Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A call to save your hometown's arboreal legacy

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon
     Baguio's pine trees are vanishing. But it is not because its natural environment is deteriorating--that's just what everybody assumes.  Many don't  realize that as the city's legendary treeline recedes, it is not just losing something God-given, it is also throwing away the hard-won prize of one of its earliest and most ambitious project in planetary engineering--the artificial greening of Baguio in the 1900s. It is an effort that goes back more than a century ago. Present generation of Baguio residents may not  even know be aware of it anymore. 
     A surprising discovery you will make when looking at old yellowed photographs of Baguio is that at the turn of the century, there were probably fewer trees growing in the city than there are today.   Contrary to the common perception, Baguio's history is not rooted at all on the tall majestic pine tree, but rather on  a plant very much lower to the ground: green algae.

These "paper trees" lining Harrison
Road are not native species from
Baguio. They were imported from
Chicago and planted around the
Burnham Park as part of an early
and ambitious project in planetary
engineering--the aritificial greening
of Baguio in the 1900's
     Its very name--Baguio--comes from the Ibaloi word "bag-ew." It refers to a green mossy plant that grew all over the place, thriving particularly well in the moist and humid climate.
     Geographically, the accurate ancient name of Baguio is Kafagway. Yet it was the term "bag-ew" that soaked into the consciousness of the city’s pioneers because of the way  this plant thoroughly dominated the landscape. It grew on rocks, on the ground, on the barks of trees--it even grew on flotsam drifting across the old swamp that Burnham lake used to be.
      Prior to the 1900s, this green algae might well have been the iconic representation of Baguio--and not the pine tree.
     There are, in fact, very  few references to the pine tree in the city’s precolonial or post-modern traditions. Even the native Ibalois do not have a name for this tree. They have a name for its aromatic wood which burned bright, strong and fragrant--saleng. But the tree itself goes by no particular name in the vernacular. This is because the pine tree did not really grow in thick clumps around the old Kafagway settlement as some presume.
     There is ample proof of this in many aerial photographs of Baguio that are now stashed in the archives.  Admittedly, those photographs do not reach too far back in time.  After all, Baguio was chartered in 1909, only six years after the dawn of aviation. The first DC-3 did not even fly over Baguio until 1938 to help map out the early topographical charts of the Gran Cordillera mountain range.  
     Forestry authorities today still use many of these old pre-World War II vintage aerial photographs as reference.  Now Google Earth makes it possible to look  down on every square inch of the planet (even Baguio City), and these old aerial photos provide a rich reference of comparative data on the extent, or retreat, of Baguio City’s  mysterious treeline.
    That city treeline did not even exist in 1909, the year Baguio became a chartered city. Old photos suggest that almost the entire old townsite stretching from Camp Allen in the west to the site of the present Baguio Convention Center to the east, and from Kisad Road in the south northward to General Luna Road--Baguio City was practically treeless in the early 1900s.
     The outlying areas were thickly forested, for sure.  And most of these well-identified forests--such as Busol, Ambiong and Buyog--still are. They are forest reservations by law and while squatting is a problem, these areas largely remain forested. 
     What is amazing was how the early American city administrators--visionaries like Eusebius J. Halsema--transformed the treeless pastureland that the central city district  used to be into the lush city parks they are today. It was nothing short of planetary engineering. Sadly, today the success of that project is long forgotten. The city doesn't even have a decent seedling project anymore.
     That’s not to say that the city's landscape in 1909 was desertlike. As pasturelands go, Baguio  was  green as can be. Oldtimers even refer to the era from the 20s right up to World War II in 1942 as the "Green Years."
This is just one of 100 pine trees about to be destroyed
in Dominican Hill under the relentless onslaught of more
housing constructions creeping up the hill from the
south side (Marcos Highway). All that forestry authorities
can do is paint numbers on the tree trunks to enable
them just to keep track of how many have been cut.
     But if there weren’t as many trees and yet the city was described as "green" how then did  the city look like? Like some of those poster images you often see of Holland and other grazingland states in Europe, some would surmise.
     The greening of Baguio--actually it’s regreening--by the introduction of taller arboreal foliage was a deliberate effort, part of the execution of the city’s design by Daniel Burnham. This renowned Chicago architect envisioned the City Pond (later renamed Burnham Lake in his honor) as the centerpiece of Baguio’s townsite layout. Government offices would then be clustered in opposing "poles"--all local administrative offices would be situated on the hill south of the lake: City Hall which housed the City Services, City Police, city jail, and the City Council, as well as the early city school district headquarters housed in the Baguio Central School.
     All national administrative offices would be clustered at the National Government Center located on the hill opposite City Hall: the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals compounds and all the executive departments’ official summer headquarters. The cluster soon earned the name "Cabinet Hill."
     Then Burnham envisioned that the roads connecting these government hubs would be tree-lined avenues and boulevards. But the old Baguio lacked the right species of trees that can grow tall enough to lend the landscape the stateliness required of a world-class city. Thus, the program was launched to plant tree sapling all over the city. By the end of 1911, it is estimated that the old Bureau of Forests had planted more than 30,000 saplings.

