Monday, January 14, 2013

Boyhood in Isinay Country (Part 3)

MY EXPOSURE to forests had its roots in the fact that as a child I happened to shuffle between two homes both of which gave me opportunity to explore the outdoors. One was my parents’ house near the western hills of town where my playmates were Isinays. The other was my grandparents’ place in the barrio nestled between the river and the cattle-grazing tracts, and where our neighbors were all Ilocanos.

In both worlds, almost all boys in my time were of the outdoors type. As such we often wore slingshots on our necks. We used the slingshot to hunt wild chickens (kalatan in Isinay, abuyo in Ilocano, manok ihalas in Bisaya) and monitor lizard (baniyas in Isinay, banias in Ilocano, bayawak in Tagalog), and to drive away field rats (gandaw in Isinay, utot or ba-o in Ilocano,) and rice sparrows (tulin In Isinay, billit-tuleng in Ilocano, maya in Tagalog) that fed on our ripening rice crops.

The slingshot was a toy but when no one was looking, we also used it to bring down seductive guava or mango fruits. It also boosted one’s bravery when sent for errands that required passing by houses with unfriendly dogs or geriatric trees believed to house sinampade, lampong, kapre, enkantada, ansisit, and other supernatural beings said to be dwelling in forests.

Please don’t get the impression though that playing outdoors was an everyday thing for me. No sir. As the eldest (pangiyuwan in Isinay, inauna in Ilocano, panganay in Tagalog) of eight children, I had to squeeze in time for my books and class projects while doing such chores as sweeping the yard of fallen starapple leaves, feeding the chickens and pigs, watering the coffee and ornamental plants, running errands for my mother, and taking care (mangahayam in Isinay, agaw-awir in Ilocano, mag-alaga in Tagalog) of baby sisters.

Saturdays were not all slingshot time either. I had to be around my father when we needed to mend fences, tend the backyard vegetable garden, or split firewood (manisij in Isinay, agbalsig in Ilocano, magsibak in Tagalog) . It was my duty, too, to bring a cavan of palay to the rice mill and back when Mother’s rice bin (pampurutan in Isinay, pagbagasan in Ilocano, palabigasan in Tagalog) was running empty.

But you will note that even such chores, including the ones I had in the barrio -- such as taking the carabaos to pasture or helping weed the upland rice and the squash and beans in the kaingin (soppeng In Isinay, uma in Ilocano) -- were not completely divorced from the forests and related “fields of the Lord.”

Whenever a hen has hatched eggs, I would search the bamboo groves for termite nest-balls to feed the chicks. To make the rice-bran feed more delicious to the pigs, I would comb stream banks for the herb Amorphophallus campanulatus (called imbayang in Isinay, tigi in Ilocano, pongapong in Tagalog, pamangkilon in Bisaya, tokod-banua in Pampanga, bagong in Bikol, corpse flower in English).

In the barrio, while the carabaos grazed, my friends and I would play hide and seek among the arosip and wild guava trees. If in the ricefields, we chased the tuklingin Ilocano, siboj in Isinay (gallinule) or the wild ducks (engaj in Isinay, papa in Ilocano) that searched the mudholes for stranded shells, frogs and fish. We gorged on the fruits of kaluttit and bujnay in Ilocano, painted our faces ala-Indian with appatut (achuete) seeds, and carried firewood on our sunburnt shoulders on the way back home.

MY TOWN’S FORESTS are not known to have ever hosted charismatic (or ‘elite’) wildlife such as the Philippine eagle, the tamaraw, and the tarsier. Such lack of fascinating creatures might however be counter-balanced by the presence, as mentioned, of the Ilongots. Yes, when I was little, the tribe lent color and a sense of adventure to our forests, apart from having the heart and jungle skills that could put them at par with the American Indians.

Our forests may not have been as photogenic as those of the pine stands of the Cordillera either. But at the time, if one happened to survive a plane crash in our side of the Nueva Vizcaya wilderness, at least there was plenty of wild food he could stay alive with.

For example, bush meat from deer (laman in Isinay, ugsa in Ilocano, usa in Tagalog), wild pig (bavuy si eyas in Isinay, alingo in Ilocano, baboy-damo in Tagalog), civet cat (amunin in Isinay, mutit in Ilocano, musang in Tagalog), fruit bat (pani-i in Isinay, paniki in Ilocano, bayakan in Tagalog), and monitor lizard (baniyas in Isinay, banias in Ilocano, bayawak in Tagalog) were common table fare then.

Each time I had scabies on my legs -- said to be acquired from eating eel (dalit in Isinay, igat in Ilocano, palos in Tagalog) -- Inang Baket would ask my uncles to go hunt monkeys the adobo meat of which would make my skin allergies disappear.

Similarly, our streams and rivers were jungle-survival paradise. Seldom murky then, they always made fishing a delight. With bare hands or with small nets one could get enough shrimps to make into “jumping salad” seasoned with bagoong, fern, and green mango or wild tomatoes.

Not to be outdone, the ricefields have not yet fallen hostage to chemical fertilizers and pesticides at the time. Thus, it was safe to collect the shells that we call basikul, ambeveyo^ and genga in Isinay (bisukol, leddeg, birabid in Ilocano) and the edible freshwater algae we call bahase in Isinay (barbaradiong in Ilocano) that were at the time part and not pests of ricefield ecosystems.

During heavy rains when fish and shells were hard to find, other organic food could be found in the riverbanks or in the fringes of ricefields. They may be considered exotic food now, but pith of the fishtail palm (called umu^ in Isinay, ubog in Ilocano),rattan shoot (tangpat in Isinay, barit in Ilocano), and the edible jungle fern tabahat were common then.

Usually in April-June, many of us became entomophagous (insect-eaters) as the white eggs and nymphs of the tailor ant (eja in Isinay, abuos in Ilocano, kara-kara in Tagalog) became abundant in the trees near the timberline. At twilight we trooped to grassy spots near the river to catch the also delectable May beetle (called e-ve in Isinay, abal-abal in Ilocano, salagubang in Tagalog). We also considered as delicacy the fat yellow worms (called bate-vate in Isinay, tateg in Ilocano) that wriggled under decaying tree trunks.

When rats, locusts, and mayas (tulin in Isinay, billit-tuleng in Ilocano) diminished our rice harvest, we turned to the wild yam (karut in Ilocano and Isinay; nami in Tagalog; kalot in Bisaya) for alternative staple food.

The essayist Maximo Ramos put it well: “We had gizzards of stone.” Indeed, such appetite for genuinely natural and organic food forms a huge chunk of my happy memories of being nurtured by wild food that most children of today will probably not be able to taste anymore.


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