Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

First job

My soul was born in 1970. I didn't take part in the Black Power marches in Port of Spain, didn't fear the guerrillas in the hills, nor despise the mutineers leaving the Regiment in Chaguaramas. I was a fairly unconscious teenager - teaching "O" level mathematics to examination classes in the day; and liming until just before the curfew at night. I felt kinship with the marchers and knew a few of them. But as Trinidad emptied - persons fleeing the apparent "race turmoil" and uncertain economy - I too knew that I would soon be "leaving on a jet plane" taking my brother to an apprenticeship on a poultry farm in Georgia, myself to university on full scholarship at a newly de-segregated school in the mountains of Virginia. Southern USA - the politics of black and white in America - was culture shock. By the end of the year, I turned my back on the mathematics (matrices!) major and dived into the world that danced in my head since I learned to read: humanities, literature, ideas, fiction, criticism, writing.

In the isolation of a campus (field indeed, of dreams, of mountain and valley) bounded by the Blue Ridge Parkway, Tinker Mountain and the Shenandoah, I mined memory and re-introduced myself to Carnivals past: George Bailey's Saga of Merrie England; Saldenha's Mexico; Silver Stars Gulliver's Travels; and the lyrics of Sparrow, Kitchener, Melody, Bryner and other older calypsonians. So many snatches of old calypso, childhood amazement at costumed kings queens bands, streetside terror of jab molassie, double entendre that I could understand at last. I searched for similarities and found the morality plays and street pageants of medieval Europe; theatre and masking traditions around the world; poetry, plays, Shakespeare, Oedipus, Bacchae, Lysistrata, Diaghilev ballet and Isadora Duncan, Shiva dancing the world into existence, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey! Here I thought was a place to spend my mind!

So it was that in 1974, I came as an assistant junior reporter - not even a writer - to the Carnival arena in the Savannah. Eating the dust of the stage and begging permission of the rough crews guarding the  gates, we witnessed the parades of kings and queens, kiddies, traditional devils, demons, wild indians, and bands of mas, steelband competitions from fete to finals, and among the cameramen and journalists, self-styled judges and jury of the best and the worst. If anyone thought playing a mas was the bomb, much more so was the thrill of seeing new every year (yet old as the hills) expressions of a nation's culture, written in time and gone by the midnight separating Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.

There's no saying what - if anything - was gained from 12 or more years of a carnival publication. These compilations of  photographs, commentary, advertising, worked on for a month of little sleep never made a profit. I once saw pages of unsold magazines being used to wrap glasses in a well-known department store. I like to imagine that these efforts contributed to a different appreciation of carnival as art, distinct from the experiential arts of making and "playing" mas, making music with pan or calypso/ soca. I like to believe that our publications were at the beginning of introspection that is an important part of self-discovery and knowledge. That there was a contribution too to "publishing"in a tiny market. And if they coincided with a kind of hopeful age that lifted for a time the traditions of a new nation, that too is something.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cassia grandis reprise

Cassia grandis - tall, leafy, sheltering
Three cassia grandis trees planted eight years ago now tower above the house. The branches and leaves define the view from the porch screening out dust, light and direct sun. Cassia grandis is a forest tree. Tiny flowers are borne in heavy clumps along the branches, and in quick time transform into heavy pods known as "stinking toe." As they ripen and open, they exude a faint smell of carrion, which doesn't phase the corbeaux but had me wondering for a week if something had died in the bush.

Flowering cassia grandis

Heavy pods crash and break open
In a long dry season, the pods hang around on the tree. It takes a a prolonged period of wet weather - heavy intermittent showers such as we have had this year - to ripen and open the pods. The seeds germinate quickly and seedlings grow directly out of the damp pods.

I am sweeping up the pods that have crashed on the driveway - each heavy as a policeman's bootoo! It's not a hardship pushing the wide broom and then scooping up the decaying leaves with the slimy white seeds that have burst out of the dark pods. Takes me back to other days sweeping dust bunnies under beds, sweeping sand in beach houses, clearing cobwebs. Trees do that - clear cobwebs from muddled heads. How simple it would be to live the way a tree does, effortlessly putting out leaves, flowers and fruit in all directions, just reaching for the sun!

Cassia grandis seedlings

Seedlings growing out of the cracked pod

It is so easy to miss the trees when you are in an office all day. Make the extra effort to look around to see what's flowering, when they are flowering and what fruits emerge - even if you can't eat them!

Perfumed blossoms of ylang ylang

Sheltering canopy of almond tree

Friday, July 6, 2012

First encounters

He likes to tell the story that we met in a toilet. And though I remember the toilet encounter, we didn't actually meet until the next time he was on the video crew for my advertising agency. But about the toilet: I needed to go and was directed down the hallway to the right. Door ajar - I assumed it was vacant. It was not. To this day, he still doesn't close bathroom doors. I apologised and backed out, a moment's embarrassment in a lifetime of such incidents.

