An islander’s musings in the time of plastic

“The Sicilian is a legatee of an ancient and splendid civilization

from which he has inherited human standards of an impressive kind”


Norman Lewis

1. The Straits of Messina

I was born not more than a few dozen feet from the sicilian shore of the Straits of Messina, in a fishermen settlement known as ‘Paradiso’ (the italian word for ‘Heaven’), a name appropriately bestowed to this tranquil location by its seagoing inhabitants. I grew up in a house overlooking the not-so-tranquil waters of the straits, which I felt drawn to by an irresistible force, for reasons unbeknownst to me at the time. It must be that, before the city swallowed the village in its uncontrolled sprawl, the age-old presence of the local fishermen made an impression on me as indelible as the sound of the waves which in the quieter nights could be heard in the semi-darkness of my room.

It was precisely that combined presence of the sea and of its human perambulators which, I presume, instilled in me an unquenchable thirst for freedom; an ‘everlasting itch for things remote’, in the words of Melville, an ‘absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure’, as Conrad had it. How this could be, at a young age, I could not fathom. Only later in life did I start to suspect that “the basis of their relatively good fortune lies in the fact that, […] Apart from a house, and their boats and tackle, most fisherfolk are devoid of the burden of prosperity and thus wonderfully free” (N. Lewis). So at the age of about 9, debarred from such elaborate explanations by virtue of my few years and having grown insufferably bored with the game of tennis, I answered the sea’s call and resolved one day to make for the sailing club instead.

Battling with the impetuous ‘scinnenti’ (that is, flowing in a southerly direction) current at such a young age was sometimes a daunting task, demanding that we make a series of tacks in rapid succession as close to shore as safely practicable without hitting the rocks to get past the small promontory sheltering the sailing club from the north-easterly breeze. It was then that, not without frustration or fear, we learned the ways of the sea: to navigate these perilous currents and to withstand the sudden coming of a violent southerly storm in the late winter months, sitting on the hulls of our capsized dinghies, prematurely exposed to human helplessness in the face of forces powerful enough to simply leave us whelmed.

The turbulence created by the Straits’ main currents gave rise to the legend of the sea monster Charybdis in the Odyssey.

Part of a fishermen’s settlement north of Paradiso

2. A poet among fishermen

Children pose by shing boats in Paradiso, early XX Century.

Maria was the last and only girl of the ten children of a certain Costa, a fisherman who is said to have survived the earthquake of 1908 and the subsequent tsunami by climbing onto the highest branches of a fig tree in Paradiso. While the fisherman’s male offspring mostly found work in the navy and merchant navy, Maria stayed in the Costa house in Paradiso, ‘devoid of the burden of prosperity’, having received, by one of life’s strange fancies, the gift of poetry instead. Since we lived opposite to her, on the side of the road further from the shore, it only took a seaward peep from our balcony to catch her busying herself with the washing in the courtyard. An activity which she carried out with the utmost elegance, leaning onto the tub in a guise not unlike that of men intent on pulling up fishing nets.

Maria Costa portrayed in her house in front of one of her poems (Photo courtesy of

As the years went on, Paradiso lost much of its fisherfolk while modernity bulldozered in with its customary exuberance: cars, houses, restaurants and even a gas station begun to displace fishing boats and paraphernalia, the old bakery and the carpentry workshops. Times had changed and yet, there she was: gallantly going about her chores, at daggers drawn with the unwelcome novelties, Maria held on to the historical memory of the village, hoping it would live on in her poems. By virtue of her standing physically between us and the sea, she came to personify some sort of intermediary with the water, whose secrets she must have been either initiated to before she was even born or entrusted with, once she landed in this world to find herself surrounded by fishermen both within and without the boundaries of her abode. Oftentimes, I would purposely walk past her house to be intercepted by her syren-like cry and flamboyant gestures : “Tommaso, come!”.

Maria composed most of her poetry in Sicilian dialect which, especially when she recited it, seemed to add to the lyrical solemnity of the topics, unfailingly revolving around the sea. Sometimes she sang her verses to me. I simply stood in awe as she told of the landing of corsairs or of local sailors caught up in a mighty storm off the Bay of Biscay, each time unable to fully grasp my good fortune of being neighbour to such an extraordinary personality. She never married. “I married poetry”, she said to me once, half in earnest, half in jest. Before she passed away in 2016, Maria had been inscribed on UNESCO’s Sicilian Intangible Heritage List and left behind her an aura of myth destined to remain unmatched.

