Updated: May 7, 2021
One Thursday in May my heart was healed by a coconut tree in Toco.
As lockdown eased into June and my hometown, St. James, grew busy once again, I fled to the artist Eddy Bowen’s place in Sans Souci for a last few days of peace. On the way I pulled over between Rampanalgas and Cumana, by a river where, a century ago, Toco travellers broke their fast before walking on to Sangre Grande.
There, in ’88 my father and brother leased one of the two Breakfast River Estate houses, and there we spent almost every weekend for the last year and a half of my father’s life.
My family hadn’t vacationed in Toco since my childhood when we spent a week or two annually in one or another house. Those days the trip was interminable and my sister and I and the dog we carried were often car sick. "We reach yet?" we would pester my father until he pointed out a mango tree on a bend indicating the village was only five minutes away.
Today it still stands though somewhat scruffily.
My father and I sometimes drivayed there in the mid-'80s, after he retired. He was not a talker and we mostly drove in silence but grew closer nonetheless, once pushing as far as the Catholic Presbytery in Matelot, end of the road, where Sr. Rosario Hackshaw was a saint to that community. On the way back we spotted a "For Rent" sign at Breakfast River and stopped to enquire.
Though town-born, my father in his heart of hearts longed to retire to a small estate in Toco. I now suspect he had known all along that the place was magical.
The blissful weekends at Breakfast River were the closest he ever got to his dream of retiring in Toco, and it was a happy time for us all. Often I’d sit above the escarpment in front the house, my eyes fixed to the roiling sea as it crashed against jagged black rocks below, hoping for a glimpse of the turtle that occasionally poked his head out for a deep breath, and for up to an hour my turbulent mind was calm. Meditation must be like this, I thought afterwards.
Breakfast River Estate, 1988 by Lee Johnson.
Hiking up the eponymous river under dark, overhanging trees was to enter the moody forestscapes painted by Larry Mosca, a close neighbor. Then night would fall when the void above was blacker than anywhere else, with a million glittering stars that reconciled you to your unique insignificance in the universe.
“Everyone seems to feel that the region I had felt was good for work, the northeastern part of the island is good, and all recommend the town called Toco,” remarked the great student of African New World culture, Melville Herskovits, of his 1939 research visit. “The packers, on board the ship suggested it, and so has everyone else.”
There the old African gods still roam, and can invest you with powers you never knew you had. Eighty years after Herskovits' visit, bongo wakes are still sometimes held, and there’s a greater concentration of Baptist churches than anywhere else, the inspiration for The Wine of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace, himself from Matura. Derek Walcott felt the vibes too. “Holy is Rampanalgas with its high, circling hawks,” he wrote. “Holy are the rusted, tortured, rust-caped, blind almond trees.”
In love with a woman? Take her for a nice dinner and turn on your charm, make her laugh and she might spend the night with you; but carry her for a day in Toco and she’ll fall in love.
As the guide brochure for the Toco Museum explains it: “The Yorubas of Nigeria use the word Ashe to denote a person, object or place imbued with the power to make things happen, and it is such a place we wished into existence.”
When I pulled over at Breakfast River that morning last May it was to show my partner where my family had once shared the laughter and love and good times when my father was alive and we hadn’t scattered around the world.
Back then towering balata trees sprinkled the land with the sticky, sweet fruit. There were two vacation homes, a spacious one and a small one. Not far away the landlord's large and spooky house hid out of sight. Across the road was the caretaker's lodge.
That Thursday in May none of it remained. The larger holiday home was reduced to concrete foundations here, a few steps there, a wall peeping through the trees like some ancient Mayan ruin.
More remained of the smaller house, where we once laughed and played cards and ate too much, which was even sadder. Its walls remained but half-way collapsed yet for some unfathomable reason- because they could shelter no one - had been covered by an old tarpaulin.
Breakfast River Estate, 2020 by Kim Johnson.
It was heartbreaking. Nothing remained to which my happy memories could attach themselves. I cast around for the balata trees whose fruit I'd forage, but the tangle was as thick as a politician's lies. I thought of writer Umair Haque envisaged the collapse of human civilization over the next 30-50 years:
"It’s made of climate change, mass extinction, ecological collapse, and the economic depressions, financial implosions, political upheavals, pandemics, plagues, floods, fires, and social breakdowns all those will ignite."
I saw a coconut tree from back in the day. Messy, anarchic, as wild as a Pollock painting, dying yet prolific as Nature beautifully rampant. I imagined the alternative: a long, high wall running beside the road to hide a hotel or time-share apartments, and I thought: Thank God for the trees, which reconciled me to whatever havoc my species wreaks, knowing that they will ultimately triumph.
Breakfast River Estate, 2020 by Kim Johnson.