My three boys and I are all settled in now, trying out the homesteading lifestyle in this house in the mountains in the northern region of the Philippines; this clay house owned by a friend and her family who are in Germany. It’s been good so far. Indeed, there are a few ups and downs; but that’s life. We seem to be in the honeymoon stage, this mountain and I, as we get to know more about each other. The time has come for mountain to meet the extended family.
One day, the mother-in-law came for a visit. The Filipino family being what it is, she and I have maintained a more than cordial relationship even through my break-up with her son. She is one of my sources of strength; and she has always shown concern for me and the kids. Wanting to know how we were doing up here so far away from civilization, she bravely faces the mountain trail with just her umbrella as walking stick.
All through the short trek up, through the woods and up the slightly-steep carved steps, she kept on saying, “Why? But this is so far! Why did you get this house? Why!?” But when it was time for her to leave, we were able to give her a harvest of guava and persimmon and a bit of passion fruit; and she seemed happy to have them.
She then suggests that a railing should be installed along the path to make it easier for people like her to make it to the house.
Now knowing the power of a bountiful harvest to convince the doubtful, I resolve to add more fruit trees to the ones I had already planted, which are a handful of avocado and mango seedlings that survived the kitchen compost heap (I don’t think the mango is surviving this elevation and the colder climate though). I also now have a plan for a railing made of bamboo to be installed along the path, as the mother-in-law suggests.
There is a rocky outcrop at the top of the hill in the back of this house. The kids know the path. To get there, we need to pass through a neighbor-farmer’s plot of land. Once when my cousin came to visit, I decided to take her up there without the kids and just the dogs for company. We had a great time at the higher altitude with the fresher air and the wind and the view of sky and more mountains, and then we went home.
However, the next day an irate neighbor came knocking. It seems that we might have stepped on some of his newly planted lettuce. He said it might have been the dogs, and to not bring them next time we went up there. I was red-faced with shame. So this is what it’s like to live amongst farmlands. I am sorry, neighbor-farmer! This city-girl-wanna-be-homesteader is truly sorry for trampling on your lettuce. I will be more careful about what we step on, and where, next time.
These days we have found an alternate path up to the rocks. The neighbor has fenced in his land and fenced us out. All is good.
I have been living here for seven months now, and everyday I learn something new about life in the mountains. For instance, coffee.
Farmers seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to the planting and harvesting seasons. When is it the right time to plant? To harvest? What fruits and vegetables are good for this month? I do not know any of that. All I know is that when I moved here last June, some of the coffee trees already had red cherries on them. I then made a mental note to harvest. Of course I had to Google how first. And, of course, I then forgot all about it, what with the moving and the packing and the fixing house. I had a whole jar of freshly ground beans anyway, which the owners left to me when they moved away and installed us here. They also left me with instructions for roasting and grinding. Armed with this second-hand information and some facts from the internet search engines, I was ready to try my hand at the process.
Alas and alack, when I ran out of my precious Arabica and went to harvest those shiny bright red cherries, they were all gone. In its place were hard green fruits; and on the ground, all around the mature tree, I see dozens of coffee seedlings instead.
For a while, I drank nothing but tea (which I had a lot of). But throughout days and weeks and months, the coffee cherries obstinately stayed green and refused to turn red. To get my caffeine fix again, I finally had to make a trip to the market to buy some freshly ground coffee beans. To this day, those cherries in the coffee trees are still green. I promise to replant those seedlings sometime soon, to harvest the Arabica when the cherries get red and ready, to not be lazy (and never forget), to move with the seasons, and to act like a true coffee farmer this time.
Parable: You must not delay for tomorrow things that can be done today, for time (and coffee cherries) wait for no man.
You would think the idea of free water all year round is the perfect set-up, right? I thought so, too. As it turns out, your own private rain-harvesting system requires you to perform regular maintenance of its filters and pipes. I learn this the hard way.
In one of our frantic last-minute sessions to introduce me into this alternative lifestyle, while my friends were packing up to leave with only a few days left before their flight out of the country, I was told to keep checking the pipes. One pipe that connects the roof gutter to the pre-sediment tank was loose and had the tendency to fall off after strong winds and heavy rains. I have been checking on this pipe faithfully. What I forgot was that the filter inside the pre-sediment drum had to be cleaned regularly as well. That I did not do. And then the rains came.
Being told that the cisterns fill up to overflowing during the rainy days, I did not even bother to cut back on water consumption. Guess what happened… The filter clogged up and the faucets ran dry! In the middle of the rainy season! I could not understand why I had leaking roofs and a wet and muddy outdoors but no water in the faucets. I checked the tank and it was empty! It had not been filling up at all, all through those rainy days. I figured it out eventually. I sent an email to Germany and they confirmed that, yes, the filters needed to be cleaned. Of course.
Parable: Water is persistent. It always finds a way into your house. Unless, of course, the filters are clogged.
I call this incident “The Mysterious Late-Night Sounds, a.k.a. The Chickens in the Office”.
I’m sure you’ve heard hens clucking and roosters crowing, right? I thought I knew all about the sounds they make. At one point in my childhood my grandfather used to raise chickens in the backyard, so I know what they sound like: mostly noisy.
