Saturday, March 27, 2010

Grey world

IN our household, I am the harvester of water.

That’s a piquant name for a “disgusting” habit: reusing as much of the water I use while bathing.

I don’t have a complicated bathing ritual but I do shampoo my hair every time. The wastewater I harvest fills up about two small pails.

With the wastewater, I flush the toilet or water the plants.

Now that it’s summer and my 11-year-old son plays from sunup to sundown, his evening bath yields twice this amount of “grey water.” My teenaged son, though, won’t even entertain the idea of harvesting his own bathing runoff.

So while it feels like the driest of summer, the boughs shading our small garden are profuse with white and pink blossoms. Plants, thank God, don’t go through adolescence and just drink in silence the grey water I spill.

I’m stoic about this generation disconnect. I was in high school when I had a crash course on “funny science,” as my teenager sniffs.

One of my aunts raised guavas legendary for their sweetness and aroma. During one visit, I couldn’t find a waste can to dispose of my used napkin. When I found my aunt, pickling some greens in her dirty kitchen, she told me to give the packet to a helper.

That was how I discovered that my aunt soaked used napkins in kitchen wastewater. She and her helpers drew from this barrel to water her thriving orchard of guava trees. Guavas, as you can guess, never quite recovered their old appeal with me.

But this simple science of reusing to benefit from waste is far from simple-minded.

According to a Mar. 5, 2009 Sun.Star Zamboanga article, recycling wastewater is sound economically and ecologically. “Each member of an urban household uses at least 100 liters of water for drinking, washing and bathing. Of this volume, about 90 percent is disposed into the environment as wastewater (grey water).”

The article quoted the findings of a research and development (R&D) firm accredited by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Flushing a toilet requires from 20 to 40 liters of water. If there are five persons in a household, 200 liters are used on an average for their daily functions. Since they will be throwing out some 180 liters anyway, why not flush the toilet or water the plants in the process?

The R&D firm had even more interesting observations. Laundry wastewater was a good liquid fertilizer for tilapia ponds. Pechay thrived better from a mixture of 90 percent tap water and 10 percent human urine than if sprinkled only with tap water. A drink consisting of 90 percent of kitchen wastewater and 10 percent of human urine is quite a hit among sweet potatoes.

The logic is undeniable but will it work? Will picky shoppers still buy pricey organic produce if they knew where that slightly acrid whiff came from? The math of conserving water flow doesn’t really kick in until there’s a 24-hour interruption in water supply and the taps just gush air.

Deprivation seems to be the only teacher we heed. In his scifi classic, “Dune,” Frank Herbert invented a desert planet forced by the scarcity of water to imbue this most precious of resources with political and religious, even mystical, power.

To survive a hostile environment, the natives called Fremen devise a stillsuit to save what little moisture a living body gives off to replenish back the organism. “(The stillsuit) is basically a micro-sandwich… the skin contact-layer’s porous. Perspiration passes through it… Salt’s reclaimed… Reclaimed water circulates to catchpockets from which you draw it through this tube… Urine and feces are processed in the thigh pads.”

At the core of the native genius for survival is a simple lesson. Yet, even though it raises survival to the exactness of science, the stillsuit, which loses no more than a “thimbleful of moisture” a day, is not the key to the desert planet’s survival.

It lies in the native equating his welfare with the survival of the tribe.

So when a warrior dies, the body belongs to the dead but his “water” is harvested by the tribe. When a warrior cries for a man he has slain honorably in battle, the tribe whispers about the act of reverence in “giving moisture to the dead”.

At its dirtiest and foulest, our waste reveals where we are going.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 28, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Going native

FIRST, they gave hoses and pumps to the parched uplands.

Now, the Cebu City Government is relying on “water psychic” Choleng Legaspi, 80, to point out where the water is hidden so deep wells can be set up.

According to Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 20 article written by Linette C. Ramos and Rene H. Martel, Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña and businessman Andrew Gotianun Jr. are chipping in their own money for the water psychic’s fees.

Osmeña anticipates difficulties with auditing rules if public funds are spent for paranormal solutions to the water crisis, now exacerbated by the El Niño.

Dowsing is the art of discovering the hidden, according to Internet sources.

Based on artwork dating back to ancient Egypt and China, divining to find scarce or hidden objects of value, from underwater water to coal deposits, may have been practiced for centuries.

Yet, in the Middle Ages, the art of dowsing or divining slipped in the public’s favor. Unexplainable by religion or science, water divining was denounced as “devil’s work.”

