shore of Lake Avernus in the Phlegraean Fields caldera complex west of the urban core of Naples, Italy. According to Mauro di Vito, et al., who reconstructed the event “through geological, volcanological and petrological investigations, and analyses of historical documents,” Monte Nuovo began to erupt from a vent in the ground around 7 pm on September 29th, 1538. The first day of the eruption, its main phase, included a twelve hour period in which the volcano exploded continuously. For several days afterward, it was nearly quiescent. Then a second series of explosions (lower energy and discontinuous) began in the late afternoon of October 3rd and continued into the early evening of October 4th, after which the volcano again went quiet. A last, violent explosion on October 6th surprised twenty-four intrepid locals hiking up to the rim for a better look at the action – assimilating them into the lithic fabric of the crater, along with the whole medieval village of Tripergole, Cicero’s famously opulent Academia villa, and, very possibly, if Strabo and his source Ephorus can be believed, the archaeological remains of a troglodytic community of ‘Cimmerians’ whose sibyl predated the Cumaean one.

There is a whole PhD to be written (by me) about how this space has historically been invested with meaning. Here on my sickbed, however, I want to spare a very brief moment to consider the “context of power” in which that investment has taken (and continues to take) place – from the standpoint of geophysics, not politics.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is a relative measurement of volcanic eruptions based on their volumes of ejecta. Monte Nuovo is estimated to have been a VEI 2. Per a years-old suggestion on the Earth Science Stack Exchange, it may be possible to (very, very roughly) estimate the total energy released for a given VEI class as E = 10^(aM+c), where E is the total energy released in joules, a ≈ 0.79, M is the VEI of the eruption, and c = 14.

In this case, E = 10^((0.79*2)+14)) or 10^15.3 Joules. That is, 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules or so.

Now, energy isn’t power of course. As with so many other things, translating energy into the terms of power requires time.

The watt, an SI unit of power, is equivalent to 1 joule per second. In addition to the twelve hours of continuous high-energy explosions between September 29-30, let’s throw in another eight hours of discontinuous ones during that first day. And perhaps seven total hours of discontinuous eruptions during the twenty-four hours between October 3-4; and then a last three hours on October 6th. For the sake of simplicity, let’s not bother ourselves with trying to estimate the difference between and high- and low-energy explosions in the three phases of explosivity. Rather, let’s just say that there were ~30 explosion-hours during the course of that fateful week.

30 hours = 108,000 seconds. 3,801,893,963,205,613 joules / 108,000 seconds = ~35,202,721,882 watts (or 35,203 megawatts or 35 gigawatts) of power – all vented through a hole in ground (well, three of them, actually) encompassed by a crater that’s eighty meters deep and four hundred meters in diameter. I mean, just look. It’s the maw of a titan, roaring up from hell.

Gaia (in the sense that James Lovelock meant it, and that of the primordial being impregnated by Tartarus who gave birth to huge fiery monsters) is poised between two suns. From above, one of them contributes ~170 petawatts of heat flux that powers the oceans, atmosphere, and much of the biosphere; the other, the earth’s core (hotter than the solar surface), contributes only a tiny fraction of that from below – something more on the order of 47 terawatts – but with it maintains the planetary magnetic field, drives mantle convection (and plate tectonics thereby), and so powers earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

And, depending on your conception of history (and/or epistemology), much besides. As Michel Serres explained to Bruno Latour in 1991 (or professed to; slippery as he was, one can’t ever know for certain what Serres meant, much less what he intended):

“In [the history of science] one is forced to connect the sciences to one another, and to other cultural formations. Let’s give Husserl his due – his Krisis invents precisely this notion of cultural formation. In his description of the crisis of western science he wonders if this original formation that we call science is independent of the others. The word formation, as he uses it, signifies something like a layer of the earth, geologically formed and deformed by and through the earth’s evolution.”


