You, Too, Live Under the Volcano
The most alive people I know live under a volcano
Vesuvius last erupted in 1944. It’s been the bane of Naples since there was a Naples, and the city goes back a very long way. You only need to take a ride on a rattling train to Pompeii to see what it can do. The unescapable pyroclastic flow that turned a vibrant city into a graveyard and its inhabitants to dust.
The jagged top of the mountain rises above the city and its gorgeous bay. Visible from everywhere. As you wander the ancient streets, you catch glimpses of it here and there in a gap between old buildings like crooked teeth.
But the streets of Naples echo with laughter and song. Motor scooters zip carelessly through crowds of wandering tourists and young couples who kiss like they’ll never see each other again.
I’ve never been anywhere more alive.
That’s what it’s like living under a volcano. It’s not a question of denial, but one of acceptance.
And, whether you know it or not, you live under a volcano too. Staring down the ever-present promise of absence. Waiting for it all to one day explode.
It’s always there
The toddler’s astonishment at their food vanishing as they eat it. The cartoonish memento mori skulls carved into slabs of stone, pointing and threatening as though we wronged them somehow. Every relationship that skids and crashes and flies into pieces as though it couldn’t wait to fall apart. Every sun that sets, every soap bubble that shines and bursts points in one direction. Not toward us, but away. Disappearing into the dark.
Every night in Naples, I would watch the sunset turn the sky to orange flame behind the blue shoulders of the mountain.
I would think about the millions of lives that have bloomed and burst under that frowning stone giant. We give volcanoes names and say prayers to them and toss screaming virgins inside to appease them. But volcanoes don’t care about us. They don’t even know we are there.
We might be smaller than they are, but we know more than they do.
It was a wild place
When Malcolm Lowry moved from England to Vancouver, the city was a tiny town hacked out of a million miles of forest. Scurvy sailors and drunken loggers sat around gender-segregated beer parlors, drinking until their eyes went dark. It was a frontier. As West as West gets, where the land runs out and the endless sea takes over. Sandwiched between sleeping volcanoes and a slumbering sea. Full of wild animals and wilder people.
Lowry hated the city. He preferred the quiet inlets where the ocean makes its way between the feet of the mountains. He and his wife fled the city and built a house in what is now a park in suburban North Vancouver. Back then, it was wild land. They fished in the sea and carried water from the creek and lived an existence that was precarious and physically demanding, but intensely alive.
There in a shack on the beach, he wrote his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. I read it on the plane. Flying one-way with the sun, moving from England to Vancouver just as Lowry did, into a completely different world. I’d never seen the city I was heading for. I knew almost nothing about it. But I knew I wanted to confront the same elements he did. The sea and the mountains and the grand silence of the world.
Now, I live under another volcano. The crumpled, snow-furred face of Mount Baker rises above the highway on any sunny evening I drive home, catching the last of the light before darkness falls. It’s miles away. Past the smaller mountains that mark the US — Canada border and into the state of Washington.
It looks so tranquil. It’s hard to believe it contains such destructive fire.
It’s not just the volcano. My home in British Columbia is fractured with the same fault lines that occasionally rattle San Francisco. I’ve never felt an earthquake. But we all know it’s coming. It’s the price you pay to live among the mountains. To confront the raw glory of the world and its elemental forms. Everything beautiful can kill you. That’s part of what makes it beautiful.
Vancouver is one of Canada’s biggest cities, but it’s surrounded by nothing. Nothing but ocean and forests and volcanoes. The raw elements of life that never let you forget what it means. The jagged cliffs and crenelated peaks that remind you that one day — maybe tomorrow — they could explode.
We all live under the volcano, whether we see it or not. Extinction is the other side of creation without which nothing could stand up. The back of the same coin. We all carry our death growing within us by the second, and to be alive is to know that and carry on anyway.
Most of the time, you can turn your face away. But not under the volcano.
The sun only knows how to shine
It was sunnier than it should have been so early in the year. I went to the park and took a walk along Lowry Trail. The path runs through the forest, close to where the writer had his home. As the city expanded, he and his fellow squatters were evicted from the land that is now named after him. It was a loss he never recovered from. His functional alcoholism turned into the non-functional kind, and he drank himself to death just like the hero of his novel did.
When you live long enough under the volcano, you can’t live without it.
And as I walked along the trail, breathing in the silence he used to live in, the sun on the crystal sea made it shine the way it used to in the Bay of Naples. The bright blue water swayed and danced, reminding me of the home I had left behind forever. The glimpse of the volcano that I, in the end, turned my back on.
In front of me, the only other person in the park was a woman talking on a phone held to her ear.
My heart clenched just a little as I realized that there in Vancouver, she was speaking Italian.
We all live under one volcano or another
We live surrounded by its smoke. It no longer seems strange to us, and the faint rumble underground becomes the background music of our existence. In Pompeii, there was a line outside the brothel right until the end. The volcano caught children sleeping and suffocated them. A whole family was wiped out as they dozed under the stars in an orchard. Others were killed trying to flee with bags of gold.
None of us know the day or the hour. We just know it’s coming. That’s what makes the days precious. It’s only the rare that is valuable. If we were promised tomorrow, we wouldn’t want it. Instead, we would pine for the volcano. We would miss it, though it would never miss us.
Because it doesn’t care. We do. Every place we leave, we leave a hole behind us that only other humans can see. Those that love us. Those that care. Because the volcano doesn’t love us, we have to love each other.
And living under the silent threat of the indifferent mountain is the brightest, truest way there is to live.
© Ryan Frawley 2021.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.