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A Seed of Life
The Legacy of Hugo Curran
Joel Kurz

I reveled in his presence as a child. His lips, surrounded by amber-stained silver hairs, often parted with the undulating rhythms of his rhymes. His were inviting words, replete with imaged echoes. To look into his eyes was to see a mystic’s intensity and restraint, to see that he was a man both quiet and ecstatic, one mindful of his vision and ever bearing witness.

I knew him simply as Uncle Hugo, even though he was more of a grandfather and bore no blood relation. Born to an accomplished forester and his wife in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September of 1913, he was named Hugh McCollum Curran, Jr. When he was fifteen, his father took a position with the Philippine Bureau of Forestry and moved the family to the island of Luzon. Hugh Sr. taught at the College of Forestry in Los Baños, a town on the southernmost rim of the archipelago’s largest lake, and oversaw the three thousand acres of virgin forest known as the Makiling Arboretum. The exploration of those woodlands captivated Hugo’s adolescent enthusiasm and shaped the course of his life.

In his youth, Hugo accompanied his father in the jungle and the classroom. By 1938, he had received his degree in forestry, and he stayed on at the college to work with his father. Then in 1941, image of Hugo CurranHugo decided to take a position as the supervisor of pineapple research for the Philippine Packing Company, a subsidiary of Del Monte which had an eight thousand hectare crop-plant station on the island of Mindanao. But all was not blissful for long. The Japanese invasion and occupation of the islands meant the seizure of the plantation and the imprisonment of the staff. Hugo and others were moved to an internment camp in central Mindanao. Three months later they were taken to a large concentration camp of British and American captives in the southern port-city of Davao. There, Hugo met an American missionary nurse named Marie who had arrived recently from Vietnam. Marie had relative freedom of movement in caring for the sick among her fellow prisoners, and she soon found herself taking special pity on and liking to the emaciated Hugo. Her knowledge of edible native plants enabled her to make extra meals from what grew at the camp, and she saw to it that Hugo’s meager rations were supplemented by the grub-worms which kept him alive. Hugo grew concerned about Marie’s safety as a single woman and decided to marry her. The captors allowed Hugo to make a thatch hut for the first few days of their marriage.

With US forces under MacArthur encroaching on the islands in December of 1944, the Japanese decided to concentrate all of their prisoners in the city of Manila on Luzon. When Hugo and Marie arrived on Luzon, however, they found that the main camp had splintered off several smaller ones in the immediate region. They spent three months in the Manila Santo Tomás camp before requesting a transfer to the one established at the university in Los Baños, where they joined Hugo’s family and remained until the liberation.

Following the war, Hugo returned for a time to his employment with Philippine Packing and before long was promoted to assistant plantation manager, but he disliked the routine tasks of administration and longed to return to research. Some friends had bought a coconut plantation in southern Davao, and in 1949 they managed to lure him away with the promise of his own research department. The years that followed were filled with numerous consulting jobs for coconut and cassava plantations before Hugo finally returned to his forestry-related work with the Philippine Match Company. It was during those latter years that my life met his.

In 1970, when I was an infant of six months, my parents left their Tennessee home of two years to return to the island of Mindanao, where they had lived previously for five years. A missionary pastor, my father this time was assigned to the northern city of Butuan where Hugo and Marie became their first acquaintances. My parents soon formed a close and trusted bond with the somewhat eccentric older couple. They gained great admiration for their devout faith, observant wisdom, and lived experience. For us children, the couple became fond surrogate grandparents. After a year and a half in Butuan, my family moved further north to the island of Cebu. Hugo and Marie came and went as opportunities arose and always filled our city lives with tales of farmland and forest.

In the 1960s, the International Rice Research Institute in Los Bañosa—a US-funded center—advocated high-yielding seeds, new crop methods, and chemical fertilizer and pesticide use. This was part of the “Green Revolution” sweeping through the Philippines and other Asian countries, a movement that worked to alleviate hunger and poverty by encouraging the implementation of new agricultural technologies. Hugo, however, already had found his hope elsewhere; he was now the ardent apostle of a wonder tree called the Ipil-ipil. Hugo was inseparable from the tree’s abundant seeds, and wherever he went his hands delved into pockets to emerge with those unassuming ovals. With rapt amazement Hugo talked about the Ipil-ipil’s tremendous ability to restore soil fertility through its ­nitrogen-enriching taproot and frequent defoliation, its need for little water, and, when regularly pruned, its rapid growth as a reliable source of fuel-wood. From the moment of his first encounter with it, he was convinced that this was the tree of life for deforested, degraded, and dying land; its seeds were nothing short of miraculous.

While wandering through the southern part of Mindanao in the early 1960s, Hugo visited a coffee plantation that had imported the seeds of a giant legume (originally from Central and northern South America) to provide shade for their nursery. He saw the trees and thought they looked like the native Ipil-ipil, only much larger. Hugo was given permission to gather as many of the seeds as he wanted and began distributing them on his travels with the encouragement, “This looks like a fantastic mutation of our native Leucaena, Ipil-ipil. Won’t you please give it a try?”

President Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Succeeding years brought revolutionary insurgencies and escalated unrest and outrage at the regime. Fearing for our safety and thinking of their aging mothers in the US, my parents decided to leave the Philippines in 1977. Hugo and Marie could not think of leaving and knew no other decision but to wait for the hand of fate. Hugo retired from the Philippine Match Company in 1979. At sixty-six and seventy-three, his and Marie’s options were few. Hugo never really cared for money, and although paid reasonably well for his work, he wound up giving away much of what he had earned. Marie’s resourcefulness was extraordinary, but she knew their choices were sparse. Both found the ways of the West unnerving and felt that “the East island world” was the only place where they could feel at home for the remainder of their days. Although still citizens, the prospect of living in the United States was financially and emotionally daunting.

They decided to enroll as Peace Corps volunteers and stay in the Philippines. Following the completion of their two-year term, they sought re-enrollment but were denied due to Hugo’s “non-conformance to mutually agreed-upon program directives.” Hugo was a principled man concerned foremost with ecological and social well-being; he refused to neglect the right and made sure to address the wrong. Marie was well-acquainted with the “dark angels” that plagued Hugo’s work and knew, as did few others, the intense traumas that had left deep scars in his life.

Not wishing to get caught up in another war, especially in their advanced years, Hugo and Marie felt they had no other choice but to move to the United States. Not only was it hard to adjust to the cold winter climate after all those decades in the tropics, but they were also painfully aware that they were strangers in a strange land.

After some initial uncertainty and the apparent realization that no steady job would materialize in Hawaii or on the West Coast, they settled in the northern Ohio town which had been Marie’s girlhood home. Hugo worked as a crossing guard and sidewalk inspector, as well as taking occasional consulting jobs for the USDA. My family enjoyed some visits from them at first, but then regular telephone conversations became the norm. Marie’s death in 1990 was palpable for us all. Hugo died in April of 1995.

 

In Hugo’s absence, I took solace mostly in my sole physical link to him, the worn and weathered rice paddy hat he had given me when I was fourteen. He wanted me to have this hat once worn by “a famous explorer.” The woven palm and bamboo fibers which often rested on his head conjure up his image and ensuing memories like no other. But there was one memory that propelled me on: the vague recollection of a book he showed me that last time we were together, a blue volume with pictures of him as a young man on a tropical expedition. All that managed to stay with me of the title during the passage of years was a single word: Garden.

On moving to Ohio a couple of years after Hugo’s death, I paid a visit to his and Marie’s grave. I went to Woodlawn Cemetery on a glorious spring Saturday as redbuds filled the sky with color and dandelions dotted the new-grown grass with bursting flowers. While pausing by an old and leafing maple, I saw the flapping blue ribbon marking their grave. There, on a small gray slab, were their names and dates and a solitary word centered on the stone: Hallelujah. Those moments at their grave gave a sense of completion, a tribute of gratitude at their resting place.

I often wondered what had happened to the Ipil-ipil seeds from his final visit, but while sorting through things a few months later I came across a small beige envelope with a familiar rattle. I traveled in my mind to the time I took him to meet the high school horticulture teacher and watched as he disappeared into the greenhouse, his hands producing the seeds his lips profusely praised.

Several years later, while culling through a sheaf of cards and letters with my mother, I stumbled on a yellowed scrap of paper with these words written in pencil: “Garden Islands of the Great East—David Fairchild.” I knew immediately that this was the elusive blue volume. The book, a treasure on my shelf for years now, was published in 1943 and contains the account of the Fairchild Garden Expedition through the Philippine and Malay archipelagos during the first six months of 1940, an adventure for which Hugo served as the plant and seed collector.

Fairchild was an impressive figure with a long and illustrious career. In addition to overseeing the acquisition and planting of the flowering Japanese cherries that have been a Washington landmark since 1912, Fairchild came into his own by establishing the Office of Foreign Plant Introduction for the USDA. Fairchild led several expeditions, most notably the Allison V. Armour Expedition which traversed the globe searching for diverse species from 1925­–1927, as chronicled in Exploring for Plants (1930) and in his autobiography The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer (1939). Many of the exotic crops now considered quite commonplace in this country are the offspring of his labors. Wherever he went, he was an insightful observer of traditional cultures, agricultural methods, and the crops which not only sustained lives but fostered sound ecological health.

In his later years, Fairchild became acquaint­ed with amateur botanist Anne Archbold, whose family owned the Esso Corporation. During her visits to the Fairchilds in Florida, Archbold became fascinated with David’s reminiscences of his expeditions through the Malay Archipelago. Fairchild often entertained the notion of one last trip through the “Spice Islands” which he had first heard of as a boy from house-guest Alfred Russell Wallace, the celebrated naturalist and explorer. Archbold’s ambition soon matched his, and she commissioned the building of a sea-going junk, christened the Chêng Ho. The purpose of the expedition was to gather seeds, cuttings, tubers, and live plants for propagation in the newly established eighty-three acres of Coral Gables, Florida, donated and designated by Colonel Robert Montgomery as Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

The Fairchilds, both in their seventh decades, went to Japan and then on to Hong Kong where they met up with Archbold and the junk’s builder/captain, Thomas Kilkenny. While the Chêng Ho was being completed, the Fairchilds steamed over to Manila for some preliminary exploration in the Philippines. On arrival, they were greeted by their old friend Hugh Curran and his son, Hugo. Fairchild expressed his desperate need for an experienced plant collector, and Hugh said none better could be found than Hugo. At twenty-six, Hugo was not a bit dissuaded that the position provided no pay but adventure.

