Thursday, December 29, 2011

'The man who planted trees'

I wrote the piece below for this space 20 years ago, in 1991 (with a different title). I share this again to honor those who have been guarding our forests with their lives, in memory of the thousands (almost 2,000 dead and some 1,000 still missing) who perished in the Dec. 16 flash floods, landslides and log slides that roared into parts of Northern Mindanao and the Visayas, and in solidarity with the grieving, hungry, homeless and hopeless.

Tropical Storm “Sendong” is not entirely to blame. Earth watchers have been crying out in the wilderness, subsisting on the proverbial locusts and wild honey, unheeded in their own woebegone country.

While re-working this piece I was listening to the Enya album, “The Memory of Trees” and thinking of all the real Christmas trees out there that have protected us. I pray for brightness on the road ahead, “charged with the grandeur of God.”
                                                                * * *
When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction. —from “The Man Who Planted Trees”

A story I read as a little girl and which I remember very well to this day (in fact the copy is still preserved at home in the province) is that of Johnny Appleseed. I remember his saucepan of a cap, his bright eyes and the fistful of apple seeds he strew around wherever he went.
Children keep things in their hearts and remember even when they become adults. After these many years I still remember how good I felt reading that picture story in the Junior Classics Illustrated. How Johnny Appleseed made the bare fields bloom and when he was old, how he marveled at the work of his hands and how he died a happy man and how the birds in the apple trees chirped his name long after he was gone.
I remember as I go over this warm little book which my friend, a farmer, lent to me. The book, “The Man Who Planted Trees,” comes with audio (text and music) which can be played while one is reading the book. Listening and reading—slowly, meditatively—takes 40 minutes. (This is now on YouTube!) The story is by Jean Giono, the illustrations (such exquisite wood engravings) by Michael McCurdy. A noted French writer, Giono has written more than 30 novels. He died in 1970 at 75.

The name of the man who planted trees is Elzeard Bouffier. Giono said the purpose of his story “was to make people love the tree, or more precisely, to make them love planting trees.” Through Giono, we first meet Elzeard Bouffier before the outbreak of the First World War, then when the war is over, then again before the outbreak of the Second World War and finally at the end of it.

Giono, the storyteller, describes where he first met Bouffier: “About 40 years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights quite unknown to tourists, in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence. All this, at the time I embarked upon my long walk through these deserted regions, was barren colorless land. Nothing grew there but wild lavender.”

In this god-forsaken land lived Bouffier, “a man of great simplicity and determination.” Bouffier, who had lost his wife and children, resettled in this desolate place in Southern France. With only his dog and sheep for company, he started his monumental work—planting a hundred acorns every day of his life.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Season of immense grieving, immense giving

Storm “Sendong” struck in the wee hours when most people were asleep. Weather experts and forecasters were stunned upon beholding the aftermath of Sendong’s force and fury. But it was not Sendong’s wrath from the sky alone that caused the destruction. Elements on the ground conspired—silted rivers and congested riverbanks, poor urban drainage systems, denuded forests. It was not all Sendong’s fault. There surely will be a time for fault-finding. It didn’t have to be as bad as this.

And yes, this had been predicted three years ago, foretold, if you may, not by armchair doomsday soothsayers, but by individuals and groups that have been working on the ground and using science so that the authorities and their constituencies could be forewarned and be prepared. They were laughed out of the room. (Read “Sendong disaster foretold 3 years ago” by Kristine L. Alave, Inquirer, 12/20/11.)

Everything in words has been said about the immensity of the grief of the people who survived last weekend’s calamity that visited the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan as well as other Mindanao and Visayan areas. But there are not enough words.

Almost a thousand dead and countless still missing. The counting continues. The live images of devastation that stream on the TV screen, the still images on print, the wailing, the weeping. Dead people, dead animals, debris, mud, water, wreckage, decay. Hunger, thirst, disease, and worst of all, immeasurable loss. How to go on living when one’s loved ones have been suddenly swept away without warning, only to be found lifeless in the most unlikely places, disfigured and wrapped in sticky mud?

