Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Woman alone

There is no ideal life. All of us have lives shaped by pre-existing conditions. Fortunate are those who achieve that mature perspective and are able to reflect on their circumstances; and through their own efforts "be somebody."

Sometime in her sixth decade of existence, Nuala O'Faolain (say noola o-fway-lawn) takes a look at her   life and responds to the question that she was occasionally asked by people who thought she looked familiar - "Are you somebody?" This leads to an introspective meditative recounting of growing up Irish, a woman, in an Ireland still decades behind the metropoles in the middle of the 20th century. It turns into a book.  The "accidental memoir of a Dublin woman" releases her from parents, past and country; and delivers a writer of no mean consequence. In this, her first book, she begins a process that dignifies all those people living unspectacular, unremarked ordinary lives, with the force and meaning of her own existence. At the end, after the first writing and publication, she adds the final and possibly most powerful chapter of Are You Somebody - Afterwords - included in editions after the first printing in 1996.

What is love, she asks again and again. And obliquely, who has responsibility for engendering understanding of love and being loved. Her mother and father stand accused: "My mother didn't want us. She hadn't felt wanted herself." And the further realisation: "It wasn't marriage that did her in. She wanted him. It was motherhood. It was us. But we didn't make her suffer. It was love and passion that made her suffer. It was that that undermined them all: my mother, and my father, ..."

Setting it all out in this memoir, Nuala sees herself dispassionately, without pity. It's an unblinking regard that she turns on her parents, a mother who in alcohol-induced oblivion bore seven or nine children; a father whose life as a reporter constantly takes him away from home and into the arms of another; her brothers and sisters, and her own self.  For much of Nuala's life, drinking in pubs alone or with others is like breathing or sleeping, the ambience of many relationships. She longs for the permanent relationship with a man who does care. Of all, it is the 15-year relationship with Nell McCafferty, the Irish journalist, feminist, playwright, that was most like a marriage. But Nuala doesn't get the stability of marriage, or the steadiness of a single place to be, to call home. In the end, it turns out, it's the Ireland that her father loved that is the home of her heart. And in the end, she's still looking for love from a man.

This search validates her being - without companions, without lovers - and buoys her to the end. Alone and sometimes lonely, the quest that is the longing for love and passion becomes the defining quality of her life. The first publication stirred responses - in letters and phone calls - a quiet chorus, "we are not alone," from those (including her brother and sisters) who do not cry out from the pain of their own lives.

She says, "I've prayed for love. If I can't receive it, at least to give it. And if I can't have it at all, at least to let others have it. I see the line of stain running through our family. Like rust, gradually dribbling further and further down a wall."

After Are You Somebody?, Nuala wrote four other books, including Almost There: the Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman. She died in 2008.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

After the worst day

Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn) was the happiest boy in New York City. Beloved of a father who challenges him to never stop looking (Tom Hanks) and a protective mother (Sandra Bullock) adored by her husband; a grandmother - living in line of sight across the street - that he could wake or communicate with at anytime, he is encouraged to think of the city as his playground. His last adventure with his father is to prove that there was a sixth borough that had disappeared - like a rug pulled out from underfoot; and to do this by going out and conquering his greatest fear, talking to people.

Then, the worst day happened.

The average nine year old barely understood the impact of the planes flying into the twin towers. They were sent home early from school. Oskar's usual banter with the concierge (John Goodman) is a mark of their familiarity. Inside, the phone rings and rings; and Oskar doesn't answer. Later, he listens to six messages from his father, from "I am here waiting to be told what to do"to "Are you there?" desperately repeated again and again, and the final "I love you." These messages, he decides, are directed to him personally - he is guilty of not picking up and guilty of selfishly keeping these voice mails to himself. He later switches out the phone so not even his mother can hear them.

Almost a year passes before Oskar looks at his father's possessions again. He searches for an antique camera and knocks down a vase which spits out a key in an envelope labelled with a single name, Black. The quest to find the lock that the key would open becomes all-consuming. It would, he believes, unlock some essential clue to his father.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a story that echoes across thousands of lives disrupted and damaged when the planes flew into the Twin Towers. It is also an intimate story of fatherhood: Oskar's jeweller father (Thomas Schell and Son) dreams up wild adventures for his introverted child. Thomas admits that he never knew his own father from Dresden Germany who disappeared just around the time he was born.

