Peace encounters of the ‘tree’ kind

12:20 AM January 27, 2016


Enlightening visuals can come like lightning flashes on auspicious days … like the New Year.

On Jan. 1, I was sipping rice wine in my hut atop the rice terraces of Ifugao province. A visiting anthropology professor from Kyoto University hiked up my mountain—one hour from the road—to show me his new book about the rice-cycle culture of the Ifugao.


His research centered on Lopes Nauyac, an indigenous elder from Hapao village in Hungduan town who revived the “pinugo,” an ancient watershed practice. Above each cluster of gravity-irrigated terraces one sees a green forest patch.

For over two millenia, these pinugo trees shaded the springs that supply water to the rice fields 24/365. (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the Ifugao rice terraces as a Living Tangible Heritage of Mankind in the 70s).


Long before “regreening” became a household word, Nauyac’s pinugo watershed projects germinated, as he transplanted almost 400,000 seedlings—which I have been documenting on film since 1996.

Lightning Flash #1(A New Year impulse): A thought surfaces while I chat with Dr. Hiro Shimizu. I wish to nominate Lopes Nauyac to be a Laureate of the Fukuoka Prize (FP), viewed as a mini-Nobel Prize exclusively for Asians. I know it’s improbable for this nomination of an indigenous elder to flourish.

Most FP laureates are high-profile Ph.Ds., holders of prestigious titles, or multiawarded celebrities. I know that as a nominator (I myself was FP Laureate in 2012), I could be branded as biased because, thanks to Nauyac, I now have my own hut atop his terraces. As an adopted son of Hapao, this is my 18th New Year Day in my mountain hut.

Lightning Flash #2 (A New Year News): Just before he hikes down the mountain, Dr. Shimizu tells me that the Emperor of Japan is coming to the Philippines in January. The news says the 80-year-old Monarch is on a personal pilgrimage to appease the souls of the war dead (some 600,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Philippines).

More than a diplomatic gesture, he may also seek peace with the souls of Filipino noncombatants who had nothing to do with senseless violence—what modern war jargon calls collateral damage.

Lightning Flash #3 (A Childhood Memory): The first damage after Pearl Harbor was by Japanese bombs at Camp John Hay in Baguio. In panic, my parents got married hastily, two weeks after the Pacific war began.

I was born 10 months later, during the Japanese Occupation. My memory retained no images of American bomber squadrons flying over Baguio. Nor of bombs exploding. But in my subconscious, residual nightmare sounds trigger fear of carpet-bombing planes.


The growing decibels of subway trains roaring into Shinjuku Station gives me shivers. A recall perhaps of my mother’s angst, clutching me in her arms, running into a cave shelter.

Lightning Flash #4 (A College Memory): The sun is setting over the reddish rice terraces. I recall the royal visit to the Philippines by the Emperor—then the Crown Prince Akihito and his lovely Princess Michiko—in 1962. They were invited to our campus by the University of the Philippines (UP) president Carlos P. Romulo.

That year I was the president of the UP student government. After a symbolic, amiable encounter, we presented a collection of seashells to the Prince, a marine biologist.

He needed an interpreter but his wife could converse in fluent English. Although protocol did not permit them to make any official apology, I remember he expressed a deep regret about an unnecessary war—two decades before his visit.

Sleeping in my hut that night I have a dream. A light, breezy, relaxed ambiance overlooking Hapao.

Lightning Flash #5 (A New Year Reverie): I see myself—the 20-year-old student president. Politely I ask the octogenarian Emperor Akihito, “Are you aware, your Royal Highness, that World War II ended here in the Ifugao rice terraces?”

I point to the next peak, a five-hour hike from Hapao. “It was there under the white clouds of the sacred mountain, Napulawen!” The royal gaze turns westward. “Pulaw means white. It refers to the perennial cloud cover over that mountain, which kept General Yamashita’s troops hidden from the American bombers.” With almost 50,000 retreating Japanese soldiers cornered, it could have been a bloody last-stand, like the Battle at Wounded Knee of the American Indians.

