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Freaks of nature
On many afternoons I’d end up at the house of my mother’s seamstress in Marabella while still in my khaki pants and shirt-jack. While she was being measured, I’d wander off to raid the cherry tree and scare the goat tied to the nearby stump. It’s quite a vista: the lone cherry tree and the munching goat amid the knee-high grass. It was quite a vista set against the black scum of the Guaracara River 30 feet away, its sludge crawling painfully to empty itself in the Gulf of Paria.
I had seen the river thousands of times. I knew of nothing else. A black mass whose depth could not be told, leafless trees and dead stalks protruding from its banks which were stained with streaks of tar going up and down, up and down. I never saw a fish; the blackness made for short-sightedness. I’d throw stones into the river but they’d never skip.
Sometimes the river would catch fire. Water catching fire? But it wasn’t water. It was a freak of nature: the Earth’s natural channel used to funnel Trintoc’s poisonous waste out of sight and out of mind. There was once a simpler time: a simpler time when a normal life was one of goats and cherry trees next to a noxious river discharging poisons into the Gulf. Or maybe we were simpler: of a simpler mind that believed these things to be normal because it was all we ever knew.
Dumping on trees
I knew the less visible kind of poisons too. Living near the stately Union Park Race Course, with its long row of towering royal palms, that is now the pedestrian Manny Ramjohn Stadium, I could not only see the grey smoke of the towering chimney stacks at the oil refinery, I could smell it too.
Every once in a while, the chimneys would belch out fumes that smelled like farts. Those were the days when we kept the door closed. Driving up the highway to go shopping in Port-of-Spain was always a treat. It was the longest journey filled with a million sights. The cane fields sprawled out to the horizon. Wooden houses rose up on stilts, making a linear pattern where there were roads. In the distance, the lush hills of the Central Range could be seen on a clear day.
Passing by Claxton Bay, home of the cement factory, there was another one of those anomalous sights: majestic teak trees with big leaves blocking the light. But the leaves were not green; they were grey. I’d wind up the window at the sudden wafts of nasty air, which I later found out was the product of the Forres Park dump.
I always wondered how come those trees alone were grey. Were they a freak of nature? Or were they punished by something beyond their little space of Earth? Who knew? That was all I knew: that it was so and, because it was so, it was okay.
Later in life I’d get to fly in airplanes. And I’d see things from whole new perspectives. I’d never realised just how massive the Northern Range was, not just the plane landscape you’d see from the highway. It had dimension, body, sprawl, vastness. It was a jungle.
And it was scarred. Just as the green began getting deeper, almost to black, an abrupt pothole. And more potholes. Potholes from thousands of feet above that got far bigger when the plane descended. They were big, earth-coloured patches...in a jungle? Every successive time I’d fly, the potholes got bigger and joined up until even from that far above I could no longer call them such.
I didn’t know why it was so, but because it was so, it was okay. That was “normal” because it was all I knew. Today, the Guaracara River still hasn’t recovered and our grandchildren may not know it differently, either. The towering teak trees rise amid the same stench. And the gaping potholes carved into the jungle are cavernous while the city below gets flooded out at a drop of rain.
Today we are a smarter nation. But we build Carnival centers out of concrete and steel while castles and presidents’ houses crumble. The bird sanctuary lacks birds while urban life sprawls and stretches and flexes its muscles across the land. Nature resorts resort to desperation to keep nature in their name while plans of smelters are drawn up. Wild monkeys “scare residents” as highways are sketched through the residences of animals.
The physical assaults on those “environmentalists,” those freaks of nature like Kublalsingh and Shand and others, dumping gravel on them and tossing them outside the gates like trash bags, is indicative of our assaults on the little bit of land we call home.
It’s certainly not because it’s all we know. Today we surely know more. But we’re doing things in the name of politics and progress that don’t make sense. And it would be good if tomorrow’s children didn’t grow up in a place where things didn’t make sense: where the freakish man-made anomalies that smart our eyes and choke our throats weren’t “normal,” everyday life and weren’t “okay.”
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