Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Giono Tale Gets Colorful Update


Children's literature, the corpus of written works with accompanying pictures created to entertain or instruct young people, is a thriving genre in Philippine letters. To cash in on this lucrative market, some publishing houses, like Adarna and Lampara, have specialized in the production of children's books in the form of fairy tales, fables, folktales, myths and legends.

Elias and His Trees (Mga Puno ni Elias) [Manila, UST Publishing House, 45 pages] veers away from pure fantasy and focuses on the more pressing problem of ecological degradation.Inspired by Jean Giono's short story "The Man Who Planted Trees," Augie Rivera's bilingual adaptation chronicles the numerous encounters of the unnamed narrator and Elias Dakila, the elderly shepherd who takes it upon himself to help Mother Nature by sowing a hundred narra seeds daily, like a Johnny Appleseed figure.

The story begins with the narrator, a Filipino expatriate living in Hawaii, yearning to see his motherland, fed as he was as a toddler by his parents with wonderful tales of Tierra Verde. Twenty years after his parents have left their hometown, he is given the opportunity to discover the delightful landscape of his dreams.

But the Tierra Verde of his childhood's imagination is now a barren and deserted town. Gone are the "verdant mountains, lush forests, pristine streams, towering trees, and crystal rivers." What he finds instead are dried up streams and rivers, and treeless mountains.

Fortunately, he becomes acquainted with Elias, a hospitable but close-lipped old shepherd, who invites him to dinner and to stay for the night, since the next town is one and a half days away. He prods the old man to tell him the history of the town by asking him probing questions about Tierra Verde.

Environmental disaster

Because of his insistence, the shepherd relents and narrates the dismal account of the town's devastation, which is a virtual catalogue of natural and manmade catastrophes: a long drought, the cutting of trees for kaingin farming, a raging storm, flashfloods.

He finds out the following day that Elias has been planting a hundred narra trees daily for the last three years to help the land recover from ecological devastation. The next day the narrator returns to Hawaii, where he finds himself when World War II breaks out.

After the war, the narrator, in need of a much needed respite, returns to Tierra Verde and beholds the narra trees that Elias has planted which are now taller than both of them. He also notes that Elias has planted during the war kamagong, acacia, molave, almaciga and other trees, which are now as high as their shoulders.

From then on, the narrator makes an annual "pilgrimage" to Tierra Verde to visit Elias and his trees. He observes that due to the inconspicuous effort of one man the environment is slowly recuperating from the manmade and natural disasters that has befallen it, a life lesson that children must learn, that they too with their small unheralded contributions can make a big difference in the crusade to save Mother Earth.

The narrator's pilgrimage to Tierra Verde is broken during the Martial Law era. But 15 years later, after the Edsa Revolution, he returns to Tierra Verde and discovers that the land is fully reforested and the people, specially the children, are as happy as the proverbial lark.

Shepherd motif

Interestingly enough, Elias is depicted in the book as a shepherd, although he is more of a goatherd because he herds goats not sheep. The use of the shepherd motif, though, seems to suggest that Elias is an environmental savior of sorts, a shepherd of trees, like the Ents of Mirkwood in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." This biblical allusion as steward of the Earth is further enhanced by his name: Elias Dakila, Elijah the Great.

The visual component of the book is just as excellent as the text. The original paintings by multi-awarded young artist Romeo Forbes enhance the storytelling with their compelling ocular suggestiveness.

For Forbes's pictorial world is elemental and childlike, replete with bone-white stars, scintillating suns and crescent moons, quite reminiscent of Joan Miro's paintings. But his human forms are less abstract and more three-dimensional in configuration than the Catalan master's, which makes them more appealing to children and those adults who are young at heart.

Forbes is also a supreme colorist like the Fauvists, manipulating shades and shapes to enhance the emotional impact of his illustrations. Based on its intensity, a pigment like red in his paintings can either connote ecological disaster or environmental renewal. Furthermore, his rotund humanoids can either look charming or sinister depending on the color of the background.

The only character who appears consistently altruistic and unperturbed, despite the various environmental and socio-political upheavals he has witnessed, is the figure of Elias and his signature striped headband in multifarious shades of green, the color of nature, the color of hope.

Parents should buy a copy of this well-written, excellently-illustrated book to educate their children about the importance of doing their fair share to assist the environment in its healing, for in the future they will end up as the stewards of the Earth, like Elias during his fictional lifetime.

No comments: