At dawn she is cool and quiet, still holding the mysteries of the night reefs. As the sun rises, she spreads out like a glittering party dress, sequined in silver-white. In the heat of the summer day, she tries to merge with the sky, blurred and shifting at the edges. As the afternoon comes and with it the trade winds of summer, she becomes restless and foam-tipped. When evening comes, she sinks into the sunset, painting herself briefly with its colors. At night she reflects only starlight, and dreams while the sharks roam. This is our Caribbean Sea.
Our sea is a stone that changes color with the light, from opal to turquoise to indigo blue. But those colors are changing. The blood of its creatures that we humans kill is leaking into the blue, dark and stinking. The filth that we produce on our small islands is constantly seeping into its waters: garbage - plastic bags, plastic bottles, sanitary napkins, diapers, dead dogs, half-eaten burgers and beef patties, toothpaste tubes, beer cans and much more; poisonous chemicals that we spray onto our crops; half-treated or untreated sewage; all kinds of waste from factories and shops and the docks and the ships that pass through the harbors.
The blood. Dear reader, you may or may not be aware that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) recently met as it does regularly, to decide the fate of these unfathomably beautiful creatures around the world. As usual, it was politics and power play, and tiny nations such as ours in the Caribbean are caught in the middle of it all and used as pawns to be pushed this way and that. Our votes are important for those countries that persist in hunting whales. And so it came to pass that a presentation by Brazil, South Africa, Argentina and Uruguay to establish a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was defeated at the IWC’s recent meeting. St. Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada and St. Lucia joined the whaling nations (Japan, Iceland, Norway) and some small Pacific islands in opposing the whale sanctuary; St. Vincent and the Grenadines (which already hunts whales) abstained from the vote.
They should be ashamed of themselves. As a resident of the Caribbean, I am ashamed of them.
Indeed, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (where the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films have been made) has asked the IWC if it can hunt down and kill 24 humpback whales over the next five years. This is on the basis of a “super-proposal” by St. Vincent, the United States and the Russian Federation for so-called “aboriginal” subsistence whaling. Yes, the aboriginal peoples of St. Vincent need to kill these humpback whales, for their own survival. And who are these aborigines of St. Vincent, you may well ask? Where are they? Well, you tell me. I thought (I could be wrong) that the Caribs had died out decades ago, although there may be some descendants left – a few.
By the way, according to environmental societies such as the American Cetacean Society and others, these “Vincentian aborigines” use speedboats to pursue the humpbacks, targeting calves that will lure them to their mothers, and using other illegal methods. They also allegedly hunt down and kill other marine mammals illegally – such as the orca (they may already have slaughtered a few orcas so far this year). They have reportedly not provided data or reported to the IWC on their whale-killing activities. According to an IWC Watch blog (link posted below), the St. Vincent Whaling Commissioner literally shouts down anyone who dares question their need for dead whales. In a somewhat hysterical speech (see link below for the full text), St. Kitt’s Commissioner accused those opposing the “aboriginal” proposal of racism and colonialism; while St. Lucia asserted that there are in fact many full-blooded indigenous peoples in the Eastern Caribbean. The Dominican Republic questioned this; and said it is making money taking tourists on whale-watching trips (so are the Turks and Caicos Islands, by the way). To which St. Lucia retorted, “I say to the Dominican Republic, you can conduct your whale watching while SVG (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) conducts its hunts.”
Wow. If I was a humpback whale, I know which part of the Caribbean I would rather hang out in.
And what of the tourists, by the way – since the Caribbean is undoubtedly very dependent on them? How delighted would they be to know that the residents of the idyllic island on which they spend their dream honeymoon are a little ways out from the shore, pursuing baby whales in speedboats, and filling the beautiful sea they love to splash about in with the blood of humpbacks? What if they were on a boat trip or cruise and actually witnessed such “aboriginal” activity for themselves? After all, these are small spaces we are talking about – it could happen… What if (as I intend to do) environmentally conscious tourists avoided these islands and visited eco-friendly islands instead?
And talking of environmentally conscious tourists, another apparent disaster occurred last week which shows the combination of carelessness and ignorance which typifies much of the Caribbean people‘s (and governments’) approach to the environment. First reports suggested that thousands of eggs and hatchlings of the highly endangered leatherback turtle were reportedly crushed and destroyed by government bulldozer that were attempting to divert a river that was apparently causing problems for the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel in Trinidad and nearby homes. Later, we were told it was merely hundreds of leatherbacks, and that the river diversion was necessary to save millions of turtles in the future. Ironically and very sadly, thousands of tourists stay at the hotel every year just to see the baby turtles hatch on this famous nesting beach.
