Camp Kamagong, San Pablo-Dolores Road, Laguna-Quezon Boundary: For a brief moment, a few tongues of flame danced shyly across the last of our dry kindling, then once again extinguished themselves, leaving only thin wisps of smoke that trailed off into the moonless dusk.
Beyond our tiny hemisphere of feeble light, visibility was failing fast, except for the few split-seconds when a distant crack of lightning lit up half the early evening sky.
“This is not working”, my eight-year-old son said flatly. There was no whine in his remark, just a calm urgency that served to stoke the dimming spark of my fatherly courage better than my flagging efforts at fanning and puffing were keeping our small fire alive.
“As long as those are ablaze,” I pointed at the red-hot layer of charcoal glowing beneath the stand of logs and damp kindling, “we’re good.” I hope.
Unnoticed, my hand strayed to a traditional brass amulet of the Virgin, strung around my neck more for a vaguely philosophical advocacy of folk Catholicism and the sacred feminine than for luck or worship, but for once my touch was appropriately desperate and beseeching.
I redoubled my efforts at fanning, until the fire started to crackle once again, sending dainty little sparks fluttering away in the wind. A few scattered flames appeared on the half-dry kindling, only to die out upon encountering enough of the residual moisture still inside the branches. I cursed loudly, but noted that my son responded with none of his usual hilarity at the offending word. His face was dead serious, peering intently at the passive embers that remained.
It was a brief lull in the rainy season in the foothills of Mount Banahaw, and I had been so proud of the intricate little teepee I had constructed earlier for our campfire. With the combined swagger of rockstar bushmen Bear Grylls and Michael Hawke, and a nifty little infographic entitled “How to Make Fire in the Rain” displayed on my smartphone, I had gathered all the driest twigs and branches in the campsite, as well as a few dependable half-burned logs from the previous night.
I had carefully stacked these atop a generous cluster of charcoal, sprinkled with torn up bits of dried citronella for tinder courtesy of our campmaster. I had a clever little jar of oil-soaked cotton balls, a modern butane lighter with a ferrocerium rod (firesteel) for back-up, as well as plenty of old newspapers to start the fire. Besides, all the rainclouds were far off in the horizon. What could possibly go wrong?
But now the bundles of citronella, all of the cotton, and the pile of newspapers were gone, along with our campmaster, who had gone back to San Pablo for the night to see his own son off to school on the very first bus back to Manila in the morning.
Until then, my son and I were all alone in the jungle, except for the trusty little camp dog who circled faithfully outside the fire, doing her best not to cast her disappointed glare at me.
I looked at my son, clutching our dinner of half-a-dozen skewered Chinese sausages protectively against the unseen legions of nocturnal creepers and crawlers noisily making their presence known all around us. I shook my lighter, felt the pitifully fractional fluid left inside, then muttered a quick benediction to the few bits of wood and charcoal still blessedly aglow underneath the sodden, sorry little heap.
“I’ll be back,” I told my son as I handed him the fan. “We might have a couple more cheats somewhere in our kit,” once again with the unsaid, I hope.
From the ground up
The previous evening had been a big merry barbecue, with huge steaks bearing perfect grill-marks dripping their sizzling ambrosiac marinade over the very same fire pit. We had all spun the usual campside yarns throughout the evening’s preparations and feast, and my son had regaled us adults with a rendition of his favorite hyperactive pop song, before promptly retiring to our tent and blissfully succumbing to the euphoric mix of exhaustion, satiety, and the great outdoors.
Over the fire, the conversation now became subdued and more intimate. The campmaster (ex-social sciences professor) and his wife, the camp matron (botanist, gardener, forager, and chef extraordinaire), were catching up with their youngest son, here for the weekend but back to university again right after.
Unhurriedly, but without missing a beat, a small log or two would be added to the fire, the wordless choreography no doubt the product of many such family moments throughout the years. Even the old camp dog snuggled close from one family member to the next, but did not yet give the strangers much of her attention.
Yet for all the intimacy, the spirit was encompassing, even infectious; instead of envy I felt reassurance, as well as a resolve to improve my skills in outdoorsmanship, so I might later on be able to provide such priceless moments to my own young family.
I fell quiet for a long while, entranced by the scene and caught up in the hypnotizing rhythm of feeding the fire. Eventually our young future campmaster excused himself, accompanied by his mother downhill to the main camp building. I smiled, remembering how my own son still asks my wife to tuck him in at night sometimes, with considerably more fussiness involved. Boys will always be little boys with their mothers, it seems, but never with their fathers. That night he had gone to sleep in our tent without a word.
