Caribbean Writers, Conservation & Ecology

"I love this land although it has spilled our blood,"

My father roared as we hiked down the valley.

"I spring from these rocks, my bones from this clay.

Can you name this stream--where you were conceived?"

"And now because you've studied abroad,

You think you can lecture me, get in my way

From chopping down trees that fed you every day

Paid for all the book learning in your head?"

"Don't you care what happens to future generations?"

I brushed cobwebs from our path."They'll be inheriting this mess!"

"Choose to eat or save the planet later," he said, machete in hand,

"When you can give me answer to that question,

Your ideas are useless," as he moved through the darkness--

Like those helmeted conquistadores who discovered this island.

This is the first time that I've published a poem of which I'm still unsure. I did it anyway because bloggers and blog readers often lead the first wave of an idea within a culture, and this idea was far more important than my quibbling aesthetics.

The genesis of this sonnet has many sources. The primary inspiration, however, grew out of a reading/lecture by Robert Wrigley and Campbell McGrath at Florida International University on December 4, 2008. The reading took its name from Wrigley's latest book, Earthly Meditations, and was designed to begin "a discussion on the connection between nature, community, and a sense of place in the context of South Florida, focusing on literature as a means of shaping attitudes toward the environment."

During his introduction of Robert Wrigley, McGrath cited Shelley's now famous line from the "Defence of Poetry": "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Campbell connected that statement to Coleridge and Wordworth's Lyrical Ballads,--an influence on the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and John Muir. It was Muir's friendship with Teddy Roosevelt, the de facto father of the National Park System in America, that led to the preservation of the Everglades, of which many of us in Florida are now the beneficiaries.

The poems in Lyrical Ballads, as Campbell also pointed out, would go on to influence a generation of poets, and once they became enshrined in Palgrave's Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, would skip across the pond to the British West Indies and find their way into the work of poets such as Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Philip Sherlock and John Figueroa. Whether the aesthetic was accepted or resisted (Oak vs. Mango), the influence remains undeniable--a point that Kamau Brathwaite made clear to the poets who attended the Caribbean Writers' Summer Institute. So one could, in fact, trace a poetic lineage from the publication of the Lyrical Ballads through Palgrave's Golden Treasury to the poets who attended the CWSI.

Unfortunately, at least for now, that is where the resemblances end. The Romantic poetic tradition became part of the consciousness of those who influenced American and British politics, but I can find no evidence of a similar movement in Caribbean politics. There are many reasons for this. And they begin with our history of slavery/colonialism and poverty.

It is very difficult for a people to love a land which has been the source of so much physical and psychic trauma.

The Caribbean unlike Britain was viewed as a place to be exploited and everyone who came here--willingly or unwillingly--saw the land either as a curse or place to be pillaged. These attitudes are still prevalent. For whereas many British, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish poets can trace back into pre-history the verbs, nouns, and phrases that seep into their verse (e.g. Seamus Heaney), the Caribbean cannot boast any such sustained loving relationship with the land.

And yet we must change. A cursory reading of the columns of John Maxwell's columns in the Jamaica Observer reveals that Jamaica is in the midst of an ecological crisis. And although Maxwell may be dismissed as a Cassandra, nature has a way of taking care of herself and quite often it is humans who pay the price in the form of "natural" disasters and disease. We can either act now or pay the price later.

But what do I know? I'm a writer living in Miami--the second source of inspiration for the poem. A few weeks ago at the Miami Book Fair International, Junot Diaz made a point when a reader asked him about the benefits of winning the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. One of the advantages Diaz asserted was that it gave him a voice in Santo Domingo. Before he was often dismissed with the phrase, "You don't live here anymore and you don't know what it's like living here everyday, so you shouldn't say anything."

Which leads me to the heart of the poem, and the ongoing father-son dialogues in my fictions. For at the center of this poem is a statement by Lynne Barrett during the Q&A of the reading/lecture. Lynne said that poets and writers when writing about conservation and ecology too often "preach to the choir." What about the other side? Shouldn't they have a voice too?

Lynne is correct. Tragedy is never right versus wrong. It is often right versus right and the ecological crisis in the Caribbean is as the result of two rights: the necessity of preserve the land and the overwhelming poverty of the region. The father in the poem represents economic interests of which the son is an inheritor and the son represents the young intellectual from the Diaspora who is trying to bring change to the island and to avert a disaster that will surely take place if proper stewardship is not exercised.

So, what do we do? Starve now to save a nebulous future, or eat now and worry later?

These are the important questions which I hope we will consider. And although the writing business is considered to be highly competitive, this is one area that I hope some young poet will do me one better.



Nicholas said…
Geoffrey, perhaps you'd be interested in a book published a few years ago in the University of Virginia Press New World Studies series: Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture, ed. Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey et al. It contains a number of essays that address questions and concerns similar to those in your thoughtful blog post.
Nicholas, I will DEFINITELY look into this.

Give thanks!
A fascinating post, Geoffrey - thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm really interested in poetry and the environment and you've given me much to mull over.
Thanks, Susan.

I've also taken Nicholas's advice and bought Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture.

We'll see how it turns out.

FSJL said…
It's possible to eat now and save the planet now. The issue is how to involve ordinary rural people, and poor urban people in doing so.
Fragano, I agree 100%. Yes, it's the HOW and it will take leaders who are not shortsighted, but are willing to see long-term benefits and not just give into the NOW.

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