Every summer there are days so hot that the mind slows. The fields turn to dry grass and dust; the towns are empty for hours on end; the light slants and turns everything yellow. Sometimes a breeze comes in off the ocean that makes the day bearable. But other times a hot wind blows in from Africa that burns the fruit on the very branches where they grow. Those are the days when everyone’s eyes are turned toward the horizon, on the watch for billowing smoke.
Each year thousands of acres of forest and farmland are destroyed by arson in Sardinia. In 2014, it had the dubious honor of being the region in Italy with the most fires for that year. By August 10, 1539 fires had been recorded, while the Number 2 region (Sicily) had registered only 236. The final count of fires for 2014 was 2590, more than seven fires per each day of the year. Almost all of these fires take place in July and August when the temperatures are soaring and there has been no rain for weeks.
We can all understand the temptation of fire, the fascination with its power, the attraction to danger. But that is only part of this story. Though arsonists exist everywhere, they are not usually this frequent. In Sardinia, the stories and legacies of bandits are legend. For centuries, fire was a weapon and a tool. Vengeance was working things out. Sardinian banditry, like the Silician mafia, was formed from the best and the worst of the surrounding culture - loyalty, intolerance, justice in the hands of the people. In August, 2013, a 75 year-old man was found guilty of having set a fire that burned over 6000 acres in three counties. He started the fire in a field near town over inheritance issues.
And if the story finished here, perhaps it would be a fascinating anthropological conundrum: is it wrong to hold an ancient culture to modern mores? But then there's this: in 2007, a 42 year old unemployed man was arrested near Pula after having set four fires in two days. In 2009, a 44 year old unemployed man was given 4 years of jail time for having set over 60 fires in the area of Villacidro. In 2014, a 46 year old unemployed serial arsonist was arrested for having set over 30 fires on the island of Sant’Antioco. Unemployed, unemployed, unemployed. This is not cultural history. This is contemporary; this is desperation. Until there is attention to the economic and cultural anguish of the island, Sardinia will be forced to spend every winter with an eye towards blackened, scorched fields, straining to see the green buds.