This campout was briefly mentioned in one of the more recent updates. There were a lot of laughs and stories, but I clearly remember this thought lingering in my head. Perhaps it's being close to the elements, being amidst the green that simplify life to its core essence: that of being human and belonging to ourselves, each other, and the earth.
Now that the grass has been cleared from the lot, we are starting to plan out where to plant what. We started with the decision not to cut down any of the trees that have grown in the lot, but now that we’re dealing with the details of everything, a few of the trees would just have to go. One tree, the binunga, which is apparently a pioneer species, is right next to the wall of our neighbor. While it breaks my heart to take it down, it will eventually destroy our neighbor’s wall, as well as the wall we’re planning to build around the lot. Two coconut trees were taken down because they posed a risk of coconuts randomly falling on us. The other trees that I don’t mind cutting down myself are a few African Tulip and Mahogany trees that have situated themselves beside native trees like Talisay trees and a mango tree. I’ve been reading up on native and invasive trees, and it’s astounding how much science has been ignored by tree planting programs that put hundreds of invasive species in our soil, affecting the biodiversity of our land. I’ve also been ignorant until recently, and it’s a shame to admit that the names of the invasive species sound more familiar than the native ones.
I have yet to find a comprehensive guide on the Philippines’ native trees, but I did find a book I have yet to order. I’ll post a casual review of the book here once I have a copy. Any recommendations on books about trees or plants? Bonus points for ones focusing on the flora of the Philippines.
SEED NOTES. Do you remember the kiwi seeds turned sprouts turned seedlings I was so excited about documenting? Well, it turns out that they're just weeds. Good old, common, non-kiwi weeds. I showed them to my brother-in-law, and he stated quickly and definitively that I've been documenting weeds grow. It's fine, really. I suppose I could be more disappointed, but it was a bit of a stretch when only after two days of haphazardly scattering my saved kiwi seeds on the ground, I saw sprouts. People really do believe what they want to believe. So there, a quick update from this stressball who is in the super final stretch of finishing a book.
BUNNY NOTES. We got two New Zealand White Rabbits: Pika(chu) and Zelda. They had a little romp this afternoon, so we shall see in three months if baby pokerabbits pop out.
The grass that was cleared on the lot is starting to grow again, thanks to the very rich soil and the rain. Goats may be in our near future. I tried to sheet-mulch a portion of the lot, but in the process of getting grass cuttings, a gigantic black ant managed to crawl undetected onto my hand and very grumpily and painfully made his/her presence felt. No pictures of the sheet-mulching attempt as of yet, since it was a pretty sad try. My mom-in-law is giving me cardboard boxes though, so I'll be attempting sheet-mulching again once I'm done with the book.
We've camped at the lot, bonfire and marshmallows and sausages and coffee in enamel cups and all, and it was a night to remember. Looking forward to more campouts and sleeping under the stars.
My impulse, upon having my curiosity piqued by some new thing or topic, is to read all I can about it until I feel like I've read enough or I cannot get hold of any more material to read. If I really get into something, I start looking for things to watch, I look things up online, and, in some cases, I even consider a career change or, at the very least, getting a master's degree in whatever subject matter I got entangled in. Graduate school is a serious matter, of course, and I've only seriously considered it for three things that have caught -- ensnared may be the more apt word -- my attention: the Philippines/the motherland, social innovation, and now, the environment. Of the three, I started getting my master's in the first subject but had to stop it for yet another life-changing move, the second subject only remained a plan, and the third subject -- well, that one’s still up in the air. But I've got time before I have to set gears in motion to make it happen, and so I ponder and I write, because, as Joan Didion said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down."
