A Fondness for Fantasy

Forgive me, dear readers. Or rather, I should say, “I crave your indulgence, my lords and ladies.” 

Why the fancy talk? Well, in the space of just a couple of days, I have become addicted to – or perhaps enslaved by – the television series “Game of Thrones.” I was assured by friends that, if I did not immerse myself in the previous three seasons, I would not have a clue what was going on in the fourth. And I intended to watch the fourth (which started this evening). So, for the first time, I plunged in headfirst with three “marathons.” Yes, three.

I have never spent so much time on the couch before. I have had to remind myself to eat. I have done one or two basic household chores very swiftly, in between episodes. My husband has given up on me. Now, at the end of it all, my head is aching a little. But I am feeling replete – just as if I had finished a heavy meal and wish I hadn’t eaten quite so much, but not really regretting it.

"The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I have always had a weakness for fantasy and science fiction, having grown up on fairy tales in my youth. Some of my younger readers may not know, but in the late sixties and early seventies, when I was a wayward university student, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien became enormously popular among young bohemians. The sixties were a golden era for science fiction, and during our teens my brother and I had already devoured many of the great writers – Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K Dick and so on. We didn’t live in the video age; it was all books. Anyway, “Lord of the Rings” almost became our bible. We taught ourselves to write runes, and speak Elvish even. And this was, of course, long before all the CGI stuff. The special effects were all in our imaginations.

A scene from Isaac Asimov's wonderful "Foundation Trilogy," a science fiction classic published in exactly the same era as "The Lord of the Rings" (the early 50s).

A scene from Isaac Asimov’s wonderful “Foundation Trilogy,” a science fiction classic published in exactly the same era as “The Lord of the Rings” (the early 1950′s).

This wedding feast scene at the end of last season ended in a bloodbath. It reminded me of the final scene of Hamlet, with some major characters littered about the set, and unfortunately not making it to Season 4.

This wedding feast scene at the end of the last season of “Game of Thrones” ended in a Shakespearean-style bloodbath. It reminded me of the final scene of Hamlet, with some major characters littered about the set – and unfortunately not making it to Season 4.

Anyway, “Game of Thrones” is based on books too – by George R.R. Martin (funny how the R.R. crept in). It’s like “Lord of the Rings” on steroids, and without the comforting quaintness of the hobbits. It’s definitely X-rated. Most of the main characters take their clothes off with the greatest of ease, and no one seems to wear underwear – at least, not the women. And then there’s the blood. Sometimes it goes slightly over the top, and I want the scene to move on so I can see what’s happening to What’s-His-Face or What’s-Her-Face. A lot of conversations seem to end in a fight of some sort, or a sexual excursion. But some characters actually manage to love each other.

One of the fearsome White Walkers. Not easy customers to deal with, as you can imagine.

One of the fearsome White Walkers. Not easy customers to deal with, as you can imagine.

How do I get one of these dragons? Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.

How do I get one of those dragons? Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.

So, how and why did I get hooked? Well, there is just the right dab of magic here and there, where it’s needed, and it’s not too heavy on the special effects. The sets, whether computer-generated or not, are beautifully done and very detailed. The locations are just perfect, from darkly dripping woodlands and snow-swept mountains to sunny Mediterranean cliff tops by a dreamy blue sea (it was filmed in six different countries). The music is moody, medieval and never intrusive (unlike the bombastic “Lord of the Rings” score). The costumes are beautiful. The dialogue is just right: a little flowery, a little clichéd at times, but that doesn’t matter in this genre. The story lines overlap and weave in and out of each other. There are several competing Houses vying for power; as my husband observed, it’s all a bit tribal.

Poor Jon Snow. I think he smiled during a love scene once, but he has a lot of inner angst going on. But it just makes him look even cuter.

Poor Jon Snow. I think he smiled during a love scene once, but he has a lot of inner angst going on. But that just makes him look even cuter. He is played by Kit Harrington.

 

Most of all, the myriad characters are a delight – from the once-debonair Jaime Lannister (now minus a hand but still rather endearing) to the cool slave liberator and dragon-momma Daenerys Targaryen; from the adorably tousle-haired, inwardly-torn Jon Snow (he doesn’t smile much) to the witty, smart and rather kind Tyrion. And several very interesting and strong female roles, which I love. There are not only grown-ups, but some very important children, too, who have their own adventures. Plus huge wolves, the aforementioned dragons, and a lot of dead people with bright blue eyes.

Queen Regent Cersei Lannister is a fascinating character, played by Lena Headey. She is cynical, secretive, bitter and only occasionally sympathetic.

Queen Regent Cersei Lannister is a fascinating character, played by Lena Headey. She is cynical, secretive, bitter and only occasionally sympathetic.

 

Lord Varys, the eunuch who knows everything about everyone at court, and is good at putting two and two together. Love him!

Lord Varys, the eunuch who knows everything about everyone at court, and is good at putting two and two together. Love him!

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jamie Lannister in the season premiere of “Game of Thrones” on HBO.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in the season premiere of “Game of Thrones” on HBO.

 

So I am going to bed tonight (as I did last night) with the clashing of swords, the thundering of horses’ hooves and the screech of dragons in my ears.

And of course, I can’t wait until next Sunday evening.

 

A Fairytale World at the Carib

What’s the difference between a wood sprite and a water nymph?

Rusalka, the tree and the moon.

Rusalka, the tree and the moon.

In the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s production of “Rusalka,”  an opera by AntonÍn Dvorák, there are three wood sprites (in green filmy dresses) and one water nymph – Rusalka herself, in shades of watery blue. The wood sprites do a lot of fluttery dancing and running around on tiptoe, laugh a lot and show a lot of leg at times, in their gossamer green dresses. Rusalka… Well, she is not a happy wood nymph, most of the time. By the way, we enjoyed this opera at Kingston’s Carib cinema as part of an incredible “The Met: Live in HD” series, courtesy of Palace Amusement Company. We are confirmed addicts.

