Christmas Parties
Miscellaneous Fun
Bicol Peninsula– Southeast Luzon- Volcanoes and Leeches
Ilocos Province– Northern Luzon
Puerto Galera– SCUBA diving
Kanawan #5 and #6– Bataan Ayta Community

I’d like to just share a few anecdotes in this post about some of the interesting people I’ve met here in the Philippines.

Toward the end of January, I met up with a guy named Ryan who is absolutely a fanatic about SCUBA diving. He graduated with a BS in Biology (like me) but was always doodling in his lab book, so he got a job as a shoe designer for Adidas. He spent his first paycheck on SCUBA diving, and has been diving ever since. Now he is even doing commercial dives to help inspect ships in Manila Bay, and organizing trips to famous coral reefs like Anilao, Batangas, and Puerto Galera, Mindoro. I was lucky enough to visit the latter. While I had been SCUBA certified in Costa Rica, I had almost no experience so I was very nervous. But, everything went smoothly, and it was exhilarating to swim around with giant “batfish” and see giant clams, huge corals, and sunken wrecks. Also in the group was a British guy named John who is teaching English in Yunan Province in SW China. He was on vacation, and he had a lot of hilarious stories about his life in China (he had already been there two years). I think he was also glad to be able to speak in English again! The whole group stayed up late into the night telling jokes that mixed Tagalog, Chinese, English, and even some Thai and Spanish.

Then, on the ferry ride back to Luzon, I ran into some exchange students from Japan, Spain, and France who I had already met a week before in Manila. After talking for a while, they introduced me to a man who was originally from Georgia! He was involved in a kind of export business, where he manufactured flip-flops and other items in the Philippines and then shipped them to the US. Despite the fact he had never been to college, and was a “straight C” student in high school, he was doing quite well financially due to his entrepreneurial spirit. He told me about how proud he is of his business, that he has almost 200 employees, many of whom are only able to put food on the table for their families due to their jobs. Even though the wages are far below US minimum wage, they are much higher than the prevailing wage in the Philippines. While I am no expert on international business or labor, it was quite interesting to hear his perspective, rather than to merely read about it in a book or newspaper. I also got to chat with some of the Filipino-Chinese in our group, who all had their own small businesses importing or even stitching clothing in Manila. I realized from this that I would probably make a lousy entrepreneur; I’m motivated more by a sense of curiosity and to do what I think is best for the common good than by the profit motive. That said, I really admire these small business owners. They have a sense of independence and creativity, and work very hard to support their families. In fact, one of the richest men in the Philippines, Henry Sy (also Filipino-Chinese), got his start as a simple shoe vender in the fiercely overcrowded Divisoria Market near Quiapo. Now he is a billionaire, and owns almost all of the largest malls in Manila. The SM Department Stores (his company) are so dominant here that I have never seen a single Walmart!

Back in Manila, I ran into a bunch of oceanographers from a research ship, the R/V Melville that had just docked in the harbor. They had been out cruising the Sulu Sea for almost a month. Most of the scientists were from Columbia’s Earth Institute in New York City. One of them, an Italian-Argentinian woman, told me about her research, which had involved going to Antarctica. However, now that she had an infant son, she had to settle for only going away for a month at a time on expeditions! Her companion, a Jewish Ph.D. student, was complaining about how they had to write down all the data about the ocean currents, the chemical composition of the water, etc. every five minutes for hours and hours when their automatic computer system broke down! It made me glad my research didn’t require me to lose sight of land.

Well, there are a lot of other cool people I have met that I haven’t even mentioned, but I better save those stories for later. Just as a sampling, they include, a half Tunisian half Finnish diplomat, a microbiologist who is a follower of the Opus Dei branch of Catholicism (made famous by The Da Vinci Code), a born-again preacher who quotes Karl Marx and dislikes Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life), and eating everything from grilled pig intestines (“isaw na babuy”) to chicken tail pulutan. Manila is a colorful place, and just as you can buy anything from fake Harvard diplomas to machine gun ammo belts in the streets of Quiapo (sometimes at the same vendor!) there is no telling what kind of interesting characters one is likely to encounter.

