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


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