Dolora Zajick (right) as Jezibaba and Renee Fleming in the title role of "Rusalka."

Dolora Zajick (right) as Jezibaba and Renee Fleming in the title role of “Rusalka.”

This beautiful lyrical opera took me back to my childhood, when I devoured books of fairy tales. My favorites were twelve collections of fairy tales, myths and legends from around the world, each one a different color. There was the Green Fairy Book, the Orange Fairy Book, the Violet Fairy Book, and so on. They were compiled by a nineteenth-century Scotsman, Andrew Lang. There were wood nymphs in some of these pages, which were also crowded with Native American warriors, fearsome Scandinavian monsters, Chinese emperors and of course, beautiful princesses and handsome princes. The story of “Rusalka” is an adaptation of a Slavic myth.

Rusalka with her Dad, the Water Gnome (John Relyea).

Rusalka with her Dad, the Water Gnome (John Relyea).

Back to the opera. Rusalka (sung by Renée Fleming) has fallen in love with a human – a prince, who lives in a castle in the forest. She lives in a glittering lake in the forest with her father, the Water Gnome (who is painted in shiny aqua colors and has a splendid fake torso, complete with an impressive “six-pack”). An ugly witch (well, they are always ugly aren’t they) called Jezibaba mixes up some potions for her, and Rusalka becomes mortal, so that the prince can actually see her. This is where her problems start. If you know the heartbreaking story “The Little Mermaid” (and no, I am not talking about the Disney film here) – this is the Czech version.

Renée Fleming and Piotr Beczala in "Rusalka." (Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

Renée Fleming and Piotr Beczala in “Rusalka.” (Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

Rusalka is one of Ms. Fleming’s signature roles. It is a challenging one with a wide range; it’s also emotionally tricky to act. She spends some of the time unable to speak (the witch’s spell did that). During most of one act, she is the losing-out one third of a love triangle between herself, the Prince and a passionate Foreign Princess in a heavy red costume (sung powerfully by Emily Magee). She spends a lot of time weeping and yearning for the impossible; Ms. Fleming portrays her with an other-worldly cool. Rusalka is, of course, completely lost in the world of humans. In the first scene, she spends most of the time sitting in the top of a tree, where she sings the “Song to the Moon,” the most well-known piece of music in the opera. It is beautiful, unearthly.

Růžena Maturová as the first Rusalka (Prague, 1901).

Růžena Maturová as the first Rusalka (Prague, 1901). Rusalka and her sisters loved to play among the water lilies – until things got complicated with humans.

Let me tell you about the Prince. He is played by the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. Mr. Beczala’s voice flows with passion, tons of it. He sang the part of Lenski in the Met’s “Eugene Onegin” – possibly still my favorite in the 2013/14 season, so far. Mr. Beczala – he of the piercing blue eyes – is pretty irresistible, and it was wonderful to see and hear him in an equally romantic and tragic role.

Piotr Beczala as The Prince.

Piotr Beczala as The Prince.

The "Rusalka" production helmed by Montreal-born maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin is seen around the world via the "Live at the Met" series, made possible by a generous grant from its founding sponsor The Neubauer Family Foundation. (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

The “Rusalka” production is helmed by Montreal-born maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is an up-and-coming star conductor at the Met. The orchestration was rich and energetic. (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Suffice it to say that there is no happy ending. But then, fairytales are often stories of longing and sadness. Unlike today’s predictable romantic comedies, the hero and heroine don’t always ride off into the sunset.

Which makes this fairytale perhaps more believable – even more edgy – than you might expect.

P.S. If you are an American football fan, you may recall that Renée Fleming sang the national anthem at the Superbowl last weekend. She confessed in an interview that she felt more nervous beforehand than she ever did singing opera – but the audience loved her performance. Oh, and by the way, Ms. Fleming has four Grammys.

For more on the “Live at the Met” series, which is broadcast to   countries around the world, visit: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/liveinhd/LiveinHD.aspx  

My review of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Met is here: http://petchary.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/classy-stuff-at-the-carib/

Renee Fleming singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Superbowl last Sunday, February 2. (Photo: AP)

Renee Fleming singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Superbowl last Sunday, February 2. (Photo: AP)

Cocooning Catharsis: The Uncertainty of Change

Photo artist Ms. Berette Macaulay says she is “becoming a Bedouin.” A Bedouin who is moving through changes, setting her feet on new paths through the drifting desert landscape.

Berette Macaualy: Cocooning Catharsis

Berette Macaualy: Cocooning Catharsis

Tall and smiling in a leaf-green dress, Ms. Macaulay welcomed us to her current exhibition in Kingston, “Cocooning Catharsis.” She smiles, but the  works displayed at Kingston’s HiQo Gallery speak of a letting go, a gathering in, a “slow process of releasing stuff,” as the artist put it. And as we walked through the gallery (which has a light, bright attic feel) we sensed this shedding of memories and expectations – some disappointing, perhaps. Change and decay and rebirth.

The first room has smoke impressions on glass. The smoke curls against darkness, and leads us into the second room, where Mnemosyne awaits.

Mnemosyne, with a touch of spring sunlight.

Mnemosyne, with a touch of spring sunlight.

