I grew up in Manila. In hot, humid, concrete Manila. The only memory I have of playing with anything close to nature is piling up dried grass cuttings from our school field and then jumping and stomping on them. That memory, given that I was such a serious kid who didn't really enjoy playgrounds or running, seems a bit out of character, to be honest. But the memory does exist, so it must have happened (for the kid that I was would never have imagined nor daydreamed of such).
The first time I ever went hiking -- that is, climb up a mountain, with grass and trees and shrubs lining the path -- was when I was seventeen. I just moved to Hong Kong for boarding school, and one of the orientation activities was hiking and camping outdoors. I had never felt so disoriented my whole life, but also so nervously excited and wide-eyed. I clearly remember my new Argentinian friend exclaiming, "Beautiful!" while looking out at our view while we were lagging behind the group. Such passion! Such unabashed wonder and appreciation! We all camped overnight on top of the mountain -- another first, another unforgettable milestone. A year later, for another project in the boarding school, I found myself bamboo rafting somewhere in Thailand, holding on to a rope to climb a very steep hill, and balancing myself on a wood plank to cross a swamp or a fishing pen of some sort. Of all the memories I have made in the two years in that boarding school, moments when I've never felt so out of place stand out -- moments spent in nature, mostly -- and for being able to remember these (in spite of everything I seem to have forgotten), feels like serendipity and a foreshadowing of what awaits me in the years ahead.
After Hong Kong, there was Maine -- another place ripe for natural wonder, yes, but I was too focused on learning printmaking that I spent most days and nights inside a workshop. Despite my nonchalance towards all the splendor Maine had to offer, the magic of its autumn didn’t fail to capture me, as no one can truly escape it. I played with the red, orange, and brown leaves at the quad, running around them, delightfully kicking them, and jumping into them and getting lost. I can still hear the crunch of the leaves as I walk on them.
After the fiery fall leaves of Maine, there were the redwoods of California. There were redwoods, cold beaches, and even a safari in the middle of endless vineyards. Later on, with my daughter in tow, there was cherry picking. Through these all, however, I had unsure steps, not knowing exactly how I got to such experiences and what I must feel or do while experiencing them. Not entirely a bystander, but not totally immersed either.
And then there was Bacolod. Oh, Bacolod. First there was the endless sea of green that welcomed us as we brought our packed bags from Manila to move there, my husband's hometown. And then there were the trees all around the city, the sugarcane fields, my mom-in-law’s garden, and The Owl Place, a conservation center right at the heart of the city. A place where owls, monkeys, birds, deer, boar, and other beautiful creatures find sanctuary became a refuge for me and my daughter as well, as we worked to find our footing in our new home. In a place where everything seemed foreign, I felt an ease with nature, the very entity that I didn't quite get acquainted with as I was growing up. Suddenly, nature was what felt familiar. Nature was what felt like home.
Neil Gaiman, in an interview with Tim Ferriss, says, "The biggest problem we run into is going, 'This is who I am, this is what I'm like, this is how I function, while failing to notice that you don't do that anymore."
Somewhere along my growing up, my moving from here to there and back, I became a person who is curious about trees, leaves, birds, insects, and everything else that I had no clue what to do or think about before. All the firsts have come to this at last: I have fallen in love with nature, with its simplicity and complexity, its quiet power, its colors, its cyclic processes, its persistence and grit and magnanimity.
And where there are great loves, there are love letters. I suppose this project is my little correspondence with nature herself. The specifics will reveal themselves in due time, but one thing is for certain: amidst the green is where I long to be and where this project will take me. I hope to see you around here.
*Addendum: A few hours after I wrote this post, an image came back to me. That of my mom tending to her orchids near our water tank, right beside an airy room at the back of our house. I remember spiders there, too. Perhaps more of these memories will resurface as I work on this project; I look forward to welcoming them back.