After the New Year in Manila, I almost immediately met up with Iris Buhay, a friend from W&L who is now working for the UN in New York, and her parents to accompany them on a visit to their home province of Ilocos Norte. While there we visited the historic town of Vigan, one of the best preserved (because it was not affected by the WW II Japanese/American bombings that destroyed Manila). We also visited a beautiful lighthouse at Cape Bojeador, a massive baroque looking church called Paoay (built in 1704!), and the famous beaches of Pagudpud, which were filled with tourists from nearby Taiwan. My favorite part, though, was talking to Iris’s grandmother about what life was like for her in the “good ol’ days”. She told us about how her husband used to be friends with Imelda Marcos (the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, who was the former dictator of the Philippines before he was deposed in the first EDSA “People’s Power” revolution in 1986). Marcos was originally from Ilocos Norte, and many Ilocanos still hold a relatively positive view of his legacy (in stark contrast to the rest of the country). His body (or possibly a wax replica) is even on display in a memorial chapel near Iris’s birthplace!

Back in Manila again, I joined a group of bird enthusiasts as well as Ms. Lala Espanola (my professor at UP and one of the top experts on Philippine birds) to participate in the Asian Waterbird Census in the Candaba Swamp near Pampanga (north of Manila). This is an attempt to count how many of each different species can be found in a single day in all the different Asian countries. It was really exciting to be around so many bird enthusiasts, who would almost jump out of their skin if they saw a Cinnamon Bittern! Among biologists, it is well known that ornithologists are a “different breed” in that they have an extreme dedication to their subject matter, and even speak their own language, using words like “lifer” (first time to see a particular rare species), “rufous” (a colour) and “sallying” (a method of eating insects). I also met a cool British guy who spent many years in rural Japan teaching English. He was a humanities major in college, but after so much time in the Nipponese countryside he became fascinated with birds, even publishing his observations in scholarly journals. Now he’s a Ph.D. student again in the UK, studying the migration patterns of birds that move between Africa and Europe.

I also finished up most of my fieldwork in Bataan during January. This mostly centered on my goal of growing some small Leea sprouts from seeds I collected from the adult plants. While I was hoping to collect more data, unfortunately the Leea plants and birds themselves did not cooperate; the birds ate up all of the Leea fruits! This is a recurring difficulty for many field studies, since the thing you are studying is a living system, it rarely behaves in a manner convenient to your personal time-table. While ecologists try to isolate and control for all the variables such as temperature, humidity, time of day, etc. they ultimately are watching something unfold that will never be repeated exactly. The best one can do at this point is to attempt to discover patterns in the midst of all the myriad interactions that go on in the natural world. Despite the best efforts of many brilliant scientists though, our understanding of ecological interactions even in simple systems remains very weak. That is the difference between the field biologist and the laboratory experimenter. While laboratory conditions are precisely regulated and can be repeated many times, the field biologist must wait until next year before he can return to see if the same species of bird will again eat Leea fruits. It is frustrating, but on the other hand, it’s exciting because everyday there is something new to learn. Of course, the fact that ecosystems are very complicated and not easy to predict the behavior of (not unlike the economic and climate systems that are frequently in the news) suggests we should be cautious in interfering with its functioning. A great deal more research needs to be done, especially in places like the Philippines, before the human race will even know what’s in its own “back-yard”.

Hi to all,

This update describes my activities during the month of December 2007. Thanks for all your cheerful correspondence!

My research project in Bataan really picked up steam during this month. I was able to identify a species of bird that eats the fruits of Leea, the plant I am studying. The bird is called the Philippine Bulbul (scientific name Hypsipetes philippinus, local Ayta name “lapatin”). It is a medium sized bird that is fairly common here, but endemic to the Philippines. That means it is not found anywhere else in the world! I was excited to document this ecological relationship for the first time (so far as I can tell) in a formal, scientific study. Of course, the indigenous Aytas have known since time immemorial that the “lapatin” eats the Leea fruits. As I mentioned before, their in-depth knowledge of the forest has been invaluable to my research, and I could not hope to scratch the surface of their understanding even if I had lived here my whole life! I also performed a few additional experiments, one of which (involving a very recently developed technique that requires the use of a paint that glows under UV light) failed to produce any quantitative results, but it was fun to test the technique anyway. Finally, I was able to germinate some of the Leea seeds to test whether they grow better if they have passed through the acidic digestive tract of an animal.

