A hundred trees for a centenarian
KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2015 - 12:00am

This year we actually have the unique opportunity to greet someone we’ve known a long time a happy 100th birthday.

That’ll still be four months from now, in May. But this anticipated grand celebration in our old Alma Mater was kicked off a couple of Sundays ago, on Jan. 11, when some of us Bedans congregated on a hillside at Havila Filinvest Taytay for a ceremonial tree-planting. 

Launched that morning was the Rev. Fr. Benigno Vigo Benabarre, OSB Garden of 100 Native Trees, a project of the San Beda College Alumni Foundation, Inc. and the San Beda College Alumni Association, Inc. (SBCAA) in coordination with Hortica Filipina Foundation (HFI). A slogan reads: “Katutubong Puno, A TREEbute to the Future.” 

Havala Filinvest is just past the SBC campus in Taytay, with the area to be planted marking another generous donation through Andrew Gotianun of Filinvest. 

Representing SBC H.S. Class 1960 were four batchmates — Lino Dionisio, Ton Raymundo, Bong Obligacion and this writer — who joined other alumni such as Dr. Jaime Galvez-Tan and Rex Buhain, both past presidents of SBCAA, and about a dozen others from a range of decades. 

  And of course the honoree arrived, hearty and hale, and still strong enough to wield a shovel. Never mind that it was just ceremonial, with just one of the tree specimens actually making it to the ground from its plastic pot — among those displayed and bearing such unfamiliar tags as lamog, mauban, kalingag (Cinnamomum mercadot) — Lauracea, linawin (Glycosmis pentaphylis) — Rutacea, bayok — Bignoniaceaa, bitaog et al.





As Imelda Sarmiento of HFI explained it, the complete tree list of 100 species has yet to be done, but it should have representatives from at least 25 plant families, such as the Annonaceae (ilang-ilang), Anacardiaceae (pahutan, balinghasai, lamio, dao); Apocynaceae (batino, dita, baraibai ...), etc.

Hortica Filipina Foundation will continue the planting till May 24, the date the garden is presented to Fr. BB, a day after he celebrates his 100th birthday. Eventually, the site will be turned over to Filinvest to nurture and maintain. In a way, it would then be a return donation to Havila — the first native tree park within any real estate project.  

For his part, Fr. Benabarre was much in fine form, quipping that he had a simple, three-part formula for reaching 100: “No smoking. Drink moderately, and only while eating. And don’t go out with bad women.”

We could only shake our head while joining in the wry laughter, having violated all three of his tough precepts.

Five years ago, when he blew out all the candles on a couple of cakes marked No. 95, he had intoned, typically mock-seriously: “One disadvantage of old age — the longer you stay on earth, the shorter your time in Heaven.”

But he had promised a bigger party five years hence, and now here we are on the cusp of his centenary, which will also be the 77nd anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

The good father was our grade school principal in San Beda College all of six decades ago, way back in the 1950s that were our batch’s formative years. He retired from the Manila abbey of the Order of St. Benedict sometime in the 1990s, and returned to Spain. But he missed the Philippines so much that he asked to be brought back, even at his ripe old age. He has since taken on the role of Alumni Association moderator. And he keeps on writing books.

They’ve already totalled over 35 publications, some of which he’s sent me. These include They Died As They had Lived (The lives and martyrdom of Frs. Santiago Pardo and Domingo Caballe and Bro. Eugenio Erausquin, former members of the Benedictine Community...); Set Your Hearts Above (translation from Spanish to English of 34 religious articles, first published in Puerto Rico in 2004); and Sanctification Made Simple (an essay on how to become real saints without much difficulty).

His auto-bio From Shepherd of Goats to Pastor of Souls was also issued as a second edition — from which I share this excerpt that largely explains his longevity. 

“Benigno is the Christian name I was given upon entering the novitiate as a Benedictine monk in 1931. That was the general custom of religious congregations at the time, for just like in baptism, the adoption of a new name meant the changing of life for the better.

“Actually, I was baptized Jose Pascual, the latter not being the family name, but my second baptismal name, since in Spain babies are given two Christian names. We also carry two last names: the first family name being our father’s first (hence, Benabarre), and the second the mother’s first family name from her father (Vigo. for me).

