What are some of the things you do to live comfortably when your job requires you to live in the middle of a forest?
The first thing most will do is make sure that their living area is secure. This means shelter, water, heating, and if they’re lucky, a bathroom and toilet. Next, they’ll make sure that they have enough food sources so they don’t go hungry. This may mean scoping out the nearest market, sari-sari store, or neighborhood vendor, or if space is available, planting crops for personal consumption. And if one is in the Philippines, the third thing they’ll probably do is secure their living area from unwanted spirits.
Folklore and its practices can seem far removed from this modern world. In reality, many practices have become so embedded in everyday practices that they become invisible to all but those who seek them out.
I visited the Busol Watershed in Ambiog, Baguio last December 2022. Because I’m physically disabled, I was only able to climb to the rangers’ hut while the rest of the party made their way up the trail to where the best view of the watershed could be seen. They were there for a couple of hours, which gave me a lot of time to survey my surroundings.
The rangers’ area is situated on a small, flattened-out area near the base of a mountain, with the trail to the peak behind it. It is composed of a storage shed; a small, tiled room with a sink, electrical outlets, and a bathroom; on top of which was a watchtower. There was a thatched, open-air dining area outside that housed a wood fire stove and a wooden long dining table with benches on each side. Beside it, a giant blue tank helps take care of the water problem. There was also a small raised platform out in the open. In front of it, a sheer drop. So, we have shelter.
A closer look will reveal food crops planted around the perimeter, especially near the slope of the mountain. A trellis has been constructed for sayote, and there is a guava or bayabas tree on the grounds, among other crops. These supplement the food that the rangers buy in the market. They were shy when I tried to interview them, so I couldn’t ask if hunting was allowed or if they did so. The ranger I spoke to did confirm that the food crops were planted as added ingredients, though he said they were already there when he arrived. Now, we have food.
What made me make the statement about unwanted spirits? Folks who know me know that I am a horror writer with a keen interest in the paranormal, including how human behavior towards it manifests in folklore. Before the sciences were established, humans believed that unseen creatures could influence everything. Thus, they must be wooed, appeased, or made to stay away. In the old days, this was done through plants. Plants were both medicine against physical ailments and wards against supernatural beings. Bayabas, for example, is not only a delicious fruit. Its leaves have antibacterial properties and can be used to dress wounds or when boiled, be drunk as a nourishing tisane. It is also used to keep evil spirits away.
The reason I said the third thing one will usually do when living in the wilderness for a prolonged time is secure the area psychically is because of the intentional planting of ti plants or tungkod ng pari, not just around the perimeter of the rangers’ area, but up the trail as well. Most know ti plants as ornamental plants, but in Filipino and Polynesian cultures, they are recognized for their warding properties. Unfortunately, the ranger I asked didn’t know about this, either; the ti plants were already there when he arrived.
I don’t think I would have noticed both food and warding plants had I not been interested in horticulture. There is such a thing as “plant blindness,” where the inability to distinguish one type of plant from another results in a person just lumping everything into “green.” The cure to plant blindness is knowledge: becoming familiar with what certain plants look like. I don’t claim to know what all plants look like; I’m only familiar with some plants that fall within my range of interest. In this case, it’s food and folklore.
We can tell a lot about a place just by noticing the plants that grow there. In the case of the Busol Watershed rangers’ area, it means a knowledgeable ranger took care of his physical and spiritual security, something his successors have benefitted from, whether they realize it or not.