The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Montserrat – Feelin’ Hot Hot Hot!
“No island in these seas is bolder in its general aspect, more picturesque and I think I may add without exaggeration, more beautiful in the details of its scenery – indeed I might be tempted to say considering its fortunes, that it has the fatal gifts of beauty.”
— J. Davy,19th century visitor to Montserrat
In a small corner of paradise, the land, birds, and people are quietly holding on to what’s left of one of the greenest places on earth. The ruggedness of the terrain of the Caribbean island of Montserrat is part of what keeps a tropical island so velvety fertile.
When a volcano roars to life, encasing half of the island in ash, rocks, and mud, it is easy to appreciate why many on this small island are compelled to fiercely treasure the living green hills that have escaped the reach of the belching, fiery beast to the south.
And time has proven that the spirit of Montserratians has not been extinguished by the woes of living on a volcano.
From the sandy beaches of Antigua, some 27 miles to the northeast, the island of Montserrat resembles a snowman lying down. The Silver Hills in the north form its head, and the Centre Hills in the middle and the Soufrière Hills in the south make its body. Of course, comparing a lush Caribbean isle to a wintry figure is even more incongruent when the bottom of that “sleeping snowman” is an active and fiery hot volcano.During the five years I lived in Antigua, I visited Montserrat three times. If I sometimes felt that Antigua seemed like the end of the earth, Montserrat is the end-of-the-earth’s pinky toe. Many people have never heard of the island. Or weren’t aware that it’s Montserrat that Jimmy Buffet sings of in his refrain, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I dunno when I’m a gonna go when the volcano blows.”
Others think of the Montserrat in Spain, which is actually the place that inspired Columbus’ choice of name for the Caribbean island, because of its similarly rugged terrain. Indeed, early in my seven-year stint of Caribbean living, I heard it said that if Columbus were to return today, he would only recognize two islands–Barbuda and Montserrat. These isles still looks as natural as they would have then, their shores unlittered with hotels and development.
At one time, over 11,000 people resided on this verdant island, known as “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean.” The only place outside of Ireland to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday, Montserrat was settled largely during colonial times by former Irish servants. With its rugged terrain and significant rainfall, Montserrat was less suited for sugar production than many of the flatter, sandier islands nearby. Other cash crops were grown there, including tobacco, indigo, and citrus. Montserrat was, and until rather recently remained, a “breadbasket” island, producing fruits and vegetables consumed by neighboring colonies whose land was otherwise committed to sugar.
What lured me to Montserrat was a job to support local partners and authorities in coordinating the development of the first management plan for a protected area in Montserrat. Due to a crisis, which rendered much of the southern forests destroyed, the urgency for protecting the remaining natural resources in Montserrat was mounting. While the island’s call was initially a professional SOS, when I left more than two years later, it was as a member of a larger Montserratian family.
That crisis began in July 1995, when the Soufrière Hills volcano came alive in a terrifying way, with intense, searing explosions of hot rock, ash, and gas, spewing out the top of the mountain. The heavy material of pyroclastic flows raced down to the sea in less than 90 seconds. Plumes of gas and ash reached over 55,000 feet in the sky, affecting air traffic for hundreds of miles. Following the initial eruption, months and years of rainfall caused mud to ooze and flow over the landscape.
Today, almost 15 years after the first eruption, much of the former capital city of Plymouth now lies under 20-feet-and-counting of hardened ash and mud. The volcano continues to cycle through periods of dome growth and collapse. Most volcanoes of this type, including Mt. St. Helens, experience a burst of activity lasting weeks, months, and occasionally a few years. Then they typically lie dormant for decades, centuries or more. With very little precedent upon which to base a forecast for the life expectancy of the current volcanic “episode,” it is anyone’s guess when it will go dormant once again.
The island now consists of a “safe zone” in the north, comprising approximately one-third of the original land mass of the island, and the “exclusion zone” to the south, the vast majority of which is just plain unsafe while the volcano remains active. Residents in some of the areas fringing the exclusion zone on the west have attempted to remain in their homes, despite periodic evacuations or “daytime only” limits to their presence there. The boundary has been tested more than once, and a much more sophisticated hazard assessment and response system has been developed by scientists from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, and implemented by the Governor and police force.
On a single day in June 1997, the volcano claimed 19 souls, many of whom had been farming, albeit at their own risk, in the “exclusion zone” on its slopes. The camel’s back was broken. After three evacuations over two years, many Montserratians had already left, heading to the UK, USA, or other islands in the region. The population reportedly plummeted to fewer than 3,000 at the lowest point in the late ‘90s. It has now stabilized at around 5,000.