In the dream, the Emperor listens curiously as I add a detail told by Nauyac: “We Ifugaos have strong spiritual experiences up in Mt. Napulawen. The elders believe it was the spirit of the mountain that enlightened the general to prevent a bloodbath.” (In the end, Yamashita opted for peace: He descended from Napulawen, surrendering to the American Army in nearby Kiangan town).

Later in my dream, I see 10-year-old Nauyac covering a shrapnel wound on his forehead with guava leaves. (The scar is still visible today). The boy and his mother pile up stone upon stone, to restore a repairable terrace damaged by bombs. A gush of tears from his eyes (in dreamy slow motion) becomes the first water to revitalize the paddy.


Walking the Tree Talk

Annanayo, the grandson of a neighbor shaman, wakes me up from my dream. He hands me a proposal from Nauyac for me to review. It is the latest version of Nauyac’s dream—a pinugo watershed on top of Mt. Napulawen to become an International Peace Park one day—with people of all countries planting trees.

Lightning Flash #6 (A Futuristic Dream): Some people walk the talk far ahead of their dream. Like Nauyac, a woodcarver turned tree planter. In 2007, he started germinating seedlings of Tuwer trees (a local, water-bearing variety) dreaming to plant 100,000 on top of Napulawen.

In 2009, returning from the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale Art Fest (in Niigata, Japan), he carried home Sugi seedlings. He was inspired to do a Peace Pinugo, wherein Ifugao Tuwers mix with Japanese Sugi trees.

Rather than another marble war memorial, this watershed peace park would be people-friendly. It would guarantee water 24/365 to all rice fields at the foothills of the sacred mountain. More profoundly, this forest would also honor the Spirits of Napulawen that influenced a powerful general to seek peace.

Lightning Flash #7 (An Indigenous Soothing at Hiroshima): Like the Emperor flying south in 2016, Lopes flew north to Hiroshima in 1995 to help heal the greatest wound inflicted on planet earth on the 50th anniversary of the Atomic Bomb.

On Aug. 6, 1995, Nauyac joined several indigenous artists who did a “canao” dance for Heiwa (peace). The ritual was highlighted with the “acupuncturing of Mother Earth.” Three giant needles 9 meters high (conceived by the late artist Roberto Villanueva) pierced the ground in the belief that the symbolic Hari needles could awaken the healing energies at Hiroshima’s ground zero.

Hiroshima people joined in—to ring our Heiwa Bell which we brought from Asin community chapel built by Nauyac. Ironically, the bell is the head of a bomb—unexploded, sleeping 50 years in a riverbed. Nauyac hand-sawed that cast-iron bomb head—which now resonates a beautiful deep BONGGGG that lasts 30 seconds—to summon his villagers to converse with the spirits.

Hundreds of Japanese solemnly rang the bell, each with bowed head—to appease the last of the 140,000 souls, still unable to go home. (Perhaps this is also what the Emperor’s visit wishes to communicate to the war dead in the Philippines?)

Lightning Flash #8 (Re-dreaming My Daydream): I am floating above a green landscape with happy voices. Large parts of the mountain garden, organic Tuwers embracing imported Sugi trees. Nearby are tranquil Zen ponds with golden carps and carefully laid out shrines under giant trees.

Peace bells ring. The natural garden adjoins some man-made rice terraces surrounded by Ifugao wooden huts assembled without nails (like kayabukis of old). The formal landscape is interspersed with chrysanthemum sculptures of gold signifying royal patronage. There are children carefree and noisy—as kids of all nations have been. Mothers. Old couples. Aging veterans of past wars. Ifugao farmers. Tourists. Chanting monks and nuns. They plant trees. They meditate Peace. They give thanks for survivors. They remember their dead.

Their prayers mix with the drones of cicadas and bees that rise towards the peaceful skies. A garden for all religions, all races, all ages. Everybody is planting a tree in the dream Pinugo. With peace smiling in their hearts.

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TAGS: Akihito, Ifugao, Nauyac, tree
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