The campmaster smoked freely now that the kids were gone, and I, despite my pretensions of quitting, may have had a stick or two off his weekend stash. The sweet, satisfying tobacco smell added nicely to the scent of the dwindling fire, with the nicotine fueling the final sleepy discussions of the evening.
He reminded me to keep out half an ear for the hooting of the resident kuwago (Philippine eagle-owl), as well as both nostrils for a whiff of the roving bands of bayawak (Asian monitor lizard), while he outlined their future plans for the camp; the additional campsites and facilities, maximizing but not exceeding carrying capacity at any given weekend, social media strategies to more closely connect with the outdoor community online, and expanding the scope of future workshops, like perhaps more father-and-son camping events such as this one. After all, survival skills, and the deeper connection with nature that comes with it, should ideally be passed down from parent to child, not from TV or online video personality to mass audience.
These days, family activities of this sort are few and far between, especially with the scouting movement losing ground to video games and more adrenaline-charged outdoor sports, as well as the disappearance of suitable camping spots and local wildlife sanctuaries due to rapid urban development, particularly here along the politically important Lingayen-Lucena corridor.
Mount Banahaw, for example, is currently undergoing a long period of recuperation, and other famous mountains have been similarly closed off in order to recover from problems caused by careless adventurers. I often despair when thinking about the environmental challenges facing my son’s generation, because the seasonal “inconvenient” ones that beset ours are merely the tip of the metaphorical iceberg (with the real ones melting fast).
Mine is but a small, self-appointed part in that fight, working its way down by the grassroots in close collaboration with a nationwide cottage industry that upcycles automotive scrap alloys into that most indispensable instrument of wilderness survival, front-line forestry, and small-scale sustainable agriculture: the humble Filipino bolo.
The campmaster was an avid aficionado and online advocate of traditionally forged bolos, and I proudly told him that I had brought about a dozen of these blades with me, sourced from different smiths and provinces throughout the country. He grinned, a big hearty grin that I could almost see even in the deep inky darkness that surrounded us after the fire finally died out. He gestured towards the other edge of the campsite.
“That clump of banana trees you saw over there earlier, since they’re no good for eating, we will be cutting them down tomorrow. All of them.”
Into the light
Breakfast the next morning was excellent but rather hurried, with all the excitement for a day of “bushwhacking”, which was the campmaster’s enthusiastic euphemism for clearing away the excess foliage encroaching upon the vital trails that crisscrossed the jungle. With the fan-tailed birds (Maria Capra) still singing their morning hymn, my son and I laced our boots tight for better footing up and down the tricky rainforest paths, but more importantly to protect against the angry hordes of insects that awaited us. As an added precaution, I cut off a handful of fresh citronella grass from the nearest clump, and showed my son how to crush them into a ball and apply the fragrant rubbing to all the exposed areas of his skin. Then briefly, I went back to our tent.
From our little arsenal of blades, I picked a heavy broad-headed Tagalog bolo for myself, and stuck it comfortably in my belt. Next, I brought out a pointy-tipped Pangasinan dagger I had polished and given to my son for his birthday three years ago, but had never allowed him to handle much. I frowned, then took a smaller curved utility knife instead. This was a knife my wife usually carried, as it was small enough to fit inside her purse, but since the sheep’s foot design gave it a disproportionally powerful cut, she had insisted that I bring it along for our son.
I found a tall limb of soggy wood and stuck it deep into a mound of soft mud, to let my son have a go at with the little knife. When he was three, I had taught him some of the classical Japanese sword postures that I was studying at the time, as well as a few basic cuts, so he knew well what to do.
He spaced his feet apart, and started to cut from the shoulder using a bit of twist in the hip, driving the belly of the knife deep into the wood repeatedly and consistently. When he tired of this, he found a smaller stick and tried whittling and sharpening it at the ends, and I coached him patiently about cutting away from his body, to keep his fingers away from the path of the blade, and to always support the spine of the blade with his thumb for this kind of fine work.
After that, still giddy with blade-lust, he hopped around, cutting up some of the surrounding wild gabi (yams), whose big fleshy stalks were a favorably soft target topped with a distinctively-shaped leaf that was easy to identify.
A few minutes of such fruit-ninja antics proved too much for my parental apprehensions, though, so I firmly asked for the knife back and declared that from there on I’ll be carrying it for him, until the campmaster finds him a suitable task for it. The master soon arrived with his son and took us to the clump of banana trees near the edge of the campsite. These were of a variety that contained a ridiculous amount of seeds within the individual fruits, and were considered suitable only for the wild monkeys that used to inhabit the area. In any case, the species was like the mythical hydra; cut down one tree and it will quickly grow back, usually accompanied by an additional sprout or two.