One of these stately tall Norfolk pine trees is planted
at each corner of Burnham Lake. They are just under 
a century old, thriving well in the sub-tropical climate 
of Baguio. However, these trees can only reproduce
in the sub-zero temperatures of their original Norfolk,
Virginia habitat. They have been unable to produce
viable cones here, so when the last of these majestic
trees die off, their species will vanish from Baguio's
landscape forever--which is probably less than 20 or
so short years from now.
     For this ambitious project in early planetary engineering, the Americans imported three  rare species of trees that were not native to Baguio: the Norfolk pine from Norfolk, Virginia, the Douglas white bark from Chicago (which earned the local name "paper tree" because of the papery texture of its bark) and the red weeping willow from Washington (which became known locally as "bottlebrush").
     These trees were planted all around Burnham Park and in the yards of all government buildings. It would take almost 25 years before these trees grew tall enough to draw attention to their stately beauty.
     But the hardy Benguet pine wasn’t totalled disregarded. These were grafted with taller strains of the same species from Burma and Indonesia--all were Asiatic pine trees that thrived uniquely well in the tropical climate. The hybrids grew taller because they splayed less branches than the unmodified Benguet pine. These are the pines trees you can still see within the Baguio townsite--in seriously dwindling numbers.
     This is a shame. The specially-imported trees around Burnham Park are too old to bear seeds that would be viable. But a well-trained and highly-motivated botanist could probably produce saplings through grafting and budding, so long as enough trees remain to undergo the procedure.
     The hybridized local pine trees are all but gone. Because they look all too similar to the unhybridized tree population, few realize that they are specially-modified and too few to effectively reproduce on their own.
    The tragic thing is that most of these hybrids have been planted near and around government buildings and summer staff houses--many of which are rebuilding and expanding. As these building’s footprints grow, more of the surrounding hybrid pine trees are falling to the ignorant chainsaw operator who thinks the tree he is felling is just like all the other pine trees elsewhere in Benguet.
     No loss is more  felt, and no ignorance could be less blissful.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Burnham Park: portrait of a city

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon
     It is named after Daniel H. Burnham, the Chicago architect who designed the city’s basic layout. Burnham Park is synonymous to Baguio City as Central Park is to New York City. 
     Featurewise, it’s pretty basic. A man-made lagoon dominates the center of the park. Flat-bottomed boats rent out to tourists who care to jostle among a hundred other boaters in this tiny lake. In the 1960s there were real sailboats here too. But few people knew how to work the till, rudder, main sail and jib to actually scoot around the lake on windpower alone, and mishaps were frequent. Increased siltation has also made the lake shallower. The sailboats, with their heavy ballasts under the keel, began running aground. On most days, dead winds forced boaters to use loose oars which were constantly tossing overboard. Finally, the last sailboat was lifted out of the lake in 1974 and all the boats now have anchored pivoted oars and flat bottoms.
     They are less exciting for real seamen but friendly to most landlubbers who have never sailed. At the very least, the boats present a more picturesque alternative experience to sweating it out on a rowing machine in a gym. Imagination has flourished too. More recent novel ideas have given way to prowheads in the mold of "Little Mermaid" and other Disney characters.
With comely mermaids at the prow of Burnham lake's
famous flat-bottomed boats beckoning, who can resist
picking up an oar ?

     The boats also give you unobstructed access to the entire lakeside flower beds ringing the lake. The city parks services does a good job of repotting flowers in sync with whatever species is supposed to bloom at any given time. So the flower beds lining the lake’s perimeter alternately holds vibrant growths of chrysanthemum, dahlia, marigold, everlasting, gumamela, gladiola, baby’s breath, statis, giant sunflower, and many other flowering plants year round. Towering at each corner of the lake is a giant Norfolk pine, kin to the tall "grand pine tree" at the foot of Session Road--which transforms into the largest outdoor Christmas tree in December.
     About the only other activity going on in Burnham Park is biking. Private concessionaires rent out bicycles by the hour on the south lane of Lake Drive. Not much of a cycling circuit this one--mostly, it is there just for people to learn how to ride a bike. But if you’re an accomplished cyclist, the 100-meter turnaround present little challenge. But for the serious two-wheeler, the rest of the city is perfect cycling country. There are several mountain biking and road cycling clubs active in the city. On weekends, colorful pelotons are a common sight around the circumferential roads of Baguio, like Loakan, South Drive, Ambuklao and Kennon roads.

