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.
 
 
 

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