Drawing my bolo, I looked for the biggest of the lot, since I wanted to leave the smaller trees for the others. Selecting one with a thick trunk almost a foot in diameter, I raised my bolo above my head, assisted my right wrist with my left hand for more power, and drove the strong of the blade diagonally down, deep into the trunk. I had intended it to just be the first swing, but was surprised when the entire tree creaked and started to fall. I had completely forgotten the customary yell of “Tim-berrr...!” much to my chagrin, and it took more nimble footwork for my companions to dodge the soft squishy trunk as it came crashing down.
I placed another diagonal cut on the trunk of a slightly leaner banana tree, and it too fell with the stroke. Pausing to examine the results, I allowed myself a triumphant little smile, since I wasn’t even going, as we say in Filipino, “sandaang porsyento” (one hundred percent).
This self-satisfaction at the seemingly wanton destruction of defenseless flora only comes after considerable labor on my part. These bolos have been honed and polished to a very fine sharpness and evenness of surface, in an attempt to approach the quality and performance of Chinese, Korean, and perhaps even Japanese blades. Moreover, my emulation of the legendary Japanese togishi (sword-polishers) eventually proved significant because of the similar construction and intricate forging patterns that are also present in the work of the humble Filipino panday (blacksmith), but are almost never seen, as most bolos are customarily allowed to patinate gradually, and left somewhat pockmarked and potholed like the dark side of the moon.
A hard, frosty-white edge bordered by a long glimmering line which undulates downward from the tip of the blade (the result of meticulous differential hardening and tempering processes), is set against a mild, glossy body and spine that acts as a shock-absorber; the entirety of which is often completely covered by a dark, rough patina. This benign layer of black rust conceals the dazzling artistry of those venerable old village smiths, similar to how a modest Filipina of yore might hide her charms behind a folding fan and a billowing terno. My job is to coax it out into the light, shaping and sharpening the blade in the same process.
One might question the merit of taking great pains to reveal such inherent exquisiteness in a bolo destined for hard use in the unforgiving tropical jungle, and rightly so. I shall then have to point out the simple fact that a blade that cuts very well, with the least effort and resistance, saves one’s precious life-sustaining calories for more difficult tasks.
Further, with correct technique, these improved bolos would not need re-sharpening for days or even weeks of precise usage, conserving even more of the user’s daily energies. The smooth, even surface of the blade makes it easy to clean with a few quick wipes of oil or alcohol, or even the convenient shirt sleeve or pant leg; with a rust-resistant finish that allows for a few hours of neglect before any serious corrosion sets into the high-carbon steel. In any case, the kind of restrained rusting that might eventually develop will closely follow the metallurgical patterns already revealed in the steel, giving a markedly aesthetic effect to the mild patina that results.
The radiant but elusive vision I have cleaved to for years is finally being realized—this gradual revelation of the hidden glory of an unassuming tool and defensive side-arm (strictly in that order), restored as a shining symbol of our communal art and culture borne of the earth, steeled by fire, quenched with water, fortified by the wind; the spirit of the Filipino crystallized in one resilient, adamantine form. For countless generations, we have been wearing the bolo ‘round the waist as a veritable badge of stewardship over these lush emerald isles; making it look, and cut, a little better for the part, might just make better stewards out of us all.
Going back to the work at hand, I quickly finished off the thicker tree trunks, hastily giving a small bow to my defeated adversaries in gratitude; as good Japanese test-cutting etiquette, and the spirit of animism, requires. I deferred the smaller trunks to our campmaster’s son, offering him my blade for the task, hilt first. To my surprise, the master demurred, and gave the privilege to my son.
With my right hand still proffering the heavy bolo towards the teenager, I had no choice but to hand it to the grade-schooler instead. It took all of my delicadeza (propriety) not to give him the small curved knife instead, for a few inconsequential but infinitely safer and less terrifying little slashes on the banana trunk’s mere surface. He gingerly gripped the large bolo, the one-handed hilt accommodating his two small eight-year-old hands.
My heart leapt to my throat with each gleefully over-powered and over-extended swing, but both the boy, and the blade, did not disappoint.
(Part 1 of 2). The story continues here.
About Camp Kamagong
Camp Kamagong offers basic and advanced bushcraft workshops, as well as classes for jungle foraging, and site hosting for basic mountaineering courses. They are located close to the “back door” of Mt. Banahaw, just off the San Pablo-Dolores Road, which branches off from the Pan-Philippine Maharlika Highway (AH26).
HOW TO GET THERE: Commuters may take any Lucena- or Bicol-bound bus line (₱130-150), alight at the Bato Springs signboard past San Pablo City proper, then charter a tricycle (₱100) all the way to their farm gate. They may also be found using Google Maps. Please contact Fernando Cao or Dr. Meo Santos-Cao via Facebook to schedule your visit.
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