Friday, March 30, 2012

What's the Isinay for Scarecrows?

The scarecrows we had were a far cry from the gigantic and complete-with-the-signature-mole effigies of former President GMA that student and labor activists burn during protest rallies.

THERE'S THIS RECENT picture of me and a cousin taken from my farm in upstream Dupax that I love to share with Isinay Bird readers, not only because of the nostalgically verdant background and the promise of a good harvest that the ricefield setting suggests, but also because it reminds me of an activity that I loved to do as a boy in the barrio.

Here, your honor, is that guilty photograph:

 My little patch of farm in Sinagat, Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya. (March 19, 2012 photo by Boni Calacala)

That's your Isinay Bird on the right, and that's my farm manager and cousin Rudy Batacan on the left. As you can see, we were raising our hands while posing for the camera. No, friend, it was not because we had imbibed in our system more than our usual bottle of gin and a native chicken for pulutan. It was rather more because we were imitating the pose of a bambanti.

Bambanti is of course an Ilocano word for scarecrow -- even as the birds that it is supposed to scare off are not even the size of the head of an ordinary crow (as described below).

It was not very long ago (from an article on Isinay culture that I came across in the internet) that I got to learn, among other words, the Isinay for scarecrow. This is a give-away of how recent I have re-energized or re-visited my Isinay vocabulary, I know. But that's the truth.

The word is TINAJUTAJU (Note: the Js here are pronounced like the Hs of halo-halo).

Also spelled TINAHUTAHU (in modern-day Philippine orthography), this Isinay term specifically refers to that human-like figure set in a strategic spot of ricefields to, as the name suggests, scare away crows.

The effigy, if we may call it that, is usually made of two bamboo poles or branches tied together in the form of a cross then fleshed out with rice hay, coconut husks, banana stalks, or cogon before being dressed with rags and its head capped with an old sombrero (balanggut in Isinay, kallugong in Ilocano).

Yes, it is a far cry from the gigantic, artistic and complete-with-the-signature-mole effigies of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that student and labor activists burn during protest rallies.

The tinahutahu figures in Dupax as well as in rice-producing communities elsewhere in the Philippines were not, however, intended to frighten crows. Instead, they were meant for the tiny birds called tulin in Isinay, maya in Tagalog, and billit-tuleng in Ilocano.

Sometimes referred to as rice sparrows in English, the birds were (and still are) only a little more than two inches long from head to tail and were cute to look at due to their neatly combed chocolate, chestnut or ebony feathers. They also sang songs that sounded like a short-breathed whistle as they called one another in the periphery of rice paddies.

Small but terrible would be an appropriate description for the birds. Often coming in droves or groups of a few dozens up to hundreds, you could just imagine how much would-be rice they would deprive the poor farmer and his kids once they took fancy to an unguarded ricefield whose grains are yet to grow fat and yellow.

Incidentally, before the picture above was taken, I had just learned from my cousin Rudy that the billit-tuleng preferred to feed on the rice panicles when they still have milky grains, not when the grains are ready to be harvested (as in the photo).

In a visit to this same farm last year, Rudy also told that a very effective way to drive away the bird pests was to use labentador (firecrackers). Sometimes he would fire his air-rifle, minus its lead-pellets.

I DON'T KNOW about kids of Dupax nowadays, be they Ilocano or Isinay or Cordilleran. But when I was a boy, it was farm children's duty to guard the ricefields from the rice-eating birds.

No sir, it was not a difficult chore at all nor was it a case of forced child labor.

Instead, it was a fun-filled assignment and an enjoyable thing for us that lasted for only a week or so, depending on the stage of maturity of the rice grains.

It was fun because it was basically play for outdoor-loving barrio kids like us. It meant freedom from other chores such as husking corn, taking care of baby sisters or kid brothers, guarding the tomato-seedling bed from chickens, cooking papayas or gabi stalks for the pigs, or pasturing the carabaos.

