Post 223.

For the next two weeks, I’m enrolled in my first farming course. It’s more like a course in creating forests rather than farming, but the point is to harvest from rich biodiversity rather than destroy it in the name of food production. The goal “is to be a forager in one’s own ecosystem”.

This approach is known as permaculture, and its basically agriculture founded on observation of forests, and their ability to be self-sustaining. How do forests provide so many plant options without chemicals, what makes them able to conserve rivers and create rain? How can our backyards become micro forests, producing profusely, more than we ever suspected possible?

I first heard about permaculture in 2013 when I watched Erle Rahaman-Noronha’s inspiring TEDx Port of Spain talk, titled ‘Bringing Nature Home’. In one of the last slides, he showed the land he began to work on eighteen years ago, which had been handed over almost bare, down to grass. The next slide showed layers of trees, from the ground up and densely filling different areas of his land.

I knew then that this was something we should all know more about given the increasing rate of tree cover loss in our communities, the unsustainability of conventional agriculture, and the need to feed ourselves as well as the other life forms with whom we share the planet.

I’m taking the lessons from the course back to the garden where I live in the hope of making it less dependent on anything from outside, whether in relation to excess water-use, especially in dry season, or artificial fertilizer, because now I better understand how to make well-balanced compost. It’s such a simple idea, forests recycle everything in a loop, with tree roots and even migratory birds involved. What can they teach us about how to use what we have to both reduce waste and reap more?

I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to till your land, particularly in the tropics where topsoil is thin. Forests don’t till; we don’t have to either. What we can do, like forests, is layer green and brown plant material, recognizing that both nitrogen and carbon are necessary to soil rejuvenation. Just add water to your mulch, aerate and watch soil emerge.

Stripping soil bare is unnecessary and harmful. All you will do is dry out your topsoil from too much sun or allow it to be washed away by plenty rain, kill thousands of organisms which exist in that top layer and off the grasses and plants, and lead to an obvious need for chemicals to jump start crops. Everything that looks like ‘bush’ has some value that can be reused for mulching. Don’t burn the bush you do cut or watch your future topsoil go up in smoke.

See your garden in three dimensions from the ground up. Something like tumeric or yam is growing in the ground, something like peas can be trailed higher. Banana trees then fill the space under larger trees, like tamarind or flamboyant, which are known as nitrogen fixers. The idea is to create continuous yields, at different times and with different returns, including for the insects, animals, plants, water, air and land around you. At one point yam, at another point bananas, then, perhaps timber.

Save water and slow the flow of water across the land so that it can be absorbed into the ground along the way, rather than washing everything away with it. Whole hillsides are currently planted without any ‘swales’ or little indents and dams, and channels to direct water across rather than straight down slopes. All land naturally has points for water storage, ringed by some trees to hold up the soil. The natural course of water is to meander along uneven topography and to be in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots which promote absorption. We should observe if our agricultural methods reflect just this.

These lessons seem so obvious because, I guess, they were the old people’s way or the old forests’ way, before plantation-economy monocropping and modern, chemical-based agribusiness.

Watch Erle’s TEDx Talk. Grow food that doesn’t require cutting down forests. Instead choose farming invested in creating whole forests with sources of food.

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Post 219.

We are stewards of our nation.

Each morning, waking to a fresh opportunity to refuse a dark time for now or the future.  The alternative to boom and bust cycles may not feed our glittering fantasy of El Dorado, but it can fire hope amidst an oncoming bruising and battering for self-preservation.

The question of where to cut and to invest are ours, not the government or the Prime Minister, but we citizen’s own. We must look around our communities, at ourselves and with our representatives, and insist on our own budgetary priorities. For this reason, I appreciated the Prime Minister’s address, particularly the presentation of numbers and his direct challenge to the business community to share profits. All of us have to find more ways to go local and spend wisely. In the last decade when even workers were only drinking Johnny Walker, we were clearly living beyond our means.

My first choice for investment is the environment and renewable energy. Our natural resources will sustain wealth for generations, even centuries. And, when it comes to our air, seas and rivers, we will not get a second chance. Trinidad is full of permaculture and environmental management specialists who can tell us how our environment produces food, community and profit. Planning should anticipate how cost saving, health and wealth generation could look in seven generations. For such sustainability, now is the time to invest.

