Post-classical history


Currents of Life


In Bulalacao


In the Philippines, children learn a folk song called “Bahay Kubo”—the title refers to the single-room house made of palm leaves that was long traditional on the islands. Built on stilts to avoid flooding, open to the cooling breeze, the bahay kubo was surrounded by a generous plot of fruits and vegetables. Sitting on the high doorstep, householders could luxuriate in the sights and smells of their family garden. Like “Home on the Range,” “Bahay Kubo” nostalgically evokes the values of those simpler, perhaps better days before cell phones and computers, stock-market gyrations and stressed-out commutes—except that unlike “Home on the Range,” which celebrates the beauties of unmarked wilderness, “Bahay Kubo” extols an entirely humanized landscape.

Bahay kubo, kanit mandi, the children sing (in Tagalog, the islands’ main language). Ang halaman doon, ay sari-sari. Even though my palm-leaf house is small, it has many different plants. And the song continues by enumerating the contents of an idealized Filipino garden:

Jícama and eggplant, winged bean and peanut,

String bean, lima bean, hyacinth bean,

Winter melon, sponge gourd, wax gourd and winter squash,

And there is also radish, mustard,

Onion, tomato, garlic, and ginger!

And all around are sesame seeds.

The botanists in Manila who told me about this song chuckled as they wrote down the lyrics. Every single one of these age-old traditional garden plants, they said, is in fact an introduced species, native to Africa, the Americas, or East Asia. Like my own tomato patch, the garden extolled in “Bahay Kubo” is an exotic modern object. Far from being an exemplar of age-old custom, it is a polyglot, cosmopolitan, thoroughly contemporary artifact.

The botanists told me this in the local office of Conservation International, an environmental-activism organization based outside Washington, D.C. The office halls and doors were covered with wanted-style posters and flyers proclaiming the dangers of invasive species. Hundreds of exotic creatures have made the Philippines their home since Legazpi arrived in the 1560s. Introduced fish like tilapia and Thai catfish have wiped out almost all the local species of fish in Filipino lakes. South American shrubs have driven out local palms and bushes in Filipino parks. Water hyacinth from Africa chokes the rivers in Manila; weeds from Brazil grow over rice paddies. Seven of the immigrants are on a hit list of the one hundred worst invasive species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

A small minority of the newcomers were environmentally or economically damaging and only a very few harmed the ecosystem itself, impairing its ability to filter water or grow plant matter or process nutrients into the soil. But to the scientists in the room almost all the exotics were problematic, because they were helping, in ways large and small, to turn the Philippines from what it had been before Spain into something else—a homogenized, internationalized, airport-shopping-mall version of itself, a vest-pocket version of the Homogenocene. The island landscape, they said with some heat, was less and less what it had been before. Like too many places around the world, it was becoming a nursery of canny opportunists—the sort of species equally at home in an abandoned pasture and at the edge of the big-box parking lot that replaced the pasture. It was no longer the Philippines.

Not until I had left the building did it occur to me to wonder: Why are the species in “Bahay Kubo” not foreign invaders? Surely Filipino gardens must have grown something before Legazpi. Why didn’t Conservation International print wanted posters of tomatoes, peanuts, and string beans? How could this dog’s breakfast of recent international arrivals become a symbol of home and tradition, sung about by school kids before nostalgic parents?

Then it occurred to me: I, too, thought of my garden as a kind of home. Futzing around with the plants was my refuge from e-mail, deadlines, and my office desk. Much like the biologists, I wished more of the local nurseries sold local plants—I had complained in one of them that there was nothing in the entire space that was from anywhere within hundreds of miles. Embarrassing in retrospect, I issued this gripe as I was at the nursery cash register, paying for seedlings of bell pepper (origin: Mesoamerica), eggplant (origin: South Asia), and carrot (origin: Europe). I was simultaneously promoting and denouncing the Columbian Exchange, and the globalization that trailed in its wake. I, too, was an example of fractured cerebration.


