Memories on lahar land

Apart from the deaths and the huge losses in property, the Pinatubo lahar’s greatest impact on the people of Pampanga has been the defamiliarization of the landscape.  The landmarks we knew as children — the old houses, the majestic trees, the placid rivers, the stolid churches and the abundant markets —  are all gone, erased by the lahar.

The lahar has made the boundaries between towns irrelevant.  These old riverine settlements, many still bearing the imprint of the colonial plaza complex,  are slowly being engulfed by the seasonal avalanche of lahar. Nature is reclaiming  space, totally unmindful of the meanings and memories that have been  nurtured by generations of settlers on this land.

The other day, I joined media people who were invited to witness the blasting of illegal fishponds on the Guagua-Pasac river.  These structures were perceived to be impeding the flow of lahar and floodwaters from the interior towns to the sea.  My main interest was not so much  the blasting event itself, which I expected to be largely ceremonial, but rather the chance to view the province of my childhood from a helicopter.

The experience was awesome.  Mount Arayat, Pampanga’s solitary mountain, stood impassive in the horizon, isolated by the deadly vomit of a hitherto anonymous volcano.  The Pasig-Potrero river, the major vein running through these once verdant plains, has been displaced from its original path and is now closer to San Fernando.  It has cut deep into the archaeological layers of previous lahar deposits, including those from an early explosion hundreds of years ago, and re-deployed these further to the southern towns.

From the air, Bacolor seemed like a vast tomb of white sand.  The remaining rooftops of houses and the crowns of ancient trees appeared like debris on a shapeless landscape.  None of its streets nor any stretch of the old MacArthur highway  was visible.  The lahar loomed everywhere.  For now, it seemed headed South,  towards Minalin and Santo Tomas.   The rains and the floodwaters have transformed these towns  into swamplands, rendering them practically unlivable even before the lahar has actually come.

East of Bacolor, lying uneasily beside the old path of the Pasig-Potrero river, was our town Betis.  From the chopper, I could make out the dome of the historic church and the roof of the old elementary school where I studied.  This threatened community, an integral part of the municipality of Guagua, stood from the greyish desert of lahar like an emerald singled out by the sun.  Later I realized that it wasn’t so much the trees but the stagnant water that supplied the sparkling green to that canvas.

The river that circled this picturesque village is now clogged with lahar. With every typhoon, Betis drowns slowly in floodwater.  But to its residents, this is a fate immensely preferable to being entombed by tons of mud.   For now the village  seems safe from the immediate peril of lahar.  The uneasy Pasig-Potrero  has snaked its way east towards San Fernando, rendering the capital town’s misfortune our own momentary salvation.

When the lahar made its first devastating appearance in Bacolor sometime in 1992,   the pious community of Betis called on its patron saint Apung Tiago (Saint James)  to do everything to save the town.  But we knew that the lahar had to come down sooner or later, and that some of these  communities, all equally protected by their favorite saints, would be erased from the map.

Santa Barbara and San Vicente in Bacolor were the first to go.  Santo Tomas has been evacuated.  And San Fernando is seriously threatened. In Betis itself, the lahar is evident in San Miguel and Santa Ines.  It may also come via San Juan Nepomuceno.  The distribution of the tragedy has had nothing to do with the imagined uneven closeness of the saints to heaven.  The lahar has behaved with consistent indifference to our collective piety.

The calamities that have visited Central Luzon may seem biblical in their proportions: a volcanic eruption, killer floods, steaming mud flows, locust infestations, and powerful earthquakes.  Especially because we are approaching the end of a century, these events will no doubt trigger the formation of all kinds of apocalyptic cults.  They are nothing but expressions of the quest for meaning in a world in which human accomplishments seem so insignificant beside Nature’s own actions.

Yet Nature’s way carries no intrinsic meaning.  It is we who snatch meanings from  life’s fluent outpouring.  We may often attempt to prolong the life span of these meanings or fix them in monuments to  our culture’s egoism, but Nature will efface them in time. In geological time, the meanings that allow us to move in familiar surroundings are nothing but limited ephemeral maps in a landscape that is constantly changing. And the wonder of it all is that there is really nothing personal about all this.  Nature is not trying to punish anyone.

A recognition of Nature’s brutal indifference to memories may offer little consolation to the communities whose lives have been overturned by its will.  But we can spare ourselves the further pain of emotional victimization by refusing to believe that these natural catastrophes are manifestations of God’s wrath.  Such a view would immobilize and consume us in fits of self-lacerating remorse, at a time when it seems more important to imagine what new lives we can build upon this now elevated land.


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