Volcanic might | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Volcanic might

/ 05:05 AM January 17, 2020

Earth, wind, water and fire” best describes why the Philippines ranks third in the world when it comes to disaster risk.

We are battered by wind and water with typhoons—so many each year that we run through the entire alphabet for their names.


The earth moves, too, every day without our knowing it, except when the tectonic plates deep in the earth clash to produce destructive earthquakes.

Then we have the volcanoes, which actually involve earth, wind, water and fire, their eruptions accompanied by earthquakes, whirlwinds, rains (water and ash) and tsunamis, and, finally, fiery magma and lava flows, complete with almost theatrical lightning.


The volcanoes of Indonesia and the Philippines erupt with so much force that they affect the entire planet. The 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia killed thousands instantly, but many more lives were claimed in the years that followed because the volcanic ash in the atmosphere drastically changed the weather by blocking solar radiation for about three years, causing crop failures and famine in China.

In Europe and North America, the year 1816 was described as one without a summer. It was in that bleak and cold weather induced by Tambora’s ire that Mary Shelley wrote a book published in 1818 with the title “Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus”—Prometheus being the Greek god of fire.

Our own Pinatubo eruption in 1991 devastated Central Luzon, closed down the US military bases and made lahar a Filipino word. Pinatubo also sent out a cloud of sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, cooling the planet and, somewhat romantically, changing the color of sunrises and sunsets for several years. (Indonesia’s Krakatoa, which erupted in 1883, was said to have made the moon appear blue and green because of the gases it sent into the stratosphere.)

An article in the Baltimore Sun by Douglas Birch, titled “Mount Pinatubo is painting sunsets of a different color,” started out: “Using a highly corrosive acid as pigment, a dreamy impressionist style and a canvas as sweeping as the horizon, the Philippine volcano has begun painting North American sunrises and sunsets in shell pinks, brilliant reds and luminous blues.” Birch added that the “one-volcano show” was expected to continue for the “next several years.” Birch was referring to the chemicals, mainly sulfur, sent out by Pinatubo that drifted across the world and into the northern hemisphere.

Our natural environments shape the way we look at life. With so many people living in the shadow of volcanoes, we can see why our psyche has a strong element of risk-taking, even adventurism. Farming communities are especially drawn to volcanoes and the fertile soils they provide. When the volcanoes erupt, people will stay on, reluctant to leave their lands, crops and livestock and thinking, when it’s time to go, there will be time.

I see a shared risk-taking ethos with our fellow volcanic travelers, the Indonesians, in our road behavior. It’s not just reckless driving; Jakarta is worse than Manila. During one of my first trips to Indonesia, I was looking for an overpass to cross a busy six-lane highway. Suddenly my companion, a professor, grabbed my hand and shouted, “Run!” And run we did.

We “see” volcanoes everywhere, exemplified by a lovely little bugtong or riddle: “Bukol na mainit-init pa, parang bulkang sasabog siya (With a smoldering head, like a volcano about to erupt).” I’ll give you the answer to the riddle at the end of the article.


I laughed reading “bukol na mainit-init pa,” because it evoked bukol’s other meaning, with sex and gender connotations. (No, not pan de sal, which as far as I know has no sexual meanings.)

Volcanoes are actually androgynous, shuttling between male and female. When volcanoes go through restless stirrings, they evoke the female “tampo,” a subdued but powerful silence to signal displeasure, but still subdued until the anger spills over, the tampo giving way to male fire and fury.

Think of our words for the cataclysmic eruption: pumutok, sumabog, and how they are used as well in sex, making the English counterpart words sound puny and anemic. To be explicit, I tell my English-speaking friends: You come, we erupt.

Did you guess the answer to the riddle?

See the difference again in cultures. The answer in English is a boil. We can laugh out loud and tease English speakers: “You see a boil; we see a small but mighty volcano.”

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TAGS: Modern Prometheus, Philippine volcanoes, Taal Volcano
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