WHEN lockdown was enforced a year ago, LA Piluden was at home in Mount Data, a plateau more than 7,000 ft above sea level. They live near the old sawmill built by an American logging firm in 1946. Job prospects drew settlers to the area, once covered with pine and mossy oak forests, five times the size of Boracay.
In 1895, a British explorer collected endemic mammals in Mount Data and brought them to the British Museum. To this day, the shrew rats and rare cloud rats of Northern Luzon fascinate many biologists. Some of them are as big as cats. They’re adorable. Pot-bellied hamsters with furry tails. By the time the sawmill closed in 1988, that world had already vanished.
Ang tagal ko ring na-obssess sa mga endemic animals ng Northern Luzon. Noong dinala ni John Whitehead ang cloud rat sa British Museum, may nagsabi na may natagpuan din daw na may nakitang cloud rat sa gubat ng Bamban, Tarlac! Sa Los Banos, all the way to Mindoro. Mga subspecies ito. Yung nasa Mount Data, mas colorful, ochre and brown, and they have shorter hind legs than their lowland relatives. Two weeks ago, scientists found fossils of these giant cloud rats in Callao Cave, the same site where the fossils of our distant relative Homo Luzonensis were found two years ago. The age is significant. We now know that these giant rats survived climate change. I wrote a poem inspired by these endemic animals. It’s called “Isla”.
Karamihan sa mga timber ay napakinabangan sa Cordillera. May move na tanggalin na raw ang status ng Mount Data as a national park. Pero may mga tumututol din. May natitira pang konti na sa tingin ng iba ay kailangang protektahan. Nagsara ang sawmill noong panahon ni Cory. Sa Mount Data din nagpirmahan ng historic peace pact si Cory at si Balweg noong 1988.
I told LA that Frank and I were in Mount Data in early 1990. We were in our mid-twenties. It was a legendary and disastrous road trip. Parang Motorcycle Diaries ni Che. It’s one of those stories that we talk about year after year. As far as I know, hindi pa namin naisusulat. It’s that special. A road trip was not part of the plan when I visited him one morning at sinamahan ko siyang bumili ng pandesal. Sabi ko babalik ako sa Dananao, isang remote village sa Tinglayan kung saan nagretire si Thanos. Hindi namin narating kasi bumagyo. Naglandslide. Hindi naman kami makaatras dahil naglandslide din sa likod namin. We got trapped in Sinipsip. Nasa Halsema highway kami, 7,000 feet above sea level at #9 sa pinakadangerous road in the world.
Basta walang nasunod sa plano. Hindi kami makadiretso sa Kalinga so sa Bontoc kami nagpunta. It’s also one of those trips where we both appreciated the value of the unexpected, the odd characters we met, the places we saw. Sagada. Banaue. Nueva Vizcaya. San Jose. Tapos bumuwelta na naman papuntang Carmen paakyat ng Baguio. When I told LA na dumaan kami sa Mount Data noong 1990, she gave me a picture of what it is now. What used to be a mossy forest is now a high-altitude ghost town. Sa Mount Data din nakalibing si Marky Cielo. But a world long gone can remind us what ultimately makes us human, how beliefs, power, and the absence of peace can degrade watershed areas and silence entire histories. What survives when all is gone?
LA is revisiting her lockdown diary. A year ago, we wondered what would happen to us in the coming weeks, months. I was pretty sure I would be the first to die. Tanggap ko na. Hindi naman ako takot.
Heto. Buhay pa naman.
May kakaibang creative energy ang lahat ng nasa bingit o precipitous. LA’s hillside hometown is perched on a ravine, a spot where on a clear day you can see the interior town of Cervantes, Ilocos Sur. I think of the early days of the pandemic when we wondered what the world would be like as days, weeks, and months passed. LA teaches at UP Baguio and she’s done a marvelous job taking the lead on Scotty’s Prize, the first personal essay writing prize in Kankana-ey.
I read Abigail Thomas’ essay the other day wherein she reflected on the early days of the pandemic. It was a different kind of fear, sabi nya. Parang nakalutang. Walang edges. Walang logic. Parang inimagine o napanaginipan niya ang sarili niya na may humahabol sa kanya at nasa harap niya ang dagat. Wala na. Tumakbo na lang siya papunta sa tubig. Pulled by the current. She’s drowning. Tapos nagising siya. She’s back home, safe and dry. May suggestion siya for those who suffer nameless fear: Write yourself into a story where you have half a chance of surviving and do, at least until morning.