Oskar's quest for the lock which the key will open, becomes the way to reconnect with the father he lost - and who he imagines as one of those men tumbling, turning and spinning on their way down from the tower's top floors. He meets the Renter at his Grandma's house, one who has been struck dumb from something also extremely loud and incredibly close that took away both his parents.

The search is not fruitless, and is resolved in a way that returns his father through the heart of his mother.

The movie Extremely loud and incredibly close was released in 2011, ten years since the 9/11 bombing. It is simply told through the voice and memory of Oskar Schell, who lost his father, found his grandfather, and discovered that New York City could still be a safe place. After the worst day, if you're not dead, life will get better.

It's well worth seeing how different persons - even members of close and loving families - deal with the unexpected unfair loss of a loved one. Watch it on HBO Movies on Demand this month (April 2013).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dreamers of the Arima valley

Henry David Thoreau once defined life in this way:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” (Walden: Or, Life in the Woods)

The spread of industrial man and modern civilization pushed the opportunity for life as Thoreau saw it further into a psychological hinterland. Today, in Trinidad and Tobago, the Asa Wright Nature Centre represents this hinterland where the opportunity still exists for man to know himself and his true nature as part of a whole and wonderful system called Earth.

Window on the wild: view from the verandah of the Asa Wright estate house

The story of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, The Old House and the Dream, written by Joy Rudder, is a saga of persons who so loved the wild nature of this green valley in the heart of Trinidad's Northern Range that they sought to leave as legacies the means to protect it as far as possible. These unlikely persons include scientists and villagers who learned from the scientists, and people who withdrew from the ravages of war and mainstream pursuits seeking peace and contentment; not least of all, a woman born in Iceland whose name is now synonymous with conservation in all of Trinidad and Tobago. Today the ethos attracts people from all walks of life to appreciate, contribute and safeguard a piece of the valley that is a small - and dwindling - stronghold of wild Trinidad and Tobago.

Rudder's story is simply sketched with short chapters and a storyline that straddles a watershed between poetry - nature idealized - and the sometimes unhappy details of human endeavour and survival. The Asa Wright Nature Centre unfolds in 53 vignettes organised in six eras. Though barely three dozen individuals are named, the story is an epic that involves hundreds of persons living and dead, and their families and villages in the Arima-Blanchisseuse valley.

Eden, paradise, an emerald vale, Simla - all names that have been used to describe the Arima valley, a place known for its well-watered aspect since pre-Columbian times. Indeed, "this sweetest valley in the wide world," (quoted in Anthony de Verteuil CSSp Great Estates of Trinidad) - whose name means "water" - draws streams from the peaks to the coast and the south side of the Northern Range.

Fatigued from the first world war and desperate for health and peace at the Springhill estate, Henry Newcome Wright retired here with his Icelandic wife Asa (pronounced Ow-sa). He wrote of the Arima valley:

"Here in the valley, where the immortelle
"Vermilion flames against the cobalt skies,
"Where clanging notes of hidden bell­bird swell
"The Timeless chorus of the cicada's cries."

This is true as it was a century ago. Today though, the drone of earthmoving machinery competes with the bellbird's clanging call. Henry died in 1955, leaving Asa to struggle for another 16 years on an estate full of wild life but barely producing enough for a small village to survive on.

William Beebe, at the height of acclaim as the American explorer-­scientist of his age, chose the valley as his final retreat, calling his hill estate Simla ­- after the Indian mountain town -­ attracting other scientists and establishing the tropical research station for the New York Zoological Society. Here's what he recorded when he first came to the Arima valley:

"We had climbed the winding road in a tropical downpour. As we came out below the outermost wall, the sun broke through, three house wrens sang at once, and a double rainbow sprayed the valley with infrared and ultraviolet. We would not have been human if we had refused to recognise omens."

