Sunday, November 09, 2014

The fallen

HOW many fell?

In Oscar C. Pineda’s Nov. 5 report in Sun.Star Cebu, there is a detailed list of the trees felled to clear space for a P67-million sports oval in Naga City.

Cut down were 15 agoho, 12 mahogany, five neem and two narra trees.

The report quoted Eddie Llamedo, spokesperson of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

What sinks like a stone in the Sun.Star Cebu report is not the destruction of 43 trees. It is not even the same fate ordained for the 45 trees remaining at the Naga City Central School.

It is the realization that only a handful witnessed the passing of the trees. Would a student of Naga City Central School notice the missing trees and remember their names?

Two of the witnesses were there for the job. Llamedo’s is to document the process started after the DENR issued a cutting permit to the Naga City Government.

Pineda is another chronicler. The veteran journalist covered countless stories, at least a dozen of which must be more exciting than the death of “heavily leaning and sick trees,” as described by Naga Environment Officer Obdulla Lescano.

Yet, in the fifth paragraph of Pineda’s account, there is a roll call, a tolling of the names of trees that ceased to be part of our world last Nov. 4.

We keep a tradition of calling out names. At the start or end of class, a teacher calls the roll to determine who is present or absent. In prison yards, calling aloud names exposes who escaped.

According to the wisegeek, honorary roll calls list those who made their mark through distinction or death. In military tradition, a soldier steps forward upon hearing one’s name and submits to his superior’s inspection.

Why do we make a roll call of trees? Because we cut them.

The Aborigines of Australia pass from generation to generation the Songlines, sung by their ancestors as they crisscrossed the land, naming all the animals, trees, rocks, streams and feature they came across.

Bruce Chatwin wrote about this “earthbound philosophy” in his book, “The Songlines”: “The Aboriginals were a people who trod lightly over the earth; and the less they took from the earth, the less they had to give in return.”

In their version of Genesis, the story of creation, the Dreamtime narrates how man and all species came from clay. A clan took as its totem a species; for instance, a man from the Wallaby clan believed he descended from a universal Wallaby Father, who begat all Wallaby men and living Wallabies.

Related to all Wallabies, human and animal, a man with a Wallaby Dreaming found his way across Australia by singing the Wallaby Dreaming-tracks, “a trail of words and musical notes” scattered all over the land and serving as “ways of communication between the most far-flung tribes”. A traveler took only what he needed for survival; to “scar” the earth was to dishonor the Earth Mother.

After the Land Rights Act gave the Aborigines the title to their ancestral land, any project that potentially “wounds” the earth, such as construction of a railway, requires consultation with Aboriginal owners to avoid destroying a sacred site and severing a Dreaming-track.

Chatwin interviewed sources that said the law was noble but “rash”. From the viewpoint of Aborigines, the “whole of bloody Australia’s a sacred site”. It is easier to “visualize the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that” than to convince surveyors that “a heap of boulders were the eggs of the Rainbow Snake” or that a “featureless stretch of gravel was the musical equivalent of Beethoven’s Opus III”.

Critics say that respecting the Dreamtime is hallucinating that Australia can return to the days of hunting and gathering. Advocates say that at the root of the law is respect for the Aboriginals’ “most essential liberty: the liberty to remain poor or… the space in which to be poor if they wished to be poor.”

Should we be comforted that, instead of “singing the land back to the days of creation,” we routinely call the roll for our desecration: “15 agoho, 12 mahogany, five neem and two narra trees” down; 45 more trees to go; a P67-million sports oval in the future?

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's November 9, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

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