Monday, October 10, 2011

It’s Time to Pass the Forest-Care Baton (Part 3)

     As children, we were super excited each time the trucks that hauled the logs from the mountains upstream stopped on our way home from work in the paddy fields or the upland farms, especially when the driver allowed us to sit atop his load of huge logs. We enjoyed how the wind brushed our faces like we were on the back of a carabao running non-stop up and down the mountain trail.

THE FORESTS OF DUPAX may not have been discovered to be habitat to charismatic wildlife such as the Philippine eagle, the tamaraw, the tarsier, and the mouse deer. But such lack might as well have been filled by the presence, as mentioned, of the Ilongots whose daring and jungle skills could put them at par with the Apache Indians.

Not only that. While our forests may not have been as photogenic as those of the pine stands of the Cordillera, at least one could say that if he happens to be a survivor of a plane crash in our wilderness, there’s plenty of wild food items he could stay alive with.

For example, bush meat from the deer (ugsa in Ilocano; la-man in Isinay), wild pig (alingo in Ilocano; bavuy si eyas in Isinay; baboy-damo in Tagalog), civet cat (mutit in Ilocano; amunin in Isinay; musang in Tagalog), fruit bat (paniki in Ilocano and Tagalog; pani-i in Isinay), and monitor lizard (banyas in Ilocano; baniyas in Isinay; bayawak in Tagalog) were common table fare when I was little.

Each time I developed scabies on my legs (acquired from eating too much igat  or eel), my grandmother would ask one of my uncles to go hunt for a monkey (sunggo in Ilocano; araw in Isinay; unggoy in Tagalog) the meat of which proved to be good antidote for skin allergies when cooked as adobo.

Because the streams and rivers seldom got murky nor dry, spearfishing mudfish (dalag in Ilocano and Tagalog; dalaj in Isinay), white goby (bukto in Ilocano; guggur in Isinay; biya in Tagalog), native perch (ar-aro in Ilocano; alalu in Isinay; martiniko in Tagalog), stone goby (bunog in Ilocano; sappilan in Isinay; biyang-bato in Tagalog)catfish (paltat in Ilocano; pattat in Isinay; hito in Tagalog), and tilapia was always a delight. With bare hands or with small nets one could get enough freshwater shrimps (lagdaw in Ilocano; ajdaw in Isinay) to make into “jumping salad” seasoned with bagoong and green mango or wild button tomatoes (butinggan in Ilocano and Isinay). 

Farmers were not yet using chemical fertilizers and pesticides then, so it was very safe to collect the fresh-water shells (particularly the bisukol, leddeg and birabid in Ilocano; respectively basikul, ambeveyo^ and genga in Isinay; kuhol in Tagalog ) and edible algae (tabtaba and bulbulintik in Ilocano; bajase in Isinay) that were at the time part (not pests) of the coupled forest-and-ricefield ecosystems. 

During heavy rains when meat, fish and shells were difficult to have, there were other organic food items free for the taking be it in the forest wild or along tree-covered riverbanks. 

Depending on the season, ubog (pith of the fishtail palm), barit (rattan shoot), and tabahat (edible jungle fern) were common then. Most other days, we stuck to pako

In summer, many of us became entomophagous (insect-eaters) as it was season for gathering the white eggs and nymphs of the abuos (tailor ant). The months of April-June, was fiesta for us in the barrio as we trooped to the riverside to catch abal-abal (May beetle; salagubang in Tagalog). 

When rats, locusts, and mayas (billit-tuleng in Ilocano) diminished our rice harvest, there was always the wild yam (karut in Ilocano and Isinay; nami in Tagalog; kalot in Bisaya) as alternative staple food.

You might think that we had gizzards of stone then but, yes, part of my happy memories of childhood was my having been nourished by food from the wilderness that most children or even adults of today will probably not be able to taste anymore or would only be able to sniff as “exotic food” in specialty  restaurants.

FOR MANY YEARS we thought that the Amorsolo-painting-like nature of my boyhood barrio would never end. But the picture started to change when huge bulldozers and strangers on board 10-wheeled trucks came to our barrio.

At first we were delighted to see new faces. We were also happy with the way the strangers improved the muddy road that passed by our barrio and opened up new routes in the hills that allowed us to bypass ricefields and avoid several river crossings. 

As children, we were super excited, too, each time the trucks that hauled the logs from the mountains upstream stopped on our way home from work in the paddy fields or the upland farms, especially when the driver allowed us to sit atop his load of huge logs. We enjoyed how the wind brushed our faces like we were on the back of a carabao running non-stop up and down the mountain trail.

But pretty soon our love for such free rides aboard the isahan, dalawahan, or tatluhan logs faded when, apart from muddying the river (where we swam and fished) when the trucks made their frequent trips, they also brought in a lot of people whose language we could barely understand. 

With the improved roads and the free rides on logging trucks, more and more forested areas were opened up to kaingin and settlement. There were opportunities for employment in the timber-cutting areas and in the sawmills for local people, yes. But only for the able-bodied males.

