Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Native Son’s Early Lament for the Forest-Rich Dupax of Yesteryears

ONE OF THE little treasures I recently found turning brittle among my junk piles is this Jan-March 1975 issue of the Forestry Digest, A Magazine About Public Appreciation For Forests that used to be published quarterly in the days when the UPLB College of Forestry still benefited from the Republic Act that mandated collection for forest information purposes of 10 centavos per cubic meter of timber extracted from the Philippines’ forests.
The poor little thing already lost its cover but, apart from a couple or so of missing leaves, it was still in readable condition and was fortunate to have escaped nibbling by cockroaches, silverfish, and termite that have become the nemesis of a significant portion of my magazine collections (including Plain Truth, Focus Philippines, Asia Philippines Leader, Bannawag, Jingle Songbook, Unasylva, Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and Philippines Free Press).
I would have left the copy among my now-better-sorted junk of printed materials, to again fight for life until such a time that I would do another dusting and sorting. But when I leafed through its yellowing pages, I found the magazine carried an essay that I wrote when I was yet a struggling and overstaying student at the College of Forestry. Here’s a snapshot of the title page of that essay:

FORESTRY DIGEST (Jan-March 1975)
 Now there are at least four reasons why this old essay should merit a spot in this Blogsite:
1) It was an essay about Dupax when it was still a biodiversity-rich Isinay country.
2) It was the essay that earned me P80 from Focus Philippines, the highest I got paid from that magazine considering that my “Witchery at Salinas Salt Spring” bagged me P60 while my “What’s Up There on the Mountain?” earned P40.
3) It was the essay that most probably qualified me to get an invitation from Kerima Polotan, the Editor-in-Chief, to attend the 1974 Focus Philippines Literary Awards where this shy and barriotic boy from Dupax taking up Forestry at UP at least sat for an hour with other writers (including  the then boyish Cebuano poet Vicente Bandillo) at the Heroes Hall of the then Marcos-occupied Malacañang .
4) It was the essay that made me look 10-feet taller to my Uncle Ado^ (the perennial Dupax town fiesta emcee and declaimer Dominador Boada Sr.) when he read it in the Forestry Digest that I specifically asked the Forestry Digest’s circulation people to mail to him.
5) It was the essay that made Papa feel bad when he read it in the Focus Philippines that was sent as a complementary subscription for public elementary schools and so, one time I went home for the semestral break, he reprimanded me with these words: “Saanmo nga ibabain ti ilim!” (Don’t put down your own town).

Here’s a transcription of that essay:

By Charles P. Castro

(Originally published in the August 10, 1974 issue of FOCUS Philippines; reprinted with permission.)

There was a time
when meadows, grove, and stream
the earth, and every common sight
to me did seem appareled in celestial light,
the glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore –
turn whereso’er I may by night and day,
the things which I have seen
I now can see no more.
--William Wordsworth

THERE IS ALWAYS, for me, an intense feeling of envy at sight of communities  that have preserved the pristine richness and beauty of their valleys, streams, and hills despite the incessant onslaughts of civilization so-called. How lucky their inhabitants are to have still much of nature to pasture their imaginations with, and sanctuaries too in which to seek solace when life’s seas go rough and seemingly unnavigable.
I covet Los Baños, Laguna, for example, because of Mount Makiling. The climate there would not now be so friendly and the University of the Philippines campus there would not now be so appealing as a place of study had the mountain been stripped of its lush, multi-species flora.
I also envy Baco, Oriental Mindoro, where one would ordinarily dismiss as myth the delightful tales of farmers about deer, wild pig, and occasional tamaraws invading their ricefields had the mighty Mount Halcon been vegetated only with cogon and talahib.
In like manner, Lake Bulusan in Sorsogon and the fishing creeks of Maddela, Quirino, would not be so serene and inviting now – even extracting in one the wish that he were as courageous and free as Henry David Thoreau to get away from it all – if today their lake shores and riverbanks were bare of trees, ferns, lianas, and other plant life.
I suffer indeed at the mere recollection of how once upon a time my hometown Dupax had been sylvan and we natives enjoyed the blessings of undisturbed forests. But, just like many an erstwhile wooded locality, flock after flock of ruthless lumbermen came like honeybees to our town and their machines ravaged the greenness and tranquility of our dales and hills.

