Covered In Ash

Jordan Sirek


Indonesia; Yogyakarta, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Covered In Ash, a story about the people who live on the most active volcano in Indonesia, addresses the question, “why do you live here?” Home to thousands of people, Mt. Merapi erupts every two years or so, with large, deadly eruptions not uncommon. These eruptions typically destroy everything in the path of the hot volcanic ash emitted. Yet, people continue to live on this volatile belly button of earth.

Appearing often in ancient Indonesian myth, Merapi’s ash, over time, has covered all of the land on the mountain. This ash is a provider of nutrients, making the mountain’s slopes some of the most fertile land in the world. Sections of the land on the slopes have been passed down through families over hundreds of years, often being used for agriculture. Lush fields of tobacco, coffee, vegetables, and rice are seen all over the mountain. The people who work on and own these farms, content as they may be, lose all of their crop during an eruption. They always return, though, and continue to make the mountain home. Many of them have nowhere else to go, but the people who live here have a real connection to the land. As much as it seems to take, it gives even more.

This story offers a message of what it means to truly have a home, even in the constant threat of loss.

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  • Women who live in Setabelan, the village nearest the peak and crater of Mt. Merapi, pray together on a Muslim holiday, Eid Al-Adha. The entire village gathered at a small Masjid to pray, women separate from men, just before village goats were slaughtered in a sacrificial ceremony.

  • Mt. Merapi stands over a field of chilis growing on its western slopes. Chilis are commonly found on farms all over Merapi’s slopes. Most typically used to spice foods, these chilis are also used to make one of South Asia’s most unique condiments - Sambal.

  • A group of young boy scouts pose for a photo together in front Mt. Merapi, at the last research check point before the peak of the volcano, roughly three kilometers away. While visiting the research center temperature gauges and cameras placed in and around the crater of the volcano were not functioning properly. The only way to tell if the volcano was soon to erupt was by tremor monitors, that may only give a warning of a few seconds before the eruption happens.

  • A woman walks through an area she has been mining for a few months. As mining volcanic ash becomes more popular and lucrative on Merapi, some smaller groups have decided to begin digging with their bare hands and shovels.

  • A 2010 eruption of Mt. Merapi destroyed thousands of homes on the southern hills of the volcano. Here, walls from a former colonial mansion stand amongst the lush forest that grew where the rest of the house once stood. Former tenants of these homes are not allowed to rebuild, as these areas are now considered a high threat location, with future eruptions not unlikely to move through the same areas.

  • Large mining companies pay freelance drivers to move large rocks and truckloads of volcanic ash on the slopes of Merapi. Technically illegal, many locals believe police in the area have been compensated to ignore the operation. Residents all over the mountain are angry and protest regularly, as the loss of earth means a loss of nutrients and water for the fields further down the mountain, as well as the loss of fertile land for new farms.

  • A mystical dancer, celebrating Mt. Merapi at an annual festival of Volcanoes, makes his way down the rice paddy levels towards a small village after a performance. A full day of celebrations included many groups of similar dancers, local food, and other traditional Javanese performances.

  • A family of tobacco farmers prepare their recent crop to sell at a village market a few kilometers away. High on the slopes of Mt. Merapi, tobacco farming is a common crop, as the climate is ideal for tobacco growth.

  • Young girls look at Mt. Merapi from their float during an Indonesian Independence Day parade in a village near the top of the mountain. Though a celebration of Independence, many village locals use it as an opportunity to share their praise for Merapi, while other us it as a day to protest the mining taking place on the mountain.

  • The wife of Mr. Senang stands in the kitchen of their family's home, which stands in the highest village (Setabelan) on the western face of Mt. Merapi. Mr. Senang has prepared his family to die in their home, as he believes it would be bad luck for the rest of the village if his family leaves during an eruption. The most recent eruption left three feet of hot ash covering the village. There are worries that a large chunk of the western face of the mountain's peak will collapse during the next eruption, allowing all of the hot ash and lave to flow directly towards the Senang's village, certainly destroying everything it touches.

  • A group of drummer boys march towards the end of a parade route that leads directly to a new southern viewpoint of Mt. Merapi. This new "tourist destination" will now be used as a place for people in neighboring villages to open small shops, eateries, and coffee stands. The people who live on the mountain worship Mt. Merapi, as it has allowed them to support their family through many generations via farming, tourism, and the sales of local coffee.