“It seemed to me that [Husserl] applied an authentic structuralism to the humanities, to religious history — a discipline that has always fascinated me, since I am still convinced that it forms the deepest plate in the history of cultures. By plate I mean what earth scientists mean by this word — thus continuing the image Husserl used when he spoke of ‘formation’. A plate that is deeply submerged. Buried, often opaque and dark, that transforms itself with infinite slowness but which explains very well the discontinuous changes and perceptible ruptures that take place above. Indeed, in comparison to religious history, that of the sciences seems superficial, recent — like a surface landscape, quite visible and shimmering. What’s more, when you study religious history in detail, that of the sciences seems to imitate or repeat it!”


“The regime of revolutions is no doubt only apparent. What if, behind them and beneath these schisms, flowed (or percolated) slow and viscous fluxes? Do you recall the geological theory of plate tectonics? Intermittent earthquakes result in sudden breaks not far from known faults, like the San Andreas fault in California. But underneath, continuous and extraordinarily slow movements explain these sudden breaks where the quakes occur. And even further below these continuous movements that pull, tranquilly but inexorably, is a core of heat that maintains or propels the moving crust. And what is the inner sun of these mechanisms? Our old hot planet, which is cooling. Earth is that very sun. (emphasis mine)

Are the breaks in history similarly brought about from below by an extraordinarily slow movement that puts us in communication with the past, but at immense depths? The surface gives the impression of totally discontinuous ruptures. Earthquakes — in this case, quakes of history or of mobs, sometimes — whose brief violence destroys cities and remodels landscapes but which, at a very deep level, continue an extraordinarily regular movement, barely perceptible, on an entirely different scale of time. 

May I say that in this we can glimpse the history of religions, for example, which forms the lowest plate — the deepest, the most buried, almost invisible, and surely the slowest moving. But what I would like to catch a glimpse of, beyond that, and deeper yet, is the furnace-like interior, so hidden, that blindly moves us.”

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time: Michel Serres with Bruno Latour

By comparison, the Archiflegrean eruption 40,000 years ago – which created the vast caldera complex in which Monte Nuovo subsequently emerged – is estimated to have been a VEI 7 or 8. That is, among the most powerful volcanic events in Earth history for which there is a material record, during which something like 10^19.53 to 10^20.32 joules of energy were released. Can you imagine being a Neanderthal, hearing something inexplicable – and horrifyingly loud – in the distance, and then looking up to see that in the night sky?

Recollecting the future.

April 13, 2023

Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water – i.e., John Keats. Snapped in 2019, shortly before an aborted flight home in which an engine of the Norwegian Air 787 exploded, raining fiery metal down through houses and cars in Isola Sacra before we got out to sea, dumped our remaining fuel, turned back inland, and hit the ground at Fiumicino hard enough to blow out the front wheels. For my part, I can now say with certainty what I would do if my plane had to make an emergency landing: as the Italians around me performed their fear, I read Goethe.

Anyway, when I shared the photo with my friend Matt Johnson, he replied with a line from Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry: “The mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.”

What a strange, magnificent idea! Even just working out the physics of it is challenging. Is poetry a mirror that reflects shadows cast from the future back onto their source?

I love the thought that the subject of a poem is backlit not just in space, by the sun, but in time — by a solar deity like Apollo, perhaps, from whom all poetry and prophesy radiates. The god inhabits a future tense and communicates back to the present indirectly, via shadows cast by intervening events, to his oracles and poets (“the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration”), whose task it becomes – in some sense, as though Plato’s cave were turned inside out – to remember clearly what has not yet taken place.

e.g., from 25 years ago…

Happy birthday to me.

March 21, 2023

Turned 50 today. As the Poet once wrote (in Kenneth Rexroth’s translation), “Life whirls by like drunken wildfire.”

A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife

February 24, 2023

In January, I flew to New Zealand, where Myles Sutherland, the CEO of GeoCam, and I rendezvoused with Luke Reid, the Chief Technology Officer, at their office in Dunedin for in-depth conversations about the basic science of their work (now and in the future) and my various practice ideas, as well as the opportunity to observe their 3D cameras being invented, machined, assembled, and repaired. We also discussed the logistics of an artwork I would later title A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife.

