Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gridlock islands gasping for air

Preparing for my first trip to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, several images swirled through my mind: idyllic beaches like Magen’s Bay – voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world; postcard perfect Charlotte Amalie, the town on the bay with it’s red-tiled roofed homes set on the hill overlooking the pretty harbor speckled with sailboats; day trips to nearby St. John, renowned for beaches like Trunk Bay and for most of the island being designated a U.S. national park.
But nothing prepared me for what it would feel like when, on one day alone, up to 9 large cruise ships came into port and dumped some 20,000+ day trippers onto an island that is only 32 miles square.

Day at the beach at Magen’s Bay? Think a sea of wall-to-wall people jammed onto a beach, vying for pina coladas and margaritas at the one beachfront bar. No, on those days we learned quickly not to go to Magen’s before 3 p.m. A harried waitress resting after most of the cruise shippers had gone for the day told me “It was like Miami Beach out there today - you couldn’t even see the sand for the bodies!”

Take a nice drive around picturesque Charlotte Amalie? Think traffic jams snaking through narrow brick lined streets – dozens and dozens of open-air safari jeeps carting the cruise trippers from boat to beach to shop and back all day.

Day trip to St. John? Better do your snorkeling around the underwater trail at Trunk Bay before 10 a.m. And leave before 11 a.m. otherwise you won’t stand a chance against the hordes that descend on the beach from the ships.
I’m not suggesting that St. Thomas doesn’t have a right to have its cruise ship traffic. After all, their entire economy seems to be built on the two million tourists that visit by ship each year. However, what concerns me is the overwhelm of the environment, marine and land, that these mega-cities-on-the-sea bring with them.

Over on the British Virgin Islands, residents are wondering whether it is worth it to have an estimated 575,000 people arrive on cruise ships on their small islands each year. At issue is not just the over-crowding of people on the islands but also the trash and waste that is left behind. See “Honest Debate needed on cruise ships"
Cruise ships are notorious polluters. According to Oceana, an ocean conservation group, the average cruise ship generates on a daily basis, the following waste:

• 25,000 gallons of sewage from toilets
• 143,000 gallons of sewage from sinks, galleys and showers
• Seven tons of garbage and solid waste
• 15 gallons of toxic chemicals
• 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water
• Emissions equivalent to 12,000 automobiles

Some of the lines are cleaning up their act but only after aggressive campaigns from environmental groups such as Oceana.
A recent news report from The Associated Press states that the Caribbean Sea is a dumping ground for garbage from cruise ships. A United Nations dumping ban protecting seas from ship pollution is in effect in many countries; however, Caribbean islands have yet to adopt the ban. The islands say they don’t have the capacity to treat ship garbage on shore. Cruise ship passengers spend $1.5 billion annually in the Caribbean and the islands fear losing that business.

In 1993, the United Nations International Maritime Organization outlawed dumping in the Caribbean. The ban will not take effect until enough countries are able to report their capacity for treating trash from cruise ships. The ban on ship dumping has already taken effect off Antarctica, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Persian Gulf. The ban is scheduled to take effect in the Mediterranean in May 2009. For the full article, see “Caribbean slow to plug cruise ship waste”
In St. Thomas, the government has approved plans to begin dredging of the harbor to accommodate the 40’ draft required by the new Genesis class of cruise ships. The first of these ships, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas will accommodate an astonishing 5,400 passengers and is set to make its first stop to St. Thomas in December 2009. There have been concerns raised about the dredging of the harbor due to the intention to dump the dredged material in Lindberg Bay. Concerned citizens fear that there is toxic material which will damage the ecosystem of Lindberg Bay and ruin what is a desirable swimming and recreation park for residents. See Save Lindbergh Bay website.

