I moved to the volcano in the fall of 2015. I wanted to study climate change from an unusual angle. Not from projections, models, and probabilities. I was looking instead to understand how people today made lives with extreme environmental uncertainty. The volcano, Mt. Merapi, in Java, is one of the world’s most dangerous. It has been packed with people for over a hundred years. I thought they would have something to teach the rest of us. That in some sense this volcano is our future.
It was soon obvious that extreme environmental uncertainty is pretty banal. Living on the flank of an active volcano involves a lot of shrugging it off. To, say, enjoy dinner with friends, tend the garden, or give the middle finger to a bosses back, it helps to forget that the place may at any moment erupt in violent explosions.
Most people don’t care about the volcano until it starts rumbling. Until it barges in on their lives. But there are others who spend most of their time preoccupied with it. They are called inbetweeners.
There are lots of them. There are the scientists with seismographs and fancy GPS devices. They feel the ground move, test the gasses in the air, look through telescopes. Then there are rescue workers. They have ideas and plans for eruptions. There are the village heads that keep an eye on the volcano in case the government tells them to evacuate. Sand miners look forward to eruptions because it means they will have more material to excavate and sell. The shamans, there are many of them, in almost every village, speak with the spirits inside the volcano. These are all inbetweeners.
What are they between?
A nature that talks too much. It constantly emits obscure signs for deciphering, acts with little forewarning and changes all the time. And the people, the millions of people, who live on it. They are between the clouds, winds, mud slides, and violent eruptions of rocks and lava. They are between the devices that try to predict it and the constellation of words, symbols, and barely material entities like ghosts and spirits.
Inbetweeners build intimate relations with the volcano. Their intimacy reaches out to trees, rocks, landscapes, even the hidden interior of the earth. Inbetweeners hold wild, hard, and intimidating things close. They make the untamable livable. They fold in and make proximate what we might normally think of as the furthest things from us, like rocks and clouds.
This is, as I am coming to understand, an act of mediation and media. To bring close. Inbetweeners are humans becoming media. They bring the distant, non-human close. It is a bit like domestication, but only if we understand the process as a constant push and pull between the tame and the wild, happening in the same thing and at the same time. It is never a state that is achieved. It’s a bit likepets. We bring them close but they retain wildness. The domesticated is braided with the wild. The domesticated thing is always pushing against its taming.
Inbetweeners provide forms of consistency and continuity among change. While millions of people live on it, farm it, and drain water from it, the volcano is barely there. Most days, the peak is covered in clouds. It is easy to forget, even if it erupts every four or five years. It is easy to slip into everyday life and its demands. Only once in a while does the jagged mouth appear in the middle of the day and people are reminded of its scale. But it is too big to ever get a handle on. It is wider than Manhattan is long and 3,000 meters tall. It has about the same population. As much as we try to understand it wholly, it escapes and retreats. Inbetweeners take on the burden of drawing out the continuities between life and the volcano. They give presence to the invisible.
I began hanging out in a village called Keningar. It is about five kilometers from the caldera in ‘Zone 1,’ the most dangerous area to live in according to the government. The village dates back to a big eruption in 1930, when its old location was destroyed and they relocated. There are about seventy-five houses. I met and became friendly with Suparno, in training to become the village inbetweener. We would sit in his narrow living room with a table of snacks, sweet tea, thick black Javanese coffee, and sweet cigarettes. Men within his circle would rotate in and out of the room, crossing their legs, chatting. His mother would fix us snacks. Over a period of a few months my Indonesian became strong enough to go there without a translator, spend the night, and join for events.
Suparno introduced me to Sukidi, the current inbetweener, who in another lexicon would be called a shaman. He is about seventy, thin, with a stringy neck. He is warm and when he laughs he pushes his head forward and leans so far he may lose his balance on his crossed legs.
We spent hours talking about spirits and ghosts in the volcano and village. Spirit possession is a way that he communicates with the volcano, and finds out what it wants and will do. Villagers become vessels for them. Through possessions he speaks with the volcano, translating it for villagers. But his practice is waning. Few young people believe it anymore. To be possessed you need to be open, your body and mind ready to become a vessel. He invited me to a dance called jatihlan. It took place at the end of Suro, the first month of the Javanese calendar when the world is especially porous, the barely material world swirling within ours. It hovers around objects, trees, graves. During the jatihlan dancing becomes a way for the body to empty out. Sounds and smoke become mediums for the barely material. Dancers become mountain dogs and hungry volcano spirits.
