May 27, 2023

A Tree as Tall as the Ritz

ON my first trip to the United States, I took a tourist bus in New York City and understood why it was described as a concrete jungle in some books I had read. In lieu of trees, there were skyscrapers, growing beside each other, casting shadows on the streets and in some areas, blocking the flow of air. Among the concrete trees, the Ritz Carlton Hotel alongside Central Park looked like the tallest from the window of that bus.

In the 1980s, I lived in the Sierra Madre. The land was almost impassable during the monsoon seasons, the only means of transportation were passenger jeepneys equipped with winches that could pull out the vehicle from quagmires. Years later, I found out that I was living in a place described by William Pomeroy, in his book "The Forest." A Dumagat-Remontado used to visit me for his regular supply of firewater called Ginebra San Miguel.

In that mountain fastness, I spent hours reading underneath the sparse canopy of a giant lauan tree. My shadow must have been happy as it followed a pale, lukewarm sun. I used to talk to old people who hiked up the Sierra Madre Mountains from Batangas to lay claims of ownership to arable soil. They never caught a glimpse of the sun during a week of hiking, not even during midday because layers of tree canopies completely blocked off the light. I lived among dipterocarps, which are giant trees, and I have seen those trees being sawed and transported at midnight presumably by illegal loggers. Trees once populated more than 80 percent of the land area of our country. We have hardwoods that make jungle termites gnash their teeth and weep. In Palawan, there are iron trees that can be cut only during the rainy season because it is nearly impossible to hew these for timber in dry, hot months. During the Spanish colonial period, big houses were built with hardwood trees. The house of Emilio Aguinaldo was constructed with trees obtained from Noveleta, Cavite, according to my friend, Rose Aguinaldo, the late curator of the Aguinaldo Shrine.

In 1902, Capt. George P. Ahern of the United States Army reported that in the total of 40 odd million acres of woodland they found, at least 20 million acres of virgin forest (1 hectare is equivalent to 2.47 acres). There were virgin forests in the provinces of Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya and in Tayabas which is now Quezon province. The entire coast of Luzon south of Atimonan was a virgin forest. The forests in Luzon had an aggregate area of at least 3,000,000 acres. Ahern's estimate was conservative. The islands of Mindoro and Paragua (now Palawan) were covered with dense virgin forests. Mindanao then had 10,000,000 acres of virgin forest.

Now, our forest cover has been decimated, and the only canopies we enjoy are occasional cirrus clouds. Basking in the sun has become an ordeal. Climate change has alarming effects on our islands which add to our perennial problems involving typhoons, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, internal conflicts, war threats and the daily woes of poverty.

The Washington Post has reported that the heat wave is historic in Southeast Asia topping an unprecedented 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Asphalted roads are melting in the heat. There is nothing much to do about it but reduce our carbon emission, which to some seems like a quixotic idea, what with all those missiles being fired all over the world, burning tons of rocket fuel.

My good friend, Kerwin Lo, said: "I am planting native trees in La Union. That is my small contribution to ensure my son's survival on this planet." He says the problem is that corporations cut down trees and do not plant seedlings to replace those that they kill. His small plantation of Philippine native trees could serve as a miniature carbon sink to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His words make sense, especially when you can feel that the earth is increasingly becoming uninhabitable.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. declared that more trees should be planted in the bald mountain ranges, a massive and well-managed program of planting native species; will help our country comply with the stringent requirements set in place by the Paris Climate Agreement wherein the Philippines is a signatory. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding treaty which was adopted in Paris in December 2015 by 196 States. The agreement entered into force in November 2016.

The goals are to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels.

A few days ago, I went back to the Sierra Madre and from a hillock owned by a fellow named Wilmer Lopez who had a jungle monkey for a pet, viewed the lay of the land looking for that lauan tree of my youth with its layered canopy that filtered the sunlight while I was reading. I was saddened when I could not find my tree, the one as tall as the Ritz.

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