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.

A (Personal) Reason to Write

I spend, on average, about 56 hours each week sat in front of a word document. That’s about eight hours a day. During the work week I hammer out articles for work, while on days off I try my hand with everything from fiction to essays to what are essentially long, flowery captions to accompany posts on social media. My twitter and instagram profiles describe me as a “Storyteller,” as does the National Geographic grant sitting on my laptop desktop, and while it’s nothing more than a self-given moniker, I’d like to imagine myself as being, in all cheesiness, a weaver of stories.

And yet I have never been content with a single thing I have ever written.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t like my writing. I think I’m a good writer. Of my talents, writing is the one that I’m most confident in, and my ability to paint scenes and string words together is, at least, better than the average person. But not once have I finished a piece, looked back at it and thought, “This is it,” or “This’ll grab ‘em,” or, even, “This is good enough.” It never feels good enough.

I work as the communications officer for the World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines. That’s the WWF, I tell people, half expecting them to be surprised and mildly impressed, or otherwise make a joke about whether I’m the referee or when my next match is. They ask what I do as communications officer, and I tell them, well, I write. I take pictures and I write field stories. If you’ve checked out our site and been through our stories, I say, then you’ve most likely read my work.

“That’s pretty cool,” they say. “I guess,” I reply, though my stomach’s usually fluttering with awkwardness with this point. I follow it up by reminding them that I work with a team, that our digital and social media person handles the website and social media, our visual comms girl takes care of all the visuals, and that there’s also the public relations officer and our manager to keep us all in check, so it’s really more of a group effort than anything.

“But you must have a lot of cool stories,” some then say. “I guess,” I reply.

My closest friends know how I really feel about my work. I’ve discussed the feeling with them a couple of times over coffee at McDonald’s around eleven in the evening. They’re quick to remind me that I have content published through an international NGO, and in a bunch of local publications. I have a lot to be proud of. Hearing that does help, but I can never shake that feeling of discontent with all the things I’ve ever written. I shrug it off as being a “creatives thing,” but deep inside I wish it weren’t so.

I want to like my work. I want to be happy with it. I want to see my work, sat on a bookshelf one day, as either part of a bigger publication or as its own, standalone piece, a book that I can be proud of. I’ve gotten close, you know. As of writing this, there are over twenty unfinished book manuscripts sitting in my Google drive. Some are fifty pages in or so. Others are fifty pages from completion. Some are done, in need of editing. But I can never take any of them further than bytes and bits of data in my hard drive. I’ve never been confident enough in my work.

During a particularly bad bought of self-deprecation, I splurged my anxious guts out all over a close friend of mine. I was on the editing stage of a 200-plus-page book I’d been working on non-stop for a month. Now I was in the process of hating every single one of those pages. It sucked, I thought, and even if I wasted time and energy and effort into getting it perused by an editor, magicking up a cover for it, promoting it and putting it up on a shelf, not one single person was going to ever bother reading it, except, perhaps, my parents, and even then that wasn’t a guaranteed thing.

In my head I imagined him laughing and shaking his head at me. He’s a creative writer. He’s an expert in feelings of creative anxiety. He told me that what I was feeling was perfectly normal, and that I should just push through and put the work in and see it through if that was what I wanted. Then he slipped me a little reminder, one that has stuck with me ever since.

“Write for yourself. If you want to write, then write.”

My twitter and instagram profiles describe me as a “Storyteller,” as does the National Geographic grant sitting on my laptop desktop. It’s a self-given moniker, but in lazy afternoon daydreams and on long commutes home from work or from the province, I know that this is what I want to be. There are as many stories out there as there are people in the world and more so, this I’ve always believed, and I promised myself, ever since I was younger, that I’d use my gift with words to bring life to those most precious accounts of life on this earth. Is it a matter of justice, a matter of cultural conservation, an exercise in humanity to preserve what’s good in the world and to share it with everyone before it all goes to hell? Partly. Definitely, sure, absolutely. Pretty cool way of putting it. But mostly it’s because I like telling stories.