“Water witching” became another name given to dowsing, an association with the occult that’s reinforced by the use of tools like a forked twig and pendulum, the belief that water “calls out” to the psychic, and the pseudoscientific explanation of vibrations guiding the seeker to the energy fields surrounding the hidden object.

Although Osmeña can’t seem to make up his mind about Legaspi’s knack for finding the water—“luck, blessing, talent or whatever you want to call it”—the tart-tongued mayor is unequivocal about preferring Legaspi over the University of San Carlos Water Resource Center.

The so-called experts, he sneers not for the first time, have failed again to find underground water reserves.

The Association of Barangay Councils (ABC) president Eugenio Faelnar is also as unstinting in praising Legaspi. The water diviner “will solve the perennial water problem of mountain barangay residents every summer,” he was quoted in the same Sun.Star Cebu article.

In pursuing an unconventional but workable solution to finding water in unexpected places, the Cebu City officials remove the taint from the concept of “going native.”

According to postcolonial scholars, this was the expression Europeans reserved for those among their kind who “stooped” to adopting the indigenous ways of colonized peoples. The colonizers grudgingly accepted that the natives, by the feat of their very survival, demonstrated they knew best their environment.

Warring suspicion and respect of the primitive and traditional still persists in uneasy cohabitation. Relatives will slip in “mangagaw” juice to a dengue patient so as not to offend his doctor. In the 1980s, villagers in the waterless slopes of Nug-as, Alcoy in southern Cebu sat in meeting after meeting as development workers talked about constructing rainwater catchments. Not one was made.

We were illuminated later when we learned that for years, the locals coped during the dry season by harvesting the sap trickling from banana plants. People and livestock slaked their thirst with this, even though it stank like chicken manure when harvested after dawn.

A banana plant, with a hole bored at the trunk to drain away its moisture, cannot bear fruit so the Nug-as farmers planted in anticipation of this withering.

Yet, it is not only irony that’s lost if we think that “water witches,” even one as gifted as Legaspi, will save Cebu from thirst and devastation. Dowsing is only the art of finding the hidden; there is no finding what is absent, and perhaps absent forever.

Alcoy’s harvesters of sap taught me, an inspired but foolish community worker, that one must listen before opening one’s mouth.

What one harvests must be replaced, too.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 21, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, March 13, 2010

“A dream of thirst”

I HAD lunch with a dun-colored bird this week.

Under the trees, I spotted the small bird hopping on the carpet of parched ground.

I forgot the shedding trees, the air that crackled as if a bonfire was licking the dead earth from below with greedy tongues.

The bird and I were on a park. Was the fellow too tired to fly and forage amid the food left behind? Yet, if I also tossed it a few grains, the bird would fly away.

I watched the bird. I stood up. The bird became a blur.

Being more evolved and advanced and aware sometimes comes to nothing.

Lately, a different unease has crept around the fringes of the current agitation over the May 10 election.

I can taste the fear licking from these stories: a drastic drop of water level in reservoirs and dams, rationed water flow in a barangay so the supply can be diverted to nearby communities, fires wiping out properties and lives, crops and livestock dying in the uplands, doctors watching out for the mutating virulence of measles and other diseases spread by heat and dust.

How does the El Niño affect birds and other creatures that fall below the radar of our creature comforts?

The sea, made warmer by the El Niño, keeps phytoplankton from thriving. The base of the marine food web, phytoplankton feed zooplankton. Small fish feed on zooplankton. Marine animals dive deeper to search for food.

With less fish on the surface, seabirds scatter across the ocean and leave behind their nest. Abandoned are hatchlings, nestlings (which haven’t left the nest yet) and fledglings (which left the nest but have not yet been weaned).

Early this year, friends told a strange tale that occurred in farms bordering the uplands of Samboan and Oslob in southern Cebu. One farmer lost his crops to marauding “uwak” (crows); his sister’s neighboring plot lost corn to rats.

While rats deserve their ill fame for bringing down stalks and gnawing the corn on the cob, crows, for all their intelligence, are known more for eating carrion and trash. A group of these birds—known in literary English as a “murder” of crows—is a portent of doom, specially so after large numbers of it have stripped bare a family’s source of food, trade and planting materials.

If not yet an issue, water should be one during this election, San Fernando resident Louie Yu protests. In his email to Sun.Star Cebu, Yu claimed that the government “does nothing” about Barangay Sangat’s water deprivation for the past 20 years.

