Volcanic landscapes, memory, and meaning

Taal Volcano, which has been showing signs of an imminent eruption after spewing a huge column of stones, ash, and sulphuric steam last Sunday, and Mount Pinatubo, which in 1991 produced the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century, are a study in contrast.

Taal is one of the two (the other being majestic Mayon Volcano) best known and most keenly watched volcanoes in the country. By comparison, Pinatubo was hardly known before its eruption in 1991, except to the Aeta, the indigenous people who thrived on its gentle slopes.

Taal is a tourist attraction, regularly drawing visitors to the Tagaytay ridge from where the most scenic views of Taal Lake and the volcano island at its center can be had. For all its destructive power, or perhaps because of it, Pinatubo remains a low-lying volcano, scarcely visible to people who come to see it, unless they trek across a landscape of lahar into its navel.

It is difficult to imagine how much of the landscape we populate, on which we build settlements and create economies that support the basic foundations of our culture and civilization, is due to the action of volcanoes. A website on volcanoes run by the University of  Wisconsin puts it this way: “Volcanism is the rule rather than the exception: About 80 percent of Earth’s surface—seafloor and land—originated as a flow of molten rock from deep inside earth.”

Perhaps a good way to recover a vision of this simultaneously destructive and creative process (that the passage of time promptly erases from collective memory) is to stand on a ridge overlooking a lake or a forest. Without being aware of it, you might actually be standing on the edge of an ancient caldera — a circular depression on the earth’s surface created millions or billions of years ago when a volcano’s magma chamber exploded and blew out the entire mountain above it. In a sense, this is the story behind the geological formation surrounding Taal.

The fire and the heat, the pyroclastic material and molten rocks, released by a volcanic eruption, could sterilize the surrounding land on all directions for generations. Nothing will grow on this dead landscape for considerable stretches of time—until the first hardy insects and other forms of animal life start to colonize the area, burrowing beneath the lahar-covered surface to get to the bottom moisture-laden soil. Then plants slowly make their appearance on this still barren overlay, initially fed by the meager moisture from the air and then by the rains.

If one could visualize the birth of a forest from such arduous beginnings, perhaps we might be more circumspect about taking anything from Nature’s store or building on landscape that is somehow not informed by memory or something close to it. For beneath the stunning beauty of any dramatic landscape often lies the buried past of a menacing event.0

This realization was brought home to me about three years ago when I started to build a vacation house that I meant as a gift for my late wife Karina on our 50th wedding anniversary. The site on which it was to be built had a commanding view of a part of the Bataan National Park and of the coastal towns of Bataan and Pampanga whose rivers drain into Manila Bay.

My brother, the architect Nestor David, designed a structure that would be built on the eroded portion of the property, with the bedrooms and the kitchen located below ground level. In this way, he said, the house would not block the view corridor from the street, a common good that must be shared with the public.

The idea immediately appealed to me, but I did not realize the enormous difficulty and cost of constructing on a cliff without the benefit of power machines to dig and move the top layer of soil and rocks. The digging and related earthwork all had to be done by hand, using pickaxes and shovels. The idea was to reach the solid rock foundation on which the main columns of the building could stably rest.

As our workers dug into the uneven surface, they encountered thick layers of compacted ash-colored material that turned pasty when touched by water. Further down, they hit a bed of adobe that could be quarried to make a wall but did not seem hard enough to support pillars that would carry the weight of the building. When finally they reached rock bottom, they saw traces of seashells which suggested that that entire valley had once been part of the sea.

Surveying the mountain range on the other side of the property, I realized that two active volcanoes, long thought dormant—Mount Natib and Mount Pinatubo—once upon a time dumped billions of tons of molten rocks, sand and ash on where we stood, creating hills and ridges that resembled fingers connected to a volcanic landscape covered by primeval forests.

One can only shudder at the thought that all this was once open sea, and that, in some distant unimaginable future, Nature’s paroxysms will alter it once again. It is a deeply humbling thought. I became even more aware of the essential fragility of the life we create on this shifting land when my wife died a year after the house was finished. It is the only house we ever owned. When she was gone, I struggled to find meaning in having spent time, money and effort to build this house.

And so it is, I suppose, with the life we build on Earth’s volcanic landscape. We must find ways to sustain our hopes and resist the fatalism that the philosopher Nietzsche laid out so plainly in one of his essays: “There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened.”