Fog and Roots

Pula was never without a foggy morning in February.

On my first day there, I stood outside our hosts’ house trying to wrap myself tightly from the cold, and all I could see was whiteness filling the landscape. The crisp air was vitalizing. Not being able to see the horizon gave me a deep sense of nowness. Then, moment by moment, the fog became abstract curtains slowly revealing the lush misty rice terraces: built and sustained by the power and humility of the community.

For us to reach that faraway place in Ifugao, we had to fly to Manila, travel by a lengthy bus ride to Solano, take a public jeepney to Lagawe town, and survive more than an hour of an extremely muddy and dangerous motorbike ride. In some way, it made me at peace to think that Pula was almost off the grid so the forest which served as home to biodiversity remained protected.

In those magical early mornings before the sunrise, maybe the fog was also hesitant to reveal the bosom of the wild – the howls and lulls of animals, the ripeness of berries, the intelligence of moss, and the stillness of natural pools. With the unraveling of the bucolic landscape, the fog would also lift itself up to let Felix and his friends walk through the dwindling path to school and visit us at Gerald’s. Felix was 10 years old. Full of dreams and curiosities. He spoke Filipino fluently and served as the communicator of all the shy and giggly children we spent time with. When too timid, the other kids would reach out by showing us their handmade wooden toys.

The house we were staying at blended with the simplicity of the surrounding families. On its front yard was the barangay basketball court which also served as space where we raked the coffee beans out to dry. I was visiting my friend Mark who was volunteering for the Julia Campbell Agroforest Memorial Eco-park. He also initiated a playground project during his stay. Being there felt being very close to the earth even though the history of the area is both heartbreaking and hopeful. It was named in honor of Julia Campbell, an American journalist and Peace Corps volunteer who got slain by a local in 2007. The parents of our host donated their indigenous lands to immortalize her passion for conservation and grassroots projects.

Gerald was an illuminating experience. His built alone could instantly tell you that he is one with the land. He was very proud of his Ifugao heritage. Listening to his stories and insights was a luxury. It was like finding a living Filipino that embodied love for the country so strongly – it was all over his eyes and his daily life. During one of our evening acoustic jams in the kitchen, we heard a tribal ritual not too far from their house. He proudly told us that it was in preparation for a wedding the following day. For a man so intelligent and driven like him, it could have been easier to seek employment elsewhere, but Gerald told me that he just could not shut his ears to the hymn of his roots. In addition to enriching us through our minds, we also learned the ethical process of preparing the exotic civet coffee – from beans picking to civet care – hands-on, feet unto the mud, bodies and hearts through the wilderness.

One day, when he was guiding us to the nearest river, we heard noises from what seemed to be an ongoing construction.

“They are building new roads here.”

I moved my gaze from the alluring wild vines to pay more attention to him. A question got stuck in my throat.

The trail was extremely muddy and slippery. I bent a bit and removed my shoes so I could walk barefooted. As the forest slowly showed its insurmountable glory to me, the bulldozer sound fainted behind my ears.

Photos: Karen Buenavista

Rough sketch: Marrz Capanang

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