BY WAY OF chipping in to the celebration of the International Year of Forests in 2011, I jotted down my recollections on how it was to live in a place and at a time where and when there were plenty of forests. Before I knew it, the memory bytes took on a body of their own that I thought I should share not only to my fellow foresters but also to parents and lolos like me who wish to sow the seeds of nature appreciation among their kids.
Well then, the illustration below by my veteran nature-education artist friend Dante N. Pecson of Agno, Pangasinan, captures much of how kids were -- girls or boys, be they Ilocano or Isinay or half-breeds -- when I was little.
Yes, apart from being more respectful to the elderly, we Isinay kids were very much at home then with trees (ayu), birds (mantetteyav), rhinoceros beetles (dumoh), May beetles (e-ve), dragonflies (atittino^), spiders (aawwa), fireflies (i^-irong), cicadas (duluriyaw), butterflies (kukkuyappon), bees (ababvayung), grasshoppers (durun), preying mantises (paspasusu), ant lions (sutsunay), snakes (iraw), house lizards (batbatilaw), mole crickets (e-e), earthworms (kolang), tadpoles (tohong), frogs (tadah), rats (gandaw), bats (pani-i), monkeys (araw), and what have you.
Conversely, we knew what poisonous vines (wa-ah), hairy worms (atattaru), wasps (alaksiyot), and large ants (abubbulij) to be wary of. And we knew that the wawini flowers and the kamiring trees are to be avoided, otherwise we would be scratching any which way on our body the rest of the day.
Unlike many of today’s over-accessorized yet nature-malnourished kids, we made do then with what our sylvan surroundings gave us. No battery-operated nor even plastic toys. The closest to “high-tech” things we got to touch were the rubber of our slingshots (baris in Isinay, palsiit in Ilocano, saltik in Tagalog) and flat sardine cans that we converted into toy trucks (gargarusa) with fruits of the tibig (called lavay in Isinay, tebbeg in Ilocano) for wheels.
We made airplanes out of dragonflies (atittino^ in Isinay, tuwwato in Ilocano, tutubi in Tagalog, alindahaw in Bisaya) that we caught by the tail on grassy grounds. At night we chased fireflies (i^irong in Isinay, kulalanti in Ilocano, alitaptap in Tagalog, aninipot in Bisaya) among the gumamela shrubs.
We also had fun with fronds of the betel nut palm (muma in Isinay, bua in Ilocano, nganga in Tagalog) for horses, low-lying mango branches for swings, banana trunks for boats, bamboo poles for musical instruments (such as torotot) or for kiddy war-game weapons (such as the one we call kalido^do^ in Isinay, palsuot in Ilocano, sumpak in Tagalog), and hollowed-out sour fruits of the pomelo (lojban in Isinay, lukban or sua in Ilocano, suha in Tagalog) for boxing gloves.
BY HINDSIGHT, I can tell with conviction now: To get kids to bond with Mother Earth, start with what they like to do best ― play.
That was how I learned to identify many trees, birds, vines, orchids, insects, herbs, and grasses -- long, long before I became a forester.
Being allowed to go outdoors was also how I learned to climb trees ― emboldened at seeing smaller guys able to make their way up a tamarind tree and enjoy its marasaba or kalangakang fruits, while lesser mortals just make do with what those up there would throw. (Yes, reminiscent of Jose Rizal’s story about ripe bananas, the bully monkey, and the smart turtle.)
Playing in the green outdoors with friends helped me master what wild fruits were edible, which shrubs to avoid for their itchy leaves, what bushes hosted beetles, and what trees not to cut for fuel because they caused cooking pots to crack.
Our playgrounds were, however, not confined to wooded places, nor what we did every day was gallivant and play.
When goats or carabaos under our care were put to pasture, when waiting for the wild pigeon (manaleban in Isinay, alimuken in Ilocano) to perch on its feeder tree seemed to take forever, or when our slingshots could not touch the feathers of the tariktik high up in the kalumpit tree (kaluttit in Isinay, kallautit in Ilocano), to the river we would go.
There was always a lot of things to do in the river. We would teach one another how to swim (man-iyat in Isinay, aglangoy in Ilocano). We would test our ability at staying submerged in the water and holding our breath for as long as we could in a game called pinnaliwliwan in Isinay (pinnautan in Ilocano). We would overturn river stones to search for dragonfly nymphs or freshwater bugs (ato^tong in Isinay, allukap in Ilocano). We would practice catching fish with bare hands (a method called mangemu in Isinay, agkammel in Ilocano). We would take turns scrubbing the dirt off our backs using smooth rubbing stones (called bubbur in Isinay, is-iso in Ilocano, panghilod in Tagalog).