Its premise: that I would be buried alive in a suit of elf armor from The Lord of the Rings, and then 3D visualized using ground penetrating radar. I wanted to work, deliberately, in a xenophenomenological medium for the first time – and had decided to make it easier for the radar to see me by wrapping my water-filled body with a more reflective material that had the additional benefit of making it easier to breathe with the equivalent weight of four or five large men made of dirt stacked on top of me, while also playing with the idea of place sensitivity, insofar as New Zealand has become conflated (uncomfortably so, to some) in the popular imagination with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And while radar has been previously used for archaeological surveys of grave sites, to find illegal burials, even to try to locate people buried alive, I would almost certainly be the first person to have ever laid still belowground for a portrait done with it.

Luke helped me to make a DIY chicken-wire haubergeon as a radar-reflective fallback, but through his personal connections, Sir Richard Taylor – the founder of the Wētā Workshop, which did the special effects, props, and costumes for the Lord of the Rings films – became aware of the project and authorized my use of a suit of plate mail belonging to him personally. A few days later, Myles and I flew to Wellington to meet the CEO of Reveal, Sam Wiffen, en route to collecting the armor.  

Before I travelled to New Zealand, Sam had offered me temporary use of a push-cart ground penetrating radar for the piece, as well as resources afterward to help interpret and visualize the data. After I arrived, he generously also arranged for the use of a property under development in the vicinity of Ōtaki, a full-size digger operated by J.P. Pritchard (one of the developers, who also piloted a quadrotor drone to help document the work), the services of an expert radar surveyor named Alex Fersterer who works for Reveal, and volunteered himself as a safety officer. 

While J.P. dug the grave and Myles got the GeoCam camera ready for the first of multiple ground-level 3D surveys he would conduct, Alex and Sam, acting as squires, helped me get into the armor. Rather than fiddle with all of the tiny leather ties, we used gaffer tape – figuring it would be a lot more efficient to get on and off, wasn’t going to show up on the radar, and wouldn’t even be visible in photographs after wrapping the armor in black garbage bags to protect it from dirt and moisture. 

Because elements of it didn’t fit properly, didn’t articulate the way they would have historically, and/or were attached with tape, the armor was challenging to walk in. And it was pretty much impossible to do anything else. I couldn’t sit down, or lean over, or even bend my knees. Actually, I couldn’t even walk so much as rigidly Frankenstein forward. As I awkwardly crested the lip of the hole shouting, “I’m an all-terrain knight!”, I was lucky not to have toppled over backward. Myles filmed my 4WD moment, barking with laughter, believing it was a real, and potentially hilarious, possibility. 

Inside the hole, Sam and Alex lowered me onto my back like a trust exercise. I was then inhumed – first, with the digger dropping dirt on me from a height; then, having paused briefly to reflect on the wisdom of that approach, by hand, with shovels, as the digger helped push dirt into the void from all around. 

We did two radar scans. Initially – out of consideration for my well-being, and that of the borrowed armor – they buried me in too shallow a grave. Alex got his push-cart stuck in the V-shaped fill repeatedly. I could feel him pressing down on top of me, even when he wasn’t rolling the wheels back and forth across my face. In the end, Sam declared that the radargram would probably “look like dogs’ balls” (a term of art, presumably).

I said I could handle more weight, so they doubled the overburden – to a depth of roughly half a meter. Sam thought this would be necessary to get an image that wasn’t completely “blown out” – i.e., rendered illegible by too much reflectivity. It was definitely heavier. Pieces of the armor gouged into me. The compression around my ribs was increased and made breathing more laborious. Eventually, they shoveled in enough dirt to flatten the grave, and spray painted a proper set of gridded survey lines on it. I was hardly able to feel them walking on top of me. The dirt was now piled too high for them to roll the cart over my face, however. We considered burying my head inside the helmet, but it would have required more care than we had time for (and probably a snorkel). So they left my face partially exposed, put the helmet on top, and crimped a dirt piecrust around it.  

