A birdwatching trip to the gorgeous property of Strawberry Hill in Irish Town, St. Andrew (including coffee and banana bread) sounded just perfect for a November Saturday morning. As the year winds down, the weather is approaching that calm, gentle period that I wish would last forever. The hedges are aflutter with bright “winter visitor” warblers. Just delicious.
And so the morning was perfect – but not in the way I had imagined.
BirdLife Jamaica members are an eager bunch. After the initial greetings and chats, we got down to business in short order. Binoculars were wielded at our meeting place at Strawberry Hill’s parking lot, where White-eyed Thrush and White-chinned Thrush (yes, two separate endemic species) competed for big bunches of fruit in a tree. Then we wanted to be on our way. To see birds, you have to walk somewhere.
And so began our adventure, guided by Ricky. To say that it was more than we had bargained for would be quite an understatement. It was an intense experience. The birds were not a major feature, although we did spot fifteen species and could have seen many more. Strawberry Hill is surrounded by a great diversity of flowering plants and trees – many bearing fruit after the rains.
The trail we followed, in a circle from the hotel (only our bird guide Ricardo retraced his steps, as he had to leave early) was two hours long. Not an excessively long hike, you might say. We were uphill and downhill, following a narrow path in single file, among tall grasses. Trees arching overhead framed wide views of green hills, steep grassy slopes, shadowy deep valleys, houses here and there.
We looked down on a place called Dustry Road and at times we glimpsed the hillside suburbs of Kingston – Red Hills, Stony Hill. From Strawberry Hill, one can see all around: Kingston in the palest of blue, with the distant shorelines of St. Catherine lightly sketched beyond. The red roofs and white buildings of Newcastle, the military training camp, scattered along a ridge like small toy houses. And Catherine’s Peak, already with a light dusting of cloud, the highest point in the parish of St. Andrew at just over 5,000 feet.
We were not easily distracted by the views, however. We had to keep our eyes on the path – the hand-made steps, the wet leaves, the rotting branches.
And then, my dizzy spells began. The path was much longer than we had expected, and we had not brought any water with us. How foolish, considering that we know all too well that in the tropics one must stay hydrated!
I sat down from time to time. I tried to breathe deeply. Ricky had cut me a walking stick (I was afraid of losing my footing – with two broken wrists you get wary of falling). My husband urged me to plant it in front of me and lean on it as I walked. We continued.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a moment called satori. Like many Japanese expressions, it is very hard to translate, but essentially it means being able to see inside oneself. “Enlightenment” is one word often used, but it is more. It comes in a flash, almost when you least expect it.
“Relax, relax,” said Ricky, walking in front of me while my patient husband walked behind, urging me onwards. I watched Ricky’s feet, and how lightly he walked on the Earth. Light, but deliberate. When I asked him how he could walk like that, he laughed and said he was a “hill man.” He was planning to repair the path, section by section – a very long task that he admitted would take him well beyond the Christmas season. He sounded as if he was looking forward to it, however, without help, just on his own.
I have been guided by the gentle philosophy of Kahlil Gibran since my teens, when I first read “The Prophet.” When Ricky mentioned that he enjoys spending several hours alone, working on a hillside somewhere, it reminded me of these words on silence:
“In much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.”
There was not just one Zen moment on this trip. There were several. Each time I had a second of awakening, I saw myself as I truly was, frail and strong at the same time. I saw the three people encouraging me – my husband, my BirdLife colleague, and Ricky – as extensions of myself and of the mountains. It was all one.
When we finally emerged at the top, onto a broad grassy path where several species of butterflies , I was filled with gratefulness and a quiet joy. My head ached and my hair and clothes were soaked in sweat. I was too tired to take a video of the swallowtail butterfly we saw on my phone (sorry). But, I was thankful.
So, thank you BirdLife Jamaica and all who joined us – especially Louise, Ricky and my husband. Thank you to the mountains, and to the beautiful place that is Strawberry Hill.
We will come back soon, and this time take the grassy path full of sunlight.
P.S. I will always remember one bird we saw: a Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, who called twice, loudly and flaunted his rusty-brown tail at us, before flying away.
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