Unheralded heroes in peril

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We understand the anger of Batangueños who were forcibly evacuated from their homes by the military (and the police) because of an imminent Taal Volcano eruption. It was done, of course, for their safety. But has anyone of them —or any one of us, for that matter— ever thought that those soldiers will be the first to die in case the volcano finally erupts? At 80 km per hour, it is highly unlikely that they will all survive a pyroclastic surge, even if they had vehicles. In sum, the lockdown that is happening in towns that fall under the volcano’s 14-kilometer danger zone is nothing short of a suicide mission.

Are you also praying for them?

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Taal is a supervolcano

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It boggles me as to why Taal Lake is not generally considered as a supervolcano. All the characteristics of a supervolcano (collapsed caldera, gigantic ridges, etc.) are inherent in her. The breathtaking landscape of Tagaytay ridge, for instance, is actually the enormous rim of that ancient supervolcanic crater.

If I’m not mistaken, Taal Lake is the only supervolcano that still has an active crater in its center. Therefore, in my opinion, this makes Taal Volcano as the most dangerous in the world. To say that it is just one of the most dangerous is already false humility.

After reading Thomas R. Hargrove’s famous little book about Taal Lake and its mysterious volcano, I am finally convinced that people should stay out of the danger zone… PERMANENTLY. According to Hargrove’s research, several towns surrounding the lake were buried and/or submerged underwater throughout Taal Volcano’s recorded history. The Spanish friars tried their best to take the native Batangueños away from the volcano. They have transferred from place to place whenever the volcano’s unpredictable fury took away their homes. But now that they’re gone, their flocks’ stubborn descendants keep on returning to where they shouldn’t be in the first place.

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When Taal Lake was not yet a lake

That the towns of Taal and Lemery are starting to display volcanic fissures due to the recent phreatic eruption of Taal Volcano last January 12 should not be surprising had their people known their violent geological history.

Before the mid-18th century, Taal Lake was technically not a lake because it was connected to Balayán Bay via a wide channel (encircled in red). Subsequent eruptions buried this channel, creating what is now a large part of the Municipality of Lemery (named after José Nicolás Francisco Pablo Lemery, the Governor-General who ruled the country at the time of Rizal’s birth). One old Spanish newspaper (the name escapes me at the moment) even reported that a huge chunk of a mountain called Malaquíng Bintî —otherwise known as Binintiang Malaki, that picturesque little cone that we all know from postcards— was flung all the way to where Lemery is now situated due to a violent eruption. That closed the channel, blocking the waterway. Thus Taal Lake was born. That cataclysmic event also trapped several sea animals, including bull sharks, inside the lake. When the lake’s salinity subsided due to years of rainfall, these sea creatures learned to adapt to it instead of dying out (unfortunately, the bull sharks did not survive the notorious #BobongPinoy mentality; they were totally wiped out sometime in the 1930s). Today, what is perhaps a remnant of that ancient channel is now the Pansipit River which divides Lemery from the heritage town of Taal. Both towns, especially Lemery, sit on fragile grounds.

And even as we speak, it appears that the volcano is again trying to take away that last, small outlet that connects its lake to the sea.

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This map is from the famous 1734 Murillo Velarde map, the so-called “Mother of Filipino maps”.

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Himno al Volcán de Taal

Hi there. I thought of sharing this century-old Filipino poem (in Spanish, of course) because it’s very timely. It’s written by none other than Claro M. Recto (1890–1960), one of the greatest Filipino nationalists who had ever lived. Millennials and many other unlettered peeps will easily recognize the name only as that busy, infamous road in Manila where one can obtain fake diplomas and other doctored documents. It should be made known that Recto was not all about that. He was a prodigy in poetry, a forceful playwright, a brilliant lawyer, a fiery senator, a just jurist, a clear-cut and consummate constitutionalist, and a champion of the so-called Identidad Filipina or Filipino Identity which is based on our Spanish past.

Surprisingly AND laughably, he was also the grandfather of incumbent Senator Ralph Recto, but let’s not go there anymore. 😂

Due to time constraints and other tasks at hand (and it’s my son Jefe’s 13th birthday today), I am not able to translate this poem in its entirety. But let me just share to you a brief backgrounder and other interesting tidbits about it. Titled Himno al Volcán de Taal, Recto composed this poem shortly after the cataclysmic Taal Volcano eruption that occurred on 30 January 1911 and took the lives of more than 1,300 people. He dedicated the poem to journalist Fidel A. Reyes (1878–1967), a fellow Batangueño (both are from Lipâ) who years earlier was entangled in a highly controversial libel case because of an editorial that he wrote for the newspaper El Renacimiento (The Renaissance) titled “Aves de Rapiña” or “Birds of Prey”. The editorial made references to a US official who allegedly took advantage of his position to exploit the country’s resources for his own personal gain.

