Why plant a tree

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Ah, those venerable Chinese sages, their standards are so high and they are so demanding. They say one is not a man until he has achieved three goals – sired a son, written a book, and planted a tree.

But as that poet Joyce Kilmer said, “Only God can make a tree.”

Whatever, I think these perilous times demand that each of us plant a tree.

I read in the papers the other day that the denudation of the mountains forming the watershed of the Angat Dam, Manila’s main source of water, has caused the water shortage in Manila. Again, this illustrates the wanton nature of Filipinos, how we have become our worst enemy. A national effort now to plant trees not only in the Angat area but elsewhere is perhaps a little too late. Alternative sources of water must either be found or constructed immediately and will, of course, be very expensive.

Trees, water – they are so vital in life. Now and all through history, agrarian societies instinctively know why trees are important. The Ilokanos almost always surround their houses with marunggay or fruit trees. Legend has it that one of the first Ilokano immigrants to Hawaii brought with him a marunggay stick, claiming it was a cane. He planted it, and that explains the abundance of marunggay trees in those islands.

Marunggay leaves are now established as one of the best sources of the minerals that the body needs. Way back in the 1950s, when I was traveling all over Mindanao, much of that island was forested. I went up the Agusan River to see huge forest trees had been cut down and floated down the river as logs, for direct export to Japan. Some Filipinos got rich despoiling our natural resources without replanting the barren land. It was the same in Northern Luzon. And so today, our forest cover is a mere 20 percent. 

The Japanese, a very disciplined people, take good care of their forests and trees. For centuries, they have always used wood for their houses and their magnificent temples. In fact, the use of wood defines and gives character to their architecture. Very old trees, some several hundred years old, still stand in that country, the object of much love and veneration.

In contrast, we have very few old trees. Three of them – all acacias – were in Padre Faura, in Ermita, Manila. During the liberation of Manila, they were blasted by cannon fire. A couple of them simply rotted with age and neglect, and fell last year.

Sometime back, the agriculture champion and guru, Zacarias Sarian, gifted me with a macopa sapling from Malaysia. The tamarind and jackfruit trees I had planted in my yard had to be cut down when my wife enlarged the house to fit our seven children. I planted the sapling in a hole about more than a foot deep. 

It grew quickly, and when it reached five years old and still had not borne any fruit, I told it: If this year you still have no fruit, I’ll cut you down. Sure enough, it did bear fruit, and with such abundance that there was more than enough to give to neighbors and friends. The fruit, greenish-maroon and as big as an apple, is sweeter than the native variety.

In the village where I grew up, the tallest tree was the Dalipawen. It had a trunk three times thicker than that of a coconut, and it was much taller, too, than the coconut, with short branches at the very top. Its flowers have a strong scent. Martins made their nests at the top and, at night, fireflies ignited it. 

Spirits were supposed to live in the tree and, every so often, when someone got sick in the vicinity, prayers and offerings were made to it. The atang or offering was usually a plate of gelatinous rice cooked in coconut oil, and topped with a hard-boiled egg, betel nut, and a hand-rolled cigar. After the devotee had left we kids feasted on the atang, daring the spirit of the tree to make us ill. It never did.

Way back in the 1950s, as the Baguio visitor climbed up Kennon Road, they were greeted with the scent of pine perfuming the air. Baguio then had so many pine trees, which have since been felled but not replaced. The Baguio government is now engaged in replanting. But it’s not Baguio only that needs replanting but also the entire Cordillera range.

The preservation of our forests  is the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It is hampered by corruption and incompetence, its forest guards often threatened and killed. The present DENR Secretary, retired General Roy Cimatu, needs assistance and more champions like Gina Lopez. Espousing tree planting brings neither votes nor money.

The Balete is an unusual tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Its scientific name is Ficus Benjamina Linn. I used it as a motif and symbol in my novel, Tree. A story of growing up in a small Filipino town, Tree is the second novel in terms of chronology of the five-novel Rosales saga.

The Balete Tree grows as a slender sapling. I don’t know where they come from but soon vines surround the sapling. They grow big, close in on the sapling, eventually suffocating it. The vines then become the trunk of the tree itself, for which reason the Balete is often called the strangler tree. It is an apt and fitting symbol for people and for institutions, even for nations, that are strangled to death by impoverishment and decay.

The Balete Tree is indeed an object metaphor for so many of us, and particularly for our leaders who, when elected, start green with promise and noble intentions. But within a few years, they are surrounded by panderers, by hypocrisies, and by grasping, greedy friends and relatives. They are then strangled, never realizing they had betrayed not just themselves but also their country.

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