As I write, a fast-growing tree I planted years back, whose name escapes me now, lies prostrate across my desolate garden, pulled out from its roots like weed by Typhoon “Pedring’s” furious winds. Every year, someone comes to trim the trees in my yard and prepares them for the typhoon season. But, the last time, I opted not to touch this nameless one as it seemed to have nicely rested its young crown on the branches of a strong mango nearby. At the height of the typhoon, the borrowed prop promptly broke beneath the weight it had been made to carry. There is a tacit ethics in Nature’s ways, and one might notice it in the manner in which the crowns of adjacent trees avoid touching one another.
I have lived in the same faculty house inside the UP Diliman campus for almost 40 years now. There was a time when this “pioneer” house, built by my wife’s grandaunt, Jovita Fuentes, in the early 1950s, stood alone at the edge of what was then called Area 1. Responding to the university’s offer to allow the faculty and staff to build their homes on UP land, about 30 pioneers had agreed to make the move from Padre Faura to Diliman. Ms Fuentes was one of these intrepid settlers, choosing a site near the old conservatory of music where she taught in which to build her house. She lived alone most of her life, taking in a couple of her students as boarders. She died in 1978, leaving the little bungalow to my wife, Karina, in accordance with a rule that these self-built homes could be transferred to a kin only if the latter was connected to UP.
The first time I visited this place when I was a student, I was struck by its rustic and frontier-like character. The street leading to the house was a narrow gravel-laden path that ended precisely at the driveway. Here, Ms Fuentes, a professor of voice, and her students filled the cool mountain air with the sounds of the piano, vocalizations, and arias from the opera. She kept a terraced garden planted to African daisies and fenced it with white kalachuchis, Doña Auroras, and fruit-bearing trees. This was the sanctuary “Tata” (that’s how we called her) created for herself, many years after she came back from her long stay in Europe where she performed as a famous opera diva.
One day in 1970, a powerful gust of wind from the mighty Typhoon “Yoling” ripped off the entire roof of her house and sent it flying across Old Balara. Worried for her safety, her relatives advised her to move back into the city where she could live in a safer home. But she would hear none of it; instead she built a stronger roof and reinforced the small basement in which some of her students lived. In 1973, just before Christmas, she asked us to live with her.
Over the years, the mango and caimito trees that surround the house have grown taller and sturdier, shielding Tata’s house from the storms that swoop in seasonally from the east. I have planted a couple more acacias, mahogany, and eucalyptus just to shield the house and the garden from wind surges. The shade they create has made the place a lot cooler, but their lush crowns have also screened out the sun from the garden. As a result, the carabao grass has become anemic, unable to hold the ground soil against erosion. I have tried peanut plants as substitute ground cover but to no avail. I have also built little canals to channel the rainwater, but each time it rains, a whole layer of top soil is washed out exposing the adobe base of the garden.
From the tree house that I have put up for our grandchildren, I looked out this morning to survey the aftermath of “Pedring.” From here, the thriving informal settlers’ community that starts at the foot of our mango tree and stretches down to the perimeter fence of the UP campus appears as a quilt of roofs carpeting a terraced hill. What used to be a forested rolling hill has become a sloping labyrinth of squatter shanties. This is the university’s periphery, the home of its drivers, gardeners, janitors, clerks, retired staff and their extended families. This is where the rainwater drains and where all the eroded topsoil from my garden finds its way.
In a few more years, I fear that this side of the campus will fatally shed off what remains of its forest cover as families grow bigger and houses are extended. Every time a tree goes down, this entire wooded area is degraded. I sense the ground to be literally sinking around our house despite the fact that it sits on a relatively higher and more solid base. I dread the next earthquake, because it can shake off a wall in my library that has been loosened by ground erosion. But that is nothing compared to what it may do to the community below. We have long underestimated the dangers from ground erosion, and yet nearly all the deaths from natural calamities we have seen in recent years have resulted from one form of erosion or another.
While “Pedring” packed devastating winds, it was not an unusually strong typhoon. Compared to “Ondoy,” it brought far less rain. And yet its unpredictability and the destruction it wrought once more brought us face to face with our basic vulnerability. It is a vulnerability that is insidious because it is the accumulated product of the countless unexamined facets of our way of life. Some groups have called for a social renewal based on environmental ethics to reverse this trend. But perhaps it is not environmental ethics we need so much as a sustained effort to make ecological problems resonate in every sphere of our everyday life.