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The Rainbow Sign



The deluge from Fort George, 2020 by Kim Johnson

You can see it from the Fort, the slow coming of the rains. I welcome them, even though for millennia the idea of how the earth would be destroyed was a deluge.


South Asians who experience the killer floods of monsoon season will no doubt differ, maybe even those Caribbean people who feel the wrath of hurricanes will dread the deluge. But to me it's just weather for leather.


Not surprisingly it was a Dutchman who painted its nightmare quality, because after all, they live below sea level. In 1525 Albrecht Durer illustrated the flood after - for the first time in Western art - a dream.


A Nightmare by Albrecht Durer.

“In the year 1525 between Wednesday and Thursday (7-8 June) after Whitsunday during the night I saw this appearance in my sleep, how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the earth about four miles away from me with a terrific force, with tremendous clamour and clash, drowning the whole land. I was so sore afraid that I awoke from it before the other waters fell. And the waters which had fallen were very abundant. Some of them fell further away, some nearer, and they came down from such a great height that they all seemed to fall with equal slowness. But when the first water, which hit the earth, was almost approaching, it fell with such swiftness, wind and roaring, that I was so frightened when I awoke that my whole body trembled and for a long while I could not come to myself. So when I arose in the morning I painted above here as I had seen it. God turn all things to the best.” Albrecht Durer.


That was long before we learnt how to annihilate everything with manmade fire and brimstone. Hiroshima transformed the image of apocalypse, or maybe it's a world doused in napalm, the two American inventions. In my mind’s eye I saw the Labasse garbage dump: dirty grey smoking mounds of rubble of indeterminate shape and origin. Now the vision has changed again. Now my mental image of extinction is the Northern Range in the dry season.


The St. Ann's hills last May. Photo by Catherine Chang Kit.

Huge bald swathes stripped of all greenery. Scorched earth with a ragged carpet of cinders and a scattering of blackened, skeletal trees. Even the leaves as yet untouched by fire are thin and dry and frail, like a soucouyant’s skin, trembling and waiting for the spark.


The destructive horror I fear most is those glittering fires which crawl up the mountainsides like Haitian necklaces. People still vex about the conflagration of July 27, 1990, but for the hills it’s an annual event, the annulment of that thick, green, wild, anarchic Northern Range bush, in which I spent my happiest boyhood days and which symbolise the crazy exuberance of life here.


Perhaps attending Trinity College up in Moka contributed to my idea that nature always has an air of irrepressible bacchanal. Ever notice how quickly razor grass takes over a vacant lot if you give it half a chance? How weeds peep mischeviously through any crack in the pavement?


It took years before realised is how rare and precious that is. You don’t see it, for example, in Jamaica, where “rain a fall but the dutty tuff,” as Bob Marley put it. It’s funny that if you ask a Trini what he loves most about this country he’ll list the food, the parties, Carnival, whatever. Never the hills and rivers, the forests and beaches.


But apart from the Carnival women, who are admittedly sacraments from God, it’s the birds and the beasts of the bush that make here different from every other Caribbean island. Even the mountainous, forested islands haven't the variety of wildlife we enjoy (too often, sadly, in a pot). Mountains were an unattainable dream of freedom to Jamaicans trapped in servitude. And as for Bajans, every square inch of their coral isle was long parcelled off, until the plantations became hardwired into their orderly, law-abiding neurons.


Not Trini. We’ve always been able to “run away” (we still use the phrase): for a river lime, or to beat drums in the hills and invoke the ancestral gods.


Where I live keskidees and grey tanagers zoom down from the dense overhanging mango tree on the slope below my apartment to grab crums sprinkled by my neighbour. They’re a raucous and greedy, those birds. They steal the crumbs before they could be taken by the family of agoutis that visits every day. They make a squawking racket, shouting all at once, like Jamaicans after a football match. Over the phone people sometimes ask if I live in a zoo.


Still Life by Malika Green

Sometimes if your eyes are sharp you’ll see two or three brilliant green iguanas and the occasional squirrel clambering in the bush next door. Late nights a manicou waddles around like a busybody geriatric.


In the dry season I grieve for the wildlife. I weep for the countless agoutis, iguanas, snakes, tattoos, manicous, ocelots, deer, mongoose, lappes and mattes that have been roasted alive.


There’s an Environmental Management Authority which I suppose is a good thing, or would be if it were more effective, but what can it do? Even the word “environment” is part of the problem, suggesting something out there, separate from us and needing to be managed. We borrowed the word from other countries where it replaced “nature”, of which humanity was considered a part.


Now with global warming getting into stride, the pain of the Northern Range is repeated and amplified in other countries. Siberia, one of the coldest places on the planet, has had devastating forest fires, as have the Amazon, one of the wettest. Central Africa and Indonesia have suffered too, not to talk about California. In Australia an area the size of South Korea was incinerated, along with billions of animals.


Wake up, people! The megafires of 2019 and 2020 weren't just blips, they foretold of things to come. God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, the fire next time.




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