I am inserting here a guest blog – a recent post from environmental activist Diana McCaulay (you can find more at http://www.dianamccaulay.com/apps/blog/). There has been much “controversy” (meaning, in the Jamaican reality, that a lot will be said but very little done) over the Blue Lagoon in Portland, eastern Jamaica, which has been… invaded. That’s the word that comes to my mind anyway. What I also find interesting about Diana’s sad commentary is the question: Can a value be put on beauty? Is it measurable? Please leave a comment and of course, share.
Two weekends ago, before the Big Rain, I kayaked with friends into Blue Lagoon in Portland. It was afternoon, the sea was calm, the light was lustrous, and our kayaks skimmed over the seagrass beds at the entrance. One of us was a visitor, seeing Jamaica for the first time –where is it, she asked, because from outside the Lagoon, it’s hard to imagine that somewhere up ahead, there’s a deep blue hole in both land and sea. We paddled through the narrow entrance, with the tiny hump of rock on the northern side, we called it an island when I was a child, and once we climbed it and claimed it with a flag. The impulse to ownership, to private property, starts young. I had driven along the main road earlier, hoping to show my visiting friend Blue Lagoon from above, in case we weren’t able to borrow kayaks. I didn’t feel safe going down the road to the Lagoon, what with all the recent press and unpleasantness. But from the road, we could not see the Lagoon, just a few tantalizing glimpses of a colour difficult to describe. Royal blue, navy in some lights, teal in others.
There were two men on the fake beach, so we didn’t go close. Following the long delayed enforcement action by the regulators, everything had been removed, except for the low retaining wall and the sand, but the beach glared white among all that tangled green. I can’t believe they allowed that, my friend said. Believe it, I said. In fact, it’s being said the sand was always there. It’s being said that this improves the Lagoon. I thought of the screaming billboards and hotels of Niagara Falls – a place I hope never to set foot in again. I thought of our own tourism advertising – clean, empty beaches, cascading waterfalls, deep green rivers. So very far from the truth.
The two men on the beach dived into the water and swam in our general direction and I dug my paddle into the water, sending the kayak away from them. I didn’t want to scare the others, but we were three women alone and they were two big guys. There have been threats issued about Blue Lagoon, warnings to back off, references to the vulnerability of our families. One previous owner of part of the land around Blue Lagoon had sold it because of the threats. The men didn’t come any closer. Perhaps they were just tourists.
There was a rowdy group of young men on the western side, playing football, smoking ganja, pushing and shoving each other, shouting, somersaulting into the water. You had to admire their athleticism, but I felt as if their antics were taking place in a cathedral. They shouted at us to retrieve their football, they were afraid of sharks, they said. I wanted to tell them – barracuda live in Blue Lagoon. Not sharks. When the water was clearer decades ago, we used to see the barra all the time, hanging motionless in the water, suddenly gone with a flick of their tails, which were really their whole bodies, appearing like ghostly silver swords somewhere else. I threw the ball back to the men and boys. Be quiet, I wanted to say. Just sit. Just look. Or float in the water and feel the chill of the fresh water springs on top, the warmth of the Caribbean sea below. Stare at the sky and muse on the mystery of the colour of the water.
It got me thinking about the value of beauty, about finding the words to make an argument for the intrinsic value of places like Blue Lagoon – not the value of the tourist dollars that could be earned, or the livelihoods that could be supplied by a restaurant and bar, by tours, by vendors selling john crow beads at the entrance to the Lagoon. What does it matter, if a place like Blue Lagoon becomes a venue, especially if people who now cling to the margins of making a living improve their circumstances? Why is it important that we have natural places, unspoiled places, views that make us gasp, simple pleasures like watching a sunset, bathing in a river, floating with arms outstretched in a deep blue lagoon?
Oh I know about the research that says access to green places reduces violence between people, and I have heard the arguments about the value of the ecosystem services that nature provides, that reductionist argument, making nature quantifiable, something decision makers can find a frame of reference for, a cost/benefit analysis that tells when nature can be annihilated. I know the justification for national parks, how it used to be that rich people alone could own beauty, how they simply bought the best places and fenced them in, and how leaders way ahead of their times said no, there should be places where everybody can see beauty. But what happens when the people glance at the beauty and see it not, feel it not, and prefer to play football with the radio blasting, and will throw their garbage into the still waters of a lagoon without a second thought? Is this a matter of education? Of culture? Of modernity run amok? Of lives lived too close to the edge to care about abstractions?
We paddled under the trees that hang out over the water, into light turned green. I showed my friends the almond tree we used to climb to dive into the water, into the deepest part of the Lagoon, the scary part. Perhaps we were noisy then; I suspect we were. I know we learned to waterski there and the ski boat was up and down all day. But I also remember gliding in my rowboat under these same branches in the very early morning, and letting the boat bump up against the trees and come to rest, and bringing the oars in and lying down in the small boat, and staring up at the underside of the canopy. I remember dreaming. Even though more than four decades have passed since then, I remember the peace and awe I felt in my little dinghy, under the trees in Blue Lagoon.
We kayaked over to the fresh water springs, where a little pool had been made with stones, and we looked at the old buildings on the hill, built by one of the first owners – it is said Norman Manley would not let him build anything bigger – now in ruin. What has happened to the intellect and imagination of our leaders, as we approach the 50th year of our independence? What has happened to their souls? And we went over to that secret place we knew as children where there is a tower of rock and silt that comes up out of the depths of Blue Lagoon to about 17 feet from the surface. To find it, the light has to be right so you can see the faint light shadow in all that blue, and I told the others how we would dare each other to dive down and pick up the silt, to prove we had really touched this weird feature. Back then, I told my friends, I could free dive 17 feet – at least once or twice – because I remember many failed attempts.
What measure of gift is it to know a place like this, to have played in its waters, to have dreamed in its shadows? What kind of person is nurtured by such experiences? What words can describe the elusive benefits of understanding our insignificance in the nature of things, in the span of time, of knowing humility, of holding respect for the complexity and vastness of the earth, and yet of the intimacy of our relationship with it? What would happen in our hearts, I asked myself as we left the Lagoon, if we Jamaicans were really to love where we live?