Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Scream of Nature

Dr Abe V Rotor 

The original German title given to the work by Munch is, Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). The Norwegian word skrik usually is translated as scream, but is cognate with the English shriek. Occasionally, the painting also has been called, The Cry.
In his diary in an entry headed, Nice 22 January 1892, Munch described his inspiration for the image:

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

This memory was later rendered by Munch as a poem, which he hand-painted onto the frame of the 1895 pastel version of the work:

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (Wikipedia)

Scream of Nature

I hear nature scream from a lost eagle,
owl hooting, starving on its roost,
playful swallows thinned out of their flock,
watchful crows abandon their post.

I hear nature scream in a dying river,
brooks that laugh with the rain
no more, so with children fishing then, 
rivulets in melodious strain. 

I hear nature scream from the raging sea,
rising and falling on the coral reef,
the shores exploding, melting in foam,
in muffled cries of pain and grief. 

I hear nature scream - oil spill!
too late the fish and birds to flee;
black death blankets the tidal zone; 
fire is kind to end their agony. 

I hear nature scream to the chainsaw,
trees shrieking as they are felled,
stripped to logs like bodies in Austerlitz 
their stumps in Flanders Field.

I hear nature in the church praying
to save trees on Palm Sunday;
to rebuild lost Eden for all creatures, 
for a Heaven here to stay. ~

If you see these ghostly figures, you are gifted.

Photo and Verse by Dr Abe V Rotor

Sacred Heart Novitiate, Quezon City

Believe your eyes though your vision is blurred,
when all have gone home and you are alone,
spirits come to give comfort, as they wish comfort;
lucky you are to be their chosen one,
and if you aren't afraid they stay around, they dance,
they sing silent songs, they talk inaudibly,
of the secret of beyond, of ingenuity;
they take you to another world
where cares and worries are a thing of the past,
though present to us, the living, the throng;
and if you could enter into their world - the world 
of Dante and Jonathan Swift - and return -
you are gifted, the genius of a doubting race.    

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Folk Wisdom or Superstition? (Part 1)

Dr Abe V Rotor

Science has ethnic roots traced to our ancestors. Through centuries and countless generations they brought about a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. But "science" in this case is not devoid of superstitious beliefs.
Like Lola Basiang relating folklore to children, we imagine a campfire, around it our ancestors exchanged knowledge and recounted experiences, with spices of imagination and superstition. It was a prototype open university.

Like Homer’s epics, Iliad and the Odessey which were transcended to us, we can explore, retrieve and study science in olden times through early writings, archeology, and interview with old folks. With modern science and technology, we can even create virtual reality scenarios on the screen and in dioramas, reliving the past and deliver them right in the living room and in the school.   

But first we must undertake the task of gathering the fragments of knowledge transcended through our old folks.  And before we can draw the threads of wisdom and weave them into a fabric we call modern science, it is important to separate facts from myths.

Digging into this wealth of information also enlarges and enhances our history and tradition. Even beliefs and practices which we may not be able explain scientifically, can be potential materials for research. And if in our judgment they fail to meet such test, still they are valuable to us because they are part of our culture and they contribute to the quaintness of living.

Here are practices and beliefs gathered from different regions of the country. It is difficult to tell if these are purely ethnic or indigenous.  Certainly there are similar ones we may find in other countries, particularly in Asia, albeit of their local versions, a proof that inter-cultural exchanges existed between and among countries prior to recorded history. 

1.  Ethnic music makes a wholesome life; it is therapy.
Have you ever noticed village folks singing or humming as they attend to their chores? They have songs when rowing the boat, songs when planting, songs of praise at sunrise, songs while walking up and down the trail, etc.  Seldom is there an activity without music. Even the sounds of nature to them are music.

According to researcher Leonora Nacorda Collantes, of the UST graduate school, music influences the limbic system, called the “seat of emotions” and causes emotional response and mood change. Musical rhythms synchronize body rhythms, mediate within the sphere of the autonomous nervous and endocrine systems, and change the heart and respiratory rate.  Music reduces anxiety and pain, induces relaxation, thus promoting the overall sense of well being of the individual.