Culture is also on my priority list. Not the millions won in a night by soca stars, but investment in the yards of pan and mas making. Over years of doctoral ethnographic research with mas camps, I came to understand the incredible way that they sustain traditions to land, language, life lessons, and making a living. Going for wide dispersion of available funds to create community around the families and schools of jab jab, or blue devil, moko jumbies or Indian mas can also help with tackling issues of boys and masculinities.

On the supply side, the governments’ plan to stimulate jobs through the construction sector, e.g. plumbers, masons and joiners, will disproportionately benefit men. This has social costs, and reproduces women’s economic dependence, and their clustering in low waged sectors. Such explicitly gendered effects have to be empirically understood if this is pursued, along with strategies to equalize access of qualified individuals of both sexes to a construction boom. The location of a Gender Division under the Office of the PM should provide exactly such cross-sectoral policy analysis and direction. Also keep in mind that while taxes, particularly on land, are necessary, sales tax always affects women more because of their greater responsibility for food provision and making groceries.

Beyond economic policy, the government’s primary focus should be on containing corruption through measured change in effective public service monitoring and evaluation, passage of whistleblower legislation, and successful prosecution of cases. Sheer waste and mismanagement of money account for billions bled from schools, hospitals and NGOs. Governments like to say that people don’t show up to town hall and regional corporation meetings, but people know the consultation process can also be both insult and joke. Still, even if it is only through a media that powerfully tackles fiscal scandals, we must insist on government for the people, which means suturing waste and corruption in 2016.

Wherever you are when the year begins, may you experience it with safety and joy, and carry a sense of togetherness in your heart in the days ahead. May we remain pensive, grateful and blessed, drawing on our best sources for long term sustainability. Let us be guided by ground up lessons on opportunities for our islands to navigate predicted rough seas.

“Who are the magnificent here? Not I with this torn shirt”, you may say. Even with scars upon our soul, wounds on our bodies, fury in our hands and scorn for ourselves, to quote Martin Carter, it is possible to turn to the world of tomorrow with strength. The sources of such strength are all around us to recognise.

My new-year tune is Nina Simone’s song, ‘Feeling Good’. There is a new dawn. There is always a new day. Tomorrow when you awake, look it up and press play.

 

Post 203.

We spent Sunday morning carefully observing wildlife in Chaguaramas, all the while grieving their demise under Dr. Bhoe Tewarie’s leadership as Minister. Getting home wet from a spring, I felt it was a miracle that Ziya could walk amidst such great biodiversity, and Trinidad’s human and natural history.

Walk with me.

Just to the left of the turn to go into Macaripe Mail Road, next to the sea and along the Cuesa river wetlands, live a family of small crocodilians called Caimans. If you go quietly, you can see them resting. Development is planning for both now and for future generations, so including their habitat in planning isn’t an idealist, environmentalist wish. It is sustainable development and the right thing to do, especially in Chagaramas, for Ziya’s children will never have the experience she did if we submit to Dr. Tewarie’s piped dreams.

Filled-in and concretized land, and a freshwater waterpark are to be established on the same spot through private leases. This will destroy the precious little habitat that those caiman have a right to, and compromise the rights of public open space enjoyed by Baptists, Hindus, and those of all classes who freely access this state land for recreation. It will also exploit an aquifer for the most unsustainable uses imaginable at a time of global water crisis.

As I left the caiman, I looked up at the sign of what was planned, after closed-door conversations Dr. Tewarie had with private investors, and wondered if any of them ever saw those caiman or cared about habitat, future generations, precious fresh water, or Town and Country Planning approvals.

Keep walking.

The view of the sea will be cut off from the proposed new Guave Road, past the military museum, and will instead be accessible through businesses profiting from a mall and marina restaurants. These plans were made before the new Chagaramas Development Authority 2015 master plan was formulated and were forcibly misfit in, under the title of CDA ‘fixed projects’. Yet, the Town and Country Planning (Chaguaramas) Development Order created the CDA to follow the 1974 Statutory land use plan, which should only be replaced by Parliamentary and public agreement, and which clearly classes the coastline here as a public open space. Dr. Tewarie and the CDA know this, but fences are going up anyway. Have all the planning approvals have been obtained? Why not? Why do you think that the Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development is pursuing such an unsustainable dream?

