NOSTALGIA: Thank God I was a Country Boy

CLARIN, Misamis Occidental (MindaNews / 09 September) — Sixty years ago, the countryside where I was born and grew up had neither electricity nor paved roads. Nonetheless, we were happy and content. I am not totally against innovation, I just can’t help aching for the yesteryears when my world was greener and life was simpler. Scenes from the 1960s. Welcome to my childhood.

During our time, pre-school kids male or female alike usually wore nothing other than the clothes we were born with – our skins. Exposure made us immune to allergies and toughened us against the elements. Slippers and shoes were cumbersome, besides they were not needed. The thick calluses of our feet did well against the rough ground. We spent most of our lives in the open, mindless of dawn’s chilly mist, daytime’s gusty wind, blazing sun, spell of rain and the ominous darkness of the night.

We had limitless energies to match our boundless playground. Our swift and tireless feet were the primary means of transportation. None of my playmates was obese and only very old folks wore eyeglasses. That was before the advent of televisions, computer gadgets, fancy-snacks and broiler chickens.

Rice-farming was everybody’s occupation in our barrio (Mialen, Clarin, Misamis Occidental). Water buffaloes or carabaos were a common sight. Virtually each family had at least one of these mammoth quadrupeds to move farm implements. The fearsome horned brutes could trample and gore a man to death. Yet they were treated as indispensable household members. Their usefulness far outweighed the risk.

Tending the Carabaos was no simple task, yet, little boys as young as 6 became vets and beast-masters. We bottle fed weak newborn calves and nursed the injured or sick. We trained juveniles and commanded adults to drag loads. We even knew how to break fights and capture runaways. We were not afraid of the buffaloes – it was the buffaloes that were afraid of us.

We understood their body language whether it conveys pleasure or pain, contentment or complaint. Their eyes betray their thoughts whether it is rebellion or respect. At that early age, we learned to radiate confidence, a commanding presence that put even brutish creatures under control.

The buffaloes looked up to us not only as master but also as friend and benefactor. We sat or lay on their backs while they fed on the meadows. We loved to caress their huge bellies feeling for lice and ticks which we fed alive to the chickens. It was blissful moments for the buffaloes. They would stand still and close their eyes to savor the heavenly sensation. When the sun is up and the heat would bite, boys and buffaloes retreat happily into the river.

The river was our favorite playground. There were large vines dangling from the trees on the river bank. We would swing with these vines from tree to tree like Tarzan. We’d compete in swimming, breath-holding, high diving and mud wrestling. After the high-adrenalin fun, our ears would hum as legs start to wobble due to hunger. We’d spend whatever strength left scouring bushes and climbing trees in search for “fast foods” that Mother Nature freely provided. Fresh fruits and other edible stuffs were plentiful – though it took skills and guts to get them.

When the buffaloes come out of the water, it would be time to pasture them again before we go home. While they nibbled on the green grass, we took time to nip the river leeches sticking on their hides. The insatiable blood suckers had been helping themselves for hours but still would not let go. Blood lust brought them to a horrible demise… out of their watery habitat into the nest of angry red ants that brutally devour them alive.

After tying bundles of dry twigs for stove fuel, we would hurriedly gather bamboo shoots, gabi stalks, fern buds and other wild vegetables which we wrap with green banana leaves to keep fresh. These were our peace offerings … valid alibis to appease our parents’ anger for coming home late.

The past and present ways of farming are poles apart. With the extensive use of machines and poisonous chemicals, rice-paddies are now unsafe for kids while water buffaloes have become obsolete. Both were sadly phased-out from the scene. The former were detained in a “prison” called school while the latter were condemned for execution at the slaughter house.

The old rice farms are still with us today; unfortunately, kids born after us can no longer experience their parents’ awe-inspiring adventures. I write this story in an effort to show them what we had that they may never see in their lifetime. I hope to boost their innate love for nature. I wish to show them God’s goodness and wisdom in creating our world. Perhaps this will challenge them to express their gratitude and love for God … by helping to preserve His beautiful and life-sustaining creation.

It is also my desire to impress into the mind of our youngsters the intelligence and virtues of lowly rural folk that urban people wrongly despised. For me, the old fashioned farmers are our nation’s true heroes. In time of peace they sweat to feed the nation …. in time of war they bleed to defend the nation. 

Planting rice was never without fun

The old familiar song, “planting rice is never fun” was probably written by someone who either knew nothing about planting rice or just a plain lazy fellow. It was only after rice farming was modernized that it ceased to be fun. Before that, we had much leisure and less pressure.

Today’s rice farmers work round the clock to produce at least a hundred cavans which is five tons of “palay” per hectare three times a year. Normally the land cannot yield so much … that quick. But technology forced it to do so.

What chemicals do to the farm is like what performance enhancing drugs do to a human body. It develops dependency which eventually leads to illness and untimely death. Recently, proponents of the “miracle rice” technology realized the folly of their ways. They are now frantically urging farmers to adopt what they call “organic farming” which is actually a return to the primitive system. Sadly, it may be too late. Like a drug injured body, the extremely taxed and toxic land may never fully recover.