So what do I think... of this curiosity-turned-impulse-turned-mild obsession around the natural world, specifically around plant life? I think it's a healthy preoccupation to have, for one. Studies abound on the benefits of forest bathing, being around greenery, and eating greens, obviously. I've also never really had pets until I had my worms in my bin, and pets are healthy for you, right? I joke about it every now and then, amused by my being called the "bulate (worm) girl," but in all earnestness, there is something about having my hands touch the soil, the worms, and everything organically decomposing in that bin that gives me a sense of calm and peace. For a few brief moments, all is right in the world and I am connected to the earth and my hands are happy. I felt the same congruence with the earth when I was unrooting some old, grown grass from the lot my in-laws bought, where our family will build a home in the near future. I intended to clear the land myself, but was advised against it (plus my Japanese sickle never arrived), and so I contented myself with pulling out whatever I could. I suppose I would be deluding myself quite a bit if I say that I could have pulled out that grass all day long --- it is truly hard work, and hard work when optional can easily be romanticized. Nonetheless, the time I spent pulling out all the grass that I could was -- all things considered and my privileged notions checked -- time I actually felt very present and would enjoy doing again and again. "Enjoy" may not be the right word, perhaps embrace is the better option; welcoming both the highs and challenges of it.
Beyond being a healthy preoccupation however, it's also been very refreshing to learn about something not by reading or interviewing people or through any other second-hand methodology, but by actually doing and learning from experience. I've read and watched all I can about vermicomposting, but actually doing it impresses the same knowledge differently in my brain. All vermicomposting books or articles or how-to's will tell you to aerate your bin, to make sure your bin has enough oxygen flow. That sounds simple enough to understand and that’s what I thought. But to really, truly, actually understand it, I had to see a dead worm in my bin, feel through the bedding, have the compulsion to add coco coir, and then finally realize that the bin was lacking air flow. I could have read a thousand more books on worms, but not one page would have taught me what I learned from that dead worm. And then there are the kiwi seeds. The kids and I enjoyed snacking on golden kiwis while in Japan, and so I started wondering whether I could grow them myself. After watching a few videos and reading a few articles, I harvested some kiwi seeds, fermented them, dried them, and, after a month or so, scattered a few haphazardly in the lot. Now, I've known about plants sprouting from seeds all my life, but it was a completely new and exhilarating experience to actually scatter the seeds and then in the next few days, actually see tiny sprouts on the ground. ACTUAL sprouts from ACTUAL seeds from my ACTUAL scattering and seed-saving. Mind blown, achievement unlocked, forever hooked.
I suppose I shouldn't be that surprised that one learns better by doing. It is the same with painting, drawing, writing, and even managing projects and programs -- you can't truly learn until you do it. You can read all the art books and nonprofit management books in the world, but they will not teach you anything until you apply what you've read, encounter roadblocks and unexpected turns, and then troubleshoot things by yourself. I think what makes my learning experience from the worms and the grass and the trees stand out is that all of it is new. New and deeply fascinating to me. Inherently interesting and exciting and... encompassing. To grow the food my family will be eating, to help nurture wildlife, to be immersed in the earth's cyclic processes, to grow things, to not waste things, to spend time with the kids outside. Encompassing, it is.
So what about that master's degree? I've not crossed it out entirely; I mean, if I'm reading tons of material now anyway, why not get a degree to go with it, too. I've got a few months to decide. And while I'm waiting on myself to make a decision, my hands will be in the dirt, feeling the earth, feeding my worms, and, hopefully, growing more green.
Everyday now, in the middle of reading or playing or cooking or even sleeping, I think about my kiwi seeds sprouting, my worms thriving or dying, the mini-grassland currently inhabited by chestnut munias (and which, sadly but necessarily, we must clear), the earth. It took me over 30 years to pay attention, but now that I am paying attention, all the green things are infiltrating every cell of my being. And it gives me peace. Purpose. A mission. Sounds grandiose, I know, but if you really think about it, the earth is worthy of such words.
There is much to learn -- from how to not kill my worms to how to eventually scoop up the kiwi seedlings and transfer them into coco-pots (so I can put them in a better location) and everything else in between. I am taking notes and trying my best to remember details. I am reading books on farming, forest gardening, seeds. I am wishing I studied botany in college, but with the futility of wishing comes my searching online for permaculture and sustainable gardening courses I can take.
