The Day I Lost a Tree

That first Thursday of March, I lost a tree. I came home from work to find that my favorite Philippine pine tree had been reduced to a stump. I dialed Dad up to ask what happened. “It had to be done,” he assured me. The tree had been leaning against our house, or something of the sort, and it could have done “serious damage to the roof of our garage.” If only he could see my arm stiffen.

I want to tell you I was sad because of environmental reasons. We lose 47,000 hectares of forest every year in the Philippines alone. Since the start of the Anthropocene, or the period when human activity became the dominant influence on the state of the environment, an estimated three trillion trees have been felled—about half of those that were around before man came along. I’m a conservationist. You’d think crying over trees came with the territory. But I never shed a tear for those three trillion trees. Nothing more than the usual, uneasy feeling of guilt at having been born a human being.

What made me cry was the memory of that beautiful tree. We’d moved to the Philippines a little over a decade ago, and I remember being amazed at having an entire pine tree growing just outside my bedroom window. It was a lot smaller back then, a little nub peeking out above the top of the kitchen roof, but even that early it’s branches were rich and supple. A host of little maya birds sat along its boughs that first morning in the Philippines. I remember watching them for a good while as the sun rose quietly behind.

The years went by and I grew older. So too did my pine tree. It shot right up, from that twee little pine poking its peak above the kitchen roof, to a towering, tapering figure, tall and proud against the golds and oranges of an early morning sky. Birds of all sorts would come and go, pausing for a while on its branches before setting off again. 

Every morning I’d watch them. I would while the first few moments of the day away, a brief respite before continuing again with the rat race. I recall crows and maya, black-naped orioles, one peculiar small one with a little red spot under its eye, and many, many other visitors over the years.

So you can imagine how my heart broke coming home to see that my pine tree was now a stump. I saw red. Save the garage roof, of course, but that pine tree? Heavens no! Dream on! “Be sensible,” Dad told me, after I let him know just how dumb it was to pick the garage roof over an entire tree. Was I really the ridiculous one? You could have easily stood beneath that pine tree on a rainy day, just like any old roof! 

“What about the cars?” asked Dad. 

“What about the cars?” I shot back.

I sat him down and had him explain to me beat by beat what happened. Apparently, the tree really had been propped up against the roof of the garage. In the process of landscaping our garden, someone had chopped off one of its roots, to make way for a little plot of grass and bush. Now the whole thing was leaning to the side, robbed of its anchor. 

My mind exploded. We had really opted to do damage to this beautiful, towering edifice of a tree for some vague approximation of mother nature. 

This tree, grown gargantuan over the years, had been traded out to make way for… a bush? A bit of wall? Some grass? It made no sense to me.

I’ve always wondered how it could be that we have so much climate and environmental science available to us, and yet we’re still so set in our ways of planetary destruction. On a global scale, we still oftentimes choose mines over mineral water, material wealth over the wealth of our living planet. We swap whole fields for cement, forests for shopping malls, paradise for a parking lot, as the old song goes, all under the banner of economic growth, development, of wealth and prestige. At what point do we stop to think about the natural world?

I suspect it’s because we’ve grown so used to our own disconnect from the environment. Many of us live and go about our entire lives within the ugly, drab confines of the big city, hours away from the closest semblance of a forest. Our day-to-day is dusty streets and sweaty commutes, grey walls and deep, deep stress we’ve all but become accustomed to. For many of us, our closest experience with the natural world comes from flashing screens, visible to our blinking eyes but cold and distant. 

We lack an intimate relationship with the planet, and in turn it loses its value to us, no matter the climate science or the environmental facts or the David Attenboroughs and WWF conservationists reminding us that we’re running out of time to save our shared home. And so in our sad attempts to make our surroundings a little more beautiful, we forget the beauty that is nature itself, unspoiled, tall, and true like that pine tree I lost. 

I grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes. I remember this one panel, a single, borderless image of the duo standing before the stump of a felled tree. Calvin’s brow is furrowed, Hobbes’ eyes turned up with sadness. Through his grimace, Calvin mutters, “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.” I agree. We must be some kind of dumb to cut down something as full of life and as lovely as a tree.

I hope one day we all get over ourselves. I hope our kids get to experience, intimately, the natural world, and I hope they’ll learn to love the planet. I hope their sensibilities include the protection of that most sacred thing this earth has offered, which is life itself, in all shapes and forms. For now, though, what I have left is a hole where my pine tree—my host of birds, my morning friend—used to be.