There is a postscript to this – a comment on the Washington Post website “from Steven Greenleaf – President of the Caribbean Institute of Sustainability. I was there at the event today in Grand Rivere. I have years of training and experience as an ecologist and natural resource conservationist. NOT ONE person that I spoke to or heard speak who is actually involved in turtle conservation there, including biologists, conservationists, scientists, guides, or commmunity members was critical of the project to re-direct the river. NOT ONE. Thousands of turtles dead from the project……..not true. Did not happen. The river’s new course meant that the nests were being innundated by fresh water, preventing incubation. The turtles were dead before they were dug up. The fact is that the intervention will save thousands of turtle hatchlings, and the properties which were being eroded. Certainly the project could have been handled far better in terms of communication and planning. However completely non-factual and sensationalised reporting and outright fabrication of “facts,” achieves nothing of value and is counter productive in terms of improving environmental management in T&T.” Not all environmentalists appear to agree with him. The Ministry of Tourism also put out a statement and held a press conference, noting, “We are deeply saddened by the unfortunate statements circulating in the media on the “assumed” destruction of the turtle nesting ground at the Grande Riviere Beach in Trinidad.” Assumed. OK.
I feel really sorry for the hotel owners and do hope that their efforts to attract tourists will not be ruined by this. They have a beautiful website and obviously care deeply for the environment.
After all that….Thankfully Jamaica does not have a “whaling tradition” and is not a member of the IWC. However, we are playing our part in damaging our marine eco-systems. We are busy over-fishing our waters; and in an act of desperation – or sheer laziness – some fishermen are still blowing the fish out of the sea with dynamite, causing untold damage. A few days ago, a truck driver (possibly speeding, though we don’t know the cause yet) had an accident “negotiating a corner” on the road that sweeps round downtown Kingston by the sea. The truck tipped over, spilling oil into the ocean and causing a “minor fish kill.” I was actually surprised that there were any fish still living in Kingston Harbour (the eighth largest natural harbor in the world) – which has often been described as a “cesspool.” A friend told me that she had personally witnessed effluent of various kinds (I won’t go into detail) pouring from a cruise ship into the sea at Ocho Rios, St. Ann; others have seen human faces floating past them while bathing in other resorts.
When will we start respecting our beautiful Caribbean Sea? For how much longer can our sea, and its creatures, endure this abuse?
Please support local non-governmental organizations like the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) which has established fishing sanctuaries off the south coast; and the Jamaica Environment Trust, which has conducted sea turtle workshops and numerous other programs and environmental campaigns – including a protracted but highly successful legal battle that finally stopped sewage from being poured into the sea at Harbour View, near Kingston. C-CAM can be contacted at (876) 986-3344; (876) 289-8253; Fax: (876) 986-3956; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; street address: Bustamante Drive, Lionel Town, Clarendon; mailing address: P.O. Box 33, Lionel Town, Clarendon, Jamaica, W.I. The Jamaica Environment Trust is at (876) 960-3693; (876) 906-9783; (876) 906-9385; Fax: (876) 926-0212; email: Address: Earth House, 11B Waterloo Road, Kingston 10, Jamaica Their website links are below. There are many other community-based, local environmental groups that also deserve our support. Do what you can.
- Caribbean Scuba Spotlight on diving in the TURKS AND CAICOS (turkscaicosluxuryvillas.com)
- http://iwcblogger.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/south-atlantic-whale-sanctuary-fails-to-pass-iwc-vote/#comment-347 (South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary fails to pass IWC vote)
- http://iwcblogger.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/is-that-rain-or-just-st-vincent-the-grenadines/ (Is that rain, or just St. Vincent and the Grenadines?)
- http://iwcblogger.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/a-majority-of-iwc-commissioners-agree-one-out-of-three-asw-quotas-sucks/ (A majority of IWC Commissioners agree one out of three ASW quotas sucks)
- Whale sanctuary bid falls short (bbc.co.uk)
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18693753 (Indigenous whaling bids granted after “racism” claim)
- http://www.greenerideal.com/science/0618-aboriginal-whale-hunting/ (Aboriginal whale hunting: Does it make a difference to the whale?)