I'd like to spread this idea and practice of cultivating the land -- for us and for other creatures and for the land itself to stay alive. I'm doing so through this comic-blog, which will inevitably turn into a bookzine, and then, when I know enough and am confident enough, probably start workshops and lectures about forest gardening and sustainability and loving the land. Loving the land. The motherland, yes, of course, but also all land on earth.
It all sounds so basic, and once in the history of humankind, we (our ancestors) all probably knew this stuff. But I struggle to find exact words and phrases to describe what it is I am learning or even thinking, as I knew nothing about any of this a year or so ago, and I am only writing what I am directly experiencing on the ground, literally. And I think that is a good thing, at least for me. For someone who regularly goes through complex mazes of thoughts and ideas, focusing on what's right in front of me, what my hands can hold and feel, and then thinking and writing about it is a refreshing change of pace.
We've come home to the Philippines ready to put down roots. I didn't think I'd do it quite so literally, but here we are, and I'm happy to be here.
Identifying trees through their leaves is easy enough if you have someone around who can readily tell you what leaf is which tree; once you get the correct information, then it’s just a matter of taking note and remembering details like: the shape of the leaf, the texture/sheen/gloss, the venation (although this can sometimes look all the same for all leaves, to be honest), and less obvious things like: the color of the stem (the durian tree’s brown stem is hard to miss) and the way the leaves grow out of the tree’s branches.
FOREST NOTES. These leaves are from seedlings and grafted tree-lings that we got from the nursery last week. I will be illustrating the rest in coming strips. We got two of each tree that we are hoping to grow in our forest garden. Good luck to us!
WORM NOTES. The worms are finally thriving. At least I’d like to think so. I added some coco peat (which I got from the local hardware store — it has a gardening section). It’s funny how maintaining a worm bin seems easy and simple enough when you watch youtube videos or read books and blogs about it, but until you actually get your hands dirty, everything remains a concept in your head. A concept that does not always readily translate to actual practice. In every tutorial that I watched and read, making sure that the worms have enough oxygen is stressed as fundamental to successfully setting up a bin. I knew this going into this endeavor, but it wasn’t until I added the coco peat that I truly understood what aerating the worm bedding means. Next thing I know I should add is grit (read: pulverized eggshells), so I’ve been asking family members to save their eggshells for me.
It’s only been eight days since I started the worm bin, but it already feels much longer than that. So much so that the workers at the Blue House (where I keep my worms), I’ve discovered today through my mom-in-law, actually refer to me as the “babaeing nagpapakain ng bulate” (“the girl who feeds the worms”). Highlight of my day (maybe my week! hah!).
Plants don’t need us; it is certainly the other way around. The more I learn about the plant kingdom (and what a wondrous and magnificent kingdom it is), the more amazed and fascinated I get with all the green things. Is it too late to be a botanist? I wonder sometimes. I’ve always told the husband that if I grew up in the province, I would have definitely become a conservationist. But I suppose it’s better late than never.
It was my first time to see a coconut germinate and my instinct was to get it and put it some place where it will be safe and grow. But then I looked around and saw all the coconut seedlings, all thriving on their own. Nature does its thing perfectly, reasonably, in balance.
SEED NOTES. This week, I’ve started stratifying some kiwi seeds. Another batch, I’m trying to germinate in a moist paper towel, kept somewhere the sun and some warmth reach it. And yet another batch I am planning to just scatter on the ground.
WORM NOTES. I’ve also started a worm bin for vermicomposting. Bought 1kg of worms for Php500, cut up some cardboard, placed them all in a Php300 black bin, and added a few apple peels and an apple core. Spent most of last night checking up on them, whether they’re escaping (as advised by the brother-in-law, lid had to be taken off and a piece of cloth placed on top of the soil) — they stayed put! and were still alive this morning. The little boy has named them all ODDISH (the grass/weed-pokemon). Exciting times ahead.
