Thursday, May 5, 2005

The mountains cry out

``Like Moses leading his people out of the plagues, in the time of terror and devotion.’’ –the Inquirer on Reynaldo Punongbayan, its 1991 Filipino of the Year

I just finished going over the book ``Eruption and Exodus: Mount Pinatubo and the Aytas of Zambales’’ for which I wrote the foreword in 1991. This book chronicles the life of the Aytas and the Franciscan Sisters who lived and worked among them, before, during and after the volcanic eruption that saw much of Central Luzon covered in ash.

In it is written that it was in April 1991 that Mount Pinatubo, dormant for more than 600 years, started to awake and grumble. Two months later, in June 1991, the world witnessed an eruption like no other in a long time. The sky turned opaque gray. Ash and rocks rose from the belly of the earth and rained down on towns and cities. Faraway places in Asia even got a sprinkling of volcanic powder.

4:00 p.m., 2 April 1991—that was the day the volcano started to wake up. Fifteen years later, on April 28, 2005, the man who confronted the volcano during those crucial moments, the man who worked to make scientific sense of the grand havoc long, long after the fire had quieted down, volcanologist Reynaldo Punongbayan, 68, left this earth via the bosom of a mountain. That is putting it gently. To say that he died in a helicopter crash is so jarring to the heart.

The grief of those he left behind—his family, his colleagues, the community of scientists—is immeasurable. But I am sure there is some consolation in the fact the former head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology and, at the time of his death, governor of the Philippine National Red Cross, and his colleagues all died in the line of duty. They were out there to survey the crags and wounds of the hills that dumped mud, rocks, water and fallen logs on poor shoreline communities several months ago. They were on their way to Dingalan, Aurora. They were to be harbingers of information, disaster-preparedness and long-term rehabilitation efforts. But that day, April 28, they—all nine of them--were being called home to yonder eternal hills.

``It turned out to be his last mission to save lives’’ was the lead sentence of the Inquirer banner story last Friday. Reprinted on the front page was the January 1992 piece on Punongbayan who was Inquirer’s very first Filipino of the Year. The one who wrote that un-bylined piece sent five successive lengthy text messages to my cell phone. He was reveling in his resurrected work, describing how that magma of a piece was spewed, with the editor in chief breathing down his neck.

``Heady’’ was how he felt, he said. After all, he had penned, for the Inquirer, the first and final tribute to the great volcano man. There is joy and pride in having written about a great public servant, death and loss notwithstanding.

I have always been in awe of scientists, both the laboratory based and the outdoor types, and how they try to figure out the mysteries of this planet and the universe out there. Mount Pinatubo, with all the fire and the brimstone in its gut, is just a pimple on the face of the earth, the Grand Canyon a small gash.

I’ve flown twice over the Pinatubo disaster area, the first time by helicopter and the next time by hot-air balloon when the place, to my surprise, had become a giant movie set. Both experiences were sobering. I felt like a dragonfly flying across a desert. A contemplative desert experience, I must say. During such times, do volcanologists and geologists give way to mystical thoughts, do they hear the music of the universe?

The Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales (LAKAS), the Ayta authors of the book I mentioned, is organizing a tribute for Punongbayan. He is their brother. In 2001, during the 10th anniversary of the Mount Pinatubo eruption, the Aytas came to the Phivolcs headquarters for the commemoration. I could see the strong bond between Punongbayan and the Aytas.

What remains of Punongbayan’s mortal body and those of two others have yet to be identified. There must be precious little left as the chopper and its passengers went up in a blaze. Death was swift and instant which is not the way most people go to the afterlife. But it is not as horrific as we picture it to be, some scientists have found out.

Best-selling doctor-author Sherwin Nuland (``How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter’’) who has scientifically studied the phenomenon of death says: ``Whatever the source, humankind and many animals seem to be protected at the instant when sudden death approaches—protected not only from the horror of death itself but from certain kinds of counterproductive actions that might ensure it or extend its anguish…

``Like so many other biochemical explanations of obscure, seemingly mystical phenomena, this one has no argument with the religious among us. I am neither the first to wonder about the mysterious ways in which God is thought to work His inscrutable will nor the source of the rumor that He may use chemicals to do it.’’ You’ve heard about endorphins.

With the help of science there is no doubt that the remains of those who perished would be identified for the peace of the bereaved. How these remains will be laid to rest is up to the families. For Punongbayan, a news report said that he had, beforehand, expressed a wish that his ashes be made part of the Taal Volcano area. (But why not Pinatubo?)

That, I think, is giving back one’s mortal shell to the earth in the truest sense. No urn, no tomb. Just the mountains of his heart. Punongbayan has chosen a perfect place. His spirit lives.