The way I like to put it, my family is partly responsible for the worms. The worms—two species in the genus Pheretima and three in the genus Polypheretima—first appeared about forty years ago in the mountain rice terraces three hundred miles north of Manila. My family in this context means my grandfather, who in 1959 became headmaster of a small private school near New York City. One of the perks of the job was an imposing house on the school grounds. When I visited for the first time my grandfather told me that he had instituted a policy of having breakfast every day with half-a-dozen students. By careful scheduling, he could invite everyone in the school at least once a year. To accommodate his guests, he asked the school to provide him with a bigger breakfast table. The table that arrived was made of Philippine mahogany.

Philippine mahogany is not true mahogany—it comes from two tree species in a wholly different genus. But because it looks like mahogany, especially when stained, importers dubbed it “Philippine mahogany”—much to the anger of the Mahogany Association, a Chicago-based association of furniture manufacturers who used real mahogany, which originated in the Caribbean, and wanted to protect the name. Decades of litigation produced a Federal Trade Commission ruling in 1957 that Philippine mahogany could not be marketed as “mahogany,” without the qualifier. More properly known as “lauan” or “luan,” the tree was extremely common in the Philippines. Exports soared in the 1950s, most of the wood going to Japan and the United States, where it was made into furniture, decking, and trim. The first place timber companies paid a call was the interior of Luzon, the Philippines’ biggest island, because it was close to Manila, where the logs would be put on ships.

For visitors the most notable feature in Luzon’s mountainous interior are the rice terraces. Long, skinny rice paddies, the terraces ladder up hills for miles in every direction. Tourist brochures say they were built two thousand years ago by refugees, Miao people from southwest China fleeing an ethnic purge. The Miao built terraces like those in their homeland, but even more spectacular. When the sun stabs through the clouds the young rice shimmers in a grass-green band along the stony edges of the terrace walls—the sort of impossibly beautiful sight that makes visitors clutch reflexively at their cameras. So many tourists have clutched at their cameras that UNESCO selected Ifugao, the most photographed area, as a World Heritage site. Some Ifugao terraces wrap completely around hills, making them look like wedding cakes fifty layers high. Women in ankle-deep water were weeding the paddies when I arrived. Below them the terraces fell and then gleaming fell. Two boys were fishing in a stand of rice. The terraces stepped up and down with the crazy order of an Escher drawing.

A man I had met on the bus to Ifugao walked with me for a while. The terraces were dying, he said, all four hundred square miles of them. Giant earthworms from somewhere overseas had invaded them. He spread his hands two feet apart to indicate their size, complicated tattoos weaving in chains over his upper arms as he gestured. Water sluiced out of the paddies through their huge tunnels, killing the rice plants. The worms, foreign intruders, were making the terraces porous and sponge-like. “Porous” and “sponge-like” are not adjectives that should ever modify the noun “terrace.” The terraces that had lasted two millennia would disappear in less than a decade.

That wasn’t the only introduced plague. The golden apple snail (Pomacea canaliculata) was sent from Brazil to Taiwan in 1979 to start an escargot industry. The industry never got off the ground, because would-be escargot magnates discovered that the snail was vulnerable to rat lungworm, a parasite that can infect humans. Also Taiwanese didn’t like the snail’s taste. Not long after their arrival, the snails escaped from their snail plantations and into the countryside. Farmers who grew other crops discovered to their dismay that golden apple snails are omnivorous, fast reproducing, surprisingly mobile, and very hungry. Proliferating along rivers and streams, they ate fish and amphibian eggs, other snails, many insects, and countless types of plants. They had a special liking for rice stalks—a big problem in an East Asian country. Despite this record the Philippines government asked U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to introduce the apple snail into the country’s rice paddies in the early 1980s. Again the hope was to start an escargot industry. Again the hope proved delusory. Soon snails were eating everything in sight.