Usually in summer when the river became shallow, we would divert the flow of the stream (a river-fishing process we call seyup in Isinay and sarep in Ilocano) and be able to bring home as good excuse for getting suntanned all day a bamboo-tube full of gobies (sappilan in Isinay, bunog in Ilocano, biyang-bato in Tagalog), shrimps (ajdaw in Isinay, lagdaw in Ilocano, hipon in Tagalog), and crabs (ajasit in Isinay, agatol in Ilocano, talangka in Tagalog).
Often, a couple of carabaos would be enjoying the water near our favorite swimming hole. If the owner was not around, we would use the docile animals as diving board. Alternatively, we would test one another's bravery by searching a nuwang's belly for leeches (bilavil in Isinay, alinta in Ilocano, linta in Tagalog) feeding on the animal's blood. I cannot do it now but, at the time, I was some expert at turning the slimy blood-fattened leeches inside out with a stick pushed on one end, with blood oozing and all, before letting them squirm again in the water.
Depending on the season, river banks were our supermarket then. Ferns, button tomatoes, wild ampalaya, and other edible plants were common. Palm piths (umu^ in Isinay, ubog in Ilocano), bamboo shoots (tumpup in Isinay, rabong in Ilocano) and the wild tuber called karot in both Isinay and Ilocano (kalut in Bisaya, nami in Tagalog) were free for the taking.
During the rainy season, edible mushrooms (amabuvun in Isinay, uong in Ilocano, kabute in Tagalog) and fungi (such as the urapping and tangtangila in Isinay, kudet and kulat in Ilocano, tengang-daga in Tagalog) were a delight to hunt in the thickets.
BE IT IN the hills, forests, or streams, my friends and I exchanged notes as well as folklore concerning the natural world. We shared tips on what vegetation was the favorite nesting place for certain birds, which larvae or lizard you could touch, what snakes were venomous and which ones you could sleep with. We debated on which python (ine^eyaddang in Isinay, beklat in Ilocano, sawa in Tagalog) killed by one’s grandfather or uncle was bigger or longer, what part of the woods was believed to be haunted by lampong or banij, and which mountain stream or trail led to Ilongot territory.
From playmates I also learned which herbs could cure ringworm and other such skin diseases, what leaves could stop the bleeding of wounds, and how to use the shrub called kuribetbet in Ilocano (salibukbuk in Bisaya, halibukbuk in Bikol, alibutbut in Kapampangan, pandakaki in Tagalog) to shrink boils, mollify allergies, or prepare the male organ for circumcision (kugit in both Isinay and Ilocano, tuli in Tagalog).
As friends we traded know-how on which leaves could be used to stupefy (pantuba) river fish and thus make them easy to catch, how to ward off terrestrial leeches (mato^ in Isinay, biled in Ilocano, limatik in Tagalog), and which ponds (banaw in Isinay, ban-aw in Ilocano, lawa in Tagalog) had plenty of tilapia.
But even as we shared tips on which fruiting trees attracted the birds pirruka, alimuken and kolasisi, rarely shared was the live tree where one got his martines chicks. Also kept as secret was where the wild ducks (engah in Isinay, papa in Ilocano) and the jungle fowl (kalatan in Isinay, abuyo in Ilocano, labuyo in Tagalog) were roosting.
For multi-purpose toys, our favorite was the mini version of the dalaydayan used by our elders to haul logs, bamboo or rattan poles from the forests using carabao power. Instead of real logs, however, we hauled banana trunks from the cutting area (naneveyan in Isinay, nagtebbaan in Ilocano) to the garbage pit; in place of carabaos, we hitched the sled to friendly dogs; and most of the time we used the toy to babysit younger siblings.
My Isinay friends in the town proper were more advanced. They had mini logging trucks, with tansan (softdrink bottle caps) for headlights. They used these toy trucks to haul slabs and thick barks of dipterocarp logs from the sawmill, and would enjoy riding on them on downhill parts of the road. My father once crafted one such truck for me and I had fun fetching firewood (itungu in Isinay, pagsungrod in Ilocano, panggatong in Tagalog) and sawdust with it, until its wooden axles and wheels gave up.