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 and on the Treasure Beach forum, 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.