Other Caribbean islands are also preparing for these new mega-ships with upgrades to their harbors. As a concerned citizen, I can only hope that the marine environment and the quality of life for residents and land visitors (who spend far more money at their destinations than cruise ship passengers) will not continue to decline with the traffic jams and pollution posed by the cities-on-the-seas. Stateside, it is time for Congress to adopt the Clean Cruise Ship Act S. 793/ H.R. 1636 which would provide uniform standards around the country for protecting our marine environment. See Copyright © Kathy Stanley 2009.
Related Post:
Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card
See Arthur Frommer's article "Another Fake Port Rises for Cruise Ship Passengers."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cockpit Country, Jamaica: Land of Look Behind Looks Ahead

Fom the air, the terrain looks like a vast area of green overturned egg boxes. A rugged and remote forest, it is full of small hills and valleys speckled with an abundance of caves and sinkholes. It is home to the Jamaican Boa, the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, the Black-Billed Parrot and many other species endemic to the area. It has place names like If-Me-No-Call-You-No-Come, Wait-A-Bit and Quick Step, Maroon Town and Accompong. Most importantly, it is a place of enormous cultural heritage and the ancestral home of the Maroons, rebellious slaves who ran away from the British colonialists in the 17th and 18th century. This is The Land of Look Behind.

The Cockpit Country is a five hundred square kilometer pristine area of wet limestone forest located in the central western parishes of the island of Jamaica. A unique and rich area of biodiversity, the Cockpit Country is home to many species of plant and animal life, many of which are only endemic to the area. It is also an important source of water for the western part of the island.

The Cockpit Country was the greatest ally of the tenacious Maroon warriors who ran away in the 17th and 18th centuries from the Spanish and the British. Its ruggedness provided safe haven for those who could navigate the treacherous cliffs and valleys and not fall to their deaths in the sinkholes that appeared out of nowhere. They fought a guerrilla war with the British for over eighty years. Eventually they signed an agreement which gave them independence and sovereignty over the area, and their own homeland one hundred years before the emancipation of slavery. Today their descendants live in small villages surrounding the Cockpit Country.
The most ominous recent threat to the Cockpit Country arose in 2006 when it was announced that the government was going to allow Alcoa to prospect for bauxite mining in the area. Bauxite mining is Jamaica’s second largest source of income, however, the existing bauxite mines in the island have resulted in water contamination and devastating environmental destruction. Several environmental groups got together with the Maroons and other interested parties and formed the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group. They staged a massive Save Cockpit Country public awareness campaign which resulted in the government being forced to back down on allowing mining prospecting.
The Nature Conservancy, in conjunction with USAID and other local government agencies are now poised to develop sustainable tourism and farming projects in the area and there have been some proposals to have the site declared a World Heritage Site.

A recent project is the establishment of From their website, the vision for Cockpit Republic states that it “is a sales representative for environmentally and socially responsible businesses in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country. We support existing businesses and champion the development of new ones by assisting in their planning and marketing their products and services. Because it is so remote, the economy of the Cockpit Country suffers and, as a result, residents are exploiting the woodland’s natural resources. Despite previous efforts to develop the unique culture and environment of the Cockpit Country into an eco-tourism destination, there remains no foundation to support entrepreneurship in the area. At Cockpit Republic, we believe that the economic growth of the Cockpit Country will be led by her own entrepreneurs and we are dedicated to laying a foundation under which local enterprises can develop in harmony with woodland preservation, a foundation that gives creative enterprises access to a market that demands culturally unique and sustainably produced products and services.”

Cockpit Republic features information on its website describing The Original Trail of the Maroons: “An Accompong-based eco-tourism organization that carries hikers through the Cockpit Country on 300 year old trails the Maroons used to fight the British army. The Original Trails of the Maroons is receiving assistance from the Forest Conservation Fund for the development of the route between Accompong and Quick Step into an overnight hike.” A description of the hike states:

“Hikers awaken from a night above Saucey Bottom and hike to a overnight sojourn in Quick Step where they will stay in a comfortable lodge and enjoy local food and culture. The next morning hikers will return to Accompong via the Peace Cave trail. In all, this hike is a comprehensive experience of one of the most mystifying environments in the world where hikers will enjoy the hospitality and culture of local communities along the way. There will be no better immersion into Jamaican culture and its environment. This is the ultimate hybrid of community, heritage, and eco-tourism in Jamaica.
Funding for the Quick Step Trail Project has been made possible with a grant from the Forest Conservation Fund" (CockpitRepublic)

In his book Creating a World Without Poverty, Mohammed Yunus, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize said this about the potential for information technology to assist in bringing an end to poverty:

