Catching Birds

An adventure in the Philippines

I sit looking westward at the waves breaking out on the reef. It’s windy and there’s a swell so the waves are larger than usual, crashing hard. I love the moment that they arc and look like a sheet of blue glass before turning into froth. If I could only look at one thing for the rest of my life, I would choose a choppy sea.

I try to imagine what my dad’s life was like when he was young and at sea, captaining and cooking, transporting questionable cargo, avoiding pirates, the closets of guns, navigating tricky channels by moonlight and that’s just the beginning. It’s the stuff of movies or novels and the thought of doing it justice, of recording all of the colorful, textured details feels overwhelming. It is a lot of pressure.

So instead of writing I watch the waves. Their short lifetimes are so cathartic as they form, peak, break and then dissolve. But a wave doesn’t begin or end does it, but is cyclical like everything else, a soul sucked back to sea, that in time will become another wave.

This story of his is about catching birds on the highest mountain top in the Philippines. It is one that he has told me only a couple of times, but lives in my memory, maybe because of his reverie when telling it. “The clouds skim over the mountains and inside the clouds are birds.”

It was 1979 and Doug needed a break after a particularly eventful leg of the boat trip, which originated in Guam. So he bailed to Sagada, a small village snuggled into a green, terraced hillside in the Mountain Province. After a nine hour bus ride from Baguio, complete with pigs and cabbage tied to the roof, he arrived. There was a vacancy at St. Joseph’s Rest House, and for four dollars per night for a private room and simple meals, he took it. There was a large communal table where travelers gathered and laughed over bowls of soup and wild vegetables or potatoes harvested from the surrounding mountains. The nuns led a prayer before dinner and left a kerosene lantern outside of each room every night, as there was no electricity.

St. Joseph’s was very clean, but sparse with the quiet emptiness of a monastery. Being so remote, the rest house attracted a unique clientele, mostly travelers deep into itinerary-less backpacking journeys. In the morning the light filtered in through the louvered windows and onto the tile floor. It filled all of the stark corners with warmth. He was grateful to wake up refreshed in this sanctuary. Showered and rested, he walks down the hallway toward the kitchen and greets a smiling nun. She pours him some coffee, which he enjoys outside while admiring the backdrop of mountains.

I imagine that the sight of the peaks refreshed him after so many days staring at the flat ocean horizon. He noticed that the field below the guest house was filled with children laughing and playing soccer and thinks, how happy and not impoverished, these people seem all the way out here, in this obscure pocket of the world.

Pretty quickly Doug finds a local man and starts an enlivened conversation with him about fishing. I can see him gesticulating in his typical, enthused way, arms flailing while making accurate sound effects of line leaving a reel during an epic battle between fish and man. This nice man informs him that here in Sagada, they catch birds.

Encouraged by Doug’s interest the man is soon deep into his own stories — they have bridged the language barrier with the shared language of the hunt. The man asks him if he would like to go catch birds. “Are you kidding me, I’d love to do it.” . The man smiles and explains he will first have to run this by his uncle to make sure it’s okay to bring this blonde outsider along. Doug offered to supply rum, nets and any other necessary provisions. “I had pockets full of pesos at the time.”

The man told Doug that they would hike up the peak of Mt. Ampacao later that evening. Before dusk he showed up with large, 30-foot long bamboo poles connected by a net and a large birdcage. Doug was excited, this was not a typical experience that foreigners were invited to participate in, and was looking forward to a hike in the woods. These mossy jungle forests weren’t the coniferous woods of his California boyhood, but any mountain forest was appreciated at this point. Since he was much larger than his new bird-catching friend, Doug hoisted the heavy poles over his shoulder and they headed out.

They walked up a trail that eventually ran along the edge of a rice terrace. He marveled at the efficiency of design, watching the water flow from one rice paddy to the next. Each watery compartment, reflecting the sky back like a mirror, was held up by vertical walls carved into the mountainside. Soon the sun dipped and the geometric green landscape faded into dusk.

As night came they reached a special mountain spring. The man explained that someone, “Ponce de Leon or somebody” drank from it thus rendering it a sacred and magical spring. They drank some magic water and continued on. The man lead with a lamp in hand and Doug followed with the heavy poles. From the trail they could see shacks, glowing orange in the darkness lit only by candles and burning fires. Smoke and cooking smells floated through the dark air.

They reached the top of the mountain and as the man was beginning to act out the bird-catching process a huge bird flew down directly into Doug and knocked him down. “Nailed me right in the head.” The birds are attracted to the light of the lantern, which is how they’re lured in, and must have dove toward the lantern light, amplified by his extremely sun-bleached hair. The two men laughed together and then got back to their task.

The man hung the lantern on a tree branch. Then they crouched together ten-feet in front of it, quietly holding their poles, waiting. The fluctuating whoosh of wings flapping through mist finally broke the silence and with the net they gently pushed the bird from its flight and onto the forest floor. The disoriented bird was then placed in the birdcage.

My Dad described this first bird that he caught with a sense of reserved awe; he explained it as a beautiful dove-like bird that was green and shined in the light. “I said, Señor, this is a very beautiful bird. And he said no, this is a very delicious bird.

Doug nodded, humbled by this response, understanding that the birds were food no different than the fish he caught, still sparkling as they’re pulled from the ocean. As it turned out he was pretty good at bird catching and so the two men stayed up on the mountain top all night and caught a whole bunch of birds together.

They returned to the village at dawn with a full birdcage, stopping to gift birds to friends and family along the way. Doug reached St. Joseph’s with ten birds left. The nuns accepted them with bemused gratitude. After sleeping for the rest of the day in his simple clean bed, Doug woke to cooking food and laughing voices. The large table was set for the impromptu feast that the nuns and travelers would enjoy together. He sat down and the cook placed a beautiful golden brown bird in front of him, filled with steaming wild rice and onions, picked from their hillside that day specially for the birds. He was once again humbled, this time by the thoughtfulness and ceremony in the presentation of his catch. “And it was so delicious. Even if it hadn’t been, I still would have eaten every scrap. And I did.”

When my dad finishes this story he looks a bit wistful. I sense his deep appreciation for this experience, maybe stemming from the honor of inclusion in another’s cultural traditions. Maybe there is a cross-cultural bond between those who catch their own food? I’m grateful to hear these remarkable stories, to see the world through the window of his adventures. I checked and St. Joseph’s Rest House in Sagada still exists, but I don’t think I will go there, sometimes the magic of a story is better left untainted by present-day reality.

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