Mostly Not About Leopardi’s “La Ginestra,” But Also Mostly About It

Leopardi’s broom is an invasive species here in California. Not literally: on Vesuvius grows Genista tinctoria, dyer’s broom, while its cousins are the ones that run wild over millions of acres of California. (After Leopardi’s death, the dyer’s broom was joined by much larger broom trees from Mt. Etna, in a form of horticultural solidarity not dreamt of in his philosophy.) Heath plants, lovers of acidic soil, they grow feral and thick and welcome fire. Is landscaping not itself hubris? With what humility should it be conducted?

Squinting, one sees La ginestra bridging the crevasse between classical literature and Romanticism; without squinting there’s too much vibrant detail. I will squint.

One can discern Vesuvius clearly enough, Vesuvius makes itself discernable: sterminator Vesevo. Recently, however, I climbed a volcano I could not see; I drove through rain into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, recently (and probably still, then) ablaze, and around one curve I saw the clouds part and the red moon flare up in its ethereal sheets, like a monitory ember. I felt my arms go slack, but dutifully kept control of my tiny car, wondering what the hell I was thinking. I had tempted chthonic powers once before, and gone to grad school.

The first recorded marketing pun known to Western science and Wikipedia derives from the slopes of peaceful pre-79 Vesuvius, in its comedy mask of snow-watered vineyards: “VESU-VINO”. Long past classicism, neoclassicism, Romanticism, and all their sequelae, and almost past the last check-in time at the lodge, I scrutinized a menu offering “Pie-roclastic” pizza— vegetarian— and beer unpunningly named for basalt formations. (There are several along this theme— Cinder Cone Red Ale, Black Butte Porter, Obsidian Stout; there are peculiarly famous beers named for both Plinies.) The volcano had had its famous Plinian eruption thirty-five years ago and was now, like Pliny’s subject, considered an inoffensive and unstrenuous climb. Intrepid cavers had wandered into glacial caves within the crater and posted video footage; I don’t know how they bribed the camera crew. Volcanoes cause great confusion. Goethe had to be talked out of stepping in a slough of interesting Vesuvian lava by his porter.

The Vesuvius of the late 18th and early 19th century offered glorious if unpredictable spectacle, like today’s Kilauea. The climbing situation in Leopardi’s time was accordingly starker— but not too stark for prosopopoiea, as perhaps it never is. Shape-shifting Vesuvius had to be figured, and Leopardi’s figure of the cruel mother has all the advantages and disadvantages of the trope. “There are only two fundamental geological processes: impact cratering and volcanism,” avers my textbook on volcanology. My volcano was also a lady volcano, although not a mother: an indecisive suitee, whose admirers tore up the land around her in their competition, creating rivers and ridges and gorges and presumably, like so many Orlandos, uprooting thousands upon thousands of trees. Climbing guides advise you to avoid cotton clothing, carry a mask in case of ashy winds, pack abundant water; they may conclude with a pro forma remark about volcanoes being sacred and treating them with respect. But Leopardi’s demonic mother nature inspires not exactly respect: but fear and loathing, hopeless and transient resistance. Sterminator Vesevo lies somewhere on the geographical path from Shelley’s Mont Blanc to Nietzsche’s Silenus.

The younger Pliny, who seems not to have known Vesuvius as any sort of menace until its impressive unmasking, had less time for poetry, but availed himself of one descriptive simile: the eruption column shot up and spread its cloud wide over the land, roaring night and inversion, in a form best likened to a stone pine, or umbrella pine, or Pinus pinea, as we moderns call it:

Nubes — incertum procul intuentibus ex quo monte; Vesuvium fuisse postea cognitum est — oriebatur, cuius similitudinem et formam non alia magis arbor quam pinus expresserit. 6 Nam longissimo velut trunco elata in altum quibusdam ramis diffundebatur, credo quia recenti spiritu evecta, dein senescente eo destituta aut etiam pondere suo victa in latitudinem vanescebat, candida interdum, interdum sordida et maculosa prout terram cineremve sustulerat.

It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can be best expressed as being like an umbrella pine(3), for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed.  Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.

This passage has haunted my thoughts longer than any line of La ginestra. A stone pine: the rational, precise tone conjuring the terrible, enspelled colossus of a tree, formed in the ignition of its own substrate, atomized into mere force and annihilation. (Entirely prosaic, too, is Pliny’s cheerful endorsement of writing as a worthwhile activity: “The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both.” [Equidem beatos puto, quibus deorum munere datum est aut facere scribenda aut scribere legenda, beatissimos vero quibus utrumque.])

Anyone who has visited Rome has seen these pines, as much a token of the city as ruins or the Vatican or wild evenings. My own reports from Rome were full of conifers seen and scented: fragrant cypresses under the full moon, wildfire smoke wafting in on the breeze; I wrote giddily to my sister from my honeymoon there: “rome is still crazy and awesome and the forum park still smells heavenly, like 8 different kinds of pine — it makes me want to buy a small property in the piny countryside and live there.” But before the honeymoon I had taken a solitary trip, a last-minute, panicked escape from a claustrophobic summer in Barcelona where some bottomless lethargy had seized hold of me. I forget what the ritual phrases are: I need time alone, I need to clear my head, I’m unwell, I need to get centered. Whatever they were, I said them all a second time, under five times the pressure, seven years later, and drove up from Portland in a rented Fiat.

There is no end of controversy over native plants in the Bay Area. It seems clear that there were few trees in San Francisco before the gold rush: it looked like the hills of Hayward, oak savannah on sand. The redwood forest in Oakland was felled to make log flumes and corduroy roads and a trans-Pacific equilibrium slowly developed: more eucalypts grow in San Francisco than in Sydney, and Monterey pines, endangered in their native terrain, are innumerable in Antipodean forestry. From Monterey too came the great umbrella-cypresses that tower over Golden Gate Park, whose tutelary forms had comforted me in my exile from the eternal city of eternal solitude. While from trees come paper to write on, houses to shelter us, ships to ferry us, writing desks, resin and rosin, a spruce-and-cypress guitar of which I am especially fond, they are somehow an irreducible idea. But Mt. St. Helens knocked a flotilla of them into Spirit Lake, enough to reconstitute the thousand ships launched by Helen’s visage, and a thousand vertical feet into the scramble above the treeline I gave up. A man spider-climbing down through the boulder field yelled at me about hypothermia and climbing alone; my vision blurred in the rain, my hydration pack jammed shut; I broke an electrolyte tablet into quarters and chewed it like Tums and got cocky again and pushed on up the rubble until thoroughly chilled reason prevailed. But I planted myself under the shield of a vast block of what I took to be basalt, something forged, and sang in perfect contentment, in that ancient-modern ruined zone where no life belongs, of wooden things and the sky.