- Protect whales from new oil industry threat, warns WWF (guardian.co.uk)
- Indigenous whaling bids granted (bbc.co.uk)
- Memories of a moratorium: Rundown of the 64th International Whaling Commission meeting (greenerideal.com)
- Meeting Results In ‘Mixed Bag For Whales’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Don’t miss whale watching while you’re here! (turkscaicosluxuryvillas.com)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/whales-and-such/ (Whales and such – Monterey)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/protecting-our-fish-earth-day-part-1/ (Protecting our Fish: Earth Day, part 1- C-CAM)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/non-human-persons/ (Non-human persons – dolphins)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/total-destruction/ (Total destruction – Kingston’s Palisadoes)
- http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/trinidad-crews-crush-thousands-of-leatherback-turtle-eggs-hatchlings-while-redirecting-river/2012/07/09/gJQA87tyYW_story.html (Turtle Tragedy: Work crews crush thousands of leatherback eggs, hatchlings on Trinidad beach… washingtonpost.com)
- http://www.bradenton.com/2012/07/10/4109984/activists-seek-answers-in-trinidad.html (Work on turtle nesting beach was crucial)
- http://www.stabroeknews.com/2012/news/breaking-news/07/10/tt-environment-authority-only-a-few-100-turtles-lost/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+stabroeknewsguyana+%28Stabroek+News%29 (T&T Environment Authority: “Only a few hundred” turtles lost)
- http://rjrnewsonline.com/news/local/tanker-overturns-oil-spills-vicinity-kingston-harbour (Tanker overturns oil spills in Kingston Harbour)
- http://www.ccam.org.jm/ (Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, C-CAM/Jamaica)
- http://www.jamentrust.org/ (Jamaica Environment Trust)
- US Objects to SKorean Whaling Plan (abcnews.go.com)
Yesterday, all eyes were turned on Africa – and this mighty continent rarely makes the headlines – with the fifty-year sentencing of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor in the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Mr. Taylor was charged with aiding and abetting war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone. There is undoubtedly a sense of relief and of “moving on” from the years when Taylor served as the 22nd President of Liberia (1997-2003).
Educated in the United States and trained as a guerrilla in Libya, Mr. Taylor was responsible for many horrors – including two periods of civil war in the country of his birth, in 1989 and 1999. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf requested Taylor’s extradition from Nigeria, where he was exiled, Taylor tried to escape to Cameroon, but was arrested and transferred to the United Nations Mission in 2003. In 2006 Taylor pleaded not guilty to the eleven crimes he was eventually found guilty of in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The crimes included rape, murder, acts of terrorism, enlisting child soldiers and enslavement.
So, justice has been seen to be done and, despite some mixed reactions in Liberia itself, Sierra Leone has greeted the sentence with joy. The rest of the world sees this as a stern warning to would-be dictators and despots, wherever they may be. We know the stories of blood diamonds, amputations and other horrendous human rights violations. Now, can both countries take a deep breath, swallow hard and start to move on from that era of pain and trauma?
In Liberia, a little hope comes from a perhaps unlikely source. Like modern-day gypsies, surfers roam the globe, surfboards tucked under their bronzed arms, seeking new places to ride the waves. And Liberia has gorgeous, largely unspoiled golden beaches blessed with deep, deliciously rolling waves. Here is a blog post from a few days ago from the town of Robertsport - only about ten miles from the border with Sierra Leone - which brings good news. A small community-based organization, Robertsport Community Works, founded with money from overseas, not only encourages surfing but has also engaged in income-earning and environmental projects in the area.
More than a decade after wartime aid workers left surfboards with a few eager young men in Robertsport, Liberia has been declared a “surfing nation” by the International Surfing Association. This official designation means that Liberian surfers are now eligible for ISA support, including contest support and scholarships, through the association’s wide network.
Our thanks to partner Surf Resource Network for helping to make this longstanding dream a reality. We are certain that this important step will benefit Liberian surfers as they promote the sport and as they seek out wider recognition in the region. This official designation will also raise the profile of surfing in Liberia and further attract surf tourists interested in sustainable tourism that directly benefits the local community.
At Robertsport Community Works, we have been mentoring and supporting local Liberian surfers since 2009 by co-organizing the annual Surf Liberia Contest, helping to connect surfboard and gear donations to surfers in need, and mentoring surfers to finish secondary school and move on to university or vocational training.
Congratulations to all Liberian surfers and to those working hard to raise the profile of surfing in Liberia!
Related articles and links
Charles Taylor sentenced to 50 years (guardian.co.uk)
Charles Taylor’s heavy sentence a stark warning to world leaders (theglobeandmail.com)
Joy in Sierra Leone, mixed feelings in Liberia after Taylor sentencing (theglobeandmail.com)
http://www.surfliberia.com/ Surf Liberia
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/8092112.stm: In pictures: Surfing in Liberia
The Petchary came across a video recently (posted in my Vodpod selection in the left-hand column) of a surfer with the wonderfully gritty name of Garret McNamara, who recently found himself riding what is suspected to be the tallest wave ever surfed.
“Very mysterious, very magical,” is how McNamara described the 90 foot tall, dove-blue curve of water, fringed with foam. The white track of his slide follows him down this mountain, like a skier on blue, with the continuous roar of the sea in his ears.
I try to imagine what that must feel like. How it feels in your ears, your arms, your legs, your stomach. How it sounds, how it tastes on your tongue.
Mr. McNamara was born in Massachusetts, but lives in Hawaii, the mecca of the endlessly traveling surfing community. They seem a restless crowd, always in search of the next wave – not necessarily a bigger wave, but one more challenging, different. Our Jamaican surfers – an enthusiastic young group of surfers, sun-bleached dreadlocks flying – practice on the much smaller waves that adorn the shores of our somewhat placid Caribbean sea, and then venture further afield to compete.
