Mar 14, 2013

Terrain and Tradition

I'm recovering from a stint in sunny Trinidad and Tobago where I restored botanical specimens at the National Herbarium. I am also feeling the aftershocks from the bacchanal of Carnival. Lawd!!!! It was good to be present during this season of tremendous energy and anticipation of the two-day climax of much competitive costume-making, masquerading, calypso and steelband performances. I was witness to the creativity of wire-bending skills passed down from many generations, woven into the magic of fantastic and wondrously flexible costumes.


In San Fernando my brother and I stumbled upon a panyard during a rehearsal for the band Skiffle Bunch. There were children, teens and adults of every age performing in this steel orchestra of over one hundred instruments. The arranger constantly interrupted the playing and instructed the band to repeat one particular line. He did this at least thirty times in a row. Finally, they got it right and with some relief, played the tune to the end, all sans sheet music. It was mesmerizing to behold pan men and women using their entire bodies to deliver notes from all over their instruments with such accuracy, speed and soul. Sweet music! Check out Phase II Pan Groove, Panorama winners.

Amazing soca tunes with lyric and tempo (fuh so) made me constantly want to move some part of my body. The rhythms affected my waistline just as much as the scrumptious doubles, mangoes, sapodillas, roti and calaloo did and in just the opposite way. For a time being I may have had tourett's syndrome because of the way I blurted out "Savage"(Bunji), which is a spin on the original 'Savage' by the great Maestro, 1976.  "Ah bottle rum ah day" was a line from another favorite by (Ravi B). I was grooving and so "Ready for de road" a fantastic tune by (Bunji).  It was the perfect anthem for the early morning masquerade of J'Ourvert, the opening hours of Carnival. It is the chance to see ole mas or traditional costumed revelers in small groups or individual characters making political or social commentary.

See me on Flickr (greenpersuasion2012) for more Carnival pics.


The National Herbarium is located in the Frank Stockdale building in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, Trinidad or UWI (pronounced You We). The campus sits on land designed to house the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, originally intended as a teaching aid to students of botany and agriculture. Department buildings, swimming pool, tennis court and parking lots sit among various sections of the grounds planted with trees grouped by individual plant families. The curator of the herbarium is a passionate Yasmin Baksh-Comeau, who, within a few years and with a staff of four dedicated and enthusiastic women has managed to expand the herbarium from a couple small rooms to a much larger space housing a collection of over 50,000 specimens, a mounting room, drying room, library and offices. The herbarium has had a long history of knowledge exchange with Kew Gardens in the UK and with the New York Botanical Gardens. Today is the largest herbarium in the English-speaking Caribbean.



Many specimens were over one hundred and fifty years old. Very fragile, they were beautiful examples of  the country's
natural history. I plugged away in
my lab coat and reading glasses (can't do without them of late) with tweezers, scalpels, needles and thread, reconstructing and securing fragile plant parts and slicing away brittle edges off tattered sheets. I removed evidence of pests, replaced old folders with crisps new ones, practicing careful handwriting and attention to detail. I documented changes. All the while I had music on the brain. I was infected and mad, with soca.


During my lunch breaks I roamed the campus grounds, foraging for fruits and flowers and ogling the lunches of my co-workers. I mamaguyed (Trini word for sweet-talk or flattery) maintenance staff into giving me pomerac fruits. I coveted the cainite high up in the trees. I was ravenous for plant knowledge and determined to gobble up a range of local foods. I tasted unfamiliar fallen fruits that looked possibly edible. I'm still alive. As a tree lover I was in heaven. Saman trees (Samanea saman) dominate the landscape of the campus and they are large and magnificent, some supporting a cast of ferns, opuntia, bromeliads and hanging grasses. I envied birds eating dragon fruit that grew happily on the trunk of one stunning saman tree. I wanted some.


Samanea saman (saman tree)


How surprised I was to encounter a giant monkey puzzle tree near the entrance of the herbarium building. It is the only live one I have seen and possibly the only specimen to be found on the island. A lygodium fern clung between the branches and sharp compound leaves.


Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle tree)


Other trees surrounded the building like the native cannonball tree (Courpupita guianensis) whose flowers made a lovely litter on the grass. The native wild chataigne (Pachira insignis) tree occasionally dropped a huge flower resembling a fan of copper-colored hairs cradled in long woody-looking sepals, all of which exploded as it hit the ground below. You couldn't miss Kigelia africana, the sausage tree, with its deep-red velvety hanging inflorescence. Near the principal's residence there were ackee, cainite, mango, cedar and crappo trees. I was also delighted to find a row of teak (Tectona grandis).

