Sunday, September 24, 2023

Guardians of the Weed Field

A Lovecraftian Field of Cogongrass

This was written in March of 1986 for a paper, but the events in it happened almost a decade earlier, in the late 1970s. The weed field in the story was dominated by the usual dominant species in the Philippines, probably Imperata cylindrica (cogongrass) and Saccharum spontaneum (wild sugarcane).

I remember the day they burned the field down.

I was a fifth-grader then, perhaps only 10 years of age, and on my way to my school's elementary school library. Lunchtime had just began, and for the next hour or so I would eagerly wade through a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery; I had not yet discovered science fiction books (in the guise of the ever popular Star Trek series) and the lives of those teenage detectives seemed to me the height of adventure. It was while thinking of these same detectives that I noticed  faint wisps of smoke rising  from beyond one of the school's  many playgrounds.

To one side of my school there lay a wild tangle of rank grasses and thorny plants - a virtual no-man's land that was part of the school property. This weed field extended from the school's side and half way to the horizon and was some 50 meters across, which made it one really gigantic monster to my over-active 5th grade imagination.

Saccharum spontaneum, Philippines

Nestled between this field and the school was a small area that had been cleared of the meters high weeds, and here we students did our gardening; we toiled and troubled over our sickly-looking vegetable plants, all the while wondering about the "jungle" that nearly surrounded us and the positively gruesome creatures that we knew lived within it. Like normal pre-teens however, the thought of what lay concealed within that wild land did not repulse us but drew us towards it, and we once dared each other to walk into the field and stay there for an hour or so, a peso to the fellow who came out whole and alive. Finally, one or two takers walked into the field when our Practical Arts teacher was conveniently busy with something else, but they were soon dragged back by this enraged gentleman (who had threatened us all with F grades if we failed to reveal the whereabouts of our missing classmates) and sent to the principal. Needless to say, we never tried that stunt again. 

Imperata cylindrica, Philippines, from Amazing Lingsat.

Now I could see smoke rising from the weed field; it came from half a dozen or so fires that raged throughout the land. Plants that were once so tall and proud now became blackened ash that filled the air and rained all over the side of the school nearest to the field. A growing crowd of excited students watched as men from the school started new fires in an effort to hasten the weed field's demise, their tiny figures barely visible in the distance as clouds of ash and smoke rolled in from the burning field to cover a nearby playground. I thought at first that the fires would spread to the school proper, but the men obviously knew what they were doing and somehow controlled its spread.

I stayed watching for a while longer, then continued on my way to the library. The afternoon passed, and it was soon time to go home. But my school bus was late (as usual) and so I decided to see what had happened to the weed field.

Playing field in school. From D. Gamboa and E. Nacion.

While I was busy slaving away in my hot, stuffy classroom, the workmen had done their work - more than half of the field had been converted to ash. The weed field looked fearsome and awe-inspiring no more; in fact, it looked downright pitiful that fateful afternoon - a victim of my school's expansionist policies. I learned later that a school chapel would be built over the ashes of the field.

I found the weed field's creatures that day. They were stored in glass jars filled with formaldehyde, their scaled bodies coiled tightly in death. The jars stood like brooding sentinels on open wooden shelves. There were dozens and dozens of the slain creatures, from foot-long green snakes to pythons reaching three meters in length. They had escaped the fires only to be caught and killed by the ever-vigilant workers. 

I remember feeling sorry for these misunderstood "monsters", who we children had feared and perhaps even hated for so long. In death, they did not seem menacing even to my young eyes, but instead seemed so pitiful. They were the guardians of the weed field and they had guarded it well for so long; and when their home died, they had died loyally with it.


Mary Hopkins said...

I was also a Nancy Drew reader! What kind of snake is that in the last picture?

BanyanWanderer said...

Honestly, I'm not sure. That was taken at a museum in the University of the Philippines, Los Banos campus, in Laguna, Philippines, in 2004...and the display did not say anything beyond it being class Reptilia.