IT was one day last month when Benguet celebrated its Arbor Day. It might seem like a trite activity to mark the day—a tree-planting activity, but as the day unfolded and stories were told, it became something more—a story of healing from the scars of war.
Benguet’s sister city in Japan, Kochi, brought to the province cherry-blossom trees called sakura and planted them on picture-pretty rolling hills in Paoay, Atok. It was a setting quite bare of trees and vegetation, except for a thicket of Philippine oak at the borders and a gentle terrain with baskets of newly harvested cabbages sitting on the vegetable terraces that day.
The planting of cherry blossoms was besieged by environmentalists, concerned the sakura trees may prove to be invasive —and why not indigenous species instead?
But there was more to that gathering than just a cocelebration of the planting and caring of trees.
It was a celebration of the blossoming of friendship among three countries, once fierce enemies during World War II.
For one, the area where the Sakura saplings were planted was the land that Spanish-American pioneer and war veteran Guy Franklin Haights developed more than a century ago.
Fourth-generation descendant Susan Haightsnarrated how her great grand-father came with the company of Col. Lyman Kennon of the US Corps of Engineers in 1903 to build Kennon Road.
Haights took a strong liking for Celo, the son of one of his workers and named the bright-eyed boy Celo Haights, gave him a shirt and soap, and taught little Celo his first English words, “Go river, wash.”
But after a year of work, Haights contracted tuberculosis, the scourge at that time, but refused to go back home to California as advised by doctors. Instead, he heeded another advice—look for a cool place where he could recuperate. He found that place higher up, following narrow foot trails into Paoay in Atok where he found the weather to be like California’s.
Falling in love with the gentle scenery and the quiet of the place, he took little Celo with him and started to hike back to the place he would call home for the rest of his life. There, the clear air and Celo’s loving care nurtured Haight back to better health, and soon, they were clearing lands to plant vegetables.
First, they made a clearing where oak trees were felled and highland vegetables were grown in the ever-expanding farm gardens. Haight married a lass named Susie from Suyoc and little Celo himself married another Suyoc girl named Kathy with whom he had 14 children.
Haight asked relatives in America to send him the seeds of cabbages, carrots, lettuce and other vegetables, and that was how the vegetable trade now worth millions of pesos a day started. In fact, on the day the sakura trees were planted, rows and rows of cabbages were being harvested and loaded on waiting trucks.
Refreshingly, while the vegetable industry teems around the commercial borders of the garden towns, life in Paoay still feels like in the timeless era of their ancestors, kept pristine and serene. “My grandmother’s house, Susie, still stands,” Susan Haights said, pointing to a nearby dwelling where folks were busy cooking by firewood the pancit and the meat of the sacrificial pig served in the gathering.
Haight was famous then for a kind of hotel, a health resort called Haight’s Place, which remained popular for many years. He must also have started tourism here for he had guide tours who brought straying visitors to places now known as Mount Pulag, Mount Data and others on horseback.
Celo died in Paoay on October 13, 1952, and was buried in the cemetery there following native rites.
Yoshikawa, chairman of the Kochi Benguet Sisterhood Development Group, leads a friendship trail to the hearts of the Filipinos through the beauty of flowers and the enrichment of agriculture.
Here is his story
“In March of 1967, I was dispatched to the Benguet Province as one of the members with agricultural skills of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers [JOCV] Program. The Philippine population then was only 27 million. The population during the war was roughly 12 million, and 1.1 million were killed due to the war. The Philippines was the worst victim among the Southeast nations. The antagonism against Japan was fierce and continued until the 1970s.
JOCV, which started in 1965, was initiated not by politicians nor bureaucrats, but by ex-soldiers dispatched to Southeast nations. They wanted to help Filipinos by improving agricultural standards.
Both Japan and the Philippines were very nervous since there remained anti-Japan sentiments. I became accustomed to the Philippines soon. I saw many terraced ricefields in Benguet, which reminded me of the farming in my hometown Kochi.”
But memories of Japanese cruelty still lived in the memory of Filipinos then, and once Yoshikawa was asked if he felt any responsibility for the death of his father who was killed by Japanese soldiers, a question which he said threw him in a flurry. But he answered, “I can’t resurrect your father. My generation does not know the war. In order not to wage war again, we should develop a deep relationship on a first-name basis.”
Since then, not only has Yoshikawa pioneered mushroom propagation in the province, now a flourishing agri-industry, but his Kuroshio Agricultural Development Cooperative has, so far, accepted hundreds of trainees on farming. From the first graduates, the greenhouse way of agriculture was started in Benguet and the flower Gloriosa brought back from his city Kochi is now a specialty of Benguet.
So not only was the planting of sakura trees an Arbor Day celebration. It was a celebration of heritage and healing from the old wounds of war, and like the blossoming of cherry blossoms a strengthening of exchanges of each nation’s gifts and beauty.
Surely, cherry blossoms on American Haight brought by the Japanese to Philippine soil, where once blood spilled, is a much more precious sentiment than a biodiversity concern of the pink-and-white blossoms overcoming the landscape. And the cherry blossoms will keep old stories alive and make for continuing colorful stories to tell generations to come.
Image credits: Karl Lapniten