Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Devastation of last week

On Tuesday, September 8th, a quarry operation bulldozed a large forested area in close proximity to the Martha Brae River, adjacent to the rafting attraction. Why? The operation is using idle bauxite equipment to provide marl for the Falmouth Cruise Ship Pier and a road was needed. The catastrophic land clearing was illegal – it had neither a quarry license (applied for, but not granted) nor an environmental permit.

So there was the usual flurry by the regulators, once they had seen the photographs sent to them by the Windsor Research Centre, based in Cockpit Country. The work was stopped the next day, but it rained and the soil sheeted off the hillside – it is unclear whether it ended up in the Martha Brae – but it ended up somewhere, possibly in the very harbor that we are now preparing to dredge for the pier.

The contractor was summoned to a meeting at NEPA, no doubt attended by a cast of many. A site visit to the area was done. There are promises of mitigation measures. But the damage has already been done, the trees have been removed, soil erosion has commenced and the peaceful and pleasant aspect from the river itself has been ruined.

The de facto regulatory framework for quarrying and associated roads in Jamaica is utterly inadequate. Although it is clear that under the NRCA Act mining, quarrying and mineral processing activities require an environmental permit, the practice has been NOT to issue environmental permits for mining or quarrying. Environmental oversight of these activities is deemed to be carried out by virtue of representation by NEPA on a quarries control committee.

The obvious direct consequences of this particular large scale forest clearance are soil erosion, river pollution, harbour siltation and loss of wildlife habitat, but there are others. Civil society members have tried hard to educate individuals about the consequences, for instance, of clearing of forest for agriculture or charcoal burning. In this particular region, there is growing acceptance of the importance of the watershed and the consequences of its deterioration. This highly visible clearance on the edge of the Martha Brae River must raise questions about the legitimacy of our arguments and the credibility of our regulators and planners.

The situation at Martha Brae well illustrates why the destruction of Jamaica's natural resources continues unabated. Large scale clearance of forested land, in close proximity to a major river, is carried out illegally by a private sector company without being noticed by the regional NEPA officer. It is reported by a member of the NGO community. There will no doubt be extravagant promises to “plant back” trees, but whether this is done or not, the forest has been lost and the impact to the river and the harbor has already occurred. If the past is anything to go by, there will be no prosecution and no sanctions for the quarry operator or the contractor and the Falmouth Cruise ship pier will get its marl.

You have to wonder about the decision making process that results in already heavily indebted Jamaica borrowing money to dredge Falmouth Harbour, while simultaneously doing our best to silt up the same harbour by destroying the watershed a couple of kilometres away! It’s equally mystifying to plan to bring cruise ship passengers to an area, hoping they will want to raft in the “unspoilt” beauty of the Martha Brae, while destroying the vista and ensuring the rafters will be accompanied by overloaded marl trucks charging along the narrow, riverside road, air horns and “Jake Brakes” blasting…

This is what we call “sustainable development…”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Saying good-bye on a Jamaican road trip

I have just returned to Kingston after ten days driving around Jamaica with my son and two of his friends. I call my road trips D-Tours; I try to take visitors to Jamaican places a tourist rarely sees, places still authentic and unspoilt. We bounced around in a rattling Suzuki on roads long reverted to dry, stony riverbeds, we scorched our skins in open canoes and on shade-less beaches, we hiked in the rain in a wet limestone forest to see the exodus of bats from a cave at sundown, we snorkeled in a deserted bay to find a shallow reef reported to be in unusually good condition for the north coast - we had to abandon that search as a lightning storm forced us to leave the water in a hurry - we ate bun and bullas in the car, we stayed in basic accomodation and sometimes in luxury, we went to a farewell party for a woman leaving Jamaica after decades, and there we heard two self-taught sixteen-year-old twins drum a rousing, complex duet in an empty house on a hot August night. We came back sunburned and bitten by mosquitoes, with images of unforgettably beautiful places to sustain us in other, greyer days. For my son and his friends, it was a holiday. For me, it was a pilgrimmage, a journey of farewells, a time to grapple with a profound sense of having failed my country and myself.

(You know, I'm not sure about the "my country" business, because it seems the idea of the nation state has got the human race into a lot of trouble. What is it that makes a Jamaican anyway - an accident of birth? Of race? Of history and culture? Jamaicans who live abroad still identify themselves as Jamaicans; as we watch our magnificent success at the track and field world championships in Berlin, we point out the atheletes running for other countries who have Jamaican parentage. "She a Jamaican," we say of US runner Sanya Richards. "Don't him have a Jamaican father?" we wonder about the Panamanian sprinter Edwards. Despite my pale skin that suggests some other nationality, I have always fiercely loved this island of my birth, loved the physical place itself, the mountains, the sea, the beaches, the rivers - all of it. Yet I don't idealize Jamaica, I don't belong to the posse that rejects unpalatable truths as negativism; we can be a difficult, noisy, aggressive people, in many ways we have failed ourselves and squandered our opportunities. Living here is not easy. And I have often thought of leaving, and I know well what benefits that would bring, but I also know that if I am not here in Jamaica, I am in exile.)

So I came back from the road trip to find in my In Box one of those e-mails sent to multiple and growing lists of addressees, sparked by a news story about the closure of a beach in Cancun in Mexico as a result of the theft of sand. Here in Jamaica, we had a large and well reported theft of sand from a north coast beach last year - see my blog of November 28th, 2008 at http://snailwriter.blogspot.com/2008/11/gleaner-discovers-sand-issue.html - and the thread of e-mails emphasized the need for inland tourism, asked questions about the Jamaican sand case and suggested an environmental summit as a solution. The list of addressees included government ministers of both political parties, civil servants, business people, academics and a few folks like myself, working in the environmental non profit sector. Here we go again, I thought, discussing the placement of deckchairs on the Titanic. Not even moving them, you understand, just talking about them. So I sent this e-mail to that list - I've slightly edited it:

I received this thread (about sand being stolen in Mexico and sold to a hotel in Cancun - authorities closed the beach) with the mixture of anger, cynicism and sadness that is a daily feature of working for an environmental non profit agency in Jamaica, perhaps in the world, I don't know. The sand case (in Jamaica) is in court, where it will wind its way through the justice system, witnesses will be hard to find, lawyers will have other cases, the police will not turn up to give evidence, and after many years, perhaps - PERHAPS - the people who drove the truck that stole the sand will receive a small fine. The real crime - that of politicians, government agencies, boards and officials giving environmental permits to hotels on coastlines where there is no beach without the first idea as to where their sand was to come from - will remain unpunished.

I have just come back from ten days driving around Jamaica with my son and visitors, in effect saying good bye to some of our gorgeous natural assets - Pellew Island, ironically immortalized on a Jamaica Tourist Board poster in the early days of our tourist industry, about to be villa-ized; the luminous lagoon near Falmouth, to be risked by a mega cruise ship pier of the most dubious economic benefit; Treasure Beach, on the edge of "development," trying to cope with a disastrous drainage canal constructed with public money, never finished, and without a shred of environmental due diligence undertaken; Cockpit Country - who knows - we still await the GOJ's decision on the boundaries years after the commissioned study was completed and now that bauxite is uncertain, limestone mining is about to be considered our savior with no doubt dire consequences for our forests, air quality and aesthetics. I went in a fishing boat right up the Black River, such a lovely trip, but a place which used to be a small bar and swimming hole had been venue-ized, all the vegetation cleared and is now a place for fetes. I went to the Coral Spring beach from which the sand had been stolen, most of that coast privately owned, with only a small protected area left, a stunning white sand bay with forested headlands to the east, and due to some trick of the wind, the kind of silence that is no longer available on the north coast. There, the swimming is shallow, and I am sure the owners will legally dredge it, and groyne it, and marina it, and the forest will be replaced by landscaping, and perhaps in a decade, there will have to be a study of what happened to the beach at Coral Spring and environs. On the culture side, I went to the ruin of Stewart Castle, also on privately owned land, no evidence of any protection by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, and the land around it had been cleared by fire and bulldozers.

