It’s back to gray, damp and misty in the Hudson Valley, not so bad for spring. I’ve been in many places regarded as paradise where it’s rained too. I spent one such day in St. John with Jane Johannis, who couldn’t have been happier about the dampness outside her simple house. “When it rains like this I put out every pot and pan I have, in order to keep my plants watered,” she says.
A native of St. John, at 80-plus years old, her skin as beautiful as fine Italian leather, eyes reduced to slits from years spent tending her garden under a hot sun, she wears a long pink dress and flip-flops. Her hair, remarkably free of gray itself, is pulled back in a tight bun. One of seven children, with nine kids of her own, she has lived most of her life in the small island town of Coral Bay. “You could say I’m surrounded by family all the time, yes,” she says, though she’s not against the occasional off-island foray and has been to New York and LOVES Las Vegas. “I do manage to play the slot machines,” she smiles, “since I’m not a drinker I need to have something to do!” But more than anything she loves her island life and her gardens.
Her expertise is the herbal medicines she finds everywhere in the bush, giving the occasional class but counseling her friends and neighbors for free. “People now they too easily run right to the pharmacy when they need something. They tell me, ‘It’s easier.’ I don’t agree. Me, I never go to the pharmacy. The doctor? He’s the last person I turn to!”
What does she find in scrub and forests? Black wattle for fighting colds. Aloe for burns. Eye bright, which is – believe it or not – makes your eyes stronger. Sour sop used as a sleeping aid. Bastard okra, boiled and used to relieve burning eyes. Breadfruit leaves, used in an infusion to cure high blood pressure and lime leaves boiled with salt to fight aging. “Those are the ones I rely on most these days,” she laughs.
She’s not wild about some of the changes on her island, like the cost of living and taxes both of which are going up. “Even Coral Bay is changing, with more shops, more people, more everyt’ing,” she says. I’m headed to her small town the next day and ask for a recommendation on a good place to eat, the best places to hike. “Go to Salt Pond, for sure. That’s where we collect the best sea salt. The best restaurant would be Lucy’s, but she died the other day at 93, of a stroke. I’m going to her funeral tomorrow. So that restaurant be closed for a private party. But you might stop by anyway. Probably be the best party of the year!”
Though it is officially spring in the Hudson Valley, my mind is still wandering to the Caribbean. I spend a lot of time with maps and atlases, mostly studying places I don’t yet know. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time tracing fingers up and down the Caribbean islands, trying to find one that somehow has previously escaped notice, one that hasn’t been completely consumed (and overrun) by its nearest neighbors. It’s tricky. My fingers, and memory, keep taking me back to St. John, specifically to a hideaway of white canvas tents hidden deep in the green.
Ultimate recycling: Turning used bottles into art
Given its history of wildness, the 114-tent-and-boardwalk resort known at Maho Bay Camps is a perfect fit on St. John, as close to a true eco-resort as any I’ve seen around the world. Which surprises no one more than Stanley Selengut, the camp’s owner who put up the initial 18 tents in 1976. “That phrase – eco-resort – didn’t exist then,” says a longtime Maho Bay manager once explained to me. “Stanley and a bunch of his friends were down here and someone said, ‘This would be a great place for some tent platforms.’ Typical for Stanley, it may not have been his idea, he was the one that figured out how to get things done.”
In these days when any hotel that encourages you not to wash your towel every day wraps itself in a green banner, Maho Bay Camps is the real thing. Recycle-reuse-reduce is its watch-phrase. Showers are communal; potable water accessible in just a couple locations in the 14-acre compound; the restaurant is self-serve; urinals water-less; much of the energy needed to run 114 tents, reception, restaurant, internet solar-produced. In its art studios –open to all guests — glass is recycled by the glass-blowing studio, waste paper by the textile-makers and aluminum cans turned into pendants.
There is definitely a hippie-ish feel to the place, from the tie-dyed batiks made in the textile room to the “volunteers” who come for month-long stints, trading work for a free place to stay. During high season the place fills with families who’ve been coming now for two generations.