One of the highlights of the month was joining a group led by Ms. Carmela “Lala” Espanola, one of the leading experts on the birds of the Philippines on a hike to a magnificent waterfall near Kanawan (the Ayta community). The group brought a lot of powerful scopes through which we were able to spot some spectacular species such as the Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) and the endemic Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides panini). The hornbill is basically an old-world equivalent of a Toucan, with a large, powerful bill capable of cracking large fruits and seeds. Other interesting species I spotted recently include the Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida), which is a very shiny blue bird primarily found on the forest floor. We also got to watch a pair of rare Blue-Naped Parrots (Tanygnathus lucionensis) eating the seeds of the Banaba tree (Lythraceae: Lagerstroemia speciosa), and a playful group of Long-Tailed Macaque monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). By the way, the Banaba tree is just one of many plants here in the Philippines with potential medicinal properties. I was chatting recently with a group of students at University of the Philippines who are working on researching the anti-cancer properties of the leaves of various species such as the Banaba found in the Bataan forest. One of the students named Jan, who is originally from the a remote province on the island of Mindanao (famous in the news for terrorists and kidnappings, but in reality no worse than other parts of SE Asia), tested an extract of a particular species of fig (Moraceae: Ficus sp.) on colon cancer cells. He actually found that the extract not only killed the cancer cells, it had almost no effect on the normal cells! This was very exciting; unfortunately he later discovered the chemical had already been patented merely a year ago by Taiwanese pharmaceutical researchers. Nevertheless, it is only one of thousands of plant species that have barely even been given a name here, much less investigated for medicinal properties. It seems exceedingly probable that cures for many major diseases will be derived in the future from rare plants found in places like the Philippines. Indeed, every year people like Leonard Co (my advisor) discover brand new species here. In contrast, few new species have been found in the US in recent decades. The situation is fairly delicate, however, since almost 97% of the original philippine forest has been cut down in the past 100 years. Let’s hope that last 3% can hang on long enough for the country to develop economically to the point that there are alternative livelihoods available to the impoverished rural communities.

One of the biggest events of the year here in the Philippines is Christmas! In fact, many Filipinos consider the onset of the “-ber” months (September, October, etc.) to signal the start of the Christmas season, making it one of the longest holiday seasons in the world. I celebrated Christmas here by attending a lot of parties and traveling to some of the more remote provincial areas. If I had to sum up the festive atmosphere of Filipino celebrations in one word, it would be….KARAOKE (or as they call it here, “Videoke”). Anyone who is a fan of emotion drenched 80s bands like Air Supply should move to the Philippines right away. For example, the Biology Department party at University of the Philippines started at 2pm with a huge feast, including “lechon babuy” (an entire roasted pig). The karaoke machine went nonstop until I went home at 9pm with totally exhausted vocal chords, and the maintenance guys were just getting warmed up! No one is shy about singing here, and while some of the song selections could probably use some updating, I have come to love the exuberance of the Filipinos in their singing. Oh, and for the record, my highest score on the Videoke so far is 97 out of 100 for “Carolina On My Mind” by James Taylor! I was so proud to achieve that with a song about my beloved home state.

At one of the parties, hosted by a fashion designer friend in the upscale part of Manila, Makati, I actually got to meet up with a W&L alumnus, Andrew Caruthers. It was really cool to swap stories about the alma mater in such a distant country, and he even gave me a ride to Bataan one time (I normally take the public bus). Andrew is a businessman who divides his time between LA and Manila, so I’m hoping to meet up with him back in the states sometime as well.

