Birth of a Volcano

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This piece was written in 2006.

One day in Michoacan, Mexico, a poor farmer named Dionisio Pulido was plowing his field for spring planting.  Suddenly the blade of his plow disappeared into a crack in the earth.  Smoke poured out of the fissure.  In Pulido’s words, “I then felt a thunder.  The trees trembled, and it was then I saw how, in the hole, the ground swelled and raised itself two or two-and-a-half meters high, and a kind of smoke or fine dust—gray, like ashes—began to rise, with a hiss or whistle, loud and continuous; and there was a smell of sulphur.  I then became greatly frightened and tried to help unyoke one of the ox teams.”

It was February 20, 1943.  On this day was born the volcano known as Paricutin.  By the next morning, the cone had reached a height of thirty feet and it grew another 120 feet during the day.  At night, Paricutin catapulted glowing rocks more than 1000 feet in the air and lava rolled out over Pulido’s cornfield. 

Over the next nine years, Paricutin continued its activity.  From the level ground of a farmer’s field, the cinder cone rose to its final height of 9.210 feet (2,808 m.)  The lava buried the town of Paricutin and partially buried the neighboring town of San Juan Parangricutiro.  When the activity ended in 1952, the lava covered about ten square miles.

Gavriel, a Purepecha native, lives near Paricutin, in the town of Ahuapan.  He was ten years old in 1943.  Now, sixty-three years later, he tells the story to my husband and me with sweeping gestures accompanied by sound effects.  “La tierra estaba temblando (The earth was shaking).  Rumba!  Arum!  Habia una nube blanca, blanca y grande—en el cielo (There was a white cloud—white and big—in the sky.)  Arum!  Arum!” 

We are standing, Gavriel, Pat, and I, on sharp black lava rocks next to the half-buried church of that once-lively town of San Juan Parangricutiro.  Gavriel, our guide and hostler, seems to tremble with remembered terror as he recounts the tale of Paricutin.  The dormant cone of the volcano, bare and slate gray, rises in the distance.  Not approachable by car, it takes 2 ½ hours by horseback to reach the foot of the volcano.  Pat and I have chosen to ride only as far as the buried church.  Gavriel points out the date on the church’s cornerstone: 1618.

At age 73, Gavriel is as spry and sure-footed as any mountain goat, leading us over and between the volcanic rocks.  Pat follows the old man and I stumble along in the rear, grasping the sharp-edged rocks that look like frozen black foam bubbles.  I gaze around me at the ominous claws of lava.  Plants have taken root since the last eruption in 1952 and the land is spotted with green.  Riding to the church I notice wild berry bushes in profusion, and an abundance of unidentified yellow flowers.  Gavriel tells us that there are snakes and lizards, coyotes and rabbits living on the land.

Soon after the eruption began in 1943, the Federales (Mexican police) came to evacuate the citizens of the two threatened towns.  Ash was burying the houses; roofs were burning; even their beloved church was succumbing to the fury of the earth.  Women covered the mouths of their children with damp cloths, packed up what belongings they could, and the families walked or rode away from Paricutin and San Juan Parangricutiro—forever.

Today all that is left of San Juan Parangricutiro is the half-buried church, its bell tower leaning at a crooked angle. 

The altar is visible and remains a place of remembrance and worship.  Newly–placed flowers, wreaths and statues stand on the mantle, now partially exposed to the elements.  Gavriel urges us to join him where he stands in the church window, a large semicircle that arches over our heads.  Below us are the two doorways, one almost filled with chunks of black rock. 

Sitting atop a pile of lava, Pat and I rest and I examine our fellow pilgrims.  A mother and daughter have made the climb in thong sandals.  I’m grateful to be wearing the only pair of closed shoes I brought to Mexico.  I’d anticipated warm, dry weather, but thanks to tropical storm Chris and a rainy season, my sandals have remained in the suitcase.  These comfy, relatively new shoes will never be the same.  They are already scarred with scratches and cuts from the lava.

Panting after Gavriel, I keep hoping the old fellow will decide he’s shown us enough.  Finally, after a few final photographs of the volcano, we clamber back to the cluster of open air sheds where locals are selling blue corn tortillas and soda.  We buy a coke for Gavriel and we all sit for a few minutes.  The soil here is black from the volcanic ash.  Pungent smoke from the cooking fires mixes with the scent of horses.

I try to remember when I first heard of Paricutin.  It was years ago, when I was teaching second grade.  One of the guided reading books was Hill of Fire by Thomas P. Lewis.  Lewis’s recounting of the story of Paricutin, along with the dramatic illustrations by Joan Sandin, made this book a favorite.  My students, always thrilled by natural disasters, often went on to do research on volcanos.  One book in particular had pictures of Paricutin at night, the sky aglow with fire.  The students were excited to see the photos from which the book’s illustrator took inspiration.

The ride back to the stable seems shorter.  My horse turns its head to snap at the pesky flies, and continuously wiggles its shoulder muscles to dislodge the insects.  The ability of horses to isolate their muscles in this way is mysterious and fascinating.  Gavriel stumps along between us, keeping pace with the horses and never becoming short of breath.

When I slip my feet out of the stirrups and stand up, my thighs are already sore from bouncing on the barely padded wooden saddle.  I have also acquired quite a bruise from a misstep that slammed me up against a rock.  We settle our bill with Gavriel and mosey over to the restaurant.

Our boletas (tickets) allow us to view a video of Paricutin.  We sit in the restaurant, happily eating huevos mexicanos and watching the wild power of our inner earth.  Parts of the film are from 1943 with people walking like speedy penguins, gesticulating at the volcano and taking measurements.  The more recent part of the video features interviews with eyewitnesses and songs commemorating the tragedy.

Pat and I are doubly at a loss to comprehend the audio since the local native language is Purepecha.  The subtitles are in Spanish, so we pick up bits of the story.  It is enough just to see the weathered brown faces of the villagers as they tell their tales.  The interviews alternate with shots of the erupting volcano, rocks hurling down its slopes.

This visit to a volcano has turned out to be a surprise literary pilgrimage.  It is a strange feeling to be in a place that is familiar because of a children’s book.  I remember when Pat and I were studying the map of Michoacan two weeks earlier and I recognized the name of Paricutin.  A children’s book from many years past linked me to this place of awe and beauty. 

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