Horizon at Sandy Point

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.)

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