After completing the second radar scan, everyone helped exhume me. As at other stages of the process, there was a lot of physical intimacy: in the armor, I was something between a person and an object. And the less I spoke, especially when my head was covered with the helmet, the more I was handled like material. After one of my long silences, Myles joked, “Guys, we’re presuming he’s still alive.” 

As they jawed about the upcoming Rugby World Cup, I was slowly, carefully, revealed. They dug me out with shovels first, and then by hand (as in archaeology or paleontology); then pulled me free from the dirt, limb by limb. Finally, Sam and Myles lifted me up from behind like a block, as if raising a monolith or totem pole, and Myles, not trusting my balance, held me upright until they could get the armor off. In the photos Alex snapped of us – because of a fisheye filter, the perspective, the fact that we stood at different levels, and that he is significantly taller than I am – Myles looks like a giant, and/or I a dwarf. We had accidently re-created an in-camera trick Peter Jackson used for Gimli and the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. More “place sensitivity,” I suppose.

Nothing looked scratched or dented. The tape came off without leaving any marks. I wriggled out of my carapace and got it stacked up in the crate, still wearing my indestructible Esri hoodie, black leather pants I’d bought at a secondhand women’s clothing store the day before, and a big shit-eating grin. That night, after dinner in a neighboring town, I cleaned the armor in a garage with an air compressor, CRC oil, a rough scour, and cotton rags. Then returned it to Wētā Workshop, to their complete satisfaction, the following day.

As a parting gift, Sam gave me a MALÅ Easy Locator Core ground penetrating radar. I had initially piqued his interest in a collaboration with the idea of fooling a radar into seeing something that isn’t there: a spoofed hole in the ground (e.g., a recreation of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in specific electromagnetic wavelengths, or an illusory pit of Tartarus detectable below the Campi Flegrei). This was his way of encouraging me to get after it. What we didn’t realize at the time is that – for reasons neither I nor the geophysicists at Reveal can make sense of – the radar had not seen something it should have: the armor. Our 3D radargram didn’t come out. 

Despite certain companies making irresponsible claims to the contrary, detecting living bodies underground with radar is difficult to do. Hence the idea of encasing myself in metal. It’s inexplicable to me that the armor, made as it was of steel and aluminum, and buried as I was under dry soil, wasn’t detected by a functioning radar operated by a qualified surveyor. But there it is. I am making experimental art, after all. And my practice – like all practices – involves trial, error, learning, iteration, and, occasionally, irritation. Is the radargram what A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife was actually “about”? Not exactly, no. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try it again. Next time, equipped with a SCUBA tank. 

Almost Auric.

February 22, 2023

Cards are starting to trickle in ahead of my 50th birthday (March 21st is the big day). The photo on this one, from my pal Jared Rogers (with whom I’ve shared countless adventures since we first met in a Portland, Oregon climbing gym, a week before our respective pre-divorce nuptials in the summer of 2009), is from the last day I was forty.

In 2014, Jared and I flew to the island of Roatán, thirty-five miles north of the Honduran coast, to meet up with a guy named Karl Stanley. Karl is basically the Han Solo of the global submariner community, and we dove with him to a depth of 616 meters (2020 feet) in a yellow submarine he’d built from scratch – figuring his incentives for survival were more or less perfectly well aligned with our own.

Dropping off the island shelf, sandbags at our feet, we huddled together in the nose cone and watched the jump to hyperspace: rings of aqueous light (and aquatic life) rushing past the glass as we plunged two thousand feet straight down into the midnight zone of the Caribbean Sea.