“The new IT can help to integrate the poor in the process of globalization by expanding their markets through e-commerce. Traditionally the poor have been victimized by middlemen who have controlled their access to markets, dictated business terms, and siphoned off profits. . . The new IT can promote self-employment among the poor, liberating them from reliance on corporate employers or government make-work programs and unleashing their creativity, energy, and productivity. . . It is an empowering tool that enhances options and brings all the world’s knowledge to everyone’s doorstep.” (Yunnus 190)

I believe that offers a prime example of what Mr. Yunnus was advocating in his book. The Maroons are looking ahead to the future with their new project and I applaud and support their efforts and wish them great success. Sustainable eco-tourism projects that arise out of the local peoples knowledge and that respects their land and their heritage is a positive development for the people of Jamaica. We need more of them. Copyright ©Kathy Stanley 2009. Labrish is grateful to for their permission to use their photographs in this post.
Works Cited
Yunnus, Mohammed. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. New York: Public Affairs, 1997.

Cockpit Country Links
Related Posts:
Cockpit Country Jamaica Update
Dear Jamaica
Journey with Bob: Cockpit Country Jamaica

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Paradox of Whale Watching

A few years ago I found myself floating with a snorkel and mask in the Caribbean Sea above a resting humpback whale. Suspended in the water with its head down, tail up and fins stretched out wide, the whale looked like a giant sleeping sea angel a mere thirty feet below me. This was the ultimate in whale watching. Only a few hundred people a year are privileged to visit this unusual marine sanctuary some fifty miles north of the Dominican Republic called the Silver Bank. A two hundred square mile coral reef area, the Silver Bank is considered the largest humpback whale calving ground in the world. Whales from five major feeding areas of the North Atlantic winter in the warm protected area of the reef where they mate and birth their young. Since that extraordinary adventure where I viewed hundreds of humpback whales in a single week, I have wondered: did I have a right to be there? does whale watching harm whales? Or, is any harm done to whales by this activity mitigated by the educational benefit of people learning about whales and wanting to protect them?

Whale and dolphin watching has become a popular eco-tourism activity worldwide in recent years. According to a report done for the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “whale watching is a US$1 billion industry operating in 87 nations.” There are different forms of whale watching that range from the very benign act of watching whales from shore, which obviously poses no threat to whales, to the more common forms now of whale watching boats that take tourists offshore to view different cetacean species in the wild. In my experience, the most extreme form of whale watching consists of the increasingly popular “swim with” activities where people swim in the water, usually with dolphins in captivity or the wild, and lesser so with whales such as my experience described earlier.

The allure of watching whales has developed since the 1940’s when gray whales were first counted by oceanography students from the southern California coastline. (Hoyt 1306). In the Encylopedia of Marine Mammals, Erich Hoyt outlines the significant benefits that have been derived from whale watching:
This key partnership between science and commerce has determined the course of whale watching, as well as the practice of whale research, throughout southern New England. As of 1995, 18 of the 21 whale watching operators that mainly go to the Stellwagen Bank area had naturalists guiding boats and lecturing whale watchers . . . As a measure of the scientific value of whale watching, at least 30 published papers in refereed journals have come largely from research aboard whale watching boats on Stellwagen Bank . . . In several areas, whale watch operations have discovered new populations of cetaceans, accessible for study. In all, whale watching worldwide has led to at least 50 cetacean photo-ID programs supported in part or conducted aboard commercial whale watch boats. (Hoyt 1307)

Erich Hoyt also points out in his article that certain cetacean species have been known to be “friendly” towards boats. Humpbacks whales and gray whales frequently approach boats that are in their territory and dolphins are famous for riding the bow waves in front of speeding boats. These behaviors have endeared marine mammals to humans and has contributed to the rise of whale watching (Hoyt 1306). There is also a mystique around whales and dolphins that is not a new phenomena but rather has been recorded in some of the earliest human records. Dolphins are thought to have healing qualities, which has given rise to the controversial dolphin-assisted therapy with captive dolphins (Carwardine et al. 27). My favorite television show as a child in the 1960’s was “Flipper” which showcased the heroic and friendly dolphin who was the trusted friend and companion of two school boys. This is one modern example of the charm and desire for human interaction with dolphins and whales. Flipper has been considered a great factor in the modern attraction we have with cetaceans.

