Parícutin: “Here Is Something New and Strange”


Imagine a pastoral scene, seventy years ago in Mexico. On a sunny February day, a woman and her son watch over their flock of sheep from the shade of oaks; her husband strides across his fields toward a pile of branches that need burning, while his helper completes a furrow. The oxen begin to turn; a brand-new volcano begins to erupt.

Paricutín. Image courtesy Karla Yannín Alcázar Quintero via Wikimedia Commons.

Paricutín. Image courtesy Karla Yannín Alcázar Quintero via Wikimedia Commons.

Later, some would say that Demetrio Toral “plowed up the volcano.” That used to mean something different, pre-Parícutin. The Itzícuaro Valley nestles among many volcanoes. Cinder cones abound. Some are breached and eroded; some are conical with flat-floored craters. Within those last, farmers of the region grew maize. In a land filled with old lava flows, some of them malpais – badlands where no hoofed animals could drag a plow even if there had been adequate soil to drag it through. The Tarascan (Purépecha) natives crossed the rough vesicular basalt to the doughty trees growing there, harvesting their timber and backpacking it out to pack animals beyond the flows. Older flows that had developed soils were cultivated. Benches and cliffs: that’s the terrain those flows formed, and if anyone there knew a bit about volcanoes, they could read the stories of previous eruptions in them.

Five villages that would later be destroyed occupied flat bits of the valley near springs and seeps. Villagers tilled their soil and worked their forests, selling any excess products in the regional market towns farther on. They had a church in San Juan Parangaricutiro, a tall and stately stone structure, which housed the image of a saint, and a library with a book that would help them comprehend what was about to break their peace.

Outside, a world war raged: inside the valley, aside from some occasional interpersonal conflict, life went on much as it had for hundreds of years. No one knew that way of life would end rather abruptly in February of 1943. Sure, there had been a lot of earthquakes, but no one thought much of them: they lived in a seismically lively region, and those quakes didn’t shake them psychologically (at least, not until mid-February, when their frequency and intensity escalated rather dramatically).

And there was that pit on Dionisio Pulido’s farm.

It had been there a long time. Señora Severina Murillo had played around it as a girl, fifty years before. It was maybe five meters (16 feet) in diameter, and maybe a meter and a half (5 feet) deep. It made strange noises, underground noises, sounds like rocks falling. The kids found it warm, and their sticks never reached the bottom. Storm waters drained through it in the winter, and sometimes there would be a mist, but it was never hot, not so Sr. Pulido noticed. He’d stash his yoke and plow there, sometimes, when he didn’t feel like hauling them all the way back to Parícutin village. He and his brother would sometimes try to fill in the hole, but no matter how much material they threw in to it, they could never fill it. A depression had formed around it the previous August. But no one thought much of it.

***

Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru valley and surrounding area before the outbreak of Parícutin volcano as reconstructed from observations of early volcanism. 1, Quitzocho; 2, Cuiyusuru; 3, Pastoriu; 4, Uricua Llostiro; 5, Tancítaro; 6, Cebo; 7, Camiro; 8, Piedra del Sol; 9, Sherecuaro; 10, Parícutin Arroyo; 11, Parangaricutiro-Parícutin boundary-passes in front of foreground and follows ridge along Cebo and Tancftaro. Road from Camiro hill, San Nicolas, and Teruto follows left boundary of sketch, Uruapan-Parícutin road follows front boundary.

Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru valley and surrounding area before the outbreak of Parícutin volcano as reconstructed from observations of early volcanism. 1, Quitzocho; 2, Cuiyusuru; 3, Pastoriu; 4, Uricua Llostiro; 5, Tancítaro; 6, Cebo; 7, Camiro; 8, Piedra del Sol; 9, Sherecuaro; 10, Parícutin Arroyo; 11, Parangaricutiro-Parícutin boundary-passes in front of foreground and follows ridge along Cebo and Tancftaro. Road from Camiro hill, San Nicolas, and Teruto follows left boundary of sketch, Uruapan-Parícutin road follows front boundary. Fig. 109 from USGS Bulletin 965-D. Image courtesy USGS.