We prowled the dark water listening to Portishead and DJ Shadow on a small battery-powered radio Karl had in his cockpit. Flashing our lights, a whole cavern of tiny creatures, thinking we were sexually signaling them, bioluminesced back. At some point, water started dripping from the roof of the cabin. I asked Karl if it was anything to be concerned about and he laughed, saying we were at sixty atmospheres, and that if we did spring a leak I wouldn’t have time to scream before the submarine was crushed like a beer can. Thus reassured, I wiped at the condensation with my sleeve, donned a red Jacques Cousteau hat, and started munching chocolate chip cookies.

We were below the basement of photosynthesis, but there were animals – some quite ancient – that appeared to conserve the morphology of plants. If you waited long enough, some of them would stand up and walk; others, leaden with coils of symbiotic worms, were preyed upon by rangy white horrors.

Oh, yeah. A gravid, 13-foot-long tiger shark tried to kill us, twice. Once with her teeth, and once by trickery. Jared managed to pack this and a number of other visual impressions into a short video afterward (that he soundtracked to “When the Music’s Over” by The Doors, which Karl had blasted on our descent).

After a few life-altering hours down there, Karl needed to get back for a softball game (a surprisingly competitive affair played on a campo de sueños hacked out of Roatán’s jungled interior). So he adjusted the buoyancy and we slowly wound our way topside, past the remains of a diver who had committed suicide a few years prior, landed on a deep shelf, and had his face eaten away by marine life (no photos, for obvious reasons, but it looked like something from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride).

Before taking our leave of Karl to go drink too many Salva Vidas while watching silent Bear Grylls re-runs on a cracked TV at Booty Bar (where an Englishwoman, who appeared to be down to her last nerve, sat wearily at the head of a long wooden table of squirming, squealing children just before the bass dropped and the nightly gangsta-rap karaoke competition began), I asked him about, well, Atlantis. SEALs at Guantanamo Bay have beer lore of a sunken city – complete with pyramids – somewhere in the vicinity of Cuba. Karl got his start underwater probing around the Cuban archipelago for stuff to sell to the Smithsonian (yes, he sells sea shells by the seashore – or did). So I asked if he had caught sight of it. He very pointedly refused to answer my question.

Anyhow, I could write a book (or two) about the decade that’s passed since we did this. And maybe I should. But I’d rather face forward and race headlong into whatever comes next.

So, here’s to my fifties making my forties look like a rough draft.


February 12, 2023

I visited Eva for a perambulation of Rome on Friday. After knocking around in the Vatican museums – giving me a chance to revisit marvels like the huge painted maps of Italy in the Galleria delle carte geografiche, Raphael’s The School of Athens, Michelangelo’s Laocoön and the Sistine Chapel (an unexpected coda to reading Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants last week) for the first time in sixteen years – we walked a ten-mile king rat of cobblestones that led us past the monument to (the desolation called) peace erected by Eva’s bae Caesar Augustus, multiple Egyptian obelisks, the site of the tennis court of the French ambassador to Rome (now a parking garage) where, in 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel over a welched bet and subsequently fled the city (into the arms of the Academy of Secrets in Naples), the three Caravaggios at S. Luigi dei Francesi, the two at S. Maria del Popolo (to whom I kept referring, aloud, as ‘Mary of the Poopalope’), the one at S. Agostino, and a copy of his Deposition at Santa Maria in Vallicella (for which Caravaggio painted the original, as the alter piece of a chapel to Our Lady of Sorrows; from which it was looted during the Napoleonic invasion; and to which it was not returned – going instead to the apostolic palace at the Vatican while the ‘Chiesa Nuova’ makes do with a mediocre knockoff by an obscure Dutch painter they don’t cop to on their shadow-enveloped signage), which Eva wanted to visit in order to make a direct appeal to the bones of the patron saint of her grandfather’s Campanian village for a bureaucratic easement. We got there by way of Raphael’s sibylline mural at Santa Maria della Pace and a stone Sphinx so lean its ribs were visible (needing to step up its riddle game, presumably, in a city of mama’s boys), a marble melee in Piazza Navona (started by Giacomo della Porta and finished by Bernini) so crazy that Poseidon teabags a giant octopus in the middle of it, making out in the Alley of Divine Love, and my purchasing Freya Stark’s personal copy of Alexandra David-Néel’s My Journey to Lhasa (an edition with Hopkirk’s introduction, natch) as a gift for Eva in an antiquarian bookshop where the customer ahead of us told the slightly perplexed proprietress he was the grandson of a king of Jordan and one of Saudi Arabia. And so on, unto falling asleep with the laptop on my lap, watching Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio for the umpteenth time.

