Saturday, April 17, 2010

The heavy price of misplacing one’s trust and confidence

What is the price of putting your trust in a clueless and incompetent person? Great sorrow and a lifetime of lost opportunities, as I found out for myself in what I consider the most harrowing and life-changing experience of my teenage years. This happened when someone’s unthinking favor resulted in such unthinkable devastation. I recounted that experience in an essay I wrote for my column in The Manila Times in May 2004, and I am posting that essay in the Forum as a cautionary tale for this time that we are about to make crucial choices in our national life. (April 17, 2010)

The evil that ignorance and incompetence can do

Many years ago, when I was in second year high, something happened that changed my family’s fortunes forever. We looked forward to a bountiful harvest that summer in our two-hectare citrus orchard in a farming town in Southern Luzon in the Philippines. After more than 10 years of backbreaking nurture, the orchard’s more than 200 citrus trees had finally reached full fruition. They had already fruited four times during the past two years, yielding fruits so luscious they attracted even wholesale buyers from faraway cities. This time the trees blossomed even more profusely, and my father expected a harvest at least double the previous one. A long awaited prosperity was finally in sight for the family.

Due to unexpected rains in January of that year, however, a dense growth of weeds, cogon, and creeping vines had enveloped the orchard. My father, an elementary school head teacher, was terribly upset by this; if the undergrowths were left unchecked, the trees would choke and the harvest volume would drop. But farmhands were hard to find at the time; most were on extended summer-long rice harvesting sorties elsewhere in the province. Desperate, my father sent word through relatives and friends that he needed someone to clean up the orchard very quickly.

The day after, a man came to our house for the job. He was in his late 50s or early 60s, practically a stranger in our parts because he lived with his in-laws in a faraway village for most the year. He wasn’t the usual weather-beaten person who worked in farms. He arrived astride a strikingly clean carabao (water buffalo), without the usual flecks of dried-up mud that drew swarms of gnats and flies in their wake. He was so neat even in ordinary clothing, sporting a bolo with a handsomely crafted handle and an intricately carved scabbard. Although a man of very few words, he was prone to hyperbole, the way some unschooled people would try to show that they are intelligent and worldly wise. In any case, he convinced my father that he could do the job on contract in four days flat. My father, deathly worried about his citrus harvest, readily accepted the man’s stiff quotation and gave him a hefty cash advance.

The man came back the following morning with two teenage farmhands in tow. I accompanied them to the orchard, which was about 150 meters away, hidden from view by a thick bamboo grove and a clump of trees. On arrival they promptly started hacking away at the undergrowth with their hoes and shovels, cutting deep into the soil, severing the surface roots of the citrus, and exposing earthworms all over the place. I remonstrated against this brutal weeding process, which would usually be done with long bolos, but the man simply laughed and said in the vernacular, “Don’t worry, son, there are more of those earthworms where they come from.” “Yes, but please cut only the grass and the vines and don’t dig deep into the ground,” I said. “Otherwise, you’ll be damaging the roots of the citrus.” “All right,” the man relented. “We’ll cut gentler and shallower, but tell your father that it will slow us down.”

The three made good progress. By the third day they had already cleared over three fourths of the orchard’s undergrowth, methodically piling up the cuttings outside the bare circular areas underneath the foliage of each citrus tree. In the summer heat the cuttings quickly dried up and turned brown and crisp, the sight of which made my father remark with elation that they would soon crumble, decay, and turn into natural fertilizer for the trees. My father was obviously delighted with his decision to hire the man, who had proved very efficient in his work.

Past three in the afternoon of the fourth day, the man and his three assistants came to our house and informed us that they had finished the job. We served them refreshments in appreciation, after which my father gladly handed the man the final payment—plus a generous tip. “Thank you,” was all he said. As he and his assistants were leaving, however, he turned around and added: “By the way, it wasn’t part of the contract, but we thought of doing something extra to spare you the trouble. We burned the cut grass and vines to make the fruit orchard really clean. We set fire to the pile from all four corners of the orchard, so I think all of that unsightly debris should be gone by now. Check it for yourself.”

Even now, many years later, I still can’t imagine by what perverse logic and reasoning anyone could do it, but along with the cut grass and vines, the man had burned practically all of our citrus trees and our future to a crisp. (May 5, 2004)

From English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay originally appeared in the author’s column, “English Plain and Simple,” in the May 5, 2004 issue of The Manila Times.

Epilogue to the devastation

The above personal cautionary tale about the perils of bad thinking struck a responsive chord among some readers of my column. Here’s a representative feedback from a Filipino reader based in the United States:

Dear Joe,

Should I assume that your family didn’t lose the citrus orchard totally in that fire that was set intentionally by that mindless, thoughtless fool? Does your family still till the land? The tragedy happened a long time ago, of course, but do you still have citrus trees in that orchard? What kind of citrus trees were they?

If you ask me what I think breeds stupidity, Joe, it is the absence of common sense. Tragic in a way, but that was a good story. (May 6, 2004)

And here’s my rejoinder to that feedback:

The 200 trees in that ill-fated two-hectare orchard were of the Szinkom variety, Citrus suhuiensis, or dalanghita in Tagalog. The fruit was smaller than the Karachi Ponkan, but almost as sweet with a delightfully mild tartness; the fine, thin skin was easy to peel and turned bright yellow-green when ripe. No less than 90 percent of the trees were severely burned and died that day; the few survivors in the center of the orchard shriveled away and also died after a few months. That orchard was a total loss, but we had a separate, smaller orchard of about 35 older Szincoms; these trees helped offset the severe reduction in the family’s income, but they were wiped out a few years later by the same highly infectious viral disease that killed the Batangas citrus industry. No, my family no longer tills the land; we gave up fruit farming altogether largely as a result of that fire. (May 8, 2004)

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