“Mnemosyne Offers Spring for the Searching Soul,” a 2011 installation, stands near the window. Mnemoysyne is Berette’s favorite Greek goddess. She is the Titan goddess of remembrance; and because she helped translate memory into words, she is by extension the patron goddess of the oral tradition, and poetry read aloud (something Jamaicans love). Her bodice is entwined with the honeysuckle and rosebuds of spring. Her hips are broad (good for giving birth) and her skirt long and flowing. I saw the skirt’s hazy-blue as reflecting the mists of time and fading memories; Berette created it as Mnemosyne’s pool in the underworld, spilling onto the floor. Greek myths tell that the dead, on reaching Hades, had the choice of drinking from the river Lethe, where they would forget all the pains of their previous life and then be reborn; or from the Mnemosyne’s pool of memory, which would allow them to enter the Elysian Fields, in joy and peace forever.

Mnemosyne Offers Spring for the Searching Soul (detail)

Mnemosyne Offers Spring for the Searching Soul (detail)

Importantly too, for all artists, Mnemosyne is the mother of all nine of the Muses, having slept with Zeus for nine consecutive nights (yes, the promiscuous Zeus!)

A decaying tree is suspended by its roots from the ceiling. A bundled cocoon hangs from it, waiting to be born. It is spring-time, after all, and that means everything is born anew. But without memories?

"We Are Lighter Than All This" (detail)

We Are Lighter Than All This (detail)

Memory is a part of the process of change. You can discard some of it, carry others with you as you begin your new journey. But they will never leave you. In the third room, where Ms. Macaulay’s mixed media lightbox works line the walls, we learn of the difficulties of change. It is not a smooth, straight line. It is discomfort and pain. In the first lightbox, “We Had Kingdoms First,” Berette is seated, on the blue Atlantic Ocean. She is throwing up fragments of skyscrapers – the Empire State Building and others. I thought she was juggling them, trying to keep them all in the air at once. Berette says she was tossing them away – her dreams of New York, her old fantasies about the great city where she lived for five years. In one corner is a baby, symbolizing change. Berette is wearing a traditional Sierra Leone batik head wrap - “trying to remember my royal self,” she suggests with a wry smile. Discarding her present life, and at the same time reaching back.

We Had Kingdoms First (detail).

We Had Kingdoms First (detail).

The faces in “We Are Lighter Than All This” have a spiritual, almost ghost-like quality. Some photographs have lines and cracks; others are blurred; others are sharp as day. They look like ancestors; they look like friends. This lightbox was created using pinhole photography. The result is – like change – uncertain. You never know, precisely, how each will turn out. Our spirits all have their own journey to pursue. “An Undulation to Higher Cycles” expresses a kind of sensuous yearning, with dark curves against a night-blue sky and a stone-white moon.

 (I photographed this sideways because of the light reflection)


An Undulation to Higher Cycles (I photographed this sideways because of the light reflection)

A note on the technicalities of the lightboxes. Ms Macaulay used a slow, inherently imperfect alternative method of processing. The images (pinhole or digital or film) are hand-processed as photographic transfers, and then acrylic, water and citrosol. The process creates layers of imagery; the end result is almost a collage. You have to just wait and see how each image turns out, the artist explained. Like change, it is unpredictable.

The dancers' images sewn onto Mnemosyne's gown.

The dancers’ images sewn onto Mnemosyne’s gown.

Four separate, large photographs on canvas complete the exhibition. Two dancers support themselves, and each other, against a tree trunk (in Central Park). It’s a recurring image in the exhibit, sewn onto Mnemosyne’s dress, for example. Berette, a trained dancer herself, reminds us that dancers have tremendous endurance: “They will take the pain…but they can’t show it.”  Strength like the tree trunk, to work through those changes.

Berette Macaulay, Afropolitan.

Berette Macaulay, Afropolitan.

In a 2010 newspaper interview, Ms. Macaulay observed (without sadness, one suspects) “I am not at home anywhere.” She was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but “never lived there.” She has lived in the United Kingdom (as a child); in Jamaica (where she grew up); and then in the United States. She is interested in the experience of migration. Now she will be returning to the land of her birth, to discover as a woman what she had never experienced as a girl. She says she is “coaxing herself back to her African roots.” Sierra Leone has had two peaceful elections, and after the agonies of civil war it is beginning to find itself again. Berette says she is starting to see herself as an “Afropolitan” – a term invented a few years ago to describe a group of urban Africans who travel and who are culturally aware (there is even an “Afropolitan” magazine). Many Afropolitans (such as Adama Kargbo, a fashion designer who honed her craft in New York and Paris) are returning to Sierra Leone to help rebuild.

Berette Macaulay explains her work to a visitor.

Berette Macaulay explains her work to a visitor.

Berette quoted the Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, who once said: “Technically, every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos – by means of catastrophes…” Yes, and so is change a series of small catastrophes – small, gentle, sometimes jarring, sometimes imperceptible, as reflected in the art of Berette Macaulay.

The lightbox series, by the way, is based on a collaborative poem by Ms. Macaulay and Steve “Urchin” Wilson. Each line of the poem is the title of one of the pieces, as follows:

We Had Kingdoms First/We Fawn Over A Cocooning Catharsis/We Connect At The Root Of A Beautiful Catastrophe/We Are Lighter Than All This/An Undulation To Higher Cycles/Some Walk Upright While Some Stay Wet…/In an Idiotropic ReBirth We Swim Up for Purpose/Mnemosyne Offers Spring For The Searching Soul

A cocoon is a comfort, a retreat from the real, a protective warmth that we do not want to leave. Just like a baby who must be born we fight change, Ms. Macaulay believes. Babies are so angry when they are born. But change is as inevitable as day follows the night.

