Monsoons and an American soldier

From the many that are mass-distributed and forwarded via the Internet, one e-mail landed in my inbox which referred to the torrential rains that fell on much of western Luzon and the Visayas in the past few days as God’s way of telling us that we are making a horrible mistake in pushing for the passage of the Reproductive Health bill. This is bound to happen: people making preposterous connections between unrelated events in order to bolster their convictions. They will read moral judgments in Nature’s ways, even if this means perpetuating a religion based on ignorance and fear, rather than on love, discernment, and hope.

One doesn’t need to be a meteorologist to know that the monsoon rains have nothing to do with the debate on reproductive health. These cyclical winds come to our shores every year, thank God, to dissipate the summer heat and to irrigate our parched agricultural lands. No one is punishing anyone by these rains. On the contrary, Nature seems kinder this time—if at all one must ascribe to it human traits. It has brought life-giving water without the severe storms that usually accompany these seasonal southwesterly winds. One can’t help noticing that our weather people seem hard-pressed to find a name for this phenomenon, so used are they to assigning labels to typhoons, but not to windless continuous rain.

It is perhaps not an accident that the English word “monsoon” (habagat in Filipino) which was first used in British India to refer to the rainy phase of “a seasonal reversing wind,” is taken from the vocabulary of the seafaring Portuguese (monçao) and early modern Dutch (monsun). For, this big seasonal wind originates from the oceans, carrying moisture, and blows toward warmer landmass, where it produces rain. Farmers in the Indian subcontinent are dependent on these monsoons which are known to account for about 80 percent of the rainfall there.

The duration and intensity of these monsoons vary from year to year. Sometimes they come early, at other times they are late. Sometimes they bring large amounts of rain that seem never to end (siyam-siyam in Kapampangan); at other times they become harbingers of drought. These variations can often spell the difference between famine and a good harvest, and between a beneficial precipitation that irrigates farms and a torrential rain that produces killer floods.

Just as there are people in the world who have never seen or felt snow, so are there people who have never experienced monsoon rains. By coincidence, while the current monsoons pounded our part of the country, I was reading a book based on the diary of an American soldier from Philadelphia who came to our islands in 1898, originally to fight the Spanish forces but later to suppress the Filipino war of independence. The book, titled “The Fighting Tenth,” is authored by Dennis Edward Flake, and is published by the Center for Kapampangan Studies of the Holy Angel University.

The cryptic entries in Private John Henry Asendorf’s journal read like weather reports. The local monsoon rains alternating with the humid tropical heat bothered him and his fellow soldiers more than the war itself. The intractable climate assaulted them from the moment they disembarked from the Zealandia on July 22, 1898, until about early November of that year.

Private Asendorf woke up to a “lovely morning” on Sunday, July 24th, their first day on land, “but before dinner the rain began to pour down, and the natives tell us that it will rain steady this way for 5 or 6 weeks…” The following day, he notes: “It has rained all night and most of us had to lie in 2 to 3 inch of water all night. Many of our ‘dog tents’ blew down during the night, and so in the morning most of us went out to get bamboo to make some kind of a bed so we can keep dry. It rains constantly our Camp is at present more fit to bathe in than to sleep in it. It is a wonder we are not all sick.”

Born in Germany, Asendorf had migrated with his family to the United States when he was 16. He could write, but his English wasn’t that good yet. (Instead of marking his errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar with [sic]s, I have taken the liberty of repairing the egregious ones to make the text more readable.)

His diary for Aug. 27, 1898, his 35th birthday, begins with an acknowledgement of good weather. “Weather is pretty. We had a nice shower during the night which settled the dust nicely. This being my birthday, I had an invitation from my German friend to supper with him, which I indeed enjoyed. He also gave me one box of his best cigars.”

After fighting two wars, the Tenth Pennsylvania Volunteers, to which Asendorf belonged, ended their tour of duty on July 1, 1899. It was a Saturday. “The weather is fine and everyone is in good spirits. At 1 p.m. we raised anchor and sailed 10 minutes later…. As soon as we left the Bay, the sea got very rough and before supper time most of the boys were already sea sick of course.”

It would have been impossible for even the best writer to produce a whole book from weather notes. Indeed, Asendorf’s diary dealt with other things, but, as one reads it, one cannot help but marvel at the way this American soldier kept track of the local weather, almost as if it was the very representation of the Filipino native that America tried to alternately befriend and subdue.

Anyone can become fixated with the weather to the point of imagining it has motives of its own. “The most terrifying fact about the universe,” says the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, “is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent.”