Sunday, July 3, 2011

This Beetle Was a Favorite Isinay Toy

Rhinoceros beetle and button tomatoes [Jan. 2011 photo by charlzcastro]

I was sweeping fallen avocado leaves on our part of the road in Baguio City one morning last January when -- as if my guardian angel gave a sign that she was happy I was starting the day right -- I chanced upon this rhinoceros beetle feebly crawling in the dew-drenched pavement.

Called dumoj in Isinay (barrairong in Ilocano; uwang in Tagalog), it has been years, nay, decades, when I last saw this creature.

It was my first time, too, to find one in cold Baguio and, in fact, I half wondered if it really grew up in pine country or it was brought from the lowlands and was able to escape its boy captor.

I picked the beetle up, held it on my palm, and forgot all about my sweeping fallen avocado leaves. And right then and there half-forgotten boyhood memories of playing with the beetle (as well as cicadas, dragonflies, fireflies, crickets, and grasshoppers) raced like video tape on fast forward in my mind’s eye.

But before I called my daughters to come look at a sample of my toys as a boy in Isinay country, I plucked some reddish-orange fruits plus a leaf of my wife’s wild button tomato plants, put the sleepy insect on my palm, set the specimens for a good photo op in the morning light, and the picture above was one of the results.

My memories about the rhino beetle (called as such because its horn resembles that of the rhinoceros) include finding them among the stems of acapulco (tutu^paw in Isinay), a small shrub whose leaves and golden yellow flowers we use as cure for the "white-spots" skin disease that we learned in elementary school to be Tinea flava (kamanaw in Ilocano, isaw in Isinay).

When I was little and even when Papa already bought me a bicycle, either on the way upstream to my grandparents house in I-iyo or, conversely, on my way down to my parents house in Domang, I would often have a pit stop on the side of the road near the bridge in Ongkay. Well, purposely to look for the beetles -- as well as to pluck a young leaf of the acapulco and rub its juice on the white spots on my face.

I digress, but incidentally, that part of the Dupax to I-iyo road that used to have plenty of such dumoj is now the same spot where Bonnie Calacala makes his roadside garden of bush sitaw (utong in Ilocano, gayya^ in Isinay). When I went to the area last May, I didn't notice though if there was any remnant of the tutu^paw plants that used to abound there.

I would often find half a dozen of the insects crawling or just sleeping among the acapulco plants there. And sometimes, because of such luck, I would entertain thoughts that God indeed acknowledged that I was a good boy as I went to church every Sunday morning, did my household chores well, performed my best in school, did not quarrel much with my sisters, and took a bath every day.

The beetles' legs and claws were to me so sharp that when I put the squirming insects on the good pocket of my short pants I would see to it that the pocket didn't get too close to my skin. There were no convenient plastic bags in Dupax then, mind you. I would have used matchboxes but they were too small and not strong enough for the fat and sturdy beetles.

Oh well, here's another side note: The Isinay term tutu^paw for the acapulco plant may have been applied by an Isinay ancestor who noticed that the oval leaves of the plant did seem to "fall asleep" at the end of day. Indeed, remembering one of my UP Los Baños lessons in Forest Botany, most leguminous plants (which include the acapulco, makahiya, ipil-ipil, tamarind, and rain tree) do close or fold their leaves at twilight to save on heat and moisture that would otherwise escape through their leaves' stomata or breathing organs.

In summer, when there are evening occasions (such as pre-fiesta benefit dances or movie shows) in the plaza in Dupaj or in the then seldom used tindan (market) in Domang, there would occasionally be a couple or so of the rhino beetles that would hover around and around the electric bulb lights of Robin Angat (the lone service provider for such lights and music in those days when there was yet no electricity in Dupax). Naturally the bolder boys would outdo one another in chasing and catching the insects and would soon ignore what was going on so they could ogle at the beetle.

There used to be a forested spot near the Dupax Central Elementary School in upstream Abannatan where I also used to collect rhino beetles. I happened to discover a particular beetle habitat there in a clump of vines and appatut (achuete) saplings one time my fellow wilderness-loving classmate Peredo^ (Wilfredo Felix) and I escaped from watering hopeless lettuce, cabbage and other plants in the school garden beside Abannatan. During summer vacation when I'm not in I-iyo and have already done my chores of feeding the pigs and the chickens, I would go there early mornings to take a digos ti uwak (that's Ilocano for taking a bath with no soap; omos si gayang in Isinay) in Abannatan's cold water then later sling-shoot birds or find beetles.

And what did I do with those that I caught or rather plucked off from their attachments on the host plants?

First, if I there were more than two, I would only get the male ones, the ones with distinctive horns, and discard the females, the ones with no horns. Sometimes I would also let go smaller males if their horns were not as long and mean-looking enough as the big ones -- or if I remembered my being a big brother, I would take them home to my sisters.

Rhino beetles are lazy fliers, so tying their hind legs with thread (the way we used to do with May beetles) is out of the question. In fact, I don't recall having seen rhinos fly. But these guys are rather good fighters, pullers, pushers, and crawlers. Thus, if I had a pair of long-horned ones, I would pit them into a bullfight of sorts on a cleared spot on the ground. Sometimes I would set a stick or twig on the pincers/horns of one beetle and enjoy watching how it carried or held on to that twig for several minutes.

Pity the little creatures. When we got tired of them -- or when they got too tired to play what we wanted them to play -- we just left them on the ground to fly if they still could fly. More often than not, however, we just threw them in the direction of the chickens for them to peck then chase one another with.

You must have heard how many of us Northern Filipinos, including Negritos, Ilocanos, Ifugaos, Igorots, Ilongots and Isinays, eat almost anything that moves, in much the same manner that we are able to use as food any succulent green along streams or on the mountain trail. (They say this instinct for edible wild plants and animals was the reason why during World War 2 American soldiers assigned in Luzon were said to have preferred going on food-hunting forays with locals rather than their countrymen).

Well, unlike its relatives, the rhino beetle is not the one that could be fried and eaten with gusto. Rather, the favorite delicacy among its tribe is the May beetle (called abal-abal in Ilocano, e-ve in Isinay, salagubang in Tagalog) that emerged when the first rains in April or May came and which we caught in riverine farms with the use of keddeng, a beetle attractant made of the mud-soaked and air-dried bast fiber of the bitnong tree.

For its part, the wild button tomato (called butinggan in Ilocano and Isinay; sometimes butbutones by other Ilocanos) was a common wild food plant among us rural folks in Northern Philippines when I was growing up. It grew and still grows wild and untended (balang in both Isinay and Ilocano) -- hence, organic to the max! -- among the ferns, saluyot, am-amti, allay (amaranth), vines, grass, and shrubs on river banks or at the edge of the talon/payaw, bangkag/gitaw, or uma/soppeng.

Be they rhinos or Mays, I'm pretty sure there are still such beetles in Isinay country. What may be good subject for quick research, however, is to find out if kids in that part of the Planet Earth, including its neighbors Aritao and Bambang, still care to hunt for them and play with them. -- charlz castro


  1. Thank you for reading my blog, Crisman. I have plans to collect and polish the posts like this that are related to nature appreciation and possibly publish them in book form soon -- probably with illustrations by Dante Pecson, our tireless Manong.