Understanding Nature

Victor Peñaranda – The Philippines

Act of Naming




The melodious singing of a bird woke me up one morning. I quickly got up to survey the garden hoping to spot the singer. It was a Pied Fantail (Maria Kapra) perched on top of the tall trunk of a dying Ilang-ilang tree that was hit by lightning several months ago.

I proceeded to take a morning walk around the neighborhood and noticed that the Bee-eaters have returned. A small flock of Chestnut Munia (Mayang Pula) was feeding on grass seeds. Egrets and Terns were probing the freshly-plowed fields. Two farmers were reinforcing with mud the elevated pathways in between paddies. With rain showers pouring almost regularly in the afternoon, the farmers might start planting the rice seedlings in a week or so.

 I grew up in places where I learned to name birds, trees, rivers and streams. It was an unspoken tradition among the farming and fishing families to name the life forms in their natural environment. I lived near the neighborhood of these families in my childhood. During one dry season, my childhood friends and I strolled along the banks of a stream near our home. We went exploring and, like most children, searching for the unexpected. Someone in the group said that the stream had no name. Another companion remarked, “It’s but right that we give it a name.” We finally agreed to call it “Sapang Bayawak” since it was here we once saw a large monitor lizard sunning on a boulder near the waters.  

Naming is an act of recognition.  I consider it important and respectful to know the names of particular trees, flowers, birds, mountains or streams, especially when you live among them. Knowing their names establishes their identity. It means taking time to learn more about the surrounding natural environment. I would search from google or pore over reference books. In the process, a closer relationship emerges between me and the source of interest. When I address a Champaca flower, fragrance accompanies its name. A sense of familiarity is kindled as I quietly approach Mount Malindang. It looms like legend to my eyes while crossing Panguil Bay in a ferry.

Once the relationship is established -- my attention awakens. I become aware of it. And with frequent encounters with the subject of attention, awareness grows. You don’t only see white Jasmine blooming, you can easily tell its distinct scent. You know the presence of the bright-yellow Oriole simply by hearing its distinctive call at particular times of the day; the Banaba tree with its bright, purple flowers in the heat of dry season. With each living encounter with nature, my affinity with it is like friendship made memorable.

Wonder of Knowing

 In the 1980s I walked inside the old-growth rainforests of Samar. The trees formed a wide and contiguous canopy that sunlight could not easily penetrate. Since there was practically no undergrowth on the forest floor, I could see the hoofmarks of wild pigs that crossed the clearing. The crowns of trees in the rainforest overlapped but did not intrude into each other. Science has a name for this behavior. It’s called “crown shyness.”

While crisscrossing the waters of Bolinao in western Pangasinan at night I was amazed at the various display of glowing lights below the waters. I asked the fishers who accompanied me about those illumination. They said there are animals, like squids, types of corals, and colonies of planktons that glow in the dark. Science has a name for the ability of the bacteria in these life forms to exhibit and control light. It’s called “quorum sensing.”

Once I rode a boat that crossed the channel from Tacloban City in Leyte to the town of Balangiga in Samar Island. I sat near the front area of the boat, where the anchor was resting, and noticed how sparks kept flying as the prow hit the waters. Someone said that these sparks were living creatures and locally known as the “fireflies of the sea.” They said that where sea fireflies abound, there you’ll find a school of fish feeding on them. Science has a name for them: Bioluminescent planktons.    

With more frequent encounters with mountains and valleys, lakes and seas, I became aware of what is wonderful and beautiful in nature. I recall the massive migration of the fish species known as danggit to the Visayans and samaral to the Tagalogs each year to spawn in shallow waters off the islands in western Pangasinan. I recall the migration of egrets and herons to the Laguna wetlands each season, to avoid the cold winter in mainland Asia. I recall the blossoming of Madre de Cacao, the Acacia, and the Golden Shower. So many trees -- the mango, starapple, duhat and sineguelas -- become heavy with fruits as the dry season induces nature to reveal its power to overcome death by bringing forth the seeds of renewed life.

I long for the wilderness, those natural places not yet dominated by human activity. What Carl Jung, the eminent psychoanalyst, once called “God’s country” upon seeing the vast African plains where wildlife still asserted their claim to territory over human beings. My fascination turned to respect for the life-force that sustains nature. I started to suspect that we shared the same breath, the same wellspring of life.

