Communion Of Dreams

Italy, 2012: I’m going to Hell.

Monday morning, most of the group was in class after we took our communal breakfast in the villa. I decided to explore a bit around the villa, spend some time catching up on notes from the trip. From those, the following:

“The countryside is all I’ve expected; a riot of color & aroma. Roosters crowing, dogs barking. The villa where we’re staying is classic – overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the north end of the Bay of Naples. The beach is maybe 1k distant, and can be seen from the villa. On the grounds is a fair-sized colosseum (amphitheater) which is slowly being excavated.

“There are layers upon layers of fruit trees, grapes, tomato & other common garden plants. Everything is a jumble which is almost but not quite out of control. In this it seems to be a perfect reflection of the local people and culture.

“I’m sitting at a quite suitable old concrete ping-pong table. It is under a metal-roof shed/shelter which has a concrete pad floor. In one corner sits an old grape/olive press which would probably be serviceable with a little work. In another corner is a masonry wood-fired oven which is probably at least as old as the villa, but which is clearly used regularly. Around the edges of the slab potted plants seem to almost be an afterthought. Two small motorcycles and a rickety wood-slat bench complete the scene.”




* * * * * * *

Also from my notes:

“A note on lunch: a ball of fresh Mozzarella di bufala campana  the size of a small person’s fist. Nice, thick, tomato slices with basil leaves, fresh corn cut from the cob, four green olives, lettuce. Simple, all local, delicious and a nice counterpoint to all the pasta we’ve been eating.”

* * * * * * *

After lunch, we headed out for our first series of site visits in the country.

The first thing I noticed is that the geography was decidedly that of a volcanic region. In this, it reminded me a lot of New Zealand. But where New Zealand still has a lot of rawness to it, this is an area which has been settled and worked for thousands of years.

In the course book put together for the teachers (Steve gave me a copy) there was an interesting article by Ann Pizzorusso on the geology of the area. I had the pleasure of meeting Ann a few days later. She’s an interesting person – a geologist who has also become a scholar of the Italian Renaissance. While I couldn’t find the specific article I read, she has done a very nice series about the geography of the area which is available online. Here’s a brief excerpt from the second one, which tied in to the site visits of the day:

Volcanoes and volcanic lakes, such as Lake Averno, Bolsena and those around Rome were all sacred places for the Greeks, Etruscans and other early settlers. Ancient man called volcanoes omphalos, after the Greek word, umbilical. They believed that volcanoes provided an entrance to the underworld; a way to connect the heavens with the world of the afterlife below. Remnants of altars and votive offerings have been found in many volcanic areas.  Interestingly, volcanoes have been sacred in places and cultures that have had no contact with one another. It seems that the mystique of a volcano fascinated man from the dawn of time.

The first place we stopped was just the side of the road, not too far from the villa, in order to be able to look down into Lake Avernus (Averno in Italian). Here’s what you see:



Pretty clearly a volcanic caldera, isn’t it? You can tell by the well-defined, steep sides, the nearly perfect circle.

Look at those pictures again. See, in the second one, the way a part of the side is missing, allowing access out to the sea?

The Romans did that.

No, really. The Romans did that. Specifically, it was done at the behest of Marcus Agrippa in 37 BC. Agrippa needed a protected naval base for a little civil war he was conducting, so he turned Lake Avernus into one. And cut a canal/road through the side of the caldera for access to the sea. Here’s that canal/road from ground level:


And here, looking towards the Lake:


Yeah, once again, the simple scale of the things that the Romans did is mind-boggling.


* * * * * * *

This is the entrance to Hell:

Or, more accurately, this is what the Romans thought was the entrance to Hades, which they placed at Lake Avernus.

We went in.


And here’s looking back, a few hundred meters in:


Why did we go in? Well, because this is also supposed to be one of the locations of the Sibyl, as discussed by Vergil in the Aeneid.

And going in was a bit of a hoot, to be honest. Why? Well, the property where this ancient Roman tunnel exists is owned by an old guy who is just a real character.

OK, the tunnel itself is about 10′ high, maybe twice that wide. The floor is fairly smooth. We gathered inside the entrance as the owner handed out a wide assortment of large candles, kerosene lamps, and burning torches. We tried not to step on his dog.


Yeah, if you own the entrance to Hades, you have to have a Cerberus, right? Right. His was a medium-sized yellow mongrel with a sweet disposition. She mostly stayed over by the tunnel wall, out of the way.

The old fellow really enjoys the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t speak English at all. But he also wouldn’t wait for any of our group who have decent Italian language skills to translate. Steve tried several times, as did others, but the old guy would just roll right over them, talking constantly. Oh, and he loved to flirt with the women in the group.

