Yes, I was in Mindanao earlier this month, my third visit to this land of numbers: 7,641 islands, about 109 million people, and trees – who can say how many trees? A hot, wet land under a sun on hyperspeed: it rises in a rush, soars scorchingly high into the sky, and collapses into a sunset twelve hours after dawn, when absurdly the air feels even stiffer. This is the kind of wild artistry that grows rainforests, and left to its own devices, the Philippines would be smothered by them, feathered out by mangrove swamps on the coast and tropical pinewoods in the mountains.
The reality, of course, is that most of the lowland rainforest has been cleared; the tall, straight trunks make for good timber, and the endangered lapnisan or agarwood has the unwelcome honour of being the world’s most expensive tree due to its wood being poached to produce oud perfume. But even where the primary forest has gone, the secondary growth is thick, and supports a fair variety of trilling, busy wild things.
Philippine brown shrike
No tree is a solitary life. Even in the rawest habitats – salt deserts, say, or the arable deserts of modern agriculture – a tree is a lifebuoy seized by lichens, birds and invertebrates. In the tropics, they are grabbed by other plants too; orchids and ferns perch on their limbs and frame, in a manner of living known as epiphytic. Sometimes it is difficult to know where the tree ends and its army of piggy-backing guests begins.
Trees produce food as well as support, but not freely. These young glossy starlings will deposit the seeds in their droppings, spreading the tree’s offspring far further than it could achieve through mere gravity.
Humans also gather from trees. In the Philippines, plums and apples are imported exotics in the malls, but mangoes, bananas and passion fruits can be picked by hand. Cacao trees, the birthplace of chocolate, sport their pods.
And this is rambutan, brightening up its parent tree.
For all of the trees, the sun feeds them, and the moon sets behind them.
And the next day brings the pattern again.