Biking around Lake Drive brings families together--and
can be a perfect opportunity for equalizing the sexes.
Daddy can rest his arthritic knees while Mommy works
the pedals.

     But the biking in Burnham Park is popular for a whole different reason: it brings family and friends together. Also, with its proximity to local schools, I used to believe that every school kid in Baguio at one or another would have indulged in the basic truancy of cutting classes to ride these bikes.
     I know my school mates in Baguio City High School (1980) and I did. We were an entire class, in fact, who would promptly forsake a day’s worth of classes just to scrape our knees and collect road rash in our arms and legs (or sometimes faces!) riding these bikes. Until you learned to ride one of them, you were not considered a "true City Higher."
     We rented our bikes from a retired local sports legend, Alejandro Cabusora, who was one of the concessionaires. He was the 1968 Northern Luzon Athletic Association (NLAA) decathlon champion and would have gone on to become national champion. But the bus carrying the Baguio delegation to the games figured in a crash on the way. Alex Cabusora suffered a spine injury that left his sprinting legs paralyzed. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair--but kept inspiring young athletes with his motivational speaking. The City awarded him a bike rental concession in Burnham Park in appreciation.
     Back then, the bikes rented out for fifty centavos for 15 minutes--or two pesos for a full hour. At least in theory. Whenever time was up on our bikes, Alex Cabusora would glance at his stopwatch and yell out to us, "take one last round!" That "last round" would stretch for another half hour because each time we pulled in to return the bikes, Alex would keep saying, "Didn’t I tell you to take one more round?" I know I once rode his bike all morning and paid fifty centavos. Time stood still for City Highers on that bike lane.

All of life is a swing, when you think about it. You hit the
highs and the lows over and over but at the end of the
day you still get off the ride--like these swinging sisters
have discovered.
     When all of Alex’s bikes were out, we rented some from another kindly old man, Mr. Lomibao. He’s another guy with a defective stopwatch just like Alex’s. If my City High batchmates and I were cardiologically healthy in those days, we owe it to Messrs. Cabusora and Lomibao and their bicycles.
     There were memorable incidents too, like when a few misguided misfits (who were not from City High) would try to steal the bikes. They snuck out the hilly portion behind the Children’s Park and spilled out onto Kisad Road. Then these jerks tried to make a run for it, pedaling madly up towards Legarda Road. But all it took is for one of us to shout in Ilocano, "Adda agtatakaw!" (Someone’s stealing a bike!). Mr. Lomibao would chase them down on his motorcycle--and he always got every one of them. But the perps usually never got so much as a tongue-lashing from Mr. Lomibao. He basically just scared the bejesus out of these deviants, threatening to tell their parents about their mischief. They quickly realized their mistake and asked for forgiveness--which they always got. Today, these people would be very forgiving adults, I imagine.
In our day, that's NOT a slide. Back during those times
when kids were sturdier and parents weren't so over-
protective and litiguous, a slide is defined as something
that if you fell off of it, you actually broke a bone! 

     The Children’s Park has been renovated recently. New rides (seesaws, slides and swings---all for free) and jungle gyms have been installed. But I miss the old giant "rocketship" slide that used to sit on the outer edge of the park. Rust and disrepair had forced city engineers to finally scrap it in 1985. It was a tall tower, shaped like a rocketship sitting on a launching pad. The gantries are the downslides--there’s one for fraidycats about 5 feet off the ground, a middle chute for aspiring bullies about 10 feet high, and the topslide for certified playground toughies which was all of 20 feet high. You either slid down off it on the steel chute, and touch on the ground five or six seconds later. Or you could get ambitiously show-offy and slide down "bannister style" sitting on one handrail while keeping your weight across the opposite handrail. You either slid faster and reached the foot of the slide about 2 seconds faster--or you arrived even faster than that and a little "more vertical" at 32 feet per second squared. That means you fell off the slide completely and landed badly on the sandpit below, with a whole new practical understanding of Newton’s law of motion.
     But in those days, unless you were bleeding or you actually broke a bone, no one paid attention. I guess kids were sturdier then.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Survival lessons we can learn from a tree

