MANILA, Philippines - For Gil Andipa, a Manobo native who works for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), climbing trees was part of his life since childhood. He possesses skills that allow him to scale trees and work on grafting and collecting samples. But he has injured a rib or two from falls when he was younger.
On Sept. 28 of this year, he got involved in a project which was enthusiastically started by the citizens of Alegria, a small barangay in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur. He was paid to scale the tallest tree in town to install Christmas lights, twice, because no one would dare.
A businessman and frequent traveller, Atty. Rene Roxas first urged the barangay officials to decorate the lone Toog tree standing majestically along the highway, which never fails to elicit awe from motorists.
It was his boss, a general, who used to jog by this tree regularly who told him something must be done to preserve its beauty. Roxas asked Punong Barangay Solomon Rufila to act on a wonderful idea. With the help of Kagawad Trinidad Cuyubao and team, they looked for funding for the lights and appropriate equipment.
Not only was it a tall order, pardon the pun, but a huge amount of electric lights must be acquired in order to illuminate a living Christmas tree at night.
Funding came from generous businessmen, supporters and friends who were willing to shell out enough to make this barangay's dream come true. Well, they were hoping to get into the Guinness Book of World Records as the "Tallest Christmas Tree along the Highway."
Indeed, a sign on the tree's hard trunk says, "Welcome! The Third World's Tallest and Majestic Toog Tree of Barangay Alegria."
After travelling all the way just to witness this statuesque living thing along the highway, I found out it was the only survivor among many of its species that were once scattered around.
Interviewing the barangay officials and locals was interesting and fun. They said there were only trees left in the area. This particular tree withstood time, climate, harsh conditions, and a lightning strike. They told me that the Toog bears fruits only when struck by lightning, and indeed it bore fruit after the incident (or shall we say stroke of luck?).
Later, thorough research led me to the facts that "the flowering of Toog is erratic and apparently triggered by sudden fluctuations in temperature."
Enthusiastically, Gil showed us how he climbed the tree to install the lights. He went up with a rope and harness and traditional ascending devices, this time without the spikes. It looked effortless for him even as he grew smaller, getting farther from view.
The Toog (kapullan or magtalisai in Visayan), or Philippine Rosewood (Petersianthus quadrialatus or Combretodendron quadrialatum), is endemic to the Philippines, particularly surviving in habitats of rainforests, riverbanks, hillside, or in swamps.
According to my research, it is most abundant in Agusan, Surigao, Davao del Norte, Leyte, Samar, Negros, and Masbate, but has been growing in Laguna, Sorsogon, and Bataan. Because its lumber is hard to cut and is as strong as molave, its high quality is preferred for construction and is now considered a disappearing beauty.
I was informed that this particularly tree was declared in Dec. 7, 1980 as the "Biggest Toog Tree" by the Tree Preservation Foundation of the Philippines President Nicolas Lansigan, as sponsored by a Mr. Dominador Faustino Jr.
During this time, the Chairman of the National Historical Institute was Mr. Esteban de Ocampo, and the Mayor then was Isidro Ventura. It was last recorded at 288 ft.
Today, with a diameter of 366.05 cms., its tree height totals 318 feet (probably including the huge star perched on top). Funds collected were able to get them 375 pieces of ordinary Christmas lights, a total of 3,750 bulbs, and according to its electrician Benedicto Tambis, a whopping 16,000 watts. Lighting installation finished on October 11, and was immediately launched by the whole town, with support from the LGU.
On the night I visited, waiting for the lights to be turned on, we were met by heavy rains. Not having the correct outdoor lighting, many of the bulbs dimmed and blew their fuses.
The once well-lit tree that attracted many visitors to park on the side of the road does not have enough shine to welcome more people who are curious to see it. Funding from the province has yet to be released.
Barangay Chairman Rufila and his constituents are still happy about the outcome that has placed this sleepy town in the map. Maybe with enough support and generosity, this tree will be more protected and kept intact. The locals have already built a fence and garden around it.
I asked the Chairman if they knew how to apply for the Guinness Records since it requires a representative to come and measure it for the record; he asked for my assistance.
The last declared unofficial tallest Christmas trees were in Tagum (153 ft. tall) and in Puerto Princesa (100 ft. tall), and these were manmade.
The latest recorded "World's Tallest Living Christmas Tree" was the 162-foot Grand Fir in Couer d'Alene Resort.
Maybe, if we start giving assistance, we can help set a record for our 318-ft. century old, living Christmas tree in the quiet and simple town of Alegria. After all, their pride is the Pinoy's pride, too.
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(Jojie Alcantara is a travel photojournalist and columnist based in Davao City. A photographer, solo traveller and an artist, she has been writing and painting before she became passionate about capturing images. Exploring unknown islands armed with her Canon cameras and asthma inhalers, she wishes everyone can see its stunning beauty from her perspective. She shares her skills through workshops, publications, exhibits and contributing materials for Mindanao tourism. Visit www.pbase.com/jojie_alcantara).