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  • Gayle Certeza

Into the Woods

Growing up on a farm meant having trees as all-around companions. This was during the early 70s in Mindanao — a time before TVs, gadgets and the Internet became the omnipresent companions that they are today.

Back then, after doing dreaded chores, the whole day stretched with absolutely nothing to do. One can stay inside the house, moping about, but that poses a high risk of being asked to do more detestable chores. So, as soon as we could escape, my siblings and I (there were seven of us), were out of the house faster than our grandmother could shout, “Limpyo!” which means to clean.

Our farmhouse was situated on two hectares of land filled with bamboo, fruit, and coffee trees. Because we did not have many toys growing up, trees were our all-around childhood companions. We climbed up trees. We know which trees had brittle branches — tamarind, duhat and santol. Which trees had sturdy branches — mango, marang, and guava. We played hide and seek among trees. We played house under the leafy overhangs. We hung out high up in the trees watching animals and people crawl by below.

Trees were food outlets. Whenever we were hungry, which was very often, we clambered up trees and snacked on fruits. We had a buffet of choices. If we wanted sweet, there were guavas, mangoes, bananas, sarisa, and more. For sour, there were santol, tamarind, iba and bangkiling. My favorite category was bland - camachile, tisa, and macadamia.

During the daytime, trees were like big 3D toys for us. But during nighttime, they took us to another dimension. If our grandmother were to be believed, trees were the home of the supernaturals. The bamboo grove on the border of our land was where the families of duwende dwelt. The tall santol tree was where the kapre, a giant mythical creature who smoked, lived. She swore she saw puffs of smoke billowing from the tree top on moonless nights. And the dirt path in the middle of the coffee trees was where the White Lady roamed at night. If scaring all of us silly was her strategy to keep us from wandering off at night, it worked. But the stories also fired up our imagination.

It was not just us, other kids our age had excitable imaginations too. When I was in Grade 3, one of my classmates declared she saw Snow White and a few dwarfs in the forest at the back of the school. It was not really a forest, around half a hectare of overgrown ipil-ipil trees. But at nine years old, that qualified as a forest. All of us were fascinated by her account of Snow White and some dwarves. She said they were small. And they were dancing and playing under the ipil-ipil trees. At lunchtime the next day, we trooped to the edge of the forest, a squad of kids squatting on the ground waiting for Snow White and the dwarves to make their appearance. After a few minutes, there were excited squeals and giggles as more students saw the fairy tale characters. It took a few more excursions to the forest before I finally saw some small, white squiggles, cavorting on top of dried ipil-ipil leaves. I felt so relieved, I finally saw what everyone was raving about. Looking back, I am not discounting that what I might have seen was a mirage brought by days of intense squinting hoping for a glance of Snow White. It might have been a case of mass hallucinations, too. Thankfully one of the teachers got curious when she saw around 30 students squatting on the ground, peeping under the low branches, squealing, and pointing at imaginary creatures. She ended the madness by marching us back to our classroom.

This kind of craziness would not happen these days with everyone glued to their mobile phones. Especially without the benefit of having a small forest beside the school. Scottish poet and writer, John Burnside pined, “Once upon a time, forests were the repositories of magic for the human race." I agree with him. As children, our generation was happy with trees and we could also imagine the otherworldly creatures who lived and hung out and danced among them.

I grew out of trees and creatures of the imagination when I moved to the big city to study and start my own life. The only jungle I encountered for decades was of the concrete variety. As I became older I realized I felt a longing for trees. Luckily, we moved to a suburban area where there were a lot of them. Taking a walk in the morning and on early evenings along tree-lined lanes became more than just exercise, it had a calming effect on my mind. As soon as I reached my favorite grove of trees, no-fail, I felt a whoosh of peace engulf me.

Aside from walks, I also liked to go to a nearby forest in the University of the Philippines in Los Banos, on the slopes of Mt. Makiling. I loved to walk in what I call ‘the streets of silence’ or the dirt roads between the big, tall trees. When we travel especially to the US, I always include a trip to their national parks. Seeing the magnificent giant sequoias in California was soul-enriching for me. Touching a living thing that is thousands of years old was a mystical experience.

I thought all these longings for trees were simply nostalgia for my childhood. I realized it ran deeper than that. For me, trees remind us that we are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Forests, with all their interconnected life forms, reflect the complexities of life. And excursions into the woods, as my favorite musical of the same name suggests, also give us the space to work out life’s complexities.

“Must it all be either less or more,

Either plain or grand?

Is it always 'or'?

Is it never 'and'?

That's what woods are for:

For those moments in the woods”

Stephen Sondheim

No wonder after living for years in the concrete jungle, I felt out of sorts, bereft of roots. When I realized how essential nature was to our daily lives, I thought that our family could benefit from having a forest. We have a small farm, a little over half a hectare, the same size as the forest in my elementary school. We decided that we were going to create a forest in our patch of land.

We are planting over a hundred fruit and forest trees. In a decade, hopefully, we will have a budding forest where we can walk about and at times, let our imagination roam.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With The Wolves wrote, “Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.” I am very lucky that my life began in a forest within a farm. I grew up amongst trees, and now, I want to grow old with trees.

Santol - cotton fruit

Marang - Johey oak

Duhat - Java plum

Sarisa - snowbush

Iba - carambola

Bangkiling - star gooseberry

Camachile - Manila tamarind

Tisa - canistel

Duwende - dwarf

Kapre - a giant creature in Philippine mythology

Ipil-ipil - white lead tree

Blog Cover - Mystic Art Design, Pixabay

Blog Illustration - Juayla Maru


Jul 21, 2022

What a lovely piece, Gayle. Reminded me of my own childhood, where i woke up to the mutterings of a gecko (tekka in Ilocano), lodged in a tamarind tree growing beside our bahay kubo. Your iba was my andaligan, your sarisa my mansanita — fruits sweet by any other names!

Gayle Certeza
Gayle Certeza
Jul 26, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Bernie ❤️ How wonderful that we share same memories of the same trees and fruits. Buhay probinsya 😍


Jul 17, 2022

Your good fortune is to become aware how precious trees are to you, Gayle. I applaud you planting more trees today. So much goodness! I also have memories of playing in the forests of Finland as a child and feeling safe and protected there. I feel sad for today's city children who aren't exposed to nature and are afraid of it. Lovely share. Cisca xx

Gayle Certeza
Gayle Certeza
Jul 26, 2022
Replying to

Thank you Francisca ❤️ My kids are city kids but I am hoping that should they have children, they can have a forest to play inz

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