Do go see the exhibition, “Cocooning Catharsis.” It is at the Upstairs Gallery at HiQo, 24 Waterloo Road, Kingston 10 (opposite the Terra Nova Hotel). Viewing hours are Monday to Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tel: (876) 864-1997. Email: fredrixauctions@gmail.com. OPEN UNTIL MONDAY, JANUARY 13!

B

Berette Macaulay will soon be returning to her roots.

Three Poems for National Heroes Day

Next Monday, October 21, is Jamaica’s National Heroes Day, and next week is Heritage Week. For the past two years I have posted a Jamaican poem. This year, I found three poems from a poet whom I admire greatly, Professor Mervyn Morris. His poetry is spare and simple in its elegance – and, in his case, brevity is the soul of wit. Now retired, Professor Morris has taught Creative Writing and West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies since the 1960s. And he is a former Rhodes Scholar – so we have an alma mater in common. His poetry often holds for me a kind of wistfulness and longing, faint regret, and an ironic shrug of the shoulder. How I feel about life, sometimes.

These three poems are taken from “I Been There, Sort Of” published by Carcanet Press in 2006.

Heritage

whispering ancestors

enfold me in their loving

ghostly immanence

 

Muntu

For Janheinz Jahn

My ancestors

alive inside the daylight

close up invisible in air

float from the pages of your book.

We called their names.

Enter my father, laughing,

a substantial black.

(When I was young he died.)

Behind him his black father,

formidable, stern.

Fathers who fathered me.

My mother’s mother shuffles in,

dragging her gentleness along the glare.

She indicates her father,

who looks white.

I start to hear the irons clink.

He dissipates my terror with a wink.

 

Sentences for Heritage Week

Mine history

for the energy it frees.

Do not spend precious time

hanging from family trees.

 

Below are links to poems by two young Jamaican poets, Ann-Margaret Lim and Ishion Hutchinson, that I posted last year and the year before.

Happy Heroes’ Weekend to all!

http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/abeng-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/ Abeng: A Poem for National Heroes Day, 2011

http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-festival-of-wild-orchid-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/ The Festival of Wild Orchid: A Poem for National Heroes Day, 2012

Professor and poet Mervyn Morris.

Professor and poet Mervyn Morris.

A Small Spider Spirit

We have noticed that, for the last week or two, a fairly small spider appears every night in a specific corner of the bathroom floor. He/she just sits there, unmoving. With only five legs he/she is probably technically not a spider – don’t spiders have eight legs?

In the morning, the spider thingy is gone – only to reappear the next night at around midnight or so, when I am just going to bed. He does not spin a web. He does not appear to catch anything to eat. He just sits there, on the floor. He is just there.

Last night, I tried taking a photo of him. The photograph came out strangely blurry… It just would not focus. (But then, that could be due to the fact that my camera does not seem to be very reliable at the moment).

My husband has suggested it might be a duppy – a spirit. Like the big flapping brown moths that live in the shadows under trees and sometimes enter the house at night. We call them bats in Jamaica, although of course they are not. Latin American and Caribbean myths about those creatures are not encouraging and usually involve death. So our yard is full of spirits, lurking in dark corners. I see omens of death almost daily.

In light of these superstitions, I am starting to wonder about our five-legged spider. But I am not. Superstitious. Am I?

Perhaps I can catch a real photo of him tonight.

 

Natural Histories: Everald Brown

petchary:

Everald Brown’s earthy, spiritual paintings, binding landscapes and humans together, have always been inspiring to me. Many years ago, we met him at the Harmony Hall art gallery, in St. Ann, Jamaica. He and his family settled down on the lawn and began drumming. Our son, quite small at the time, was fascinated, and they gave him a small drum to play on. Precious memory. Harmony Hall, an attractive restored 19th century manse owned by Annabella and Peter Proudlock, has over the years encouraged and brought to prominence a number of self-taught or “Intuitive” artists such as Brother Brown, many of them rural-based. You can find more examples on their website and elsewhere. We are lucky to own a few of these paintings; they enrich our lives. Harmony Hall is currently not holding any exhibitions due to Annabella’s illness; I am wishing for her a speedy recovery. NOTE: I encountered a cotton “duppy tree” in St. Thomas recently. These huge, magnificent trees are associated with duppies (ghosts) and are often hundreds of years old – regarded with awe by many Jamaicans, and associated with the old African magic/religious beliefs of Myal. GOOD magic, that is.

Originally posted on National Gallery of Jamaica Blog:

Everald Brown - Cotton Duppy Tree (1994), mixed media on board, Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, NGJ

Everald Brown – Cotton Duppy Tree (1994), mixed media on board, Aaron and Marjorie Matalon Collection, NGJ

The work of self-taught painter and sculptor Everald Brown is best understood in the context of religious Rastafari and African-Jamaican spirituality. Like many other religious Rastafarians, Brother Brown was attracted to the teachings and ritual practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and in the early 1960s established the Assembly of the Living, a self-styled mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which was located at 82 ½ Spanish Town Road. The beliefs, ritual practices and symbols of Brother Brown and his church community were however far from “orthodox’” and freely combined elements of religious Rastafari, Freemasonry, Kumina, Revival, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

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Protecting Wood and Water: Women in St. Thomas

Xaymaca is the Arawak (Taino) name for Jamaica. It means “Land of Wood and Water.” 

Wood and Water: White River in Ocho Rios, St. Ann. (My photo)

Wood and Water: White River in Ocho Rios, St. Ann. (My photo)

The Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) has a small and unpretentious office in Kingston. And it has an outstretched arm, too – eastwards, over the struggling community of Bull Bay and its dusty environs to the rich pastures, rivers and hillsides of St. Thomas. WROC’s outreach program, which seeks to empower women (and men) in rural communities, grew from the organization’s Sustainable Livelihoods program eastablished after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan – a particularly vicious storm – in 2004. But WROC has actually been working in several communities in St. Thomas since 2001.