3. Human standards of an impressive kind

Of all the memories of my encounters with Maria Costa, there is a single one that I hold particularly dear: a recurring utterance of hers which I will never forget. Either at the peak of a bout of lyrical fervour, or simply upon catching sight of me in the distance, she used to squeeze her eyes into a severe frown and with a summoning gesture admonished me: “Son! Remember: civilization comes from the sea!”. As if I was not fascinated enough with the water already, the portentous force attached to this pronouncement by her display of emotion proved impossible to shake off. What could it mean?

It evoked images of the first greek contingents who, impressed with the natural sickle-shaped harbour, established a first settlement which was to become the city of Messina. The greeks, romans, byzantines, arabs, normans, spaniards all took turns at ruling this thriving port where John of Austria chose to assemble the Holy League’s fleet, before leading it to victory over the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Saint Ignatius funded here the first Jesuit college in the world in 1548, where I attended elementary school some 450 years later. Certainly all this is not without meaning, seemed to be saying Maria Costa, for the sea had been the bearer of that civilization and of those ‘human standards’ of which we are still the legatees.

The Comandante Cappellini closes in to tow the liferaft with the crew of the Kabalo.

In my view, nothing conveys the sense of connection between the sea and the ‘human standards’ inherited from the ‘splendid civilization’ of the past by us sicilians than the story of Salvatore Todaro. Born in Messina just months before it was wrecked by the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Europe by number of victims, Todaro served as lieutenant commander on submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. On the night of the 14th of October 1942, Todaro, aboard the italian submarine Comandante Cappellini, spotted and sank the 5,051-ton armed Belgian steamship Kabalo, headed to Freeport as part of the British convoy OB.233, 700 miles west of Madera.

Having rescued five men from the sinking ship in the water, Todaro decided to tow the lifeboat with 21 more survivors to the Azores. After repeatedly breaking the tow line and given that the lifeboat kept on taking on water, his orders were that the crew of the Kabalo be taken aboard the italian submarine. The 26 men would safely be put ashore four days later on the island of Santa Maria. A similar episode occurred less than three months later, when the Cappellini sank the British armed steamer Shakespeare and Todaro managed to pull 22 of the sank ship’s crew out of the water and drop them off on one of the nearby islands of Cape Verde. His conduct attracted direct criticism from admiral Karl Dönitz, commander-in-chief of the german Navy who would become Hitler’s successor as head of State: a german captain, he claimed, would never have put his vessel in jeopardy for the sake of saving enemy lives. Todaro’s laconic reply to the admiral’s vitriolic judgement was as follows: “A german commander does not have over 2000 years of civilization behind him. I do.”

4. Civilization in the anthropocene

Surveying damage to the bow of the Volvo Open 70 in São Miguel (Azores) during a West-East North Atlantic crossing.

In late May 2012 I was some 200 miles west of the Azores, freediving under a 53ft cruiser which its owner and I were delivering from St Maarten to Croatia, trying to free the propeller by cutting across an astonishing amount of fishing line. ‘It’s the third time we have to do this … and it’s my first crossing!’ I thought to myself, for a net had already wrapped around our keel somewhere north of the BVIs and we had caught a massive line in the propeller south of Bermuda. Besides, I had seen such a disparate array of marine debris float past our boat that I was wondering whether people would believe me when I told them that I had seen more buckets, bottles, bags, boards and even what looked like a fridge than dolphins during the crossing – and I had seen a great many of those. Two years later, cruising along more or less the same waters at night at well over 20 knots on a Volvo Open 70, exhilaration sometimes subsided at the thought of hitting an object big or solid enough to cause serious damage to the hull: it is hardly surprising that, on this kind of boats, nobody ever sleeps with their heads toward the fore end of their bunk.

A view of the YCCS in Virgin Gorda from the top of a superyacht’s mast.

As I worked aboard various types of yachts I could not help noticing that even the most trafficked ports, the glamorous Caribbean ones included, lacked effective waste management schemes. I kept on wondering where the waste engine and hydraulic oil was going to go as I dropped canfuls of it into rusted oil bins on the margins of the marina. Almost every islands where I landed relied solely on fossil fuels for electricity generation. Diving the bottom of yachts in most harbours was a murky business to say the least: I was diagnosed with a staph infection twice. With virtually no natural enemies, I found lionfish thriving in Caribbean waters, threatening juvenile fish populations with their stomach’s reported ability to expand 30 their normal size after a meal. Lionfish are just one example of the danger posed by the establishment of invasive species, the cause often being improper ballast water management by ships. With all this first-hand evidence of anthropic stress to the oceans’ ecosystems I could not help thinking to myself: certainly the way we are treating the ocean, and the environment at large, does not reflect ‘human standards of an impressive kind’. We must have forgotten that civilization came from the sea, for its destruction is going largely unheeded.