Taal Volcano a day before it erupted on 30 January 1911 (photographed by Charles Martín for the National Geographic Magazine, volume 23, 1912).

No names were mentioned in the editorial, but Dean C. Worcester who was then the Secretary of the Interior of the Insular Government of the Philippine Islands felt alluded to. He sued Reyes as well as El Renacimiento’s editor (Teodoro M. Kalaw) and the publisher (Martín Ocampo). El Renacimiento lost the case, was heavily fined, and subsequently closed down. Nevertheless, the editorial team was considered as heroes by Filipino nationalists, including a young Recto who was then only in his teens when the celebrated libel case was ongoing.

Already an ardent nationalist at a young age as can be gleaned from many of his poems, the Aves de Rapiña editorial and libel case must have had surely made an impact on Recto’s young mind, thus the dedication of Himno al Volcán Taal to Reyes who was twelve years his senior. A connection should now be made between the poem in question and the libel case involving Reyes — Himno al Volcán Taal was not all about the 1911 eruption. Recto cunningly used the disaster to subtlely attack the whole Insular Government. He declaimed his composition two weeks after the disaster, on February 15 (or shortly after his 21st birthday), during a soiree held for the benefit of the victims of the aforementioned eruption. In his poem, Recto described Taal Volcano’s greatness by personifying it as a giant Greek statue (Colossus) and a powerful Titan from Greek mythology (Prometheus), and as a symbol of his “race”, i.e., the Filipino people, who were meek and humble but can become aggressive against the “adventurous vulture” who is the “thief of liberties”: Eres tú todo un símbolo del alma de mi Raza: | manso y humilde pero agrede y despedaza | al buitre aventurero, ladrón de libertades; Clearly, he was referring to the US colonial invaders, the birds of prey (personified by the “buitre aventurero”), who took upon themselves to conquer us in 1898 without our willing consent.

Recto also decried why Taal killed its own people during the previous month’s explosion: ¿Por qué fueron tus víctimas los hijos de tu tierra, | los mismos paladines del triunfo de mañana? But he immediately shrugged off his own question when he concluded that the explosion was a punishment for the Filipinos’ complacency (angrily calling it “suicidal apathy”) toward their US colonial masters: Castigaste del pueblo la suicida apatía, | porque no predicamos la santa rebeldía | ante el feroz empuje de la ambición humana.

But the nastiest attack against the US colonial government can be found in this poem’s penultimate stanza, which is my favorite part because of its striking imagery and very moving message. Here he belittled the light coming out from the “torch of New York” (the Statue of Liberty, another famous US symbol), saying that its weak light can never reach our shores, and that may the high column of fire coming out from Taal Volcano be our brilliant torch during our “long night” (years under colonial yoke): Sea la alta columna de fuego que vomitas | en nuestra noche larga la tea refulgente; | la antorcha neoyorquina iluminando el mundo | es tan débil y exigua que su brillo infecundo | no llega á las comarcas de esta Perla de Oriente. Although sarcastic, Recto was still benign in this poem if we are to compare it to an earlier poem of his titled “Oración al Dios Apolo” (Prayer to the God Apollo, October 1910) wherein he implored that both the volcanoes of Taal and Mayón explode (que… revienten sus cráteres el Taal y el Mayón) in order to vanquish those “voracious eagles” who came to our shores in droves (vinieron Águilas voraces en tropel, a clear allusion to the US invaders’ other famous symbol: the bald eagle).

With Recto’s persistent use of buitres and águilas to corroborate Reyes’s editorial, Dean C. Worcester could be correct with his suspicion all along: he and the government he represented were indeed birds of prey.

Taal Volcano’s phreatic explosion at 18,000 feet from the ground taken yesterday by Tito Johnny On, a family friend who is a pilot.

–Claro M. Recto–

Para Fidel A. Reyes

Coloso encadenado, invicto Prometeo,
que enseñas hoy al mundo el inmortal trofeo
de tus hazañas trágicas de tirano sañudo:
llegue á tí, como un himno de encarnizada guerra,
como un coro de truenos, como un temblor de tierra,
este salmo que emerge de mi salterio rudo.

