Words from Sicily: Sicilian mountains

Looking up at the lush mountains across from me, I realise that the road on our side of the valley must be a mirror reflection of what we see on the other side, the landscape divided in half by a river at its floor. I am suddenly terrified. The bluffs are menacing, and a strange sensation of intimidation overcomes me. The rugged beauty of the endless vegetation and grandeur of the peaks should inspire awe, yet what I feel is unmitigated fear.

It frightens me to notice how the mountains can come tumbling down at any moment. They aren’t standing flat-footed on the earth but instead are going through a slow process of tumbling down upon themselves, eroding unevenly in a decaying evolution. Staring at them, they seem alive. I see them breathing, moving—the green cover of vegetation that camouflages them like living skin. 

I imagine peeling away the layer of vegetation and dirt to disclose the raw under-skin, like a Renaissance anatomical study peeling away the layers to uncover the body’s different organs. Under the first layer of the earth, I imagine a bloody layer of flesh ready to be dissected, the metaphorical scalpel tunnelling through each vein pulsing with blood, water and decay. 

Removing the mountain’s skin is like exploring Sicily. This place needs to be dissected with a sharp implement to cut through all the layers of history, culture and society to uncover its raw heart. Carving up the mountains is impossible, and slicing through the different elements of life in Sicily will prove to be just as tricky.

I want to discover what is underneath. I see these mountains before me, which sustain the world’s weight, which sighs at night when they rest, groan with the heat of summer and shiver in winter. The mountains are alive; they breathe, express desires and witness the truth. They have seen everything before us and will see everything after us. These precarious mountains will outlive us and withstand time. There is no way to move them or get below them. I can only stare at them in wonder.

Sometimes I imagine the gigantic drilling machines that must have been used to construct the Messina Palermo autostrada that took some thirty years to complete. Most of the highway is bored through mountainsides with kilometres of tunnels that stretch through badly lit subways and underpasses.

Some of the ‘gallerie’ smell like rotten eggs and methane gas; the works hit pockets of natural gas during their construction. One urban myth says that excavators found a hidden treasure under the Church of Tindari left behind by shipwrecked pirates and travellers from the holy land who abandoned the miraculous icon of the dark-skinned Madonna of Tindari.

At Patti, the autostrada deviated, creating a dangerous hairpin curve because they discovered an ancient Roman villa filled with mosaics. The spot has been the cause of many serious accidents.

When my son was a few years old, we’d used to look for goblins and trolls who could have easily made their homes in the dimly lit safety cul-de-sac’s evenly spaced through the tunnels. I don’t think they really do much of a good job saving lives as pile-ups are reasonably common on the autostrada.