A full-featured day in the Eternal City.

“The finest mountain in England”

January 1, 2023
Photo by Rob Petit

The man who passed us up the ridge told me, in a viscous northern accent, that I was standing upon “the finest mountain in England.”

I’m not so sure about that, but if I ever do get around to sorting memories from 2022, the climb of Helvellyn along Striding Edge last month with three friends – two of them, roped; two of us, not – will go into the same box as Pavey Ark up Jack’s Rake, Blencathra via Sharp Edge, and Scafell Pike by way of Wasdale Head in a blizzard: the one labelled REALLY FUCKING GOOD.

Photo by Rob Petit
Photo by Rob Petit

…and I feel fine.

December 21, 2022

One More Life*

December 6, 2022

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”

Nineteen years ago today, something exploded in my chest while I was doing push-ups. I finished the set, smoked two cigarettes by the pool, and decided I was having a heart attack. So I drove myself six miles, in increasing pain, by way of my office in Palo Alto to check work emails, finally crawling across a parking lot into the ER of the Stanford Medical Center. The triage nurse didn’t like the look of me, though, and decided I could wait. “We have a lot of sick kids here today, Mr. Chambliss.”

So I waited. For two hours, slumped in a wheelchair, unable to breathe properly, and convulsing in pain, I waited. I finally got sick of waiting, rolled myself outside, lit a cigarette I couldn’t smoke, and was on the verge of driving back home to take Advil when birthday-boy Ilya Druzhnikov and Shenly Glenn showed up. They persuaded me back inside and convinced the nurse to admit me. Shenly even helped the idiot attending physician interpret my chest X-ray. Doctor: “I don’t understand what I’m looking at.” Shenly: “That’s because there’s no right lung.” Doctor: “Ah.” A spontaneous tension pneumothorax.

Two chest tubes (my lung collapsed again, seconds after the first tube was inserted), MUCH bellowing, and a pachyderm-slaying quantity of morphine later, they got me re-inflated. At some point during the procedure, choking and flopping like an upstream salmon while the doctor extracted the first tube (with which he had hooked a rib nerve), I turned to the group of med students huddled around me who had been invited to observe, spat froth, grinned wide with pink teeth, and growled, “Are we having fun yet?!”, prompting one woman to flee behind the curtains.

The epilogue: a few months later, in New York City, it happened again. As it turns out, I (like my mother) am opiate insensitive. So morphine, and even Fentanyl, don’t have much analgesic effect. I explained this to the ER doctors at Beth Israel. Their response: Oh yeah? They dumped so much dope into me that I passed out cold. When I woke up, I was inside a CAT scan machine (I’d cried out during surgery, and they thought I might have had an aneurysm), my lung had collapsed again, and I was asphyxiating. Dying, and too far gone to communicate what was happening to the med tech wheeling my gurney, I was saved by a doctor in an elevator with a penknife and a properly flexible interpretation of his Hippocratic oath.

After lung surgery, the hospitalizations, everything, I continued to smoke. It was so physically painful to do so, however, that I finally sought out an alternate delivery mechanism. I wound up slapping on a patch every day for the next seven months (developing an allergic reaction to the adhesive, until I looked, shirtless, like the sex partner of a giant squid). And then, in November of 2004, I quit altogether. Far easier to withdraw from a longterm nicotine dependency once you’ve already gotten used to the idea of being a non-smoker, IMHO.

