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…