It was a few months later that a chance glance between us across an over-crowded union meeting tripped me. My heart flipped and I fell. Perhaps I had been conditioned by all the sappy love songs, novelettes of lust and desire, romantic movie comedies. Conditioned too by the less than entrancing real life stories of couples who fell into love and out of marriage. All I can say is that something was kindled by that mischevious open stare of this sexy stranger.

"Who's that?" I asked the other member of the video crew. "He's ... and he's French," I was told. Hmm, what's that for an identity?

One thing led to another and soon, we were wrapped up in each other. Was he a suitable boy? Maybe not - he had as many flaws as fine points, unconventional and on the edge, careless and carefree, wild, socialised in a different world. For my part, we may have continued the intense flirtation forever, deliciously and selfishly enrapt. But then he took things in his own hands. He broke up with the girlfriend who came to take him back with her. We moved in together. He decided that we should marry. I went along. He posted the notice in the Red House, and made the appointment for the Justice of the Peace.

I was married at 30. I who had said I never would, never wanted children. Born in the age of baby boomers, women's lib, the global village and free love, I  craved freedom. But something else was kindled now - desire - in all its forms, carnal, passionate, impulsive, yearning for meaning in the heart of wildness. This might be what writing is about, this reaching for meaning in the chaos of mind. I surrendered to mystery.

I can't say that we are twin souls re-united for a time. But maybe opposites do attract: I love silence. He loathes being alone. I don't know whether we have been better people because of each other. I am the pacifist who has learned to draw the line in the sand. Wildness and civility in equal measures have never been bred out of him.

So what was the pure purpose of that first glance? To reproduce ourselves as we have. To produce better versions of ourselves. I think we have - one in London, the other in Australia, two who will one day relate their own stories in which we might even figure.

(This story is written for Samantha and Aryeh, who are just beginning their own story.)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No man is an island

Would you choose to live on an island so small that you could walk around it in a couple hours? 

Two young women join the growing band of scientists investigating the life of coral reefs. They are stationed on tiny Heron Island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Their work will be added to the body of knowledge about coral systems; and if there were social scientists interested, their stay on a small island might be a source for studying scientists in symbiotic relationships!

Amanda Ford is a student from England attending the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Anjani Ganase from Trinidad and Tobago did her first degree in marine biology at the Florida Institute of Technology, and then chose the University of Amsterdam for a master’s. They met at the Carmabi Institute in Curacao where they were working on individual research projects.

On Heron Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, they are a buddy group – eligibility included coming with another student - but each continues to follow her own research path.

Amanda is observing the combined effects of ocean acidification (more CO2) and rising temperatures on one species of coral, and whether there are differences in the ability to adapt within the one species.

Anjani has been collecting “coral babies” to see whether coral larvae from different locations actively choose where they settle based on cues found at different depths. She’s also figuring out whether extreme temperatures can affect traits such as active sediment rejection mechanisms in certain coral species, piggybacking on the work of their supervisor who also lives on the island. Dr Pim Bongaerts of the University of Queensland already has some impressive findings published. Use this link to find an article on Dr Bongaerts’ work on-line:

Since March this year, Amanda and Anjani are adapting to their new environment. They walk or swim everywhere. Fresh water is precious and made by desalinating sea water. Food must be ordered in bulk one or two weeks supply at a time. It is delivered to the small island by boat from the “mainland.” And entertainment? They are fortunate in having computers and wifi. This is indeed the best age for exploration! For the past weeks, they have quickly slipped into a different routine. You can visit them by viewing the impressions and photos on their on-line blog:

The work of these young women may seem far removed from the day to day challenges of living in the world with traffic and taxes, political intrigues and business going bust. But it puts a spotlight on a different reality. Families and friends in their spheres of influence far around the other side of the world now have a connection in the Pacific. What do you know about the Pacific? Do you know that it occupies an area more than all the landmass on earth? That it now features a couple of the biggest garbage patches in the world, splintering down plastics to particles fine enough to pass for fish food – causing sea creatures to starve with their bellies full.

Through this tiny peephole to the Pacific, we enter the world of manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, clownfish and coral. Their study is another window to what exists beyond human society. Tiny coral animals do build extensive systems and create new islands. And the proliferation of humans on the generally stable and forgiving earth is also subject to cycles of growth and decay.

In the face of climate change and altered ecological systems, the challenge to bring our species in harmony with the resources of a finite earth becomes a personal task, for each of us to live with what we need rather than what we want. The risk – if we do not adjust greedy human habits – is that our species may be adjusted in radical ways or perish forever like others that outgrew their time and space. The key is an understanding of who we are on the planet and an appreciation of the value of all nature.

John Donne said it most succinctly in his immortal prose:
"No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend's were. Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."  (1624: Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions)