Looking back over the land

ABOUTTOWNACROSS-1Well, would you look at that! By the grace of whichever higher power we believe in, we have arrived at the end of 2015. It’s accepted as an appropriate time to reflect on the year that has passed and look to the one to come. A difficult task for me, because my sojourns Across Country & About Town have all been memorable in one way or the other. 

Thank you for letting me into your lives; allowing me to tell your stories and shine a spotlight on your corner of the world. As every story unfolded and took shape, I decided to highlight those from which I had learned the most through my research, interviews, spending time with the people involved; and then there was the task of putting it all together and having it all make sense for you
on the page.

I believe at this juncture, my trip to Martin’s Bay on a Thursday afternoon, which stretched into the early evening, deserves an honourable mention. As I said then, no one is quite sure why Thursday is D-Day at the Bay Tavern in Martin’s Bay –– especially since it’s the kind of location you only find if you know exactly where you are going.  But after navigating precarious hairpin bends and more potholes than roads, the reward upon arrival makes the journey more than worth it.  Right by the rugged St John coastline is a bustling all-inclusive watering hole where the drinks are cold, the seafood is fresh and the vibe is that of family. 

After four hours liming with friends and strangers alike and, of course, sampling the world-famous red snapper, I was reminded of what most feature producers and journalists already know in their heart of hearts: you’ve got to stay a while and absorb the feel of a place, unearth stories from the unlikeliest of people and sample what is on offer to paint a true picture of your subject. 

The Bay Tavern’s signature  dish –– grilled red snapper.
The Bay Tavern’s signature
dish –– grilled red snapper.

From the grieving staff members at Caribbean Aircraft Handlers who used the Bay Tavern as a place to celebrate the life of a comrade who had passed away, to the British tourists who made the trek from the West Coast every Thursday during their holiday to lime with their friends off the beaten track, all those factors and more cemented for me that besides research, preparation and planning, serendipity would be my ultimate guide as I went about producing these features.

Tourists and locals alike trek from all over the country to spend an afternoon  in Martin’s Bay at the Bay Tavern.
Tourists and locals alike trek from all over the country to spend an afternoon
in Martin’s Bay at the Bay Tavern.

As the Sargassum weed was also prevalent along the coast in Martin’s Bay, it is easy to see how my next teachable feature was on the Sargassum phenomenon that took scientists, researchers, beachgoers and fisherfolk quite by surprise. At the time we were in the throes of shovelling it, sweeping it up, dumping it and in some cases avoiding it altogether. But nothing we did seemed to stop the unwelcome guest to our once pristine shores. 

Hazel Oxenford, professor of marine ecology and fisheries at the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, explains the findings of a 2011 study on the Sargassum weed and discusses the two possible theories of its origin.
Hazel Oxenford, professor of marine ecology and fisheries at the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, explains the findings of a 2011 study on the Sargassum weed and discusses the two possible theories of its origin.
Satellite image of the movement of the currents speculated to have brought the Sargassum weed here.
Satellite image of the movement of the currents speculated to have brought the Sargassum weed here.

Scientific names vary, as do the sources (some say Mexico, some say China). But generally it seems to be accepted that Sargassum is a genus of brown macroalgae in the order Fucales. Numerous species are distributed throughout the temperate and tropical oceans of the world, where they generally inhabit shallow water and coral reefs, and the genus is widely known for its planktonic (free-floating) species. 

Opinion was divided on how it should be managed and whether it was a blessing, a curse or a golden opportunity to create healthy by products for public use and consumption. The story then began to mushroom into a mini research paper, starting with the results of a Sargassum Hack, hosted jointly by the Caribbean Sustainability Collective (CSC) and The UWI Cave Hill Campus Student Entrepreneurial Empowerment Development (SEED), where participants faculty, alumni, international researchers and members of the public formed a working group tasked with developing commercial, educational, and research opportunities from what is being perceived as a challenge facing Barbados and the wider Caribbean. 

Discussants blamed climate change, shifting currents and oceanic pathways among other reasons for the recent marine development and noted that the unrelenting spread of floating algae was widely seen as “problematic” and “troublesome”, a notion which they aimed to debunk.

But for the second part of the feature I sought out the expert opinion of Hazel Oxenford: professor of marine ecology and fisheries at the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus. There would be no headline-grabbing, rapid-fire, whodunit questions and answers with this interview. 

I was humbly schooled by the professor on the origin of the weed and how, she and her colleagues speculate, it landed on our shores: the Sargasso Sea –– so named for the floating masses of sargassum weed that propogate and fertilize without needing a reef or the ocean floor for housing or grounding. 

Folklore tells us that seafarers and mariners were vexed by these tangled masses, which made navigating that ocean –– and more importantly the North Atlantic Gyre –– tedious, if not a tad mysterious. I learned that the recent influx was not an isolated incident, nor can it be divorced from a similar phenomenon in 2011. 

The bombardment of Sargassum weed along the shores of the Caribbean has been quietly studied and tracked by CERMES and Professor Oxenford in conjunction with the University of Mississippi in the United States since then.

