We crawled up the mountain roads at around ten miles per hour. There was a heavy truck. Then another one. Then, by the side of the road, workers from the Jamaica Public Service Company were waving us on, as they fixed light poles. We realised we were in the aftermath of the heavy rains last month. We noticed land slippages (and one or two places where the road had been torn away, just above a steep drop). The road to the Blue Mountains from Kingston has never been smooth; this time it was somewhat rougher around the edges. But as usual, the views were glorious, and the mountainsides were a more intense green, after the rainy weeks we have had.
So we ventured up into the Blue Mountains to meet with the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT) on June 9, at the end of National Environment Awareness Week. A group of students from Papine High School and from the Louise Bennett-Coverley Primary School in Gordon Town – schools located at the starting and ending point of the trip up (and down) the mountain road – were there for a special field trip. It was organised by the Yallahs Hope Project (or to give it its full name, the Yallahs and Hope River Watershed Management Areas Project), ably administered by NEPA.
The children were quietly excited. We were happy too, gulping down plenty of clean air. It had been very hot and increasingly dusty in Kingston. We arrived at Holywell, in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. This area stretches comfortably along a ridge, a little over 3,000 feet up. The Ranger Station stands, a sturdy wooden cabin surrounded by a garden of dainty flowers that you will not find in the heat of the city below: clusters of hydrangeas, various kinds of spiky lilies, small lupins and nasturtiums and begonias.
The students and teachers gathered there to listen to NEPA’s Patrice Gilpin (a young woman with a radiant smile and boundless enthusiasm) and Wellington Taylor of the JCDT, who explained the importance of the National Park. It consists of some 200,000 acres and was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (a “mixed” site of natural and cultural importance, since it includes the Maroons’ Nanny Town and trails). Our side of the Blue Mountain range is, of course, a very important watershed for the city to the south of it.
There are threats to the Blue Mountains, and Wellington Taylor mentioned some of them: deforestation, encroachment and the use of land for agricultural and housing purposes, especially on the lower slopes. In fact, deforestation for agriculture and development is an ever-present threat everywhere on the island, it seems. With the increased number and length of drought periods in recent years, there is always the danger of forest fires, too. Another concern (which I must always remind myself of) is the introduction of invasive species, which can easily threaten the existence of native animals, birds and plants, thus inhibiting the variety of species living there. Mr. Taylor mentioned the wild ginger plant as an example. I would love to find a complete list of invasives in Jamaica. I seem to hear quite a lot about them, these days.
Patrice Gilpin talked about the importance of connecting with nature. This was the theme for World Environment Day this year, with the aim of encouraging us humans to leave our smartphones and televisions behind (well, maybe not smartphones – can we go anywhere without them?) and absorb the “natural vibe.” Holywell, she pointed out, is a place to walk, unplug, unwind and meditate.
To enjoy the company of trees draped in moss, banks dotted with tiny wildflowers, the John Chewit (the Black-Whiskered Vireo), small waterfalls, the magical tree ferns… and perhaps, the company of one or two carefully selected humans. To enjoy the moonlight without any street lights, the clear air that you can almost taste; so sweet and rare, unlike the heavy bitter smell of “town.”
Have I sold you on it yet? I hope so. We are a part of nature – it simply feels good to be right in the middle of it. Don’t we feel a sense of belonging? Like home?
We had to leave a little early, and I envied the children as they set out on their tour with Patrice and Wellington and the Park Rangers.
By the way, we were rather chagrined that, when asked, the older students did not know what “flora and fauna” meant. Patrice hid her disappointment with a smile. This proved something to me, though.
Yes, it is time for our young people to connect with nature.