“My Tree in Another’s Backyard”
By Anna Leah Tabios Hillebrecht
The first half of September found me in Santa Fe, Argentina, as part of the academic exchange on Transatlantic Perspectives on the Rights of Nature, cosponsored by BayLat and the Rachel Carson Center. It was my first time in South America and I was determined to leave a positive mark. Apart from presenting my research on deconstructing intergenerational equity and identifying the ties that bind nature and future generations at a two-day seminar in Santa Fe, I was also supposed to speak at an NGO-organized activity on “marriage trees” in the Philippines—brought about by specific city and municipal ordinances that require couples to plant at least one tree as part of their marriage license application. Aside from legal issuances, I didn’t know much about trees. So, Valeria Berros, a former Rachel Carson Center fellow and professor at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral in Santa Fe, invited me for a walk on a Sunday afternoon to the Reserva Ecológica across from the town of Santa Fe.
Visiting the reserve in winter might have been a strange choice. We could have chosen to visit the historical part of Santa Fe instead, or the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción, where Pope Francis once lived. We could have gone to the alfajores factories to see how they make these Argentinian delicacies, and then sat in a restaurant drinking lágrimas or mate, washing down slices of dulce de leche-filled cakes. We could have been almost anywhere else but the middle of a reserve on a cold, winter day.
Nevertheless, there we were, walking down the main path to the caretaker’s cottage. The shutters were drawn and the place looked deserted. A man in clothes bearing the emblem of the Reserva, and wearing mud-flecked rubber boots came out and looked at us questioningly. His name was Juan Carlos, and upon learning that I came from the Philippines, his eyes lit up and he told me he had once watched a Filipino film and thought it was beautiful. Juan Carlos very enthusiastically showed us around the Reserva, pointing out each plant and tree species, as well as the different birds (small brown horneros—the national birds of Argentina; a flock of grullas—cranes—refreshing themselves by the muddy banks) that call the Reserva their home (although given the cold season, only a few of them were around). We silently followed a pair of cuis (southern mountain cavy, or guinea pig) along another path and then explored lesions on tree branches, formed by egg-laying insects.
Juan Carlos taught me how to make a small wicker basket using plant shoots we found along the way. All it took was five minutes of weaving a long plant shoot over and under several shorter ones to make a basket that I now use as a stand for my mate (an infused tea that is popular in the country, as well as across several countries in the continent).
Then, Juan Carlos popped the question: ¿Quieres plantar un árbol?
Would you like to plant a tree?
Coming to Santa Fe, I had no plans to plant a tree. It just hadn’t occurred to me. It was not part of my itinerary, and I operate very much in terms of itineraries. Come to think of it, I have never planted a tree in my life, unless one counts the time I planted monggo (mung beans) and sunflower seeds (both unsuccessful attempts) for Home Economics back in elementary school. In Japan, I was tricked into planting rice, but rice is not a tree and the trickery part is another story.
So, I said yes.
The Timbó and My Timbó
The timbó is a tropical and sub-tropical tree species common to South America. It usually grows up to 30 meters in length. In the Reserva, there were white and red timbó, although I saw more of the latter.
The red timbó is also known as camba nambi, or oreja de negro, and bears small black fruit. Legend has it that a young woman, Tacuareé, whose father loved her dearly, fell in love with a man from another tribe. She went with him, abandoning her father, Saguaá, and breaking his heart. One day, he felt that his beloved Tacuareé was in danger and so he went searching for her in the forest. The way was very long and he was listening hard, trying to sense her presence. Sick with fever, Saguaá thought he heard Tacuareé’s voice from where he stood in the forest, and so he placed his ear to the ground and listened.
Saguaá lay there for a long time and died with one ear still to the ground. His tribe found him in this position and tried to carry him back home, but Saguaá wouldn’t budge. His body was firmly attached to the ground and the tribe’s people had to bury him right then and there. Some time later, a tree grew from the ground where Saguaá had died: Its fruits were as black as Saguaá’s skin and were shaped like his ear. They named the tree oreja de negro in his memory.
The fruit of the white timbó in contrast is long and shaped like a bean. There are no legends attached to it, or at least none known to the Reserva. I opted to plant a white timbó as I found the oreja de negro’s story melancholic. It was also the only timbó ready for planting in the little nursery across from the caretaker’s cottage. I named my white timbó Philipp, so that, should he survive, Juan Carlos and Valeria can tell others the story of the girl from the Philippines who randomly decided to plant a tree in their country one winter.
Armed with a shovel, a watering can, and a tutor (or support pole), which will “guide” my white timbó as it grows, Juan Carlos and I picked a spot to the left of the cottage to be our “holy planting ground.” I dug a meter-deep crevice and filled it with organically enriched loam so that Philipp would have enough nutrients to grow tall and strong. Call me ignorant, but I did not know how to handle Philipp. While transferring him from his little pot into the ground, I was afraid I would somehow break his roots. The little timbó tree was dainty in my clumsy hands and it seemed that one mindless act of curiosity or insanity would destroy him, and my timbó would be no more.
I did manage to plant and water Philipp. And there he stood, with the tutor towering beside him. He had moved out of the tiny greenhouse and into the wild (of the Reserva), subject to the forces of man and nature, to be either destroyed or nourished. Perhaps I have given him a death sentence; perhaps I have dug him a happy home. It was a strange feeling—I was proud to have done something spontaneous in an utterly foreign place, but I was also quite embarrassed to be giving so much thought to such a mundane act as planting a little tree whose life could be extinguished with the stomp of a foot.
I feel a sense of responsibility. I have a tree. In Santa Fe. Thousands of miles from “home.” It will be a long-distance relationship of sorts, with Juan Carlos and Valeria having to send me progress reports and pictures documenting his growth. Still, it feels strangely comforting to know that I have planted something that will most probably outlive my generation and take its place in the next one. I have a tree, and Argentina has a new timbó in its backyard.