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon    

     The seed must have fallen off the back of a truck carrying lowland vegetables, as this truck inched its way up to Baguio on the newly-cut "Benguet Road."
     That’s right-- "Benguet Road" was how it was called before this road was renamed after Col. Lyman Kennon of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who built it in 1903.
     Or perhaps it was blown up from the lowlands by a strong wind. Perhaps a bird had it in its beak and dropped the seed because its strong minty, camphory scent was unappealing. Still another theory is that the seed somehow got mixed in with a bunch of betel nuts in a native roadworker’s betel pouch and was tossed away in the vetting process.
     No one knows for sure exactly how the seed of a Sangilo tree ended on the road side along Kennon Road--and on top of a huge granite boulder at that. Only one thing is certain: it wasn’t human will that put it there.
     Why not? Because if a normal human being wanted to plant a tree, he would press the seed into the ground, not leave it on top on a dry rock. And for this particular species, if anyone wanted to plant a Sangilo tree, he would stick a sharpened twig from a mature tree into the soil and not start with a seed.
An iconic Baguio shot, if there ever was one, would be
this 25-foot lion head that greets tourists coming up
Kennon Rd. developed by the Lions Club. The sangilo-
on-a-rock grows just ten meters or so farther downhill
from this favorite poster shot setting.
     In fact--who knows?--it might actually have been a Sangilo twig that was shoved into a crack on the rock by a hiker using it as a walking pole. This hiker must have clambered up the rock to catch a panoramic view of the Bued River canyons below and gloat on his mountain climbing progress. When his walking stick got lodged into a crack on the rock, he might have just snaped off a good 3 or 4 inches off the tip and went on his merry way.
     Whether it was a seed or a twig, the progeny of this Sangilo tree lay on top of that rock and teetered between life and death. It had to have been the rainy season. Drops of water from the sky fell just in time, and often enough, to keep the seed or twig from completely drying out. Most of that water spilled off the side of the boulder. But a few drops mercifully pooled in a tiny dent on that rock, enough to soak the seed or the tender bark of the twig and soften it.
     Life finds a way. Nature is a master at survival. Weeks of being soaked in that life-sustaining water enabled this Sangilo sapling to grow tender little shoots that clung to the rock face. Now its was safe, at least, from getting blown away by the next gust of mountain air that blew through these canyons.

It wasn't a perfect likeness but early visitors to Baguio
had long noticed that this particular rock along Kennon
road looked uncannily like the African king of the jungle.
So in 1973 a local civic club bearing the beast's name
commissioned a mason to chip or build up the rock in
just the right places to complete the look. Today the
now legendary lionhead guards the entrance to the city.

     Day by agonizing day, that sapling absorbed drop after precious drop of early morning mountain dew. By midmorning the rising heat of the sun bearing down on that rock completely baked the rock dry. And that tiny sapling held on for dear life, waiting for the cold evening--and the lifesaving dew of the next morning.
     Soon it sprouted a brave little leaf, then two--and then more. The soft tendrils of roots anchoring it to the rock grew longer and stronger too. It shot slowly downward towards the ground in a death race to reach the soil before the rest of the plant died, unable to be sustained only by the dew.
     It was quite a height to creep down for these tender little roots. It was about three meters from the top of the rock to the rich soil beneath it. But those roots finally made it and soon this sangilo was drinking all it could from the ever moist Benguet soil.
     Then the tree grew in leaps and bounds, no longer starved of water or nutrients. Its leafy crown spread wide, and those tender roots grew large and strong. It is estimated that this Sangilo tree is now about sixty or seventy years old, at least. Its complex root system has completely enveloped the rock on which it once clung tenaciously for dear life. Now it is the tree that holds the rock so firm that its viselike grip had actually split the rock.

From a distance, the sangilo on the 
rock is an imposing specimen of a
little-known Philippine hardwood that
would probably never land in any 
endangered species list. But that
should make it even more inspiring 
and compelling to preserve this one
particular tree. 

     It has been documented that this particular Sangilo tree is the only tree that grows on top of a rock anywhere in the country. In 1984, this hardy Sangilo tree, now all of twenty feet tall, was recognized by the Tree Preservation Foundation of the Philippines as a success story of survival by a Philippine tree genus. A brass plate riveted at the base of the rock proudly announces its rare and inspiring achievement as a tree!
     The sangilo species is not exactly endangered--and considering how it triumphed over all adversity, to force itself to live when all odds told it to die, it’s easy to understand why.
     Today, you can see this tree--still growing robust and majestically--on the right side of Kennon road when you’re coming up, about ten meters before you reach the iconic Lion head. Ironically, local tourism officials seem little enlightened about the significance of this hardy woody survivor--all they could think of to do about it is to convert its behind into a restroom. What a pity.
     But it is a tree with an inspiring story. If you have ever faced a situation whose beginnings are bleak and discouraging--even life threatening--take heart from this sangilo tree, as I do many times.  Everytime I look at it, the only thing I could think of is to parody Joyce Kilmer's undying classic poem and also say to myself, "pithy essays are made by over-the-hill and has-been writers like me....but only God can make a tree.
     The saddest part is that not everyone knows the story of the sangilo-on-a-rock---not even among Baguio residents.
     And now you are among the few who do.*jrd