Chagaramas’ forests are intended to be a “National Park”. Will the CDA again allow open-air fetes, such as by Ceasar’s Army, in, of all places, the Tucker valley “bamboo cathedral” in the middle of the wider National Park? If so, what will happen to the howler monkeys Ziya watched, not caged in the zoo, but free? Will businesses continue to operate as if the garbage growing around them, filling the streams, is in the Park’s best interest? Will extending the golf course from nine holes to eighteen plus high-density residential housing provide the buffers this national park needs? And imagine the military establishing a panorama of bright industrial level lights around its fenced off football field at the Tucker Valley youth camp, in the last “dark zones” in the western Northern Range. Such human hubris is disallowed because of the harm it causes to species in this ecology, but it continues, unregulated and irresponsibly.

Zi ecountered a furry, placid, pink-toed tarantula, Blue Emperor, Postman, Bamboo Page and other butterflies, two Green-banded Urania moths, a plica plica lizard, a tiny black and white striped frog, bats, a yellow and green ladybird, a hawk and cornbirds. Yesterday she told me, trees are a kind of school.

Is the next generation voiceless in the face of Minister Tewarie’s elite model, out of time with the publicly accessible heritage and biodiversity of Chagaramas, and sustainable planning across the planet? The Minister could have extended rather than destroyed biodiversity along the coast, and been sensitive not to big money, but the long-term interest of people of Trinidad and Tobago.

As Zi also now knows, it’s under Dr. Tewarie’s leadership that those caiman will be no more once tractors start to roll.

Ronald Alfred. Copyright Maria Nunes(Photo: Maria Nunes)

Post 177.  The Whipmaster’s Secrets

There is a Carnival that you can buy with $1200 all-inclusive tickets, a Carnival that you can purchase by scrolling a catalogue on-line, and a Carnival where rum, bacchanal and bum-bum time prevail.

There is another Carnival that you cannot access with money, that requires you to earn trust over time and one on one, and that cherishes sacrifice, strength, and preparation through abstention from alcohol, meat and sexual relations.

You could put on a costume, but you soon learn that carrying it is more about discipline and seriousness than jump up and freeness. You could want to practice fancy steps and fling rope, but you soon realize there are stories to respect, bush leaf tea to drink, root and flower medicine to rub, and a rhythm you have to hear before your mask could transform into a mas, and before you can crack a whip like a conductor leading an orchestra drumming on nothing but thin air.

There is a Carnival, weaving through the masses of bikinis and beads, which most will never notice. They will think they are merely seeing “traditional” colours on display, not realizing that a small group of the fiercest and most feared in the country could only dazzle so because of old secrets still shared beneath the boom of big trucks.

Like plants scattered across the central range, some of those secrets come from India, some from Africa, some from Amerindians, and some were invented precisely because Carnival was created right here.

This is the Carnival where such knowledge is both fiercely guarded and handed down over generations. So, come Monday and Tuesday, all those secrets, from a powerful foot stance to a remembered battle chant to a sun-drenched oil to a special weave of natural and man-made fibers, make a convois with the mirrors, sequins and whips, creating a battalion of uniquely painted, tightly wired faces advancing, seemingly, without emotion or fear.

Yet, in this Carnival, commitment to nation and culture is so deep that the hurt it risks could, just almost, stop a man from taking his art on the road. You see, MPs could break hearts with promises they don’t keep, and the recognized VIPs are those with office, who set rules and write cheques, rather than those with life-earned skills and leadership.

Still, this is a Carnival refusing defeat, so a front yard might not be paved this year or next in order to give all to dreams of community, and a vision for a Jab Jab Academy, deeply grounded in relationship to land, will yet again be defended from party financiers and strong-armed police.

In this season when men lose their reason, it’s clear that if a Jab Jab Whipmaster’s spirit don’t take you, there is only one Carnival you will ever know, the other one slipping by, right under your gaze, but unseen.

As I listened to his stories of both sharing and protecting, I walked amongst his sacred plants, shared his quiet anger at the disrespect and poverty faced by traditional mas makers, felt his untold anguish at the clearing of forests where memories were held and spirits released, and appreciated the value of fairness in the life of a family committed to mas.

Last Sunday in Couva, I learned that one thing a Whipmaster knows is how to take pain, which is why so many of his secrets are for healing.  Yet, as I left, I wondered if those secrets, meant to protect the skin under the material and masks, could also protect from a Carnival whose injustices cut more deep than lash.