Antigua, March 2014. Hunting down lionfish during a dive off Windward Bay.

Such were the thoughts I entertained as I decided to jump off yachts to pursue studies and work in the field of sustainability and renewable energy. I joined a big multinational company at its Latin American headquarters in Mexico City, and learned heaps about wind turbines and energy auctions. In the long run, I also learned that I was ill-suited to corporate life and in the end I took the leap by ending my contract. Upon arrival back home something odd happened: for the first time in the last decade, I started looking at my place of birth as a place of opportunity rather than one where people will never grow out of a thuggery hardly befitting a legatee of civilization. I suddenly realised that, with a little personal initiative, I could do a lot more than I had ever conceived: I was eager to go out and engage people in my home island, to show them that change must come from each and every one of them, and that Sicily should not lag behind at a time when the transition to a more sustainable world seems to be climbing to the top of political agendas. The challenge was on.

5. A Journey through Sicily

Though blessed by a virtually endless number of natural and cultural riches resulting from a remarkable brew of geographical position and historical vicissitudes, life in Sicily may not be so enchanting. The persistence of an anachronistic, pervasive, mafia-like kind of nepotism and the penetration of this culture at all levels of public administration have been not only a threat to the rule of law but also a hindrance to the development of a healthy civil society. Worst of all, a permanent human hemorrhage amongst its young population is depriving Sicily of a much needed potential for positive change. It is almost inevitable that the zeitgeist should be one of pessimism and resignation, the hopelessness of real change having famously been sanctioned by the ever-so-relevant line in the 1958 novel ‘The Leopard’: “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. Against this backdrop, I was tasked with finding a way to inspire sicilians to look afresh at the beauty of their own surroundings, to recognise the untapped opportunities lying dormient as the island seems to be held hostage in social immobilism and set adrift toward environmental disruption. To do so, I joined forces with professional photographer and influencer Marco Crupi, with whom I could leverage on a lasting friendship and commonality of views.

A training day in view of our 2600 km Journey.

By reenacting a small-scale Grand Tour of the kind intellectuals embarked on in the past, we planned a 2600km round-the-island cycling trip with the twofold ambition of exposing its hidden treasures, its most iconic personalities and their most enriching stories and of introducing the idea that it is in the interest of every sicilian to do their utmost to preserve their unique and endangered heritage, both cultural and natural. That is why we chose to complete our journey in a carbon-neutral way, by bicycle and with solar panels to charge our electronic devices, carrying no disposable plastic, to denounce illegal waste dumping sites, to include in our photographs and interviews dozens of people who made sustainable practices and heritage protection the very essence of their associative or entrepreneurial endeavours. This we planned to achieve also by partnering with the Slow Food Foundation, born in 1989 “to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us”. Our itinerary included all of their sicilian ‘Presidia’: traditional products, made with traditional processing methods, using raw materials which derive from indigenous plant varieties or animal species. The latter’s survival is threatened by the lack of recognition of their real market value but is crucial for the sustainability of local ecosystems.

It was inevitable that, though the Journey was going to take place on land, I had to bring the sea into the picture, along with Maria Costa’s memento. The opportunity presented itself when we were invited to present our project at a Slow Food event in Salina, one of the Aeolian Islands. The islands are an idyllic place. I had frequently sailed there on summer cruises and had spent my first nights at sea, beneath the starry vault and with Stromboli snorting and letting out its bright orange puffs lower on the horizon. I took the initiative of crossing the 3-nautical-miles stretch between the island of Lipari to Salina by stand-up paddle, a practice growin in popularity but perhaps more common in the South Pacific. After a gnarly crossing in a breeze which picked up to over 15 knots, I gave a talk upon arrival detailing the reasons why our Journey was going to touch upon issues which equally affected life on land and underwater. The following day, cruising along the Bay of Pollara, I recovered enough plastic debris to fill up the fore end of the board and I struggled to keep it from being washed back into the sea. I took it with me onboard a boat carrying over 50 guests of the Slow Food festival and gave the first of what would be a long series of talks during our Journey, explaining how the health of our oceans is essential for terrestrial ecosystems. In fact, I claimed, I still found it bizarre that we called this planet Earth when almost three quarters of its surface are covered by water.

A piece of Mare Vivo’s Marine Litter Art exhibition in Eraclea Minoa.

