Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A hole in the ground

 Santa Cruz: a broad valley crowned by forested hills
I lived opposite a quarry in Santa Cruz most of my life. The valley was primarily agricultural, but has gradually given way to residential developments. When we moved to the seven acre strip in La Pastora in the late 1950s, it was as to an alien land, we who had been born and grew in the lanes and orderly squares of Belmont, Woodbrook, Diego Martin.

Our farmhouse was set back from the road but the blasts from the quarry still rattled the windows and shook the dishes, and on occasion widened a crack in a wall, or sent a rain of pebbles over the roof. We loathed the dust, the noise, the trucks tearing up the road. The community complained, but the quarry was as much a livelihood as our poultry farm, the beekeepers' hives or the gardeners crops. The owners of the quarry were a family that had owned most of the land on that side of the road extending up the hill. They were neighbours and whatever the aggravations, we didn't have to go far for materials to extend the house, to build pig pens or the hatchery. A pond was eventually dug at the base of the hill to catch the occasional rock slide and keep down the dust.

The trouble with quarrying is that you always end up with a hole in the ground. Continued excavation changes the shape of the landscape. It destroys uncountable plants and animals' homes. It chases the wildlife from the area. Julian Kenny wrote extensively about repairing the damage to Northern Range watersheds by a process of continuous re-forestation. Unfortunately, the ecosystems that are removed in one fell swoop by a quarry may take at least a generation if not several lifetimes to repair - as the Fondes Amandes Re-forestation group led by Akilah Jaramogi knows.

Santa Cruz quarry

Quarry in Arima-Blanchisseuse valley

That quarry was eventually closed. But there are at least three other quarries that still operate in Santa Cruz. Early in the mornings, traffic is edged off the road by large trucks careening around sharp corners, from Cutucupano Road, from La Sagesse, from Quarry Road. We may not remember that Laventille hill started as a quarry. And by the way, wherever there is now a Quarry street/ road, you can bet there used to be a quarry.

So if we must continue to quarry in order to build roads and structures, thereby hoping to improve Trinidad and Tobago to first world status, there has to be a highly developed sense of balance in the administration of our lands and resources. Governments and regulators must set some incontestable rules about industries that remove non-replenishable resources. For instance, all quarry operators ought to tend another piece of land - of equal acreage - where they conscientiously preserve the natural forest cover and propagate species - so at least when the "end of life" of the quarry arrives, there's a plan to grow it back. This ought to be an unequivocal condition to the granting of licenses, a point where the Ministry of Energy (which includes mining) and the Ministry of the Environment agree without compromise.

Unfortunately, as a people, we believe in an entitlement to use the resources anywhere we find them on our two islands. And considering that we have been drilling for and living off oil in Trinidad for over 100 years, and gas for the past two decades, we do have an enlarged appetite for the proceeds of "our natural resources." Scarce thought is spared for the depletion of mined resources, nor for the extermination of all the fragile forms dependent on the natural fabric that is finite on two small islands, and in the seas around.

Yes, mining and quarrying pollute our seas as much as they damage the rivers. There's hardly an un-muddied river in all of Trinidad, between the quarrying, the building and the dumping of rubbish.

There's faint hope in the growing numbers of Trinidadians who have - in their lifetimes - changed from being slayers of wildlife to saviours. Witness the protection of the leatherback and other sea turtles; the protection offered to a giant anaconda and snakes in general; the delivery of vulnerable and wounded wildlife to carers such as El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation (ESCWC) and the Wildlife Orphanage and Rehabilitation Centre (WORC); and environmental advocates such as Asa Wright Nature Centre, Papa Bois, Trini Eco Warriors or the West Indian Wildlife Conservation Society. We need these to speak for the environment, and to encourage other groups. Let's encourage our youngsters to plant trees; to collect plastics for recycling and to pay attention to issues like climate change and water conservation. Then shame the adults into following their examples.

If a quarry is a hole in the ground, a grave for the natural environment, it seems to also be a place where we can bury our humanity. As bare and bold as the exposed rock faces, we grow accustomed to grit, to harshness, to noise. We become inured to the speed of exploitation. Greed, expediency, power and control become the norm and the good. We accept the lack of respect accorded those who dare to speak for the trees and animals and eco-systems, the meek and the weak.