The man from the bus told me that his name was Manuel. We came to his home and sat on the pieces of striped cloth that seemed to be everywhere in people’s houses. Jars and cans were stored in bamboo baskets. Rice was steaming in a pot. Manuel saw me looking at the pot and asked if I wanted some—it was his own crop. One bite would have been enough to convince even the most casual diner that Ifugao’s terraces produced something special. I stuck my nose above the plate and took a deep breath. Into my nose rose an odor good enough to be called a perfume. It had more to say than any rice I had encountered before.

On the terraces grow more than five hundred different traditional varieties (landraces) of rice. Farmers constantly mix and match them in an effort to develop better-tasting, better-growing varieties. People in one area might prefer one landrace because of its texture when cooked; those in another might prefer a second because it is easier to prepare; those in a third might concentrate on landraces with higher yields, or ones that are less attractive to birds and rats. At each stage in the growing cycle village priests and landowners perform ceremonies, fueled by rice wine and often involving the sacrifice of chickens, pigs, or water buffalo, to seek the spiritual guidance of the area’s hundreds of local deities. Many of the farmers are Christians, but they perform the ceremonies anyway. All the while the terraces and the irrigation channels that feed them are meticulously maintained in a web of complex actions guided by ritual. It is a way of existence that has protected the genetic diversity of rice and maintained the soil despite centuries of intensive cultivation. This entire social, cultural, and ecological world would disappear with the terraces.

Today farmers have learned how to control the snails. Worms remain the more important problem. In 2008 two biologists discovered in the terraces nine worms new to science. They weren’t exotic—they were Filipino natives. They had always been living in the forest, probably in small numbers. But when the slopes around Ifugao were logged for mahogany, the environment changed around them, and they migrated to the paddies. The source of the problem thus wasn’t introduced species. It was the worldwide demand for Philippine mahogany.

The problem, in short, was my grandfather. People like him, activists say, are agents, however unwitting, of globalization. His innocent wish for a new table, multiplied ten-thousand-fold, set off an island version of the Amazon’s Great Heart of Palm Zap: chainsaw-wielding goons flooded Luzon’s mountains, wreaking ecological havoc in their frenzied effort to tear out every lauan tree in the hills. Left unchecked, greed would destroy this beautiful, age-old arrangement, as it had destroyed many others. Corporate capitalism sweeping across oceans and frontiers, wiping out traditional livelihoods with hardly a thought! Manuel was about sixty-five—he wasn’t sure of the exact figure—and thought he would live to see the end of the rice terraces. It was an object lesson in the evils of globalization.

Or was it? The first two anthropologists to study the Ifugao terraces arrived there before the First World War. Both were amazed at their apparent age. “It took a really long time to build those terraces,” marveled Henry Otley Beyer, the better-known member of the pair. A chemist who moved to the islands, married the teenage daughter of an Ifugao leader, and became known as the father of Philippines archaeology, Beyer firmly stated that Ifugao’s people “took between two and three thousand years to cover northern Luzon with the great terraced areas that exist there now.… [I]t was a thousand or 1,500 years ago when the terraced areas were at their maximum.”

Beyer’s estimate has long been accepted as gospel, repeated countless times in guidebooks like the one then in my bag. Unfortunately, he had no concrete evidence for this conclusion. He simply made a seat-of-the-pants guess about the time people without modern tools would need to build four hundred square miles of terraces. Not until 1962 did Felix Keesing, a Stanford anthropologist, try a different approach: he pored through Spanish records for mentions of the terraces. Although colonial “military commanders, mission fathers, and other visitors” crisscrossed Ifugao, not one mentioned the terraces until 1801. Because Keesing couldn’t believe that visitors wouldn’t marvel at this huge engineering feat, he reasoned that the terraces were a “comparatively recent innovation”—they were not a millennia-old tradition.

Neither Beyer nor Keesing had any archaeological evidence—they hadn’t so much as taken a shovel to the terraces. To be sure, terraces are difficult to date. Farmers constantly move around the soil, destroying the archaeological record. And modern archaeological tools like radiocarbon dating weren’t widely available until the 1960s.