Music is closely associated with everyday life among village folks more than it is to us living in the city. The natives find content and relaxation beside a waterfall, on the riverbank, under the trees, in fact there is to them music in silence under the stars, on the meadow, at sunset, at dawn. Breeze, crickets, running water, make a repetitious melody that induces sleep.  Humming indicates that one likes his or her work., and can go on for hours without getting tired at it. Boat songs make rowing synchronized.  Planting songs make the deities of the field happy, so they believe; and songs at harvest is thanksgiving. The natives are indeed a happy lot. 

2.     When earthworms crawl out of their holes, a flood is coming.
This subterranean annelid has built-in sensors, a biblical Noah’s sense of a coming flood, so to speak.  Its small brain is connected to clusters of nerve cells, called ganglia, running down the whole body length.  These in turn are connected to numerous hair-like protrusions on the cuticle, which serve as receptor. When rain saturates the soil, ground water rises and before it reaches their burrows, they crawl out to higher grounds where they seek refuge until the flood or the rainy season is over. The more earthworms abandoning their burrows, the more we should take precaution.

3.     To control rhinoceros beetles from destroying coconuts throw some sand into the base of the leaves.
This insect, Oryctes rhinoceros, is a scourge of coconut, the larva and adult burrow into the bud and destroy the whole top or crown of the tree. There is scientific explanation to this practice of throwing sand into the axis of the leaves.  Sand, the raw material in making glass, penetrates into the conjunctiva - the soft skin adjoining the hard body plates, in effect injuring the insect.  As the insect moves, the more it gets hurt. As a result the insect dies from wound infection, or by dehydration. Thus we observe that coconut trees growing along the seashore are seldom attacked by this beetle.

4. Don’t play with toads.  Toads cause warts.
Old folks may be referring to the Bufo marinus, a poisonous toad that secretes white pasty poison from a pair of glands behind its eyes. Even snakes have learned to avoid this creature described as ugly in children’s fairy tales.

But what do we know! The toad’s defensive fluids have antibiotic properties.  Chinese folk healers treat wounds such as sores and dog bites with toad secretions, sometimes obtained by surrounding the toads with mirrors to scare them in order to secrete more fluids.

Similarly certain frogs secrete antibiotic substances. A certain Dr. Michael Zasloff, physician and biochemist, discovered an antibiotic from the skin of frogs he called magainins, derived from the Hebrew word for shield, a previously unknown antibiotic. It all started when researchers performed surgery on frogs and after returning them to murky bacteria-filled water, found out that the frogs almost never got any infection.

What are then the warts the old folks claim?  They must be scars of ugly wounds healed by the toad’s secretion.

5.     Dogs howl in the night at unseen spirits.
Dogs have keen sense of seeing, smelling and hearing, many times more sensitive than ours. Many animals such as members of the cat family - lions, tigers, and the domesticated cat – are equally, if not more sensitive, in the dark. They also have infrared vision that enhances their predatory habits. The limitation of our senses is the mother of many of our beliefs or superstitions.

6.     Animals become uneasy before an earthquake occurs.
It is because they are sensitive to the vibrations preceding an earthquake. They perceive the small numerous crackling of the earth before the final break (tectonic), which is the earthquake. As a means of self-preservation they try to escape from stables and pens, seek shelter, run to higher grounds, or simply escape to areas far from the impending earthquake. Snakes come out of their abode, reptiles move away from the water, horses neigh and kick around, elephants seem to defy the command of their masters (like in the case of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka). We humans can only detect such minute movements on our inventions such as the Richter Scale. 

7.      During full moon crabs are lean.
Crabs feed in the moonlight. They are mainly saprophytic, subsisting on dead organisms, but they are also great hunters and predators. They become fat in preparation for the new moon, living on their food reserve during the dark nights. That is why crabs are fatter just before new moon.    

8.     More fish are caught when the moon is out.
Fish have wider range to feed in the moonlight.  Fishing lights attract more fish when the moon is out, so that fishermen schedule their fishing at the sea for  more catch . However there are species that are not discriminating in their feeding habits whatever the phase of the moon is.

