Debt of Gratitude, Utang na Loob

What if the land did not belong to us? And we could not own it? What if we belonged to the land? In my family, we have this idea, a Filipino tradition, a value and a feeling: utang na loob. It’s been translated as a “debt of gratitude”. It is profound, inescapable, and there is no way to pay it back. It is also beautiful…because it binds people together. What if we felt this way about the land we live upon? The soil that provides nutrients, the seedlings which sprout from it, the vegetables and fruits who blossom and nourish us?

Even though I have a great love of nature, I don’t think I fully live this sense of utang na loob, this debt of gratitude, towards the Earth. Of course, this way of thinking, of being is not new. Sixteenth-century Filipinos did not “own” land, the land that the diwata, the nature gods and goddesses dwelled in, was sacred. It could not be owned by human beings. Nature was the temple of the Divine. We did, however, ask for permission to use it. To cut down trees, to plant fields…it was cultural ecology. It was ancient conservation before there was a need for the term.

I ponder my gratitude as many of the seeds we planted at the end of May have sprouted! Joy and delight! I wish I knew planting songs so that I could sing them with friends. It’s gorgeous to see fertility emerging.

New babies, cucumber seedlings!

My boy and I come out in the mornings to check on the lupa, the soil. We look at the patch and ask, “How are our babies doing?” And there’s always something new. To the left are cucumber seedlings. I love the smooth leaves and the fresh green, so tender.

To the right are tomato blossoms. TOMATO BLOSSOMS! In the market, at best I’ll see ripened tomatoes strung together on their vine. But to see the blossoms is a beautiful thing for a novice like me. The organic vegetable patch has become a sanctuary of sorts — yes, weeds and all (for another post).

See the pale, cheery yellow? Delicious summer color. 🙂


Planting Day

Tanim, tanim, tanim. Plant, plant, plant.

When I woke up this morning, I was so excited to start the new day and finally plant the seedlings and seeds I’ve been gathering. Because my historical fiction is grounded in the sixteenth century Philippines, I’ve learned all this cool stuff about our traditional relationship to nature. Our precolonial Visayan ancestors used the word “taon” for year, meaning harvest. They marked time by the flowering of rattan, the time when everything was blooming, and the time when the kahaw birds called which signaling the start of planting. (A nod, again, to W. H Scott and his brilliant reference book Barangay.)

I’m sure many other cultures used seasons, flowers, animal behavior, and the rhythms of nature to mark time. My Jewish family and friends celebrate sukkot, the fall harvest festival. Let me know about others you love and celebrate. The more we share our zest for the land, the better!

Ancient Filipinos used to have whole seasonal calendars devoted to clearing, planting, and harvesting. What would that be like (urbanized me asks) to live in rhythm with the land? To live by our own observations of the sky, to tell time by birdsong, to live in a world where the stars and constellations were our nightlights? To live by Cosmos instead of Cosmo?

Today, I had tikim-tikim, a teeny taste, of what that may be like…right in my own backyard. The sky was overcast, which at first I thought would be bad for planting. But my organic books mentioned that overcast days can actually ease seedlings into the transition from pot to ground.

Everyone planted what they wanted to eat. My son was in charge of planting the cucumbers in a mound and the watering can. My husband transplanted the Goliath and heirloom tomato seedlings, the marigolds (to keep away bugs), and the bell peppers. We dropped climbing beans in holes next to the fence to trellis (sadly, I did not wiggle my toes to cover them with soil – maybe next year!). We closed up the chicken-wire fence I’d built to keep out the bunnies and our chocolate Labrador pack-mate who has already been sniffing out the tomato plants.

With tomato cages and chicken wire to keep out the mammals, I hate to admit it, but the organic vegetable patch looks like lock-down at San Quentin. Hopefully, the plants will lush out and push at the boundaries of their confinement.

Today, chard,  tomatoes,  cucumbers, mint from Papa’s Detroit garden, marigolds & climbing beans & peppers from our friend Garden Diva, and basil, green garlic tips went into our newly enriched soil. Our boy planted 2 rows of corn and gourds in his play section. We packed as much as we could into this 20 x 2 foot organic plot. Who knows what will take root and flourish?

The deal with our son’s play section is that he gets to decide what to plant there, no matter how improbable. We were getting on each others’ nerves, to be honest, since I’d been reading about how to plant and space seeds and he…well…he just wanted to have fun and play! Solution? He gets 3 x 2 feet of soil and loads of freedom. In exchange, his mama gets a boy who’ll feel connected and spiritually invested in the land. I get the better deal.

