CUMBRE VIEJA EXCLUSION ZONE, Canary Islands — A child’s swing. A fountain in a courtyard. A tray of glasses abandoned under the duress of escape. All will disappear as a blizzard of dark ash blows from a volcano on La Palma island and drifts to the ground inch by inch, foot by foot.

Inside the exclusion zone, there is destruction by lava as well as burial in a sepulcher of black snow. A living room furnished with a hammock sits empty in the final hours before an implacable tongue of molten rock crushes an entire house.

Whether the end comes from lava or from ash, homes and fields located below the Cumbre Vieja volcano face annihilation in slow motion.

Since the eruption started on Sept. 19, authorities have declared more than 20,000 acres (8,200 hectares) between the Cumbre Vieja volcano and the Atlantic Ocean off-limits. Only police, soldiers, and scientists are allowed to move freely in the exclusion zone, which cuts La Palma’s western shore in two.

Now, evacuated residents line up in cars and trucks on the zone’s edge, awaiting permission to make escorted trips home to rescue their dearest possessions, or at least see their endangered properties.

Human time and geological time were brought into sync by the volcano. What once seemed a given — the land beneath people’s feet — becomes as fluid and unpredictable as the lives the eruption threw into tumult. The creep of the lava, the buildup of ash, are matched by the growing anguish of the men and women whose way of life is being erased.

Silence would reign in the exclusion zone if it weren’t for what residents have named “the beast.” The volcano’s constant roar makes conversation almost impossible, nearly drowns out both the barking of abandoned dogs and the murmur of a flock of pigeons circling the sky in search of a coop that no longer exists.

Another sound: families weeping as they are accompanied by police to witness their homes as they succumb. Lava flows have destroyed more than 1,000 houses in their paths.

The ash is jettisoned thousands of meters into the sky, but the heaviest, thickest particles eventually give way to gravity. They accumulate into banks that slowly cover doors, pour into windows, make rooftops sag. Some particles are so big that when they pummel a car roof or the fronds of a banana tree, it sounds like hail.

Entire houses, right up the chimney, whole forests, right up to the canopy, the ash erases the distinguishing features of the landscape.

“I can’t even recognize my home,” Cristina Vera said while weeping. “I can’t recognize anything around it. I don’t recognize my neighbors’ homes, not even the mountain. It has all changed so much that I don’t know where I am.”

The quick relocation of more than 7,000 people has prevented the loss of human life. At cemeteries, though, the occupants go through a second burial by ash, a burial that will wipe away the markers that note the place where they were put to rest.

Yet amid the apocalypse, there are moments for the sublime to emerge. The colors that remain gain in their brilliance against the new ebony backdrop.

A small shrub, shaken clean, becomes a luminous green globe, a sponge pulled from a coral reef, an orb from an alien world.


Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain.

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