While I was on my trip, I learned that Dornoch Head (River Head, some people call it), the source of the Rio Bueno, has had the trees cut down, and I was sent photographs of the large cuts in the Blue Mountains, allegedly to build a mountain biking track without, apparently, the knowledge or intervention of the National Environment and Planning Agency.

An environmental summit is not going to help us, even if we could stir ourselves to organize it. Were we to get it off the ground, the people who need to be in the room will either not come or simply give greetings and go about their business. We have had many such meetings in the past. Basically, the problem we have is that except for the few small, exhausted voices that have been raised over the years, hardly anyone thinks this issue is of sufficient importance, let alone understands it. Hardly anyone in the PNP, hardly anyone in the JLP, hardly anyone in business, hardly anyone in the civil service, and hardly any ordinary Jamaican thinks the sacrifice of our natural assets for a few short term, low paying jobs is a decision we will BITTERLY come to regret.

I know many people on this e-mail list do have concerns – but I regret to say that these concerns have too infrequently become action and our collective failures – and I include myself in that collective– are all too apparent.

I'm sorry to write at such length - but truthfully, this email is actually short, in comparison to the many words and great sadness in my heart.

Diana McCaulay

August 22nd, 2009

The e-mail made its rounds and some people wrote to me with words of encouragement and support, words I tried to hear, over the drumming of a different internal narrative of personal failure. I have been an advocate for the natural environment for more than twenty years, left my private sector job to work first as a volunteer and then as full time CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, an agency I helped start, and now I must face the fact that still, after all the effort, our natural resources are put on the auction block, day after day, and the price we accept for our irreplacable assets is a rock bottom, last chance sale price, a going out of business giveaway.

Pellew Island. Cockpit Country. Falmouth. The Luminous Lagoon. Dornoch Head. The Black River Morass. Treasure Beach. Coral Spring. The Blue Mountains. These I saw over the past ten days, all up for grabs, these I said good-bye to, hiding my tears from my son and his friends.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Little Critters that Shine and the Falmouth Pier

On Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 a second public meeting was held for the construction of a cruise ship pier in the historic town of Falmouth on Jamaica's north coast. The meeting was necessary because the plan presented to the public in 2008 had changed substantially from a “finger” pier to a solid quay. In addition, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) had required a hydrodynamic study to ensure the currents in the inner Falmouth harbour (Oyster Bay) were understood, in order to assess the impacts of the quay construction on the Luminous Lagoon.

The organisms that cause the phenomenon of luminescence are called dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense). They are common, tiny animals the size of a pinhead. These are little critters that shine. The conditions that lead them to clump together and to persist over time, however, are extremely uncommon. The Luminous Lagoon near Falmouth is one of only FOUR such places in the entire world.

Essentially, the mechanisms that cause the persistently high concentrations of dinoflagellates at Oyster Bay are unique to this particular location. They are: (1) the position of the Martha Brae River causing a certain pattern of currents in the bay, a stratification of brackish and sea water and a concentration of nutrients favourable to these organisms; (2) the presence of sea breezes, starting at mid morning; (3) the absence of wind at night.

What happens is this: At night, the water column becomes stratified into brackish and salty water. At dawn, the dinoflagellates congregate upwards towards the light into the least dense salty layer, but not into the topmost layer. The morning trade winds then move this top layer of fresh/brackish water in a westerly direction. The sub-surface, uppermost layer of saline water, full of the dinoflagellates, is moved in an easterly direction towards the eastern shallows of the bay where the dinoflagellates find conditions to their liking –salty and warm. In short: it's complicated.

The question thus became: what will happen to these local conditions during and after the construction of the enormous solid cruise ship quay?

Smith Warner International carried out a hydrodynamic study to assess the currents in Oyster Bay, using a computer model. They tested the predictive power of their model by using a combination of a current meter as well as drogues (floating items). Current measurements were collected over only 45 days, using the meter. Two drogues were used to track currents over two days in May. This limited period of data collection will not capture any kind of seasonal variation – Smith Warner’s study had to meet a deadline that was apparently too short. Further, the data were averaged over the entire water column, and did not incorporate any of the stratification described above. As a result, the modeling done is extremely limited in its ability to predict how the proposed Falmouth Cruise Ship Quay will affect the Luminous Lagoon and its concentration of dinoflagellates.

This notwithstanding, it was clear at the July 29th public meeting that a decision has been taken to go ahead with this project, regardless of its potential impact on the heritage or natural resources of Falmouth and its environs. It was clear in the exuberance of the meeting Chairman, who, despite NEPA’s requirements for neutral chairmanship, was obviously in favour of the project. It was clear in the slick presentation on the new quay which did not mention the written reservations of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust – who did not see fit to attend the meeting themselves, to let the public hear of these reservations. It was clear in the speed with which the hydrodynamic study had been conducted, and in the references to work starting “shortly.” It was clear when NEPA reduced the requirements for notice of a public meeting from 21 to 10 days, and reduced the public comment period from 30 days to 14. It has been clear for several weeks in the advertisements in local newspapers for concessionaires. And it is crystal clear that new permits will be granted and this project will go ahead, as equipment has already started arriving at the port area.

Not even questions about the economics of the project were welcome at the public meeting. The Chairman of the Port Authority, Noel Hylton, initially responded to a request from a member of the public (that would be me) as to the financing with a brusque: “Submit your question to the Minister of Finance.” In response to murmurings from the crowd and encouragement from those around him, he did then take the microphone and say that yes, this is a loan of US$121 million at 4% over ten or eleven years, and yes, it will have to be paid back by already struggling taxpayers. There was no detailed information given on the economic benefits to the people of Falmouth or Jamaicans in general, beyond a mention of the amount of visitors that will result from these ships and a vague promise of jobs. Mr. Hylton’s reluctance to take the microphone suggested he felt no need to involve the public in these decisions.

And so it is that in all likelihood, the light of the little critters that shine will be dimmed, even extinguished entirely from that special place. It is also likely that this murky experiment with Jamaica's natural resources - I have not here described the cutting of the coral reef to accommodate the giant ships, or the dredging - will bring very small economic benefits to the people of Falmouth by way of short term, low paying jobs. It is very likely that an authentic place of history will be part Disneyfied, wholly faked, and this old town constructed on a crime against humanity - for Falmouth's wealth and status was built on the enslavement of Africans - will welcome cruise ship passengers with rum punches and mento dancers. And the little critters that shine will become part of history, perhaps part of a report headed "lessons learned," a story told by old people, perhaps eventually assuming the realms of myth.

So to anyone reading this living in Jamaica, my advice is this: go and see the Luminous Lagoon. And do it very soon...

Pellew Island Photo by John Maxwell

If Pellew Island cannot be kept in its natural state, what can?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Losing our Treasures III - Pellew Island

I dreamed all night about the island, the Little Island, we called it when I was a child. It had many names. My parents called it Monkey Island, although there is another Monkey Island in Portland. Its real name is Pellew Island, a corruption of Peleau, named for a shadowy French hermit, who reportedly lived there, on coconuts and seafood, until he was drowned in a storm surge.

Pellew Island was given a title in 1953 – part of the land titling of Goblin Hill and San San Bay. The original plan was that there would be gracious houses on the land, each with a title to a small coastal plot, where the owners could have boathouses or cabanas. Decades of official disregard for the intentions of these titles have allowed cabanas to become mansions more or less sitting in the sea.

