A Tree in My Ballesteros

Amabel Bangalan Duque and Rose Cortez Alvarez have wonderful memories of the  bittaog.  (Photo by Maynard U. Campañano)

Amabel Bangalan Duque and Rose Cortez Alvarez have wonderful memories of the bittaog. (Photo by Maynard U. Campañano)

In Ballesteros, Cagayan, there’s a large tree, the bittaog, that seemingly towers over the town. Although there are other bittaogs in town, when people say bittaog, they refer only to the bittaog by the Quezon Colleges of the North (QCN). The tennis court under the bittaog when I was growing up in the 1960s is still there, although more expanded now.

The bittaog is much-loved, and many people have stories about it. But what is a bittaog? In my research, I turned to Myths and Legends of the Philippines (2011) by my Montreal-based townmate, Luzviminda Ogerio-Mazzone. In “The Story of the Bittaog Tree,” she writes:

One such story is the bittaog tree. It is about a
small town called Montero, where there grew an
enormous tree. The outstretched arms of four
people were needed to encompass its trunk. Nobody
remembered how old the tree was, but the town had
grown up around it. During the hot days, it provided
a welcome shade. But it really came to life in the
evening.

Luzviminda Ogerio-Mazzone wrote about the legend of the bittaog in her book,  Myths & Legends of the Philippines.  (Photo by Maynard U. Campañano)

Luzviminda Ogerio-Mazzone wrote about the legend of the bittaog in her book, Myths & Legends of the Philippines. (Photo by Maynard U. Campañano)

Millions of fireflies surround the bittaog, making it appear on fire. Ogerio-Mazzone imagined fireflies as happy fairies scattering magic powder throughout the town of Montero and lighting up the bittaog.

Gigi Gutierrez Castillo, Ph.D., a retired federal investigator in San Diego, remembers the bittaog as a shade from the sun and a shelter from the rain. A high-school graduate of QCN, she remembers, “After a rain, there was a puddle, which would stay for a week. Oh, how we enjoyed splashing in the puddle! One time, I stepped on a budu-budo (caterpillar), which made my foot itchy!”

Amabel Bangalan Duque, M.D., could see the bittaog from the classroom when she was a high-school student at QCN.  And she continued to view it from the municipal building when she was a municipal secretary. In an excerpt from her Ilocano poem, Bittaog iti Ballesteros (Bittaog of Ballesteros), she pays tribute to the shade, comfort, and sturdiness of the bittaog:

Iti sirok mo pagay-ayaman
Ub-ubbing, estudyante ken nataengan
Dagiti nalangto a sangam inda paglinongan
Agayan-ayat dita sirok mo agaarasaas, mangmangan

  Adu a tawtawen naglabasen
Adu a bagyo, delubio ti immayen
Nagtakder ka dita sititibker
Mangipakita no kasano a pigsa inka aw-awiten

(Under you, we play
Children, students and grown-ups
Your branches and green leaves where they go for shade
Under you, couples in love, their sweet nothings can be heard

  Many years have passed
Lots of typhoon, destruction have come and gone
You have stood there sturdily
That shows how strongly you have carried the weight you are carrying)

Because she has lived near the bittaog for a long time, Rose Cortez Alvarez considers it part of her life. From what she has heard, Bonifacio Cortez, who was then the municipal president, planted the bittaog in 1912. At one point, a Ballesteros mayor threatened to cut the bittaog down maybe because of ignorance, or he could make profit from the resulting lumber.

My Chicago-based townmate, Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., lived near the bittaog when he was a child. Author of the children’s book, Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines (2016), he has a good memory of a ghost story: “One night, the fruits of the bittaog fell down all at once when somebody was walking under it.”

I also have heard ghost stories about the bittaog: a kapre (tree giant) sitting on a branch and smoking a huge cigar, a headless priest swiftly walking in the air, and a lady that shows up only when it is raining.

Local forester Harold Salonga Oandasan recalls playing under the bittaog when he was a child, “We gathered the fallen fruits, which emitted a sweet smell in the air during the flowering season, and played marbles with them.” The scientific name of the bittaog is Calophyllum inophyllum. In his estimation, the bittaog is about 100 years old. To protect the bittaog and other bittaogs, the Sangguniang Bayan (Town Council) could make a resolution, requesting the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to declare them as century trees. The tree-preservation order would make it an offense to cut down, top, lop, uproot, willfully damage, or willfully destroy the bittaogs protected by that order without the DENR’s permission.

Local forester Harold Salonga Oandasan estimates that the bittaog is about hundred years old .  (Photo by Maynard U. Campañano)

Local forester Harold Salonga Oandasan estimates that the bittaog is about hundred years old. (Photo by Maynard U. Campañano)

The bittaog IS Ballesteros, and I have written a poem, Bittaog: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, to honor both. Here is an excerpt:

Yesterday
The beauty of your angelic flowers never faded
Your fragrance, pure and sweet, bloomed
Like the innocence of childhood.
We embraced your trunk, brought home your fruits
And used them in jackstone balls and alkansiya.

Tomorrow
I give thanks to those who loved you.
Protecting you from those who could not see
That you have lived a century on this Earth,
Always generous with your bounty
Perhaps your fruit and twigs could live one
In useful and beautiful resurrection. 

I hope the bittaog in my Ballesteros will live forever for generations to love, enjoy, and revere!

Video follows*


Merlita Usita Campañano

Merlita Usita Campañano

Merlita Usita Campañano is a native of Ballesteros, Cagayan. She would like to invite everybody to visit her hometown, which is the “Gakka Capital of the World.” Her myriad interests include cooking, dancing, and gardening.

The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Almira Astudillo Gilles, Ph.D., and Marian Ravelo Agas in the research and English translation, respectively.