Forest of Spirits: Gap Year Week 30

36 hours of travel later—late night from Singapore, early morning from Manila, lunchtime drive from Davao—our first stop brought us to Eden, the resort, and a silvery kingfisher.

It waited for us at the base of a hill, after we had unloaded our bags and unraveled our binoculars, tripped over the roots entering the small patch of trees. The bird shone a dart of white into the dark forest. Its tiny red feet gripped the rock; it sat with a careful patience, watching the stream go past. A thick scent of sewage hovered around, but nevertheless every few minutes it rose in a fairy-like flurry and dashed purposefully down the water, making a sharp reversal when its prey apparently disappeared from sight. It was so bright.

To see it so quickly felt unfair, or at the very least unexpected: I’d spent the better part of the last five years searching largely fruitlessly for its Singaporean counterpart, the reclusive and colourful blue-eared kingfisher. I had finally seen it last December at the edge of a pond in sharp heat.

I had been invited by a friend in Singapore a few months ago; they were holding a conservation workshop for the critically-endangered Sulu hornbill and were planning a week of birding across the Philippines beforehand, would I be interested? Also coming were hornbill experts and professors from across the region, including my former internship directors at Valparai.

My father and I were the only people attending without years of experience in research. This trip would be on a different intensity from anything I’d done before. At Manila airport, the call of a yellow-vented bulbul was deciphered from under the crying kids, annoyed travelers, and shouting announcers; driving from Davao, swiftlets and sparrows in flight were conjured from seeming thin air, and now almost immediately a kingfisher I would happily have searched years more for.

We spent the rest of the afternoon accumulating more birds at Eden—unexpected eyes in the grass, movement in trees crystallized to a single flowerpecker, or sunbird, or flycatcher that emerged in a sudden clarity in the spotting scope. When night fell, a giant scops-owl called hauntingly for minutes from a dense bamboo clump. We looked for it unsuccessfully, but its calls rang in my head for hours after. I sat on our balcony and watched the trees below where it had been. Tried to imagine its body, its wide eyes, its open mouth.

This wasn’t even proper forest. Eden Nature Park is a former logging concession planted primarily with hectares of non-native conifers; the place is optimized for corporate events or devotional camps, with ziplines and adventure activities, not birding. The next morning we searched for a flowerpecker next to an active construction site; we found it, eventually, while the bulldozers sung a low drone in the background. As we walked back to our transportation—benches piled precariously into the back of a pickup truck—we wandered off the road into a small valley glittering with tree ferns.

In the mistletoe, mixed flocks rustled past with the flashes of scarlet minivets. A water buffalo strained at its rope to watch us as we swung our binoculars back and forth with a feverish excitement. The leaves filtered the light green and gold around us; the world glowed, and everything was sharply, thrillingly different. 57% of flora and fauna in the Philippines is endemic: the highest rate in the Indo-Malayan region, a gift of the matrix of islands, unexpected hills, and isolated valleys enabling geographical separation for speciation on unprecedented levels. One third of the birds can be found nowhere else in the world; even species found elsewhere in Southeast Asia have become unique subspecies here. The white throat of the white-throated kingfisher has shrunken to a small heart at the base of its throat and the male minivets have morphed orange. This was a precious place. This was also a doomed place.

For this biodiversity, 97% of original forest cover has vanished. The birds emerged in predictable concentrations because there was nowhere else they could go. Later that morning, having descended, found the kingfisher again in a farewell silver flash, we drove out of Eden further south to PICOP. The old timber concession of the Paper Industry Corporation of the Philippines is the poster child of forest clearance: abandoned by the bankrupt company more than a decade earlier, illegal squatters and loggers have since overrun the allegedly protected area. As we entered the hills, everything was green and gorgeous. But the tree trunks were ghostly pale. All pulp trees, profitable and parasitic plantations sprung up in the absence of industrial security.


PICOP is a forest choked with spirits. Last-chance-to-see. We drove out hours every morning, blinking into the dark far before sunrise, waking to haunted mornings. Our first day there, after a fitful nap on my father’s shoulder, I opened my eyes to the trembling excitement of hornbills, flying low and silhouetted. I shook the sleep from myself and tried to take in where we were: verdance rolling over a distant valley. Slow mist in the sun. All the green beauty of the world.

But every hundred meters a tree rose abruptly higher into a straight-backed cluster of leaves. It stood magnificent and proud and so very alone, and with a shiver of shock, I realized it wasn’t always solitary. The forest was once nothing but these dipterocarps; now, that towering abundance was scattered only in these hardwood relics passed over by loggers. Suddenly everything around revealed itself as colonizing weeds. Briefly the ghost of a rainforest around emerged, three times the height of the current vegetation, and years already sawdust.

lone tree.JPG

“It changes here every time I visit,” our guide told us as the morning cracked into a cutting heat. When I first came, the canopy was so dense I couldn’t see the sun.” We squinted at him from beneath our hats, clustered close as woodswallows in a pockets of shade. He shrugged and turned on his speakers. Tu-WHEE. Tu-WHEE. When the recording ended, he started it again and again. Tu-WHEE. Tu-WHEE.