The rice we eat today is completely different from the rice we grew during my boyhood. The most remarkable difference is the quality. Go to the mall and find the most expensive rice on sale. Yet, it is not even half the goodness of the rice we produced in the olden days. When cooked, it smelled so good that the aroma would reach the nostrils of people in homes nearby. It was so tasty that you can eat it with gusto even with just a pinch of salt as viand.

There were no rice mills before. We separated the kernel from the shell by “lubok” pounding rice in a “lusong” or large wooden mortar with heavy wooden pestles we call “alho.” Usually the work would begin with young women pounding the palay – a sight that pricks the young men’s conscience and spurs them into action. Minutes later, these women would just be chatting around since gallant caballeros had already taken over the task.

As many as five expert pounders plunge their long alhos in harmonious rhythm into a lusong full of palay. My uncle was teaching me and my brothers this skill but while the synchronized pounding was in earnest, he suddenly stopped and tried to block and parry the pounding alhos, causing them to hit the edge of the lusong, overturning it. He frantically scoured the spilled rice on the ground looking for his “pustiso” (set of dentures) that fell into the lusong.

This primitive process called “lubok” retains most of the vitamins particularly Vitamin B. This explains why rice-eating people in the past never had problem with Beriberi. The “lubok” session also attracted unwanted participants; turkeys, ducks , chickens, hogs and other scavengers to fight over the wastes.

Jungle Warfare

Our rice was meant to grow on wet paddies, but the seedlings had to be sown on dry ground. For us who were kids then, sowing time means war and that made it very exciting. The best site for a seed-bed is a forested area located at the river-bank. It is a territory guarded by small ferocious winged creatures – bees and hornets – our worthy adversaries.

Normally it would take only a couple of hours for older folks to annihilate the airborne antagonists with smoke and fire. But, wanting to see more action, we, kids would intentionally prolong the battle by using silly weapons like home-made bows and arrows, slingshots and bamboo spears.

We would tear their nests and hives into shreds just to make them furious. The ensuing counter attack by the enraged stingers would test our skills in evasive maneuvers and speed in running. We learned by experience that jumping into the water is a stupid tactic. The bees will just hover and wait. They know you will soon surface for air, and then you will be at their mercy. A rookie who falls into this predicament has only two choices, get stung or get drowned.

Unwary people and innocent animals caught in the warpath were not spared by their blind rage. Women doing laundry, firewood gatherers, even cows and buffaloes nibbling nearby must join in the running extravaganza to escape the swarm’s stinging frenzy.

The attack and counter attack would go on for a whole day. At night when the bees go home to roost, we would launch the smoldering assault that would end the resistance for good. Thousands if not millions of dead and dying insects would litter the ground for the birds to feast on.

Of course, the victorious marauders also suffered casualties. Those who were stung on the face would look like aliens from another planet. Those who stumbled and sprained their ankles hobbled like decrepit old folks. Some got black eyes, swollen lips or protruding bumps on the forehead after colliding on trees while running blind (eyes closed – to protect them from the sting). These hapless fellows cannot expect sympathy from their comrades; instead they become the laughing stock and objects of mockery for days.

The minute defenders may have retreated but the war is not yet over. After the air warfare here comes the ground warfare – preparing the seed plot. Clearing the spot is not easy. Weeds and shrubs are armed with sharp blades, thorns and poisonous sap. Besides, the thick undergrowth harbors crawling stingers ; large centipedes, spiders, several species of fire ants and worse of all … cobras and mambas. We brought hunting dogs to sniff and drive the snakes away while free range chickens take care of the crawlers.

A band of brothers

During my boyhood days, commercial rice production was unheard of. The rice we produced was mainly for family consumption. Anyway, in the absence of cash, “Palay” (unhusked rice) could be used as means of exchange for meat, fish, and clothes. Parents engaged in other occupations to earn income for other family needs. My own father was a policeman who later became a mere security guard but earning better wage than his former job.

At an age when there were more farms than farmers, population control was not yet a “do or die” issue. Abortion was unthinkable and there were no unwanted children. The more children in the family, the better, since more hands are needed in a labor intensive rice farming.

There were large tracts of land lying idle. A family who wanted to increase its landholdings may do so without much ado. Other folks who already got tired of farming would readily swap a hectare of fine agricultural land for a “talamuno nga hinuktan” (winner fighting cock), or a “Paliuntod (homemade shotgun). Nowadays, as farming becomes so commercialized, people may kill each other over a few inches of encroachment on the boundary.

I was the eldest of six boys born in a row. The two sisters born after us were too young to join the band. Papa was glad because with so many farmhands, his work was made easier. Mama on the other hand was mad because with so many babies to nurse, mouths to fed, laundries to wash and scoundrels to scold, she could hardly take a breath.

