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Monday, 2 November 2015

Fire in the Blood: an elemental Geography

I remember my first volcano – don’t we all? As rites of passage go it’s up there with losing one’s virginity. It was the sultry Pacaya in Guatemala in December 1989; the civil war was still raging which, ironically, made the ascent a much safer expedition than it is today. In any case, the pretty colonial town of Antigua, jam-packed with gringos and Spanish language schools, seemed oblivious to the numerous hijackings, kidnappings and disappearances.
In a sense, and because since embarking on my research it appears I can only speak in metaphors, my inter-disciplinary transgression from geography to theology seems to have resembled that climb up an unremitting slope of ash and cinders: three steps forwards, two steps back. But like most ascents – I was going to say all ascents but that wouldn’t be strictly true – the effort was rewarded with a moment of effervescent enchantment; shaking earth, the acrid scent of sulphur and a red-hot cauldron of bubbling lava so alluring I had to stop myself from jumping in. I got close to the edge, circumnavigated the precipice and looked deep into the abyss; as close as I’ll get to looking straight into the eye of God.
I am, according to academic convention, a cultural geographer and as such I spend seemingly interminable hours tap-tapping away at my laptop conjuring up discourse on the likes of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the Chuckle Brothers of the curious hybrid that is geophilosophy. I wonder whether I should grow up and put a line through my irreverent comparison of the French philosopher and the psychiatrist with the lovable slapstick duo of Barry and Paul and their familiar catchphrase: ‘to me, to you’. I’m writing a chapter entitled ‘In bed with Deleuze and Guattari’ and what I’m trying to communicate is not any personal prejudice against the Dead White European Males or, indeed, their work, but an increasing exasperation at the way they are slavishly cited with overdue reverence by academics: Deleuze and Guattari, whisper their names in hushed tones. It’s at times like these that the childish farce of Chucklevision has more appeal than another turgid, unreadable tome on Bodies without Organs so I decide, in a fit of childish pique, to leave the reference in. It’s only a PhD, it I don’t take it too seriously, will the whole thing fall apart.
Above my desk are maps of the Cordillera Cantabrica and it is to these, rather than Chucklevision, to which I turn when the pleasures of writing about walking begin to pall. I daydream about white rock and needle-sharp ridges, about the sensuous and sensual earth beneath my feet; a geography that’s not just physical but elemental. It’s the geography that had me in its thrall thirty years ago, as an ‘A’ level student and the geography I try to relate to my ‘A’ level students today. I decide I want to reacquaint myself with the physical because, it seems to me, I can’t really hope to understand the aesthetic lure of the land without getting to know the rocks. Like Cher, I need to turn back time and revisit the moment of creation. For you, Siân Lacey Taylder, the earth will move; there will be fire in your blood.
So next month I’m off to Mexico and Central America to do just that; five weeks of climbing and getting up close and personal with the isthmus’ volcanoes, from Iztaccihuatl to Arenal. 
This is the itinerary thus far: 

MEXICO: 5th - 16th December
Nevado de Toluca/Xinantecatl (4691m): a chilly start! Stratovolcano, 80km west of Mexico City. The Nahuatl name translates as El Señor Desnudo – The Naked Lord. Long-dormant, last eruption 3300 years ago.

Iztaccihuatl (The Sleeping Woman; 5230m) in the foreground, the sublime Popocatépetl (Smoking Mountain) in the background. ‘Popo’ is constantly active and is, unfortunately, out of bounds – there’s a 12km exclusion zone. The two day hike up and down ‘Izta’ will, however, afford great opportunities to see – and maybe feel – Popo strutting its stuff. 

On the right, Nevado de Colima (Tzapotéptel; 4260m), on the left Volcan de Colima (4271). The latter is one of the most active volcanoes in Mexico and Central America so the intention is to climb the long-dormant former to get as close as possible to the explosions.


Born in a cornfield in 1943, Paricutín, 322 km west of Mexico City, is a 424 metre higher cinder cone, now quiet but in an area that remains volcanically active. Popular with tourists thanks to the ruins of the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro church which stick out from the now cooled and hardened lava flow. So much geography here!

GUATEMALA: 18th - 26th December
Tajumulco (4220m): Stratovolcano, highest mountain in Central America

Santiaguito, a lava dome complex, centre, with Volcan Santa Maria on the right. Eruptions are frequent. 
Volcan de Fuego (3763m, left) and Acatenango (3976m, right). Climbing the latter to get close to the former which is active. 

Pacaya (2552m). My first ever volcano, climbed back in 1989,just before the death of rock 'n' roll. It's a little bit touristy but I can't pass through Guatemala without making a return visit.

1 comment:

  1. You're not alone for your disdain for Delueze and Guattari in the world of academia. I quite like it, especially the chapter Of The Refrain in Thousand Plateaus. It's by far the closest reading I made of any text on my Masters. So imagine my disdain when my sociologist supervisor did everything he could to not have me include mention of it. But yeah, it's no stress, just ink on a page, pixels on a screen...