Mr. Ernest Grant, goat farmer in Trinityville. (My photo)

Mr. Ernest Grant, goat farmer in Trinityville. (My photo)

Sustainability is a key word here – and another one which came to mind when I visited the area last week is resilience. Resilience in the deepest sense of the word: drawing on reserves of strength, stretching and getting pulled out of shape, and “bouncing back.”  But the bouncing back might not be a complete recovery; after a hurricane, things are never quite the same again, and never will be. One might perhaps be unable to return to how things were before. But one has armed oneself with skills, with resources – and with the strength – to be able to create and carve out an altered, adjusted life. It is about no longer depending on those elements that were – but that may never be (quite the same) again.

These are the complexities of climate change. As we headed out of the city, there were signs everywhere. As we crossed the Harbour View Bridge, I remembered the destruction of Tropical Storms: Nicole (2010) and Gustav, two years earlier. Last week, a trickle of water had worn a narrow path along one side of the wide, dry riverbed of the Hope River, which opens up into a rough and restless stretch of the sea coast on the other side of the long Palisadoes spit that takes you to Kingston’s airport. The Donald Quarrie High School, named after the Olympic champion athlete who came from Harbour View, sits precariously, on a flat area, now much too close to the sea. Huge waves flooded the school compound and several classrooms just last year during Hurricane Sandy; the school wants the Chinese engineering company that built up the Palisadoes spit to build them a sea wall. In 2007, Hurricane Dean stirred the waves to such fury that the sea knocked a huge hole in the schools’s Industrial Arts Department; while not far away, a once desirable housing development (Caribbean Terrace) has been steadily torn apart by successive storms since Hurricane Ivan. You can still see some of the solid concrete homes, overturned by the strength of the waves, knocked sideways like abandoned small toys.

Waves from Hurricane Sandy crash against an already-abandoned home on Caribbean Terrace. Photo: Gleaner

Waves from Hurricane Sandy crash against an already-abandoned home on Caribbean Terrace. Photo: Gleaner

Did you notice how many storm names I mentioned in that last paragraph?

The main coastal road took us across the dry Yallahs River, where as you cross the now-raised fording you look inland to the spread of hills, dark with forests. But the palette is different now; the landscape of St. Thomas is colored auburn, blond. As the road passed close to the shore at Roselle, we noticed that bulldozers were busy, piling up huge stones where once there was a rocky but attractive fishing beach. The ocean was always strong and lively here, with “white horses” piled up to the horizon. But we used to stop sometimes at the beach, where fishermen sold their catch. On the other side of the narrow road, a delicious waterfall slides over rocks, creating a natural (but not at all private) shower for local residents. That waterfall was small and modest last week, barely enough for a good wash.

The muted colors of drought in the fields surrounding Trinityville. (My photo)

The muted colors of drought in the fields surrounding Trinityville. (My photo)

The roadside waterfalls at Roselle, St. Thomas. Photo: Ian Allen/Gleaner

The roadside waterfalls at Roselle, St. Thomas. Photo: Ian Allen/Gleaner

At last, we reached the quiet village of Trinityville, having turned off the road and driven through pastures that showed the effects of prolonged drought. An arc of irrigation water hung over brown fields. As we drew closer, the exquisite rounded, green hills that I admired on my last visit came into view, now sunburned and dry. The several rivers we crossed en route were low, their waters trickling among dry boulders.

Tomato plants in the Trinityville greenhouse. (My photo)

Tomato plants in the Trinityville greenhouse. (My photo)

But when we arrived in Trinityville, they had enjoyed a shower of rain that morning. The air seemed to want to turn into water; humidity dripped from the trees. We met Ernest Grant, a goat farmer who had benefited from WROC’s sustainability project, with two of his animals. Guided by WROC’s energetic outreach officer Nkrumah, we then visited a greenhouse, tucked away among tangled foliage behind some houses, and flanked by large black water tanks (a regular feature of our landscape these days). There we met Lenford Brown and Clinton Bailey. They were growing 426 tomato plants in the greenhouse, which cost around J$1 million. They were also starting a seedling nursery, where young sweet pepper seedlings were already flourishing, with the assistance of the Digicel Foundation; delicious romaine lettuce was also growing nearby.

Inside the greenhouse at Trinityville. (My photo)

Inside the greenhouse at Trinityville. (My photo)

Ms. Joyce Manderson (left) and her companion, who was shelling annatto seeds - used for coloring and flavoring. The women of Trinityville play an active role in the greenhouse project. (My photo)

Ms. Joyce Manderson (left) and her companion, who was shelling annatto seeds – used for coloring and flavoring. The women of Trinityville play an active role in the greenhouse project and look forward to its expansion. (My photo)

Mr. Brown and Mr. Bailey were hoping for more rain. They would like to have more greenhouses, expand their operations. They are also hoping to expand the market for their produce, although they already sell to local “higglers” (traders) and to those outside the community who sell in Kingston’s markets. The logistics of selling to hotels are not workable; roads in the area are poor, and it would simply take too long for the produce to reach its destination. There are no large (or even small) hotels nearby. The local market fluctuates somewhat, but it is there.