Quest for Life

 I was born in a place called Isla de Convalesencia, an island in Manila surrounded by the Pasig River. When the river died because of severe pollution, I felt defeated. Something precious in me seemed beyond recovery.   I’m reminded of the indigenous community of Ilongots in Nueva Vizcaya who named the most beautiful orchids in their forests with the same names as the main parts and organs of their bodies. I began to realize that my existence is linked by an umbilical cord to Nature.

The seeds of discontent came with such an awakening. The forests were as vulnerable as children in poverty. The over-exploited sea was at risk as a mother giving birth without a midwife. There were no easy answers. My inclination to activism became endangered as the hardy Lawaan tree and the Bleeding-heart Pigeon.  I lost confidence and floundered, doubted my way of life. Family and poetry provided refuge and saved me. So I started to quest for deeper understanding of reality and my adventure brought me to the shores of theosophy.

There have been several important self-discoveries along the way. Let me just mention three for now:  first, I am human and divine; second, God can be revealed within me; and third, the nature I experience in the physical world can be reflected inward to experience the spiritual, the oneness of life. This brings to mind another distant memory when I assisted fishers, just outside Santiago Island in the Lingayen Gulf, in inspecting and preparing fish corrals for the catch. It was a quiet and lonely routine each morning. Then one day, while clearing the nets of flotsam, I was reminded of a line from the novel Moby Dick: “The sea is a mirror where a man can find himself.”  

Freedom to Serve

A few weeks ago, I had a research assignment that brought me to Teduray communities in the Daguma range straddling Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces. My duty was to report back to the communities my findings about their efforts to overcome a sense of helplessness. I learned that their history as a marginalized people started in the 1920s when the American colonial government opened Teduray territory to settlers from Luzon and the Visayas through the promise of acquiring homesteads, land they could lease from the government for agricultural production, and own later on. The Maguindanaon Moro joined the settlers in penetrating the ancestral mountain domain which traditionally was strictly for the Teduray.

It was, however, the systematic clearing of forests for farming and logging purposes that dramatically changed the ecology of the Teduray homeland. From 1950s to the 80s the government assigned logging franchises to non-Teduray companies and entrepreneurs. Inside the logging concessions, the native Tedurays were considered as “squatters” or “intruders.”

The massive displacements of families eroded Teduray confidence in their ancestral value system. The significant roles of traditional leaders, like the kefeduwan (legal) and the beliyan (religious) gradually became irrelevant in the face of government municipal bureaucracy and the surge to political power of those who took over their ancestral lands.

The Teduray’s disempowerment is emphasized today by the scarcity of traditional rice seeds suitable for their upland agriculture.  When given the opportunity, however, they recalled back to prominence the names of these endangered rice varieties so they could recover something precious that they almost lost: dinorado, mangguraman, katibus,  and makasapi. These varieties were selected for their fragrance and long-grained feature; their ability to survive dry soil conditions; and not being vulnerable to attack by insects and birds. They identified tefedus or gutta purcha; lunay solo or almaciga, and lawaan as the forest trees they would like to replant in their logged-over mountains. Because the Teduray know the names of flora and fauna, they know what they have lost, what they are about to lose, what to conserve and what they have to recover.

The situation of the Teduray calls attention to the interlinked and interdependent quality of all life. Their problem is as much our problem. There is no honor in exploiting the natural environment for material wealth at the expense of intrinsic life values. It is now clear to me that we are part of Nature and cannot be set apart from it. We develop our potential in order to serve the community of life that is in need or is suffering. What is contemplated in peace and beauty, I have to bring back to the world of discord.

Allow me to quote Rachel Carson, the author of the iconic book, Silent Spring. She said: “… I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or society. I believe that whenever we enjoy beauty, whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth … For there is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; in the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains in nature – the assurance that dawn comes after the night, and spring after winter …. I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”  

The wilderness has served as my gateway to the universe. The silence in nature is the silence that many of us find in contemplation. It allows us to enter a deep awareness of our spirituality. Oneness in life means freedom to be compassionate and committed, freedom to transform the self in order to serve. It is empowering to the person who receives, as well as to the one who gives.

[Talk presented during the TSP Visayas-Mindanao Convention 18 May 2013, Betania Retreat House - Cagayan de Oro City]  (revised)

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