Aren’t you afraid of trees? Especially tall, dark ones? The trees that are older than our grandfathers? The ones that survived the war, saw how you were born and is watching you grow up? The trees that still stand steadfast and quiet where they are before man encroached on their territory and built swimming pools around them? The trees that are not just home to bugs, ants and dog’s urine but also to extraordinary creatures?
Some people say the trees in cities are dead, or devoid of any spirit or purpose. But there is one tree in a large barangay in Cebu City that had cursed a family in the 1970s. As the story goes, the head of that family was a successful businessman. He may have been talented at what he did but tact was what he terribly lacked. This dearth in courteousness was what allegedly put his family at risk with spirits. His family was well-to-do, still is, a comfortable member of the working class. Their house in itself is a reflection of their rising status. It is not a mansion but it is not a shanty either but you would know that it is old yet well-maintained.
The house sits on a spacious lot that could fit a few private cars during parties. Now the problem began when the father paid someone to cut branches of an old tree because its twigs and leaves kept falling down on their swimming pool. That had meant cleaning the pool more often than usual. This tree planted its roots on a large deep river, its trunk tall and fat, its wide dark branches overreaching. It was supposed to be a simple cut-and-clean job. Except that it wasn’t an ordinary tree. It was a balete tree.
In the Visayas, the mid-section of the Philippines, where Cebu is, balete trees are considered as dwellings of supernatural beings or environmental spirits, locally known as engkantos. From the genus Ficus, some of these trees are “known as strangler figs wherein they start upon other trees, later entrapping them entirely and finally killing the host tree” (en.wikipedia.org). They are both feared and revered. In fact, a balete tree is one of the enchanted places where a sorcerer go to communicate with a spirit who assists him in his practice of malign magic (thegreencloud.wordpress.com).
In my story that is based on a true story, an extraordinary tale told to me by my mother, there were no sorcerers said to be involved; only the tree spirit did a solo and thorough job. Soon after the hired help cut the branches that had extended to shade a fraction of the swimming pool, one of the youngest family members drowned in that pool. Nobody made a connection of the death with the move of cutting the branches until after the head of the family made a tactless joke about doing something (the word cementing was heard) that would prevent the tree from growing branches and leaves before they reach the pool. He must have angered the engkanto resident of that tree because, without reason, without possible cause, both his hands swelled so badly. His wife advised him to seek an albularyo’s (folk healer) advice but he refused, for he was an adamant non-believer of spirits. His wife was worried so she sent someone to deliver one of his shirts to the folk healer with the hope that he would make something out of it.
The engkanto was angry, the folk healer had told them, so angry at their disrespect and carelessness that he would kill the family members one by one. The family was so scared they asked the same folk healer to pray to the engkanto for them. Just when they thought everything was well, three family members went on a trip to Luzon, bringing with them their maids. At their rest stop before reaching the final destination, they saw inside the house a long mark of blood on the floor. It was the dreaded merida. They could not tell if it was animal or human blood or who did it. Either way, in the old times, such unusual mark was a warning that something bad was about to happen. Still, the trio and their maids pursued their trip. On the road, their vehicle was hit by a 6x6 truck. Two of the family members died, one was paralyzed and became mute for 30 years until she died.
Surprisingly, the maids were unscathed. It was believed that the engkanto from the balete tree had joined them in the trip with the single-minded purpose of dealing with them.
After the father died of natural causes, the swimming pool was abandoned and covered with dirt. On that spot, a house was built for the invalid family member. The once small fence grew into a tall concrete of protection, preventing the branches of the balete tree from reaching their premises. There has been no similar incident since then. The balete tree, though, still stand to this day, an unfazed witness to countless humans who drowned in the river where it lives. I have only been to this family’s house once, during the funeral of that invalid family member, and it was dark that I was not able to see the balete tree. But I wonder, if I go to see it, will it show its grandiose mansion and its blindingly bright lights, the way it has shown to the taxi driver who passed by one night and became scared witless after finding out there were no such mansion in the daylight?
Such story is not new to many, especially in the Philippines. It holds elements similar to other stories, such as the one still told by my mother and gave me a fright when I was a child. I may have been young but I have seen how the place where I had lived to have been abundant with trees — jackfruit, avocado, tambis, eba, starfruit, papaya, atis, bananas, and guava. We didn’t have to go to the market to buy fruits; we were happily living among them, before commercial intents grew and came in gravel and cement that override the rich soil.
Across our family compound was a land similar to ours, rich in vegetables and fruits. My mother said that spirits also have feasts and they would cross the road to greet and share, with branches of leaves strangely rising and falling to make way for them and to cover them. They would do this at night when the mortal world was asleep. Our ancestral house is said to be right in the middle of their passageway. My mother said that if they listened carefully, they could hear the tap, tap, tap of their clothes hanged to dry on the clothesline, like someone or something was beating them aside to give way for the ingress and egress of these engkantos.
The tale of a tree having a host spirit made me remember Cyan Abad-Jugo’s Behind the Old Aparador, one of the stories in The Night Monkeys published by Tahanan Books. The book is a beautiful illustrated anthology of stories that won in the Don Carlos Palanca Awards for Children category. This particular story, which is illustrated by Lala Gallardo, tells the misfortune of a spirit trapped behind the cabinet made of the tree he once happily lived in. A young girl frees him in order to live on. By freedom, the spirit has to knock on other spirits’ trees until he finds a new one for himself.