Annatto seeds (achiote is the name of the tree on which the fruit grows). (Photo: blog.formaggiokitchen.com)

Annatto seeds (achiote is the name of the tree on which the fruit grows). (Photo: blog.formaggiokitchen.com)

Mr. Lenford Brown (left) and Mr. Clinton Bailey with new sweet pepper seedlings, at the Trinityville greenhouse. (My photo)

Mr. Lenford Brown (left) and Mr. Clinton Bailey with new sweet pepper seedlings, at the Trinityville greenhouse. (My photo)

Mr. Brown, an astute and highly-focused graduate of the nearby Robert Lightbourne High School, has a business plan. He believes in value-added products. He has helped develop a tomato jam or ketchup. WROC also launched a delicious guava ketchup (sauce) at the Denbigh Agricultural Show in 2010; the project was funded by the European Union and Christian Aid to provide income to the rural residents. Now, guava is a resilient and abundant crop in the area, growing virtually wild; and it is nutrition-rich, with many possibilities for value-added products.

We moved on, climbing a little further to the village of Somerset, set a little deeper in the hills above the gently chiming Somerset River. There we met Joslyn (not sure if I got the spelling of his name right), who oversees another WROC project sponsored by the European Union, to build check dams.

What are check dams, you may ask? Well, they are small dams, built across gullies or water channels or ditches, to “check” the water flow. During storms or heavy rains, the water gushes madly down the hillsides, sweeping everything in its path. Crops, forested areas, even homes are damaged and destroyed, and entire hillsides with precious soils can be eroded, washing away into nothing and swamping the valleys below. The check dam slows the waters down; it creates pools, and the overflow slips over – often to another check dam below, which again slows the water and prevents that furious, destructive torrent.

Landslide at Somerset. (My photo)

Landslide at Somerset. (My photo)

From Somerset, we walked up the hill to one of the check dams under construction. On the way up, we saw the kind of damage that the dams are designed to counteract: the hillside torn away by landslides, exposing tree roots; and a house that had been abandoned years before when the hillside pushed down on it.

Work on the check dam in Somerset. (My photo)

Work on the check dam in Somerset. (My photo)

Abandoned house on eroded hillside at Somerset. (My photo)

Abandoned house on eroded hillside at Somerset. (My photo)

And here was the dam. The men joked loudly as they worked, shoveling cement under a bright blue tarpaulin. Another man walked up the steep gully from the site of another dam to be built lower down. At the end of the path, we met a group of women, sturdy and strong, who gave us a demonstration of how they carry river stones from the huge pile at their feet down to the dam, hand to hand, to be cemented into the structure. This turned out to be an interactive project; the whole group of us joined in, passing the large stones along. The visitors found this amusing; the women were serious in their work.

A check dam built earlier, in another watercourse (currently dry). (My photo)

A check dam built earlier, in another watercourse (currently dry). (My photo)

Women carrying stones up to the check dam in Somerset. At left is project coordinator Joslyn. (My photo)

Women carrying stones up to the check dam in Somerset. At left is project coordinator Joslyn. (My photo)

The higher slopes were a dull brown, with bright green fans of bamboo still flourishing where other trees had been cut down. Farmers are moving higher up in the hills to grow their cash crops, Joslyn told us – ackee, coffee, pear. It is cooler up there and the rainfall is better. Nevertheless, we saw many fruit trees in the village - “fruit trees are always cared for.” Mules and donkeys are still valuable in these parts, we were told; there are no roads – at least none suitable for cars – and to reach their farming plots on the higher slopes, farmers must hike for two hours or more on the animals’ backs. They have to do it. It’s a change for them, but they are adapting.

One of the very few large trees in the area - a magnificent cotton tree, which I fell in love with. (My photo)

One of the very few large trees in the area – a magnificent cotton tree, which I fell in love with. (My photo)

And what of the native trees, the hardwoods that used to flourish in this beautiful watershed of the island? There are very few remaining. During the 1980s, the Forestry Industry Development Company (FIDCO) operated in the area. According to locals and environmentalists alike, FIDCO’s logging operations, while replanting with fast-growing pine trees, did untold damage to Jamaica’s forests. The state agency, established in 1978, was finally wound up in 2000.  A reforestation project is now under way; but again, to make the young trees take root and grow properly, proper irrigation is needed. Without water, the wood cannot flourish. And it is hard, very hard, to repair the damage.

We walked back down the hill for lunch, passing a small office made from a container, where a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Sarah Marshall works on a number of community environmental awareness projects. She’s doing great work, especially with the schoolchildren, we were told. As we ate our flavorful chicken and rice and peas and drank delicious fresh carrot and orange juice, delicately flavored with ginger, I reflected on the mysterious, quiet beauty of Jamaican country life.

Times change, the climate is changing; but I strongly feel that the women and men of Trinityville and Somerset are ready for whatever the future brings. With the ongoing support of organizations such as WROC and with adequate funding, these communities can face the future. They understand what is needed, and they are ready. I am filled with admiration for them all.

Thank you to WROC, and to the visitors from the Seven Hills Outreach Center in Boston, Massachusetts for allowing me to hitch a ride on their bus. And especially, my grateful thanks to the people of Trinityville and Somerset, in the living, breathing hills and valleys of St. Thomas.

You should go and visit them soon.

