Monday, June 13, 2011

From Firewood Gatherer to Forester

hen I went to Dupax last May, I brought my daughter Leia and my sister Arlyne’s grandkids to get a feel of the school and the hills that used to be part of my stomping grounds as a boy. From their looks and shrieks, and notwithstanding the mud on their sandals and the tingle of cogon blades on their juvenile skins, the kids did have fun and agreed we'd go further uphill next time I’d be home.

Little did my little hiking companions know, however, that I was also having the time of my life reminiscing those days when, to borrow a line from the Brothers Four’s song: “It was so good to be young then… to be close to the earth.”

One particular thing that made my heart jump a little was when we chanced at a father and two sons coming down the grassy slope of the mountain carrying on their shoulders what to me were very familiar things -- poles to be cut and split into firewood!

Firewood gatherers of Mt. Abuwew. [May 27, 2011 photo by charlzcastro]
Using almost the same trail that I trod perhaps more than a hundred times before, the trio jolted to life an almost forgotten chapter of my life’s story: When I was growing up in the Isinay territory of Dupax in the 1960s, one of my favorite chores was gathering dried poles and branches in the remnant forests of Mount Abuwew which I would later disijon or basijon (split with axe) into firewood.

The activity was a joyful thing to do on weekends and certainly during the school break in summer. It enriched my off-school days to such an extent that when vacation was coming to an end, I was looking forward to either compare notes with my classmates or do my English theme writing on the topic "What I Did Last Vacation." In fact, if there was an assignment that I loved doing when I could not run to my grandparents’ house in I-iyo and be with my Ilocano friends and fellow river lovers and carabao riders, it was gathering firewood.

Called mangayu in both Isinay and Ilocano, firewood-gathering  was to me a "turtle’s punishment" (as in Rizal’s story of The Monkey and the Turtle) for at least three reasons:

First, being the eldest and the only boy in the family, I was expected to do more household chores than my sisters after me when my mother was busy either sewing or washing clothes. This therefore meant that gathering firewood made me sort of exempted from such responsibilities as cooking the rice, bathing the pigs, washing the dishes, and baby-sitting kid sisters. And so I was free to eat whatever wild or communal fruits were in season – bayawas, sompalo, anunas, mangga, sarisay, sapang, arusip, bujnay, kamiring, lumbuy, kitkitiwit, majanilan si araw without feeling guilty that I didn't share them with my sisters.

Second, firewood-gathering meant going out there in the wilderness of Mount Abuwew west of the Dupax Central Elementary School (or occasionally in the woods near the Dupax Subsidiary Nursery upstream of Abannatan) and use the activity as pretext so I could spend many hours running after the birds with my baris (slingshot; palsi-it in Ilocano), finding tulin (rice sparrow; billit-tuleng in Ilocano) nests in the cogonal areas, waiting for ripe and at times naam-amon (maggoty) mangoes to fall down from their twigs up in the big tree, and testing how my ota^ (bolo; buneng in Ilocano) would go against the giyun (cogon; pan-aw in Ilocano) and wawini (sabawil in Ilocano) that obstructed the trail. And when the soy-ang (sun) was too hot, I would lay down under the lirum (shade) of an arusip tree, listen to the duluriyaw (cicada), the titit (sunbird) and the pinuu^ (bulbul) sing in the forest glades, then probably doze off for a few minutes.When it rained, it was fun running to the  tangngej (tanglag in Ilocano) to make a cave-like structure as shelter, then later watch the tabungeyon (rainbow) on the other side of the valley.

And third, engaging in this exclusive-for-boys activity made me somewhat a bigger boy. For it required one to bravely hack a way into the eyas (forest) to get at a dead tree, climb and haul down a dried-up panga (branch), use skills at tying the poles and branches thus gathered with wa-aj (vine), and then sa^bat (carry on the shoulder) the heavy bundle of wood a couple of kilometers pabujibuj (downslope) and over maro-ot (grassy/bushy) trails. I would only stop to catch my breath while feasting my eyes on the panoramic scene of Dupax downhill.

here was no discounting the risks involved. Out there you were on your own. Out there you had to be wary of the alaksiyot (wasps/hornets; alumpipinig in Ilocano) and the abubbulij (a large stinging ant called ampipit in Ilocano). Out there you had to always be on the lookout for the venomous immanuy (spitting cobra), the ayatungan (green pit viper; dahong-palay in Tagalog), or the ine^eyaddang (python; beklat in Ilocano). In case you accidentally cut your limbs while bucking or trimming timber, the most that your couple or so of equally young companions could do was to go run and shout for help kilometers away.