Water is so entwined with our being, it permeates our dreams of new worlds. Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, “Dune,” is set in fictional Arrakis, “the planet known as Dune.”

This desert planet of gigantic sand worms guarding the coveted spice known as melange is peopled by a fearsome race called the Fremen.

The Fremen survive that inhospitable clime by “compos(ing) poems to their knives” and wearing “stillsuits” that recycle sweat and body waste.

“A dream of thirst” haunts a character in the novel. “That people could want so for water they had to recycle their body moisture struck him with a feeling of desolation.”

Herbert wrote “Dune” after he was assigned to research on an experiment with “poverty grasses” to counter the sand dunes that were swallowing highways in Oregon.

After five years of research, Herbert dedicated his novel to ecologists and became one himself. The book was rejected by more than 20 publishers before it was accepted by a small firm specializing in auto repair manuals.

Last December, while strolling along the shore of Matutinao in Badian, my family saw gigantic cabbage-like corals glow with an otherworldy luminescence under the sea. Those nearer to the shore and thus above the level of the receding sea looked amputated and shriveled.

The corals failed to impress our 11-year-old. “They don’t look like Sponge Bob.” Will there be generations that will only see sponges and corals in cartoons?

South American fishermen name the abnormal warming of the ocean waters after the Christ Child because the El Niño starts around Christmas.

But the El Niño, worsened by climate changes steering us to an appointment with global warming, is a child of our making.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 14, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Dear R.

When I read the banner story of Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 5 issue, I instantly thought of you.

“Higher tuition in 15 schools” is the kind of headline that might as well bleed in great gouts of red on page 1 for the fear it strikes in parents.

But it’s news, too, that can chill a young person’s heart.

In her Sun.Star article, Princess D. Felicitas reported that the Department of Education refuses to name the schools because the increases, whether approved or pending, are too “sensitive”.

Do we even need it spelled out? For any working-class parent, whose life’s mission is to bequeath an education so that one’s child can have a choice—“the only true freedom,” wrote the poet Cynthia Ozick—the escalating cost of education may reduce us to rooting around the wrong set of choices, precisely wrong for NOT being choices at all: asking a child to quit school to work and help out, choosing only the brightest or the toughest child to send to school, transferring a child from small, expensive classes to free but crowded classrooms with harassed teachers, even leaving out books from the monthly budget.

Because we are adults, we steel ourselves for the worst, for a future that’s unrevealed, unknowable and thus distrusted because it will mark the ones who make us most vulnerable. Where is the parent that does not desire the best for one’s own?

So we swerve naturally into these missteps: we think we know better, we choose for our children, we advise the best course for “security”.

But you paused long enough to hear your child. And emailed a stranger to ask about your child’s chances as a writer.

Since second year, your child dreams of a life of writing. Now editing the campus paper, this child will still not let go, though that dream may seem to recede as she awaits the results of exams taken for the Accountancy course you’ve foreseen. Law, as you’ve advised, may follow.

That was a long email I sent in reply, heavy and dense with comparisons of curricula and academic areas of excellence, career path and compensation packages, trade hazards and insurance.

After reading this paper’s Mar. 5 headline, I realize I sent you a mistake. There’s no advice a stranger can give your child except that which you are already doing: listen to her.

A professional newsroom can refine and polish a journalist in ways that years and years of classroom learning cannot. But anyone can take up Mass Communication, Nursing, Accountancy, Law, and Plumbing and Heating—and still live to write.

To write to live is challenging enough. But if your child lives to write, she can only do so by listening to herself.

Recently, I finished “The Blue Flower.” It is the story of an unfinished story. The book reminded me of another novel, “The Bookshop.” A mouse of a widow risks her life savings when she opens a bookshop. She later learns that “a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.”

Both books are written by Penelope Fitzgerald. She took up writing at the age of 58. This jam- and chutney-making grandmother, as profiled by a reviewer, wrote early novels that were inspired by her life: writing a mystery to amuse her dying husband, working in a bookshop, living in a houseboat that sank twice in the Thames.

Three of her novels, including “The Bookshop,” were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She won the Booker Prize for “Offshore,” set in a houseboat community. Chosen for the American National Book Critics award, “The Blue Flower” is regarded as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

Finally, I share two pieces of advice for writers from another Booker Prize winner, Margaret Atwood:

Rule 1 is “Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”

Here’s another: “Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.”

College is optional; the self is all the material a writer needs. Cheers, R.! 01973226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 7, 2010 issue of “Matamata”