Son ingentes tus triunfos, son grandes tus hazañas
porque un nuno maléfico alienta en tus entrañas,
fabricante de rayos de vengadoras furias;
hechura del malayo, alma del pueblo nuestro,
legatario de todas las iras del Ancestro,
bizarro é inexorable castigador de injurias.

Hay en tu seno puestas por la Naturaleza
energías que guardan tu secular grandeza
de las profanaciones de las garras voraces.
Y así cuando te violan, tus iras se desatan,
é incendian y aniquilan, y destruyen y matan,
ante el espanto mudo de todos los rapaces.

Ante tí nada pueden los bárbaros cañones,
con que de las inermes y débiles naciones
tan descaradamente se burlan las más fuertes;
porque las fuerzas hijas de la Naturaleza
son fuerzas absolutas, cuya ruda braveza
neutraliza las balas cuando fulmina muertes.

Eres tú todo un símbolo del alma de mi Raza:
manso y humilde pero agrede y despedaza
al buitre aventurero, ladrón de libertades;
por eso te estremecen mortales convulsiones,
cuando los ambiciosos, que ingentes aluviones
de Conquista han traído roban tus heredades.

Tus cráteres lanzaron fuego de cien mil fraguas,
lavas abrasadoras, ceniza, hirvientes aguas,
en una anunciación de hecatombe suprema;
porque ha sido violado tu mágico tesoro,
aquellos encantados gemelos toros de oro,
por los Shylocks que ostentan la explotación por lema.

¡Oh! Aquella tu ira santa lección sublime encierra.
¿Por qué fueron tus víctimas los hijos de tu tierra,
los mismos paladines del triunfo de mañana?
Castigaste del pueblo la suicida apatía,
porque no predicamos la santa rebeldía
ante el feroz empuje de la ambición humana.

Ejemplo de energía, valor y patriotismo,
ha visto el pueblo nuestro en ese cataclismo
que sembró con delirio tu saña despiadada
Tú enseñaste al pasivo morador del terruño
a abrir la boca airada y enseñar rojo el puño
a los esquilmadores de nuestra tierra amada.

Maldices la Conquista, odias el coloniaje,
pides la autonomía para el propio linaje,
porque te pesa mucho el extranjero yugo.
Y así siempre que vienen nuevos dominadores,
descargas con fierza tus rayos destructores,
como un reto de muerte al extraño verdugo.

Hace ya muchos años, á raiz del arribo
de la progenie hispana á tu solar nativo,
sembraste una catástrofe muy digna de tu historia.
Y hoy repetiste tu obra de destrucción y muerte,
para decir al amo que nuestro pueblo fuerte
no requiere tutores para vivir con gloria.

Fuiste siempre rebelde, osado, diestro y bravo.
Tú prefieres el caos á vegetar esclavo.
Diríase que alientan en tu seno las almas
de los Burgos, Zamoras, Bonifacios, Rizales,
y de todos aquellos gloriosos Ancestrales
que en lides conquistaron inmarcesibles palmas.

Fuiste siempre, ¡oh Coloso!, hostil á los tiranos,
como el Mayón y el Apo, tus augustos hermanos,
Menos también, muy llenos, de vengadora saña.
Sed como aquí Samsón, heroe de Palestina.
Arrojad vuestras lavas, que antes la propia ruina
que el vergonzoso pacto con la Conquista extraña.

Brindad á Filipinas una ilustre epopeya
que no podemos darla. Igualadla á Pompeya,
inmortal en los fastos solemnes de la historia.
Más bella es Filipinas bajo ceniza y lava,
que Filipinas paria, de otra nación esclava,
y de la gran familia humana, vil escoria.

¡Hurra, egregio coloso de glorias infinitas!
Sea la alta columna de fuego que vomitas
en nuestra noche larga la tea refulgente;
la antorcha neoyorquina iluminando el mundo
es tan débil y exigua que su brillo infecundo
no llega á las comarcas de esta Perla de Oriente.

Más unión, ciudadanos, porque nos aniquilan.
¿No veis que por un lado cañones nos vigilan
y por otro las fuerzas de la Madre Natura?
Que se unan fuertemente todos nuestros esfuerzos,
que formen un sólo haz los vigores dispersos,
y alcemos nuestra enseña sobre tanta tristura……

Febrero, 1911.
Declamada por su autor en la velada literario-musical celebrada el 15 de febrero de 1911 en el «Opera House» á beneficio de los damnificados de Batangas.