Robert F. Maher of Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, became, in the 1960s, the first archaeologist to excavate the terraces. Surprisingly, his work was not followed up until the early 2000s. Radiocarbon dates in both studies showed that the heartland of the terraced area was, as Beyer had guessed, as much as two thousand years old. But the area outside the center—the great bulk of the terraces—was at most a few hundred years old, as Keesing had thought. When Legazpi seized Manila, many of its inhabitants moved into the hills to escape Spanish demands for labor—workers to build city walls and construct great ships for silk and porcelain. The radiocarbon dates suggested that the Ifugao were among the refugees. They had poured into an outlying area that was hilly enough to force them to build terraces to survive. An explosion of earth moving followed soon after, as did a flourish of ritual and custom. The terraces thus were largely the creation of the same great exchange that was now destroying them—they were, in their way, a monument to the galleon trade, created by globalization like the worms that were wrecking them.

Looking around Ifugao, I was struck by the number of abandoned, crumbling terraces. People were walking away from their farms. It was easy to understand—Ifugao is among the poorer regions in the Philippines. More than 90 percent of its income comes from government programs. The terraces are beautiful but small; the cool climate limits the rice harvest. A typical family’s holdings, one U.N. report estimates, can feed it for just five months. In this capital of rice the crop most people actually depend on for meals is the sweet potato. Others buy rice at subsidized prices from the government’s National Food Authority—a photograph of Ifugao farmers lining up for rice handouts in front of their terraces stirred a brief outcry in 2008. (The Manila government is Asia’s biggest rice importer.) Below, meanwhile, is the city, great Manila athrob with lights and sound, promising jobs, education, and excitement to hungry young men in knee-deep water. So many people have left the terrace lands that the communities Manuel wanted to preserve now exist mainly to provide a fine backdrop for photographs.

More subsidies, that’s what the terrace farmers need to continue! So argue pro-farmer activists and the national Department of Environment and Natural Resources. While waiting for the money to flow in, the mayor of Banaue, the most important town in the terrace zone, hired unemployed people to grow rice. To maximize returns, they planted new, hybrid varieties of rice, which grow faster than traditional varieties. All the while, the worm problem worsened. The deforestation that had let in the worms also reduced the slopes’ water-retention capacity. Rising numbers of hotels and restaurants for tourists competed with farms for the remaining paddy water. The paddy soil got drier. In drier soil, worms reproduce more rapidly.

A ray of light came from Eighth Wonder, a rice-importing company founded in Ulm, Montana, by Mary Hensley, a social worker and travel agent who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Ifugao. With a partner in Manila—Vicky Garcia of Revitalize Indigenous Cordilleran Entrepreneurs (RICE), a nonprofit organization—Hensley in 2005 launched a plan to export “heirloom” rice to the United States and Europe. It was a struggle. To get enough rice to sell abroad, the partnership had to persuade the farmers to form cooperatives (not a local tradition), teach them to dry their rice uniformly to ensure quality, build special milling equipment that could process the thick hulls of the area’s ancient landraces, and push regional utilities to provide electricity to run the equipment. Landslides blocked roads, typhoons battered ships, equipment broke down, and spare parts could not be found. There was little precedent at a legal level: Eighth Wonder, according to Manila newspapers, was the only rice exporter in all of the Philippines. Sales in the United States launched in 2009. Seven varieties were available, selling for $5.75 and $6.00 a pound. When I bought a pound, shipping cost $11.75. Ifugao rice was almost sixteen times more expensive than the rice in my supermarket.