I believe they do well.
It is this combination of intensity and at the same time a mellowed-out approach to life – listen to Jack Johnson for too long and you will be flat on your back on the couch, moving just enough to reach for a glass of wine – that is so fascinating about the surfing lifestyle. The other thing that fascinates me is the sheer physical effrontery of it all. The Petchary recalls a visit to the famous Bondi Beach in Australia a couple of years ago (not as kitschy as I expected it to be). I sat on the balcony of the swimming club there, and watched the small figures of surfers down below, paddling themselves out on the enormous swell of the ocean, to catch a wave.
I have always been a physical coward. Some years ago, I became frozen with fright on the battlements of the medieval castle in Carcassonne, France – unable to move forward or back, clinging to a thin metal rail, while the wind blew. For the remainder of that holiday I refused to climb anything resembling a castle, settling myself firmly on a grassy knoll at the foot of each terrifying edifice. So, the thought of setting off – alone – with a piece of board for company – no protective clothing, no hand to cling on to – on a shifting and surging wall of green water; and then standing up on that piece of board, gazing down the falling slope as the wave curls above me… No.
And yet I found the short video – Mr. McNamara’s feat was achieved in just a few minutes – exhilarating. The most exciting part was when the wave broke above him, his figure becoming blurred, his shouts broken up by a fractured screen of white foam like sheet glass breaking over him. (At this point, I would have been screaming rather than shouting).
I envy Mr. McNamara for his boldness, his freedom. This is not about “conquering nature” – it is about becoming almost – almost – overwhelmed by it, and emerging cleansed and beautiful at the end.
The wave that Mr. McNamara rode was in Nazare, Portugal, where there is a 1,000-foot deep canyon in the sea that throws up huge waves – which then in turn crash against 300-foot tall cliffs. Mr. McNamara is a specialist in big-wave surfing. In Australia there is a kind of wave called the “bombora” – a series of large waves that break over a reef or a shelf of rocks, normally quite far from shore. ”Bombora” is an aboriginal name for “reef,” and it sounds like the roar of the ocean.
Indeed, surfing has become an obsession in Australia over the years – not just a Californian Beach Boys thing – and this brings me to my book review, below. I read this book (not very long) while waiting for an operation on my broken wrist, two years ago. I was captivated, and forgot to feel nervous about the surgery. This book does not glamorize the art of surfing – but for the teenage boys in the story, it is like a pulse throbbing in the wrist, surging in the veins.
And the bombora is waiting out there for them.
The act of breathing and the object that is breath seem so close; but in fact one is mastery over the other. Breath is controlled, held in place – stopped, momentarily, or for always. It is the essence of our being, and remaining. For that reason alone, this essential breath is monotonous, predictable; even boring.
And boredom is one of the overwhelming emotions – if it can be so described – in the life of an adolescent. Brucie Pike and Loonie, two twelve year-olds living in a quiet town on the wild coast of Western Australia, are determined to keep that boredom at bay. They work at it together – at first, inseparable – with ever more thrilling escapades. Their fascination is with water; first the river, then the ocean, waiting its turn. They are impatient to take it on.
Pike is the quieter boy, with older, conservative but kindly parents; his mother makes scones for tea. Loonie’s family is less secure, and his spirit is unfettered. From the start it is clear that Loonie’s daring is more sharply honed, more refined than his friend, “Pikelet,” who observes, “He never backed away from anything or anyone; that was just how he was.”
The grace and beauty of surfing was never discussed between the boys; but it was all a part of the joy of daring, of “dancing on the water.” A large part of the enormous pleasure of reading this book was, for me, sharing this joy with them, through the gorgeously descriptive prose which begins with their first surfing experience. Winter storms, perilous rocks, swells and treacherous currents; the sea is beautiful and increasingly terrifying in its power. The sea roars and rumbles its way through the narrative, a restless companion for our fearlessly happy young surfers. You feel it with them when the salt water burns their sinuses, and they are tossed down to the sea floor.
It’s not just a pretty picture, it’s a raw sensation.
This could be a happy coming of age story; but we know this is not to be, from the disturbing prelude, narrated by Pike as an older man. Our young adventurers meet the old hippie Sando, and are drawn to the enigmatic man with a long grey beard and a carelessly bold style of surfing. Through their troubled, ambivalent relationships with Sando and his young, embittered American wife Eva, the teenagers venture further into strange and difficult territory. The risks become greater, the shadows lengthen, and the boys become old beyond their years – with no way home. They are literally out of their depth, their feet no longer touching the ground.
They are holding their breath.
Yes, another thing about breath – like surfing, it can be addictive. Whether it is his father’s mountainous snores at night, the boys’ childish underwater contests in the cold river water, or the much more adult pleasures taken at Sando and Eva’s house on the hill, breath and the control of it brings risk. The sour taste of real danger mixes deliciously with the oxygen-filled delights of the wave and its depths.
