Notes from Sardṓ

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.


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