Earth, Water, Air and Fire

I think of my uncle every day. And as I remember him, a smile eases into the corners of my mouth even while my heart aches with his absence.

I remember our days in Como, the mountains shrouded in mist and the cool refreshing rain, before shafts of sunlight burst through to send light shimmering across the waters. On his trips back to his home town, Uncle would take me into the mountains, imparting to me – his protégé – all his knowledge of rock formations, flora and fauna, where the weather comes from and so much more. His curiosity about the world around us was boundless. In time he would write his natural history of the world, to encompass all knowledge.

His writing is celebrated by scholars across the world, and will ripple down the generations like the light through the clouds. And I hope all who read his works will see the man I knew. The man of boundless enthusiasms and unquenchable curiosity, of constant activity, bravery and laughter.

He took me fully under his wing when I was sent to Rome to further my education. Rome was an education in itself, as I turned from a boy to a man.

We talked about everything. One day he was describing to me the strange wind-blown rocks he had seen on his travels as soldier and procurator in Spain and North Africa. The locals attached many legends to them. He knew I was fascinated by such stories and by the tales of all the peoples who poured into Rome from the four corners of the earth. I especially enjoyed the storytelling of the preachers from Judaea who spoke of the coming wrath of their god, and told tales from their ancient books.

I told Uncle of one I had heard a few days before. A street-corner preacher from one of the Judaean sects compared Rome to an ancient city called Sodom that was destroyed by their god. It was a place of fabulous wealth, but also of riot and licentiousness, and every kind of abomination and injustice.

“Indeed, the preacher has a point with that comparison,” said Uncle with a smile, as he poured me a second cup of wine that my mother would certainly have forbidden.

“So you see, Uncle, their god decided to punish the city and wipe it from the face of the earth. But in that city lived some of his righteous followers. So god warned them to leave at once. And on no account should they look back.”

“Sounds like a smart plan,” said Uncle. “But I guess one of them did look back?”

“You guess right, Uncle. The wife of the leader turned to look back at the city. And when she did, she was transformed instantly into a pillar of salt.”

Uncle laughed heartily at this, and slapped his thigh.

I smiled too. For the tale, though wondrous, was indeed ridiculous. “Some of us listening laughed too, Uncle. Then the preacher furrowed his brow, and thundered, ‘I have seen this pillar of salt with my own eyes. And I tell you, unless the people of Rome turn and repent, the fate that befell Sodom will befall Rome too!’”

“We’ll be turned into pillars of salt?”

“No, Uncle! That was only the wife. God sent fire and brimstone from heaven to consume the city and its people. The woman was turned to a pillar of salt because she disobeyed. She looked back on the awesome power of their god in action.”

“Quite a tale. I suspect she was already missing the joys of life in that doomed city,” said Uncle. “Of course, salt is a mineral. It has no life. People are living flesh. The one does not readily turn into the other, no matter what legends say.”

I am thinking of this story today, 25 years after the passing of my uncle.

At the peak of his eminence, he had been sent to Misenum on the Bay of Naples, to command the fleet. I was 17 then, and accompanied him. We could never have anticipated the fateful and terrible events we would witness there.

I loved to look across the bay at the mountains. They reminded me of home. That morning the sun rising behind Mount Vesuvius cast glorious shades of purple across the bay. They coloured the plumes of smoke rising from the mountain top. Uncle hoped to get closer to witness this phenomenon when his official duties would allow.

But soon we saw a huge, angrier cloud above the mountain, rising ever higher like a giant tree, and fires lighting all down the mountain side. All the boats in harbour in the towns beneath the mountain were now heading our way. As they arrived, panicking citizens pleaded with Uncle to send the fleet to rescue their friends and relatives left behind.

He went, and did not return. The few who came back told of his calmness, how he encouraged all around him as the pumice stones fell upon them, as an adverse wind and angry sea trapped them on the other side. And how he was overcome by the heavy air and noxious gases, and perished alongside those he came to rescue.

Then the cloud tumbled down from its great height, engulfing all in its path. It raced across the bay so we on the other side had to flee for our lives. For two days the mountain raged fire and brimstone on the nearby towns, covering all in ash.

That is where my uncle rests, in a city of people turned from living flesh to stone. Pliny the Elder, soldier, high official and scholar. He was drawn to his destiny by compassion and curiosity. But the power of man to understand nature is as nothing before the awesome power of Nature herself, as she rages against being understood.

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