But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning”
Grandchildren remember their grandparents by the tales they told and the songs they sang to them.
I remember my Lolo Amboy by his visits to us when we were new in the city. There were no vans then and the trip from Buhi entailed a lot of transfer. He was by then, perhaps, in his seventies, but he would carry always this sack of fruits for us. Inside the sack were the sweetest and most succulent of santol and a kind of fruit we would learn to like.
The other fruit was purplish and had tiny, tiny hair, making the skin furry. My Lolo Amboy called it kamagong although some of us in the household had a different name for it – mabolo. The first time we saw the fruits our father warned us about its smell. My father regaled us always with his life with his own father in the farm and in the woods, and thus, would always caution us about the many things that he thought we would never get used to. The fruit was one.
Sometimes, the sack brought by my grandfather would be heavier with pili.
My grandfather never talked much but he was happy to see us disappear as we all hid in the room to partake of the fruits he had brought to us.
My grandfather passed on many years ago. An uncle took over the farm across the lake and, if my memories were right, the first thing he did when he visited the place was to cut the santol and kamagong trees.
I do not remember when the fruits stopped coming our way. I am certain though we stopped having santol fruits in our house after the passing of my grandmother. The kamagong vanished him and, after that, the weaving loom and the house by the lake.
Remove the sentiment and nostalgia, there are many fruits that have disappeared from our homes. No one goes to the supermarket to buy santol. We go to malls and in our mind, there are only the apples, which had become common, and grapes that may be expensive but are, otherwise, regular sight on our festive tables.
If the santol has become quite unpopular, then the kamagong fruit is almost a rarity. People speak of durian but no one really cares to compare it with kamagong.
Something has happened to our place. We have created sites of the vanished or the vanishing.
The trees of other fruit-bearing trees are barely recognized or remembered. Does anyone still care about that tree with seemingly lean and fragile branches, the Aratiles tree? Known as “cherry tree,” the fruits resemble any other kind of cherry.
The relatively simpler lives of our generation had complex rituals with fruits. For santol, we remove its outer yellow skin, and, with the second layer exposed, we lightly use tiny knives to carve triangular patterns around it, leaving a bit of the fleshy seeds exposed. It was common among children to compete as to who could swallow the seeds, which, if you were unfortunate, could be bigger and thicker than a grown-up’s thumb.
Who still puts baligang, a local plum, in a small jar with salt? You cover the jar and shake the plums inside until the sides of the jar turned reddish or violet. You open the jar and the
baligang, now made tender by the salt, will bear a taste that is sour and sweet, an instant and fun pickling.
Growing up in Ticao, my afternoon nap would be broken by a scent that was not of this universe: it was the heady, cloying aroma of kolo, or breadfruit. In some places it is called rimas. The kolo tree is interesting because parrots peck on its uppermost branch to create a hole where it could hide its chicks.
When I went home to Ticao to reclaim the boundaries of our ancestral home, my relatives warned me that most of the trees were cut by the old man paid to clear the land. The old man was wise enough to leave one tree, my aunt regaled me, as it was enchanted. As the sun was setting, I found myself at the edge of the property and there, to my surprise, was the atemoya tree. That was the real enchanted tree, and not the tall tree spared by the old man. I remembered hugging the tree and thanking it for being there all this time even as I was aware of the eyes from afar – my relatives and onlookers – wondering what I was doing. I was enchanted.
Were our memories of childhood to be marked by scent, the odor would necessarily be those of the fruits we ate and the trees we climbed so we could pick those red and brown berries and plums? And, as with the memorable events in our lives, we remember the fruits because we were not allowed to eat them or that when we ate them, we had the most terrible of stomach pains. And, as for climbing, we must still recall how when we looked down, we saw our father waiting with his stick or cane; or, when we looked to the ground, and we did not know anymore how we could go down, and we started bawling till the entire village was there looking at us, laughing, with no sympathy at all.
The kamagong tree is indigenous to the Philippines. It is considered to be one of the toughest trees in our forest. With the fruits gone, does this mean the trees are slowly vanishing?
With the trees gone, would the words about them also be gone? How to make sense of places named after trees or fruits that are not there anymore? Was it John Keats who said “Touch has a memory?” But if we cannot touch or taste these fruits, how shall we remember them, and the past that allowed these trees and fruits to grow on the land we think we eternally love?