When I visited Australia last year, the surfers were there. They were there at Bondi Beach, boys and girls and men and women, floating on the vast blue and white moving patchwork of sea and foam; young men with bleached hair, peeling their wetsuits down to their waists in parking lots. At Byron Bay, they were fathers and sons, laughing together at a secret joke as they tucked their surfboards under their arms and headed home; and the lone surfers were out there in the glowing dusk (a time of day when the sharks come out), clinging to the waves as if they were catching the very last one to fall onto those silken shores.
We never spoke to a surfer, did not want to disturb them. They were in their own world. As Sando says (“hippie shit, mate,” scoffs Lonnie), “It’s about you. You and the sea, you and the planet.”
Author Note: Tim Winton was born in 1960 in Perth, Australia. He has been making his living as a writer since his first novel, “An Open Summer,” won the Australian/Vogel National Literary Award. He began the novel at age nineteen while taking a Creative Writing course at Curtin University, Perth. He also wrote “Cloudstreet” (1991), which was adapted for the theater and toured Australia, Europe and the U.S.; and “That Eye, The Sky,” (1986), which was adapted for the theater and made into a film. “In the Winter Dark” (1988) was also filmed. “The Riders” (1995) was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. After six adult novels, he wrote his first children’s book in 1988 and subsequently several others about a 13-year-old, Lockie Leonard. He is also the author of two short story collections, “Scission and Other Stories” (1987) and “Minimum of Two” (1987). His novel “Dirt Music” (2001) won several awards and “The Turning” (2005) tells seventeen overlapping stories. “Breath” (2008) is the winner of the 2009 Miles Franklin Award for Literature – Australia’s top literary prize – which he has now won four times; and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is his first novel in seven years. Winton is active in Australia’s environmental movement, in particular the preservation of the marine environment. For more about “Breath” see http://breath.timwinton.com.au/
- Hawaiian Garrett McNamara surfs a 90-foot wave off the coast of Portugal.McNamara has been working with the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute to understand how the waves reach such record-breaking heights at this particular point By KILIAN DOYLE (theboldcorsicanflame.wordpress.com)
- From Indigenous Creation to International Sensation: Surfer Breaks World Record by Riding 90-foot Giant Wave (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Surfer Garrett McNamara: ‘It was only when I got in the wave that I saw the size. I was in awe’ (guardian.co.uk)
- http://www.jamsurfas.webs.com/ Website of the Jamaica Surfing Association
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/?s=Jack+Johnson Petchary’s Blog on Jack Johnson
- Flyer for “Bombora: The Story of Australian Surfing” (2009 documentary)
- In the depths of Winton (theage.com.au)
Beautiful snow-white creatures. At first they look like the icebergs themselves, moving smoothly through dark blue ice-water. This is a “feel-good” video. A couple of minutes of delight.
- Beluga whales get critical habitat protection in Alaska (summitcountyvoice.com)
- Conservation News Round Up 4-8-2011 (alaskaconservationblog.com)
- Albino beluga whale’s squashed nose as he takes closer look at aquarium visitors (dailymail.co.uk)
An important, but rather low key, international conference took place recently, in Nagoya, Japan. It was the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Did you know that this year is – or has been – the International Year of Biodiversity? It has not been widely recognized – and we are already in November – although the Jamaica Observer sent a journalist to report on the conference, to their great credit.
What is biodiversity? Well, it’s simple. It is life on earth. And we humans are, as you might have guessed, in the process of systematically destroying it, species by species, at a greatly accelerated rate.
As the Petchary writes this blog, she looks out at the front yard. For the first time this autumn, a dazzling male American Redstart – a bright flash of painted orange and black – darts from the bushes, catching insects. He is one of the many “winter visitors” that come to the Petchary’s yard, somehow homing in on it year after year with that incredible built-in magnetic field, flying down south from some fairly northern parts of the United States. And finding our garden.
One notes that the American Redstart is still abundant and one of “Least Concern” in his conservation status. He’s one of the lucky ones. Other birds, like the Jamaican Petrel, are not so fortunate. It is “Critically Endangered,” and in fact has not been seen for so many years that it may possibly be extinct. This year, apparently, an expedition was planned into the Blue Mountains, where it may still be nesting. But the search since 1996 has been an empty and fruitless one. How sad for the scientists, endlessly peering through binoculars, climbing trees, searching the waves for a sign, a flash of wing, a flutter, a faint call, a feather.
You may well ask: Why should we humans care about the Jamaican Petrel, the Tiger (just 3,200 in the wild, and counting down), the Polar Bear, the Pacific Walrus, the Magellanic Penguin, the Leatherback Turtle, the Bluefin Tuna, the Mountain Gorilla, the Monarch Butterfly, the Javan Rhinoceros, the Giant Panda? (The World Wildlife Fund says these are ten of the most endangered creatures in the world).