We called the poor resilient as if they had a choice

Anyone in the Philippines has seen it before: a picture of a man, or a woman, or perhaps a family, wading through floods, their belongings tied to rafts, smiles spread across their faces. The headline below is optimistic, proud even. “Filipinos are the most resilient people in the world,” or “The Filipino people are known for their natural resilience.” The Filipino is shown as a person who’s strong, indomitable, with an unconquerable spirit. As a Filipino, I’m inclined to agree.

But it’s not like they had a choice.

Now, I’m not here to call out optimistic behavior. There are those who are able to keep their chins up high during times of crises. Sometimes it’s all that some can do to cope with disaster. What I’m saying is that we often fail to empathize with the suffering that many of our countrymen – most especially the poor – go through during times of disaster.

The remains of a giant tree, twisted and torn up, lies on the side of a country road in Occidental Mindoro.

I was in Mindoro recently. Much of the countryside was crushed farmland, leveled during the one-two hit of Typhoons Tisoy and Ursula. Lost livelihoods, harvests that never made it to market.

In the coastal town of Sablayan I spoke to a fisherwoman who’d lost a boat during the Christmas storm. She toured me around the town – fallen trees perched precariously on hollow block houses, a vessel that had all but lost its entire front half. She told me about a fisherman who’d gotten caught out in the storm when it hit. They hadn’t seen him since, not even his boat.

Typhoon Ramon had been much worse for her, she said. Back in 2017 when Ramon had torn through Mindoro, her family had been unable to fish for almost an entire year. The dusty remains of her boat’s motor now lies tucked away beneath her kitchen counter.

We made our way down a shadowy alley. At this point she turned and faced me. “Do you know how much a new boat costs?” she asked me. I shook my head. I didn’t.

“More than one hundred thousand pesos. I don’t have the money for a new boat,” she said. She smiled at me, but it was a weak and pained smile. Not a smile of resilience. A smile of exhaustion and frustration.

Meager earnings was why she wasn’t going to afford a new boat. Insufficient livelihood support and creeping corruption was why she might not get a new one, not for a long time. And the thought that she had to go through this once again, so soon after Typhoon Ramon, was reason enough for anyone to be exhausted. She lacked the livelihood resilience that many of us enjoy.

A boat lies amid a pile of rubble, left destitute after Typhoon Ursula. Natural disasters spell catastrophe for rural livelihoods.

That same trip I sat in on a meeting between municipal fishermen and the local government. There was a flurry of questions. Where’s our financial aid? Why hasn’t it come yet? What about new boats? We can’t afford those. It wasn’t resilience that I heard during that meeting, it was pleas for help from a sector of people who ran the risk of losing their whole livelihoods. Such is the reality, and the suffering, of disasters in this country.

So yes, by all means, think that the Filipino is spirited and hardy and “resilient,” so to speak. But just like how we’re told to acknowledge when we’ve had enough and we need to rest, we need to learn to recognize when that poor aren’t just “resilient” in the face of disaster – but rather, that they are suffering, suffering greatly.

Don’t just write them off as resilient. Fight poverty. Make them resilient.

A Disturbing Lack of Trees

I listen to the birds in our back yard every dawn with my mom. I used to hate getting up early, but ever since spotting a black naped oriole feasting on our fruit trees one morning, I found a new love in waiting for the birds while the sun rose behind our purple roof. It was relaxing. A moment of calm before the chaos of life in Metro Manila.

The fruit trees.

It’s obvious to me now, but back then I’d never really thought of how big a difference trees can make. Where I live there are a lot of trees, and the mornings are always full of bird song. The air is much fresher as well, and the air cooler even in the middle of the day.

Scientists have long since proven the many benefits of filling cities with trees. Each one is its own air purifier and natural air conditioning unit, converting carbon dioxide into fresh oxygen all throughout the day and dropping daytime temperatures by as much as eight degrees Celsius. Their boughs and branches provide shelter for birds, and each one allows natural ecosystems to return to the urban jungle. Plant the right kinds and trees provide an answer to food security, too. The city of Copenhagen announced early last year that they’d be planting fruiting trees along their streets, providing an almost ridiculously easy answer to good urban nutrition.