Flowers of Couroupita guianensis (cannonball tree)



The fruit of Posoqueria longiflora may taste good when ripe. Flowers are plentiful and fragrant.



 My attempt at carving calabash


Students draw lewd pictures and write love notes on the fruits of Cresententia cujete (calabash) while they hang on the trees. Maybe there should be a campus calabash-carving competition. I tried my hand at carving one small gourd that I found one morning, lying feet away from its parent. As a child I imagined the Little Dipper to be a bowl made from a dried calabash gourd, with a handle attached, floating in a dark, watery sky. Tribes and cultural groups have made bowls out of calabash for eons. It is the original bowl. Carving was not as easy as I thought it would be though. I spoke with a couple master carvers who displayed their wares in little huts near the Queen's Park Savannah. Calabash of various shapes and sizes were carved and painted into masks, wall hangings, handbags, purses and maracas. They offered tips on carving, making tools and a bit of education. I didn't know that calabash pulp is used to make dyes and that young calabash can be cooked and eaten like curried potatoes. I must try it. 

Last year I worked at Brooklyn Bridge Park for a few months. The lawns there were quite well maintained and groomed with compost tea. I wondered if the lawn expert there would have approved of the maintenance schedule on the UWI campus. What chemicals were being used and why was the grass so short in many areas and did anyone notice how brown the grass was becoming at the beginning of the dry season? Also, I questioned the pruning techniques practiced on the poor militated shrubs. In fact, it seems like the same maintenance crew for the campus is responsible for dreadfully cropped plantings found along the highways from Port-of-Spain to Chaguanus and besides the roads to Couva and San Fernando. There is a new Tropical Horticulture degree program being offered at the university. I am certain it will address maintenance practices on the campus and improve landscaping and, along with the renovated Botanic Gardens, create greater environmental awareness and national pride in our native flora. Overall, the campus grounds were beautiful.


 
 This nicely maintained hedge got my attention. I did not love Ixora before this.


About 50% of the landmass of Trinidad is covered in vegetation, much of which is tropical rain forest. It may not be so apparent but many trees are deciduous, dropping their leaves during the dry season and resuming growth at the onset of the rainy season which usually last for six months ending  in February. Heavy rains and a high water table make for constant leaching of nutrients which are replaced by decaying plant matter. Deforestation and farming without regular replenishing of nutrients lead to erosion and unsuitable growing conditions. Heavily forested areas house diverse populations of organisms and though the soil structure may look like clay, it is generally rich in nutrients which is evidenced by abundantly lush understory growth.



 Spathodea campanulata (African tulip tree)



On the northeast side of the campus sits an African Tulip tree. Looking past it to the north you can see the Historic Mount St. Benedict Monastery on the hillside. Oh, the hills! The Northern Range was at one point an extension of the Andes Mountains of Venezuela when the island was connected to the South American mainland. These rugged peaks and valleys crisscrossed by numerous rivers and streams are home to multitudes of colorful birds not seen elsewhere. There are red howler monkeys, beautiful and deadly snakes and wildlife like manicou, agouti, iguana, tattoo and deer that my brothers and nephews trek deep into the forest to hunt. Together with frogs, butterflies, moths and bats they pollinate flowers and disperse seeds perpetuating incredible biodiversity and maintaining unique ecosystems in their habitats of towering palms, pines, bamboo, evergreen and seasonal evergreen forest. Mount Tamana is known for its caves of bats and Arima for the Asa Wright Nature Center which is a bird-watcher's favorite. Head south of the island to a lake of bubbling asphalt and mud volcanoes; shore lines of brackish water with mangrove colonies and wetlands where thousands of scarlet ibis return to spend each night. The southeast coastline displays lanky coconut trees lining beaches where the leather back turtle make their annual egg-laying stopovers. Hiking trails and waterfalls are plentiful and eco-tourism is a growing industry. With more species per square mile than most places in the world, the mountains are the dreams of biologist, ecologists and nature lovers.



Coconut trees on the Manzanilla coastline, a source of fiber and oils


"Come. Leh we go, leh go to Tobago, dat paradise found by Robinson Crusoe."Kitchener-1969 .The beaches of Tobago are lovely. Snorkeling, diving and fishing there are on top of the charts. Nautilus will always have a special place in my boys' memories because we were thrilled to see a school of them while snorkeling in Castara a few years ago. We were also greeted by dolphins and they allowed us to swim with them for a brief moment. We swam with stingrays on that trip too (two days before the crocodile guy was killed while harassing a stingray). Surfers love the beaches and the views from the hillsides are spectacular. Many see Tobago as "the land of tomorrow". Over the past few years Europeans (too many) have made the island their home and have forced property value to increase drastically. Land has become very scarce. Yet some areas of Tobago feel like they are unaffected by tourism. Villages are serene. Some begin and end their day with a swim and sunsets seem more beautiful. An awareness of the uniqueness of its own history and status as a coveted territory may just save Tobago from being overrun. On the hills there are protected land reserves, ample bird watching opportunities and eco-trails.