The project office in Somerset. (My photo)

The project office in Somerset. (My photo)

Hillside near check dam in Somerset, St. Thomas. (My Photo)

Hillside near check dam in Somerset, St. Thomas. (My photo)

The project sign in Somerset. (My photo)

The project sign in Somerset. (My photo)

WROC's Kathleen Goldson-Clarke discusses the Beechwood product line. (Photo: Gladstone Taylor/Gleaner)

WROC’s Kathleen Goldson-Clarke discusses the Beechwood product line. (Photo: Gladstone Taylor/Gleaner)

Beechwood's Gourmet Guava Sauce can be used in gravies, salad dressing and many other ways. (Photo: Gladstone Taylor/Gleaner)

Beechwood’s Gourmet Guava Sauce can be used in gravies, salad dressing and many other ways. (Photo: Gladstone Taylor/Gleaner)

Harbour View Bridge, damaged during Tropical Storm Gustav (2008). Photo: Anna Overton/Gleaner reader

Damage to Harbour View Bridge in St. Andrew after Tropical Storm Gustav. The collapse occurred on August 29, 2008. Photo: Anna Overton/Gleaner reader

http://wrocjamaica.org/focus-areas/sustainable-livelihoods: WROC Sustainable Livelihoods

http://www.forestry.gov.jm Forestry Department, Jamaica

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7APrx74afw Hurricane Sandy damages Donald Quarrie High: Jamaica Observer/video

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100704/news/news5.html Caribbean Terrace a shell: Gleaner, 2010

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20110901/cook/cook1.html Check out Beechwood’s Gourmet Guava Sauce: Gleaner, 2011

http://www.jamaicaelections.com/general/2002/articles/20021016-5.html The dawning of truth: article by environmentalist Peter Espeut/Gleaner

Patoo

A couple of my readers asked me about an entry in my first “Sunday Stumble”… “Why would anyone stone owls?”  Good question.

I will attempt to explain – although if anyone has more information or insights to contribute, please feel free.  I am no expert, but I do believe the stoning of owls in Jamaica is based on superstition.  They are a symbol of death – or they bring death.  An omen, rather than a symbol, actually.

The name “Patoo” originates from the Twi word “patu.”  Twi being Ghana‘s principal native language.  There is a bit of confusion with another Jamaican bird, the Potoo, which is by no means an owl, but a “goatsucker” (a nightjar), an extraordinary bird I will have to tell you more about another time.

Barn Owl

This is a Patoo.

And for my competitors on “Words With Friends,” Patoo is not accepted as a word…

There are two types of owls in Jamaica: the Barn Owl (also often called the Screech Owl or Scritch Owl), and the Jamaican Owl – somewhat smaller and very brown, with charming ear tufts.  I understand that the Barn Owl is more feared, and more often stoned.  Of course, we have similar Barn Owls across several continents – but our Jamaican one seems especially pallid, ghostly white (and, to me anyway, quite beautiful, with his huge face and black eyes and silent white wings).  In many parts of the Eastern Caribbean he is called a Jumbie Bird – or Spirit Bird.  So he is very much associated with ghosts (duppies in Jamaican parlance).

The fear of owls seems to have been brought to Jamaica by African slaves, and generally all over Africa owls are regarded as harbingers of bad luck, disease, death.  In Zimbabwe, I understand, many believe that if one lands on your roof, there will be a death in the family.  Just as in Jamaica today, they are also stoned and chased away in some communities.  No one wants them near their house.

In several other cultures, owls are revered and respected, rather than feared.  Most Native American tribes find them powerful creatures and the Tlingit tribe used to go into battle hooting like owls.  In European traditions, owls are often considered wise.  One of my childhood books (whose main character was a motherly grey rabbit dressed in women’s clothes, an apron and such) included Wise Owl – who was only marginally scary because he was pretty much a recluse, and rather mysterious.  In the end, though, he turned out to be a very useful member of the quaint little woodland society in the book, and of course quite fearless.  I always associated owls with wisdom (often holding a book in their claw).  I believe this all derives from the Greek myth of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who actually shape-shifted back and forth from human to owl.

Owl of Athena coin

A reproduction of the ancient Owl of Athena coin (used in ancient Greece from 430 - 99 B.C.)

And yet Will Shakespeare himself regarded and described the owl as a bringer of doom, just as Jamaicans do.  Many Arab traditions also fear the owl, for the same reasons.  In Mayan mythology, the messengers of the Death Gods are owls.

Nevertheless, when I hear the Barn Owl’s wings creaking steadily over our house in the evenings, and his hissing screech, I feel in a way reassured.  To me it is far from fearful, it is comforting.

And I wish him happy hunting.

PS  Did you know the word for the fear of owls is oclophobia?  Well, among several other phobias which I do not wish to discuss here, it seems there are Jamaican oclophobes.  Like the fear of lizards (herpetaphobia) it is one that we should really try our best to overcome.  After all, owls are very useful creatures; they eat the rats that are threatening to overwhelm us here in the city – oh, and they eat the much-feared lizards, too.  What’s not to love.

Jamaican Owl, an endemic species

Also called a Patoo, this is the lovely little Jamaican Owl, trying to look fierce.

Hallowed

Now that Hallowe’en is over, the Petchary would like to speak up on behalf of an ancient tradition that is often much maligned on this island of Jamaica.  Primarily by Christians - and I say this with emphasis, as they do themselves, possibly to emphasize their sense of superiority to the rest of us heathens.  There we are, I’ve already started on a controversial note.

Hallowe’en – October 31 – was the last day of the Celtic year.  As someone with more than a drop of Celtic blood in her veins, I don’t really appreciate people condemning the traditions that are a part of my cultural and indeed family heritage.   I don’t disrespect other people’s traditions –  and I think a little more understanding (and research/information/knowledge) would be nice.  (It puzzles me that in this “age of information” one can still be so ill-informed.   I guess it’s lazy thinking).

Celtic Tree Wheel

The Celtic year was more circular in nature, depending on nature and the seasons

But I digress.  The original Hallowe’en was the Celtic feast of Samhain.  It goes back to the eighth century and even further back – some say to Roman times.  A time of year when the nights draw in, the sunsets are richer and the shadows deeper.  The end of the harvest and the beginning of winter.  A time when thoughts turn inward, away from the material, towards the spiritual.  OK so far?  I think so.  Evil and Satanic?  I think not.