Getting arms and legs bruised by suwit (thorns) and sharp-edged blades of grass were normal.  Getting paltus (callus; kapuyo in Ilocano) on your palms as a result of constant cutting of wood was also par for the course, in much the same manner that cases of naburuwan (acquiring skin allergy; nabuduan in Ilocano) as a result of getting in contact with the atattaru (itchy larva), plus getting matoler (stung; masilud in Ilocano) by the alaksiyot (wasp; alumpipinig in Ilocano), nipped by the e-ja (tailor ant; abuos in Ilocano), or malurun (mapurisan in Ilocano) were also part and parcel of the territory.

Not only that. Occasionally you got to encounter a mavungot (prone to anger) homestead or kaingin owner. And no matter how you swore innocence, no matter if you showed incontrovertible evidence that you went near his area only to find the tiktikrubung (sparrow) you shot down, you get shouted at with something like: “Gaddemet… da^yut manger-eraw si abukado on mangga!” (Goddammit… you avocado and mango thieves!)

ast forward a little to when I was a student in the UPLB College of Forestry. I realize now that my firewood-gathering days (not to mention my bird-sniping, tree-climbing, kaingin-farming and river-fishing experiences) were a fitting prelude to my pursuing the B.S. in Forestry (major in Forest Resources Management).

I really didn’t dream to become a forester. In fact, when I was in my senior year at St. Mary's High School, I wanted instead to be a journalist, inspired by a note along that line on my souvenir book by my English Literature and Grammar teacher, Madam Ermelinda Castañeda-Magalad. Our parish priest at the time, Father Theo Bonarius, also thought I would be a good candidate for the priesthood.

But it turned out that an increasing number of Isinays were then going into the profession called Forestry. I didn't know them very well then, but I heard such names as Vicente Magno, Omer Laccay, Sixto Badua, Segundino Laccay, and Rogelio Felix as having gone to take up Forestry in the University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

At the time, the logging industry was the top dollar-earner for the Philippines, rivaled only now and then by the sugar industry. At the time, there was a noisy sawmill across the sementeryo in Santa Maria, north of Domang, where every hour or so logging trucks would go to unload gigantic dipterocarp logs hauled downhill from the Ilongot territory in the blue hills upstream of Banila and Carolotan.

And so it came to pass that superior orders mandated that I go to forestry school. And because it was never my sweet dream to be a logger or to have anything to do with strangers who cut giant narra, apitong, lauan and bagtikan trees into isahan, dalawahan, and tatluhan logs (and whose bulldozers and logging trucks came to destroy and muddy the river in I-iyo where I loved to go spearfishing), I merely tried to keep my nose above the academic cesspool. I merely contented floating thru college life like in a dream, tried to make sense of my UP life by joining the student movement to awaken the Filipino people to the -isms that make life difficult for the country. And the rest I left to my lucky stars.

Ayyu-ayyu ra Ente^ on Dalen Castro! (What a pity for Vic and Maggie Castro!) No matter if they felt my inner rebellion against having been forced to take a course I didn’t have a heart for, they still went on scraping the little they could so I would become a UP-produced forester.

Looking back now, it could have been worse.

Had I not used as "wind beneath my wings" those wondrous days of my youth as a firewood-gatherer in the hills of Dupax, I could have called it quits to what I considered then as an uninteresting yet difficult course. I would not have loved volunteering to climb trees in my Forest Dendrology classes and chop the bark of some for easier species identification (using the same bolo I used to cut firewood back home). I would not have enjoyed, too, my Silviculture and Forest Nursery laboratory sessions, as well as my Summer classes where we cooked out, measured hundreds of trees, visited kaingin farms, and hiked a lot to and from the Mudspring area and up to the leech-rich peaks of Mount Makiling.

Put another way, had my firewood-gathering days not made me immune to the stings and scratches of student life, had my carrying heavy loads not made me spiritually and physically strong inside, and had not my discovery that freedom had a twin called responsibility, I would have stopped struggling to pass my courses.

Instead, I would have gone full-time in the activist movement or probably ran away to a place far from Los Baños and Dupax, found a wage-earning job as an upland farmer or fisher or whatever on a coastal village somewhere in Mindoro or Quezon or Bicol, and got a barriotic maiden for a wife with whom I could watch the tallivung (full moon) by the sea and share my rainbow-colored fantasies as a country boy.

In other words: Neyyi otyan charlz castro an mansulsulat si attun sutsur! (There would have been no charlz castro writing this kind of story now!)

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