The mountains of Jose Rizal
LOS BAÑOS, Laguna — Patriot, traveler, physician, writer: Jose Rizal is doubtless one of the most multifaceted, multitalented individuals who ever lived. Probably because there’s so much in his life to study and celebrate, one overlooked part of his identity is the fact that he was also a nature lover; had he lived today I have no doubt that he would be a mountaineer.
Born in Calamba, Jose Rizal grew under the shadow of Mount Makiling. Mountains figured in his writings; on his first trip abroad, Rizal compared the mountains near Singapore with “Talim Island with the Susong Dalaga of my province,” referring to the peak we now know as Mount Tagapo. In the opening chapter of “El Filibusterismo,” he would describe the mountains of the Southern Tagalog (italics mine):
“On the right were spread out the low shores, forming bays with graceful curves, and dim there in the distance the crags of Sungay, while in the background rose Makiling, imposing and majestic, crowned with fleecy clouds. On the left lay Talim Island with its curious sweep of hills.”
During his stay in Europe, Rizal encountered mountain landscapes and mountain enthusiasts; likely, it was personal experience — perhaps in Wilhelmsfeld where he spent the summer of 1886 — that inspired the novelist to put these words on Crisostomo Ibarra’s lips in his famous dialogue with Maria Clara:
“When in Germany, as I wandered at twilight in the woods… at times I became lost among the mountain paths and while the night descended slowly, as it does there, I would find myself still wandering, seeking my way among the pines and beeches and oaks. Then when some scattering rays of moonlight slipped down into the clear spaces left in the dense foliage, I seemed to see you in the heart of the forest as a dim, loving shade wavering about between the spots of light and shadow.”
Interestingly, Rizal even delivered a well-received speech at the board meeting of the Leitmeritz Mountaineering Club in May 1887. Likely, the excitement over exploring distant lands and uncharted peaks resonated with our adventurous national hero.
That same year, he returned to the Philippines — and finally fulfilled his boyhood dream of climbing Mount Makiling. He was accompanied by Jose Taviel de Andrade, the personal escort assigned to him by the governor general amid controversy over the recently published “Noli.” In his own (re)telling of the legend of Mariang Makiling, Rizal described their hike in terms that today’s mountaineers can appreciate:
“…[W]e saw delightful places, charming places, worthy to be inhabited by gods and goddesses. Tall trees with straight and mossy trunks, among whose branches the vines weave most beautiful laces embroidered with flowers, most rare and varied parasitic plants from the threadlike form to the toothed broad leaf, the split or circular gigantic ferns, palms of all kinds, tall and graceful… and this and more we have seen and admired, suspending our march at various times in order to tarry ecstatic….”
Years later, Taviel de Andrade himself would corroborate Rizal’s account, saying that he “remembers perfectly their excursion to Mount Makiling” and the “emotions produced by the view of those immense expanses, that nature abrupt and proud.”
We do not know which other mountains Rizal climbed, but we know that they held a special place in his heart. Surely, only an outdoorsman can pen these words in “Fili” in the character of Isagani: “Oh, in the solitude of my mountains I feel free, free as the air, as the light that shoots unbridled through space! A thousand cities, a thousand palaces, would I give for that spot in the Philippines, where, far from men, I could feel myself to have genuine liberty.”
Deforestation, habitat destruction, species extinction: All these were distant concerns during Rizal’s time, but we also know that the mountains inspired in him a compassion for wildlife, as when he wrote that he refrained from killing poor pigeons “who count their friendships in the high branches of trees.” What would he — a naturalist after whom three species were named — think of the state of our environment today?
One hundred years hence, may the mountains of Rizal remain recognizable to him and those of us who follow his footsteps.
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