We walked in, and in those rare instances when the old guy wasn’t talking, the sound of his cane striking the floor thrummed and echoed. Drums – drums in the deep. After maybe 500 meters we came to a series of stairs/ramps which led down to small rooms which were partially flooded. This was supposedly where the Sibyl was.

I managed to step into the water with my right foot, thanks to the changing light and confusion over where the stairs ended. That must mean it’s now invincible, right?

* * * * * * *

We went into Pozzuli.

Back in Rome, there had been a chance for me to go see The Colosseum. Other members of our group did. But Steve had told me that we would be visiting the colosseum here, that it would probably not have any other tourists at it, and that we’d be able to get into the undercroft area of the amphitheater (which you can’t do at the big one in Rome). I decided to just wait and avoid the crowds.

I’m glad I did. This is what we saw:


On the floor of the colosseum.



The undercroft.



The central drain.



* * * * * * *

Then it was time to pay a visit to Vulcan.

Or, more accurately, to Solfatara, the semi-dormant volcanic crater in Pozzuoli. Fun stuff. Stinky stuff.

Solfatara is a largish area, with an adjacent camp/park for people who come to “take the air” (i.e.: subject their nasal cavities to intense sulphurous fumes). When you emerge from the campground, you walk into a white flat not unlike an alkaline desert.




Well, make that an alkaline desert which has pools of steaming, bubbling mud:



And steam vents:



And the ever-popular solfatara (fumaroles venting sulphurous gas):



Two things here amused me. One was that there are places where you can tap the ground with your foot or a cane, and listen to the hollow echo underneath your feet. Yeah – you’re walking on a fairly thin crust. And two, the warning sign about all the dangers is on the *far side* of the crater from the entrance. No, really. Take a look at that first image of the crater up above. There, in the distance, in the center-right of the image, you can see a small white square. That’s this sign:



I, and several others, collected sulphur-infused rocks to take home with us.

* * * * * * *

We left the crater, and popped into a nice little gift shop/bar across the street from the entrance. Steve recommend the place for decent prices on souvenirs. I recommend it for good cold beer.

We went back to the villa. Dinner was excellent.

Jim Downey

Back from Z’ha’dum.*

I mentioned the other day that my trip to Italy had kicked loose some writing blocks I had been struggling with, and that it had given me ideas for additional stories and novels. It did. It also made me think hard about some decisions I needed to make. Not just about writing. Also about how I spend my life.

Simply put, I have several things I still want to accomplish before I die. Things which I won’t accomplish if I keep putting them off, putting time and energy into things which really don’t matter. Like arguments. Like writing fluff which other people could write, just in order to earn a little money. My time — my life — is more valuable than that.

I think that it was the experience of seeing so many incredible accomplishments from Classical Antiquity still around some 2,000 years later which made an impact on me.

Now, I have no illusions that anything I do will last that long. Nor am I going to give up ‘living in the moment’ and trying to enjoy my life and those I share it with. But I am going to reshuffle my priorities in some very concrete ways.

One of these will be much less time dinking-around in social media. Oh, I will still participate to some extent, still maintain connections with my friends and fans. But I am going to be less self-indulgent in that regard.

Another change in priority will mean writing fewer reviews and articles. That means a loss of income which has made a difference in recent years, and I have to find a way to replace that. After all, I still have to live. The result of this will be a Kickstarter campaign which will be formulated and announced in coming weeks — plenty of people have said that they are looking forward to seeing what my next novel is, and this is one way for them to help make that a reality sooner rather than later, a chance for them to put their money where their mouth is.

(And speaking of Kickstarter campaigns, some friends of mine just launched one to expand their artistic repertoire which I highly recommend — you can find it here: Ancient Metalsmithing Made Modern, or Perfecting Pressblech )

I recently turned 54. And I have accomplished a number of things of which I am justly proud. I have friends and family I love. I have a wonderful wife. I have written books and articles which have brought joy, knowledge, and solace to others. I have helped to preserve history in the form of books & documents. I have created art, sold art, made my little corner of the world a slightly better place. I’ve even helped expand the pool of ballistics knowledge a bit. Frankly, I’ve lived longer and accomplished more than I ever really expected to.

But I have more yet to do. Time to get on with it.

Jim Downey

*Yes, a Babylon 5 reference. In this case specifically to the episode “Conflicts of Interest” in which Sheridan makes the following statement:

I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking, Zack. There are several hundred unpleasant things I’ve been avoiding doing since I got back from Z’ha’dum. Now with Delenn gone I don’t have any excuses. I have to start taking care of them.”

Appropriately enough, one of the places I got to visit while in Italy was Lake Avernus — which the Romans considered the entrance to Hades. Yeah, I’ve been to Hell and back. It’s given me a new perspective.