Ernest Hemingway in his novel, The Old Man and the Sea, did not mention under what condition the old man hooked and landed his prized blue marlin.
There are other conditions, other than the phase of the moon that fish bite. 
9.     Don’t gather all the eggs from the nest.  Leave one or more, otherwise the laying hen will not return to lay more eggs. 
True. The layer is likely to abandon its nest when it finds it empty. Leave a  decoy of say, three eggs. But there are layers that know simple arithmetic, and therefore, cannot be deceived, and so they abandon their nest and find a new one.
10.             Raining while the sun is out breeds insects.
Now and then we experience simultaneous rain and sunshine, and may find ourselves walking under an arch of rainbow, a romantic scene reminiscent of the movie and song, Singing in the Rain.  Old folks would rather grim with a kind of sadness on their faces, for they believe that such condition breeds caterpillars and other vermin that destroy their crops. 

What could be the explanation to this belief? Thunderstorm is likely the kind of rain old folks are referring to.  Warmth plus moisture is vital to egg incubation, and activation of aestivating insects, fungi, bacteria and the like. In a few days, they come out in search of food and hosts. Armyworms and cutworms (Spodoptera and Prodina), named after their huge numbers and voracious eating habit, are among these uninvited guests
11.  Eating shark will make you behave like a shark.
For a long time people just let the sharks alone.  In fact they were feared and revered at the same time. Then someone discovered that shark fins taste good; another found some curative power in its liver oil.  Soon the whole shark became a delicacy, and the shark since then became the prey, and no longer the predator.

What is mysterious about the shark? The shark does not only live very long, it is a living fossil, which means it has not changed for the last 100 million years or so.  What could be its secret?

The US National Institute of Health discovered a previously unknown molecule in the liver of the dogfish shark.  Called squalamine, the natural steroid fights cancer by cutting off blood f low to tumors. Now we are saying, “Eat shark and be as healthy as the shark..”

12.             When house lizards (butiki) are noisy, there is a guest coming.
 My father used to tell me when I was a child, that if house lizards make loud and crispy calls, it’s likely that a visitor is coming. 

How do lizards know?  Some people attribute this to the house lizard’s habit of “kissing” the ground at dusk. But this has nothing to do with predicting a guest’s arrival.  But we know that when a person is anticipating a guest he is extraordinarily keen, and thus become aware of anything happening in his surroundings – including the mating calls of lizards.

House lizards take a drink on the ground and return to their dwellings on top of trees, on ceilings and roofs where water is scarce. By the way lizards are common where there is a lot of insects they can feed on, such as areas around fluorescent lamps and street lights.   

13.             Someone will die if the fire tree blooms.
It sounds more of a plan than prediction. In olden times there are tribes that go headhunting when the fire tree (Delonix regia) is in full bloom.  In the Philippines the early Ilongots of the Cordillera Mountain used to descend to claim their victims from among the lowlanders.  The sacrifice was part of a ritual to win a woman’s heart. How true is the story, we do not know.  But  among the Aztecs and Mayans, sacrificing human beings to their gods was a common practice before they were converted into Christianity.

One explanation of this belief is that the fire tree blooms to its fullest in the face of extreme drought, most likely due to El Niño, a condition that causes untold death and misery. It is the upland dwellers that is worse affected, forcing them  to go to the lowlands in search for food or seek refuge, inevitably causing trouble.     

14.             A conceiving mother who gets near a fruiting tree causes its fruits to fall prematurely.
There is no scientific evidence to link a conceiving mother with the premature dropping of fruits. Craving for certain food, such as those rich in Vitamin C - green mango, young sampaloc, kamias, and the like - is generally observed among conceiving mothers.  Such craving has a physiologic explanation, but maternal impression (pinaglihi-an) is purely an unfounded belief.
15.             Say tabi-tabi when entering a thicket.
Tabi-tabi in Tagalog, bari-bari in Iloko, is a courteous word to let one pass. 
There’s no harm in believing in it, and practicing it. It warns any would-be attacker such as a snake, or any helpless creature to give way. It is good to be conscious and cautious in an unknown territory. Uttering the word is building self-courage, too. Keep in hearing distance if you are in company.

