In a recent interview, I was asked when I first began writing. I seriously picked up my pen after my mother died and was free to tell MY story without feeling guilty. The emotional and physical changes I initially went through after I moved to Dominica were described in my first novel, A Face in the River, which I wrote after I bought the land here at Dèstiné. Unfortunately, the original manuscript was destroyed in a house fire, and not only did I have to rebuild my home, but I also had rewrite the damn thing. In 2003, I started keeping a sporadic journal, Here in the Rainforest, and continued on for the next ten years. The entries became fewer while I wrote three more adult novels, two for young adults, and a slew of short stories. The other day I dug the journal out of the bottom drawer and wondered what to do with it. Hence this series of selected entries intended to transport us back, one year at a time.
Sept. 23, 2003
When I first moved from Ohio to Dominica over ten years ago, I naturally settled on the coast. Day after day, I watched the puffy white clouds float above the sparkling blue sea. A parade of indifferent ships marched along the horizon while seabirds soared and dolphins cavorted. Sunsets were predictable and green flashes were commonplace. Other than the odd hurricane or tropical storm, drama was scarce. Living in such a lackadaisical environment, it was easy to lose track of time as well as myself.
The signs of the seasons are much more remarkable here in the rainforest. I know the rainy season has arrived in earnest when thunder rolls off the massive mountain called Morne Trois Pitons like giant bowling balls and lightning cracks so violently that nervous dogs leap into my bed in the middle of the night. In the morning, when the sun comes out, the ridges that lead up to the backside of Dominica’s tallest mountain, Morne Diablotin, are bathed in clouds of steam, and the foliage glows in a thousand shades of green. Ah, the pleasure of living in the really real world.
At times, however, the weather is just plain inconvenient. The humidity is often so high that my eyeglasses fog up, making it impossible for me to settle down to my writing before noon. Sometimes it rains so hard that telephone conversations must be aborted due to the clamor on the galvanized roof. A quick check of the garden reveals that the cabbage plants have already been shredded to slaw.
But this morning the air is crisp and cool. The summit of Diablotin is glowing with crystal-clear details. Every nook and cranny of the slumbering volcanic giant is highlighted with translucent light. Noisy parrots coming back down from their vacation on the higher side of Morne Courrone squawk joyously, and the Mountain Whistler, that rare, elusive bird, carols from the forest behind the house. Dogs are frisky and the horse has started to grow her winter coat overnight. Consulting the calendar, I discover that today marks the autumnal equinox.
Today is my 56th birthday. Even though roadwork isn’t exactly the kind of celebration I’d envisioned, I spent the entire day shoveling gravel out of the back of the Land Rover in an ongoing attempt to repair the mile-and-a-half-long feeder road that leads from the main road to my home. We’ve tackled this project each year for the last four years. The problem, of course, is the rain: approximately 250 inches falls annually. Multiplied by four years of living at Dèstiné, that’s 1000 inches! No wonder the road can disappear overnight! I’m not exactly complaining. It was my choice to live deep, deep in the interior. Obviously it would be much more convenient to turn off the interstate into a gated community of air-conditioned condos in the States than to safari through miles of tropical bush to reach home.
But here in the rainforest we don’t deal in convention or convenience as our main priority. We are blessed in many other ways. No need to worry if the pantry is bare; there’s always vegetables in the garden, eggs in the hen house, and plenty of fruit falling from trees right above our heads. No hot water? We bathe in the river; our skin is smooth and our hair is silky soft. No electricity? We dine by candlelight and go to bed early. In an unstable world were the lack of sustainable resources and portable water is a critical issue, we drink clear spring water, breathe clean mountain air, and enjoy the fresh, natural food. Lucky us!
Oct. 14, 2003
Elizabeth “Pampo” Israel died in Dominica today at the age of 128 years. The granddaughter of an African slave, she was born in 1875 in a thatched, mud-paved hut on the Tibay estate near Portsmouth. Although proper documents to satisfy the Guinness Book of World Records were never located, vigorous extraneous research recognized that she was the oldest human being on earth. Ma Pampo’s long life spanned three centuries, and she was given a state funeral.
The first of six children, she joined the labor force at the Picard Estate at age twelve, and worked there until she was over 100. Ma Pampo, who never married and had only one child, attributed her prolonged existence to hard work and clean, simple living. She didn’t drink alcohol, although she admitted she smoked a pipe for a time. Her diet consisted of traditional local foods: fresh fruit, ground provisions, fish, crabs, and frogs washed down with pure natural spring water.
At the time of her death, Ma Pampo was one of nineteen recorded centenarians living here on the Nature Island, quite an amazing statistic for a “developing” Third World country with a population of around 70,000. Who knows? If I work hard and live as clean and simply as possible, maybe I, too, will join the ranks of distinguished Dominican old-timers.