Once I announced to my volunteers we were going to plant in Pozorubbio and Binalonan, Pangasinan, Philippines. One volunteer asked, “Why in the lowlands”?, we all being from the upland city of Baguio.
I answered, “We plant anywhere where it is needed. There is no bias in tree planting”.
There is also no bias in planting alone or with anyone. But I like planting alone. Anywhere. Anyplace that my Mitsubishi pickup can take me to. Alone, I work best. Confident of what I do. There are no greenhorns to worry about. No first timers who kind of worry me —he/she might fall into a sheet gully and break a leg or someone killing a sapling instead of planting it.
Today, I woke up earlier than the neighbor’s roosters. There was as storm brewing in the west. I have prepared what I needed yesterday. All I had to do is drive out somewhere, get a good lookout for a place that needs trees. Then plant. If the storm gets friendly.
I trudged down at this muddy trail in Banangan,Sablan, Benguet, close to a cattle trail leading to Yagyyagan. My two full planting bags slung lazily around my shoulder, my shovel helped me navigate through slippery grass knolls. It was raining hard. No, it was storming. Like me, the sun yearned for the relief the night would bring. But there was none of that. It rained like hell all night. And this morning ain’t going to be any better.
I’ve been planting for the past two hours with no let-up. My feet felt like anvils from excruciating hours of tree planting. It was going to be another long, wet day.
In between five to six saplings, I speared my shovel in the ground, craving a plush mattress and goose down comforter. I threw my planting bags in the tall grass for a seat. I began to question why I do what I do. A conversation paraded through my mind, it was held the day before with my fellow tree planter and my best friend Dick.
We consistently had intricate conversations ranging from philosophy and history to drugs and suicide. On this occasion he asked me if I understood the word serenity. I wasn’t able to fabricate a clear explanation so Dick helped me in his gentle manner. He described it as a state of absolute peace, with yourself, and with your environment. Unfortunately I never consciously recognized a moment of serenity so I couldn’t treat Dick with an anecdote.
My memory came to a close with claps of thunder shaking the mountains. I reached the peak of a washed-out and eroded embankment, carefully planting pine trees six feet apart. I’ve planted all my seedlings. Time to go get more. Then I turned east, where the other tree planters would be gathered. I reached the summit of after a ten minute climb. There were scattered men at the dilapidated shed, some just arriving. The rain poured on. Most of the young planters were not sure if they would plant or not, some started to return through the muddy trail.
I joined the usual banter.
“How many boxes did you plant?,” a veteran treeplanter asked.
“Six:, I retorted. That would total to 36 trees in more than two hours.
“Do you have any food left?”, I asked. No one replied.
“How many trees today Mike?”, Untog, an elderly friend quipped.
“I didn’t count”, I shot back.
I took a seat on the far left of the shed that offered a minuscule space. I smiled at Jason, a young Boy Scout who had joined me thrice in the past, hauling seedlings to a deep ravine for slope stabilization.
I looked at the sky that was brightening somewhere in Pangasinan. I sat up with a newfound calm. I realized that although this voluntary earth-care job is physically demanding and mentally painful at times, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
I looked down at the heads of guys still deciding whether to plant or not. Then grabbed two bagful of seedlings. I headed out, without saying anything. No one talked. I walked past everyone. After 50 yards, I looked back. They were all following me. Getting seedlings and getting into raincoats, picking up seedling bags.
They will plant. We will share our life dreams with each other, our tears and our blood but above all, our laughter, in doing so we were at peace.
I remembered what Dick said.
“Serenity.” The storm, rain, mountain saying it too.