Trees are silent, and many, like hermits, are dying lonely and unseen. But their silence is deceptive, for they have stories to tell. Much of UP is trees. And trees remain UP’s most widespread physical legacy to Diliman, a vast denuded estate overlooking Marikina valley.
Acacias, the traditional choice for public spaces since they were brought in during the early days of Spanish rule, were the first trees planted after the transfer of UP to Diliman in the late 1940s. The hard adobe grounds had to be blasted to allow them to take root. Since then, they have spoken eloquently of UP Diliman’s fast and robust growth. Now larger-than-life, acacias hold sway at the academic center, providing shade where there was once only grassland.
But they are also like UP and the country’s colonial past; dominant and lingering, roots long and winding, beautiful and scary at the same time; and as an exotic species, forever imposed, a stranger to the land.
But theirs was not the beginning story.
A few had come before them, and continue to live. A sampaloc and two mango trees at the site of the Arboretum came without design, survived the aridness of the landscape, and the Japanese-American War.
There is no account of their histories, except that they, like acacias, are exotic. But together with the native agoho in front of Quezon Hall, which an old hand in the transfer of UP to Diliman recalled being planted before Christmas 1949, they have seen more of campus life than all the acacias surviving to this day.
They are forgotten trees. Despite being at the campus portal, the agoho has had no alumnus taking selfies beside it as it stands beside a creek, quietly enduring the thin topsoil, the constructions, many fires, the barricading of Diliman’s iconic building. The tallest tree in the area, it is hidden by bulkier trees, broken, and wasting away.
At the Arboretum, the stories of War and growth of an urban forest are replaced by the story of encroaching urban blight. The roots of one mango tree are now covered by growing mounds of garbage. It nearly died from a treasure hunt digging. The other tree broke in the middle from a typhoon and has become a dump for old bottles. The mighty roots of the sampaloc are laid bare by eroding forces of water, wind, wheels, and feet.
The acacias have contemporaries within and outside the Oval. Many now tell the story of holding on for dear life.
The camachile, for example, another exotic species, insists on a foothold at several sites on campus. Most would be familiar with the four ones lining Velasquez Street. One had been cut close to the base, but from the large gnarly stump, a new crown has sprouted. Two had fallen from typhoons but from the fallen trunk, several more trunks arose. Same is true for the camachiles at the parking lot of the Alumni Center, and behind the Gymnasium and DMST complexes.
The native ones, like the bitaog, are proving to be hardier. Most visible to freshman applicants would be the dark imposing silhouette up Kalaw street. Its fan-like breadth tells a story. It is one of being cut at the top early in life and being forced to grow laterally, well over to the other side of the street, where the Registrar’s stands.
The bitaog on the eastern side of the campus does not enjoy the same space to spread its branches. It is pruned regularly to stay clear of the facade of Malcolm Hall, the mirror building of Benitez Hall, the two pre-war buildings on campus. In old pictures, the bitaog is a distinct growth by the driveway, growing alongside the acacia saplings at the Oval. It sheltered the first nurses from UP until the college had to move to UP Manila. The lawyers from UP would surely remember it, as it has gazed over the entrance since all the living of them could remember.
At Gonzalez Hall, three towering dungon trees in a row, facing the Sunken Garden, remain steadfast sentinels, guarding over the knowledge seekers on the floors and, once, when the Beach House was in business, food-hunters at their feet.
Right at a corner of the Sunken Garden, boughs wistfully bending over toward the grass, the grand calumpit tree has been witness to countless pageants and parades of the past and the youthful revelry of games and UP Fairs of the present.
But not all the old native trees of UP Diliman have been as lucky. One, which lorded over residences behind the Protestant church, succumbed to a typhoon last year and fell on a day-care center. The other one, in front of Vinzons Hall, once hulking and mighty on the hill, only recently died of rot after its trunk was slowly stripped of its bark by folks who believed in its alleged abortifacient powers. Fortunately, a younger one is surviving, standing guard over the marker of a campus legend, botanist Leonard Co.
Their name is dita. Endemic in the Philippines, they are more commonly known in the world as either the devil tree or the scholar tree, names which are stories by themselves.
But what could be sadder than the story of the diliman?
It left no trace or proof of existence in the area. But it must have dominated the primordial forests of the area. It is said to grow on adobe, which the area is known to have a bedrock of, thriving on forest moisture, most likely beside the creeks. It is said to disappear in summer and to return with the rains. One summer, most likely when the last of the forest was felled, it said goodbye for good. UP Diliman is thus named after an orphan.
And as stories go, a virtual library of new ones is being told by the 100 exemplars rising in the Washington Sycip Garden of Native Trees behind the Carillon, a donation of the Zuellig Group, and by the threatened native species being planted in natural groupings by the Institute of Biology and the Energy Development Corp. at a new arboretum inside the National Science Complex.
But the diliman, the one that the ancients and perhaps even Katipuneros must have passed through in their times, now lives with us only in name.
The author wishes to thank Emiliano Sotalbo and Noel Pomada of the UP Diliman Campus Maintenance Office Grounds Services and Arboretum Division; and Director Perry Ong and Herbarium Technician Ramon Bandong of the UP Diliman Institute of Biology, for their invaluable input to this article. Email the author at email@example.com.