16.             People with large ears live longer.
Study the ears of centenarians and you will conclude it is not true. Well, in the animal kingdom, elephants, which have very large ears live as long as 70 years - so with the giraffe which has small ears. Having large ears (pinnae) means picking up sounds better, like the rabbit does. In the same way, having large ears helps us in coping with certain situations, especially in times of danger.

17.             Thunder and lightning spawn mushroom.
In the province, it is a tradition to go hunting for mushrooms in bamboo groves, on anthills, under rice hay and banana stalks during the monsoon season, specifically after a period of heavy thunder and lightning. And what do we know? Old folks are right as they show you the prize - baskets full of Volvariella (rice hay or banana mushroom), Plerotus (abalone mushroom), Auricularia (tainga ng daga), and a host of other wild species.

Where did the mushroom come from?  When lightning strikes, nitrogen, which comprise 78 percent of the air is combined with oxygen (21 percent of the air) forming nitrate (NO3). Scientists call this process, nitrogen fixation or nitrification. Nitrate, which is soluble in water, is washed down by rain. Lightning occurs every second in any place of the earth, keeping the earth sufficient with this life-giving compound. Not only green plants are benefited from this natural fertilizer, but also phytoplankton (microscopic one-celled plants) - and the lowly mushroom whose vegetative stage is but a cottony mass of mycelia enmeshed in decomposing media such as plant residues.  With nitrate now available, rain softening the culture medium, and other conditions favorable, the saprophyte transforms into its reproductive phase.  This is distinctly the mushroom we commonly see – one with an umbrella atop a single stalk.  In all its luxuriance and plenty, one may discover clusters and hills of mushrooms in just a single spot.       

18.             It is not worth farming a land where cogon grass is abundant.
Known as Imperata cyclindrica, this tough perennial grass survives extreme dry condition.  After a brush fire, its underground stem (stolon) survives and waits for rain.  It produces numerous tillers growing in abundance to the virtual exclusion of competitors, and even grazing animals.  It is because its leaves and stalks are rough and abrasive, being highly impregnated with silica,  making cogon a poor forage, but a good roofing material.  Its roots exude a strong allelopathic substance that discourages, if not kills, other plants growing around.

19.             Kapok laden with pods means there’s going to be a poor harvest.
Ceiba pentandra, or cotton tree, has large secondary roots to compensate for its lack of primary root that can penetrate the deeper source of water.  Nature endowed this plant with fleshy trunk and branches to store large amount of water for the dry season. Insufficient rains or early onset of summer triggers flowering, as it is the case in many species under stress. Thus it is one of the indicators of poor harvest farmers rely on. It has been observed that a bumper crop of kapok fiber occurs during El Niño, a climatic phenomenon characterized by extreme drought.      

20.              Nangka bears fruits underground.
Olfactory sense leads one to a nangka tree (Artocarpus integra) searching for the characteristic aroma, and finding none on its trunk and branches, he thinks the spirits must be playing tricks on him. But wait.  What is beneath the bulging base of the tree?

It is a rare discovery – an underground fruit!  It is sweeter than the normal nangka fruit.  This is a rare example of a metamorphosed root – a root capable of producing flowers and subsequent fruits, which is indeed a rare botanical phenomenon.  

Folk Wisdom or Superstition? (Part 2)

Categorize each item if Folk Wisdom or Superstition. State your basis.

21.             Corn silk tea – it is good for the kidney. *
When boiling green corn, include the inner husk and the silk. Add more water than normally needed. Drink the decoction like tea.  It is an effective diuretic. But how can we make it available when we need it?