The Portland coastline is one of the most gorgeous in Jamaica, edged as it is by the soaring Blue Mountains. And the San San coast is nothing short of stunning, curving from Alligator Head to Whale Head and Blue Lagoon, with the jewel of Pellew Island set just offshore.

The early advocates for tourism saw this beauty and immortalized it in a 1960s Jamaica Tourist Board poster, the caption of which said: “In a world of bad air, poisoned water and litter, there are still a few virginal places. Enjoy. Quickly.” Serious t’ing.

Generations of Jamaicans – not just Portlanders – have stopped at the side of the road and looked out at the island, generations of Jamaicans have swum or rowed or rafted to the island, over the shallow seagrass beds to lie on the tiny beach, or to climb to the top and look over the miracle of the reef, and listen to the surf, rolling over and over and over.

Pellew Island is a jewel, and like a jewel, it has been privately owned - mostly by women - since the 1950s. It was bought by Baron Heinrich Thyssen in 1953 for 60 pounds Sterling, as a valentine’s gift for his fiancĂ©e, Nina Dyer of New York. The marriage didn’t last, and they divorced two years later. Nina then married Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan. I remember the island when it was owned by the Princess Aga Khan – Princess Island, was another of its names – she built a bamboo raft to one side of the little beach and scandalized everyone by sunbathing nude there. Even when owned by a Princess, though, the island was undefiled by concrete and there were no gates or security guards to keep people off. The Princess committed suicide in 1965, and in 1983, Betty Estuvez, a close companion of the Princess, bought the island for US$7,000. In 1995, the island was sold again to its current owners.

Now Pellew Island is to be “developed.” The owners seek to construct two villas – one seven bedroom and one four bedroom – on this steep, fissured, forested, fragment of limestone in the Caribbean sea. There will be decks and plunge pools and a bathroom for every bedroom, and electricity and water will have to be taken to the island via underwater conduit, and somehow a barge like boat will take the construction materials across without any damage to seagrass beds or corals, although the draught of the boat exceeds the depth of the water close to the island. The island is said to be “lightly vegetated” and virtually no trees will be touched, no land clearing will be done in the rain, there is little diversity of flora and few birds, although those who are fortunate to gaze out on the island every evening report many flocks of birds. A plateau at the summit of the island will be used – but there is no plateau worthy of the term, just a small, flattish area in a grove of bamboo. Promises, promises, I thought as I sat in the public meeting, hearing all this.

But the island is privately owned, and as we understand it, the private ownership of land conveys the right to do anything at all to that land. The Government of Jamaica could, of course, acquire the island for the public, deem it part of a scenic coastline, and keep it in its natural state for all of us. The GOJ purchases land all the time when what is needed is a road or a bauxite mine. But for a natural asset – I doubt the GOJ has ever done it.

So here’s what I’m thinking. The Tainos "owned" Jamaica until the men in Columbus’s ships took it and killed off the Tainos. And then the British captured Jamaica. There’s been a fair amount of taking and capturing, and I figure I have as much right to do some capturing as anyone. So I’m gonna invade Pellew Island with my flag of Taino symbols and I’m gonna declare it mine – mine; and the world’s. Ours. Ours to see and love and visit and snorkel the waters around and lie on the beach and sit in that grove of bamboo and hear the wind in the trees and the surf on the reef and the solider crabs rustling in the dead leaves. Ours.

I know my invasion will be symbolic rather than real; but it will be my statement that some things belong not to a single person, no matter how monied, but to humankind. Pellew Island is one such thing, and so, while we’re on the subject of Portland, is Blue Lagoon. Anyone who wants to join my invasion can e-mail me at dmccaulay@cwjamaica.com And I will accept all suggestions for other precious places, whether private or public, in dire need of similar invasions.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Green Blues

Any Monday morning, 4.00 a.m.

OK, I give up. I’m not snoozing and will not soon go back to sleep. I’m officially awake. Brain churning. That **** public meeting. That **** chairman of the public meeting. Those **** farmers/vendors/fishers – why do they believe the rubbish they have been told for generations, if not centuries, when the lies are evident?? Why don’t they believe ME? And what the **** is wrong with regulatory authority? Why don’t they ever SAY anything at a public meeting? Wonder what the cash flow at the office is like. Did we pay the motor vehicle insurance? Think that was donated. But not the health insurance. That must be due now. Wonder if anyone is pregnant and not telling me. Love my young, all female staff, but there are…issues.

5.30 a.m. Get out of bed, groggy, sweaty, due to energy conservation commitment to not use air conditioning. Couldn’t sleep? Husband asks. He is up early, due to long daily commute in giant vehicle, therefore eliminating all hope of family attaining carbon neutrality. Let us not even discuss my overseas travel schedule. Husband hands me a cup of Jamaican coffee. I sip the deforestation of the Blue Mountains. Being an environmentalist, I reflect, means being comfortable with cognitive dissonance.

6.00 a.m. Am seated at my venerable computer. I have three computer devices – (1) the wood burning computer at home. (2) A donor funded laptop at work. (3) A Blackberry that my tech savvy sister gave me. I can never remember where anything is. E-mail count this morning – 16. 12 are work related. I start to reply.

7.00 a.m. The landline rings. It’s a radio station. Can I do an interview on global warming and the hurricane season at 7.20 a.m.? I say OK, abandon the e-mails and Google the latest research on global warming. I’ve got an 8.00 a.m. meeting with a consultant who wants to find out the definitive answer to corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt while he gets paid and I don’t. That means I’ve got to get dressed while doing the radio interview. Don’t want to print out the Google research on global warming, because of the toll on trees somewhere. Try to memorize a figure or two in order to sound totally up to date.

7.20 a.m. Phone rings while I am in the shower. Radio interview is not about global warming but about an illegal development I’ve been making a fuss about. Other person being interviewed is the irate contractor whose bulldozers have been stopped by my anti development meddling. All like you, he bawls to the radio listening public, all like you waan sen us back to di day of bullfrog and peenie wallie. That’ll have to be the last word, I’m afraid, says the radio talk show host. I take a mop to the bathroom floor.

8.05 a.m. At work. Internet is down. This is a several times a day occurrence, for which Internet Service Provider blames person who installed the Local Area Network who blames Internet Service Provider or possibly the computers themselves. Tech savvy sister’s advice has been this: Every computer has a duppy (a ghost, for any non Jamaicans). Some days the duppy wins and some days you win. For this she went to college for four years??

Consultant calls to say he will be late. Weekend e-mail count on laptop – 19. Only two are SPAM from people telling me I have won the lottery.

8.30 a.m. Consultant arrives, straight from DC, apparently. He’s already sweltering. Office has no air conditioning. I invite him to take off his jacket and he does. I give him my stump speech about corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt and he writes furiously. I will never see his report and corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt will continue apace.

10.00 a.m. Staff member advises office environment intolerable due to rat infestation. Are the cats not working? I say. We have a flock? pride? fleet? herd? of cats at the office – well, they just appeared, along with a rooster – we didn’t organize them or anything. Staff member shrugs and mentions leptospirosis. Call pest control then, I say. Start Googling impacts of rat poison on soil and ground water, but Internet still down. Muse on likelihood of raising money to pay pest control bill. Conclude nil.

10.10 a.m. Continue with e-mails, all piling up in outbox. Note am being berated by other environmental people for insufficient consultation. Feel aggrieved.

10.20 a.m. Phone rings. It’s a woman unable to breathe due to neighbour’s constant burning. She waxes eloquent about deficiencies of environmental regulators and health ministry. Phone beeps – call waiting is destroying my sanity, I think. I ask the breathless woman to hold and pick up the beep. Is that the Hotel Four Seasons? A man says. No, I say. You don’t have any rooms? The man says. No, I say, this is the Jamaica Environment Trust. But see yah now, says the man, rhetorically.

