My mother came from Italy. There’s more to the story—there always is—but I never paid a lot of attention to it because, when I was a child almost every older relative I knew came from Italy. (Similarly, older relatives of most of my friends had come from Poland. It seemed the American way.)
(No, this is not about Donald Trump and his asinine anti-immigration policies. That idiot has wasted enough of my time this week.)
I have been on this planet for seven decades—the most recent of which have flown by at an accelerated pace—but I’ve never visited the country where so many of my relatives were born, this despite the fact that a municipality in Tuscany actually bears my name. For better or worse I’m not much of a traveler. It’s just a fact of life.
Yesterday’s New York Times posted some before-and-after photos from Amatrice, Pescara del Tronto, Arquata del Tronto, and Accumoli—villas in central Italy—each of them a scene of devastation from Tuesday’s earthquakes. The damage was staggering: Pescara del Tronto was all but destroyed. As sickening as the photos may have been, even worse were the imaginings that came with them: a town asleep, the convulsing earth, fear, injury, and death—all in seconds. Hundreds of years of culture and tradition gone in a needle movement on the Richter Scale.
Today is Friday: the official death toll is approaching 300, but it is almost certain to rise. I see these villagers and think of (even visualize) relatives long since departed. This was the country they left to come here.
In light of this, maybe talking about travel is inappropriate; but again, I have never seen Italy, and though I probably never will, I feel a sense of loss that there are sections of it that will never again exist in my lifetime—structures and villages of course, but people too, either uprooted or lost forever. My meeting them would not have changed their lives, nor would they have changed mine, but there’s that hint of lost opportunities that’s almost visceral.
Undoubtedly a changing earth will someday eradicate much of what exists today, from the Grand Canyon to the pyramids. Today fires rage in Yellowstone and climate change threatens Glacier and the coral reefs of Australia. The forces of nature may take these destinations from us, and there’s little we can do. But in the meantime, they beckon if we listen.
In a wonderful short story by Willa Cather, “Paul’s Case,” a boy from the midwest steals money and experiences a week of wild excess in New York City; then when reality threatens to imprison him once again in his middle-class existence, he jumps to his death in front of a train. The last thing he sees before the brain shuts down is “the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.” He thought he had seen all there was to see of the world; he had seen nothing.
In a sense those final thoughts are coming for us all—what do we want them to be?
Admittedly airlines have taken the joy from air travel, and terrorists have eroded our peace of mind. ISIS destroyed the 2000-year old temple in Palmyra, and the Taliban dynamited the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The Great Mosque of Aleppo is gone, as are two-thirds of the historic buildings in old Beirut. What nature has spared, man has shattered.
And Amatrice? We may not be able to see that ever again, but I’d like to think the blue of Adriatic water, and the yellow of Algerian sands are still out there. Maybe before it’s too late, we can find a way to see them in more than just our mind’s eye.