Anniversary of the eruption, February 20, 1943.
By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
SIA2009-0861. Cabin engulfed by lava flow, northeast of Parícutin Volcano in Mexico, June 12, 1943. Photograph comes from the William Foshag papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7281.
The Field Book Project includes several examples of citizen scientists at work. Often these people later became scientists, others remained longtime amateur enthusiasts. Some were brought to science by circumstance. This is the story of one such man, Caledonio Gutierrez. His papers were cataloged along with the field books of William Foshag, a Curator of Minerals at the U.S. National Museum, while studying Parícutin Volcano in Mexico. Parícutin has at times been a popular topic for writing here at the Smithsonian. The Volcano was a rare geological event, representing the first time a volcano’s birth, life, and death was recorded by scientists. During its period of activity, 1943 - 1952, it garnered significant attention from the scientific and general public. It was born in a corn field, and over its short life span caused the evacuation of two nearby towns, and required the resettlement of San Juan Parangaricutiro.
Foshag’s materials include a wide variety of photographs and entries detailing daily changes. They also include images of New San Juan Parangaricutiro, when the town was resettled. Accounts of the area around the volcano are often dramatic. William Foshag wrote while traversing the sides of Parícutin Volcano in Mexico in 1943:
“About 15 minutes after our arrival, a spot, about one meter across became more incandescent, changing from the glowing red of the lava cracks to a brilliant orange yellow, and began to work like leavening bread, and then to slowly flow. Slowly the moving area spread, and within five minutes the entire cliff, for the width of five meters had melted into a flow of brilliant orange.”
Foshag worked for several years studying the evolution of Parícutin. While there, a local inhabitant of San Juan Parangaricutiro, by the name of Caledonio Gutierrez worked as his assistant. Though not a geologist or mineralogist, Gutierrez kept a diary of the daily activity and effects of the Volcano on his community. The diary covers 1943-1952, describing changes observed in Paricutín, Mesa de los Hornitos, and the surrounding environment, including emanating debris (i.e. ash) and vapor, ongoing eruptions, changes to the crater, and individuals who explored the area. His diary, composed in Spanish, was partially translated into English and is part of Foshag’s Smithsonian Institution Archives collection.
Below is a quote (translated) from Gutierrez explaining his journal.
“[January 1, 1946] Three years ago my village existed tranquilly, without any warning of the volcano that exists today. Three years ago all parts of this region were beautiful, with fruit trees in the village, green pastures, beautiful fields that demonstrated the riches of the area, with cattle and sheep and droves of horses…now there remains for me only a remembrance and a pride to have known it as it existed three years ago and to note that changes that I observed with the eruption of this volcano as it continues its activity.”
Below Gutierrez’s excerpt, Foshag wrote:
"Although these notes are couched in simple terms, they constitute the only complete record of the volcano's activity and have the advantage of being free of any preconceived notions of what a volcano should do."
As Foshag acknowledged in the quote above, the Gutierrez journal is a wonderful example of the care and focus that citizen scientists often give to their work. Though Gutierrez had no formal training, his style and content were consistent and detailed enough to provide valuable information to professionals in the natural sciences. The journal not only tells the story of a volcano and the communities it affected, but also augments scientific observations in the vicinity, shedding light on field work in habitats affected by the volcanic activity.