Return apologetically to the woman with the pyromaniac neighbour. She wants to know what I can do for her. We can help you take legal action, I say. Who me? She says. No way! Turns out she thinks neighbour might unleash the horsemen of the Apocalypse on her. Not much I can do then, I say. Well, what good are you, she says, and hangs up the phone.

10.30 a.m. Am sweltering myself. Go to ask administrator about Internet. She is sitting at her desk, staring into the middle distance, holding on to speak to anyone at service provider. Looks like she’s been there awhile.

10.32 a.m. Programme Director advises multiple project proposals for education/advocacy/tree planting/cleaning beaches projects have all been turned down. We’ll figure something out, I say, seeing the worry about her job in her eyes. But what?

11.00 a.m. Mail arrives. Two requests for talks to service clubs, both mentioning that no payment can be made. One request for materials for inner city group, no payment possible. One request for free collaboration on summer camp at uptown high school. Very likely that children going to that school have higher pocket money than my salary. Feel more aggrieved. Two invitations to workshops on corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt. Must be the policy flavours of the month. Three responses from regulators on Access to Information requests, saying they have got our requests and will soon respond. One invoice from auditors approaching J$300,000.00. Bill from pest control now looks like champagne picnic.

11.15 a.m. Whoo hoo! Internet is up. Send out e-mails. Landline rings. Environmental person on the other end tells me about land clearing on large scale in wetland area on north coast. Do something, Diana, environmental person says. (With or without consultation, I wonder, but do not say so.) But be careful, environmental person continues. I hear man behind it is dangerous. Great.

11.30 a.m. Call regulators to report devastating land clearance. Get only voice mail. Send e-mail. Error message. Internet down again.

11.45 a.m. Staff attorney brings in affidavit on sewage treatment plant that has not worked in 25 years. Start reading it. Blackberry buzzes. Is reporter asking if I know anything about devastating land clearance on north coast. Yes, I say. Do I have a comment, reporter wants to know. Bad thing, wetland protects us from flooding, storms, habitat for fish, bla bla, I say. Hear guy behind it is a badman, the reporter tells me. Uh-huh, I say.

Straight line rings. Is that the cabinet office? A man says. Sounds like the same guy who wanted Hotel Four Seasons. No, I say, but if you get them I have some suggestions. What? He says, annoyed. Never mind, I say, my attempt at humour falling flat. It’s NOT the cabinet office? the man says again. Is this 555-5555? It is, I say, but trust me, it’s not the cabinet office. Well, says the man, that’s the number on their website! He slams down the receiver. I wonder if the cabinet office is likely to be able to solve more complex problems if it can’t get the right telephone number on its website.

12.15 p.m. Lunch at desk. Cheese crunchies. Wonder about environmental impact of cheese crunchies – seems like nothing can be eaten anymore without causing poverty and environmental annihilation somewhere. Look at watch. Gosh. It’s not even NEARLY time to go home!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the Shadow of Mountains

I was born in the shadow of mountains; this is an unremarkable fact, as it is true of anyone born in the city of Kingston. But there is a particular mountain that I think of as mine – Jack’s Hill. I never thought it was well named – Jack’s Hill sounds like something from a nursery rhyme, small and unimportant, and my mountain is both serene and imposing. As for Jack – I don’t know who he was.

My family lived on Sandhurst Crescent when I was a baby, in the shadow of Jack’s Hill. We moved to Stanton Terrace – in the shadow of Long Mountain. And then when I was ten, we went to Liguanea Avenue, to a rambling, inconvenient house that was dominated by an unconstrained and close up view of Jack’s Hill. I was home.

It is a triangular shaped mountain, like the three fat middle fingers of a green giant, the lower reaches and folds still forested, the upper slopes grassy and bare of all but a few trees. It burns several times a year because careless people light fires or discard cigarettes, and it turns black and like a small, angry volcano, sheds ash on the houses of the rich people below. A Jack’s Hill address is one of the best in Kingston.

I got to choose my bedroom when we moved to Liguanea Avenue – I was the eldest child. So I chose the room without air conditioning – which was an amazing novelty at the time – because it had a view of Jack’s Hill. I moved my bed under the window, so I could wake up and look out and see Jack’s Hill before I did anything else. It is my earliest recollection of a sense of wonder.

Sometime in the 1960s, a developer cut a road across the green and pleasant face of Jack’s Hill. I remember my father saying the ugly scar would be there for twenty years. In fact, almost fifty years later, the destruction is still discernible, although not as raw as it was when I was a teenager.

There has been construction on Jack’s Hill – some houses are barely visible through trees, others are large concrete boxes without aesthetic merit clinging to ridges. Last week I waited in a doctor’s office on the third floor of a high rise building in Kingston and all around me I could see the mountains I had grown up with – the far away heights of the Blue Mountains (assaulted by clearing for coffee and failed plantation forests), Long Mountain (much defaced by housing), Dallas Mountain (chopped up by limestone mining and charcoal burners), and Jack’s Hill, cleared to bare dirt in places to make fire breaks around million dollar homes, to plant crops, and cleared for clearing's sake. It must be that we who live in the shadow of the mountains no longer see them, because if we did, if we felt that sense of awe and wonder I first encountered as a ten-year-old, we would never have allowed what has happened to them.

I went once to a place where no building was allowed on the hills around – these were hills, not mountains, not like our mountains. It was Santa Fe in New Mexico and it was in the 1980s – so things could have changed. But then no one could build on the hills, the forests were protected, and when you stood in the city, all around you could see unblemished vistas. Not even a movie star had managed to change the minds of the planners. Here in Jamaica, if you talk about protecting a view from “development” you are considered certifiably insane.

I had to leave Jamaica to experience a forest. Before I went to the Pacific Northwest, I thought a forest was simply an assembly of trees, and I used to talk about the importance of planting trees to replace the ones cut down. But when I climbed into the Hoh Rain Forest of the Olympic National Park in Washington State, I understood for the first time what the term “forest” really means – it is not merely a tree farm planted by humans, but a complex organism of ferns and mosses and birds and lichens and insects and trees of different ages and sizes and types. I saw a nurse log in the Hoh Rain Forest and it was explained to me how when old trees died, they crashed through the forest opening up areas to light, and how seeds found root in the rotting bark of the fallen tree and started to grow there, and then the nurse log would rot and there would be an arch in the roots of the young trees who had found their start on the nurse log, a straight line of arches, showing the ghost of the fallen tree. I came back to Jamaica and went up into the Blue Mountains and unless you really get off the beaten track, found an utterly ruined forest.

I’ve been thinking about what brings Jamaicans together. I know all about what divides us – race, class, history, income, wealth, address, language, born yah, ex pat or returning resident, ghetto pickney or uptown bwaii, donkey man, bicycle man, Prado man, fisherman, ganja man, helicopter man, politician, businessman. The list is long and seems to grow ever longer. And what unites us? You might say Usain Bolt or the Reggae Boyz - until you see how quickly we turn on them if they stop winning. Then it struck me that it is our land that truly unites us, the physical place, this island. Pretty much every Jamaican, resident or migrant, will assert that Jamaica is a beautiful country – even the most beautiful in the world. This is something we will all defend, if only in theory.

And yet – we do our best to make this near universal source of Jamaican pride – a lie. We chop down and dig up and develop and misguidedly “beautify” until we no longer see where we really live, in the shadow of towering mountains, at the edge of a deep, murmuring sea.