At the beginning of 1943, the earth began to shake, and the local folk heard noises deep in the ground. Residents of the largest town, San Juan Parangaricutiro, didn’t feel much until February 5th. The earthquakes, some larger than a 3 on the Mercalli scale, were accompanied by subterranean sounds, and townfolk quickly recognized a pattern: the louder the sound, the stronger the tremor. Celedonio Gutiérrez, who would later become an observer for the geologists who flocked to the area, noted, “They followed each other almost every minute. If they were delayed, the noise or the tremor was stronger.” And by February 20th, they’d become so strong and frequent that everyone was worried the church would collapse. They sent a messenger to Uruapan, one of the larger market towns, that morning, asking its presidente for advice. No one knew quite what to do.

The presidente of San Juan Parangaricutiro wasn’t sure how to confront all the shaking, but he told a newspaper he thought he knew what might be causing it: he thought there would be a “new volcanic outbreak.” Spot on, that man.

***

While officials worried, Sr. Pulido went about his work. Presidente Cuara-Amezcua hadn’t predicted the volcanic outbreak’s precise location, and he had no reason to think anything of the pit, which was being its usual self: slightly depressed, definitely unfillable, but otherwise ordinary. It would soon be time for the spring sowing, and seismic shenanigans or no, the field needed preparing. His helper, Sr. Toral, tended to the plowing while Sr. Pulido, his brother, and another helper cleared branches.

Oxen plowing near Lima. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Oxen plowing near Lima. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the afternoon, Sr. Pulido headed over to the trees where his wife, Paula, and his son were tending their grazing sheep. He asked her if anything new had occurred, considering the seismic show they’d been subjected to for the past two weeks.

She’d noticed “noise and thunder underground,” she said, and as she said it, Sr. Pulido heard it, too: “like thunder during a rainstorm,” he’d tell geologists later. “But I could not explain it, for the sky above was clear and the day was so peaceful…”

He left Paula at four that afternoon and headed off to burn the branches he and his brother had cleared from the field. He noticed that a fissure had opened in the old pit. It began at his feet, passed through the hole, and went on toward the Cerro de Canicjuata, one of the old local volcanoes. Here is something new and strange, he thought. He poked about a bit, trying to figure out when it had opened, and noting its depth (around half a meter, or about 1.5 feet), before losing interest and returning to his branches.

From the trail to San Nicolás, Aurora Cuara saw him dropping the last branches and weeds onto the pile. She watched Sr. Toral complete a furrow with the plow, passing right over the place where the earth would momentarily split apart. Toral began turning the team; Paula Pulida heard a whistle; Sr. Pulido felt a thunder.

Parícutin was born.

To be continued…

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder. Image and caption courtesy USGS via Wikimedia Commons.

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder. Image and caption courtesy USGS via Wikimedia Commons.

Next: Parícutin: “Save Me From the Dangers in Which I am About to Die”

 

References:

Luhr, James F. and Simkin, Tom, Editors (1993): Paricutín: The Volcano Born in a Mexican Cornfield. Phoenix, Arizona: Geoscience Press.

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Comments

  1. rq says

    Mostly volcanoes, most of the time? Yes, please. :)
    It speaks to people’s habituation to the random danger signals coming from the earth – that fissures appear, and someone pokes around a bit, then ignores the event – that no great fuss is made. Or rumbles happen, ever louder and stronger, but… hey, daily life needs to be lived. (I do understand that evacuating an entire undefined region on suspicion of increased volcanic activity, for an indeterminate amount of time, is simply not feasible. It’s more of a comment on the blah-ness of people’s reactions. Just another day in VolcanoLand!)
    Also, I love your volcano posts. I especially love the pre- and peri-eruption posts (that goes for this one, and MSH). For some reason, the post- posts don’t grab me so, but they’re still awesomely informative.

  2. Lithified Detritus says

    I knew the general outline of the story, but this fills in a lot of details, in a very riveting way. Anxiously awaiting part 2.