On Christmas Eve itself most of the parties stopped so everyone could spend time with their families. While I am very lucky to have such a hospitable “Pinoy family” to stay with here, and one of the many kind Professors from U.P. let me join his family for dinner, I was hard pressed not to feel sad that I couldn’t be with my family back home. Actually, this is the first year in my whole life I was not able to be at home for Christmas. I remembered from my days working as a camp councilor that the cure for a homesick camper is to get him excited and involved in what’s going on here and now. So, I tried to apply that lesson to myself- I tried to travel as much as possible during the holiday break. The day after Christmas, I joined a group of mountain climbers on a 10-hour overnight bus ride to the province of Bicol. While most Filipinos can sleep even on an overcrowded Jeepney going over bumpy dirt roads, I cannot, so I passed the night by listening to lectures by people like Francis Fukuyama and Philip Longman I had downloaded from the “Long Now Foundation” website. I was also engrossed by a philosophy book ,called The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom. While there, we attempted an assault on the enormous Mt. Isarog, which is home to a plethora of rare plant species, but only made it about halfway up because the trail was severely damaged by mudslides. While hiking through the forest, we were constantly attacked by LEECHES. They seemed to dangle from every leaf, and would climb all over our bodies in an inchworm-like manner. I don’t know what I fear more, malaria mosquitoes or leeches, but I’m certainly glad I wasn’t actually bitten by either! As repugnant as these creatures are, the bite doesn’t actually hurt very much because the leech’s saliva has a numbing ability… or so they say. We also got the chance to see the “world’s most perfect” volcano cone of Mt. Mayon. We couldn’t get very close because it is still active. In fact, just a few years ago a combination of lahar flow and typhoon sent huge masses of ash rushing down the side of the mountain, burying nearby towns and killing many people. While this unpredictable giant is a curse to locals, it is in another way a blessing because the volcanic soil is very fertile for farming. On the way back, I stopped in the town of Pagbilao, Quezon to visit the family of a friend. Her aunt is an engineer for local coal-fired power plant. Surprisingly, this power plant has adopted a very progressive policy with regard to its carbon emissions; it has started a giant reforestation project, and even established a mangrove sanctuary and pond. Furthermore, they are continually working to minimize the harmful emissions from the smokestacks. I was inspired by their example that no matter what your job or industry is, you can make a contribution to solving the big environmental problems, just by making small improvements where you are. After leaving Pagbilao, I returned to Manila and spent a quiet New Years with my “Pinoy family.”

Well, that brings me up to date for December. I’ll be sending another update for January shortly!

Ingat mga kaibigan ko,

Will Townes

November 27, 2007Hi dear friends and family,

I hope you are all doing well. This is my second update email from the Philippines. I apologize it has been too long since my last one. If you missed it, you can read it on my blog ( which is basically just an archive of these emails. I am currently dividing my time between my fieldwork on the Bataan Peninsula and Manila. Bataan, as you may know, was the site of the famous “death march” during World War II. My reason for going there is to study the seed dispersal of a genus of plants called Leea (Leeaceae). These plants are somewhat common small trees found in many parts of the Philippines. They produce red fruits that are about the size of a kernel of corn. I am excited to have the chance to study them, because no one has yet documented what species of birds eat the fruits, or how far they are dispersed. We take it for granted in the US that scientists already know a lot about the interactions between plants and animals, but in the Philippines the situation is very different. First of all, there are many rare species here that are found nowhere else in the world. Secondly, Filipino scientists are unable to conduct extensive research because they are sorely lacking in funding. I have often been amazed at the perseverance and determination of the scientists I meet here, who make extraordinary personal sacrifices just to advance everyone’s knowledge of the unique flora and fauna of this country.

While in the field, I stay with a community of indigenous people called the Aytas. Members of the Ayta ethnic group look very different from the “mainstream” Tagalog Filipinos. They have dark skin and very curly hair. They also are very short, partially because of malnutrition. They are descended from forest dwelling hunter-gatherers. Finally, they have their own language that is about as close to Tagalog as Spanish is to French. Finally, the Ayta culture is very peaceful and oriented on avoiding conflict. In the past, when lowlanders tried to take their land, the Aytas would just run away into the forest rather than standing up for their ancestral domain. For this reason they are one of the poorest and most oppressed groups in the country.

I was able to establish contact with the Kanawan community near Morong, Bataan through a marine scientist who has started a community development project there. She has hired a social scientist named Borm and a botanist named Ulysses to work with the Aytas on securing ancestral domain rights, and starting a reforestation and bio-prospecting project, respectively. Borm has a PhD in sociology and Ulysses studied under my mentor, Leonardo Co. They are both fascinating people. Borm was born on the tiny island of Romblon to a family of 12. They did not have electricity or running water, and lived off of rice and root crops, with the occasional chicken. He had to run away from home to attend school. He is a prolific community organizer, having in three years organized a food processing coop for cashews that provides income for local women, helped the Aytas apply for their ancestral domain recognition from the government, and encouraged the establishment of an eco-tourism trail to a nearby waterfall. Ulysses, an accomplished pianist and guitarist, has been supervising the reforestation project, as well as searching the forest for new species of plants. These two guys are my biggest role models and sources of inspiration while I am struggling to do my research.

