Horizon at Sandy Point

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

1 comment:

  1. Prof. Starr of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine took a group of undergraduate students to Simla in 2011. This was a fantastic experience that will stay with us all our lives. This is a beautiful testament and I want to thank you for sharing it.