When my son and husband tired of planting — which is to say when the storm clouds darkened — they went inside. But I stayed out…on the pretense that weeding is easier in wet soil. I stayed out…and felt the pleasure of warm rain pelting my skin, heard the thunder rumble in the sky’s belly, witnessed the awesome power of lightning fork and flash. Right after planting, the rains coming felt like a blessing…I think the Ancestors would approve.

~ M.G.B.

From 5/31/10

Beginner’s Mind – Organic Vegetable Gardening

They say that the beginning of wisdom is to know that you know nothing. Yes, friends & kababayan, given this definition — it’s official — I am wise. Starting this new adventure of putting together a small organic vegetable patch in my backyard has made me realize how much I don’t know. Like:

  • When do you harvest tomatoes? Sitaw (long beans)? Edamame (soy beans)?
  • Are there better times for planting than others? Morning? Moonlit nights?
  • How do you know when to harvest? When are the veggies ready?
  • Which veggies are better eaten young?

A bewildering array of questions bombarded me when I first decided to undertake creating this little 20 x 2 foot organic vegetable patch. It’s actually delicious to see how much I don’t know. I’m realizing how convenient everything is made for me at the market – all the tomatoes are the same size, same with the oranges and saging (bananas). Everything is uniform, a certain homogeneity because fruits and vegetables are sorted by size and then bagged, packaged, presented. Not so on an apple tree!

Also, someone else planted the veggies I usually eat. (Did they have health care? Can they afford to send their kids to school? I tutored a young woman at UCLA whose father, a migrant farm worker from Mexico, told her that she should return to working with the family because they needed the money more than she needed an education.) What I eat is not from the sweat of my own labor.

I’m realizing how disconnected from nature I am despite my love of the wilderness. I have no clue how the food I eat grows. If the whole transportation system of Chicago broke down for a month this summer, I would have no idea how to create my own healthy food. Of course, there’s a beauty to our society’s interdependence. I am thankful to the work that others have done, still do, growing, cultivating, and harvesting the fruits and vegetables and that keep my family fed — especially the small, local organic farmers and the farm workers who came to America hoping, like my own parents, to give their family better opportunities.

On the Filipino American history tip, check out Carlos Bulosan’s novel America is in the Heart. Bulosan was a writer who immigrated to America and did back-breaking work harvesting asparagus, lettuces, and grapes in the California fields. He was active in labor politics and union organizing, and wrote about the racism faced by Filipino migrant workers. A bad-ass  and a literary pioneer in the Asian American community. (And he’s from my lola’s home province, Pangasinan!)

One of the Chicago conservationists I interviewed said to me, “To save a river, first you need to know what a river is.” He went on to describe, quite poetically, the flow of the current, the peace of paddling, the fallen logs submerged. That’s how I’m starting to feel about the process of growing my own food…it’s as if I don’t what a tomato is, the bud of its flower, the timing of its growth, the season of its beauty, the hands who harvest it, the feel of the rain and sun which feed it. Maybe by the end of this summer, I’ll be a little less wise.

Making Amends

In planning this organic garden, I’ve had to call on the guidance and infinite patience of my friend, Garden Diva. (Me: “What does germinate mean?” GD: Tries not to roll her eyes. The sound of someone summoning tremendous restraint. “Sprout, it means sprout.” Long, long pause. “M.G., even my kids know what the word germinate means!” *lol*) GD showed me how to look at the thin rectangle patch of soil that once was lawn, how the sun moves across the sky, where the sunlight will linger and where shadows will fall in my yard. Apparently all this affects how much sunlight the hungry plantlings will get. Who knew?

She clued me in on the mysteries of which vegetable plants needed the most sunlight (tomato), and which ones would grow huge & wrangly (tomato), and which ones are greedy for nutrients (tomato). Garden Diva stuck her hands in the “soil”, felt the texture. I dream of loam, the rich, dark, fertile earth that my teacher & inspiration N.V.M. Gonzalez wrote about in his short stories. But, alas, no. The verdict by GD’s expert hands was that our “soil” was largely clay. I defer to her expertise — her years growing up on an Illinois farm, her intense passion for organic gardening books, and the health and beauty of her own garden.

So *sigh* before any planting could happen, I needed to make amends. Amend the soil. For my itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow-polka-dot vegetable plot (20 x 2 feet) this entailed:

  • 11 bags of organic topsoil
  • 4 bags of Moo-nure (organic manure + compost)
  • 1 tall glass of ice-water

It also entailed:

  • Scraping away weeds & rocks
  • Turning soil over (yeah, exactly. What does “turning over” mean?!)
  • Breaking up dried clay “rocks”, soil poseurs/wanna-be’s (thank the Divine for the enthusiasm of 9-year-olds armed with kid-sized gardening rakes)

Garden Diva helped me to add the organic soil, and turn it with our gardening rakes. My son and I broke up the clay and my husband and I turned the soil 2 more times — and the soil still looked rocky. *lol* Well, gardening writer Barbara Pleasant says it can take years for soil to heal, for it to enrich. She speaks of it as a living thing, a living process, an ecosystem unto itself. As our Native Ancestors in the Philippines would have known, the very soil of the earth is the dwelling place of spirits…the earthworm, the centipede, the ant, the microscopic beings we can’t see who contribute to our well-being.