Reactions to Eighth Wonder have been mixed, as I discovered when I mentioned the company to scientists in Manila. As growing numbers of Ifugao farmers flock to join the project, a rising percentage of the area’s harvest—a precious cultural artifact—is being sent out of the country to affluent foreign food snobs. Worse, the cooperatives, standardization, and mechanized processing are dramatically changing Ifugao culture—all for the benefit (as one scientist put it) of faraway people who want to pat themselves on the back for their enlightenment as they click the link to order fancy multicolored rice. The global market is not the solution, activists say, but the problem! These supposed do-gooders are just hooking Ifugao into the worldwide network of exchange, making them dependent as never before on the whims of faraway yuppies! Antipoverty activists charge the anti-trade activists with wanting to condemn the poor to backbreaking labor so that they can feel good about themselves as they sit in their air-conditioned offices in Manila. The terraces have been linked to the global network almost from the beginning—why should they experience only the harms (falling commodity prices, environmental damage) and not the benefits (communicating with people who are willing to pay sixteen times as much for rice)?

What’s being lost here? What would count as saving it?


During another trip to Manila, I decided to see the place where Legazpi had first encountered Chinese junks: the beginning of today’s world-encompassing trade network. The encounter, I knew, occurred on the southern part of the island of Mindoro. But exactly where on Mindoro was unclear—the Spanish description of the meeting was confusing, at least to me. I thought a visit might dispel my confusion. Besides, I was curious.

A friend of a friend contacted one of her friends, who ran a hotel on the east coast of Mindoro. The message was conveyed to me: don’t drive to southern Mindoro. Guerrillas were active there. I was surprised—Mindoro, the closest big island to Manila, has a lot of pricey resorts on its north side. An Internet search showed that Mindoro’s hills indeed housed an old-style Communist insurgency, the New People’s Army. They are often photographed in green shirts with arm badges: a red triangle with an AK-47. Sometimes they wear berets. Sometimes they wave red flags with the hammer and sickle. Legazpi’s meeting had occurred, I knew, somewhere around the small town of Bulalacao. A year before my trip, the New People’s Army had visited there, blowing up a bulldozer, a dump truck, and some construction equipment.

I saw no indication that the guerrillas cared about individual American visitors. Still, taking a boat seemed prudent. Besides, I like boats.

The hotel owner found a vessel that I could charter inexpensively. I took a bus through Manila’s appalling traffic to the Mindoro ferry, climbed into a tiny, cheerfully crowded jitney van after landing, and bounced to the hotel, in the village of Bongabong. At five thirty the next morning I was wading to the boat: a modern version of the traditional shallow-draft proa, with two sweeping wooden outriggers. The Traveller-7 had a tiny cabin, barely big enough to contain the engine batteries, a few liters of water, and a lighted coal brazier with a bubbling pot of rice. Flapping above the deck was a blue plastic tarp. With the Philippines’ tenacious refusal to fulfill touristic fantasies of exoticism, the three-man crew was wearing baseball caps and droopy basketball shorts with NBA logos.

After four hours along the cliff-bristling coast, we anchored off Bulalacao’s long concrete esplanade. The town had electricity and (intermittent) cell-phone service but was physically cut off—the road to the rest of the island was not only guerrilla-infested but unpaved and often impassable for anything but four-wheel-drive vehicles. I saw only a single car. A breeze riffled the surface of the water and the plastic tarps above the market kiosks. At the fringes of the market people were holding a cock fight. Signs of large-scale economic activity were not readily apparent.

I had no appointment or anyone to see. It was my notion that I would attract attention, and the attention would take me to the right person. After I had walked around for about fifteen minutes, a man showed up on a motor scooter. He took me up a long slope to the South Drive Bar and Grill, Bulalacao’s sole restaurant. The floor was gravel. In one corner was a small, dusty stage with three guitars, an electronic drum kit, several ramshackle speakers, and a laptop playing, unbelievably, “What a Wonderful World”—the original Louis Armstrong version. As the shuffle function switched the music to Japanese pop I was greeted by Chiquita “Ching” Cabagay-Jano, proprietor of the South Drive Bar and Grill and Bulalacao’s municipal planning and development coordinator and tourism administrator.