Because this was a fragment of what used to be thousands of hectares, the birds have concentrated here into near-predictability. If you call enough times, they emerge, hoping for companionship. Even when, instead of a fruit tree, there is now a church proclaiming the name of Jesus. Woodpecker hole has become logging track. Nesting site to coconut plantation. This was a fluid landscape, transitory in a way incongruous with the visceral pressure of rainforest. Even as we stood, the place shifted. Every ten minutes we moved to the side of a road as a motorcycle sped last, laden with illegal chainsaws and grinning passengers.

We woke up impossibly early one day to try for owls, arriving at the unholy hour of 4 am when nothing should be moving but your breath. As I fervently tried to develop powers of teleportation back to my bed, I spent much of that morning trying to nap while walking and contemplating why I bothered to bird at all. The sunrise came slowly and sliced gold across the trees, and I began listing.

I was here because these birds were special. Because I could see them nowhere else. Because, by seeing them here, I held another piece of wild in my hands. Because each new species was a buzz of excitement. Another way to know the world natural. The world fragile. But what world was I knowing? That of deep forest specialists yet to get the message the deep forest wouldn’t be there much longer. Creatures marked with a best-before date.

At the top of a hill, a Steere’s pitta sprung up onto a branch and held my eye for a nameless second. Its beak was open, halfway to song. Its body shone unimaginable blue. Like flower, or sky, or sea.

ab pitta.JPG

I was here because I had no idea the world held such colours.

Perhaps sleep-deprived and delirious, as the day brightened I walked slowly along the path, stopping for every fern and how the light filtered through their edges: I want to spin that warm shade into poetry and glory, to tie it around my wrist and carry it out with me. We walked past a freshly felled tree and perched on the cool wood of new planks to wait for kingfishers and monarchs. But the licking flame of the pitta’s breast held in my mind.

At dinner my father, a banker, debated the economics of conservation with the researchers. If you price-tag enough of it, he argued, weigh all the costs and benefits in the short- and long-term—the relative value of a coal mine now, say, versus the accrual of pollution-related health costs over the years—you can come up with a firm yes or no. These forests are worth something. These forests are not. PICOP should be saved. PICOP should not be saved. Isn’t it that simple?

Why should you monetize it, the researchers asked. Why did everything have to be reduced to economic considerations? Why did the forest have to fall to human currency?

Because that’s the way the world works, because that’s the way governments run, because this land can be bought or sold. The numbers will make the strongest case, my father said, and then the next dish came and the argument fell away into a dissatisfied irresolution.

The next day, as the sun wore everything harsh, I waited for an hour by a fruiting tree. I hoped to photograph the flowerpeckers that came to feed, but they were intermittent, and so mostly I sat cross-legged on the road, listening. In the distance a chainsaw hummed a cheerful rhyme of breaking. In harmony a dove rang in soft insistence. As I stilled, the world around shifted; I tracked the motions of the sunbirds through the trees, saw where the Philippine falconet perched in waiting out of the corner of my eye. Slow stories unfolded: the tentative hops of the finally-arrived flowerpecker along the tree trunk, a sudden skink making its way along a fruit. Everything moved but me. My body lay somewhere apart to the trembling moments.

brown dove.JPG


In our last days in the Philippines we drove to a waterfall our guide had visited years earlier. When we arrived it heaved with signs advertising overnight accommodation and picnic tables. Swimsuit-clad figures slipped in and out of the water. But the waterfalls themselves shone in the afternoon light. At the entrance, the attendant pointed out a small sharp pit viper nestled in the tree.

“You, at least, have to hope,” my former director told me as we drove back. “You’re the youth, you’re the future.” She smiled wryly. I have heard this before and will hear it again.

I’m not sure what hope means for the Philippines. In the era of climate change, of adjusting to new social normals, I’m not sure what hope means any more to me. I don’t know enough for that. Meetings and discussion and reports and the slow steady work on the ground. The lone tree yet standing with wood as hard as belief. I cling to that only: the knowledge of the kingfisher at the stream’s edge and the pitta perched. Or the hornbills in flight, which I grew to adore, because they evoked rainforest like little else: their exuberant colors, their ridiculous casques, everything they carried with them in their stately flight—frugivory, seed dispersal, old trees made homes, the confidence of forest longevity. I want the assurance of a world that forgets humanity, not a humanity that forgets the world. Something unshakable in its richness and scale.

southern rufous hornbillhornbill flight


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