In the final evacuation of 1997, people left their homes to live with a relative, or at a church, school, or a tent in the north. Most could not bring much in the way of belongings. And there was no room for all that livestock. Pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle were left to fend for themselves – and many set out on a destructive path of feeding in the forest that remained to the north.
In my job, I had the tremendous fortune to follow globally-renowned scientists to the north of the volcano, through the mountains of the Centre Hills. Co-investigated by Montserratians, whose intuitive knowledge of the workings of the forest often surpassed that of the scientists, the task was to build consensus about how, where, and what should be protected within the largest remaining tract of undeveloped tropical rain forest on the island. No easy job, with many different interests at stake, only one of which is ecological integrity.
We traced river beds at night in search of frogs, caught bats, and documented the extent of mountain farming. We digitized the perimeter of the protected area and the major trails within and saw that translated into law. We even had rats finger-painting! Yes, we measured the abundance and distribution of invasive rats in the forest by enticing them across ink-stained pads with the lure of a dollop of peanut butter on the roof of a purpose-built tunnel.
We tracked birds and collected plant specimens for the Millennium Seed Bank and other herbaria. The steep, hilly, and densely vegetated interior is a source of water, mangoes, and medicinal teas. The mountain is home to at least a half dozen threatened endemic species, including the Montserrat oriole–the national bird–and the “mountain chicken,” one of the world’s largest frogs, and occasionally a culinary delicacy.
The pigs may menace the wildlife in the forest, but they do taste good off the barbecue! Another favorite is doucana. A moist, doughy mixture of coconut, sweet potato, and spices, it is wrapped in a banana or other large leaf, then tied up and boiled. It’s often served as Easter breakfast with salt cod, tomato sauce, and seasoning. There are so many of kinds of fish, grilled or baked with ample seasoning.
The ground provides many varieties of tubers that can be boiled, baked, grated and fried. Dasheen is a root vegetable that is a staple in the West Indies, the leaf of which is used to make “Pepperpot” or “Callaloo,” a green stew that is well known in the islands. And, the fruit. In-season, one can enjoy, straight up or in juice, fresh papaya, pineapple, mangoes galore, mammy apple, sorrel, soursop, and my personal favorite, tamarind.
Despite the unfathomable hardship that many have endured, Montserratians have not forgotten how to have a good time. For the Carnival and the St. Patrick’s holiday, everything shuts down for feasting and the “lime”—in other words, “hanging out” – anywhere, anytime, with anyone. Cricket, when you come to know it, can be feverishly entertaining. Dominoes, cards, pageants and parades. Sweet calypso, raising crowds to their feet. Reggae, soca and dancehall music from Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, Barbados, all over the place. “Ole, ole, ole, ole…feelin’ hot hot hot”…Montserrat’s own Arrow penned and first sang that ditty that has been covered by musicians all around the world.
Though notably an outsider (not many white women driving around in a 4×4 pickup truck), I did come to feel a member of my community in many ways. Living among neighbors whose faces, sounds, comings and goings you learn to know can actually be a comfort. Knowing who else walked the “back road” for exercise at dawn. Answering the door at Christmas to carolers singing. Receiving gardening tips from people eager to help a novice backyard farmer. Welcoming a visitor dropping by with a sack of mangoes, or to share the bounty of a banana tree, or a wad of bush tea, or an entire serving of Sunday dinner–and then some–just because…because that’s what neighbors do.
The volcano still looms above Montserrat physically and emotionally. Sometimes ash falls from the sky and coupled with rain, it falls as mud, dries and hardens, requiring vigilance to keep gardens and homes free of the ash’s acid influence. Some of the most dramatic, frightening and frustrating moments occur when she is belching.
I meet many Montserratians here in the States who are torn by the longing and nostalgia of the Montserrat of the past, but unable to reconcile what life would be like for them in the Montserrat of the present. The continuing activity of the volcano settles the question for many…for now. If you build it back, will they come? No one knows, and the answer is blowing on the mountain for now. There is devastation, to be sure, but so much beauty remains.
What I do know is that I will go back. Apart from the desire to see again the exquisite and unforgettable beauty of the place, local lore says it’s now my destiny. On my first visit to Montserrat, I drank from Runaway Ghaut. A ghaut is a ravine between two ridges through which a perennial stream flows down to the sea—legend says that anyone who imbibes its waters will return again, and again. And who doesn’t want to stand between the mountain and the sea, gazing at the explosive life of the remaining forest, the contemplative silence of the ashy, grey landscape, and the endless and timeless horizon of the deep blue sea beyond.