Barren landscape, barren lives


Seven churches sit like yawning crocodiles, spread about the sprawl of Sierra Madre foothills where weekends were spent with my three imps, sweating out and sun-baking our backs while planting trees.

Each church, every belief and persuasion currently infecting the Pinoy landscape was plied out with a preacher or priest to stoke the fires of people’s faith in that hinterland community. We saw instead many a summer brush fire cackling like a coop of chickens or crackling like splintered skeletons, devouring the landscape from dusk to dawn. Thus went two or three years reforestation work, each struggling patch of young trees we tended turned up as ashes.

People need trees. Trees to turn out food and churn out oxygen to break down nutrients in food, the same air—bonded to blood—shuttle these nutrients throughout the body to keep it fully nourished and alive; same air swishing like a tender caress on human brain cells to nudge some sparks of sanity and intuition. Beautiful biochemistry, isn’t it? All told, we can use trees for some two-bit intuitive, critical and creative thinking. It takes about 100 trees in the immediate environs to lower the ambient temperature by one degree Celsius. “In the Philippines, there will be a 10 to 15% drop in agricultural production for every 1°C of warming,” claims a joint report of the International Rice Research Institute and PAGASA.

We call ourselves Homo sapiens or “thinking human.” A mathematician sums up functioning humanity: “Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore, I am.” Lo: co! The “co” portion in the operative Latin word “cogito” suggests a co-existing, co-operating or co-working partner in the thinking action. The partner that affirms the humane, puts to work our less-than-valid claim to humanity? What’s that partner? Make a wild guess, mwa-ha-ha-haw!

People need trees. Trees don’t need people.

Sure, the teeming forest that we wanted to rear from that roaring empty sea of cogon and talahib can grow without us working our asses off each weekend. Left to itself, even a hideously ripped out forest can knit back its shawl of green in its own time. It can mend itself –just leave it alone. Isa pa: Chopped dead or burned down forests don’t need human hands to sprout back to life.

Say, a smallpox or anthrax epidemic wiping out the populace about the Sierra Madre foothills would be the first step in rousing to life the dead-and-gone wilderness. They took out the trees, sold the rough-hewn timbers for small sums, just sold out co-operating partners that worked out their claim to that title, Homo sapiens. They’re pathetically inhuman.

Sure, it was tough on my pockets at P1,500 for each working visit to the reforestation site. The assigned chores on the site were tougher on the growing children’s tender bodies, but that’s what experts call kinesthetic imprinting. They weren’t just getting a grip on such repetitive tasks as turning hard-packed soil or bruising their arms hacking away at man-high grass to clear the ground for planting.

A task contains a set of body movements that can trickle out like sweat into another set of movements of another task. Shut out the idea of tasks: the movements fluidly flow like a dance done in metal grace. The lessons in movement are meant to be done, not yakked about – no discussion, please. Do as I do: actions are infinitely better than cheap talk and articles like this. Without knowing it, the kids were learning a quaint know-how called “the art of the explosive pliancy of growing trees.” It’s a down-to-earth form of jujutsu. Its moves are to be done with effortless simplicity – shibumi.

Ah, the late Moshe Feldenkrais summed it up: “The quality of your life is the quality of your movement.”

Aikido progenitor Morihei Ueshiba: “Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained, a suitable path to follow. You are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.”

So, I led my children Bilog, Podying, Kukudyu and Puwit on talahib-choked paths on those Sierra Madre weekends. I guess it was, to borrow from Ueshiba, a suitable path to follow. The path had dollops of shaolin kung fu – literally translates as “physical skills gleaned from a small forest” – plus tidbits of karate (“empty hand”).

Empty handed, eh? A refined spirit has that. It’s the human spirit that’s made in the likeness of God, so my Sunday schoolmarm told me ages ago. And I guess it’s the trained human body with in-dwelling refined spirit that can be God’s shrine. I caught one eye candy spouting in an itsy-bitsy voice on TV: “The human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Sure, a well-stacked body like hers would be a welcome abode for any spirit. In any case, I’m still a sucker for the hard-edged process of tempering the body with a package of skills. The skills can translate to an individual’s enthusiasm at handling multiple tasks.

And maybe, honing those skills to a keen edge can touch off realization of inner divinity. I understand “enthusiasm” derives from the Latin “entheos” (gods within).

So, we usually pass by seven churches yawning like crocodiles around the Sierra Madre foothills; those churches can’t be shrines to the divine. Their preachers and priests must have done a lot of talking, not much walking to nudge the faithful toward a better quality of life nor manifested innate enlightenment for their flocks. I guess the same state of inner darkness reigns in chaps about my children’s age — over seven of every 10 of ‘em Pinoy teeners don’t have an inkling of either the human or the spiritual, so a survey said.

Anthropologist Loren Eiseley once wrote: “Man is an expression of his landscape.” I guess most folks turned mountains and themselves barren. I shared brutal labor bringing a whit of green to those mountains with my offspring. I could be wrong but we’re still pregnant with forests.

Throughout those years of futile reforestation work, we were growing a forest within ourselves. It’s an unseen wilderness in all its gentle ferocity and steel calm. We are in it and it’s in us now – and nobody can ever take it away or chuck it off us.


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  1. neil mcnally on

    ..such an uplifting article to bring us down-to-Earth after the bru-ha-ha of the elections.
    I have loved trees more than anything/anyone else for the majority of my 72 foreigner yeas in NZ and Australia..with escapes to S.E.Asia,and the final settling in Pilipinas.
    I have planted (perhaps) thousands,and benefitted from their beauty,shade,air purification,nutritional contributions,colour,light and shadow,associated bird,reptile,animal,insect,and microbial life,rainfall and temperature modification,water-retention,soil-builder/stabilizer and flood-controller,a morale-restorer,peace-maker,and pacifier.
    It has been my duty to re-build “local” mini-forests..I do hope enough young tree-loving people catch my disease before it is too late.

  2. Depressing, indeed. Millet’s “The Man With a Hoe” reveals a barren unforgiving landscape, and in the foreground the man with the hoe who is about to give up enduring the sun and the elements and the thankless job of labouring under the scorching heat. The man may labour, but it doesn’t matter. for in its own time, the landscape will grow itself.