Preserving Resan, Preserving Life

Inwardly, the resan is the guardian of ancestral manners and knowledge. Resan, when involved in people's daily lives, will undoubtedly lead to a life of prosperity.
Photo & Text:
Amalya Purnama
Friday, 2 December 2022

“Talking about water, talking about the beginning of civilization,” said Edi Padmo, a member of the Resan Gunungkidul Community whom we met that afternoon. The scorching sun above Kapanewon Playen, Gunungkidul Regency, Yogyakarta, is blocked by the roof of an antique ‘cow shed’ that has been transformed into a cangkrukan place by the environmental activists of Resan Gunungkidul. They are a group of young people who network and share the same mission: spring water conservation. Over snacks of fried tela typical of Gunungkidul, Edi Padmo and his friends from Resan Gunungkidul told us about resan and the death of water sources in their living zone.

Resan is a term for large trees that are hundreds of years old, which function to increase water absorption in the soil and have a root system to maintain the continuity of spring water flow. Therefore, not all large trees can be categorized as resan. Generally, resan are characterized by deep taproots, many fibrous roots, wide and lush crowns, long-lived plants, evergreen leaves-not shedding leaves, and have fewer stomata. Fig or Banyan trees, Trembesi, Bamboo, Jambu Alas, Gayam, Randu, Timoho, Asem, Kepuh, and Bulu are some of the resan commonly found in Indonesia.

The role of resan is not limited to vegetative spring conservation. The roots of resan not only store water, but also store local cultural stories. The chronicles of human civilizations in various parts of the world often begin with a large, shady tree. Resan also appears in religious literature and influences the lives of kings, queens, knights and commoners. The tradition of worshipping resan through hymns, myths and art dates back thousands of years even before Asoka came to power in the Indus valley.

Resan Ngabean (banyan) in Ngabean Kidul Karangasem Ponjong. There is no water source under the resan, but the wells of local residents never run dry.

Buddha is believed to have been enlightened under a large tree. Ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor emerged from inside the Fig Tree to welcome the Pharaoh’s soul into the afterlife. The Sumerian king Urukagina wrote about figs about 5,000 years ago. King Nebuchadnezzar II planted fig trees in the hanging gardens of Babylonia. Roman civilization and Ancient Greece regarded figs as a gift from heaven. Abrahamic religions narrate the sanctity of the great tree at the center of heaven.

In Barbados, the banyan tree was the first sight seen by Pedro A Campos, a Portuguese explorer, when his ship reached the island in 1536. In Indonesia, the banyan tree is one of the country’s symbols. It reminds us that humans are just a tiny, tiny speck compared to the 80-million-year-old history of the mighty resan.

In Gunungkidul, thousands of resan grow on the edges of tuks, sources, springs, rivers, ponds, and other sacred places. Unfortunately, countless resan have been left to die or cut down by humans. Yet these resans have lived and sustained long before the village was inhabited by humans. It is very common for the name of a resan to become the name of a hamlet or village. For example, villages or areas named Bejiharjo, Bulu, Kedung Poh, Ngringin Sari, Gayam, Cangkringan, Pakem, or Timoho in Yogyakarta. If traced again, there are resans with the same name in one place or at one time.

According to some Gunungkidul Resan activists, resan comes from the colloquial word wreksa (tree). In the daily dialect, the word wreksan is simplified by the speakers into resan. The word wreksa (tree) is close to the word reksa which means ‘guard’. So, resan is then interpreted as a ‘guardian’ (pangreksa) for humans and the environment.

The water source at Sendang Gedaren is organized and divided into walled rooms without a roof. The water that comes out of the two springs with a considerable amount of water is collected in a spring basin, which is then flowed back into other basins in other rooms. There are separate rooms for men and women, as well as for bathing livestock. Source water is also channeled for fisheries and rice fields.
The spring water in Sendang Gedaren is used for washing clothes, bathing, and irrigating rice fields.
Children have free open space to play in the Sumber Ponjong area, Gunungkidul.

Physically, a resan is the guardian of a water source. Thousands of tuk or water sources and hundreds of ponds scattered across Gunungkidul have supported the community for centuries. Some of the natural ponds and water sources that are still beautiful and utilized by Gunungkidul residents are Telaga Winong, Sumber Ponjong, and Sumber Gedaren. Every day, local residents come to the ponds and sources to bathe, wash, fish, or simply relax and mingle. Resan trees, whether banyan, klumpit, jambu klampok, winong, or others, grow around the ponds and water sources.