The odd thing about these Christian anti-Halloweeners is that they completely miss the point that, although this Celtic festival pre-dated Christianity, it was almost immediately absorbed into the Christian (Catholic) calendar and has always been recognized int (although the Puritans weren’t too happy with it in England for a time, but then they weren’t happy with a lot of things).  Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day.  Again, these days are a time to reflect on the spirit and its passing from this earthly life – and a time to pray for the dead.

All Souls Day in the Philippines

Filipinos honor their dead on All Souls Day (November 2)

What is wrong with honoring the dead?  The Mexicans (and others) do it every year at the same time – the Dia de Los Muertos – they are doing it right now, putting flowers and sweet things on the graves of their ancestors.  Sure, there are lots of skulls and macabre costumes, as there are in Hallowe’en, but it is a celebration and an honoring too.  Now, I do wish Jamaicans would honor their dead more.  If you look at “then and now” photos of Kingston’s May Pen Cemetery (the “now” being a wasteland) you would see what I mean.  Respect for those who have gone before us is a part of All Hallows’ Day and All Saints’ Day – it is a time of mysterious connection, when the spirit world draws closer to us.  A recognition of that world of spirits – that land of shadows.  And that’s the “scary” part.

Guisers in 2004

A group of modern day, well-disguised "guisers" in the North of England - a tradition that is being revived in some areas.

Where does the dressing-up part come from, and the trick or treating?  Well, they are both connected and both originate from the belief that if you disguise yourself, those spirits won’t recognize you.  Again, it goes back hundreds of years – it is not some silly new-fangled American thing.  Trick or treating was called “guising” (as in disguise) and it is even mentioned in Shakespeare.   And it has been a tradition in Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall (going back to the Celts again of course) for hundreds of years.

Now, my Christian friends always talk about the “Satanic” nature of Hallowe’en.  But where does that come from?  I grew up with Hallowe’en, and never was there any mention of “Old Nick” in that context (that was my grandmother’s name for him – an English expression that dates from the seventeenth century).  He never came into the picture, nor does he in any of the Hallowe’en traditions that I know of (someone, please correct me if I’m wrong).

In fact, I have never heard so much talk of “Satan” as in Jamaica.  When something won’t work out, it is blamed on Satan.  I was rather startled when I first encountered his name in an everyday conversation, and I still do wonder why his name is recalled so often.  Even gangsters call themselves Satan from time to time – the baddest of the bad, I guess.  I think part of the confusion of Hallowe’en is the confusion of the “dark side” – the spirit world of ghosts, spirits, fairies and the like – with Satanism.  But why?  Jamaicans have their own incredible duppy stories too – the Rolling Calf sends shivers down my spine – but Satan doesn’t get mixed up in those legends.  But then, there is no Christian origin to those stories either.   All very complex.

Rolling Calf and Hooping Bwoy by Hasani Claxton

A vivid and imaginative portrayal of the very-disturbing Rolling Calf (minus the chains, however) and the Hooping Bwoy, his master, the cursed spirit of a former slave (I'm meeting him for the first time, myself)

 

And now for other Hallowe’en traditions, which you may or may not know.  One of our favorites at home was “apple bobbing,” the kind of thing they would do on TV game shows these days to get people to make a fool of themselves.  You had to kneel and grab an apple out of a bucket of water with your mouth, not using your hands.  Of course apples were in season at that time of year, and there were the toffee apples (or candy apples as they are called in the U.S.).  I remember as a child, in great fascination and excitement, watching my grandmother dipping the apples into the sticky, tawny-colored toffee, which she boiled up in a deep pan with dire warnings not to go anywhere near it.

Then there were the fancy-dress parties.  The whole point that the Jamaican Christians are missing – sadly – is that in fact, Hallowe’en is tremendous (and quite harmless) fun.  Their cries of “Satanism” and “evil” sound like killjoys.

We had fun.  I would spend weeks planning my costume (always home-made, by my long-suffering mother) and we would have noisy, boisterous parties, pretending to be someone else.  What kid doesn’t love dressing up?  It is empowering.  My parent would pretend to be scared by me and my raucous friends.  And we felt safe and secure in our masks and crazy headgear.  My best-ever costume was a scarecrow.

So please, give Hallowe’en a break.  Try to understand and respect a tradition that is hundreds – if not thousands – of years old.

A little more tolerance.  A little more understanding.

And remember there is the light, and there is the dark.   All a part of life.

 

Abeng: A Poem for National Heroes Day

A poem for National Heroes Day from the young Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson.

This helped me to reflect on Jamaica’s sad history, and the sacrifices of our ancestors.  It has been in my mind all day, above the platitudes of the politicians and the post-colonial pomp of the National Awards Ceremony at King’s House – this beautiful, bright morning.

The colonel’s face turns to mist,                                                                                              the tasselled-horn trembles in his hand                                                        

before he raises it to his lips                                                                                                        and hears a goat’s faint wail -

thin like straw grass he blew as a child                                                                               at the foot of the Blue Mountain.

They will come soon, the old people,                                                                                  to the village centre, with no memories,

mist in their eyes, their mouths parched                                                                         at the once-a-month ceremonial meeting.

This is how culture dies, the colonel sighs,                                                                   watching as smoke goes through the leaves,

joining the horn’s call, all one echo;                                                                                   nothing from Cudjoe, or Queen Nanny,

neither long-head Accompong;                                                                                               the smoke is just smoke,

but a flight of blackbirds                                                                                                               burst from the treetops.

He lowers the ranking ram’s horn,                                                                                       and says, At least some still runaway.  


From Ishion’s first full-length collection of poems, Far District, published by Peepal Tree.  Available from Bookland/Novelty Trading in Kingston.       

With permission from the author.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Related links

Ishion Hutchinson

Ishion Hutchinson