Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Chewing it up, spitting it out in Mount Makiling

On the third day of the fast, while hewing a leg-sized log on a rock shelf above the stream where my three children and I have encamped for the Holy Week, a battalion of lulumbo wasps -- each no smaller than a pinkie finger -- came out of the rotted bole, swarmed as massing thunderhead, then buzz-bombed like a storm at surprised me with venom, concentrating their attacks upon my head.

Nowhere to turn to except a three-meter drop on the stream bed strewn with pebbles and boulders, I hacked at a nearby bush, wielded it and swatted and swiped and flung and swung while beating a not-so-hasty retreat -- a three-meter drop can be ruinous to one’s health -- with a headful of pain. I couldn’t scream off the wash of pain.

So those wasps either picked or pickled my brains with venom and made a swell-headed oaf out of me for unwittingly doing a demolition job on their abode -- but how was I to know? I am supposed to rid inner impurities, keep a clear head during a misogi harai -- a spiritual cleansing process which few martial elders undergo at least yearly to keep their cutting edge -- but some sylvan denizens I stumbled upon pumped this head full with venom, plus pure jolts of pain.

A head of cabbage often packs more sense than most blokes out there in the urban fastness, so I was told. Flushed with apian venom, the head I wore for several days felt incredibly light and as huge as a humongous ball of cotton candy, all sweetness and nonsense swirling. Maybe this was included in a misogi harai -- a howling empty tummy wrung out clean, hauled over by days of fasting and hushed with gallons of crystal clear mineral water every hour or so plus this tattoo of pain. Call me plain lucky or my body biochemistry was made plucky by the fasting: few people have survived lulumbo attacks... ah, those virtual winged asps can teach things about handling multiple assailants.

Even so, the toxins and impurities oozing off every pore in my body made me smell like a decaying corpse, perhaps a quaint reminder of one’s mortality. Fasting does that. Cleanses the body inside out, flushes the inner filth while one’s protein reserves are being used up -- no extra cud to chew except one’s own. You chew yourself out. That partly explains why I take to the mountains to do misogi harai -- the smell would empty the entire neighborhood. Too, a nitwit neighbor of mine not-so-subtly proclaims his execrable lack of taste by turning up to several zillion decibels their noise box tuned to kilohertz 98.1, the Dolts Muzak Zone station or cranks up cuts from an April Boys album; anybody within zapping vicinity doing meditation would instantly go bonkers with such surfeit of sonic garbage.

With three kids in tow (Daruma Elijah, 16; Aaron Rameses, 12; and Abraham Arjuna, 10), the stab up Mt. Makiling’s southern slopes was a romp of sort, generously laced with rock-climbing (their father ascends a rock wall, hoists up the kids one by one with a length of rope, its end tied to the kid’s waist) and a hands-on crash course in natural history. Any sylvan terrain coaxes the mountaineer to spread out his senses like a taut web to soak up the unruly lay of the land and everything it offers -- the welter of sights, the swelter of sounds, the assault of scents, the swish of mountain air.

We agreed to carry out the climb in laps of 500 paces each, about half a kilometer for each lap before taking a breather. Hardly was the 400 count reached in the second lap when the oldest espied a clump of huge red flowers on the ground. We stopped and scrutinized. The flowers stank like hell. They were corpse lilies (Rafflesia) – the world’s biggest flowers that have found hospitable habitat in the tropic rain forests -- like Mt. Makiling. The count was conveniently forgotten and it was back to one, whew.

It must have been the fourth or fifth lap when Aaron Rameses pointed to bunches of fruits lined with scales that hang from a thorny vine. The fruits were identified as those of rattan that may likely ripen by September -- and the count went. At the next lap, Puwit, the youngest pointed to the rotted carcass and strewn-about feathers of a wild dove called balud, the colorful feathers were collected as souvenir and ended up as bookmarks -- count conveniently forgotten again. Then, we found ripe bamban fruits, gleaned seeds -- and the count began anew at one.