On World Oceans Day 2017, when our Journey was already under way, we officially committed to raising awareness of issues related to ocean conservation both during and after our trip. We did this by showing how the lack of widespread engagement of coastal communities with such issues, the scarce penetration of information campaigns in schools, the pitiful state of waste collection and recycling schemes, the abundance of illegal waste dumping sites (where most of what we found was perfectly recyclable material), as well as the lack of maintenance and routine ‘malfunction’ of wastewater treatment plants posed a severe and continuous threat to our marine ecosystems. We caught up with several organizations like the WWF in Trapani and Mare Vivo, an organization which runs activities such as beach cleanups and student camps on a regular basis, at their centre in Eraclea Minoa, on the southwestern coast of Sicily. We shared photos of their first Marine Litter Art contest, which has become a permanent exhibition in a corner of the stone pine woods by Eraclea Minoa’s beach burnt in a fire last year. By the end of our Journey we had made the papers for our denouncement of plastic pollution, most notably in the Alcantara Gorges natural reserve. More importantly, we had received support from thousands of followers for having given them the chance to look at Sicily through loving eyes, with a smile and an inspiring message always apparent in our photographs and interviews throughout our itinerary. The ‘Bicycle Diaries’, as the local press nicknamed our project, had hit their target.

6. Speaking to people where they are

I loved the thrill of competitive and offshore sailing. It puts one to the test in a number of ways unimaginable for the uninitiated. As the bow pointed away from land, I knew what lied ahead. The Untried, the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored: the “ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures” (H. Melville). My innate, relentless thoughtfulness found respite amidst the vast ocean prairies. Though we should refrain from considering a quasi-mystical view of the sea as an apanage of sailors alone. From Inuit to Hindus, different cultures have sacralized the watery element, making its cathartic, regenerative features an article of faith: the sea, the greek tragedian Euripides famously wrote, can wash away all evils. It is disconcerting at best how, in the midst of its delusionary ramble about progress, the modern world should finally come to the realization that the ocean cannot continue to serve as an endless pit. How much longer will we have to wait until this realisation takes hold?

When I stepped out of the yachting scene, it was largely because I felt there was still work that I could undertake which would be of some use. Tackling climate change and pollution, protecting entire ecosystems from obliteration, ending poverty and hunger, fostering social justice, transitioning to sustainable production and consumption patterns: it indeed looks as though much remains to be done. Or are these all just golden dreams? Joseph Conrad once warned that action is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. In fact, years after writing my final dissertation in philosophy on the irrationality of the modern, I still cannot tell whether a humanist faith in the project of a better society betrays a substantial ignorance of human nature and history. But as much as steering our boat away from land and its evils can feel liberating, there might only be limited promise in the voyage. However bleak our judgement of mankind’s moral history, the opportunity cost of indifference and inaction today is far too high.

My impression is that, if the challenges posed by the current state of affairs are to be addressed effectively, an informed feeling of urgency needs to leak through all levels of society. Almost two centuries after Marx, we need a new ‘consciousness’, this time not to overthrow the capitalist world order but to mobilise concerted efforts towards structural changes in our economies. I suspect technological innovation and a top-down institutional approach will be a necessary but insufficient condition for those changes to take place. In that respect, I think the way our Journey through Sicily pierced through the wall of obliviousness of many disillusioned sicilians taught us an important lesson. Our plea for the adoption of more sustainable living practices was heard because it went hand in hand with the recognition of our immensely precious heritage, both tangible and intangible, as sicilians. Our many encounters with other virtuous, credible and committed sicilians – including activists, entrepreneurs, artists, artisans of various kinds, meant that people could not only identify with our mission but also with the community we were gathering around it.

Ultimately, the unfeigned love of our home island which urged us on regardless of the heat and the gruelling climbs stroke a chord with people’s deepest sense of belonging. If there is a lesson to be learnt from our frugal Grand Tour, then it must be that, as Paul Kingsnorth wrote in an article for The Guardian, “any attempt to protect nature from the worst human depredation has to speak to people where they are. It has to make us all feel that the natural world, the non-human realm, is not an obstacle in the way of our progress but a part of our community that we should nurture; a part of our birthright. In other words, we need to tie our ecological identity in with our cultural identity”. My own deepest sense of belonging is still rooted in the love of those places where the scinnenti and muntanti currents engage in a perennial quarrel. There, striding past Maria Costa’s house, I can still see her waving at me and hear her admonishment as if she had never left us: “Son!” she would summon me, “do you remember where civilization came from?”. And upon hearing my story, I imagine she would speculate that it was the sea itself which pushed me back ashore, like a pomice gone astray, to vindicate those human values which shine through the conduct of Salvatore Todaro and which give us hope that a better world is possible after all.