I and my younger brothers were inseparable. We were playmates and workmates. We had cousins from broken homes that also joined our band. Being the eldest, I was the commander. Since Papa would come home only on weekends, the care of our rice farm was left almost entirely to me and my siblings.

Mission: protect the seed plot

While Papa prepares the seeds, we would fortify the seed-plot against more and bigger nuisances – stray animals. We would erect a fence around the clearing to keep them at bay. The enclosure’s entrance is a simple labyrinth but an enigma to buffaloes, cows and goats which they could not solve, hence, they could not enter.

Dogs were the most destructive of all. They would play on the seedbed, scattering seeds and soil as if hit by a whirlwind. Dogs have better IQ; they had no difficulty getting through the puzzle entrance.

For these clever intruders, we used live weapons; kittens and a fierce watchdog. The smell of kittens is sure to make prowling mongrels uneasy. The presence of angry, hissing, clawing kittens really spoils their fun. They also have to deal with our big, cantankerous, extremely territorial guard dog that chases any living creature that ventures in his territory.

Chickens and wild pigeons were also persistent pests. Wild pigeons didn’t have a chance against our “tirador” (rubber shot) and “lambuyog” (sling shot). They usually ended up being broiled and eaten. But, chickens could not be harmed.

Most of the chickens roaming in the vicinity were owned by “Ikyo”, a neighbor who is a “Sequijodnon” (a folk from Siquijor Island) Sequijodnons are notorious for their “barang” (witchcraft). We can’t shoot the chickens because Ikyo would be angry and would retaliate by means of barang. We heard horrible stories about folks that were hit with barang. Their bellies grew so big that they could no longer stand because of the weight.

Nonetheless, we had a way of dealing with this problem. We would simply go and tell Ikyo the witch-doctor that the seeds we sow were poisoned. In a case like this, his barang won’t work because we did no violence to his chickens. It would be clear as daylight that his chickens committed trespassing and ate stolen seeds which happened to be toxic. The alarmed Sequijodnon would frantically round up his chickens and jail them all in a pen under the house. The amusing truth is that, it was a lie. The seeds weren’t poisoned at all.

Planting a prayer

We would spread the seeds thinly on the seed plot and cover them evenly with fine top soil. Then Papa would stand at the middle of the seed-plot holding something that resembles a bouquet. It was a bundle of curious objects consisting of thorny “Tapilak” leaves, nipa blossoms, lemon grass, a comb with an “algoha” or large needle and a piece of “ramos” (palm leaves that the priest sprinkled with holy water on palm Sunday).

He would solemnly plant the strange bouquet on the seed-plot. It was not meant to grow there and it was not for decoration either. It was a “LIHI”. I can’t find an English word for this, but it symbolizes the farmer’s wish and prayer.

The holy palm leaf as an emblem of God’s presence would deter mischievous “engkantos” (evil spirits) from molesting the crop. Through this lihi, Papa prays that every seed sown would quickly shoot out needle like embryos, and that each seedling would grow and multiply like lemon grass. With the comb, he pleads that the growing rice plants would not be disheveled by wind and pests. The thorny leaves that look like spiked whips were to scare pests and vermin away. The nipa blossoms which look like grains of palay, though a thousand times bigger than the real ones, represent a cluster of large, flawless, golden rice grains that symbolize a bountiful harvest.

This ritual may mean nothing to a self-reliant modern agriculturist. But in olden days it implied a humble dependence on Divine providence. It symbolized a farmer’s respect to God who alone can make plants grow and yield fruits. It is his way of honoring the kind Master who provided the land, the seed, the sunshine and rain as well as good health and other priceless provisions.

Children at war

While Papa and his “hunglos” (gang of rice farmers helping one another) were busy preparing the rice paddies for planting, we would stay at the woods to watch and water the seedlings. With the seed plot well secured, it would be time to set up a camp and prepare for another war against boredom. This time we fight against human enemies, other kids who are also watching their seed-plots.

We construct our shelter like a fortress, but instead of sandbags we use “bunot” (coconut husk) that we gather from nearby coco lands to build our ramparts. The big “Ipo” tree standing in the midst of our fort is our ammunition depot which supplies us with hundreds of midribs to be used as spears. We hastily make bamboo swords and spar with each other to test our swordsmanship.

Not long after, opposing armies of naked, mud painted little warriors yelping like Indians would try to overrun each other’s fort. Ipo spears and bamboo swords may cause red welts but what really made us cringe in fear about these weapons was the fact that their tips were smeared with carabao manure and human feces. Those who got hit had no choice but to leave the battle and run into the river to get rid of the nauseating smell.

Will continue when I get nostalgic again. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.  Greg Villa Subrabas served as a top aide of a naval base commander at the Philippine Navy’s Sangley Point in Cavite City in the mid-1970s. He quit the Navy to pursue theological studies in Cebu City. He is presently managing a rescue center for the mentally ill in Clarin, Misamis Occidental)

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