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‘The Mysteries of Taal’

/ 05:07 AM January 16, 2020

“We left the town (of Taal), fleeing from this living picture of Sodom, with incessant fear lest the raging waters of the lake overtake us, which were… invading the main part of town, sweeping away everything which they encountered… The worst… the lake is rising and invading the towns of Lipa and Tanauan, both being on the lowest level, and inundating their buildings.” —Fr. Francisco Bencuchillo, 28 November to early December, 1754.

That’s a quote from the book “The Mysteries of Taal” by Thomas R. Hargrove (Bookmark, 1991), which has the subtitle “A Philippine volcano and lake, her sea life and lost towns.” On the cover is a reproduction of an undated beautiful woodcut, probably 17th or 18 century, of the main crater of Taal volcano as provided by Caroline Nielsen to Hargrove. The book was published the year Mt. Pinatubo erupted after 600 years of dormancy and laid in ruins huge parts of Central Luzon and sent ashfalls across the ocean to as far as neighboring countries.

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We are an archipelago dotted with so many active volcanoes.

I sometimes wonder how it would be if or when Mt. Hibok-hibok in Camiguin Island (famous for its lanzones and hots springs) in Mindanao erupts. The island, I am told, is the entire volcano. I had been there as I had been on the Taal volcano island.

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I write this piece three days after Taal volcano in Batangas erupted last Sunday, Jan. 12, almost without warning, sending ashfall to as far as Metro Manila and thickly blanketing surrounding towns with gray. The cost in human suffering of the farming islanders and the inhabitants of the lakeside towns cannot be estimated. Add to that animal suffering and death, as well as environmental destruction. No loss of human lives reported.

Hargrove’s book came about because of “a legend” or tale he had heard about “a Spanish-era church and town that sank into the lake … during a volcanic eruption ‘long ago.’” The story intrigued him, so he decided to do dives and check it out. That was in the 1980s.

To make a long story short, that initial interest and “fascination with Taal lore … and the mysterious and lethal history of Taal” (as professor of history Isagani R. Medina said in his foreword) progressed into more visits and research not just of the historical kind but also cultural and scientific, even psychic. Thomas R. Hargrove, Ph.D., an American, was, at that time, working with the International Rice Research Institute.

Hargrove begins thus: “She is like a beautiful and hauntingly mysterious woman… but a jealous and vengeful lady whose wrath makes her all the more sensual. Lake Taal has her secrets and her underwater ghost towns—but she makes you earn the right to share them. The untamed lake can darken her waters, like her past.

“But once you know her, Lake Taal can be seductive beyond escape. Believe me … when I first penetrated Taal’s waters, she drew me under her spell. Our affair has always been murky and passionate, often treacherous, sometimes dangerous, but never dull.”

May I interrupt by saying that in grade school we had to memorize what Taal volcano is all about: “A volcano in an island in a lake in an island in a lake.”

That whole postcard of a scene is in Batangas province, and we remember how multi-awarded actress and former Batangas governor Vilma Santos wanted to put the huge letters B-A-T-A-N-G-A-S a la Hollywood, jealously owning it and to make tourists realize where it is, that it is not in Tagaytay City in Cavite province where the view of it is breathtaking. (The spoofs and laughs it elicited!) I still swear that the best Tagaytay view of it is from the Good Shepherd Sisters’ Maryridge.

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After archival and archaeological research, Hargrove found an answer to the question why the present-day historical town of Taal (which, unlike lakeside towns, is rarely mentioned in relation to this recent eruption) after which the lake is supposedly named, is not near Taal lake. Well, there was an original Taal lakeside town that, as mystery goes, is no more.

Hargrove’s book (with photographs and ancient maps) is an engaging read, full of revealed secrets.

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