I still love Jack’s Hill. Waking up in its shadow as I grew into teenage and young adulthood made me understand at least one passage in the Bible, when I heard it for the first time in Scripture class – I look towards the hills, from whence cometh my help…

Friday, June 5, 2009

Signs of the Times - Treasure Beach on the edge

What rules will apply to development in Treasure Beach? Will anything have been learned from the mistakes made in other parts of Jamaica?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Losing our Treasures (II)

Construction on the Treasure Beach canal has stopped, or so I’m told by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). Of course, it “stopped” after the National Works Agency (NWA) had finished what they intended to do in this Phase One, had packed up their bulldozers and headed off to seek other funding to complete the destruction. A NEPA vehicle was then seen in the area shortly after the NWA departed, with the occupants staring morosely at the canal. “You guys are three years too late!” shouted a passerby. I predict there will now be “meetings” and “regularization” and possibly even a “probe.” I further predict no one will be found responsible for this ignorant, lawless and reckless action, and there will be no sanctions applied.

I received two thoughtful emails on my first blog and a case study we had done on the Treasure Beach canal. The case study is not entirely completed, but will eventually be posted on the website of the Jamaica Environment Trust at http://www.jamentrust.org/ and on the Treasure Beach forum www.treasurebeach.net, if the webmaster will accept it.

Sandy Tatham of Treasure Beach wrote: “Great Bay is unlike any of the other Treasure Beach bays. Sheltered by the Great Pedro Bluff, this bay does not normally experience the “rough and dangerous” seas of the rest of the coastline. Great Bay does not have undertows, the sands are lighter in colour, and the beach more often than not, much wider and deeper than the other bays. This majestic bluff is the saving grace of this little village.The fact that Great Bay is entered by an entirely different approach to the rest of Treasure Beach, and ends at a dead end along side the Bluff, is I believe, its other saving grace. My most important point though, is the fact that Great Bay, has NEVER been subdivided. It is the least developed / developing of the Treasure Beach villages, apart from Fort Charles, which suffers from a lack of water. Very few pieces of land have changed hands in recent years, as most of the lands remain in the hands of large land owners who continue to farm their land as they have done through several generations: goats, sheep, cows and some cash crops. My family are amongst the “newcomers” and we have been here since 1969! The subdivision and developments you speak of have taken place mostly in the areas of Sandy Bank, Olde Wharfe, and along the main Treasure Beach Road, NOT Great Bay. Great Bay, unfortunately, though, has been the village that has suffered the most as a result of these subdivisions and development. Most of the ponds, several springs and few wells are found in Great Bay. I was once took Ann Sutton and fellow scientists to one of our “hidden” ponds and spring. They needed to go by foot, as they had, by plane, determined that this spot had the highest indigenous duck count on the island. All of this is what makes Great Bay so special ..... But since man has intervened by raising the level of the main road to Treasure Beach, allowed the subdivisions you speak of and subsequent building of plazas along the main road, when the rains come, these ponds fill and can no longer flow into the sea, as they once did. Instead, the waters back up and flood Great Bay. The old timers will tell you that the waters used to “walk” from the Great Pedro Pond across the main road through marshy lands and exit into the ocean close to the Treasure Beach Hotel. I even remember walking this in my childhood. Another contributing problem is the building and road works in the higher lands above the bays. These have redirected the flow of water, bringing much larger quantities down into the low lying areas causing destruction of roads and hill side. It is quite devastating. Most only see the destruction where homes and businesses are affected, but there are other areas where entire landscapes are changing due to the mass of water pouring off the hills. While it is imperative to have this canal problem rectified, sadly, the problem is much greater than just this and needs to be examined on a larger scale.”

Andreas Oberli from Irish Town wrote: “In 1979 I walked for the first time from Calabash east to Great Bay. The landscape was very special: Fine yellow grass like a large animal’s fur and here and there these enormous seagrape trees and bull thatch palms, a few little bays with shallow clear water (one of them where now the new canal joins the sea), one new house (large, ugly, surrounded by lawn and coconut trees) which we were able to ignore, the majestic bluff in front of us across the blue bay – and the wide beach of Great Bay!The beach is still there, even now. It went away in the last big storms, and it always comes back quite quickly. But the walk you can’t do anymore....”

And I received a wonderful letter from Artie Parchment of Great Bay in Treasure Beach. Artie says in part: “I am 85 years of age, throughout these years I have never experienced flooding as we had in 2005. Our property value has plunged to zero because the ponds have taken over, or washed away all the fences and tracks to secure and get to it. I definitely agree in regards the ecological problems. Our idea was not to drain the ponds completely but to keep them from overflowing when we have hurricanes with heavy rains…we really have a problem and I sincerely hope a solution will be found before the good Lord takes me away. The problem now is to satisfy the people of Great Bay and the ecology.”

This is an elder from the community who has been personally been affected by the flooding; yet still he writes of the importance of the ecology. If only we had people in positions of authority and power who shared Artie Parchment’s mindset, who valued the beauty and functionality of our land, who would take measured decisions about development based on careful study, considering both the short and the long term, and who respected our Jamaican law. Then and only then, we might have a Treasure Beach with its treasures intact forever.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Losing Our Treasures

Imagine a coastal area on a Caribbean island - a patchwork of fresh and brackish ponds that wax and wane with wet and dry seasons. Despite the ponds, the landscape is more dry than wet – scratchy, scrubby and scorched. Big trees are lignum vitae and thatch palm. The land around the ponds is filled with multitudes of birds - waterbirds, resident birds and migrants. The beach sand is dark grey, the coast heaped with old sand dunes, the sea dark blue, rough and dangerous. There are no large hotels, no red and white security barriers, no highways. Getting here takes commitment. This is Treasure Beach, on Jamaica’s south coast.

The place has its aficionados – returning residents, farmers, villa owners, boutique hotel operators, rich folks from Mandeville, several fishing beaches, and many small Jamaican establishments, where anyone can walk in and buy a meal cooked to order. Goats are the main traffic holdup. New buildings are overlarge, garish and ugly; old ones are earth coloured, unobtrusive in the landscape.

Some 25 years ago, an area called Great Bay, close to the Great Pedro Pond, was subdivided for housing. It must have been during a dry period and no one considered the extent of the pond in periods of heavy rain. Nor did the planners suggest elevated buildings in the manner of old time Jamaica. No, we must have new things, modern things, regardless of the predictable antics of natural features like coastal ponds on a tropical island smack in the hurricane belt.

In 2005, two hurricanes drenched Treasure Beach. The Great Pedro Pond overflowed its banks and flooded the people in the Great Bay houses, old and new. Meetings of angry residents were held and the cry went up – Do Something Now! In early 2006, a politician sprang into unaccustomed action, probably damaging several muscles atrophied from lack of use. Without benefit of plan, thought, permit or environmental study, the National Works Agency carved a channel from pondside almost to the sea.

Apart from those flooded out who were happy, the residents sadly contemplated the ugly scar across the landscape – a giant gully. The pesky environmentalists (I was one) raised an alarm – pointed out the risks of marine contamination from the pond, not to mention the risks to the pond itself and therefore to the wildlife that depended on it. The construction was illegal, the environmentalists said, as drainage projects to the sea required both an environmental permit and a beach license and neither had been issued. More public meetings were held and extravagant promises of box culverts and weirs were made by the National Works Agency. Then the flurry of government action spent itself – the hurricane season was, after all, over.

The Treasure Beach gully slept in the sun through the rest of 2006, 2007 and part of 2008. Its banks began to collapse. Scrub colonized the silty floor. Every now and then someone from Treasure Beach would object to its unfinished state. A few men would show up, a bit of form work would be done, there would be some digging. The environmental regulatory agency, the National Environment and Planning Agency, started a file - and filed it.

Early in 2009, the bulldozers returned. Culverts with two bridges were completed, along with a concreted channel into the sea. Only a small piece of land remained unbulldozed; only a small piece of land kept the pond from being joined to the sea.