It was enjoyable because we had the whole day to ourselves and with our slingshots. When a big covey of the rice sparrows would come near, we would shoot pebbles at them with our slingshots, and quite often we would down one or two of the birds which we would later go find among the grain-heavy rice plants, if our dogs would not beat us to them.

Of course, small as they are, the birds have brains, too. Thus, sensing our noisy and threatening presence, most often they would go to feed in other ricefields somewhere.

And so, what did we do while the birds were away?

Well, we would have time to engage in other enjoyable things that farm-based boys in my time loved to do aside from driving away the rice birds.

If there were small pools of water left on the deeper sides of the rice paddies, we would go apply what we learned from our elders on how to catch mudfish (dalaj in Isinay, dalag in Ilocano and Tagalog) or frogs (tadaj in Isinay, tukak in Ilocano, palaka in Tagalog) with bare hands without disturbing the rice plants.

Quite often, we would apply a fishing method called savu in Isinay and karas in Ilocano, which simply involved bailing out water from a pond or mudhole using a pail, a plate or one's joint cupped palms and then catching the resident or remnant fish when the drained out pond has reached "low tide" of sorts.

Sometimes Mother Luck or serendipity would bring surprises for us. For instance, instead of fish or frogs, we would find a turtle (bau-u in Isinay, pag-ong in Ilocano, pagong in Tagalog) sleeping in the mud. Other days, we would find the nest along with a couple of eggs or more of the gallinule (siboj in Isinay, tukling in Ilocano, tikling in Tagalog).

Thus, apart from the bite-size body of the ricebirds, we would occasionally have fish or frogs to roast, or eggs to boil under the bitnong tree, or to bring home. The turtle will of course soon be part of our communal toys and if we tired of it we usually tethered it in a pail along with leftover food and rice-wash (arasaw in Ilocano) collected for the pigs.

If there were a fruiting tibig tree in the vicinity, we would go pick some to fill our pockets and make spinning tops out of them. Some of the fruits we would use as bullets for our slingshots.

For snacks, we never ran out of fruit-laden kitkitiwit vines or guava trees nearby. Otherwise, there was always fresh-from-the-farm corn or camote or peanuts to boil or roast.

If there were unguarded mangoes nearby, we would go vent our Olympian slingshot skills at their fruits.

And when the sun became too hot, we would go dip on a nearby banawang (irrigation canal) if not the river. And if a docile carabao would be bathing nearby, we would use the poor animal as diving board.

Other times, we would quarrel under the abung-abong (farm hut) about any topic within our barrio world that caught our fancy. Examples: Which fruit tasted sweeter -- a ripe langka or a ripe mangga? Which bird flew higher -- the swift (sallapingaw in Ilocano, pipingngaw in Isinay) or the hawk (kali in Ilocano, labban in Isinay)? Which one was better -- the cow or the carabao? 

Our bickering would only stop when we would hear the distinct sound of the ricebirds singing among the rice plants nearby -- or when someone's sister would come to tell, "Agawidkayo kanon ta manganen!" (It's time to go home  for lunch.)

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with the bambanti aka tinahutahu was when I was yet a barefoot and scabies-infected boy wearing suspenders and not knowing which one was front and which one was back when left alone to put on my T-shirt.

I was then living with my grandparents in I-iyo, then a sitio of Dupax that is now officially called Barangay Palobotan and was always a sacristan of sorts to my maternal grandmother. One time I went with her to rid the tobacco plants of leaf-eating worms, I caught glimpse of a red-shirted object on a field adjacent to my grandparents' farm.

The thing had protruding yet fingerless arms and tattered kallugong (wide-brimmed hat) that covered its face. It was standing in the middle of a ricefield and, despite the searing heat of the sun, it was not seeking shade under the bitnong trees nearby nor was it moving at all.

Sensing my frightened but curious look, my Inang Baket merely said, "Bambanti."


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