On the left is our clay-like “soil” and on the right is organic soil I bought:

And this is the younger generation helping to heal our ailing soil. Better to inherit something rich & living, di ba?

The crazy thing about this whole soil amendment is that about 5 years ago, our entire backyard’s soil was removed (down to 3 feet, trees, shrubs and all) because we lived next to a site that had to be remediated for coal tar & gas processing equipment that had been left behind. We’d left our house for a month while the responsible party remediated our backyard. The rest of our neighborhood took 2 years of shaking, bull-dozing, and community cooperation. So, from the time our boy was born, up until now, I’d been dreaming of having a healthy garden. 9 years.

So when Garden Diva told me how much I’d have to amend our soil, I was like (please excuse the  symbolic, multi-lingual cursing), “What the !@#$$%! ???” Turns out that the clean soil that had replaced our toxic dirt was also poor and nutrient deficient. Environmental justice indeed.

I will say that after the last week of shoveling, raking, turning soil over with a pitchfork, mixing in compost and manure — I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. *ahhhh* The soil, while still pebbly with clay rocks, drains better and it’s a deeper brown. Looking forward to the healing and to N.V.M.’s loam…

~ M.G.B.

From 5/23/10

The Digging Stick

I am wet. Mud streaks my rag-a-muffin shorts. Rain pelts my head and runs down my face in rivulets. Crumbs of brown soil are lodged under my fingernails. And I am completely happy. It’s a three-day weekend and I’ve spent nearly all of it outside. Mabuhay! Live!

I’m not out in Chicago’s urban wilds; this time it’s just my postage stamp of a backyard. Still, it’s amazing what you can do even in a teeny space.

Ignacio Francisco Alcina, a seventeenth century Spanish friar and chronicler, described the cultivation methods of our ancestors in the Philippines: A row of men would take a heavy digging stick, heavy on top and pointed on the bottom, and pound it into the ground. A row of women would follow, dropping a seed into the holes and then use their toes to cover the seeds with soil. The speed of this sowing, according to anthropologist William Henry Scott, amazed Spanish colonizers for three centuries.

I’d bet it amazed our Native Ancestors, too. The act of raising and creating your own food, with the forces and spirits of nature to aid you is quite a cool thing — keeps families fed, boating villages alive, and the datu/chieftain paid his share. And how ’bout this: digging stick + toe planting was organic & green long before Wholefoods (which, okay, *love* it) broke out with its food revolution.

So my foremothers wiggled their speedy toes and grew organic camotes (yams), dry rice, and maize (corn). But me? Early twenty-first century Pinay in America, I’m reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening and Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens. Idiot's Guide - Veg Garden

The desire to grow vegetables came when, last fall, my son discovered a vine  growing in our backyard. He checked on it every day. He marveled at the flower. What was it? He was convinced it would grow a pumpkin. It did not. It was an acorn squash. Still, the happenstance magic of that calabasa appearing in our yard compelled my boy more than any of my rants & raves about organics and nature or even taking him to the botanic gardens. We watched the vine grow not knowing what would happen, what would appear. He was captivated. And that’s the mystery of the Cosmos at work, no?

Then our local, crotchety facacta neighborhood squirrel (you know who I mean, the one neighbors feed so that now he feels entitled to harass you on your doorstep & throw the evil eye upon you), came and ate the beautiful round, ridged gourd we never asked for and didn’t plan to eat.  My boy was pissed.

So, this year, we are planting a pumpkin intentionally. And we are asking all the Spirits of Wind and Rain, Sun and Soil, and the nameless Ineffable One for whatever aid they will give. (The more mundane spirit of mojitos helped me yesterday.) Alongside the pumpkin, we pray for chard…carrots…climbing beans…goliath tomatoes…mint from Papa’s garden…basil…green garlic…corn…peppers. Something ought to grow, di ba?

Til then, the nature altar in our backyard stands, replenished with water. The bumble bees, robins, and mourning doves dalaw (visit), and my head is filled with dreams of green things growing and good organic veggies to eat.

~ M.G.B.


Keep reading. This is a NEW thread I’m calling “The Digging Stick”. 😉