Now it’s all but 2023, and I will soon be fifty. I’ve run thousands of miles since this happened, won track races, survived ultramarathons, climbed hundreds of mountains. Which is all to say, if you find my broken body at the bottom of a sheer, thousand-foot drop somewhere, please make sure to stick a needle in my eye before you call the coroner. Because I may piss and moan about my aches and pains, but when it comes down to it, I am hard to kill.

*According to the poet Joseph Brodsky, “…to forget one life, a man needs at minimum / one more life. And I’ve done that portion.”

Notes from Sardṓ

August 28, 2022

I recently spent thirty hours in Sardinia with Dr. Thomas Dekeyser and Kieran Toms that began – after a short flight pondering the gesamtkunstwerk of the Earth, reading Matthew Barney (circa River of Fundament) discuss his translation of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings into “more electro-chemical terms”, as well as the relationship between his own work and Robert Smithson’s, and sketching out some ideas for art interventions on the island to do with Daedalus (e.g., staging a radar spoof of a boy-sized object falling from the sky), who supposedly paused there between stops at Sicily and the Cumaean coast in his flight from Crete (which is how some classical Greek geographers accounted for the characteristic, alien architectural form of ancient Sardṓ, now referred to as nuraghe, but which they called daidaleia) – in an underpowered Fiat through a stretch of powder-keg Sassari landscape winding up toward an abandoned NATO communications facility atop Monte Limbara by way of a riposo-emptied hamlet called Calangianus, which I, more than once, slurred “e-coli-in-anus”, where we acquired, in order of their priority: cold beers (it was 40° C) in the piazza, pizzas, and (for our wild-camping) more beers.

After parking the car discretely off-piste behind a statue of the Madonna of the Snow (figurative representations of which should always be measured against Masolino’s bonkers Il miracolo della neve, in which Christ and his mom ride around in a UFO, causing a snowstorm in August that freaks out Roman potentates trying to play golf) that overlooked the whole gloaming province, we slung hammocks in a woods upslope of the base, and headlamped back down to it for a looksee.

I’m not sure if the head injury I acquired immediately prior to climbing a 25-meter tropospheric scatter antenna – a surprisingly deep impact crater near my crown chakra we discovered after I’d climbed back down and taken off my blood-wet No LiDAR hat – contributed to the weird visitation I had later that night. Insomniac, skull-bruised, luftwaffled by mosquitos, unexpectedly cold, and disturbed rather than lulled by a repetitive noise from above us on the mountain – neither animal nor mechanical, exactly – that got inexplicably louder and quieter, I had the sudden conviction that Thomas had stood up out of his hammock, lit a cigarette behind me, and said to Kieran, “Safe, but joyless.”

Needless to say, Thomas doesn’t smoke. Kieran was snoring. And I am continuing to process the remark.

Sometime after an ultraviolet pre-dawn hush, and before full light, we gave up on the possibility of sleep and decamped to explore the base more thoroughly.

There was a lot of this sort of thing:

There was also an intriguingly complicated contestation of ideologies playing out – sometimes in parallel; others, as palimpsest – over the surface area of the ruins: indigenous far-right slogans/screeds and antifascist ones, anti-Americanism, anti-NATO, anti-capitalism, anti-EU, anti-Italy, anti-immigrant, pro-labor, pro-Nazi, pro-Sardinian separatism, as well as traces of drug/music/dance-themed peacenik-ery.

We’re all in for pluralism, but swastikas have to go. So Thomas broke out a bucket of paint and got to work.

I climbed back up the biggest of the antennae for a better look.

An aside. The base was abandoned in 1991. So these things were almost certainly last used to relay atmospherically secured communications between the battlefields of the first Gulf War and NATO’s Allied Forces Southern Europe command in Naples (where my father worked) during my senior year of high school.