Daily life at Kanawan is very different from life in Manila. While Manila is overcrowded, polluted, and noisy, Kanawan is very quiet and peaceful. The Aytas are extremely kind and friendly. I am living in a small hut made of bamboo and covered with a grass roof. This “Nypa” hut is also home to large spiders, cockroaches, geckos, mice, stray dogs, cats, chickens, and termites. Whenever I wake up in the morning I am greeted by four or five smiling Aytas waiting for me to do something funny. Because of my tall stature, pointy nose, and light skin, I am a constant source of amusement for them. Furthermore, since they do not speak much English (unlike most Filipinos, who are perfectly fluent), I am forced to communicate in Tagalog, which only increases their mirth due to my frequent mispronunciations. For example, I once tried to explain that I did NOT want any more rice (every meal consists of a ton of rice plus a tiny amount of canned sardines or dried fish) by trying to say “busog ako.” That means “I am full.” But instead, I accidentally said “bulog ako,” which means “I am a wild boar.” For the rest of the week, my nickname became “wild boar man!” Sometimes I just have to escape back to Manila for a few days just to avoid really turning into a “wild man of the forest!” I am thoroughly enjoying their company.

Another interesting aspect of life with the Aytas is their unbelievably detailed knowledge of the forest. While it is true very few scientific studies have been done on any of the Philippines forests, I sometimes wonder if it is really necessary to do a scientific study to find out something that is common knowledge already with the Aytas. I am constantly reminded of what Barry Lopez, who has worked extensively with Indigenous Peoples, told our class at W&L about the importance of respecting native peoples’ knowledge. I did not pay much attention to him at the time, figuring that indigenous people were no more or less likely to destroy the environment than industrial westerners. But, while here I have to admit I am very much in debt to the guidance and help of the Aytas. They are the true experts when it comes to forest biology and ecology, and I am just an amateur. That said, someone needs to take the time to translate their insights into a language that people all over the world can understand, and verify that their folk knowledge is consistent with scientific observation. I hope that is a role I can play, however small it may be.

While I very much enjoy hanging out with the Aytas, I also try to get out and explore the other parts of the country from time to time. I have mostly been doing this through an outdoors club based at University of the Philippines. It is called U.P. Lakay Kalikasan Mountaineers. Lakay is an Ilocano word for “wise old man” and Kalikasan means “nature.” Through this organization I have made several close friends. One of our recent trips was to the Cordillera region in northern Luzon. We climbed Mt. Pulag, the tallest peak in Luzon and the second tallest in the country. It was a very difficult climb, and one of our members developed hypothermia (it is possible, even in a tropical country!) so we had to evacuate him. Just getting to the mountain was an ordeal, requiring a six-hour bus ride followed by another seven-hour ride in a Jeepney along a bumpy dirt road barely avoiding the hundred foot drop-offs on either side. The views were incredible along the road; many farmers scrape a living off of the steep slopes, with rice terraces and vegetable farms. The cooler temperatures at this elevation allow temperate crops like cabbages and carrots to grow. The people are very poor, and most probably go their whole lives without seeing Manila. Someone told me that kids often have to walk five miles over the mountain to get to the nearest one-room school house. It made me feel as if I had gone 100 years back in time.

Well, this email is already too long. I hope you have enjoyed hearing a little more about life in the Philippines. I will try to write again soon. Please feel free to email me with updates from your lives, I am always glad to hear from old friends.