THERE WERE at one time in Dupax alone three logging concessions and the rivers we used to go swimming and spearfishing in soon enough became muddied by the provisional roads they built. This invasion also paved way for instant kaingins, a ravenous method of agriculture that seemed to be the specialty not only of the immigrants from the Ilocos and the mountain provinces but also those of the Visayas, many of whom looked as though they were integral parts of the logging trucks and sawmills.
We had local forest officers at the time, it’s true. However, very much like you would conjure during the Old Society when one rings the word politician, many of them were exactly that: pot-bellied, drink-loving, cockfight afficionados. They would not be disturbed in their god-fathering chores except when tipped of beautiful narra lumber drying under a poor farmer’s hut, in which case they would then hustle to the place, for is it not that narra makes excellent sala sets?
Like what most people react to poetry, these forest officers appeared ignorant to the subtlety and beauty of form that would endure beyond tomorrow. Their brand of forestry, it seems to me now, was that all the commercial trees in the woods were to be toppled and scraped off, not only to be sold to Manila, but also to make the rich soil under their boughs ready for planting to upland rice, squash, ginger, and camote. And then ultimately the cleared areas would be classified as alienable and disposable, titled or become leased as pastureland by some hawks in the bureaucracy.
Reforestation? Oh well, beyond the hypocrisy and ningas-kugon of it all, no hand was lifted seriously for that. Only words were said – perfunctorily. On Arbor Day, for instance, local officials would be asked to speak sentimentally about love of the soil and the birds and the bees and the trees that give us fruits to eat and branches to make slingshots with – while the cameras click and the school children file listlessly and scratching in the sun. It would be noon when all is said and done and the children would next be herded to weed and water gumamela hedges, coffee plants and bougainvilleas on the schoolyard while their mentors gossip under the mango trees.
A few hills were decked out once with Benguet pine. But when someone started calling the species “Christmas trees,” sure enough every cold December hence you would see the pines wilting among the Yuletide decorations of certain houses connected to reforestation people. Then one summer the fire from an adjoining kaingin got unguarded, and turned the green pine hills to brown.
Now some people have caught up with the fever again. This time it is kasoy, planted on the spot where the floods that in August carry away the wooded bridge linking the town to the rest of Nueva Vizcaya were thought to come from. If the seedlings will become climbable trees for tomorrow, only the carabaos that graze on the reforestation area would know.
What one is inclined to believe is that there should be no surreptitious reforestation activities such as are done now were reservations made at the outset for forests to co-exist with civilization.

TO THINK OF IT, just a little over a decade ago there was still more than enough place to go to where one, as Donald Culross Peattie says, “does not live as we live, restless and running, panting after flesh, and even in sleep tossing with fears.” The now scarred and artless hills were then blue-green and, oh, how reassuring they seemed to be then, palpitating with verdant vegetation and friendly wildlife!
I could still perch on my grandfather’s shoulders then and my memories of those green and untainted days include excursions with him to robust corn and tobacco fields, where wild chicken and monkeys chased one another. We had a hut in the field from where we could hear myriad of forest voices from sunup to sundown, such as the bleating of a lost fawn, the forlorn love call of the alimuken (wild dove), the bellowing of the tariktik hornbill, the chiseling of the tagtaga (woodpecker), and the shrill "kutkutak" of the jungle chicken.
The streams then were not yet violated by tin cans, dead cats, grease, and effluvia from sawmills. I remember I used to have good times fishing with Grandfather, choosing our day’s catch from among such river denizens as the dalag, the paltat, the ar-aro, the igat, and the tilapia. Nowadays you can consider yourself lucky if you could net even a single finger-sized mudfish in the streams and ponds where fish used to be only a hook-and-line away. The loss of these blessings was a consequence not so much of the additional mouths to feed as of the drying up of the springs and streams in summer.
As for floods, it’s true we had them once in a while but not as often, ferocious, and unpredictable as the deluge we now get as a consequence of forest despoliation. In fact, when I was little, inundations were sort of welcome break from routine as they brought bigger and better catches for the bamboo fish-traps called bobo and asar that the barrio folk used to collectively build and set against the stream current. These days such fishing contraptions are considered obsolete in our place, as almost  all other methods of catching fish are beginning to be useless in a now fish-poor river.
The forest loss also led to the obsolescence of certain pastime and skills. For instance, my uncles in the barrio used to weave rattan hammocks (indayon) and baskets especially when the rains came and rice planting was done. Such activity has been severely curtailed because one must hike from dawn to noon these days to get to where the well-seasoned uway (rattan) and nito are. In the old days, one didn’t have to hike too far up in the hills to get materials needed, the same way we didn’t have to go and intrude in Ilongot hunting territory to gather firewood, forest fern and palm shoots.
And, oh yes, it was not yet a miracle then to have venison (deer meat) or meat from wild pigs on our dining table in that not so long ago forest-abundant time. Using only low-caliber guns, pit traps, or a pack of dogs, it was not uncommon for hunters then to come home from the hills with a sack full of bush meat and pairs of deer antlers after only a couple of days’ sojourn in the wilderness.
Today, with the wide stretches of summery woods gone, I bet if you can get back in a year’s stalking of wild quarry your money’s worth for an air-rifle. For even the formerly ignored musang (civet cat), banyas (monitor lizard), and paniki (fruit bat) are hard to find now.
The pushing away of the forest has made these erstwhile common wildlife as rare now as the kalaw (hornbill), kilyawan (oriole), balug (wild pigeon), papa (wild mallard), abuyo (jungle fowl), and other big birds that were in my boyhood targets for our slingshots.

