THE SMELL of sulfur wafting in through the open bedroom window was odd in the usual Sunday mix of neighbors’ cooking odors. Alone at home, I was reading a novel to break days of plodding through philosophy and talking to an absentminded self.
When I went outside to feed the stray cats, Kitkat had something grey sprinkled on her coat of white-with-isles-of-egg-yolk.
I stooped to flick off the dust and saw a portion of the porch neatly coated in the same grey: ashfall from Taal Volcano’s phreatic explosion of steam and ash that took place earlier that afternoon.
In more than half a century, I have weathered calamities. But even the strongest typhoon—Ruping in 1990, which sank a record number of 88 ships in the Cebu City Harbor—spends its fury after hours. Power and water are restored; roads are cleared. And the comforts of daytime lying in bed, listening to the wind howl and the rain attack the roof, soon end with the resumption of classes.
Taal Volcano is an unexpected education. We live in Barangay Putingkahoy, about 15 kilometers away from Taal, at the margin of the 14-km radius danger zone initially redlighted by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) for the immediate evacuation of residents.
Since Sunday, the Phivolcs has extended its hazard mapping to the 17-km radius and continues to flag the Alert Level 4 six days after, warning of a “possible hazardous explosive eruption… within hours to days.”
Since we moved to Silang more than five years ago, I have yet to glimpse the white trees after which the barangay is named. In last Sunday’s twilight, prematurely ushered in by ashfall mingling with the downpour, the eponymous white trees suddenly materialized all around.
Ash is a strange opponent. Wind, rain, and flood bring devastation in the blink of an eye; after a storm, though, we have cleared, repaired, and restored. And moved on.
As a metaphor for indeterminacy, the wind-borne ashes of Taal fit an environmental and political catastrophe that defies scientific forecasting or PR-finessing. Even the cats, feral and eternally watchful, favor napping on the pillows of ash that have accumulated under the trees. Dark congealed crusts drip from leaf blade like filigrees of oxidized silver and delicate lace.
Ashfall is experienced differently by farmers raising livestock and vegetables, “bakwits” (evacuees), rescue workers and volunteers, homeowners, scientists, town officials, journalists, and businessmen. Even the animals are stratified by ash: those with economic value like pigs and horses; and those without, like dogs and cats.
The indefinite delineates us.
Photo: Kitkat and her coat of ash, day after Taal Volcano’s phreatic eruption on January 12, 2020
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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s January 19, 2020 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”