Because we know, instinctively, that our own little human lives would be the poorer if these remarkable, unique creatures were no longer sharing this planet with us. And other creatures, large and small, that entirely depend on their lives would also suffer, and become extinct themselves. And those creatures that depend on the creatures that depend on them… ?Well, you get the picture. It’s what they called, in a rather cheesy way, “The Cycle of Life” in the Lion King movie. But so much more than living and dying.
It’s about us all being connected.
Let’s try again. We humans, I mean. Because we know we are losing it. We are like one of those bad guys in the movies, who cling onto a parapet, legs dangling over a hundred-foot drop, and you know they can’t pull themselves up to safety because they don’t have the strength.
Sooner or later, we are going to let go.
The Petchary’s husband suggested, wisely if with tongue in cheek, that perhaps we should build an ark from now, and start collecting all the creatures threatened with extinction, and sail off on the next set of floods brought on by our increasingly turbulent Caribbean weather. The idea of the Petchary and family sailing down her street as the galloping rainwater flows downhill, a Magellanic Penguin under each arm, two Chicken Hawks perched on the bow, is an appealing one.
Noah was always one of the young Petchary’s favorites, (she grew up on a heavy infusion of the Old Testament). Did you know he turns up in the Qur’an, too? He is one of the five main prophets of Islam. He always appeared to be a humble, reassuring man – the kind who really could perhaps save the world, in his own quiet way. He and Mrs. Noah and their three sons, who all seemed like strapping lads. Pretty solid.
Let’s just remember… It wasn’t raining when Noah started to build his ark. And as Mark Twain put it, “Even Noah got no salary for the first six months, partly on account of the weather and partly because he was learning navigation.”
- One-fifth of world’s back-boned animals face extinction, study warns (bemoreeco.com)
- conserving “epicentres of imminent extinction” in the caribbean (greenantilles.com)
- Biodiversity study sounds an extinction alert (for things with spines) (csmonitor.com)
- “Species Decline and the 10th Convention on Biological Diversity” and related posts (animalblawg.wordpress.com)
- Rats targeted in mass poisoning to save endangered birds (independent.co.uk)
There have been some endings recently. Or perhaps, the beginnings of endings. Yes, it’s over. But… There seems to be a “but.”
Firstly, the last combat troops left Iraq. They rumbled through the darkness towards the Kuwait border. The Petchary wondered how the soldiers felt as the desert moved by, as prosaic and as empty as ever, unknowing and uncaring. The images were sometimes stark, sometimes blurred by the dim light and the sand dust. First there were the rituals of flags and salutes and guns, under the white sky. And the soldiers were always there, lining up, packing out, shouldering their huge backpacks like little boys coming home from school, waiting to get onto a truck and then sit in long, huddled rows, lining both sides of a big-bellied plane that would ferry them home.
Then there was the joy of return, hugging, kissing, squealing, flowers and heartfelt, crushed welcome home gifts and children crowding for attention while their parents kiss endlessly and other family members standing awkwardly in the background with smiles fixed on their faces.
We never heard much of the other returns, draped with flags; or carried on stretchers with bags and tubes dangling.
But…now here comes the but. There is another place – also filled with dust, and men with lined faces carrying old guns, and young children with their hair uncombed and their eyes wide. It’s called Afghanistan. It has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world, in company with around twenty African countries. It has the highest food insecurity in the world (does anyone grow crops to feed themselves, or only to feed the hunger of drug addicts far and wide?)
The Petchary wonders where the end will begin, there.
Second…the oil has ceased flowing in the Gulf of Mexico, and a “relief well” is being dug, cautiously and carefully. An large lump of metal, which is being blamed for much of the problem in the first place, is being lifted out of the water. It will be “exhibit A” in an endless swirl of lawsuits and claims and inquiries and recriminations and millions, maybe billions of dollars. Lawyers are priming themselves for this final, extended and exultant round of money-making. And already, the lump of metal is being blamed…and the humans who were responsible for it, and its failure to stop the conflagration and the ensuing filth.
We know where the “but” is here, of course. There is talk about “where has the oil gone?” and “how can we make it go away?” And the long white beaches around the Gulf remain thickly speckled with black, like the surface of a bird’s egg, and the wetlands are tainted with blueish-brown sludge.
And has anyone counted the cost, and the continuing cost, in terms of the lives of fishes and dolphins and manatees and birds and frogs and snails and dragonflies and all the other creatures, large and small? We look at beaches and shorelines and waves breaking on those shores, but what is happening beneath the waves, down deep? There may even be a few giant squid, a mysterious and other-worldly creature. left in the Gulf; and there are the sperm whales, already dwindling in numbers. Are they sucking in oil along with the other creatures they feed on?