Kashihara, Japan — I grew up in Manila. In hot, humid, concrete Manila. The only memory I have of playing with anything close to nature is piling up dried grass cuttings from our school field and then jumping and stomping on them. That memory, given that I was such a serious kid who didn't really enjoy playgrounds or running, seems a bit out of character, to be honest. But the memory does exist, so it must have happened (for the kid that I was would never have imagined nor daydreamed of such).
The first time I ever went hiking -- that is, climb up a mountain, with grass and trees and shrubs lining the path -- was when I was seventeen. I just moved to Hong Kong for boarding school, and one of the orientation activities was hiking and camping outdoors. I had never felt so disoriented my whole life, but also so nervously excited and wide-eyed. I clearly remember my new Argentinian friend exclaiming, "Beautiful!" while looking out at our view while we were lagging behind the group. Such passion! Such unabashed wonder and appreciation! We all camped overnight on top of the mountain -- another first, another unforgettable milestone. A year later, for another project in the boarding school, I found myself bamboo rafting somewhere in Thailand, holding on to a rope to climb a very steep hill, and balancing myself on a wood plank to cross a swamp or a fishing pen of some sort. Of all the memories I have made in the two years in that boarding school, moments when I've never felt so out of place stand out -- moments spent in nature, mostly -- and for being able to remember these (in spite of everything I seem to have forgotten), feels like serendipity and a foreshadowing of what awaits me in the years ahead.
After Hong Kong, there was Maine -- another place ripe for natural wonder, yes, but I was too focused on learning printmaking that I spent most days and nights inside a workshop. Despite my nonchalance towards all the splendor Maine had to offer, the magic of its autumn didn’t fail to capture me, as no one can truly escape it. I played with the red, orange, and brown leaves at the quad, running around them, delightfully kicking them, and jumping into them and getting lost. I can still hear the crunch of the leaves as I walk on them.
After the fiery fall leaves of Maine, there were the redwoods of California. There were redwoods, cold beaches, and even a safari in the middle of endless vineyards. Later on, with my daughter in tow, there was cherry picking. Through these all, however, I had unsure steps, not knowing exactly how I got to such experiences and what I must feel or do while experiencing them. Not entirely a bystander, but not totally immersed either.
And then there was Bacolod. Oh, Bacolod. First there was the endless sea of green that welcomed us as we brought our packed bags from Manila to move there, my husband's hometown. And then there were the trees all around the city, the sugarcane fields, my mom-in-law’s garden, and The Owl Place, a conservation center right at the heart of the city. A place where owls, monkeys, birds, deer, boar, and other beautiful creatures find sanctuary became a refuge for me and my daughter as well, as we worked to find our footing in our new home. In a place where everything seemed foreign, I felt an ease with nature, the very entity that I didn't quite get acquainted with as I was growing up. Suddenly, nature was what felt familiar. Nature was what felt like home.
Neil Gaiman, in an interview with Tim Ferriss, says, "The biggest problem we run into is going, 'This is who I am, this is what I'm like, this is how I function, while failing to notice that you don't do that anymore."
Somewhere along my growing up, my moving from here to there and back, I became a person who is curious about trees, leaves, birds, insects, and everything else that I had no clue what to do or think about before. All the firsts have come to this at last: I have fallen in love with nature, with its simplicity and complexity, its quiet power, its colors, its cyclic processes, its persistence and grit and magnanimity.
And where there are great loves, there are love letters. I suppose this project is my little correspondence with nature herself. The specifics will reveal themselves in due time, but one thing is for certain: amidst the green is where I long to be and where this project will take me. I hope to see you around here.
*Addendum: A few hours after I wrote this post, an image came back to me. That of my mom tending to her orchids near our water tank, right beside an airy room at the back of our house. I remember spiders there, too. Perhaps more of these memories will resurface as I work on this project; I look forward to welcoming them back.