“It was believed that Sargassum weed grew and lived and stayed in the Sargasso Sea but research more recently has shown that that can’t possibly be because a centre gyre is free of nutrients and really it can’t grow it can only sustain itself and it sustains itself by all the creatures living in it defecating and so on producing the nutrients that it then uses to grow and sustain itself,” explained the diminutive blonde.

So the first myth was debunked. 

Further questions existed as to its origin. The professor whipped out her satellite imaging tracking slides and explained “it first blooms in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi [River] flows out here with a lot of nutrients, so there’s very high nutrient input from the Mississippi”. The second theory was “another possible source of nutrients is the Equatorial upwelling.  So when you get the south Equatorial current and the north Equatorial current they are meeting and then pulling apart. So they are basically drawing up deep water along the equator.

And so the deep water from the Equator brings up the nutrients that are stuck in the bottom. So right along the equator you get that high nutrient source.” Explained the professor.  My learning curve was steep as I leaned heavily on my third form chemistry lessons.  A teachable
moment indeed.

Then came more lessons from a humble and unassuming furniture restorer named Ramon Corbin of Demitris Woodworking. He talked me through the art of restoring antique mahogany with a rare French polish, sourced at a premium from India called shellac. 

“Lac is the name given to the resinous secretion of the tiny lac insect (Laccifer lacca) which is parasitic on certain trees in Asia, particularly India and Thailand. This insect secretion is cultivated and refined because of the commercial value of the finished product known as shellac.

“The term shellac is derived from shell-lac (the word for the refined lac in flake form), but has come to refer to all refined lac whether in dry or suspended
in an alcohol-based solvent.”

As with veteran sculptor Onkphra Wells, who I spoke to during my special series on Art & Art Spaces in Barbados, Ramon doesn’t just transform a piece to its former glory, or create a new one from a stump of wood. The process of restoring transforms him as well, as the character of the wood almost speaks to him and informs his way forward.

This leads quite naturally into the series that took me into the world of art, and I can safely say the production of the series on local Art Spaces gave me a much keener understanding of its many layers and behind the scenes machinations, as well as a brand new vocabulary on the arts. 

Vanita Commissiong of On The Wall Art Gallery at Champers taught me about the value of art spaces in Barbados and explained why her wall space was at a premium.  Russel Wilson, film producer and photographic artist, gave his views on whether an art space could be strictly commercial; only for an artists’ experimentation and whether the space could function as both. 

He admitted there was the perception there was low art and high art, yet his approach going into his exhibition Phylum was that if anyone asked point-blank “What is this?” or “What is this supposed to be?”,  those were the questions he was keen to answer, because as with all forms of creative expression, the beginning of a conversation is a welcome goal. 

Manager of Gallery Nu Edge in the Limegrove Lifestyle Centre, Zara Gardener, gave me an expansive explanation of how commercial art galleries are run –– especially with Gallery Nu Edge being part of an international brand and franchise; how pieces are hung, which ones are chosen for the seasonal change-over and how artists are encouraged to experiment with different concepts of their work, keeping in mind the doors that could open for them internationally should the work be chosen for overseas showings. 

The concept of an artist in residence and the weight that title holds was explained to me by Katherine Kennedy, fine artist and part of the team at the Fresh Milk Art Platform;  how residency programmes are largely therapeutic and sought after by artists who are looking for a space to regroup, re-examine their approach to their work and experiment with different concepts. 

The combination of art, multi-media and finding parallels between what artists are inspired by, despite no obvious geographical connection, was meticulously laid out for me by Annalee Davis, head of the Fresh Milk Art Platform as we discussed the series Transoceanic
Visual Exchange

Annalee said: “We’re really creating a platform for experimental and innovative work. So you’re not going to be seeing here at the TVE Project, the more traditional kind of narrative films.”

And of course there was the perplexing feature on Christmas blooms and how their appearance had dwindled over the years. Liza White-Romain who works in the National Conservation Commission Garden Centre gave this assessment, and my hunch was confirmed: “If you check it good, it is not only those . . . . You know once upon a time you could have walked around and seen a million and one dunks trees, guava trees, and now you aren’t seeing anything like that out there, because remember we trying to develop in terms of structure, and people are just taking up the land. All these things are depleted because of that”. 

In addition she said: “A diehard person that like really into Christmas is going to have those things. Then, too a lot of the houses are being paved right around so nobody has any space to put a garden bed,” she opined.

And so the penny dropped. Technically, there are no more or less Christmas flowers available to plant and grow as there were ten years ago. But the lack of effort to cultivate them is a sign of the changing times. Mrs White-Romain reiterated “people gravitating to the plants you can [buy and] put in your office [or rooms in your home] . . . and when you finish you can plant it outside too”.

There were so many other teachable moments which I enjoyed decoding, then sharing with you. I look forward to becoming even more in tune with your peculiar life stories, favourite spots and issues that matter to you as I go Across Country & About Town in 2016. All the best for the New Year!

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