There’s this residential area near the university that seems to be intimately linked with the present existence. Just like the university, this subdivision – with its blocks of sprawling houses and quiet gated streets – has its way of intruding into one’s consciousness. If there’s a sense in describing oneself as haunting a place even if one is still very much alive, this is exactly how one would feel upon coming to an awareness of such encroachment. It’s like slowly realizing that one has been a sort of prisoner all these years, that no matter how many miles one has flown away from a certain point of origin, one’s life will ultimately be pulled back to gravitate around a few significant places. Yet, there’s also this sense of being set free from some drab view of the past, and being made to see such places and everything on it in a totally different light.
Such were the thoughts that flitted through a weary mind as it came across this tree along one of the subdivision’s main streets. For the past several years since the road has become a daily path to and from work, the tree has constantly drawn attention to itself, as if its very presence is meant to proclaim the rootedness of nearby beings to the land. Its dark green foliage beckons from a distance, providing a sharp contrast to the early morning light or the reddish haze of dusk. Its gnarled branches, buttressed trunk and aerial roots project the image of an old defeated creature forced to retreat to its side of the asphalt-covered road. The tree’s overall form and shape lure the mind to anthropomorphism and before long elicit the title manang – Filipino term for a mature woman, like an older sister or an aunt.
Google confirmed an initial hunch: Manang belongs to the ficus genus, with around 800 species of woody trees, shrubs, vines, and epiphytes (organisms that grow attached to living plants). Filipinos call this particular tree variety balete and many still avoid any individual tree, especially the more weird-looking ones, for fear of spirits or ghosts that are believed to live inside it. Thanks to such indigenous beliefs and knowledge systems, a professor in biodiversity conservation once pointed out, some of these ancient trees have been left standing amidst the relentless onslaught of what many humans have come to call as “development”.
Passing by Manang’s abode one gray afternoon, the eyes are quickly led to the fresh red stipules sticking out of the clusters of newly formed leaves. It’s like Manang has turned into an armored animal ready to defend itself again and the few square meters of ground on which it stood. The heavier crown now droops a little towards the road, casting a mysterious shade on the concrete wall behind it. Only a few other beings remain within the subdivision that hold together the land and its residents in such an enchanted relationship across space and time. If the mind only dared to listen, a wispy voice should come through the engulfing silence.