 

Entry 175.

Adults are not so different from four year olds.

We have to overcome fears, try even when we think we can’t to make it through something, and be willing to accept offers of kindness that help us let go of our egos and our tears.  Perhaps, some have it completely figured out, but mostly I know adults still growing up, imperfect and working on self-acceptance, hoping to be as open to what the next day brings as aware of who they wish to be when it comes.

Given that similar challenges appear in one life stage after another, we need to continually claim more skills, confidence and resilience than we might have in the past. It’s good to begin to recognize this even if you are only four. Indeed, watching children’s life steps should make you reflect on your own, whether you are forty years old or four score.

Ziya and I were at the CDA’s Zip Line park which features a multistoried tree house linked by suspended bridges. This unique space has potential to combine child friendliness with substantial tree-cover and flowering plants that could provide the additional adventure of observing a wider range of wild birds, pollinating bugs and butterflies than found in contemporary backyards.

Most play structures are in corporate franchises devoid of green space. Those outdoors have primarily relegated trees to their edges, abandoning not only public savannahs but also children’s play to brutal daytime heat, denying care givers and infants shady space to stay close, and disconnecting recreation grounds from their biodiversity potential.  Taking your child to these structures re quires you to squint through blinding sun or wait until cooler evening.  Did those designing play parks pilot them in the role of a tired working mom or dad dedicated to quality time on a blistering weekend? Why would stones and pebbles cover the ground under St. Clair’s play structure so that children falling from the monkey bars land on, yes, rocks?

As Ziya climbed to the top of the tree house stairs and paused at this wonderful example of what public play options can instead look like, fear of heights or new things propelled her back down. Lifting her, we insisted she go across the bridges while she screamed for bloody murder, preferring to miss out because of her terror.

When we came down, through her sobs and while wondering if I was a bad parent for making her confront her limits, I explained that when we are afraid, we all have to be brave.  After much coaxing by my sister, Zi tentatively agreed to go again with her, and managed it all without a meltdown.

Crucially, a little girl called Honor saw her troubles and took her hand, encouraging her across the bridges, taking her time, talking her through, and accepting Ziya’s trepidation until she accomplished something she initially couldn’t face.

Not all children are boisterous and brave. Not all are confident and carefree. Not all are immediately comfortable with new people, skills and opportunities. Not all will march past their fears, focusing on the potential ahead. But all children need to practice being their happy selves outside of their familiarities, and draw on support from family, friends and even strangers to grow surer and bolder.

Are any of us different? If a four year old could dry her tears, let herself be vulnerable and desire more than anything to be proud for trying to be brave, regardless of long it takes or how far she gets or how much hesitancy remains, she’s one step closer to the resilience we adults are still acquiring each day.

Post 173.

The other day Ziya told my mother she wants an iPhone for Christmas so that she can check her emails from her friends, despite the fact that neither she nor they yet read or write. She’s also been quarreling that she’s asked me to take her to the North Pole and I haven’t yet.

Every time she brings it up, I think about hauling her tail across the world to Alaska in winter and giving her the thirty seconds in minus forty degree weather that she needs to realize that no one is sashaying in dresses in magical winter castles or dancing with red nosed reindeer. She also likes to have long discussions with me about her love for snow, which she’s never encountered.

While she associates this month with Christmas carols, houses ‘lighting up’ and getting a slew of new, battery-powered everything, I find myself looking forward to the tall Immortelle blooming, across from my window, as it does every December. Its deep orange flowers cost nothing, are not made of plastic, were not imported from the US or China, don’t require electricity, and could never be wrapped in the paper from a felled forest, typically only briefly used and then discarded. It’s a quiet gift that makes me happy simply being here.

I’m grateful for what that brash coppery red abundance does to my tired spirit at the end of a year, just as I’m grateful that there are still rivers clean enough for me to swim with my daughter, leaving us both baptized from a Christmas eve high mas of water, sky, sun, green leaves of all shapes and fresh, clear air. I think about this a lot while watching Santa Cruz change around me, seeing the bamboo that once lined the road lying cut on the ground, wondering why my garden is so empty of butterflies and bees, and hoping that many species of bats and birds still can find a home in these not yet fully concretized hills.

