My wife and I asked ourselves that question when we left the beach and began to climb the thousand foot mountain directly behind us. Many years ago, on one of the Aeolian Islands in the Mediterranean, wearing nothing but sandals and bathing suits, we made our way up the volcanic cone. It was a particularly tempting climb because this island named by the Romans now defines the very term for mountains of fire.
We easily made it to the rim of the crater and began to walk around it. Soon we were coughing and choking from the sulfurous gases. We ran into a group of scientists in heavy gear and oxygen, looked at each other, and decided that perhaps we should head back down. Despite several washings we had to throw away our bathing suits as they still smelled distinctly like rotten eggs.
I was born in Messina, Sicily, and as a child remember the distant glow of the nighttime lava flows of Mount Etna, one of the great shield volcanoes of our world. Perhaps it’s due to that early memory, but I’ve always been enamored by volcanoes and have visited several.
Shield volcanoes are by far the most massive, spanning tens of miles, and have a gentler slope as they are formed by repeated flows of lava. The ones that have the typical cone shapes with steep sides are created by alternating lava flows and blasts of rocky debris that rise and fall back down. There are two basic varieties, cinder and composite cones. Cinder cones are created by one-time eruption and are much smaller, while composite cones can grow to great heights through repeated eruptions. The latter are incredibly destructive as was Mt. St. Helens in 1980 when an eruption blew 1500 feet off the top.
There is so much variety that each visit to a volcano is a new experience, but always I find myself awed and humbled by what I see. The harsh, alien landscape makes me feel insignificant, but also brings out the feeling of being alive. I love the otherworldliness to the sights, smells, and sounds around you. Often, near a vent, you can reach down and feel the heat radiating through the ground, which is usually dark and foreboding, lacking any signs of life. It is precisely the sheer barrenness that makes me appreciate how life is a truly precious thing.