The last time I visited I stayed in tent-cabin, A-6, anchoring the far end of the boardwalk, closest to the beach at Maho Bay. It’s perfect for me. Through cracks in the deck flooring I can see the jungle below. The stove is propane, the refrigerator an Igloo cooler filled with ice, table and chairs made of plastic. A box fan whirs, thanks to 24-hour electricity, necessary to keep the mosquitoes at bay. As I write, a frigate bird lands atop a palm just outside my window and white-tailed tropic birds and brown boobys flit and soar. Inside, small anole lizards — gecko-like, with colorful, leaf-like dewlaps — do push ups in front of me, reminding me that this is their territory.
Letting the screen door bang behind, I find the head of Maho Goat Trail and wander down to the beach. From here it’s a mile-long walk to the start of one of the most beautiful of the park’s 22 official trails (there are countless unofficial ones, the former detailed in a variety of guidebooks and park service handouts, the latter marked with stone cairns and cryptic, handmade signs). I’m open to following any trail here since the only native mammals on the island are bats and there are no venomous snakes. The only surprise in the woods is the occasional wandering deer or donkey.
Later that one I hike down Cinnamon Bay Trail, lured by its reputation for having an incredible lookout over Maho Bay. Inside the forest is dark, tropical, intensely green thanks to recent rains. The trail is narrow and steep to the downhill; you don’t want to slip. Strangler figs, kapok, cocoa, mango and bay rum trees are thick and tall, the undergrowth heavy with star-like teyer palms, sweet lime and anthurium. Turpentine trees – what locals have dubbed tourist tree – expose a pink skin beneath peeling bark. Guts, natural rocky drainages criss-cross the trail channeling water downhill; man-made swales – lines of strategically placed rocks across the trail – are angled to divert the rainwater and prevent erosion.
As I walk down, slowly to avoid slipping, a solitary black bat leads me. Small lizards, imported to the island centuries ago to help kill insects, run across the trail; a variety of snails meander. Yellow & black bananaquits dart among the trees, many of which are home to giant termite balls built in the low crotches. Halfway down the 45-minute hike the trees open up, exposing a western view from the island, over Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay and beyond.
As I walk I try to make out the stone terraces that once divvied the island into 100 sugarcane plantations. Everything was clear-cut then, except for the mangoes and cocoa trees. Men, women and children slaved over the farms, in tropical heat.
At the bottom of the trail, just across from the long sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, sit the ruins of a two hundred year old plantation. Buildings, like the terraces, were constructed from stone, brain coral and occasionally imported red and yellow bricks from England and Germany. Tall stone columns, still standing, at one time supported the big room used to store brown sugar, molasses, barrels of rum and crushed and dried sugarcane stalks. There was a boiling and distillery house next door, where they used to make St. John’s Bay Rum (cologne, not alcohol!). Sitting on one of the stonewalls, sweating from the hike, nearly meditating thanks to the quiet of the forest, I can almost see and hear the young children climbing the bay rum trees, carefully stripping the leaves, putting them into sacks and carrying them off to be distilled.
The tents of Maho Bay Camps, hidden in green above the sea
In a report out yesterday the U.S. Geological Survey presents stats from a 62-year-long study that show that “every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990.” While the hows and whys of global climate change can be argued ad infinitum, in my experience nowhere is the change more evident than along the Peninsula. The USGS report adds statistics to my empirical assessment.
I’m writing today from home in a very, very wet Hudson Valley; we’ve endured three straight days of falling snow and rain (temperature hovering at 31 degrees F), which means the outside world now resembles a slush swimming pool. I just came in from an investigative slosh and can report calf-deep mush. The relevance of this warm snowfall in New York State in a conversation about Antarctica? With both air and sea surface temperatures warming all along the 1,000-mile long Peninsula, on many austral summer days the ice along its edges resembles what’s just outside my door tonight: Wet. Slushy. Soft. And disappearing fast. Here in the Catskills the temperatures will get into the 40s in the next few days; flooding is already a major concern. Which is exactly what is happening along the Peninsula during these past two decades too: Warmer air and sea temperatures means less ice cover, thus more evaporation and more precipitation in the form of sleet and rain. And we all know what rain does to ice, makes it disappear very, very fast.