As I write, that piece of land will probably fall within a week and a semi permanent connection from pond to sea and sea to pond will be established. There has been no inventory of the birds, the turtles, the crocodiles, the rare pancake lotus of the Great Pedro Pond. There has been no detailed study of the hydrology, the geology, the historical extent of the pond. Tests to establish the water quality in the pond were done once in the dry season only. No alternative solution to alleviate infrequent flooding has been considered – including the restoration of old drainage channels, reportedly blocked by the filling of sink holes. The risk to property and human life from storm surge – a la Hurricane Katrina – has been ignored. And the matter of aesthetics is certainly not the National Works Agency’s purview, nor apparently, the concern of the National Environment and Planning Agency.

I left Treasure Beach last week and drove to Jamaica’s north coast, where rivers are “trained,” drainage gullies are ubiquitous, rainwater sheets off highways and parking lots and the roofs of massive hotels into the Caribbean Sea. And there was the result – the land bleeding into the sea, brown plumes of silt and poorly treated sewage and plastic bottles blooming in what used to be clear, turquoise water. From the Santa Cruz Mountains looking down at the Pedro Plains and Treasure Beach as I left, the south coast sea still held its clean indigo colour.

Not for long, though, I thought. Not for long.

(See recent photos of the Treasure Beach Canal on the home page (at the right) of http://www.treasurebeach.net/

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dreaming in Words

There are two good parts of novel writing. The first is when you begin dreaming about the book, when a character or a situation comes to you, and you think, oh that would make a good story. You go to bed thinking about it and you mull it over while in boring government meetings. It’s a bit like painting a picture in reverse – you first draw a few main people and events in your mind and fill in the background later. I love those early weeks, when you just know your characters are unique in fiction, your setting memorable, glimmers of a plot begin to emerge and it seems that in a few short months, a completed and seamless manuscript will flow from your printer into a neat pile of paper, holding all the magic of words. And they are your words!

The second good part is when a novel has been finished. Passing lightly over the years of angst, frustration, loneliness and self doubt that intervene, there does come a day when you have finished the blessed thing. There’s no point reading it again – you can no longer see a single word. Family members have been tortured with the dilemmas of your characters. Literary friends have been pressed into reading it and giving their thoughts. Expensive reference books on literary markets have been bought and pored over. Then you find someone – publisher or agent – who agrees to read it and you send it off. An assistant acknowledges it and, if you are lucky, mentions a time frame in which an answer will be given. You save it on multiple computers and jump drives and then there is nothing more to do. Except wait. And dream. You are back to dreaming.

All of this is a very long way of explaining the silence of this blog over these past few months – I’ve been finishing my second novel. “How to” books on blogging say there must be no hiatus – the number one rule of blogging is frequent posts. Too bad. I’m kinda opposed to blogging rules in any case. So now SnailWriter is back…

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Royal Runnins

The King and Queen of Spain arrive in Jamaica today. There is an enormous spread in the Gleaner to commemorate the visit – the Jamaica Observer apparently did not benefit from the advertising largesse. In Jamaica, you have to understand the runnins – the Observer has hammered what has come to be called “The Sand Issue” – the theft of sand from a beach in Trelawny allegedly to “nourish” the beaches of three north coast hotels - two Spanish, and one American. The Gleaner spread has the predictable photos of the President of the Spanish/Jamaican Chamber of Commerce a.k.a. Spanish Ambassador to Jamaica Jesus Silva – is he gaining a bit of weight? The good life on the Rock will do that for you. Careful, Ambassador, you might jeopardize your Eye Candy status…

An article by Gareth Manning entitled “The Spanish in Jamaica” happily only begins the story in the late 20th century – so no uncomfortable mention of the poor Tainos – and does mention the environmental “issues” raised by “the environmental advocates.” Way to go, Gareth! Ambassador Silva dismisses these easily as lack of communication and the fact that we Third-Worlders are “not used to such a huge flow of sudden big-scale projects.” Really now. Actually, Ambassador Silva, we’re most used to large scale projects being inflicted on us in the absence of the required consultative, planning, environmental and social frameworks and yes, absent even an economic rationale. It’s the norm, not the exception.

The Ambassador gives us a fabulous quote at the end of his interview: “There are places in Jamaica where there is no investment, no economic activity, the coastline has been untouched and it has been very degraded.” Yup. Gotta get rid of that bush.

Ambassador Silva finishes with that old chestnut – “Sometimes the biggest threat to the environment is not hotels…it’s poverty,” he tells us. People who are poor and who directly use natural resources, such as for firewood, can and do cause damage to the environment, but it pales in scale and seriousness when compared to the actions of an investor with a bulldozer and an environmental permit.

One thing the Ambassador says is true: “Spanish hotels have become part of the geography of Jamaica and they are here to stay.” And that is the tragedy. When the economic downturn affects the viability of these hotels, after our people have been denied access to their own coastline, after our wetlands, coral reefs and sea grass beds have been destroyed in order to save them, after our coast has been turned into a version of The Generic Warm Place, we Jamaicans will be left with the concrete. The decisions are with us forever. As American environmentalist David Brower once said, “Our victories are always temporary; our defeats always permanent.”

The royal visit is not without its lighter side, of course. We have had the obligatory spruce up and clean up, the signage, the plantings, the paintings – all of which will instantly cease when the royal feet leave the Rock. The plantings will die or be returned to the nursery from whence they were loaned, the painting will fade in the sun, the signs will be grafitti’d or used by those Jamaicans not able to get jobs in tourism to make aluminum pots.

The King will honour Prime Minister Bruce and Mrs. Golding tonight – Portia and P.J. must be gnashing their teeth! After all, it was the PNP who brought the Spanish back to the Land of Not Much Wood or Water. Still, if memory serves me correctly, P.J. got his honours already and I'm sure a little patience will bring Portia hers too...

And so while we buzz around all agog at the brush with royalty – life continues on the Rock. We are assailed by vile and ignorant utterances from Member of Parliament Ernie Smith about gays, http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090217/lead/lead6.html
we are desperate to protect our children from daggering songs http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/lifestyle/html/20090210t210000-0500_146018_obs_poets_defend_ban_on_explicit_songs_.asp
while doing little to ensure their safety, education and quality of life – the lack thereof being the real obscenities in Jamaica.

And another part of the north coast, historic Falmouth, is about to fall to an investor with a bulldozer, not one from Spain it must be said, but an investor also welcomed as royalty and given the keys to the kingdom without so much as the most minor of skirmishes.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Encounter with a Literary Lioness

Late last year, I read Junot Diaz's book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." I loved it. I googled him, to find out if he was speaking anywhere I might be, and saw he had spoken at the Key West Literary Seminar in 2008. I clicked on the website for the seminar and saw that the 2009 theme would be historical fiction. I had just finished my second novel - which is - drum roll - historical fiction. It was a Sign. Junot Diaz was not going to be there in 2009, but other literary Lions and Lionesses would speak and read and breathe the same air and I might find out something about historical fiction. There was financial aid; I applied and got it. That's why I was in Key West in January 2009. And before I go on - the Key West Literary Seminar is well worth attending.

The Seminar had two parts - workshops, where you joined a group of a dozen or so led by a teacher, and everyone's submitted writing was critiqued - and then the seminar itself, with lectures, panel discussions and readings from established authors. I've grown weary of the writing workshop over the years - especially for long forms. It's really hard to do justice to a novel when all anyone has read is 30 pages. So I joined the workshop for non fiction, planning a non fiction work which would be suitable for these terrible times in publishing.