As if on cue, incidences of beheading in the forest fringes have also vanished as the presence of less-than-friendly people who started to populate the hillsides and riverbanks further upstream of town may have proved too big a challenge to the Ilongots. 

It didn’t take long, however, when we got problems we had not encountered before.

For instance, our abung-abung (farm huts) where earlier anyone was welcome to seek shelter when caught by darkness or thunderstorms, started to lose their resident salt, rice kettle, and even firewood. Cornfields and peanut farms whose produce have yet to be tasted by their owners suddenly had significant quantities of their edible parts missing.

Where during the pre-logging years our rivers never got murky, a few years after logging started our favorite fishing spots got totally obliterated when chocolate-colored water spilled out of the erstwhile placid rivers and either covered its path with silt or washed away bamboo clumps and nibbled at vegetable farms and ricefields by the riverside.

I wrote an essay many years ago for Focus Philippines and the Forestry Digest about such price we people of Dupax had to pay for allowing our once thick and verdant forests to be ransacked by non-natives. I was still looking for a wife at the time, but I already felt a sense of big lose then for my would-be kids and other children who stood to be deprived of their forest heritage, so I titled my essay “No More Poems for My Children.” 

Mind you, many years later, my sentiments got echoed by the group Asin with their “Kapaligiran” song the lines of which include:

Ang mga batang ngayon lang isinilang
May mga ilog pa kayang lalanguyan...
May mga puno pa kaya silang aakyatin
May dagat pa kaya silang matitikman.

LOOKING BACK NOW, I feel sad  that even those who could in all candor say “Me too... our house was near the forest” (or words to that effect) are not aggressively tapping their forest experience to help improve life in the  Philippines. 

There was once a movie that expounded on the wonders of  “paying forward” or passing on to others whatever good things another person did for you. How I wish people whose childhood lives had been happily entwined to forests could apply that beautiful concept to the conservation of our natural ecosystems.

As it is, however, things are not yet the way we would like them to be. Henry David Thoreau, my favorite nature writer and himself a forest dweller (when Walden Pond was still sylvan and biodiversity-rich), had a similar lament: “Each more melodious note I hear brings this reproach to me, that I alone afford the ear what would the music be.”

Short of using as mantra another pertinent quotation (this time attributed to an American Indian chief), “We didn’t inherit the world from our parents, we borrowed them from our children,” what I’m really trying to say is that we adults have a moral duty to teach children on how to keep our forests well.

There is no discounting how little steps of early child exposure to things of nature such as trees and hills and rivers and forests, including the flora and fauna and culture that dwell in or are associated with them, can work wonders to young people’s attitude towards nature and behavior vis-a-vis the environment later in life, especially when it’s their time to take over from where we have left off.

For my part, even as I miss the taste of venison and the meat of wild boar... even as I long for the night music of the kulluong (boat-like wooden vessel) being pounded as upland rice stalks are separated from the fat grains... even as I miss the hourly kraw-kraw-kraw of the kalaw and the crowing of the labuyo... I wish I could do more for the forests that nurtured me to become what I am today. 

I may have already gone first base, as it were, along this path by teaching my three “forest products” to be nature lovers when they were small. In fact, they are all grown-ups now, and I recently got into the habit of nudging them with this reminder: “When you have kids of your own,  please give me and your mom the freedom to bring them outdoors rain or shine, to chase dragonflies, catch tadpoles, soak in the river, play hide and seek under the trees, pitch tent on grassy ground, watch the moon and the stars at night, build bonfires on which to roast corn and camote, etc. etc. etc. – like what we used to do when you yourselves were kids.”

I may have done my little part, too, as a forester since much of my professional life has been devoted to the information, extension and communication aspects of forestry, using my boyhood exposure to forests and nature as framework, leverage, inspiration, and wind beneath my wings

I have served as writer/editor for the outreach publications of the UPLB College of Forestry that included the Conservation Circular, the Forestry Digest, the Makiling News, and later the Ilocano forest magazine Anaraar.

I have been part of the UP Los Baños team of foresters that shared forest conservation knowledge to science teachers in Manila, Quezon City, Pasay City, Caloocan, Rizal, Nueva Ecija, Mindoro, Lubang Island, Iloilo, and Sultan Kudarat in the 1976-77 Forest Conservation Education Program for Elementary Schools.

I was one of the water boys, so to speak, when we were yet winning to the fold fellow foresters who found it hard to balance their timber-focused mindsets with concern for marginalized forest-based communities.

But I really wish I could do more.

As a full-fledged senior citizen now, I feel I no longer have the physical wherewithal and academic fortitude to do forestry IEC work like I aggressively used to as a young forester. Well, then, perhaps teaching forest appreciation (plus love for birds, beetles, hills, cicadas, fireflies, rivers, dragonflies, fish, and the great outdoors) to my grandchildren yet to come may compensate for this shortcoming.

I just hope that doing so will result in the kids’ becoming better stewards of the Philippines -- and, for that matter, Planet Earth -- than I have ever been.

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