The Fairchilds accompanied the Currans back to Los Baños, and there, surrounded by the Makiling Arboretum’s expansive forest, Hugo and the Fairchilds cleaned, labeled, and packaged seeds from the numerous cuttings that Hugo and colleagues piled daily on the porch. Fairchild accompanied Hugo and Florencio Tamesis, the chief of the forest service, to various regions of Luzon during those days and returned with prized specimens and seeds of sought-after palms before the expedition officially started.

The journey of the Chêng Ho began in Manila on January 8, 1940. Along the way, surveying the evident scars of deforestation on the island of Celebes, Hugo wrote this telling lament:

Woe, woe unto mountain land that is desired of man, for he will strip her of her beautiful raiment, caress her but for a while, and then abandon her to the forces of nature. Rains wash away her fertile soils, while a merciless sun scorches her by day and night chills her to the bone. Her once proud mantle of majestic trees is replaced by one of lowly weeds and grasses, ravished yearly by raging fires and affording shelter to none but the scrubbiest of trees.
Put not your trust in man, o mountain land! (March 8, 1940 letter to David Fairchild)

The expedition ended prematurely on July 16 due to tensions that the German invasion of Holland created in those colonial territories. In all, the Fairchild Garden Expedition gathered over five hundred species: more than ninety types of palms along with other trees, vines, flowers, and fruits. While writing Garden Islands three years after the expedition, Fairchild merely had to look around him for reminders of Hugo; there they were in the thriving saplings, vines, and blossoming flowers. Knowing of the war that had enveloped Hugo and his family, Fairchild could only hope that they were safe somewhere in the Philippines’ mountain ­forests.

 

Hugo and Marie visited the Fairchilds in 1945 after their release from captivity. Fairchild’s book The World Grows Round My Door (1947) shows Hugo standing in the Bailey Palm Glade beside the Tarau palm he had collected on Luzon in 1939, amid the abundant foliage of a ficus he gathered as seed on Celebes in 1940, and with Marie next to a flourishing antidesma tree from Los Baños which made Hugo recall the famished prisoners who tore the branches off the parent tree to get at the precious fruit.

Hugo visited Fairchild and the garden again in 1952, the year before Fairchild’s death. How the growth of the preceding years must have pleased them both and taken them back in memory to that expedition. To my knowledge, Hugo didn’t return  again until 1984—the year after I last saw him—when he went there to give an interview about the Chêng Ho expedition. He must  have stood amazed at the life-teeming growth which had sprung from the seeds, stems, and roots his hands had gathered. He must have traveled back in memory to those forest wilds not planned or planted by human mind or hand.

When finally visiting the garden and the Fairchild’s home a few years back, I stood in awe of the living legacies Hugo had left: here were the offspring of Hugo’s labor hacking down trees and vines, digging up roots, and separating seeds. I was thrilled to encounter staff whose eyes lit up at the mention of his name. Hugo was, after all, not a master compelled by dominance, but a steward accustomed to the humble ways of a caretaker. Fairchild rightly lauded him “among the best trained and hardiest of the jungle foresters.”

Hugo was a man who talked of trees and carried seeds. He knew the oft-neglected might that could transform a tiny orb, ellipse, or oval into a massive trunk and towering crown. He reveled in the splendid mystery by which a seed becomes a tree, lifting a little spot of earth in order to enrich it and preserve it. I think that is why the Ipil-ipil entranced him: he saw in it leaves and roots which nourish the soil; roots which get by on little water and hold the soil in place. He knew that going into the ground and ceasing to exist was both the end and the beginning. He perceived, as did his Christ, that a seed not falling to the earth remains unchanged, barred from fulfilling a greater good beyond itself. His sight was never limited to the moment. He saw every plant and tree growing slowly upward from the soil in stages of continuity. He knew that earth is ever reaching toward the heavens as heaven is ever giving of itself to earth.

Forever etched into my mind is the time my father and I took Hugo to a nearby forest preserve. As we walked the winding trail through the dense woods that late autumn day, I looked up to the emptied canopy and smelled the faint scent of decay beneath my feet. Often have I thought about those moments and traveled the path connecting humus, humanity, humility, and Hugh, “the lofty one.”

“The very earth itself is a granary and a seminary, so that to some minds its surface is regarded as the cuticle of one great living creature,” wrote Thoreau, who also declared: “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Hugo knew that magnificence which encompassed him. His silence, speech, and work have taught me that leafing crowns come only long after periods of sprouting in darkness, expending every last reserve for a bold new endeavor. The soil holds seeds and hosts roots which span the hidden depths. The soil ensures growth and grants sustenance as a gift divine.

 

Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri and a contributor to The Center for the Care of Creation (www.togetherwithallcreatures.org).

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