CO, Leonard

Photo by Oda Beltran

Leonard: A Tribute

by Lingling Maranan-Claver

It was on a drizzly, May afternoon in the early 80s that I first saw Leonard. I was biding my time at the UP Baguio lobby, waiting for a symposium to start when a lanky man, in kung fu shoes, leather jacket and a Bolshevik hat appeared. He whipped out a tiny magnifying glass and crouched to peer at the bushes.  I watched him from a distance and thought in amusement: What could be remotely interesting in the campus greenery to merit his attention? It was only later in the day, over cups of coffee, that I came to know of Leonard’s passion.

While enrolled at the University of the Philippines in Baguio, Leonard, the botanist par excellence, spent many a fruitful day in the mountains of the Cordillera, studying the region’s medicinal plants and traditional healing practices . His research brought him to the barrios in Sagada, Ifugao, Besao, Kalinga and Abra. What he learned, he imparted to ordinary people and rural health workers in the communities who could neither afford or access health care services. For Leonard, this was his personal contribution to easing the hardships and deprivation of our people. Being part of the national democratic movement during those times, Leonard always strove to greater heights of serving the people.

Though difficult and dangerous, field work, which he called ‘botanical escapades”, truly gave him personal satisfaction. In his own words, he became, “buhay na buhay, malayang tulad ng langay-langayang lumilipad sa parang” even humorously quoting Richard Rogers’s lyrics in the Sound of Music, “I go to the hills when my heart is lonely..”.  He was happiest when he was studying his “favorite things”—ferns, flowers, trees and all things botanical.

In his pursuit of knowledge, Leonard had an unshakeable belief in scientific study beyond the confines of the academe. He wrote,” Nature is my classroom, plants are my books, and the common people are my professors”. He was also fascinated with the mumbaki, mandadawak, mungkatema, mon-abog —traditional healers whose wisdom, knowledge, rituals, hierarchies and worldview Leonard held in high regard.

The devoted botanist had other interests. Leonard loved discourses on the arts, astronomy, peoples struggles, cooking, socio-political issues of the day, and music.  . Before the dawn of YouTube or MP3, it was through him that we, his friends and fellow activists, got to listen and appreciate the wealth of protest music from almost all corners of the world. He was generous with his wealth of knowledge and almost to an equal degree, with his witty and satirical humor.

Having lost touch with him for a couple of years, I have only heard bits and pieces of news regarding his involvement in environmental work, particularly in the field of conservation and plant research. This was later confirmed by Leonard himself, when he visited and regaled us with tales of his Palanan and Sierra Madre discoveries.

After typhoon Ondoy, Leonard wrote and shared his concern about the relentless destruction of our environment. He referred to the typhoon’s aftermath as,” Intro pa lang ng ganti ni Inang Kalikasan”. And with his wry humour, he wrote, “mabuti pa ang Diyos maruong magpatawad, ang kalikasan, hindi.”

Referring to himself as the quintessential “Bobo ng Diliman” Leonard shared his happiness at having graduated after years of protracted academic struggle.  “Natupad na rin sa wakas ang pangarap kong maging isang tunay na titser. Tulad ng langaw na na-stuck sa flypaper, di ko pa rin maiwanan ang botany at ang adbokasiya sa pangangalaga at pagpapanumbalik ng mga natitira pa nating natural forest cover.” At last, Leonard realized his ultimate dream.

Long ago, Leonard wrote from the fastness of the Cordillera mountains. With his usual gallows humor, he requested,  “ Kung sakaling may mangyaring masama sa akin in line with duty (as a botanist),paki organize ako ng sympo gaya ng kay Dr. dela Paz. Suggested title: “ A People’s Botanist is Murdered”. Sigurado akong dudumugin ito ng mga pine trees, damo, at mga damuho. Pero malayong mangyari yun, dahil ang masasamang damo, mahirap mamatay.

After Leonard’s death, I could not reread these lines without feeling so much pain and regret at the loss of such a brilliant and fruitful life.

Leonard is gone, cut down by the bullets of men without a hair’s breadth of his knowledge, passion, and vision.  But like the flowers that were named after him, his memory and legacy will live on. “Masamang damo” that Leonard was, he will always be with us.  

Ang Tala sa Hilaga (isang tula ni Leonard Co)

Kapag nakalatag ang lambong ng dilim
Saan mang lupalop ang iyong marating
Sa dakong hilaga’y mangyaring hanapin
Isang munting talang nagluluningning.

Maningning na talang parola’t gabay
Sa laot, sa lupa, ng manlalakbay
Tigib mang masalimuot ang tahaking daan
Hindi naliligaw ang sumusubaybay.

Saan mang sulok din na aking marating
Di ko iwawalay ang hilagang bituin
Habang nananalig na ika’y gayundin
Sa talang itong nag-ugnay sa atin.
Hanggang ang tala’y may kutitap pang angkin
Na sinusubaybayan ng ating paningin
Ano man ang layo ng agwat sa atin
Malayo ka ma’y malapit pa rin

Habang naghahari ang gabing madilim
Ay may liwanag ang di-mabilang na bituin
Ang angaw na tala’y kung baying alipin
Ang talang hilaga’y ang mapagpalayang  kilusan natin!

                                       1982

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