Is it so easy to forget the relationships between forests and fresh air, fresh water? We look at the holes in the Aripo Savannahs that are wide and deep, and wonder at the prolonged abuse. There are gashes on cliffs across the Northern Range, from Diego Martin to Matura. Dust storms rise up daily on the hills in the Blanchisseuse-Arima valley. Perhaps we don't see these holes every day, but we need to know they are there.

Forested hills are a priceless feature of Santa Cruz living
It is time to think about restoring balance. Quarry operators must be mandated to invest in "end of life" proposals for their stone works. They need to partner with environment-conscious communities to  prepare for the restoration of forests, and repatriation of the species destroyed or chased when the first excavator gouged the land. In parallel with investments for re-forestation, propagation and protection of species, the acreages under quarries must be limited not expanded. We need to do these things now, before we find ourselves destitute as a species, between the rock and sea.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cartoons and ink blots

Steve Ouditt's first solo exhibition in 18 years features two groups of small white-framed images; a dozen posters and a giant grafitti-like rant. On the north wall of Medulla gallery, 60 framed cartoons comprise the collection called Asylum. On the south, the grouping titled Cerebella is lined up like an identical opposing army: four rows of 15 each.

How the artist wishes to be seen? 

Proceeds to Mental Health, Steve Ouditt claims, is for the benefit of the work being done by his friend Dr Gerard Hutchinson, professor of psychiatry at the University of the West Indies. But the epistles mounted here must surely be towards the artist's own mental health. Here is an oeuvre that intends to be as articulate as if the words were written in a book; economical in scale and piercingly intelligent.  Here is the artist's internalised and edited response to daily stimuli, influences and fears, sequenced, matrixed and exposed. What is revealed, what remains hidden? What is the balance that determines mental health? How sane am I? Am I going mad?


Enter the basement vault that is Medulla - aptly named for the middle, the marrow (as in bone), the core. This gallery is surely transformed to a cave of a mind. Ouditt's external persona is militaristically orderly, serried ranks of thought; ideas allowed and squared off if not filed away. There's order inflicted here: everyone fears disorder, chaos.  The potential menace of the Rorschach inkblot is pinned down, screwed down, organised and boxed in, inked over, but never completely obliterated.

Ralph D Evader

Turn to the west wall where the dominant image is a larger than life character Ralph D Evader, the public servant who piss on the minister's tomato nursery and get his mout' buss. Consider that the artist himself is a public servant tending the art nursery (MA programme - Creative Design Entrepreneurship) at the University of the West Indies, since 2003. Who risks getting they mout' buss? Is the public servant's public role always a mask for private recalcitrance, ineptitude, indolence, maybe even insanity.

Now we come to the two armies of cyphers and hieroglyphs so meticulously composed and framed, mounted on the north and south walls. How should they be read, we wonder - right to left as we read a book? In lines of four, top to bottom? Should we just start in the middle with what catches the eye? Are they juxtaposed to evoke meaning from the sequence as well as the surrounds? All Rorschach blots for personal interpretation?

Reading from the top of one row in Asylum

Second image 

Third image

Final/ fourth image, reading down a row in Asylum

The wall that is labelled Asylum offers random thoughts about security, safety, shelter, sanctuary and sanity. How, you may well ask, does one intuit such defined statements from Ouditt's cartoons? All the interpretations are personal in the end. But here are some of my favourites: the temple, the cage, the horse, the artist in aviators, the artist among his books.

For the other wall called Cerebella, Ouditt has created some large rubber stamps that are drawings of the crenellations of the human brain. These are used to impose or underlay architectured structures and fanciful swirling colour, deep as space. Cerebella as trees, softening the hard edges of built landscapes. Cerebella as source, the big bang issuing abstractions of intense colour - ink blots of the mind.
Study of the brain? Really?

Blue Cerebella collective

Red Cerebella collective

Rorschach blot of the mind

Ouditt's meticulous selection - dare we believe from scores of other doodles and cartoons -  seeks to ensure that each piece is a stand alone, a signature piece. The serious collector might be encouraged to secure groupings - rather than singular pieces. To put it bluntly, a single cartoon gives you an Ouditt. Your selection of a grouping of four or five lets you into the artist's mind. After 18 years, Ouditt reveals a mind that's still crafty and incisive. For the moment, we may be content that the artist has come out; hopeful of the journey towards mental health.