Once we had all had a chance to sneak off and do as bears do (one of us, not me, apparently left a proto-coprolite in a situation that would be a head scratcher for some deep-time archaeologist, and a potentially day-ruining horror for any explorer closer to the present day), we made our way down the mountain to Tempio Pausania to forage for caffeine. It was there, in sight of a brutalist pagoda atop a different mountain ridge, that Thomas – an inexperienced tea drinker, presumably – did something involving two sachets of English Breakfast, two lemons, and three bags of sugar in one saucer that seriously affected his equanimity.

We had a rough goal of making it to Monte d’Accoddi – a 6000-year-old Ozieri ziggurat on the northern coast – and then camping somewhere in the tree verge near the beach, but by the time we reached the archaeological site in the late afternoon it was closed due to a sky-blackening, helicopter-battled brush fire a couple of miles distant.

It had been a long day already. We’d stopped at a charming little archaeological museum full of what looked like headstones for extraterrestrials where Thomas – to the delight of my ears – pronounced the word “necro-polis” several times; let ourselves into the fenced-off site of an ancient well, in broad daylight, surrounded by apartment buildings full of potentially nosy villagers, after knocking repeatedly at the door of the supposedly open neighboring museum; circumambulated an elephantine freestanding roadside boulder domus inhabited by locals since the Neolithic; slithered up the helical tunnel that runs from root to crown of the Nuraghe Paddaggiu (one of seven thousand or so broken-off towers produced by the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization: stumps of a stone aspen stand that once covered the whole ancient island); crawled through prehistoric tomb holes in the guts of a rock elephant; rocked out to “Take the Skinheads Bowling” as we entered Castelsardo, and basked on black boulders there, like three salt-pans, after Mediterranean ablutions.

Most of what remains of the Nurag is hidden inside the hill.

Which is all to say: a fire wasn’t going to stop us. Some other site-seekers had gone on ahead and we followed them down a cobbled quarter-mile path to the gate of the actual site. We waited until they turned back then considered our options. Being good eggs, we decided not to risk damaging the archaeology by jumping the fence and instead crossed over the wall of the path into a fallow field, followed barbed-wire around the perimeter of the pyramid as helicopters raced back and forth directly overhead, snapped a few photographs of the mysterious structure, and retraced our steps. A uniformed park employee ran down a dirt road toward us as we sat on the curb outside of her visitor center deliberating our next move, and panickedly shouted something to the effect of “Can’t you read? Get the fuck out of here! There’s a fire!”

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my middle-aged thermostat is on the fritz. I might be a good egg, but I was getting soft-poached. And so, although we had found a decent, discrete campsite in a conifer clump nearer the seaside, Kieran and Thomas – outstanding adventure partners, both – were kind enough to consent instead to hotel room beds before dropping me back off at Olbia airport the next morning. It’s thus we found ourselves, after a last few beers and “for old time’s sake,” rooftopping the tallest building in Tempio Pausania with uncanny ease.

The second door we happened onto was made of glass. Beyond it was an elevator – the door of which stood inexplicably, invitingly, open. I pointed at it, astonished, as Kieran walked up beside me and pushed on the outer door. It wasn’t locked.

“Always try the door,” he counseled. Words to live by.

Photo by Kieran Toms

Coda | Dirge

Having moved to London from a place where the fire season is now three hundred days a year, I thought at first that the park ranger at Monte d’Accoddi might have been overreacting, a bit, although I was certainly sympathetic as to why. In retrospect, though, I don’t think it was panic in her voice. I think it was PTSD.

Sardinia has been devastated by wildfires for the last three years – to an extent that paramilitarized European Union firefighting resources have been semi-permanently seconded to the island to help forestall what seem – to me, at least – inevitabilities of this new pyrocene (e.g., forced evacuations) that many, most, of us are contributing to. Each according to our means.

So, an unquenchable flame, surrounded by blue water. Driving past the first abandoned structure we had explored just a day before, the landscape was newly dead, gleaming like pitch: massive devastation – melted road signage, all the scrub gone, hectares of trees scorched black.