Mention the name Xanthostemon verdugonianus Naves to avid collectors of fine wood decorative pieces and top quality wooden furniture and you are certainly going to get more than your fair share of interest. The latter, of course, is simply the scientific name for the Magkono tree and the source of the extremely dense, heavy, dark-hued and now very rare species of Philippine hardwood that only a few places in the Philippines, Lianga included, is known to produce.
Wood from the Magkono tree is often called "ironwood" for its reputation as the hardest of the Philippine hardwoods. It is so hard that cutting down a mature tree of the species can take two or three days when a similar sized tree of another type can take just two to three hours. Most modern loggers use diamond-point saws to slice through Magkono trunks to speed up the process but copious amounts of water are often needed to aid lubrication and prevent excessive heat generation during the cutting.
In the past, this hardwood species was highly valued for its extreme durability and density. Old steamships used Magkono wood bushings for their propeller shafts. It was made into tool handles, rollers, shears, poles and piles for wharfs and bridges, and,not surprisngly, for bowling balls before the advent of modern plastics and resins.
In Lianga as well as elsewhere in the country the felling of Magkono trees is already prohibited by law since this hardwood species is already extremely rare and on the endangered list. But there is one still legal outlet for Magkono wood products supposedly sourced, according to the local offices of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, from already old and existing timber stocks.
Exemeria, located some 12 or so kilometers north of Lianga, is a small community in Barangay Manyayay that is the headquarters of a religious foundation that calls itself DAVISOL (for Divine Arc Victory Instituted in Sion Omnipotent in this Latter Days of Christ). Originally considered by local residents primarily as a religious cult, the small village under the leadership of Godofredo Retuerto who calls himself Pater Fred has evolved into an alternative lifestyle community whose innovative stone contour landscaping, kibbutz-style organization and skilled workmanship in woodcraft and furniture products has made it one of Lianga's premier tourism destinations.
Exemeria's skilled wood artists have fashioned the dark and tough Magkono wood into variety of popular commercial products. They range from small decorative pieces like paperweights and pen holders to elaborate wood art exemplified by both large and small decorative wooden jars with carved covers, wood table centerpieces consisting of artfully shaped goblets surrounding miniature wine kegs and decorative containers carved to look like trays and bowls of all sizes and designs.
Magkono wood furniture is also available on display. They include small coffee tables with matching stools to wide settees, couches and dining room sets all made from the gleaming, dark-colored and durable wood.
Customers can have also personal items made to order. All they have to do is bring a detailed design and then consult Exemeria's artisans for a cost estimate. For sure, Magkono products don't come cheap but some of the smaller decorative pieces and souvenir items can be surprisingly affordable as pasalubongs or gifts for all occasions.
The Magkono tree has been classified by the government and many international conservation organizations as endangered due to over-cutting and habitat loss. It is also unfortunately endemic to only a few Visayan provinces as well as the Surigao provinces in northern Mindanao. Supplies of fresh, raw timber are, thus, rare if nonexistent.
This is why it is rather sad to note that just when the enormous commercial potential for wood products made from this king of Philippine hardwoods is just being realized, the tree itself that is the source of this prized wood is facing possible extinction. No one really knows how long existing Magkono timber stocks will last but it is clear that the disappearance of this precious natural resource is inevitable unless an aggressive tree replanting program coupled with a truly effective forest conservation and preservation program can be instituted by the government with the support of local communities.
Much of the allure of this wood species is in its dark color, its almost metal-like hardness and durability. But there is something more to the Magkono wood than those physical qualities. Run your fingers along the surface of a Magkono jar or shiny tabletop and there is more than shiny deadwood there that you can feel. There is a vibrancy, a feeling of touching something partly living and not entirely inert.
Old folks used to say that spirits and enchanted beings lived within the trees of the ancient forests and imbued them with their powers and qualities. If that is the case then mighty spirits must have lived within Magkono trees for them to have acquired such beauty and strength. Maybe it is their lingering magic suffused in the wood that makes Magkono products so beautiful and imminently desirable to the touch and sight of mortal men.
My fear is that these wood products will ultimately go the way of the fast disappearing forests that used to shelter the mighty trees from where they came. When that happens, something else that is unique and singularly beautiful will be gone from the world, gone the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. And those who have not seen, touched and have been entranced by the beauty of the Magkono's mystical wood will never realize how poorer we are because we allowed something so extraordinary and unusual to disappear without a shout or even a whimper of protest.