Will Townes

Hi to all,
I hope the holiday festivities were a delight for everyone. I spent a lot of time travelling to the provinces of Bicol and Ilocos Norte so I apologize for not keeping in touch earlier (more on those journeys later). Here I am listing all of my photo albums so you will know what I’ve been up to. If you missed the first email update, by the way, it and all future updates are accessible at my blog: The second (November) email I am sending separately from these photos. Just click the links below!
These are from the first few months (July-Oct), in case you missed them:
First Month
La Union Botanical Expedition
Los Banos
Grande Island, Subic Bay
Mountain Climbing Expeditions with the “Lakay Kalikasan Mountaineers,” an outdoors club I joined:
Mt. Talamitam, Batangas
Mt. Pulag, Benguet (tallest peak in Luzon)
Small Peaks near Manila
Here are a few shots of friends as well as the historic parts of Manila and Baguio:
And finally, photos of the Ayta community I have been staying with while doing my research in the forest of Bataan:
Stay tuned for more in the next few days!
Will Townes

Hello dear friends and family!

Here is my much belated first email update from the Philippines. I hope I remembered to add everyone to the list. If you think someone else would like to read the emails, just let me know so I can add them.

In case I didn’t fill you in on WHY I’m here in the Philippines, the basic story is, I wanted to study tropical ecology in Southeast Asia, I applied for a Fulbright grant, received it, graduated June 11 from Washington and Lee, hopped on a plane June 23, and have been here ever since!

I am living in Quezon City right now, which is as close to metro Manila as Chapel Hill is to Durham. My apartment is quite nice. It has wood floor and some furniture. I have running water and even a shower. I always take cold showers, because it is always hot. The tap water is actually potable. Needless to say, my living situation is extremely unusual for the Philippines, even though it is normal for the US; most people here can’t afford these kinds of amenities (over half the population lives on less than $2 per day).

When I walk out of my apt. building each morning I am immediately surrounded by a big crowd of people, cars, tricycles, and concomitant noise, exhaust, and confusion. I walk across a bridge which is always inhabited by a few adolescent beggar children, and hail a Jeepney (look it up on google…this is a very common sight in the Phils.). LOTS of people cram into the Jeep (the saying goes that the capacity of a Jeep is “always one more person”), then we are puttering and swerving down the road toward nearby University of the Philippines- Diliman. The Jeep fare is 7 Pesos (=15 cents) I get off, walk past the library, and enter the Biology building. It is dusty and rather dark. However, despite the run-down infrastructure, my day is always brightened by the friendly faces I see there. I sit in on Plant Taxonomy and Ecology classes, and have made friends with both teachers and students. Although I am supposed to know about Biology now that I have graduated from W&L, the more time I spend here the more I realize how limited by knowledge is. The plant families I learned to ID in Virginia and North Carolina are rarely found here, and the sheer number of species is overwhelming at times (200 plant families, 2000 genera, and almost 6,000 species, many of them found nowhere else in the world). Nevertheless I try to jot down as many notes as possible and practice keying out the trees I find around campus. Another problem is that there are very few “green spaces” in Manila. Almost everything is either office buildings or houses. UP is one of the best places to go for a jog, since there are a few trees still there. So, it is hard to learn the forest species when most of what is around are cultivated shrubs, which are not found in the forest.

To remedy this conundrum, I have taken every opportunity to get out of the crowded city and explore the nearby mountains. The Philippines has a very complex geological history, containing nearly 7,000 islands. Some are volcanic, while others are slivers of continents that were scraped off of New Guinea or the Asian mainland. Near Manila there are several very interesting mountains. One is called Taal Volcano, which is near the town of Tagaytay. You can actually drive to the bottom of the crater, and take a boat across the crater lake. In the middle of the lake is a small island, which is the new crater in the process of being formed. Taal Volcano is one of the world’s largest lakes-within-island-within-lake-within-island!  

While there are some small patches of primary rainforest remaining in the Philippines, they are constantly under attack from illegal loggers (some of whom are motivated by poverty, others by greed). Most of the natural areas are in hard-to reach or steep mountainous areas, but even these are largely agro-forestry projects like mango or chocolate plantations with little biodiversity or wildlife. An aggressive grass that grows very tall and has sharp edges has taken over many of the formerly forested areas as well.