I’m fully expecting my basement to flood in the next few days, which will be a drag. I’m also fully expecting the ice along Antarctic’s Peninsula to disappear faster than most scientists believe, contributing to a minimum global sea level rise of twenty feet by the end of the century or before, which will be a major drag. Especially for the 200 million-plus people around the globe who currently live less than three feet above sea level.
In its press release the USGS explained that the area covered by its six-decade-long study contains five major ice shelves, the Wilkins, George VI, Bach, Stange and the southern portion of the Larsen Ice Shelf. “The ice lost since 1998 from the Wilkins Ice Shelf alone totals more than 4,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island,” reports the USGS.
But for me the most worrying part of its report is this: “Retreat along the southern part of the Peninsula is of particular interest because that area has the Peninsula’s coolest temperatures, demonstrating that global warming is affecting the entire length of the Peninsula.” Which means what in regard to the planet’s big picture? Everyone should do what I’m going to do later tonight in preparation for tomorrow, which is find the tallest pair of rubber boots I can.
Though I’m now about 800 miles north of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula I’m paying attention every day to news from the seventh continent. I’ve been traveling there nearly annually for the past twenty years and it’s a place like few others on the planet that truly gets into your blood once you’ve seen it. Which is a good thing in regard to its future protection. More and more people are seeing the Peninsula up close each year, creating those ambassadors and evangelists that are part of the key to keeping it pristine.
Here’s are a few things that have been going on since we sailed away from the seventh continent a few days ago:
I saw an Internet photo yesterday of the landing of the downed US Airways plane that coasted to safety on the Hudson River, not far from my home in the Hudson Valley. Early suggestions are that the crash was due to birds being sucked into the engines. Apparently pilots are enduring a similar problem all over Antarctica, though here it’s 20-pound skuas not 12-pound geese that are the hazards.
On a slightly less fortunate note, the other day a small plane - Twin Otter – delivering supplies to a research expedition crash landed on a mountainside. All four on board – 3 Brits, 1 Russian – survived and were quickly rescued by a second plane.
Sea Sheperd-ites, unfurling a rope in an attempt to foul the propellor of a Japanese whaler
I’ve been gone from the States for nearly two months but have heard rumors of a ratings boom for the Animal Planet show “Whale Wars,” which follows my colleague Paul Watson and his Sea Sheperd gang as they “fight” against continued annual whaling by the Japanese. Apparently Watson announced last week that his ship – the bizarrely named “Steve Irwin” – returned to mainland Australia for fuel and the Japanese suggested (hoped?) it would not return. Watson claims otherwise, vowing the ship would return, and denying that his team was culpable for a Japanese whaler missing from a ship, apparently drowned.
Prince Albert II of Monaco – the man, not the Silversea expedition ship named for him, which has been prowling the Peninsula this season, its first – arrived at the South Pole by means somewhat unusual for a head of state: By ski. Apparently he joined South African explorer Mike Horn, who has spent the past couple months skiing solo to the pole, for the final couple days of his journey. While it would be easy to mock the Prince for joining in for only the last few miles, assumedly accompanied by a phalanx of protectors, his stated goal for coming to Antarctica and for joining Horn was to draw attention to the continent as it continues to change and evolve, which is exactly what politics and celebrity should be used for here, so I’m all for this particular stunt.
Prince Albert II, at the South Pole
On a different level, three Canadians have arrived at the South Pole in what they are dubbing ‘record time,’ 33 + days. You know my thinking about how Antarctica and how it should be a place far removed from ‘firsts’ and ‘records.’ That said, I still admire their physical feat; it is a cold, arduous place for expeditions of any kind.