There is a certain spirit that pervades such a gathering. The Aspiring Writers - all are, of course, voracious readers - walk around exclaiming at the aphorisms delivered by their favourite writers in panel discussions, they talk earnestly about books they've read, there is an atmosphere of heady intellectualism and wafting through it all is the taint of desperation from those yearning for publication, wanting to be one of the chosen reading to an audience from an actual book of their own, pronouncing on literary dogma, being the last word. People exclaim at seeing their heroes in the flesh in restaurants or hotel lobbies. And the published writers arrive just before the panels and try to leave just after, but always are waylaid by those who want even the briefest of brushes with their celebrity and that holy grail of writers' seminars - the signature on the flyleaf of a book, the actual handwriting of a Famous Author. "Mr. Vidal. Mr. Smart Bell. Mr. Matthieson. I'm a HUGE fan, would you mind...?" The book is handed over. The Famous Author smiles and tries to extricate himself or herself. The Aspiring Author has this one moment to get their attention and goes on, "...and I've just completed (fill in the blank - novel, short story, personal essay - the personal essay is big this year). What advice would you...?" Depending on the age and personality of the Famous Author, the encounter is short or long, general or specific, slightly useful or not useful at all, but regardless of the form, the Eager Young Writer (who is often anything but young) talks about it to other Aspiring Writers until the end of the seminar.

From the beginning, I had been sitting at the front row of the auditorium in Key West - I found there was more space to stretch out my sore knee. The writers had their own reserved section to the right. And one night I found myself sandwiched between a Literary Lioness and a Literary Lion. I had spoken to the Lion before because he had written about Jamaica, and he greeted me distractedly, because he had lost something and needed it before he went on stage. The Lioness ignored me. We waited for the first item to begin - it was described in the programme as a performance from a Chinese American writer I had not heard of.

The Lioness leaned across me and spoke to the Lion. The Lion glanced at me, apparently somewhat uncomforable with the Lioness's bad manners, but he answered her. They conversed. I tried to evaporate, feeling the stares of the Aspiring Writers behind me who were not seated in such august company. Look. At her. She's sitting with...!

The performance began. It was like that staple of Jamaican functions - the cultural item - slightly cheesy, somewhat amateurish, but endearing for all that. The Chinese writer was engaging in her enthusiams, she acted bits of her book with her daughter, she sang some opera, she did a bit of pretend martial arts, she changed costumes, she made jokes. She was thrilled to be someone who had struggled with English all her life - and who was now writing best selling novels in English. You go girl, I thought.

When it was finished, the Lioness leaned across me again. "What was THAT?" she said to the Lion.

"Oh, well a performance, you know," the Lion said, glancing at me again. The Lioness damned it as inauthentic, ridiculous, pointless. I became annoyed. "Would you two like to sit together?" I said to the Lioness.

She was unabashed. "No," she said. "We're going on stage now."

She was brilliant in her panel, as was the Lion. At the end, they came off the stage and stood to one side, awaiting their accolades. I saw the Chinese American writer approach them and she almost bowed to the Lioness, and I could see she was asking with utmost humility if she could have her photograph taken with this woman who had just condemned her performance and her work. The Lioness struck a pose and the Chinese American woman stood beside her and her friends took her picture.

It's trite to say talented people are just people in all their variety - but it struck me that a certain ego is required to set words on paper and imagine that others will want to read them. And these days that ego is overfed by the book tour and the writer's workshop and literary festival and the spectre of being an Oprah pick or a Richard and Judy pick or the winner of a mega literary prize. No longer can a writer be a romantic recluse, eschewing interviews, affecting a tantalizing mystique. It's the Era of the Media and you gotta be out there.

Who knows what the fate of my own books will be. One will be published late this year or early next, the other is just beginning it's search for a publisher. I suppose one day I might have to read from my own work, might have someone ask me for advice about their unpublished work - how did you do it, Miss McCaulay? - or thrust a copy of my book at me and ask for a message to someone I have never met and my signature. Happy birthday Doris. Diana McCaulay. I hope I'll cope with grace, remembering what the world looked like from the seat of the Aspiring Writer.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Finding the sea in Key West

I have not migrated. I was in Key West attending a writers' seminar, of which more in a minute.

Two days after my frustrating search for the sea, I decided greater determination was needed. I asked for directions to the sea at my bed and breakfast place. "Fort Zachary Taylor," the young woman who presided over breakfast told me.

"Will I be able to touch the sea?" I asked. I wanted the sea up close and personal, complete with smell and sound. I did not want a distant vista.

"Sure," the young woman said, humouring me. "There's a beach and picnic tables and everything." Uh oh.

I set out, consulting my rudimentary map. It was a cold, grey day, particularly for Key West. The sun contract with the tourist had been broken. I walked though the streets of old town, noting places I might return to eat and after about twenty minutes, found myself at the entrance to a gated community. I hesitated. There was no barrier at the entrance, but there was a little sign explaining that this WAS a gated community, and while visitors were welcome, they were to behave themselves and be out by six. I checked my map. I looked at the sign for Fort Zachary Taylor beach - yes, it was definitely directing me into the gated community.

Expecting to be challenged by a security guard, I walked through the community. It was fake old town, but well done for all that. The houses ended in a kind of ruined industrial park. There was a chain link fence with plastic threaded through the chain link to obscure the view. There was a sign saying the site was the property of the US government, and no matter how mashed up anything looked, it was not to be taken! Words to that effect. There was some kind of navy-type ship moored on an unseen sea - so it was definitely there. The ship was painted in sea and sky camouflage. On my left another kind of industrial facility - perhaps water treatment or even sewage. I felt lost in concrete and the works of men.

I saw a rectangular, low, closed up building to my right. It had a nature mural on the outside, a large, empty car park and a big sign: "Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center." To discover the ecosystem you have to go inside?

I came to a ranger post which proclaimed the entrance to the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. There was a fee - US$1.50 for a walker. "What's that place over there?" I asked the ranger and pointed to the Eco-Discovery Center.

"Oh, it's the Eco-Discovery Center," he said.

"I see that," I said, "but what's inside?"

"Displays and stuff," he said. "A small aquarium. A theatre. You should go. It's free and air conditioned."

"So you have to pay to see the real thing but the fake thing is free?" I said. The young man shrugged, stopping just short of an eye roll.

The road curved through mangroves and big sea grape trees. A woman was weeding the beds around young trees. I came around a corner and saw the sea through a grove of casaurinas; the sea at eye level. The beach was almost empty - one couple waded in the shallows. There was a small restaurant to the right and to the left, a fence right into the sea and a military looking satellite dish.

I sat at one of the picnic tables and eased off my backpack. The public beach was clean and pleasant, the seascape was wintery, grey and white and grey. A sailboat heeled way over and a pelican battled the wind. Breakwaters of huge stones were striped with bird droppings. The brochure the ranger had given me said the sea was teeming with fish. I doubted it. It felt strange to feel cold while sitting on a beach.

After awhile, I got up and climbed out on the breakwater. And there I could hear and see and smell and touch the sea, which sucked and churned between the rocks. At close range, the sea turned acquamarine and I could believe I was in Florida. I saw no mobile life - no fish, no snails, no whelks. The only living thing I saw was algae.

Walking back, I went to the Eco Center. It was a well designed and informative facility and probably the only place many who visit the Keys will see a healthy coral reef - in a tank. There was a film feed of a an artificial reef in the sea, the blurb explained the scientists were trying to grow coral and encourage fish to come back. The film feed showed nothing but silt laden water. I asked the cost of the Center - US$6 million. I wondered what US$6 million might have been able to achieve for the real park.

The woman was still weeding as I left. I stopped to talk to her, under the oldest sea grape tree I had ever seen, with huge round maroon leaves, the veins orange and green. "They're replacing the exotic trees with natives," she told me. "Like the casaurinas. When the hurricanes blow them down, they don't put them back." I remembered the casuarinas out at Palisadoes, where my grand aunt had taken us for picnic lunches when we were children, how we had spread a cloth on the fallen needles and hunted for pine cones afterwards and listened to the shushing sound the trees made. I loved casaurinas then.