But there are, of course, those happy endings. This week, they seem to have been mostly small ones. A thirteen year-old girl gets her wheelchair back which was stolen. A dog left to die by the side of the road is rescued by a police officer, who decides to adopt him. A four year-old boy who went missing overnight was found in a place called Whiskey Canyon, very tired but having seen a “reindeer.”
What happy endings have there been for Jamaica, the Petchary asks? As they say, “I’ll get back to you on that one.”
Let T.S. Eliot have the last word, at the end…or is it?
What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning/The end is where we start from
The Petchary was listening to the gloriously liquid guitar of Jimi Hendrix, flowing through the garden on a warm and sunny July afternoon. An emerald green hummingbird hung in the air. Delicious.
Jimi’s album “Electric Ladyland” has a lot of watery references. In the meandering, dreamy song “1983…A Merman I should Turn to Be,” he sings about he and his lover bidding farewell to the bomb-ravaged, despoiled earth and descending to Atlantis under the sea. (Yes, in those days there was a lot of talk about Atlantis, and some fervent believers in its existence).
No, we are not discussing the mega-hotel in the Bahamas, but the lost island of Atlantis that sank beneath the waves during a catastrophic event of some sort. This is an ancient legend, first recorded by the Greek philosopher Plato, and since expanded and elaborated on and never, quite, forgotten. Atlas – yes, the man who holds the planet on his shoulders – was the king of Atlantis, and Poseidon carved one of its mountains into a palace for his love Cleito (who bore him five pairs of twins). Then, in a day and a night, it simply sank.
What a beautiful legend; the best ones are always rich with possibilities, letting the imagination soar. But of course, there were as many ancient scholars as modern ones who were doubtful Atlantis ever existed.
The dreamers wanted to find it. A Brazilian scientist, Professor Arysio Nunes dos Santos, dedicated his life to its study and worked out that Atlantis in fact lay in the Indian Ocean. His son Bernardo continues his research. Some say it lies in the Atlantic, others the Mediterranean. Yes, even the Caribbean…
An American Congressman also became fascinated by the legend and wrote a book in 1882 extolling the virtues of Atlantis as a highly developed society. Even the Nazis investigated whether the citizens of Atlantis where, in fact, highly advanced and superior members of the Aryan race. Poor old Atlantis has been messed about with, quite a bit, over the centuries. Perhaps one of its most interesting modern interpretations is “Hearts in Atlantis,” a series of novellas and short stories which use Atlantis as a metaphor for a lost dream – the unfulfilled dream of the “baby boomers” growing up in the 196o’s. It is written by that master of the imagination Stephen King, and well worth a read.
Come to think of it, Jimi Hendrix, whose flame burned so bright and was blown out so suddenly and quickly, would have been a baby boomer. Now the Petchary likes to think of him as a merman, living in a slowly crumbling palace under the sea with his mermaid, amidst kelp forests waving in slow motion. The palace is furnished with pink and black and white coral, and the carpets are made of sand woven into patterns like Tibetan paintings. Striped sea snakes adorn the columns. Silver shoals of fish dive in and out of the windows. The merman and his queen float through their days in a flickering blue dream; and sleep their nights away, safely entwined in their bed of sea moss, while the sharks come out to hunt their prey.
The Petchary hopes we never find that underwater kingdom. It might be such a disappointment.
Today was a bleaky day. In Jamaican terms, this means grey, cloudy, no sign of the sun (except when, early in the morning, it gave up the struggle with a swathe of bone-grey cloud, and allowed itself to be slowly smothered). On bleaky days there is no sun, nor is there any rain. But the heat is choking, and builds up steadily. After all, tomorrow is July.
Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico and the unfortunate inhabitants of its shores suffer another fateful blow. A very large hurricane, with the quite friendly name of Alex, is whirling in the Gulf, churning up its oiled waters.
How will this affect the desperately sad efforts to control the boiling tumor under the sea that is the oil leak? There are reports that the boisterous waves have broken up some of the oil (but, presumably, not made it go away, just divided it up a little). In other places, there are images of dark waves splashing ominously over the booms that lie like beaten pillows along the shoreline.
In the picture above, the Petchary can detect the shapes of two seabirds…
Meanwhile, the evening grows bleakier, the light oozes from the sky. The Loggerhead Kingbird trills, and is replaced by the harsh churr of the Antillean Nighthawk.
By the way, it is said that “June is too soon” in the hurricane season for such turbulence. But, this is 2010. Jamaica may be in for another rough ride…a different kind of pressure.
The Nighthawk growls in the dark.
Well, I haven’t finished with the oceans yet. They are still roaring in my ears – ever louder, in fact.
The tide is the rise and fall of the ocean: Its heaving breath, its push and pull and ebb and flow, onto broad beaches and crumbling rocks and into the open mouths of rivers. But is has another, much more ancient meaning: a space of time, a season, the right time.