We must have covered several kilometers after such bouts of amnesia on the self-imposed 500-step legs which tested the staying power of our legs. Oh, we must have also lost our bearings which we tried to divine with a pocket compass, but what the hey, we were still in the wilderness of Mt. Makiling in Laguna, still in the Philippines and we haven’t breached any parallel space-time continuum nor quantum-leaped smack into the Twilight Zone. But as quantum physics would have it, greater accumulation of information -- better spell that as “in-formation,” a shaping within -- comes with all-out immersion in any given environment; so we enjoyed the leg-sapping trek, all senses soaked up to the marrow in sylvan sights and sounds and scents.

Interestingly, quantum physics also surmise that information accrues to both parties involved in the intimate interface or immersion process. That could explain the hideous strength gained by the 16th century poet-painter-artisan-swordsman Harigaya Sekiun who retreated to the forest to perfect his craft, tend to trees and live off his garden. As martial arts lore has it, he was in his 80s when a crew of bandits, each in armor and wielding razor-sharp swords called katana, assaulted him. Harigaya fended off the swarming attacks with a length of twig, cracked through armor and cranial bone of several assailants with the same twig to drive some lessons into their addled brains; whipped to an inch of their lives, remnants of the crew fled in horror.

Ancient martial texts could somehow throw light on the miracle of sorts which Harigaya dished out. Aside from their healing powers, trees are known as conduits of dragon currents, nay, powerhouses radiating the earth’s life force. This Harigaya Sekiun, a crabby character who didn’t share his secrets except to one pupil, must have successfully tapped into such power source. Ages-old martial disciplines also offer clues with their very names. Shaolin gungfu or shorinji kempo translates literally as “physical skills gleaned from a small forest” while jujutsu is “the art of the explosive pliancy of growing trees.” Oriental swordsmanship or kenjutsu, by the way, is traditionally known as “the art of mountain demons.” That ought to convey broad hints that the font of sacred, secret martial knowledge springs from trees and forests.

Indeed, American anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s adage -- “Man is the expression of his landscape” -- has a ring of truth in the oriental martial arts, which the ancient martial elders describe as three-fourths mental and spiritual discipline and one-fourth physical regimen. Oh, that should explain why this elder must do misogi harai deep in mountain fastness. Children ply me with questions about such odd, if not brutal practice that I had to dig deep into the teachings imparted by my erstwhile elder from Okinawa. They wracked my brains while trudging through several kilometers and I had to proffer these explanations.

Tired out with legs about to crumble and hungry, we set up camp below a huge towering tree. Beneath its shoulder roots -- behemoth trees develop shoulders from their lateral roots as buttress to keep themselves firmly grounded, enable ‘em to withstand howlers -- twin springs gush with sweet-tasting cool mineral water. As concession to both the comfy and spartan demands of a makeshift shelter, alternating layers of wild palm and fern fronds were heaped on the mossy ground; upon this deep-piled rug of heady-smelling green we spread out the banig which accommodates four to sit and sleep on. The vault of heaven provided sun-suffused roof -- shot through like a sieve with a stun of stars at night -- ceiled with a thick canopy of spreading green. Ah, the blanket we brought was good for three and the kids wrapped themselves with it; I made do with a rice sack. After all, I kept watch at night.

Shafts of sunlight manage to squeeze through the dense canopy at 10 in the morning, then, slowly evanesce by four in the afternoon. This rain forest-imposed daylight saving time allowed us to do our thing -- gathering fuel wood, horsing or lazing around, cooking and eating light repasts of fresh-off-the-can Ligo sardines, boiled rice, salt and tomatoes plopped onto a fleshly cut banana leaf. That food combo had become the staple grub for the children’s breakfast, lunch and supper while I chewed on my fingernails and isaw -- oh, my guts chomped upon each other -- for sustenance. With so much fallen boughs and driftwood lying all over the slopes above the stream where we have encamped, we have managed to amass several wood stacks that could have roasted to a crisp several steers, bum steers including.