The dance went on all day and into the night. It was loud and relentless. It was violent and at times scary. Children collapsed, possessed. Fights broke out between villagers and a dragon puppet. The costumes were assemblages of old and new imagery referring to the state, local history, ancient empires, and myths. People recorded it on their phones. The young and old were there.
I joined Sukidi in his back room, a kind of operating theater of spirit possession populated with fruit, tobacco, bowls of chicken blood, and flowers. With these instruments he manages and communicates with spirits.
What follows is a description of the jatihlan from the perspective of a volcano spirit that I witnessed possess a villager. I followed him back into Sukidi’s operating theater where he was given over to Sukidi’s care. The whole interaction between them lasted about five minutes. Afterward, I spent a few hours with Sukidi talking about what happened. He graciously fed me and discussed the philosophy of the barely material. This is what I understood had happened.
Now you are the barely material.
There is a blue canopy with a dirt floor. It carves a location into the vastness. It makes a point stable enough for you to enter it. But you can only smell and hear it.
It is a cube.
In it there is space. Up and down, forward and backward. One side and another. Space like the kind you wave your arms in, a kind of emptiness that fills what is around you.
In there, there is a time that goes forward while the present burns away into the past. The past is where you go looking for the missing bits of the present.
There is a hard, pounded earth floor and a blue tarpaulin roof. Metal rafters and beams.
Fluorescent lights. Six of them, in two rows of three.
It is a rental.
Under the canopy you cannot be in two places at once, not like before. In it you become a shape. Which you appreciate. It is different from over there. There, you grow bigger and smaller at the same time.
And you are wanted in this cube. Called for. Loved like an old friend. Sometimes you get out-of-hand excited. A little unused to your strength. Constraints are hard to accustom to, to fit into. You gain flesh. It is soft and does not always fit. It stretches, bulges when it inhales. Its walls are round and pulpy. The loopy ventricles spinning out of the heart confuse you. The esophagus’ ribbed rhythmic contractions pressure you, slip you around, pull you along, stretch you. And you can walk again. But you are no good at it. You are a spasm. A fretting, wretched spasm. You jut your unlikely arms forward but forget how to bring them back.
You remember some things from so long ago, what so many have forgotten.
But that does not mean you remember how to move your arms. These things are not related, memory and movement. They need to be relearned every time under the canopy.
In this flesh casing you are new to the world again. You have been here before but every time is so short you cannot master its mechanisms. You are always part stranger. You are greeted as the awkward visitor you are. Like a friend, yes, with care and love, but also with the suspicion that all strangers may act in ways we cannot anticipate. The stranger is scary but has something to teach. Terrifying because no one knows what the stranger has to teach.
Cream. You are cream. You are the liquid at the edge of a lip of an open mouth with white teeth, one slightly crooked. You are situated below eyes without lids to seal in the cream.
You are the horse that pisses warm piss on all the fields at once.
The esophagus you are is curled around and bobbing up and down with the rhythm of the horse. The horse is 1,263 years old, woven of thin bamboo strips. It is two dimensional, only length and height. It has no thickness. Its hooves, the size of a child’s foot, are hitting the hollow earth.
The esophagus you are is wrapped around a two-dimensional horse in the cube under the canopy. You have a body, a location, you are the cream at the edge of a mouth. You bring old stories snapped from the bundle of the past. The esophagus spurts those stories one syllable at a time, keras, long, harsh syllables, noises truncated at the end. They enter the world as blocks. None of your friends know how to understand them. It takes someone else to coax you to slow down, to get used to the esophagus you are, to learn its ribs, to give you time to trace how to move with it, to carve micro indentations and inclinations into the blocks of syllables. To form of the blocks things that remind us of words.
The man shows you an egg. He places it in the empty orb between your cupped hands. You close them around it and slowly roll. The shell is soft and cracks in the middle. It splits like wet paper in pieces that fall to your lap and the floor. Inside the egg is a curled black-feathered rooster. Its eyes translucent purple orbs. You slowly and gently straighten the body and cup your hands to your face. You smell it. Its body is still warm in your hands and on your face. You show the man its face. He looks for a long time then he looks at your cream eyes. He tells you, you must not eat it though you want to. Instead you drown it in a mixture of red and white flowers, water, oil, and burnt wood.
Its death is a moment that pounds you and tightens the esophagus. It takes you from its wet undulations.
The cream at the corner of the mouth falls to the ground, you follow the rooster into the liquid, out of the cube. Outside, the sounds and smells become distant and you are back to the world where all shapes are in one shape. Though they are not made of the same stuff and they barely stick together.
There, there is both fast and slow at the same time.