We have a small painted clock, a replica of an Art Deco original. The painting beneath the clock face shows two ships sailing out to sea, while the inscription above reads, “Time and tide wait for no man.” So, you see, the two words, time and tide, are spoken in the same breath; and, in the sense of this phrase, meaning much the same thing. In fact, no one knows the origin of this expression – but we do know it is centuries old. So, hundreds of years ago, our ancestors were saying the same thing, probably in a resigned tone of voice, possibly with a sigh. Tide, and time, are inexorable. The minutes, the seasons, the ocean’s tides too, all come and go.
Poor old King Canute. One wintry day, with a sudden rush of blood to the head, he ordered his servants to bring his throne down to the sea shore. I can imagine the scene…The English weather is probably doing its usual blustery, spitting with rain bit, with an unpleasant chill in the air. The cries of seagulls are broken on the wind. The sand is sticky beneath their feet. The King is trying to hold his crown in place with his left hand, while he holds his right arm aloft in a commanding gesture.
“Go back!” he thunders in his most kingly voice, at the tumbling waves. The pebbles rattle on the ground as the waves pull back. The foam surges in again up to his feet. The tide is coming in. His servants and courtiers look uncomfortable (and cold). The King frowns. He tries again, and spends far too long trying. The wind whistles in the sand; the waves draw higher, and wet his toes and the hem of his long robe. Clouds darken over the sea.
In the end, as 12th century legend would have it, the King threw in the towel. He decided that even such a mighty King as he (and he wasn’t called Cnut the Great for nothing) was a mere speck, compared to the endless waves and the dogged march of time.
By the way, this experience made him turn quite religious, which was quite something for a Viking. The tide taught him something about eternity.
And then there is the moon…
There are all kinds of theories about the moon and the tide. There is something almost mystical about this strange relationship, although it is all explained in science, which I cannot myself begin to understand. There is a lot of gravity involved, that mysterious pulling and tugging, and it all goes on without any of us actually feeling it. But I do remember from when I was taking sailing lessons in my teens that there are spring tides (which are really high/really low) and neap tides (which are moderate), depending on the moon. And I remember a chalk board on the seashore that was carefully updated every morning with the state of the tides, and the winds. Important for the seafarers of every description who used to frequent the same muddy creek where my unfortunate sailing lessons (with many mishaps) took place.
All of this is on my mind because, once again, I am disturbed, deep down, at the “leak” in the Gulf of Mexico. The tides are turning black, and who knows? The darkness may reach the shores of Florida. We may even experience black tides in the Caribbean. But BP is still trying, vainly and with a remarkable degree of incompetence, to “stem the tide,” to turn off the tap.
This is, indeed, the “filthy modern tide” of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. And it is coming to a shore near you. Inevitably.
Jamaicans love dictionary definitions, and I seem to have caught the bug. So, here is my word for the day:
Storm: A disturbance of the atmosphere; a disturbed or agitated state; a sudden or violent commotion; a tumultuous outburst; a violent assault on a defended position.
Oh, what a storm there has been in Jamaica in the past week! Just over a week ago, there was the “violent assault” on the angrily barricaded community of Tivoli Gardens by the security forces. During the previous week, there was the gathering of forces, disturbed and agitated, in defense of the area, and of its ruler and commander, Christopher Coke – the “President” of an uncertain and untidy little republic in the city of Kingston.
And now, today is the first day of the 2010 hurricane season, with dire warnings of an “active” season. There will be many disturbances of the atmosphere, it seems, between today and December 1, when the season ends (and indeed, when did it extend itself to half of each year?) The skies today in Kingston are the color of dove’s wings, with white clouds billowing, and thunder hangs in the air.
Storms are uncertain creatures. Sometimes they don’t know whether to arrive, or to leave. There is always a period when they seem to glower at us from a distance, sending out the occasional warning. And sometimes they stay that way, permanently on “pause.” Then, when they make up their mind to finally arrive, there is no stopping them.
One more storm is taking place today. In a sense, it is the rumbling aftermath of last week’s tumultuous events. The parliamentary Opposition is demanding a vote of no confidence in the present administration. The voice of the Opposition leader and those of her colleagues are sharp and insistent, even as the muttering of those on the government side grows louder. The Opposition’s words are pulling behind them a string of more words – strident protests, derisive shouts, loud guffaws – from the old boys’ club on the other side. Like a storm at sea, the waves are occasionally ruffled by the speeches. Sometimes the waves break up into pieces, as in a squall, with broken phrases, arguments and side-talk filling the air. Occasionally, as the Opposition makes one particularly provocative statement, the waves rise up and roar. It’s hard to listen to, “live” on the radio.
Storms can be wearying; they sap your energy in a particular way. And I fear that this particular storm will not clear the air.
Here’s a quote to end with, from that incorrigible romantic, Lord Byron:
It is not in the storm, nor in the strife, We feel benumb’d, and wish to be no more, But in the after-silence on the shore, When all is lost, except a little life.
A little life, indeed.