I told the woman goodbye and walked back through the industrial park and the gated community. At least I had found the sea.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Looking for the sea in Key West

I’m in Key West and I can’t find the sea. I have a rudimentary map, issued with the bed and breakfast place I’m staying, and according to the map there’s a historic marina and boardwalk and it’s also clear that the land part of Key West ends where the sea begins. I figure a place called Key West must be a good place to see a sunset and I can see the sun is beginning its descent in the sky. But I can’t find the sea, although I can smell it. I’ve been to the historic marina and boardwalk and while the city of boats does float on what is clearly the sea, this is not what I want. I want the sea to the horizon, the sea where a fish might jump, a pelican might dive and even a dolphin might frolic past. I do not want this forest of masts. And the marina faces east – no sunset. Still, not wanting to miss anything historic, I half jog, half walk along the boardwalk, past empty restaurants and fishing tackle shops and T-shirt kiosks and charter boat offerings. At the end of the boardwalk, I’m facing the setting sun. Surely if I just walk towards the sun, I will arrive at the sea?

I cross car parks and streets, I duck into plazas and malls, getting closer to the sun, but the sea is completely obscured by tourist trappery. There’s a big plaza area with small benches, most facing inwards so folks can watch street performers – jugglers and escape artists and a man who is threatening the crowd with a torch and pouring kerosene in a big square on the ground. He’s not getting any takers. There’s a cruise ship, Holland America’s Veendam, which I assume must be floating on the sea, but it’s huge and there’s no way to see around its hull. I do try, I walk to the bow but I can’t get close enough to peek through the triangle made by the rake of the ship’s bow and the pier. I ask a man in a charter boat place where I can go to see the sea and he gestures to the plaza with the performers – “Sunset celebrations,” he says.

“But you can’t see the sea,” I object. “There are too many people and shops and the cruise ship.”

Blasted tourists, I can see him thinking. Can’t please ‘em. Now they want the sea!? What next!

“Try the Westin,” he says, typing on his computer, clearly uninterested in anyone in Key West wanting to see the sea at sunset, as opposed to a man who appears to be threatening to set himself on fire.

I find the Westin Hotel. By now, the sun is nearing the horizon. I’m sure they’re not going to let me into the Westin, it’ll be like a Jamaican all-inclusive hotel with a security guard and a barrier. But there is a path beside the hotel and the sign only asks that you not ride your bicycle to the pier and there, finally, is the beaten plate of the sea and the sun just beginning to disappear behind a bank of cloud. People are gathered on the pier, taking photographs. I find a bench and sit next to a woman, who is soon joined by another woman and they both begin to complain about the way the railings are spoiling their view and their photographs. The sun sinks into the bank of cloud and suddenly the sunset is over – there are no wisps of colour left in the sky. No pelican dives, no fish jumps, certainly no dolphin arcs through the water. The people leave and you can see they’ve been disappointed by the entertainment. The sun, sea and sky as commodity. Perhaps folks will want a refund.

You really have to wonder about tourism. Flying here, deserted islands seemed to float in the air, so calm and shallow was the sea beneath. The sunset was a wide swath in the darkening sky. I was flying to Key West – where Earnest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams hung out, a tropical island right at the end of US 1, a place where the residents have to leave when hurricanes threaten. Somewhere different.

A big sign at the airport proclaimed arrival at the Conch Republic –naturally, I wondered about the health of their conch stocks. The smell of the sea was strong and although it was dark, I was sure the sea would be ever present. But it was tourist kitsch and Americana that were everywhere – men making coconut palm hats, sellers of personalized seashells, coconut carvings of the faces of monkeys, ankle bracelets and toe rings, Banana Republic and Starbucks, and a guided locomotive drawn tram car, full of bored looking older people wearing visors and baseball caps. I had come to the Nowhere In Particular Warm Tourist Destination.

I ate overpriced, half cooked conch fritters in a dark restaurant, staffed by youngsters distracted by their new work schedule. Did you see we have to work Saturday AND Sunday? they asked each other. I walked back to my town house – the only place I’ve ever encountered with a window air conditioner in the tiny bathroom. Fresh air is not tolerated indoors – and although large signs proclaim this to be a green hotel and I was given a cloth bag on check in – all the air conditioners and many of the lights are left on all day in empty rooms by the cleaning staff.

What I like about Key West – the old, wooden houses, their railings bleached in the sun, the chickens in the streets, the big trees, the patches of sand in gardens telling the hard-to-see truth about this place, the absence of traffic jams, the sunshine. I have a free day on Thursday – perhaps with a car, I might find a place where I can see the sea, and perhaps even walk into it, to find the promise of those floating islands I saw from the air.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

More on Jabbering Crows

According to ornithologist Dr. Susan Koenig of the Windsor Research Centre in Cockpit Country, Jabbering Crows are New Jamaican Men! Yes, despite the racket. They stay in stable partnerships year-round, eschew outside liaisons, and even bring home the occasional tasty lizard for the chicks. The female crow, nonetheless, is the one that has to sit on the eggs in the baking sun, right at the top of a tree on spindly branches, trying to prevent them from being fried sunnyside up, while the male hangs out in the cool forest, doing that jabbering thing. Why do they build their nests so high? To keep the chicks away from snakes…

AND when the chips are down, the male crow will join with the female to protect their offspring. Susan saw a chick fall out of the nest this summer, and the two parents were immediately on the scene, calling like mad. A mongoose got the chick, sadly, but the crows stayed on the ground for two days, looking for junior. And male crows do help females mob Jamaican boas, if they see one on the ground.

Susan is recommending a school for Jamaican men to learn the behaviours of Jabbering Crows – specifically, that men can be monogamous, look after the kids – and STILL make one whole heap of noise…

Snail Heaven

Having selected the name SnailWriter for this blog, I thought it important to say a few things about snails. Now pay attention...

Snails live in virtually every habitat on earth – rivers, the sea, deserts, mountains, forests, and, of course, our gardens. The biggest snail is an Australian marine snail, which can grow to over 30 inches in length and weigh up to 50 lbs. Snails are mathematically inclined and their shells are most often a right-handed logarithmic spiral – I’m not sure what this is, but I’m perfectly sure I could not make one.

The glistening trails they leave are lubrication for their “foot.”

Snail shells are made up mostly of calcium carbonate, so snails need calcium in their diet. They can repair a slightly damaged shell themselves. Most snails have two sets of tentacles on their heads – one with eyes and the other with noses.

Most land snails are hermaphrodites – they produce both sperm and eggs. Although they could presumably fertilize their own eggs, they choose not to. Prior to reproduction they have a slow dance – what folks my age used to call rent-a-tile – for two to six hours – including plenty rubbing up and biting and eye stalk waving. About one third of land snails file a “dart” at the object of their affections – thought to be the origin of the Cupid legend. I am not making this up.

Snails have been eaten by humans for thousands of years.

Due to their measured approach to life, snails have been used as symbols of laziness. Carl Jung said that a dream of a snail is representative of the self – the soft subconscious and the hard outer shell.

Jamaica is “snail heaven.” We have between 555 and 561 (depending on which scientist you consult) named species of land snails and of these 505 are found in Jamaica and nowhere else – an amazing level of diversity.

Naturally, Jamaican snails are sexual performers. Up to 75% of their body volume can consist of their…umm… reproductive organs, and their mating episodes last for hours even though they are often exposed to the dangers of the wild, such as salt-wielding gardeners…

For more fascinating Jamaican snail facts, see http://www.cockpitcountry.com/Invertebrates.html