In my place, when there were still so many trees, an engkanto from a tipolotree a block from our house was believed to have kidnapped a child. At night, residents of the neighboring houses could hear the laughter of children playing and the banging of metal, similar to the mortal signal that indicated it was time to eat. When they went out to see what the noise was about, there was not a single child by the tipolo tree. At the time, a child of a neighbor went missing. Mothers approached the tree and started knocking on it with the gentle yet urgent appeal to return the child. A few days later, that child was found alive by the roots of that tree.
Another similar tale of a tree’s host spirit is a fictional story whose title and author I regrettably forgot. As far as I can remember, the story tells of an engkanto and a daughter of a farmer who fall in love with each other. The farmer wants to cut down the tree he believes to be his crops’ bad luck. One day, his daughter is missing. He cannot find her. In anger, he cuts down the tree only to realize belatedly that his daughter is in that tree, eloping with the engkanto. The lovers die, the farmer cries.
Many of us, in this age of technology, may find it hard to believe or be awed by such tales. But to make you believe at or for you to be awed by these extraordinary stories is not purpose of this textual endeavor.
A good look at our own set of local superstitions may remind us that our native trees may be home to something, not necessarily an engkanto, but to something: animals and insects that depend on their food, soil that depends on their grappling strength so that it will not erode, and even humans who need the extra shade and the refreshing air that could not be substituted by any expensive air conditioning unit.
A good look at our own set of local superstitions may encourage us to see the importance of planting trees, for this can equip us for natural atmospheric changes, and to appreciate the stories these trees bring upon their growth, for this can equip us for survival as a people.
In the Philippines, forests of trees are a valuable natural resource. They provide food crops, livestock and fish, and even recreational experiences. Apart from these, forests serve as “carbon sink”, making them vital in biological conservation and environmental protection. They are equally significant in the process for education and research, as habitat for indigenous flora and fauna and location for resettlement. In fact, data from National Commission on Indigenous Peoples shows that forests serve as home to some 12-15 million indigenous people (“Philippines Forests at a Glance” 1).
When we know the importance of trees, why is our forest cover decreasing? Why is the number of our trees shrinking?
More than half (57%) of the Philippines in 1934 was covered with forests. What a sight that would have been, what stories those trees would have told! But in 2010, the forest cover went down to 23% due to increasing agricultural and housing needs, commercial and illegal logging and kaingin and forest fires.
It is notable that the public and the private sector are doubling their efforts in reforestation. Philippines registered a 47.4 percent increase in forest cover from 1990 to 2010. At the same time, more than 200,000 hectares were reforested from 2000 to 2008 (Forest Management Bureau).
What does this data tell us? Our work is still not yet done. As urban development issues increase, if we take a pause in our reforestation efforts, our struggle to keep our trees will truly be felt.
How can you, reading this post, an ordinary citizen with so much potential, can save our forests and keep our trees? Let’s review some of the ways:
Save paper. By this, I mean there are so many man-made resources we can use to go paperless. There is your personal computer, for one. The trend now is using your mobile phone to take down notes, or just about anything you want to do. At my office at The Memoriter Writing Service, for instance, we are 90% paperless. Since we decide to print smart, the only paper we print are employee and client contracts. We don’t have fax because we have email. We don’t have file cabinets and paper files in them because we have outsourced online storage. We don’t have the old school telephone directories because we meet through a reliable chat app. And we feel good and happy about doing these because through these simple efforts, we hope to save at least one tree from being cut in our lifetime.
Spread the message. Planting trees, going paperless, increasing forest covers…these are not solo jobs. You cannot do them alone. These are the kinds of campaigns you must get more people to pitch in. Sometimes, they just need a piece of reminder. That reminder can come from you. You can share this post or share environmental protection videos on social media, write a letter to the newspaper editor or to the local government office, take your family and friends to forest tours or park walks with the intent of making them appreciate the stories lurking within these trees, or organize your own tree-planting activities (for there is power in groups).
Plant more. And plant the right way. It is important to remember that climate plays an important role in determining the right planting time. According to the GREENIN Philippines Program of the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc., a newly-planted seedling do best under moderate temperature and rainfall, for they need time to root and adjust before summer comes (rafi.org.ph/greenin-philippines). As a supporter of the program, I always encourage others to go for native trees in their tree-planting endeavors due to the following reasons:
- Native trees have high resistance to insect and disease attacks.
- Most insect predators like bats and birds build their homes on native trees. In fact, some local animals are dependent on certain native trees to survive and/or thrive. At the same time, they provide habitat to smaller animals and insect predators who can control crop and pasture-damaging pests so farmers don’t have to use pesticides.
- They have a canopy that protects and nurtures a healthy vegetation by their roots. The same canopy reduces the tunnel effect of strong winds and increases the ability of trees in erosion control.
- Native trees simply complement with the local landscape, giving the area a unique feel.
Trees are far too important to be feared. Their purpose on this earth must be respected. We must embrace their natural role in our lives.
So let’s take care of them. Let’s take care of our trees. Each one holds an extraordinary purpose, an extraordinary tale. We need them.
Brillantes, RC. “The mysterious balete tree.” TheGreenCloud. The Green Cloud, February 2009. Web. 25 April 2016.
“Balete tree.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, October 2015. Web. 25 April 2016.
Piccio, Belle. The 400-plus year-old tree of Lazi, Siquijor. 2014. Choose Philippines, Philippines. Web. 25 April 2016.
“Trees.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Superstitions. 2nd ed. 2002. Print.
Gallardo, Lala. Behind the old aparador. 2008. The Night Monkeys, Tahanan Books, Philippines. Web. 25 April 2016.
Senate Economic Planning Office, Senate of the Philippines. Philippine Forests at a Glance. SEPO, 2015. PDF file.
“Benefits of Native Trees.” RAFIGreeninPhilippines. Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. 2011. Web. 27 April 2016.