The Traveller-7 (Photo credit 10.2)

In the manner of town planners everywhere, Cabagay-Jano was enthusiastic about Bulalacao’s prospects. Investors were coming in from the resorts to the north, she said. Investors were coming from China. Investors were coming from America. Land in Bulalacao was there to be acquired—one man had snapped up 250 acres for a golf course. The government was paving the road around southern Mindoro, which would allow regular bus service. Last year the town had held the First Bulalacao Windsurfing Invitational Cup—banners from the competition adorned the restaurant walls. A crew was coming the very next day to install a permanent webcam above the town beach. Bulalacao was poor now, but soon it would swim in the stream of global commerce. It was waiting for the world.

When I asked about Legazpi, Cabagay-Jano summoned a son, Rudmar, and instructed him to guide my boat to the place where Spain had encountered China. The site was in a shallow bay, a nick in the coast just to the south, occupied by the hamlet of Maujao. Just past the high-tide line was a spring covered by a concrete pillbox. A metal pipe dribbled water into a cement channel, which channeled it to the beach. Two kids were filling up plastic buckets with water.

For centuries Mangyan people had waited there in their embroidered bark-cloth shirts and indigo-dyed cotton loincloths for the junks from Fujian and Guangzhou. White parasols made from Chinese silk shielded them from the sun. The smoke from their beach fires must have been like a welcome signal to the ships from afar. Both the Mangyan and the Chinese had a written language. It is tempting to imagine scribes keeping track of the exchange, so many cakes of wax and bundles of cotton for so many porcelain plates, shiny bronze gongs, iron pots, and needles. The southern wing of the little bay was a sharp point like a finger into the sea. At dawn four and a half centuries ago the Spaniards had abruptly rounded that point in their strangely shaped vessels. Stand back, the Chinese had cried. Many did not live to see the sunset.

Occupying the point was a small, half-complete resort: Thelma’s Paradise. Workers were building the main guest house on the shore. Thelma’s Paradise was going to be a “farm resort.” Visitors from Manila would stay there and “participate in the Bulalacao farming lifestyle”—the phrase comes from a handout Rudmar gave to me. I asked one of the workers what this meant. Rudmar translated, perhaps imperfectly, the response. Busy city executives would come to Maujao and weed Thelma’s gardens—a refuge from e-mail, deadlines, and the office desk.

People from Manila? I asked.

Not just Manila, I was told. From Legazpi’s time, poverty, colonialism, and slavery had scattered Filipinos across the world. Filipinos were nannies, nurses, and construction workers in Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Paris. They had made money and wanted to visit home. Home was the sea and the beach and a cookout beneath the palms. Home was bahay kubo.

Rudmar stood with his back to the water, scowling at the hills. After logging companies had exhausted the hills of Luzon, they turned to the other seven thousand islands in the archipelago. Industrial ships pulled into Mindoro’s lightly settled bays and unloaded bulldozers and trucks and men with saws and come-alongs. They stripped the slopes bare. Floods ensued, wiping out farms and villages. Compounds in the runoff washed over the island’s white beaches, staining them permanently yellow. The government ultimately banned most logging, but the damage had been done. They took the color from the earth, Rudmar said. He wanted his home back.

This anger, magnified and distorted, was the well from which the New People’s Army drew. Their bases were in the ravaged hills, perhaps close enough to watch me bumble around Thelma’s Paradise. Living amid ecological mayhem, the guerrillas saw all the costs of the great market and none of the benefits. It was no accident that their attack on Bulalacao the year before had targeted the construction equipment that built resorts. A few months after my visit, they came out of the hills again, assaulting a nearby military outpost—troops from a government that they viewed as a corrupt handmaiden to global capitalism.

A small resort occupies the point at Maujao, where Asia, Europe, and the Americas met for the first time. (Photo credit 10.3)

Great Manila, like small Bulalacao, is wrestling with the push and pull of the global market. Its outer harbor is a mass of sleek, wired-up international buildings, but the populous inner harbor is unchanged in many ways—houses still crowd the water, and people still live their lives on boats much like those in Legazpi’s day. (Photo credit 10.1)

Yet there were real benefits from the logging, too. My grandfather got his table. Craftsmen got paid to build it. Shipping companies got paid to carry it, giving people jobs. The students got to have breakfast with my grandfather, a wonderful raconteur. Even the men with chainsaws should be considered. These agents of destruction were just putting food on the table.

