ARTS AND CULTURE Mothers talk to mountains, farmers read clouds, fishers warn of the sea in ‘Agam’

Originally published in Interaksyon

After a landslide triggered by Typhoon Pepeng wiped out his home and killed his entire family, a man was going to build a new house where his old one once stood.

Padmapani Perez drew on this story told to her by a Benguet local as she was writing her poem “Mothers Speak” for the book Agam, launched in a Quezon City restaurant Tuesday, June 24.

As with the 23 other writers contributing to the book showing the human face of climate change, she was given a photo taken by Jose Enrique Soriano as a prompt for her work. In her case, the photo was of a woman carrying a child whose eyes were closed. The sea was their background.

Baguio-based Perez had a child of her own. “That’s why I decided to write about the effects of climate from a mother’s point of view,” she told InterAksyon.com. In the poem, a mother speaks to a mountain, the same one who has seen her child grow, the same one who has taken her child away.

“I was recalling his story and his grief,” she said of the Benguet resident who went back to his old habits after tragedy struck. “No matter what climate change does to people, what else are they to do but what they know how to do?”

The Cebuano poem “Unsaon Pagbasa ang Panganod?” (How Do You Read the Clouds?) by Grace Monte de Ramos, tackles a similar theme.

“People have traditional knowledge. Even if they are uneducated, they know how to read the weather. If they spot a certain cloud or feel a certain temperature, they know what will happen next. But now things have changed. You can no longer predict when it will rain. That’s the problem,” de Ramos told InterAksyon.com.

Her prompt was a photo of a woman staring suspiciously at the camera, a tricycle painted with the words “Saint Isidore” behind her. The holy man is the patron of farmers, which is why the poem has a farmer as its persona.

The same poem is a prayer to the saint, interspersed with the farmer’s stories.

Another Cebuano poem in the book is “Krutsay” by Boholana Marjorie Evasco. The title comes from the word—and a song—people in Visayas and Mindanao use to call the wind.

It is about the man in the photo assigned to her, a fisherman, Evasco gathered, by looking at his muddy shorts. “I realized that he just came from work, from the sea.” She also found out that the man was a survivor of Tropical Storm Sendong. This dictated her choice of language.

The song “Krutsay” was the spine of the narrative poem, Evasco told InterAksyon.com. The four-part poem ended with the fisherman warning the people, because “He knows the sea.”

Other contributors drew from their own experiences. Ramon Sunico, who wrote “Diptych, Hindi Selfie,” was on his way to a funeral when Tropical Storm Ondoy struck. “The water was waist-deep outside our subdivision,” he told InterAksyon.com. “Our dog almost drowned.”

He was given two photos of the same woman in ankle-deep flood, one with what looked like a sari-sari store behind her, and the other with a house and palm trees as her background.

Meanwhile, Arnold Molina Azurin wrote the essay “Agayayos” with a photo of an old man wearing a salakot (native hat) and a dirty shirt, a boy peeking from behind him. Palm trees surrounded them.

“Agayayos,” said the Vigan-born writer, was Ilocano for “ever-flowing, as water down a river, or blood in the veins, or memories in a lifetime.”

He pictured himself on the highest promontory on the way to Vigan, with a view of the entire landscape, the sea, and the mountains leading to Abra. “Sometimes there are even monkeys in the trees,” he said of his vantage point.

“You can see the changes of croppings in the farms. Oh, they are planting melon there! And there, on the way to Abra with the hills, there are the cornfields. Per weather, per season, you can see the changing productivity and the changing generations too,” Azurin told InterAksyon.com. From there too, one could see the sea encroaching upon the poblacion because of black sand mining.

He imagined the elderly man and the boy as grandfather and grandchild, farming together. Just as the livelihood was handed down from one generation to another, so too were the tales of their ancestors. A falling star creating the mouth of a river, a pair of giants who were the first couple.

“I’m thankful to have been given the opportunity to write in a very comprehensive sense the memories of my own youth or my own people, whether you can validate them or not. The memories of the people about the landscape, how it was formed, I was able to revive them. Make them alive,” he said.

Along with the scientists, humanitarians, and disaster risk reduction and management workers, storytellers like these five were important players in the issue of climate change.

“We need to recreate discourse. We need to introduce narratives, storytelling, into such an important issue. It’s not enough to use big words or send a barrage of numbers to the people,” said Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities executive director and publisher Renato Redentor Constantino during the launch of Agam.

Added Senator Loren Legarda, who chairs the Senate Climate Change Committee, “I truly appreciate the fact that narratives, poetry, prose, images, photos, and eight languages in our great country are being utilized in this book. I think this is one of the most novel and innovative ways of bringing climate change to the national and international consciousness.”

The book is Constantino’s way of rallying Filipinos to participate, to act. “For us, involvement starts with information,” he said.

The photos “avoid the cliché of disaster.” Soriano was instructed precisely to not look for victims as he came up with the 26 images that are included in Agam.

This is how the book tackles uncertainty, as in “agam-agam.” It is not a negative thing, said Constantino, because it meant that “the bad guys haven’t won, and… we can still prevail.”

“Some are harrowing,” he said of the stories. “Some are haunting. Some are really moving. Some are playful. Some are like a paper cut when you’re reading them; you don’t know that you’re already wounded.”