With neither noise box nor idiot box to divert them, the children had to amuse themselves skinny-dipping downstream for hours, toying with critters like half foot-long millipedes foraging among rotted logs or half inch-long leeches called limatik, collecting tree seeds for the reforestation job we have started out in the Sierra Madre foothills -- one interesting find turned out to be seeds of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) which zings up cocktail drinks and milk-based desserts -- or collecting crystals and pebbles in the stream bed. The youngest absorbed himself for hours catching by hand tagunton, wee sweet freshwater shrimps which were promptly tossed into the cup noodles he chows for snacks.

Puwit, the youngest, used the word “lingering” to describe the all-out, no let-up assault of critter sounds at any time of day. Cicadas known locally as paagang would let out batches of tone poems at noon and dusk; flocks of birds would drop by, chirp and chatter and hurl madrigals day or night. Layer such bebopping jazzy improvisations with the non-stop laughter of the gushing springs, ah, so reminiscent of verses from poet-mystic Miguel de Unamuno; add on the deep trill of the nearby wee falls and blend in the incessant Gregorian chant-alike of crickets; provide generous dollops of distant Eddie Vedder-sounding subsonic grunts from other nameless denizens -- even the thundering acoustic swathes of Metallica, U2 or Pink Floyd won’t approximate the live performance that soaked us up there.

Nights when the kids were soundly asleep I did kata among the rocks or went into deep meditation in a ring of slow-burning joss ticks; now, this was my quantum leap of sorts into the past. Not unlike dance steps abstracted in Labanotation or a chess game between masters written in algebraic or English system to be treasured for keeps to allow initiates to draw insights and lessons therefrom, kata is a mortal engagement preserved in a sequence of moves; playing out kata is to reenact those movements of truth and clarity in which yesteryear’s martial artist used his skills to prevail and survive. Played out in the spirit of a fateful engagement, kata allows the learner to keep in touch with a long line of past learners and elders for a transcendental leap. Tongues of flame from the twin bonfires leap out, perhaps, to remind me of the tempering process I was undergoing.

After that contemplation through kata, the learner proceeds to deep meditation. No, this doesn’t entail changing the universal mantra -- Give. Me. More. Money. It’s sort of probing and melding with the infinity that lies within. The process became specially meaningful on Good Friday when a New Testament verse, a quote off good, old Jesus Christ that I had memorized in the Sunday school of my snotty childhood, the line whacked inside my head like a whiplash: “Be still, for I am within.”

Taking a different route on our descent, we met two lugs from the Laguna Water District on their daily inspection tour of the LWD (local water district) water source which was a kilometer or two off our camp site. Funny, I was dressed in rags with a sack tied to and hanging on my neck -- a spray of jade vine flowers was carefully tucked inside as homecoming present to the missus -- but the duo, sans formal introductions, addressed me as “Sir.” We chatted up with me prying off information while giving away as little as possible; I gave away to one of them my disposable lighter decalled with a naked female -- praise the lewd! -- after he offered me several smokes to pass away the remaining kilometers before reaching the nearest barrio. (Ah, the accent I affected passed for a local’s that we were mistaken for old-timers in the area until one of the kids sighed that we’d still be taking several bus rides to get to the comforts of our home.)

The LWD inspectors told us that these days, only a handful of folks dare ascend Mt. Makiling:
• forest poachers chainsawing trees at night and carting felled logs that are sold at a pittance;
• a graduating student or two from UP-Los BaƱos doing field research for a masteral thesis;
• gnarled apothecaries collecting medicinal roots and herbs;
• a rare pilgrim out to test the powers of his amulet or agimat, or out to procure one from spirit denizens of the forest; or
• kaingeros visiting or doing work on their swiddens.

In their judgment, we obviously didn’t fit into any of such category groups which turn up in their field reports. Puwit fished out from his copy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching one of my calling cards and handed it to the senior fieldman... ah, pleasant surprise from a dyed-in-the-wool cosmopolite whose heart aches for the serene solace of mountains.

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