But have you ever heard a chicken quietly clucking its guttural cluck in the middle of the night? In the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, when all is silent, and you alone are awake and totally focused on work, trying to beat a deadline by doing overtime? My freelancing job and the home-life setup of single-parent blessedness (and all its attendant responsibilities of chores and kids) requires me to work late into the night.
n my first night here at my new home office I hear a weird sound, maybe human, maybe animal, but definitely not mechanical. I pause and wonder. The weird sound stops. I start working again. And there it goes again. With everyone else in the house asleep, it is a surprisingly eerie sound that will make you believe in the supernatural world for a moment. That is, until you realize that it is only the chickens dreaming chicken dreams as they roost in their favorite spot at the windowsill by the home office, right behind the computer table.
This leads me to wonder, “Do chickens really dream? What do they dream about?”
The chickens here are free-ranging. They come and go as they please. And because I just inherited this handful of fowl from the owners of this land which I am temporarily taking care of, I really do not know the purpose they serve here. They don’t behave like pets. They don’t come near us to be held and petted. We don’t get any eggs, or raise them for meat. They don’t need to be fed, although there is a sack of chicken feed by the door. I was actually excited about getting free fresh eggs when I first said yes to moving here, but no one knows where the hen lays her eggs. Except once, when I discovered it by accident.
This is how it happened: I finally had time to clear an area for my kitchen garden, over by the back and up a ways. The slope was perfect. The soil was fat from naturally composting topsoil. It was full of earthworms, too. Of course, the weeds liked it there. As I was clearing the land and pulling up weeds and imagining my future harvest of herbs and veggies, I notice the hen. It was peering at me from behind some foliage. It was just sitting there, not moving, watching me as I worked. Even when I came closer than I have ever gone before, it did not move. I peer back into its beady eyes. I start to wonder if it was even alive. Spooked by the thought, I call the kids over to check. They do not know either. I quickly finished my weeding for the day and left, wondering about the ways of chickens.
The next day, I went to check on my garden plot and on the immobile hen, and guess what I found? A nest of seven eggs! We had a good breakfast that day. The eggs, although small in size, were the tastiest ones we have ever had. The flavor was rich and heavy. The yolk firm, with a deep orange color. Not knowing if the chicken will mind, we did not have the heart to get all the eggs that day. We got three and left the other four eggs for the chicken, even though we were sure they were not fertilized and would not hatch. That was the one and only time we had a taste of fresh free-range chicken eggs up here. The rest of the time we buy our eggs downtown.
I am now losing my memory of how those fresh free-range chicken eggs taste like. Someday soon we will have to go egg-hunting.
I came here not only to keep house, or to write, or for the kiddos to have their mountain, but also to paint. The floor area of this house is way bigger than my old apartment in the city. It comes with a front yard which I won’t have to share with drying laundry from other apartment dwellers. It has a balcony where I could set up studio space for some large-scale paintings. Heck, it comes with a whole mountain. What I did not account for was the birth of puppies. Lyka is a breeder. She has a litter of puppies once a year. So here we are, with a bunch of puppies to care for. The kids are ecstatic. But have you ever tried working on a painting with a bunch of frisky puppies all over the place, getting on your feet and chewing on your things? Those are not good working conditions. At all. Therefore, I had to impose a new rule. The front yard is off limits to me (only when I’m working), and the rest of the house and balcony is off limits to the puppies.
Life here in the mountains in the northern region of the Philippines is made more precious with the experience of a few sad losses. The worst thing that ever happened here since our move was the death of our pet cat. We’d had him for two years. He came just as we were getting settled in Baguio City, on our first half of the move from Southern Mindanao to Luzon, which are opposite ends of this Philippine archipelago.
A friend’s son in Baguio found a litter of abandoned kittens at around the same time that we were moving to the new apartment. We decided to adopt one. He was our first real pet. I toilet trained him myself; was surprised at how easy it was. He was a tomcat, ranging the area, sometimes gone for a day and coming home only to sleep and eat; getting into fights with other cats. But he also liked staying home sometimes: following me or the kids around, sleeping in our beds keeping us warm, comforting us on sad days.
When we moved to the mountains, I thought that he would like it; and he did. After his first few days of staying indoors, he started getting to know the area; venturing out and exploring. His fur turned shinier. He developed muscles. He was getting into his routine. He caught a few mice. Then one day he came home sick. They say that there are poison frogs around here and he might have eaten one. We buried him here in the mountains near the house and daily put wildflowers on his grave.
We have lost some puppies, too. Right now Mamba, the biggest and most likeable dog we have here, has not been home for two days. It takes some getting used to, this idea of loss made so tangible and real. Nobody said it was easy, this transition from city to mountain. Here in the outskirts of civilization where we are slowly getting attuned to the ways of nature, we learn about the balance of life firsthand. We learn it not from vague principles of negative and positive, yin and yang, the good and the bad, but through a life experienced.
Amidst all this, we are learning to take things in stride. We choose to try out this life, to live simply on the land, following its quirks and its seasons. We are learning much, and enjoying what we can of the day-to-day in this mountain retreat.
Today, we found our second batch of free-range eggs. The guavas and persimmons are ready to harvest. The mountain gives, but it also takes away. This experience is shaping us, hopefully for the better, as we get to know this earth of ours a little more on its own terms.