As we buy and buy, I wonder, who from among us will see beyond our man-made ways of celebrating, and give back to the trees and the rivers, and to the lives that inhabit them? For surely, this living planet is the most sacred of gifts we will ever receive.

Indeed, what if we didn’t only give to each other, and didn’t only give what we could make or buy, instead giving more of what we all need; peace, love and sustainability. I think about this every year as giving makes us also throw away so much, wrapping, boxes, plastic containers, Styrofoam and more. I think about this as Old Year’s night approaches and, increasingly, piercing fireworks dominate the dark, making me feel desperately sorry for the baby manicous and agoutis, and the nests of birds, whose precious wild space we in Santa Cruz, like so many other encroaching neighbhourhoods, have come to dominate and now thoughtlessly, thoroughly disturb.

What if Christmas included showing love and care beyond ourselves, would we think about our spending and consumption differently? Would we be more likely to look beyond what comes from a store to all that this time of year offers, including the blossoming Immortelle? Right now, she’s all about the loot, but I hope one day Ziya will appreciate more than the material, and also value tropical, island-rainforest gifts that are wild and free.

For now, it’s baby steps as I figure out how to appreciate and share peace, family and sustainability, and as I engage with her understanding of gift-giving, lighting up and North Pole cold realities.

Post 165.

Sunday was different.
 
After working for weeks to build support for Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike, Sunday’s gathering was the first sign of popular momentum.
 
Individuals had been visiting the camp outside the PM’s office, and advocacy by Merle Hodge, Clyde Harvey and Peter Minshall was visible from early. Union and MSJ folk, led by David Abdullah, had joined, and were part of a larger show of solidarity by civil society. Columnists had begun to write of the Armstrong Report as national issue, and a route to justice for citizens challenging top-down government.
 
Along with women’s NGOs, feminists from UWI were the first to publicly demonstrate collective solidarity with the long struggle of the women of the HRM. For the first time, some of my students who came with me understood the difference between online and street activism, connected to the sacrifices women make to speak truth to power, and faced their own responsibility to be more informed.
 
However, planned only since Friday, through our small but collective effort, Sunday’s gathering of about six hundred was organic and genuine. Nobody was bused in. Nobody came to deny the highway they need to those traveling from San Fernando to Port Fortin. Nobody was paid or pressured. People came with their own flags. They gathered to hear why mediation was a strategy for a mutually acceptable end to this eight-year standoff. They prayed and softly sang.
 
There was an instant of magic when Minshall told everyone to raise their candles and deyas, for all of we is one with such citizen effort, and in that second the only two streetlights near us in Nelson Mandela Park switched off, perfectly on cue. One could have thought it was only Minshall’s obeah if it were not for the fact that Father Harvey was inside the medical centre praying with Wayne. As Harvey said, ‘Let the celestial light…’, electricity dipped in the room, same time Minsh in the park was doing his vodou.
 
Arriving, Mrs. Persad-Bissessar must have been struck by the numbers and the energy, as every politician notices when people take to the streets, and her assistants taking pictures would have recorded citizens like me who are not PNM, ILP, COP or anti-government. Worth noting, the majority of people there probably comprised the sleeping tiger of that ‘third’, untethered force who helped vote in the PM in 2010.
 
Amazingly, even when the vigil was over, everyone stayed waiting for her to emerge from meeting Wayne. People waited, without being asked, hoping that the miracle of a middle ground would be found, hoping for more than a PR play. The waiting led some to shout shame, and to threaten blocking the PM’s car. The women of the HRM began to resolutely chant ‘reroute’. Others stood silently, holding their lights, their peaceful presence voicing their principles and politics. Such multiple dynamics are the risks and strengths of the momentum ahead.
 
Aggressive polarization is also growing. On social media, it’s mostly insult and blame of the PM, Kublalsingh, anybody really.  The irony is that, fundamentally, and in quieter conversation, all ‘sides’ can realize we have shared priorities and needs for the best traffic solutions, wisest use of our budget, state transparency from truthful politicians, and least destruction of our children’s environment.
Despite circulating misinformation, political division, frustration and cynicism, our current lesson as a society is how to weld all these scattered pieces, emotions and agendas into at least one idea, precious and whole, on which we agree. As more join the fray, our challenge is to widen recognition of the common ground that is our reality.