Many others followed: Ginnie and Don Eckelberry; Richard and Margaret ffrench; Jonnie Fisk, all contributing to the effort that resulted in the joining of Asa Wright's and Beebe's estates as the bulwarks of conservation in the valley. The Asa Wright Nature Centre Trust was established in 1967 with a mandate to conserve this part of the Arima valley. Today that mandate in the hands of the Asa Wright Nature Centre Trustees and Board of Management includes operation of a lodge, and research and outreach facilities for the purpose of educating a community, a nation and the world. Here - still beset with passion, disappointments, will and wilfulness,­ - the dream of a healthy relationship with the wild environment lives on. The saga continues. For anyone wishing to understand evolving conservation ethos and issues in Trinidad and Tobago, it is a necessary text.

Today at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, humans can dream of a harmonious accord with creatures in living forests; can meditate on the challenge of attaining balance that might support sustainable co­-existence. Surely these dreams cannot be far removed from those of the birds, animals and the natural forest itself, continuously growing evolving, remaking the wild nature that is the heart of all life.

Henry Newcome Wright also wrote:

"Yes, I will dice with Death and daily cast
"My life into the scale against the score
"Of quick, uncounted gain, until at last
"I win the throw or perish."

Anyone interested in the development of Trinidad and Tobago's conservation ethos should read
The old house and the dream, the story of the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

(The old house and the dream: the story of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, by Joy Rudder, is available directly from the Asa Wright Nature Centre, and selected Trinidad and Tobago bookshops.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

One by one

I think that the regular garbage collectors - instead of the recycling company - might have picked up the recyclables from our little community. And I worry that my carefully collected and sorted cans, plastics, glass bottles, newspaper and cardboard have gone to the dump instead of to the sorting facility. I don't know why these two weeks of my collectables inadvertently misplaced would make me feel guilty. This, when I know that most households in our neighbourhood do not recycle - empirical evidence in the number of cardboard boxes and plastics that sit at the roadside on any given day.

Since I started separating my trash - vegetable waste to the compost heap; newspapers stacked and baled; cans in a bag separate from glass - I look at almost everything through the lens of recyclable or not. And it burns me to throw out what's not yet collected for recycling - styrofoam, batteries, old clothes too worn for someone else to wear, old telephones, electrical or electronic equipment. I collect and re-use paper bags, plastic bags, cardboard boxes.

I use cloth shopping bags and studiously refuse plastic bags, and it never ceases to amaze how many plastics accumulate in my home over a week. There seems to be no escaping the stuff. I would like to ban plastic film and aluminium foil from my kitchen but they are just too convenient. In the last century the rise and use of plastics - irresponsibly disposed - continue to fill the garbage patches that float in the world's oceans, poisoning wildlife and perhaps in insidious ways, diminishing the health and wellbeing of the human species as well.

Recycling undertaken by one person is at best quixotic - a gesture that many will steups at and think "waste of time." But I prefer, admire and staunchly defend the individuals who have at heart the best interest of the planet and who live their convictions - those who curse the fire lighters and scorchers of forests, continuing to plant trees in every growing season; those who refuse to eat fish knowing that 90% of the stocks of large species have already been eaten; those who choose to live discreetly and conservatively and to recycle and re-use knowing that the average "westerner" consumes resources that might support whole families or villages in the less developed parts of the world. Do we really believe that we deserve this good fortune?

On the daily walk now, I mark the spots where the plastic bottles are, the glass bottles, the food boxes. Let's see how many walks I can take before I need to pick up the recyclables. I am lucky to see them, I tell myself, lucky to be walking among the colours of the flowering trees, to feel the sun on my face, smell the rut of agouti in the underbrush, hear the rustle of dry branches bamboo sighing. 

My hope is that my heart is not that unique, actually an echo of every other on the planet, some coming faster some slower to the realisation that we are all meshed in the one web of life that is the earth.

I encourage you to look at this video, and meditate on its meaning:

And to pay attention to thinkers like Denis Hayes who is an environmental activist and advocate of solar power. He was the coordinator in 1970 of the first Earth Day. Here's what he had to say: "I feel more confident than ever that the power to save the planet rests with the individual consumer."