I HAVE YET TO SEARCH for a special someone to mother my progeny as I write this. But this early I could just imagine the questions my would-be kids would besiege me with in the future: “How does a kalaw look like, father? How does the meat of the animal owning horns like that of the hat-rack taste? And why does lolo love his old rattan sala set so much and not replace it with modern ones?”
Such questions only pertain to the tangible aspects of forests, true. Yet I worry how I’m going to answer them as I myself wonder now if I shall ever get to taste sweet and free venison again; wonder too when I will see the glint of the sun on the crimson bill of the kalaw, not as it is refurbished, held captive, and tortured in cages, or exhibited in stuffed-bird parlors, but up there, happy and free, in the trees.
In like manner, I worry how to hide from my children-to-be the fact that somewhere, sometime in my life, I have been party to the debauchery, and that I have had a hand also at sinfully laying down the blade to trees in the woods of our town which have survived years, nay, centuries, of wind and rain and drought events.
I wonder too if I shall ever see the forest-dwelling Ilongots again, including  the maiden Martina who used to give me clusters of littuko (rattan fruits) each time they would come down from the mountains to my grandparents’ barrio to barter their beautifully crafted baskets and their stocks of deer hide, rattan, and dried meat of ugsa (deer), alingo (wild pig) and ikan (a fish now extinct in our rivers) with our rice, salt, sugar, tobacco, bolos, puppies, and blankets.
Looking back on that era, what a friendly relation the Ilongots and Dupax residents had then! But the bonds were cut one day when the fire trees were in bloom and the news echoed that two families of kaingineros were beheaded in the vicinity of one of the sawmills upstream.
My townmates generally believed then that maybe some Ilongot maid was to be married and that she must have been very beautiful for the tribe to require her suitors to slice off  more than a dozen Christian heads. But when the incident were repeated regardless of whether the firetrees flowered or not, not a few people began to speculate that the headhunting was in due retaliation for the tribe's being robbed of what used to be their paradise.

WELL, THEY CALL IT progress. If losing forests and suffering the consequences is progress, I don’t know what that word means.
It would have been all right if the despoliation resulted in better roads and bridges, in more rice and livelihood, in happier and healthier people. But Dupax has nothing else to show for the exploitation of its forest riches. We still have no banks, no telephone lines, no magazine stands, no bakeries, no movie houses, not even a kilometer of concrete road to justify the destruction of the forests.
Moreover, the part of town where I live becomes an island with just a little downpour, a fact that has sent not a few candidates for mayor, governor, and congressmen to office just by their promise to reinstate the fallen bridge at Benay River connecting us to the rest of civilization.
You may call it an act of treachery on my part, but our town, once reputed to be the most wooded in Nueva Vizcaya, can only boast now of deplorably bald and bird-less mountains, vast but unproductive cogonal lands, and rivers that turn dry in summer but in the rainy season resurge and run wild with flood waters to devour and carry away crops, paddies, lives, and dreams.
That is probably why I normally don't invite vacationing friends to come to Dupax. And if ever I get around to raising a family and have the means, with my hometown’s forests gone, I’m thinking of settling down in other places – perhaps like Palawan – where all sorts of wildlife are said to be still peacefully sharing forest trails with humanity. #

1 comment:

  1. You don't want to end up spending more money on a used cage than you would have if you simply had found a cheap bird cage. And, don't forget to add in any delivery charges to get the actual cost of the cage.