We think we have seen enough tragedies in this world. But sometimes our defenses are pulled away suddenly and we experience the rawness of it all. On TV one beholds a solitary mother squatting and cradling her muddied baby, limp and lifeless. There are no tears in her eyes, no words from her lips, but on her mouth is a frozen scream. You find yourself breaking into sobs.
Journalists don’t easily shed tears. Or we seldom do. Not when we are on coverage. There is a protective shield that we put between us and the subject matter before us so that we don’t cross the divide. The shield or armor could take the form of a tape recorder, a microphone, a camera, a notebook, a moving pen. The deadline. The press ID. These set us comfortably apart. And when everything is over, we think we can stand up and easily leave, leave behind all that we have caught in our electronic gadgets or on paper and proceed to write in isolation about the discomfiting scenes we have witnessed, the tearing grief, the despair.
But that is not always the case. There are times when one has to lay down one’s arms, so to speak, and simply listen and be there because that is the best way to catch it all (the journalist switching to another mode). Or because it is the human thing to do.

I recall the time I was at the Payatas dump right after it collapsed on hundreds of waste pickers and on hundreds of homes around it. That was in July 2000. The most heart-rending scene for me was not how the dead bodies were being pulled out one after another from under the foul heap. It was watching a man who was waiting for his dead mother, pregnant wife and child to be brought into the chapel. They were among the first to be found, placed in coffins and brought to the chapel near the dump.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

'Dominus est!"

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

“But in our weariness the Lord comes.” That is a quote from the homily of newly installed Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio G. Tagle DD delivered on Dec. 12 at the Manila Cathedral.
At that moment of recognition, at that moment when we finally see clearly, we gasp in awe, “It is the Lord!” Dominus est! This exclamation, Tagle reminds us, is drawn from the Risen Christ’s appearance to some of his weary disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. It is, I must say, one of the most dramatic post-Resurrection scenes in the Bible. “Dominus est!” is Tagle’s episcopal motto.
We are a long way from Eastertide. We are in the Advent season of waiting and crying out, “Maranatha!” But somehow, “Dominus est” seems apropos in this time of weary waiting.

The announcement on the papal appointment of Tagle, 54, as head of the Philippines’ most prominent archdiocese and his installation last Monday was among the few pleasant news events this Advent season. And so we gratefully say goodbye to retiring Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales who is known for his gentle leadership and love for the poor.

For weeks now we have been barraged with unsettling news that put us on edge and in near despair. Even as we embark on seeking justice for past wrongs done by the powerful, even as we long to see evildoers pay for their evil deeds, so many roadblocks are placed along the way. Will the big fish get away?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

25 Years: Nobody told me it'd be like this

Twenty-five years and some 2,000 feature articles, special/investigative reports, and column pieces later, here I am still asking: Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this?

I’ve had an amazing time. Amazing, meaning I have been privy to so many things of this world that other mortals are not because “they are not there.” Oh “to be there” where people live and die, feast and famish, laugh and cry, to be there where events unfold and to watch history leave its tracks behind for us to decipher and to be sometimes awed and humbled enough to make us fall on our knees in thanksgiving and sometimes in mourning.
To be there where the heavens opened and hell broke loose. To watch great lives, small lives, dirty lives, fascinating lives, beautiful lives, incredible lives rise and fall, bloom, break into a thousand pieces or become whole again.
On Wednesday, 44 employees, I among them, were honored for 25 years of service to the Philippine Daily Inquirer and its mission. We are this year’s Silvers. Also honored were those who have completed 20, 15 and 10 years with the Inquirer. For every milestone, the Inquirer gifts us with a precious token in gold—real gold. And more.

Dec. 9, 1985 is the actual founding date of the Inquirer, now the country’s biggest in circulation and with a staggering global reach. So Friday is the Inquirer’s 26th anniversary. I’ve been with the Inquirer for 25 years and nine months. I joined on March 5, 1986, a few days after the People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship. Before that, I had already been contributing articles to the Inquirer, a new kid on the block then, and also to its feisty sister, the weekly Mr. & Ms. Special Edition (published by Eggie Apostol and edited by Letty J. Magsanoc) and to the so-called “alternative/mosquito press.” These publications played a huge role in bringing down the dictatorship.