Beyond their practical benefits, though, trees have almost a spiritual effect on urban communities. Scientists have linked trees to lower blood pressure and reduced amounts of stress. People who live around trees seem almost healthier than those who do not, with improved physical and mental health compared to those from the depths of the urban jungle. Anyone who’s woken up on a sunny Sunday morning to birdsong and the smell of fresh fruits and leaves could probably imagine why.

Having trees around means being close to nature in a place where we would otherwise be very far from it. Only when there are trees can you wake to birdsong in the morning. Only then can you see the sun shine through the leaves and past the branches and cast long lines across the street. All other times it’s the blaring sound of heavy traffic and the murky gloom of tall buildings. Coffee must taste bland when all you’ve got to look at is grey wall and asphalt.

Today almost 2 billion people, myself included, live in bustling cities, disconnected from nature. Like a newborn severed early from its mother’s womb, we are far removed from that which gives them nutrition, both physical and spiritual. Our mornings are stress and dust, each day a sweaty slog and uncomfortable commute before we arrive home, sad and tired and perhaps feeling like something in our life is missing or incomplete.

I think what we’re missing is trees. If we had more trees, maybe life in the city would be a little more tolerable. Let’s plant some more.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind a couple more mango trees. It’d be nice to see more black naped orioles, too.

Dealing with Hopelessness at the End of the World

I opened my Facebook app the other day. “Half a billion living things die in Australian fires,” reads the first headline on my timeline. I spent the next hour staring at my ceiling on the verge of tears.

Is this the end of the world? I thought to myself.

The recent bushfires in Australia aren’t the first cataclysm to befall the environment in recent history. Fires have been raging in the Amazon, in Russia and across the United States all through last year. The oceans are in a constant state of catastrophe, and mass extinction has wiped out 60% of all vertebrates.

This isn’t even considering the costs to human life – 40 were killed in extreme flooding in Jakarta this week, while another 28 were lost in the Philippines as Typhoon Ursula struck on Christmas day. Almost a quarter of a billion people live in a state of poverty, much of which can be traced to the current, global collapse of the environment. The natural world is in utter collapse no matter where we go, and everywhere there is someone paying for it with their lives.

Most times I go diving I’m greeted with shattered, empty reef. No fish. No living things. Scarcely anything for small fishermen to catch. I’ve seen corals bleach before my eyes. I usually have a hard time sleeping the night after a dive.

For all the reefs I’ve dived in, more often than not they’re hazy wastelands.

The word eco-anxiety rose to prominence over the past year. More and more, young people have begun to worry about the state of the environment and their prospective futures in the face of climate crisis. Will there be anything left to eat and drink? What world will I be leaving for my kids? I’m so small –is there even anything I can do?

I met with an old professor of mine in a coffee shop recently. I expressed to her my own feelings of eco-anxiety. I can’t, for example, bear the thought of my own children growing up in a world without reefs or forests.

I remember the dark turns that conversation took. We concluded that the future looked pretty hopeless, and that no amount of prayer was going to make things better. We’ve been praying for a better tomorrow for decades, yet today’s carbon emissions are somehow higher than last years. We’ve said a million wishes, yet forests burn ever greater, reservoirs run ever drier and the seas seem even emptier. Things never got any better.

I found myself feeling infinitely smaller. For a week I didn’t feel like doing anything. Everything was going to hell, I thought. Like the great fires raging across New South Wales, there was nothing I could do to stop it.

In this time I reached out to a friend about how I’d been feeling. We talked for a while. He linked me to an article and a thread on Reddit. This friend of mine is on his way to being a doctor. He’s trained in dealing with hopeless situations.

As we talked he made me realize something – that things were bad, but I was still alive to do something about it.

We may seem small, but there are still much that we can do as individuals. They may be the most incremental steps forward – refusing plastic straws, turning the lights off when you don’t need them, popping open a window instead of using the air con. They may be grand things, like lobbying for new policies or supporting good science. Many good things may have already been lost, but for the sake of what is still here we might as well do something, no matter how small that something may seem to us.

I remember sitting at my desk that night and typing away into the early morning as I drafted my own plans to fight for the planet. I was going to live small. I was going to support organic agriculture, and I wasn’t going to patronize big business. As a writer, I was going to shine a light on all the good science and conservation work being done out there in the hopes that others might pick up on it. I was going to make some kind of difference, even if I were doing it all at the very end of the world.

The hopelessness never left. I learned I might as well embrace that fact. There may no longer be hope for the reefs, or for the forests, or for many living things, but I might as well try to do some good while they’re still around.