My mentor here is named Leonardo Co. He is considered the best botanist in the country, and I can honestly say he is the best botanist I have ever met (no offense, Dr. Knox!). Not only does he know how to identify almost any plant in the field, but he can ID them from dried, stale herbarium specimens as well, even without flowers or fruits (which are the most useful characters in the use of dichotomous keys). Furthermore, he can tell you the exact location where a particular species was first discovered, the name of the scientist who described it, and their dates of birth and death. He also speaks Chinese, Ilocano (a dialect in N. Luzon), Tagalog, English, and a little of Spanish and German! This guy is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to plants. I am incredibly lucky to be learning from him.

Since my independent research is focused on ecology, however, I can’t spend all my time learning to ID plants; I also need to study their relationship with the animals. To do this, I am going to do an experiment in the forest of the Bataan Peninsula (W. of Manila) on some land that is controlled by an group of indigenous people known as the Ayta. They are considered “negritos” by the lighter skinned “tagalog Filipinos”. The Aytas are basically the Filipino equivalent of our Native Americans in the USA. And, sadly, they have also been exploited by their more aggressive neighbors. This is because their attitude when it comes to conflict or dispute is to totally nonviolent. They simply retreat into the forest when threatened by aggressive neighbors. However, they are now using their legal rights to ancestral domain to try to preserve their way of life. I am very lucky that they have given me permission to work in their forest, and I am looking forward to learning more from them, since they are the real experts on their local ecosystem! Most likely I will be moving to Bataan in about a month and staying until late November. My experiment will use fluorescent dye and seed traps to measure how far birds and bats move the seeds and fruits of a particular plant species away from the parent plant. The plant I am studying is a shrub called Leea and is closely related to our grape vine.

In my free time, I have been hanging out with a group called the U.P. Lakay Kalikasan Mountaineers. That means something like “old man of nature”. It is essentially the U.P. equivalent of the Outing Club or Hiking Club. We have weekly training runs (a great way to stay in shape) and monthly backpacking trips. One of my friends from the org. is actually on his way to Burma right now to write about the situation there for a month or so. One of our upcoming climbs is going to be Mt. Pulag in the Cordillera mountain range of N. Luzon, and we have already visited a mountain in Batangas (S. of Manila). I really enjoy all the folks I have met through this org!

Other places I have visited include: Baguio (in the mountains), La Union (on the NW Coast of Luzon), Rizal Province, Los Banos (where the national Forestry school is located, near a good forest!), and recently the coral reef area of Lian, Batangas Province. I am planning to take a week long trip to Sagada in the North part of the Cordillera Mountain Range in a few months, and maybe even down to Borneo at some point before I return to the States (the plane ticket to Sabah is only $20!, and Kuala Lumpur not much more than that!).

Another fascinating aspect of life here is religion. When I met my landlady, the second question she asked me after what is my name was, “what’s your religion?” I was of course taken aback, since few people would ask that of a stranger in the US. While the Philippines is largely a Catholic country, there is a remarkable amount of open-mindedness about other religions. For example, when I asked her if she thought non-Christians like Gandhi or Spinoza went to Hell, she said, “of course not- even the Muslims have their place in Heaven.” (side note: Muslims are sometimes discriminated against because of the violent separatist movements in the South).   This is very different than the doctrine I am used to hearing! Furthermore, there are a number of “unorthodox” groups like the Iglesia ni Cristo, that are essentially Catholic, but with unusual variations on the theme. Technically these groups are probably heretical, yet everyone seems comfortable with their alternative views (maybe analogous to the Church of the Latter Day Saints in the US).  Homosexuality is also widely accepted. In fact, “gay talk” is sometimes considered “hip”.  While people here in the city are very tolerant of different expressions of faith or lifestyles, there is a higher level of superstition and fundamentalism in the rural Provinces. Many of the folks who live outside of the greater Manila area are rice farmers or fisherfolk, and they are poor. I have a friend from Duke who is studying environmental policies and coastal communities here, and he has plans to make a documentary about this subject, so I will let you know about that later.

Well, time to get back to work. I hope everyone’s doing well back home (or wherever you are!).  I will be staying here until April 22, 2008 (with a possible short return for Christmas…), so I will try to continue keeping you updated about how things go here!

Ingat mga kaibigan ko! (take care, my friends!)

Will Townes

Here is an interesting article, though somewhat dated, about Palanan, the field site where I will be doing my research:

Into the northern Philippines Rainforest