Legacy and legend, and a volcanic prawn

“There were two desperate times. Two strong eruptions … the first was the one that most scared us. Because we had not seen this type of eruption. Only … we were already used to it. I believe the volcano was already erupting since when I was born. But it only bathed itself in fire, just like that, how beautiful the volcano was! One could walk – there was no electricity here, no public lighting, nothing, nothing, only candles in the little houses – but here one could walk by the light of the volcano. In a red light by which one could be playing in the darkness, in the light of the volcano.”

Joan Didion told us, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. To live happily through telling a fond memory is one thing, to relive a painful memory quite another. Why is it important for us to tell stories about a volcanic disaster?

Since October 2021, I have been working with older people who live around Volcán de Fuego in southern Guatemala to gather their stories of eruptions from the 1960s and 1970s. Their tales are of terrible nature intruding on paradise, of a peaceful and prosperous community turned to ashes by the force of fire. I am fascinated by the stories and humbled by the generosity of the people sharing them. But in their telling, I have sensed so many strong emotions. Faces are lit up in fear, voices raised in anger. Sometimes I ask myself whether I should ask people to share these memories when all they seem to bring up is bad news. But a voice inside insists I press on, and I want to know why.

Let’s travel back to what inspired this research. Volcán de Fuego erupted in October 1974 for about two weeks, throwing ash and pyroclastic flows over its southwest slopes. I have been intrigued by this eruption for a long time. The internet has a lot of scientific knowledge available, but most of it focusses on the geochemistry and chronology of the eruption. Certainly those are interesting – but what about the impacts? If the eruption really was that big, where are the articles on the emergency response, of damage to crops, of roofs bowed or caved in by ash? The academic library did not provide enough answers.

Pyroclastic flows descending Fuego’s slopes in October 1974. From Wikipedia.

However, I thought back to three years ago, when I first gathered stories from people at Fuego. That project was not focussed on 1974. But it provided one of my most vivid memories, as I listened to a man in his 60s describe an eruption from around that time. We sat beside his cod pond, and the water rippled as the trees gently painted shade against the blue sky. Meanwhile he spoke of sulphur and brimstone. He was 12 and playing marbles, when the air turned black and a mushroom cloud bubbled over him. It was, far and away, the most compelling story of Fuego I had heard. I can still bring it to mind now, every sensation, the scent, the sound, the look of the earth under his feet. He told me a story in order that I could live it. And it impressed on me the force of sharing experience for community preparedness more forcefully than any formal DRR document has. I’ll have to share the whole account another time …

“We were playing marbles when it made the rumble. And it rose like a mushroom, a huge bubble, and it scattered.”

I thought he was describing October 1974, so I set out to discover more about it. One of the communities I chose to visit is called Panimaché Dos (described in my previous post). I’m lucky to count several people there amongst my friends, and many neighbours were willing to talk to me. But what I did not expect is that their memories of October 1974 pales in comparison with April 1967. That eruption, the first of three where arena fell, seems to be the one that did most damage to the village. At the top of the page, we hear the words of a man who remembered Panimaché Dos before April 1967. This is how it appeared after:

“So when the large sand fell, then it was hard for us … since this eruption, our village was destroyed. Ever since, we have not seen the earth to place our feet on, but instead can only walk on sand.”

And here is another story, from an elderly man in Morelia:

“There was an eruption … I was already old. I was 35. … In those times, I was an evangelical, of the church of San Adotrina. In the village of Panimaché Dos was where they had the church services. And they served food. There the people were, with the food bubbling in the pots, when the volcano went BOOM!. … And I was going to Panimaché, I was still halfway there, when – POW! POW! The arena fell, and I raised my hands against it, and into them fell – a prawn. Yes, a prawn. Is it true that the volcano is connected to the sea?”

As an aside, this second tale reminds me of a fantastic anecdote a friend recently told me:

A European artist of the Surrealism movement travels to Central America to paint and to publicize the movement there. He moves to a quiet town in Mexico. One day he is driving along the road behind two cars: a truck full of cows at the head, and a small car between head and him. Suddenly, the back of the truck bursts open and the cattle fall out, flattening completely the small car and its occupants. The truck driver emerges, flourishes his hat in dismay, and cries, “Not again!”.

The artist realizes that he does not have to bring Surrealism to Latin America: it is already an expert.

Returning to the subject of Fuego’s eruptions, I am astounded that August 1967 does not appear prominently either in the academic literature or in reliable databases such as the GVP. But it was REALLY BIG! It destroyed panaderías and trapiches – it altered a landscape – it even reordered communities, as the title of Panimaché Uno changed hands.

A draft illustration of how April 1967 changed the landscape around Fuego, as some of the Panimaché villages were destroyed or abandoned and others repopulated.

I think of that quote by Maya Angelou, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you”. When I spoke to people who remembered 1967, I was surprised by how their stories ran hot and raw. It seems to me a collective trauma of which the witnesses have not spoken enough, or where they have it has not been well received. Perhaps the story is hard to hear precisely because the emotions are strong: they can enchant ordinary objects; for instance, a low wall at the village entrance. Before the stories it’s a distant reminder of a forgotten eruption. Afterwards, it’s a poignant symbol of an irrevocable change to this landscape. As I leave the village I have to record my own voicenote to capture the feelings I’ve newly absorbed.

A different low wall above Panimaché Dos.

It appears I’m wrong. I originally came here to study the impacts of the October 1974 eruption, and found something bigger. Perhaps writing a grant to investigate 1974 over-eggs an already eggy pudding (where Fuego is the pudding, and 1974 the eggs). Anyway, it’s good to be wrong! I frequently am here. I remember that three years ago, I started interviews fully expecting locals to tell me about their ‘perceptions of risk’ of Fuego, and have a perfect chronology of its eruptions. (Guess how that went!) Being wrong means being adaptable and open-minded, because that’s the scientific process. See:

An excerpt from Rebecca Elson’s essay at the back of the exquisite “A Responsibility To Awe” on the scientific process.

In all this rambling, I haven’t really answered my original question. Why is it important that we tell stories of volcanic eruptions? What good does it do to dig up these memories? I have three answers. First, because the accessible historical record of Fuego’s eruptions does not reflect the reality of these people’s experience, and for it not to do so is, in my opinion, an injustice. (“… the ultimate truth is that history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it.”). Second, because the telling of a traumatic story may allow an individual make sense of an experience, and perhaps my interest helps someone to make sense. Finally, because perhaps the understanding of a disaster through its retelling allows acceptance of the natural source of hazard and therefore an acknowledgement of the danger in the future. I’ll give it to another villager to express:

“[1967] is how it can happen now, again. The young men, women, in these days the volcano is rumbling – they pay it no attention. But when they see that big rocks are falling, that’s going to be a trial, right? … So – I am interested in this being recorded, so the children, from here onwards, they know, they have an idea of what happened to us and what will happen to them, in the future when we are not here, the same is going to happen to them.”

Once again, I am hugely grateful to the Jeremy Willson Charitable Trust and their generous sponsorship of my research through the Geological Society. Thanks for your support!

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