22. Avoid laughing while planting kamote (sweet potato) otherwise the roots will become liplike. One who has incomplete teeth (bungal) should keep his mouth closed when planting corn, otherwise the plant will bear empty or poorly filled cobs.
These are purely superstitious beliefs.  But maybe we look at it this way. One who is not serious in his work is likely to commit mistakes. What happens if the planting materials are not well placed in the soil?  A bird may come after the uncovered corn.  If the distancing of the cuttings is irregular, naturally crop stand will be poor.  Too much fun leaves a lot of work undone.

23. Guava seeds cause appendicitis.
Guava seeds are simply too large to enter through the appendix canal and lodge in this rudimentary part of our intestine as to cause infection and inflammation. Like other abrasive materials, it is possible that guava seeds may cause irritation that may lead to infection.
24. When you eat twin bananas you will bear twin children.

It would be a good business, if this is really true. But having a double supply of potassium, minerals, a lot of vitamins and other nutrients, helps in healthier ovulation, conception, and child bearing.

25.            Garlic drives the aswang away.
If aswang (ghost) being referred to are pests and diseases, then there is scientific explanation to offer, because garlic contains a dozen substances that have pesticidal, antimicrobial and antiviral properties such as allicin, from which its generic name of the plant is derived – Allium sativum. Garlic is placed on doorways, in the kitchen and some corners of the house where vermin usually hide, which is also practiced in other countries. It exudes a repellant odor found effective against insects and rodents – and to many people, also to evil spirits, such as the manananggal (half-bodied witch).    

26.             Choose pakwan (watermelon) with wide, well-spaced “ribs.” It is sweeter and fleshier.
True.  The rind is thinner and the flesh juicer and redder. These are indications the fruit had reached full maturity, often on the vine, when it was harvested.  When cut crosswise the carpels (longitudinal divisions) appear well-filled, intact, soft but firm.    

27.             Oranges with indented bottom are sweeter.
This is just a varietal property of a kind of orange, such as Ponkan.  There are oranges with round or protruding bottom that are as sweet, if not sweeter, notwithstanding other qualities.

28.             Put table salt on the cut stem of newly harvested fruits to hasten their ripening.
Sodium chloride seals the base of the peduncle (fruit stem) and protects the fruit from fungi and bacteria that may cause rotting during ripening. Not all fruits though respond to this treatment, but this is a common practice of old folks on chico, nangka, atis, guyabano, papaya, mango, and the like. It is usually effective.  Try it.

29.            Cassava grown from an inverted stem cutting is poisonous.
This is not true.  But let us take it this way.  Cassava cuttings if planted reverse will take a much longer time to grow, if at all. Those that survive become stunted (bansot), thus at harvest time they are left behind in the field. Come next planting season, and they are roughed, their tubers are now a year old or so. Tubers accumulate poisonous cyanic substances as they mature, so that the longer they stay in the field the higher is the poison level in their tubers.

A one-year old cassava tuber has twice the amount of cyanide than regularly harvested ones do (4 to 5 months in the field). Thus cassava poisoning is not uncommon. Beware of cassava tubers harvested from borders or along fences. By the way, when preparing cassava, choose the freshly harvested tubers. Completely peel off the bark where the poison is concentrated.  While boiling, take off the pot cover in order to allow the poison to escape as gas.  Cyanogas is similar to the poison gas used in executing convicts in the US.  

30. Poultice made of moss heals wounds and relieves pain.
This is a common practice in the highlands where moss is plentiful and luxuriantly growing. Fresh moss is crashed into a pulp and directly applied on a fresh or infected  wound, loosely wrapping it around.

Lourdes V. Alvarez in her masteral thesis at the UST Graduate School demonstrated the effectiveness of moss (Pogonatum neesi) against Staphylococcus bacteria, the most common cause of infection. Moss extract contains flavonoids, steroids, terpenes and phenols, found to be responsible for the antibiotic properties of this lowly, ancient byophyte.  

Sister Corazon C. Loquellano, RVM, in a masteral thesis at UST came up with corn tea in sachet.  Just powder dried corn silk and pack it in sachet like ordinary tea. The indication of good quality is that, a six percent infusion has a clear amber color with the characteristic aroma of sweet corn.  Its has an acidity of about 6 pH. You may add sugar to suit your taste.