Disclaimer: these photographs are simply for reference and are not true reproductions - all the pieces were under glass.

(WikipediaA cartoon is a form of two-dimensional illustrated visual art. While the specific definition has changed over time, modern usage refers to a typically non-realistic or semi-realistic drawing or painting intended for satire, caricature, or humor, or to the artistic style of such works. ...
The term originated in the Middle Ages and first described a preparatory drawing for a piece of art, such as a painting,fresco, tapestry, or stained glass window. In the 19th century, it came to refer to humorous illustrations in magazines and newspapers, and in the early 20th century and onward it referred to comic strips and animated films.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Requiem for Beebe's last home

The approach to Simla: a short narrow track winding uphill

Pride of India: called Jarul or Queen's Crape Myrtle
(Lagerstroemia speciosa) planted when the house was new
A stand of mahogany trees to the east 
William Beebe's final resting place is Mucurapo Cemetery in Trinidad, but his last home was high on a ridge in the Northern Range. On June 4, 1962, he died of pneumonia at his research station called Simla in the Arima valley. A 650-pound boulder from the Bronx river is his tombstone with a simple plaque: William Beebe 1877-1962. One of the world's most influential scientists and writers, Beebe made a big deal of wanting to study creatures alive and in their natural habitats - this was his ethos deep in the ocean, mountain high, and in the concrete jungle and estuaries of New York city. In so doing, he elevated conservation and ecology to scientific study. When he chose to retreat to Trinidad in 1949 from the political uncertainties of Venezuela, he brought his methods, his colleagues and the sharp focus of conservation to the Trinidad forests.

Seeds from the Jarul tree among the creepers

He settled on this estate situated on a col in the area known as Verdant Vale. As he travelled up the track to the house perched on a ridge with an east-west orientation, Simla must have seemed an appropriate name for the cool mountain retreat surrounded by tall trees and with a view of heavily forested slopes as far as the eye could see. In 1949, here was Eden indeed.

Today, over 60 years since Beebe came to Trinidad - living and working in his tropical research station for 12 years - Simla is a shadow of the naturalist's dream. The house - a graceful structure of simple spaces and many doors and windows - is an echoless reminder of the busyness and discourse and activity that once stirred here. The trees are taller now, and even if the bush is kept at bay, there are many signs of seediness as vine and root and shoot creep over well-worn pavements and walls.
Front door and windows remain mostly closed
There's still green to be seen from Simla but the noise and dust are not far away

Cathedral high ceiling at Simla
Inside, the dimness is calming. The vaulted ceiling is well repaired, as is the wooden floor. Facilities are what they were in Beebe's day: electricity and plumbing and tanks of rainwater collected from the roof, rooms designated for sleeping and others for lab work. But there may be more disquiet than welcome these days: the bareness within; spaces waiting to be filled with conversation, doors and windows wanting to be thrown wide open; shelves vacant of specimens. And something else, not birdsong nor the buzz of insects, just the constant drone of machinery as the hills around this solitary ridge are quarried, reduced to rubble and trucked away.
Entry to Simla is along the road that leads to this quarry.
Quarrying in this valley began in 1957.
One believes that the evenings and nights might still be lovely, when the heavy hum has hushed; when the dust has settled; when the sky is open and bright with stars. But how long will it survive beset on all sides, isolated by quarries with hard towering rock faces, all approaches suffocating and shrouded by dust. How soon before all life here at Simla is snuffed out, without a whimper.

It was Beebe who gave us the conservationist's epigram:
"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again." (William Beebe, The Bird, 1906)

It is left to this generation to find the strength and will to ensure there are no "last individuals"locked out of eternity in the Northern Range valleys of Trinidad; to be the Beebes of this new age.

To be or not to Beebe.

Not even the living trees and vines can screen out the sight and sounds of death to the jungle

Notes: Simla, Beebe's Tropical Research Station, is now part of the Asa Wright estate and trust, and is administered by the Asa Wright Centre. 

Further reading: The Remarkable Life of William Beebe, Explorer and Naturalist, Carol Grant Gould (2004)
The View from Simla, Caribbean Beat July 2008