Inwardly, resan is the guardian of ancestral manners and knowledge. In the knowledge system of the Javanese kulawangsa resan is also believed to be petunggon: a marker or guardian of territory. There is a legend about a wanderer who took shelter under a resan and then built his own civilization as the ‘forerunner’ or ‘bibit kawit’ ancestor there. To honor the ancestral figure, the community then performs a ritual of praying under the resan complete with offerings: grilled chicken, tumpeng, and market snacks.

Resan, when involved in people’s daily lives, undoubtedly leads to prosperity. The resan in Sendang Gedaren is a testimony to this. Local people come to the spring to bathe, wash clothes, or fish. Near the water source, beautiful rice fields stretch as far as the eye can see. The farmers are busy working from early morning. Under the feet of one of the resan in Sendang Gedaren is a statue of Hyang Sri or Dewi Sri: Mother Earth, the protector of birth and life.

Offerings of ubarampe and mori cloth wrapped around the Resan as a symbol of respect. This tree is the resan of Kawak Market who died from poisoning.
A statue of Hyang Sri or Dewi Sri at the foot of a resan in Sendang Gedaren. This statue is worshiped in honor of Mother Earth, the protector of birth and life.
Telaga Winong is one example of a lake that never dries up. It is relatively unspoiled, with dozens of resan still preserved, growing around the 3-hectare lake.

It is undeniable that the myth of sacredness that surrounds the resan-resan has kept them alive and untouched for hundreds of years. However, memories of the sacredness of the resan and respect for the resan are slowly fading. The sacred rituals that the local community performs around the resan each year seem merely ceremonial and only serve to attract tourists. Although some resan have offerings of ubarampe and cloth mori wrapped around them as a symbol of respect, not many people really think about the fate of the resan in the future. Old resans are left to die by the community without preparing replacements.

Many resan are cut down and water sources are deliberately destroyed for commercial purposes such as the tragic fate of the resan in Pasar Kawak (Seneng Hamlet, Siraman Kalurahan Kapanewon Wonosari) and Beji Pengkol (Kapanewon Nglipar). Evil humans hacked the resan’s body and poisoned its roots with oil and diesel. No doubt residents were angry and reported the vandals to the authorities.

In Sendang Kemuning, the spring water was polluted by the waste from a tofu factory five meters away from the water source. The spring water no longer flows, and a foul odor emanates from the blackened water. The Sendang Kemuning area was built by the Yogyakarta Palace around 1951 as a ritual location. The vandals did not respect the position of Pasar Kawak and Sendang Kemuning as historical sites. In the past, there was a marker on the cupola of the building, but now it has disappeared. Now the buildings are damaged and unmaintained, similar to the neglected resan.

Gunungkidul’s topography, which is dominated by limestone, has created chronic problems. During the dry season, the water discharge of the Oya River decreases considerably and some communities face water shortages. Clean water is supplied through dropping from water tanks, which is relatively expensive. When the rainy season arrives, floods and landslides begin to occur. Exploration of the construction of boreholes that ignores efforts to conserve water sources complicates the hydrological problems of the Gunungkidul region.

The existence of boreholes, PAMDus, or PAMDes has caused people to abandon rainwater catchments and ponds and leave them abandoned. The government’s good intentions in building permanent gates have caused the lake to dry up, as happened in Telaga Suci and Telaga Klumpit. The increasingly widespread conversion of vegetation land into residential, agricultural and economic land has damaged the function of rainwater catchment areas.

One of the streams of the Oya River.

Seeing these threats, since 2018 the Resan Gunungkidul Community has been determined to restore the pulse of water sources by focusing on resan conservation. Dozens of young people in the community network with communities and individuals who have a love for their ancestral lands. Their activities are supported by collective anxiety and volunteerism. There is no funding program or funding body behind their activities. There is also no legality or structured management to ‘guard’ their movement. Not without intention, they do avoid forms of authority overshadowing their steps.

The Resan Gunungkidul community has planted more than 10,000 trees in several water sources, rainwater catchments, and streams. These tree guardians ensure that the various functions of the trees work as they should. Not only that, they also strive to conduct nurseries, ceremonial rituals, cleaning, archiving, mapping and inventorying of water sources, as well as spreading the wisdom of resan through uploading photos and short stories on their Instagram page. They strive not only for a sustainable resan, but also to spread awareness to fellow humans to actively protect the tree of life.

The government's good intentions in building a permanent gutter have resulted in the lake drying up, as has happened in Telaga Suci and Telaga Klumpit.
Nursery activities carried out by the Gunungkidul Resan Community. The seedlings are obtained through self-help and donations.
A routine activity of the Gunung Kidul Resan Community is to create a nursery for Resan candidates to be planted in the rainy season. The nursery is called the Resan Seedling House (RBR).
This story was created for the Yogyakarta Cultural Festival, republished for with minor text changes.

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