View from Asa Wright Nature Center


All this natural beauty stands against encroaching modernism and destruction by humans. Coral reefs hardly have a chance to recover before they are further damaged by over-tourism or ravaged for profit. At the beginning of the dry season I passed by many bush fires, singeing traffic along the highways. I saw land which for many years produced enough sugar to sweeten the world's coffee now being developed for housing. Of course we need houses but I get a bit sick in the stomach knowing that much of the yards will be covered in concrete or tiles with nary a patch for growing a kitchen garden. Some labeled me an outsider and I was lambasted for not wanting to kill every snake, venomous or otherwise and for suggesting that trees be planted for beauty, shade and privacy. How silly of me to want to obstruct the view of the neighbors by planting a tree! What if it fell on the house, huh?

I can write pages on my thoughts of the government, corruption, the crime rate and race relations on islands occupied by descendants of slaves and indentured laborers fleeing poverty and degradation of the Indian caste system. Trinidad and Tobago is a new country (fifty years since the end of British rule) with lots of room for gripes and growth in a landscape rich in natural resources and resilient people. There is a dynamism and capacity for greatness all around. With clever, long term goals, planning and effective leadership T+T can be one bad ass republic. But, it is another case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Canadian author, Malcolm Gladwell, on his visit to UWI was reported as saying that brain drain is one of many factors propelling crime and overall economic struggle in the country and the Caribbean in general. Whether educated at UWI or abroad, many of us enrich other lands instead of dispersing our wider world views back home. How unlucky for a country to have its people as its largest export, with little or no returns.

I had hoped to see the words 'Made in Trinidad and Tobago' more often. Like the economy, the culture and mas-making heritage are also to be protected against erosion. I recently read a blog post that quoted a local Trinidadian nature guide as saying to tourists "our once orderly island has become the home of steel drums, gangs and mayhem". What de Ras??!! Steelpan is the only musical instrument of note to have been created in the twentieth century, a fact I think the world should know and every Trinidadian, regardless of race, should be proud of. The innovators were poor people from the hillsides, the original recyclers, having invented instruments from industrial waste. Maybe some feel that to dismember cultural roots one must first eradicate the history, taint achievements and make negatives of strengths wherever possible. But wait, has that not been attempted before? (I'll blame all of this rant on tourette's). Steelpan, calypso and mas-making are the DNA of Trinidad and Tobago, not of Africa and not of India. Today mas-makers are becoming jobless. Creative costuming and wire bending skills are being replaced by cheap beads and bikini "costumes" imported from China and Trinidad and Tobago Carnival resembles that of Rio now more than ever, which suits some just fine. Shame on any artists who would take our costume-making heritage there too! Nuff said.



On Tuesday, the last and sad end of Carnival, I was privileged to be near the stage as masqueraders reveled and paraded in many fine costumes, prancing like gazelles in exuberance of a tradition reflective of new-found freedom and reckless abandon.

It is great to be living in New York, Toronto, London or elsewhere in the west yet to be still deeply grounded by roots of culturally rich and physically awesome Trinidad and Tobago. I can hardly wait to go back with my boys to inspire them to learn to play steelpan and to visit the museum at the zoology department at UWI. Under all the black clothes and tall leather boots of winter I smile, knowing that while some dream of Europe I think of poui, teak, jade vines and bamboo near cool water on an elevated paradise in the Caribbean islands, South America, Africa and India. These places hold more fascination to me at the moment. What trees, fruits and rare species are yet to be discovered and what trees, terrains and traditions are being lost as we are propelled by "progress". Trinbagonians may look African, Indian or Chinese but we have a vernacular that places Yoruba, French, Spanish, English and Hindu words, all in one sentence. We have a different style. We are a rare species made rugged by enormous diversity, constant adversity and forged from the love of liberty. Capitalize on this!

Anti-stush, I am grateful to be a savage from the West Indies and absolutely, a woman from the bush. "Aye, Aye, Aye" (Super Blue, 2013 Calypso Monarch). Maybe it is because we've bridged the dualities of south and north, east and west that our spirit is undaunted. Around us, around here the atmosphere ha vybz and nothing can break it up, an nuttin cyah break it up, oui! Or as Drupatee would say, "Wheeee!"



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