Q&A: The Wizard and the Volcano author Marc Herman

In Interviews

In The Wizard and the Volcano, book No. 6 from Deca, Marc Herman lays bare the complex interplay between magic and modernity. When a volcano on the Indonesian island of Java erupts, the wizard of Mount Merapi refuses to obey orders to evacuate his threatened village. The danger, he says, lies below, in the plains by the sea. When the prediction comes true, the wizard becomes a celebrity and thousands follow his example, abandoning badly-run government camps to return to their homes under the smoking crater — until the mountain explodes, with stunning results. In the tradition of Into the Wild and Endurance, Herman’s story takes readers on a spectacular journey into the life of a man who chose to confront overwhelming natural forces — a mystic who ultimately proves to be more human, and more heroic, than anyone could have imagined. Deca’s Elizabeth Dickinson asked Herman about the experience of writing The Wizard and the Volcano.

In 2006, you found yourself in Indonesia to report on the eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano. How did you first learn about the wizard, Maridjan?

I had lived and worked in Indonesia some years before and came back to report on Mount Merapi, which was expected to erupt imminently. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and 3,000 miles long, yet kind of invisible in the world’s consciousness. That’s also how the wizard’s story was. Maridjan is quite well known in the area around the volcano, but not very well known off it. Once I got to the region where Merapi is, I learned of the wizard, and the next step was renting a minibike and going up there.

As you talk to people in the area of the volcano, they seem remarkably unpanicked. Was that the mood?

Unpanicked is a good way to put it. Mt. Merapi has been erupting almost continuously since 1992. Before that it did so in the 60s, 50s and 30s. The people who live on the top of the mountain work most often as subsistence farmers, tied to the land, and they have to manage their financial and physical risks. Just like earthquakes in San Francisco, this was something the people had to live with and adapt to. They took it as part of their environment.

Were villagers surprised when the wizard of Merapi decided he wouldn’t leave ahead of the eruption?

It made sense to them that the wizard didn’t want to leave. This was the first evacuation in the modern history of the volcano. It had erupted before and they had never evacuated, so people wondered, ‘why bother?’ Most people made their own decisions, but noted Maridjan’s stance as one factor in their thinking.

One man I spoke with told me simply, Merapi doesn’t throw garbage in its front yard. He thought the volcano would erupt, but it would do so away from villages and towns. That had almost always been true in the past.

What are some of the stories you heard about the mountain — experiences that had hardened the villagers to the volcano’s fury?

They had seen a very destructive eruption in 1994, when Merapi killed more than 60 people. A wedding had been underway near to where the wizard lived, but no one took the eruption seriously and they didn’t cancel the ceremony. Instead of seeking safety, the wedding party went outside to watch. Unexpectedly, a pyroclastic cloud rolled into town and they all died, including the bride and groom.

When I went to talk to people about the new eruption, my question was simply ‘why don’t you just leave this time?’ They said, you have to understand that the last incident was the exception to the rule. Merapi had sent clouds like this 20 times before and the 19 others weren’t so bad.

Were there other reasons that people didn’t want to evacuate?

There was a lot of distrust of the government, which had ordered the evacuation. The year before, authorities had built new dams on the top of the mountain that were supposed to slow down or stop mudslides called lahars, which happen when the mountain erupts and ash mixes with river water, creating a soupy toxic avalanche. Those could flow all the way to a nearby city, Yogyakarta, where a million people live. The government had built these dams with the idea that they could filter off the lahars before they left the mountain.

But as many as 50,000 people live near the top of the mountain too, and the dangerous material the dams diverted away from the city could be deflected toward their small villages. On top of that, many people feared that putting these dams up could change the spiritual balance and moods of the mountain. It could offend Merapi and cause eruptions.

The volcano did erupt, and it was destructive. Was there any sense of hurt or even heartbreak that this volcano — with which they had a long, coexisting history — had turned on them?

Like a lot of people in circumstances in which their beliefs collide with an unexpected reality, there was some rationalization when things didn’t go exactly according to plan. As people individually weighed whether to leave, some of their thinking was classically scientific, while some was more prosaic, like wondering how they had made the mountain angry. I think both ways of thinking helped people make appropriate decisions.

What the wizard was doing — refusing to evacuate — was understood on the mountain for what it really was: an act of civil disobedience against a badly managed evacuation. It’s not that he made an emotional choice, but rather that he responded rationally to an unreasonable situation. His neighbors saw him as a hero for standing up to the government.

Tell us more about what you mean by an act of civil disobedience. What exactly was the wizard fighting for by staying put?

We have the example from the United States of Mt St Helens, where a man named Harry Truman refused to comply with an evacuation order. He stayed on the mountain, which erupted, and he died of his injuries. As soon as Maridjan started saying he wouldn’t leave, similar narratives emerged about him being this grumpy old man who didn’t like to be told what to do. That’s not what was really going on in Maridjan’s case, in my view.

A recent series of disasters had struck Indonesia, which is a very seismically unstable place — the hottest part of the Pacific ring of fire. A lot of the response had gone poorly, similar to Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. The wizard put his foot down and said, without actually saying it, ‘you can’t force tens of thousands of people from their homes for an indeterminate amount of time and no plan to safeguard their livelihoods.’ He was right. You have to organize these sorts of things well, or people suffer almost as much from the evacuation as they would from the disaster. I saw that happening firsthand: the emergency camps weren’t well managed, water wasn’t always there, the food arrived sporadically, and people worried about their livestock starving uphill.

Eventually people started to agree with Maridjan preferring to risk the volcano over staying in the camps. The implication at the time was that the people who didn’t cooperate with the evacuation were ignorant country bumpkins listening to a misguided spiritual leader. In fact, people were responding rationally to a very poorly organized disaster plan.

What was it like to be around the wizard. Did you feel a mystical presence?

He lived in a very humble home, which was mostly undecorated, and dressed in simple clothes. I got the feeling that he took his position very seriously and thought of himself as a public servant. It would have been very easy for someone like him to play the New Age card and make a big deal out of himself. Like a lot of places, the business of belief is very profitable in Indonesia, and there are charlatans who charge money for spiritual services. He could have been the king of those guys if he wanted to, and he didn’t.

As for the mystical presence, well, I think he was a cool guy, but I didn’t expect anyone to start levitating around him. I spoke to one person who claimed to have seen him teleport, and I think he really believed it and saw something he considered paranormal. Personally, when we were done talking, I had to ride my motorcycle back down the mountain in the usual way.

What’s the wizard’s legacy in your mind?

In part because Maridjan drew attention to his people’s difficult position, the disaster plans changed. In 2010, when the next eruption happened, things went more smoothly if still not perfectly. The mountain has erupted every year since then so this will be an issue in the future, and not just in Indonesia.

What Maridjan really did is humanize the people who live on the volcano. He was telling the world, ‘My title may be sorcerer, but we’re not living in some fairytale and we’re not an anthropological case study. We’re a town that lives in a difficult geological circumstance and we have to live here because we graze cows for a living and this is where the grass grows best.” His legacy is that he used the celebrity his mystical identity afforded to argue for more humane, effective thinking about how to respond to natural disasters.

I think in the end he won. The mountain is safer today. If Maridjan had meekly come down the first time, and not made such a fuss, what incentive would there have been to fix the problems?


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Elizabeth Dickinson
Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.