“When was I born? Nobody knows! My mother was absolutely sure she gave birth to me on May 17, 1915, the feast of St. Pasehal Bailon — thus my second Christian name, Pascual. However, my church and civil birth certificates state the 23rd of that month as my birth date. To me, mother was right.

“I am the fifth of seven children: four boys and three girls. One of the boys died a few months after birth. Five reached ages of over 85. The three eldest died by order of age — as it should be! — when they were over 85 years. The three surviving siblings are: Ramona (97 years old), Fermin (84), and myself, now 93. d

“These ages are remarkable, because with the family being poor by Spanish standards, our nutrition during the crucial years of development was rather deficient. Perhaps this was compensated by the fact that we were living in the isolated village of Aler in the municipality of Benabarre, province of Huesca, Spain, near the Pyrenees Mountains separating Spain from France. Aler, about 200 kilometers from Our Lady of Lourdes, is situated on top of a 600-meter hill, surrounded by countryside, and very far from contaminating elements.”

At one point during our group photo-ops on that Taytay hillside, Fr. BB summoned me beside him and suggested I pay him a visit at the Mendiola campus, as he had new titles to give me. Yes, Father, I’ll do that one of these days.

I did come away with a wonderful book from that delightful Sunday activity. Well, it was sent a few days later by Ime Sarmiento: Philippine Native Trees 101: Up Close and Personal, published in 2012 by Green Convergence for Safe Food, Healthy Environment and Sustainable Economy, and Hortica Filipina Foundation Inc.

Benefactors for this book are Oscar M. Lopez, the Lopez Group Foundation, Inc., Energy Development Corporation, Binhi, and Foundation for the Philippine Environment, while sponsors are Pablo Tobiano & Dai-ichi Electronics Corporation, Lambert Un Ocampo, Ayala Land, Jollibee Foundation, and Hansruedi & Nenet S. Schmidt.

The commendable project team includes Angelina P. Galang, president of Green Convergence (she wrote the Preface), Sylvia R. Mesina, Marietta R. Marciano as editor, Arceli M. Tungol as chief photographer, and Imelda P. Sarmiento as Project Director, with Domingo A. Madulid and Roberto E. Coronel as technical consultants.

The Foreword was written by then Archbishop of Manila Most Reverend Luis Antonio G. Tagle, now Cardinal. He writes: “How great is God’s wisdom! But how tragic it is when local species are neglected to the point of disappearance. This book is a song of praise to God for the native trees in the Philippines and a plea to all Filipinos to cultivate them and our culture as well.”

Many thanks to Ime Sarmiento for sending me a copy, which has really become more of my kind of fascinating reading. “The book was put together by non-botanists for non-botanists. So it’s light reading,” Ime says. It features 108 native trees, but I understand that a sequel is forthcoming. 

Ime has also shared her advocacy in correspondence:

“When a tree is said to be native, there are actually two ecological classifications: (1) indigenous — when the flora is native to our country but also to other countries within our climatic zone; and (2) endemic — when it is only found in our country.

“When you see a katmon, mangkono, lipote, lamog in Singapore, let’s say, these species are endemic to us, but are non-natives or aliens to Singapore and any other country for that matter. We have 3,600 species of native trees (registered, named),  67% of which are endemic to our country.   

“Hortica’s main mission is to see our native trees proliferate in our landscapes again, especially in the urban areas where most of us live. The species that you see all around you are unfortunately non-natives: mahogany, firetree, Indian tree, neem tree, gmelina, sword acacia, eucalyptus tabebuai. These are not Pinoys.

“So, where did our 3,600 go? Hortica started off with establishing a native tree nursery, and did the book to support this advocacy. So little of us know the difference between native and non-native. Planting trees is a feel-good activity, but if we plant the wrong trees, then we could further degrade our environment.

“Mahogany was introduced by the Americans in Mt. Makiling (in the early 1900s) to replace our fine wood timber that they felled and exported to the USA. Now mahogany lords it over in Mt. Makiling, elbowing out the natives and depriving them of the real estate that is rightfully theirs. Mt. Makiling is now 70% covered with mahogany, and horror stories abound…”

I’ll find time in the future to delve more into this book and its generosity of horticultural knowledge. And maybe by then I would also have received Fr. Benabarre’s new titles.

A hundred trees. And more. A hundred years. And more. Indeed, wonders never cease.

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