Monday, January 14, 2013

Boyhood in Isinay Country (Part 2)

IF GUARDIAN angels that shield children from harm really exist, the one assigned to me must have worked non-stop 24/7 for many years. This included my pre-teenage years when I would join my grandfather and uncles in clearing, burning then planting patches of ublag (second-growth) forests to make swidden farm (called soppeng in Isinay, uma in Ilocano, kaingin in Tagalog,) and, when going home to our village base after an exhausting day, we would hitch rides on top of huge dipterocarp and narra logs hauled down from the mountains by rickety logging trucks.

There were stories of upland farmers getting stung by the cobra (called immanuy in Isinay, karasaen in Ilocano, ulupong in Tagalog) and getting chased by a simarron (feral carabao). But I only had minor bruises, thorns lodged on the foot, and skin allergies caused by contact with what I like to call the “babies” of butterflies.

Well, as kids, perhaps we didn’t encounter life-threatening situations because we heeded our elders’ counsels, for example: not to use our bolos this way or that way, especially when in the water. Grandmothers cautioned us not to stray too far, not to climb trees, not to start fire, and not to go swimming during high noon, when malevolent spirits were said to go after hard-headed boys.

As was natural for kids in my time, however, we were not always saints. When someone warned us not to go near this part of the barrio because of the presence of honeybees (iyu-an in Isinay, uyukan in Ilocano, pukyutan in Tagalog), we only half listened. Why? Because the mere mention of honeybees awakened images in our mind of super saccharine honey (inintin si iyu-an in Isinay, diro in Ilocano) waiting to fill our little mouths, and how much beeswax (lilin in Isinay, allid in Ilocano) the honeycombs could be made to strengthen our carabao ropes and make fishing lines water-proof.

Finding the beehive was easy as almost always blue-green birds we called kulepplew in Isinay (pirpiriw in Ilocano) would noisily hover around the host tree to feast on the bees. We could not resist applying our slingshot skills on the birds. But when our shots would instead hit the bees, to the river or the nearest farm hut we would run as swarms of the angry insects came looking for the culprits.

We committed venial sins, too, in summer when the song of the cicadas, the call of the birds, and the scent of the ripe fruits in the wilderness were at their most seductive pitch. Thus, if not looking for bird’s nests or ensnaring cicadas (duluriyaw in Isinay, ari-ari in Ilocano, kuliglig in Tagalog) with sticks coated with jackfruit latex, you would find us climbing trees. There were plenty of guava, aratiles, tamarind, anonas, bignay, mabolo, santol, and duhat trees then, many of which were on private lands but, as was the rural norm then, you could pick and taste for free their sweet offerings for as long as you leave some for their owners.

Not even rumors of what they call kumaw in both Isinay and Ilocano (sipay or manunupot in Tagalog) -- said to kidnap gallivanting kids, put them in jute sacks, and squeeze their blood out to fortify bridges in downstream Magat or Cagayan River -- could keep us from enjoying life among the birds and the trees.
Let’s put it this way: Once revved up, it would probably take heaven and earth to wean kids away from Mother Nature.

FOR THE RECORD, one thing was more scary for us than the blood-using kidnappers mentioned above, including tree-dwelling supernatural beings. This was when the bagbag tree (Erythrina species) started to shoot forth its blazing red flowers, signaling the season when Ilongot braves came downhill in search of heads, at the time mostly of Ilocano and Isinay kaingineros, male or female, to collect.

While the kumaw and tree-dwelling spirits may have been fiction fostered by mothers to keep their children from escaping farm or household chores, the Ilongots were real people. Even during off-season for headhunting when they would come downhill to trade their dried venison (laman in Isinay, karne ti ugsa in Ilocano) and wildpig meat, split rattan, and deer-skin with our salt, tobacco, and blankets, we were afraid meeting them outside the barrio. This was because for a couple of summers past we did see their bloody handiwork, swarming with flies while displayed in the plaza for community mourning and proper disposal, minus their heads.

To those who are hearing the name for the first time, the Ilongots are a forest-dwelling tribe, now preferring to be called Bugkalot, whose headhunting tradition has kept virgin forests in southern Nueva Vizcaya and parts of the Sierra Madre and the Caraballo mountains off-limits, first to Spanish missionaries and Ilocano migrants, then centuries later to big-time loggers, miners, ranchers, swidden farmers, rattan gatherers, and yes, even bird-hunting, river-fishing, and fuelwood-gathering kids.

The aviator-naturalist Charles Lindbergh and the Stanford University 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 into their forest-rich ancestral territory.


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