Economists have developed theoretical tools for evaluating these incommensurate costs and benefits. But the magnitude of the costs and benefits is less important than their distribution. The gains are diffuse and spread around the world, whereas the pain is intense and local. Economists say that the transactions in such cases have externalities: spillovers on parties who are otherwise not involved. The side effects can be positive; some Mindoro villagers are using the semi-legally cleared land to plant bigger gardens. But the worry is negative externalities: erosion, landslides, yellow sand. In theory, the solution is obvious: increase the price to take into account the full range of costs. Rather than paying, say, $100 for his table, my grandfather should have paid $125, with the extra money going either to compensate villagers for their yellow beaches or to cover the costs of logging companies adopting protective measures. In practice, making those arrangements is not easy.

Complicating all is the welter of mixed motives. On the one hand, people want the wash of goods and services that the worldwide market provides. No one forced Thelma to build a resort for foreigners. In Amapá, nobody twisted Dona Rosario’s arm to buy a television and a freezer. Nobody was holding a gun to the head of the teenage Chinese villagers in Shaanxi who clamor for Nintendo games and U.S.-brand cigarettes and DVDs of Will Smith movies. Or, for that matter, their counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai, whose demand for French wine is driving Bordeaux prices to amazing heights. Smart phones, aerodynamic sneakers, beige faux-leather living-room sets—people desire these things. Absent catastrophe, they will get them. Or their children will.

On the other hand, the same people who want to satisfy their desires also resist the consequences of satisfaction. They want to have what everyone else has, but still be aggressively themselves—a contradictory enterprise. Floating in the capitalist stream, they reach down with their feet, looking for solid ground. To be a good place to stand, it must be their own, not somebody else’s place. As human desires bring the Homogenocene into existence, billions of people marching through increasingly identical landscapes, that special place becomes ever harder to find. Things feel changed and scary. Some people hunker down into their local dialects or customary clothing or an imagined version of their own history or religion. Others enfold themselves in their homes and gardens. A few pick up weapons. Even as the world unifies, its constituent parts fragment into halves, and the halves into quarters. Unity or division—Thelma’s Paradise or New People’s Army—which will win out? Or is the conflict inevitable?

After an hour or two, the pilot hurried us back to Bulalacao. He was worried about taking a boat with no lights, charts, or navigation equipment around the rocky, island-dappled coast at night. I walked along the town esplanade with Rudmar, looking for a place to buy some water. Afternoon light was beginning to throw deep shadows. I came upon some women and children in what looked, to my inexpert eye, like a family garden around a palm-thatched home—a bahay kubo.

The women and children moved with enviable efficiency—they were getting things done. Towering above their heads were tall stalks of maize, now the second most important crop in the Philippines. Below it were squashes and peppers. I could see why the botanists had been amused by the song—the plants they were growing would not have been out of place in Mexico. Yet at the same time the garden was obviously something else.

Gardeners work in partnership, more or less successfully, with what nature provides. They experiment all the time, fiddling with this, trying out that. People take seeds and stick them in the ground to see what happens—that’s how Ifugao villagers bred hundreds of types of rice in a few centuries. An essential factor is that gardeners experience the consequences of their own actions. They make decisions and expend labor; a few months later they discover what they have wrought. Externalities are rare. Gardens are places of constant change, but the changes are owned by the gardener—which is why they feel like home.

Despite the visible impatience of the pilot, I spent a few minutes watching the family in their garden. In this place the Columbian Exchange had been adapted and remade. Families had embraced the biological assaults of the outside world—some of them, anyway—and made them into something of their own. Other problems would be dealt with as they came. Even people trying to preserve the past by growing traditional varieties of rice are necessarily facing the future. The women were weeding around the maize. Every stalk carried its American past in its DNA, but the kernels swelling in the cobs were concerned with next season’s growth.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!