We had paid a price for all that daring. And a price we also later demanded. Last February, a number of us in the press got our first taste of justice in the form of initial compensation from the Marcos estate. We were among the almost 10,000 victims of human rights violations who had filed a class suit against the Marcoses. But that is another story.

A day after the 1986 February Revolution, I received a call from Letty Magsanoc. I was asked to join the Sunday magazine of the three-month-old Inquirer. “You start tomorrow,” she told me. And I was to fly to Leyte right away to look into the fabulous treasures left behind by Imelda Marcos who would have been turned into tiny bits by the mob that descended on MalacaƱang Palace had she not fled on time.

Although I was a feature writer for the magazine, I also wrote occasionally for the daily. In 1995, I asked to move to the daily so I could write more investigative and special reports. Just recently, I asked to be transferred back to the magazine, although I could also still write features for the daily. I began writing this weekly column, Human Face, in the Opinion section, in July 1991.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bukid Kabataan: A place to be strong, to belong

The happy shrieks of children blend with the sonorous mooing of the cows. The striking green of the fields compete with the blueness of the sky. The patter of little feet, the chorus of voices in the classrooms, the rising of the nuns’ chanted prayers at eventide…

Space, quiet, fresh air, dew on the grass, good food, warm arms and the healing embrace of nature. But here above all, is the child, the child who needs to become whole again.

Bukid Kabataan Center (BK), which means children’s farm, is a special place, a home for children who have never known one or who had watched theirs fall apart. Here they slowly claim their stolen childhood, name their pain and bind their wounds with the help of caring adults.
The children vibrate with energy, laughter and songs. But behind the innocent eyes and carefree mien is deep pain that these children are helped to confront. There are bright moments and bad moments. There is a time to drink the sun and a time to weep oceans.
At 9, Melan (not her real name) had already decided for herself how to fix her life, step out of her trauma and move on. Raped repeatedly by her grandfather and ostracized by her family because she was going to make a case of it in court (with help from legal and social services), she found herself in a bind.

Then Melan made a dramatic bargain. She would not testify so that the case against her abuser would be dropped – but on condition that she would never be returned to her family or next of kin, and that her family should release her for legal adoption.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gawad Kalinga's European tour of hope

As stories about corruption, crime and violence continue to hog the limelight like telenovelas gone awry, we become filled with disgust and search for answers to the question, how have we come to this? But out there are countless stories of hope that remain untold simply because we choose to look at the noisier, bloodier, sexier, more scandalous and titillating side of things.

I recently spoke with Antonio Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga (GK), RM Awardee and Inquirer’s 2006 Filipino of the Year and felt a surge of hope. I have written several stories about him and GK, some written long before accolades were heaped on them. The recent one I did was on GK’s Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan, which is a showcase and center for social innovation (CSI). The center is part of GK’s second phase: a 21-year vision with a road map towards a First World Philippines.
There, nestled on 14 hectares of verdant, undulating terrain is a farm, home, village and “university” rolled into one, where people’s dreams and ideas are put to the test, made to grow and become realities.
Many European students and volunteers have spent time not only at the Enchanted Farm but also in remote GK villages where they lived the life of the locals. They brought home with them amazing stories of Filipino resilience, innovation and hope.

When Meloto recently did a hectic tour of 17 universities in France and England, he was met with great enthusiasm. Among those he visited were Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds and Sorbonne. Students, academics, social scientists and regular folk wanted to know more about GK and hear it straight from Meloto.

Meloto’s European tour was arranged by Olivier Girault, an executive of Orange Telecom, who has great affection for the Philippines and deep compassion for the poor. For Meloto to cope with the backbreaking schedule, Girault put Meloto on an “8888 formula: 8 hours of sleep and 8 glasses of water daily; 8 speeches and 8 meetings a week.”

Meloto shared with me his reflections on his university tour. Waxing Shakespearean, he said, “From France to England, GK smells as sweet.” That trip, he said in one breath, was part of “my continuing journey of hope for the world to see the Philippines as the next miracle of Asia and for our people to discover the awesome gift from God and the amazing privilege of being Filipino today.”

I now let Meloto speak in his own words. If you want the whole transcript, send me an e-mail.