Monday, October 10, 2011

It’s Time to Pass the Forest-Care Baton (Part 2)


Our grandmothers in particular were strict when and where we went to play. For instance, they told us to stay close to our huts and to never climb trees nor go for a dip in the river during agmatuon (when the sun is directly overhead), a time when evil spirits are said to go after noisy and hard-headed kids.

IF THERE REALLY are guardian angels that shield children from sin and harm, then the one assigned to me must have worked non-stop 24/7 for many years. This was because, aside from minor bruises, spiny-amaranth thorns lodged on my soles, and skin allergies caused by contact with the babies of butterflies, I never met major, major accidents as a frequent forest visitor.
Not one of my playmates, too, ever had cases of getting stung by the spitting cobra, getting chased by a crazed wild pig, or getting embraced by a lovesick monkey.
Even as we were eager for adventure, perhaps we didn’t encounter life-threatening situations because we listened well to the counsels of our elders, for example: not to use our bolos this way or that way, especially when you are in the water.
Our grandmothers in particular were strict when and where we went to play. For instance, they told us to stay close to our huts and to never climb trees or go for a dip in the river at that time of day when the sun is directly overhead (agmatuon in Ilocano; namalintur in Isinay; tanghaling-tapat in Tagalog), a time when evil spirits are said to go after noisy and hard-headed kids.
They also cautioned us to avoid trees where a farmer has died after drinking too much basi, or ones known to have been hit by lightning. It was also a no-no for us to salivate for the fruits of a tree where a sinampade or ghost in priestly garb was once seen leaning, in much the same manner that it was taboo to go within striking distance of remnant forests that have a grotesque-looking balete.
As is natural for kids, however, we were not always saints. When someone warned us not to go near this part of the woods because of the presence of uyukan (honeybees), we only half listened for the mere mention of that word alone awakened our curiosity and tempted us to try our Olympian slingshot skills at the beehive and then run to the river when the thousands of bees thus provoked came looking for the culprits with their suicidal instincts and stings on the ready.
We committed venial sins, too, in summer when the song of the cicadas and the call of the birds and the scent of the ripe fruits in the wilderness were at their most irresistible pitch.
 And so, if we were not looking for bird’s nests or catching cicadas and dragonflies with long sticks the tips of which we coated with jackfruit latex, you would find us climbing guava, mango, tamarind, anonas, bignay, avocado, starapple, mabolo, santol, kasoy, jackfruit, pomelo, and duhat trees.
Not even the rumors of kumaw (sipay in Tagalog) said to kidnap gallivanting kids, put them in jute sacks, and extract their blood to fortify bridges under construction in downstream Magat or Cagayan River, could keep us from enjoying life and educating ourselves among the trees.
Let’s put it this way: Once revved up, it would already be difficult to wean kids from Mother Nature.
For the record, however, one thing was more scary for us than the balete-dwelling white ladies and the blood-using kidnappers mentioned above. This was when the bagbag tree (Erythrina species) started to shoot forth its blazing red flowers, signaling the season when Ilongot braves practiced their dreaded custom of collecting heads and went downhill to search for prey, usually Ilocano and Isinay kaingineros, be they boys or old people.
While the kumaw and the lampong may have been fiction fostered by mothers to keep their children from escaping their household chores, the Ilongots were real, warm-blooded people. We were afraid of them then because we did see their bloody handiwork displayed in front of the Presidencia (town hall) for identification, minus their heads.
To those who are hearing the name for the first time, the Ilongots are an indigenous people, now called Bugkalot, whose headhunting tradition as a forest-dwelling tribe has kept virgin forests in Nueva Vizcaya and neighboring parts of the Sierra Madre off-limits to big-time loggers, miners, ranchers, hunters, swidden farmers, rattan gatherers, and yes, even bird-hunting and fuelwood-gathering kids.
The aviator-naturalist Charles Lindbergh and the anthropologist Renato Rozaldo started to befriend them in the 1960s, and soon they stopped chopping off the heads of landgrabbers and other exploiters who dared to intrude in their forest-rich ancestral territory.

FOR THE RECORD, my early exposure to forests has its roots in the fact that as a child I had the fortune to commute between two homes both of which gave me opportunity to explore the outdoors. One was my parents’ house in the shadow of the hills in the western part of town where my playmates were mostly Isinays. The other was my grandparents’ place in the barrio nestled between the river and the cattle-grazing hills, and where the people were all Ilocanos.
In both Isinay and Ilocano worlds, almost all boys in my time wore slingshots on their necks. Called baris in Isinay and palsiit in Ilocano, we used the slingshot not only to hunt jungle fowl (abuyo in Ilocano; kalatan in Isinay) and monitor lizards (banias in Ilocano; baniyas in Isinay; bayawak in Tagalog) but more often to drive away field rats and rice sparrows (that’s maya for you) that attacked our rice crops.
Yes, the slingshot was a toy. But when no one was looking, we also used it to bring down an irresistible yellow guava or mango. The slingshot also boosted one’s bravery when sent for an errand that required passing by a house with unfriendly dogs or a balete or other such geriatric tree that is believed to house  sinampade, santilmo, kaibaan, kapre, enkantada, ansisit, and other malevolent spirits.
Lest you get the impression that playing outdoors was an everyday thing for me, no sir. As the eldest and only boy of eight children, I had to squeeze in time for my school books and class projects while doing such household chores as sweeping the yard, feeding the household pets, watering the coffee and ornamental plants, running errands for my mother, and taking care of baby sisters.
Saturdays were not all slingshot time either. I had to be around my father when we needed to mend fences, tend the backyard garden, or split firewood. We also had chickens, goats and pigs to look after. It was my duty, too, to bring a cavan of palay to the rice mill when the rice bin is running empty.
But you will note that even such chores, including the ones I had in the barrio -- such as taking the carabaos to pasture or helping weed the upland rice plants in the swidden (uma in Ilocano; soppeng in Isinay; kaingin in Tagalog), were not completely divorced from the forests.
For instance, if a hen has hatched its eggs, I would search the bushy meadows and bamboo groves for termite nest-balls to feed the chicks. To make the rice-bran feed more palatable to the pigs, I would comb wooded stream banks for the Amorphophallus campanulatus herb (tigi in Ilocano; imbayang in Isinay; pongapong in Tagalog).
In the barrio, while the carabaos grazed, my friends and I would play hide and seek among the arosip and wild guava trees or, if in the ricefields, chased the gallinule (tukling in Ilocano; siboj in Isinay) or the wild ducks (papa in Ilocano; engaj in Isinay) that searched the mudholes for stranded shells, frogs and fish.
Whether in town or in the barrio, we gorged on the fruits of kallautit and bugnay trees, painted our faces ala-Indian with appatut (achuete) seeds, or searched for whatever edibles or firewood to take home.


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