Dr Abe V Rotor
The first time I saw tukak bat’og was when I was a young farmhand. Its name is familiar because bat’og, battog or battobattog, in Ilocano means pot bellied. At that time anyone who exhibited a bulging waistline was associated with this amphibian. But there were very few of this kind then. The war had just ended and people had to work hard.
Hardship tightens the belt automatically, but peacetime and the Good Life opens a new war - the “battle of the bulge.” Today two out of five Americans are obese and Europeans are not far behind. Asians are following the same trend, as more and more people have changed to the Western lifestyle that accompanies overweight condition, whether one is male or female.
But actually Bat’og is all air. It’s like balloon short of taking off. But once it wedges itself in its tight abode not even bird or snake can dislodge it. Not only that. It feigns dead and its attacker would simply walk away to find a live and kicking prey.
Nature’s sweet lies are tools of survival. When it faces danger Bat’og engulfs air and becomes pressurized and distended, reducing the size of its head and appendages to appear like mere rudiments. And with its coloration that blends with the surroundings, and its body spots becoming monstrous eyes, who would dare to attack this master of camouflage.
Not enough to drive away its foe, Bat’og uses another strategy by producing deep booming sounds coming from its hollow body as resonator. I remember the story of Monico and the Giant by Camilo Osias when I was in the grades. The cruel giant got scared and rushed out of his dark hiding when Monico boomed like Bat’og . Actually it was the unique design of the cave’s chamber that created the special sound effect and ventriloquism. The vaults of old churches were similarly designed this way so that the faithful can clearly hear the sermon.
The exhausted Bat’og deflates and returns to its chores, feeding, roaming around and calling for mate – and rain, so old folks say. Well, frogs become noisy when it rains. Biologically, egg laying is induced by rain. Eggs are fertilized in water and hatched into tadpoles that live in water until they become frogs. Bat’og has relatives that live in trees and their tadpoles inhabit trapped water in the axils of bromeliads, bananas and palms. Or it could be a pool inside the hollow of a tree.
After I left the farm for my studies in Manila, I never saw any Tukak Bat’og again. Only a trace of that childhood memory was left of this enigmatic creature.
Then one day, in my disbelief Bat’og resurrected! For a long time it has long been in the requiem list of species, ironically even before it was accorded scientific details of its existence. Well, there are living things that may not even reach the first rung of the research ladder, either they are insignificant or new to science. Who would take a look at Bat’og?
I believe a lot of people now do. People have become environment-conscious after the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the emergence of Greenpeace movement, and birth of "heroes for the environment". Who is not aware now of global warming, especially after viewing Al Gore's documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth? Who have not experienced calamities brought about by our changing climate?
What changed the thinking of the world - a revolution in our concept of survival - is that all livings are interconnected and that the world is one systemic order, that the survival of one spells the survival of all creatures and the preservation of the integrity of the biosphere and therefore of Planet Earth, and that there is no living thing that is too small to be insignificant or useless.
Of all places I found Bat’og one early morning in my residence in Quezon City. I would say it instead found me. There in my backyard, ensconced in a gaping crack in the soil covered with a thick layer of dead leaves lay my long lost friend - very much alive.
Hello! And it looked at me motionless with steady eyes. It was aestivating, a state of turpor, which is a biological phenomenon for survival in dry and hot summer, the counterpart of hibernation when organisms sleep in winter and wait for the coming of spring. My friend was waiting nature's clock to signal the Habagat to bring rain from across the Pacific come June to September, a condition necessary for its amphibious life.
Slowly I lifted my friend and cradled it of sort on my palm. And we rolled time back fifty years ago. And before any question was asked, it was already answered. It is like that when two old friends meet after a long time. I remember when journalist Stanley found the great explorer Dr. David Livingstone in the heart of Africa in the 19th century, Stanley simply greeted, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" and the old man lifted his hat and gave Stanley a firm handshake. This became one of the most famous meetings in the world.
You see an event earns a place in history, or in the heart, when it permeates into the primordial reason of existence, which is Reverence of Life.
Reverence – this is the principal bond between man and nature. It is more than friendship. It is the also the bonds of the trilogies of human society – equality, fraternity and liberty. It is the bridge of all relationships in the complex web and pyramid of life. It towers over equations and formulas in science. It links earth and heaven, in fact the whole universe – and finally, the bridge of understanding between creature and Creator.
Bat’og is back. How easy it is to understand a creature however small it is, if it is your friend. Yet how difficult it is to define the role of a friend. The fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’ novel, The Little Prince, warned the little prince, “If you tame me you are responsible to me.” The little prince simply touched the wild beast.
Taming is the ultimate submission to humility. And the greater a person who humbles himself, the truer a friend he is.
How do we relate this principle to our being the only rational creature? The dominant species over millions of species? The God-anointed guardian of the Earth? The custodian of creation?
Allow me to have some time with my long lost friend. Either one of us is the Prodigal Son, but that does not matter now. Let me join Darwin and Linnaeus and Villadolid et al.
That was a long time ago by the pond that had dried in summer. As a kid on the farm I have known the ways of my friend. Bat’og would stake its prey - termites, ants, beetles and other insects. Like all frogs – and toads – the adults and tadpoles are important in controlling pests and diseases.
One of its relatives belonging to genus Kaloula was found to subsist mainly on hoppers and beetles that destroy rice, including leafhoppers that transmit tungro, a viral disease of rice that may lead to total crop failure. Such insectivorous habit though is universal to amphibians, reptiles, birds and other organisms. If only we can protect these Nature’s biological agents we would not be using chemicals on the farm and home, chemicals that pollutes the environment and destroys wildlife.
Bat'og and its kind protect man from hunger and disease. They are an important link in the food chain. No pond or ricefield or forest or grassland is without frogs. There would be no herons and snakes and hawks and eagles. No biological laboratory is without the frog as a blue print of human anatomy. And The Frog and the Princess would certainly vanish in the imagination of children.
Bat’og is a survivor of chemical genocide. It is the timely age of enlightenment of people returning to natural food and the spread of environmental consciousness on all walks of life and ages that came to its rescue in the last minute. So with many threatened species.
Who does not rejoice at finding again native kuhol, martiniko, ulang and gurami in the rice field? Oriole, pandangera, tarat and pipit in the trees? Tarsier, mouse deer and pangolin in the wild? And the return of ipil-ipil, kamagong and narra in the forest? And of course, Haribon the symbol of Philippine wildlife and biodiversity.
It is indeed a challenge for us to practice being the Good Shepherd, but this time it is not only a lost lamb that we have to save, it’s the whole flock.
Tukak Bat’og symbolizes the victory of Nature. But Nature’s victory does not mean man’s defeat; rather it is man’s submission and obedience to Nature’s laws and rules and therefore, the restoration of order on Planet Earth - our only spaceship on which we journey into the vastness of the universe and the unknown. x x x