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One morning in Manzanilla
Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2001

Sunday October 17, 1999

"We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed in seaweed, red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown."
- TS Eliot: "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock"

Sometimes, it is possible to imagine good coming out of tragedy or disaster. It depends, of course, on the scope of the disaster: there are some, like wars and hurricanes, which are too overwhelming even to envision the possibility of a positive outcome.

Still, I suppose one might say that the recent devastating earthquake in Turkey will force the local authorities to implement improved building codes in the future-not that that's much consolation for the victims.

As I looked at the devastating photos of beached and dying whales on the front pages of Thursday's newspapers, I had a sudden flash that, tragic as the whole scene was, there was something in it that sowed a germ of hope.

I saw it in the eyes of the villagers gathered around in concern, trying desperately to save the doomed leviathans. I wished I had been there.

The whale is an amazing animal. I've never seen a live one, except in captivity at a Canadian marine theme park. But there's something about them, beyond their mere size (though that certainly helps) that inspires awe.

I'm no expert; but I do know about their superior intelligence, their conscious nurturing of their young, their mysterious music, their grace and playfulness and sheer power. A photo of a breaching Orca will hold me spellbound: a video even more so.

And I know about the strange, inexplicable phenomenon that leads them to commit, effectively, a form of suicide (though I'm sure not voluntarily): casting themselves up on far-flung beaches to flounder in the sand until slow death overtakes them. It is a picture that affects me to my very depths.
And clearly, judging from the newspaper photos, it affected a large number of Manzanillans similarly.

I scan the faces of the crowd: there is not one hint of levity, of picong, of pointing and joking and jeering. Every face is as solemn as a churchgoer's; bodies are motionless as if in deep respect. These are photos such as are seldom seen in T&T, where the usual crowd scene entails a lot of wining or cussing, depending on the context.

I don't think anyone jeered at the Manzanilla whales. Not from what I could see in the news photos. I think a greater, almost primal reverence ruled that scene, those hours.

And it gave me, paradoxically, a sense of hope.

We are not a nation that has traditionally shown much respect for our environment, or for the wildlife that (to their detriment, usually) share it with us. As far as we are concerned, anything that moves is fair game to be eaten, sold, or slaughtered for one lame reason or another. Empathy for the animal kingdom is far from our everyday cultural reality.

Yet, last Wednesday, hundreds of villagers gathered on the sand, as solemn as priests, and attempted to save two dozen overweight fish (I know they're really mammals; but for humans, a sea-dweller is by definition a "fish").

I believe-I want to believe-that none of these people will ever be the same again. I want to believe that, on that memorable Wednesday, a seed of environmental consciousness was sown in many hearts: a realisation, inarticulate as it may have been, of the amazing beauty and mystery that consitutes the world we live in-the parts we see as well as the parts we do not usually see.

I want to believe that somehow, a recognition dawned on at least some of that crowd that we are all part of the same reality, with no one species having God-given greater rights than the others. I want to think that, the next time one of those villagers raises his cutlass or gun to inflict a gratuitous death, he will think twice.

As a child, I spent many summer vacations in Mayaro: a halcyon time. I remember the sunrises and the guppy-filled lagoons, the waves and the sandcastles and the early-morning seines. But the memory that rises most strongly was the day one of these same seines pulled in a giant manta ray-known, by the fearful and superstitious fishermen, as the devil fish.

It never crossed any mind (except perhaps mine, spellbound in a child's awe and fear and powerless sorrow) to drag the creature back into the water. Instead, it flapped for what seemed like hours in the sandy shallows, the sun beating down and myself becoming ever more agitated. Then there was the tremendous rasping gasp. I've never forgotten it.

The front-page of Thursday's Guardian moved me to tears. It showed a woman crouched beside a supine whale, hugging it and sobbing. I knew: I knew exactly how she felt. It had probably never occurred to her in her life that one day she would be kneeling on a beach hugging a dying whale.

Her spontaneous, helpless compassion reflected, I believe, the emotions of most people on the beach that day.

A connection-tenuous, perhaps, and no doubt temporary-was made between man and nature, that Manzanilla morning: a connection that had long been broken, or at least severely fractured. I want to believe that somehow, at some deep, subconscious level, it will endure; and someday bear fruit.

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