A Steward Of Nature

(by: Ezperanza B. Gatbonton)
Pre-Hispanic Filipinos lived in a virtual paradise. Nature's garden was their backyard. It gave them everything they needed for their livelihood.

Dense thickets of bamboo and nipa groves provided housing material. Coconut palms gave them sweet water to slake their thirst; from its heart they tapped palm-wine to warm their bodies at ritual feasts. The nut yielded oil to scent their hair; and vinegar to flavor their simple meals.

There was an abundance of mangrove in the swamps, game in the forests, gold dust in streams flowing down from the mountains. Edible tubers could be dug up almost everywhere. The early Spanish chroniclers noted that even in the worst droughts, when no rice could be planted, the large trees and dense foliage kept the earth moist enough for rootcrops. And the waters' surrounding the islands-whether sweet, brackish or saltyteemed with marine life.

Clothing came from the bark of palms and from fibrous leaves. The forests held a wealth of scented woods, wax, bensoin, honey, and wildlife-all of which were trade items convertible into luxury goods like muslin, silk or porcelain.

An English traveler of the nineteenth century recorded what others before him had seen: a land blessed by nature. Trees grew so tall they seemed to touch the skies. Tree trunks were as large as 20-25 feet and bamboo clumps as high as 30 meters.

Equally bountiful were the waters of the archipelago. One seventeenth-century report claims the fish caught in Manila Bay fed more than one hundred thousand persons daily ...counting the Sangleys, Japanese, and villages that are settled on its shores.

Living so close to nature, the early Filipinos attuned their simple lives to its cycles and seasons. They charted the stars and the moon, and, in their voyaging took directions from the wind. They planted and harvested only when they could read from the skies the prescribed signs indicating the right season. Under the cold light of the Pleiades, they set the highland clearings on fire. Every event in their lives, from the most mundane chores to the sublimest rituals, was chronicled by the changing seasons.

They were mindful of the environment and conscious of the spirits around them. For their well-being hung in the balance should these unseen forces-some beneficient, others malevolent, like the revered though capricious anito-refuse to sanction their lifestyle.

Their mode of livelihood as shifting cultivators, food gatherers and hunters now and then set them against the environmental spirits and Maylupa, the mythic lord of the land. For their pursuits took them to the threshold of the spirit world: the forest. Trees had to be felled for a clearing to be sown with rice. Animals had to be killed for meat. Hence every activity was preceded by ritual offerings to appease the guardian spirits and seek their blessing.

A propitious I call from a bird, 1 ,J heard from the right . `, direction, signalled assurance that naffront had been taken, and thus the planned activity could begin. In this way, they related to nature and the spirit world.

It is this system of beliefs, largely expressed in taboos, and their acknowledgement of the Maylupa, which ultimately defined their use of the environment. Man, in their belief, was a mere steward of creation.

They were, therefore, obligated to protect the environment from destruction. Strong taboos safeguarded the forest from misuse. For instance, areas with an abundance of rare fruit trees, special plants, and herbs may not be farmed. In planting sites where some protected plants grew, great care was taken to draw the fire away from them. At times, trees were wrapped with banana trunks, to protect them from being singed.

Though cuttings from special plants such as medicinal plants or species of bamboos may be transplanted in their own backyard, the original habitat was never disturbed. Thus rare species were propagated but at the same time protected from mutation.

Such reverence for sacred groves or sacred holes protected the environment. The anthropologist Robert Fox noted that in Palawan, an island southwest of Manila, where many such sacred places existed, the growth of secondary forest was faster. Sown land was regenerated. Sacred holes where fish abound are left untouched, allowing the spawning of every species. During the rainy season, water emptied out, carrying fish that restock river tributaries.

Their mind set conditioned them to certain behavior patterns. For instance, they did not eat tiny crustacean s but t learned to feast on destructive insects like locusts.

Respect for the environment affected their lifestyle. For deeply ingrained in their innermost minds is their sense of detachment from material things. Their concept of personal ownership extended not much farther than the clothes they wore, the gold bracelets that encircled their wrists and the plots of swidden they tilled. Everything else was shared communally, since its ultimate owners were the spirits and the Maylupa.

Coming into this land of plenty, the outsider judged the indigenous Filipino's lifestyle as improvident, and his lack of the acquisitive instinct as indolence. Seen from another perspective, it reflected a generosity of spirit and an innate gallantry. The early Filipinos never failed to offer the first sheaves of special rice to the gods and the spirits before them, who tilled these lands; to give their dead their most cherished gold and porcelain ware; to share the bounties of the earth with each other. Our ancestors lived in total harmony with nature, believing in the unbroken cycle of life, death and life again; not needing to store away in barns, as carefree as the birds of the air?