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My Life As A Tree Planter: An Ordinary Tree Planting In Not So Ordinary Day – OpEd

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Once, five years ago I announced to our group here that we were going to plant in Pozorubbio and Binalonan, Pangasinan. Somone asked, “Why in the lowlands”? I answered “We plant anywhere where it is needed. We don’t choose where we plant”.

I also don’t choose how I plant.  I can plant with anyone, with groups or alone. I don’t mind planting alone. Anywhere. Anyplace … that my old reliable vehicle can take me to. Alone, I plant 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 might kill a sapling instead of planting it.

Today, I woke up earlier than the neighbor’s roosters. We will be planting somewhere 6 km  from Naguillian highway. I have prepared what I needed yesterday. All I had to do is drive out to Sablan, meet my group, get a good lookout of the place that needs trees. Then plant.

I parked, trudged down at this muddy trail in Banangan, close to a cattle trail leading to Yagyyagan. Earlier than my members, i decided to plant ahead.  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.

I turned east, where the other tree planters were  gathering. 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 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 bags did you plant?,” one asked. “Two,” I retorted. That would total to 26 trees in more than two hours, half of the time of which was spent scaling, balancing and holding to dear life on the ravine wanting of trees before it is totally washed out.

“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, but was darkening again ready to send torrents of rain.  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 continue planting or not because of the bad weather. Grabbing two bagful of seedlings. I headed out, without saying anything. I walked past everyone. After 50 yards, I looked back. They were buttoning their raincoats, stuffing saplings into seedling bags. They followed, Indian-file on the slippery trail….

They will plant. We will share our life dreams with each other, our tears and sweat but above all, our laughter, in doing so.

I remembered what Dick said.

“Serenity.”

The storm, rain, and mountain said it too.

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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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