Ecotourism and wildlife watching on the whole is increasing worldwide as tourists seek out meaningful encounters with the natural world. Whale watching activity is considered a form of ecotourism and is widely considered to provide an increased awareness of ecological and endangered species issues and appreciation for nature. For example, my personal interest in the welfare of whales and dolphins developed largely as a result of my trip to the Silver Bank. While I had always taken an interest in wildlife conservation, that trip spurred in me a desire to study the issue and become more involved in conservation efforts. On my return from the Silver Bank I did some public fundraising for whale conservation efforts for the IFAW. This is the type of common positive result that grows out of seeing these animals in the wild.

Several NGO’s have been largely responsible for the promotion of whale watching, the most notable being the IFAW and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). According to their website, the IFAW “works for the protection of whales by opposing commercial whaling, supporting responsible whale watching, promoting whale sanctuaries, and conducting scientific research. Public education is an integral part of all our endeavors” (IFAW). They teach responsible whale watching guidelines to commercial boat operators in many countries and “promote sustainable whale watching as a sustainable alternative to whaling” (IFAW).

The WDCS also promote whale watching and offer extensive educational material on their website. It is worth noting, however, that the WDCS does not promote swim-with cetacean tours and they strive to steer the public away from such activities. Featured on their website is a document titled “Why WDCS does not feature swim-with-the-dolphins tours on our whale watch website.” Some of the reasons given include the following:
Potential for swim boats to disturb whales and dolphins is greater than for whale-watch boats. . . Swim boats may repeatedly disturb whales and dolphins trying to feed, rest or nurse their young. This potential for constant pressure, day after day, can be a stressful experience for the animals, and may adversely affect their health and ability to reproduce. Longer-term disturbance may even force whales and dolphins to abandon their traditional habitats. There is the risk of accidental physical injury to whales and dolphins from swimmers or by swim-boats. Swimmers also risk injury (WDCS).

While the benefits of whale watching to humans are clear, the fact is that the increase in human activity around cetaceans can have devastating consequences to whales and dolphins and it raises ethical questions. It is just one more human threat to whales to add to the list along with whale hunting from nations such as Norway, Iceland and Japan, ocean pollution, strikes from ships, fishing entanglements, and the deadly navy sonar systems used to detect submarines in military activities. The navy sonar systems are conclusively known to cause damage to cetaceans sensitive acoustic hearing systems and has caused whales and dolphins to beach themselves(IFAW).

Three years ago, on a holiday in the Baja peninsula in Mexico, I observed harmful human activity to dolphins. We were on the Sea of Cortez, which is renowned for its large populations of whales and dolphins. We took a boat trip to a small island offshore and came upon a few dolphins who were feeding in a little cove. We stopped to watch them quietly for a while. We continued to the beach and another boat behind us also saw the dolphins. The boat operator was trying to get his passengers the best view of the dolphins but I watched as he ended up harassing them to the point where they stopped feeding and left the cove. This is a prime example of the worst type of effect from what is considered to be “ecotourism.” Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has summarized this issue in his article titled “Ethics and Marine Mammals.” Bekoff outlines the fascination that people have with getting close to marine mammals such as swimming with dolphins. He poignantly states:
People often try to interact with wild marine mammals but do not attempt to pet wild zebras or lions. . . It is clear that the increasingly detailed attention being given to various sorts of human-marine mammal interactions is showing that there are innumerable negative effects on the lives of the animals. . . We must be careful not to love these animals to their (or our) deaths. Humans are indeed dangerous to marine mammals and they are dangerous to us. (Bekoff 403)

More evidence of the dangers that we cause to whales in whale watching is provided in an article written by William Rossiter, the President of the NGO Cetacean Society International. He reported on two incidents where whale watching boats struck whales on the Stellwagen Bank, one fatally (Rossiter par.1). His recommendation is that it is the responsibility of the tourist to seek out responsible whale watch operators who put the safety of the whales first. Mr. Rossiter went on to highlight cases in Europe of whale watch boat operators that had harassed whales and he ended his article on this ominous note: “Human impacts from whale and dolphin watching tourism are like an iceberg, with most of the impacts hidden from view” (Rossiter par. 5).

The review of this body of research, most of which has not been included here due to its length, (but available to anyone who may be interested) has led me to conclude that the explosive growth of commercial whale watching worldwide is placing a greater burden on cetacean species already at risk from a myriad of threats already noted. The evidence demonstrates that too much human activity is detrimental to whales.

Most well meaning individuals who seek out whale watching and other ecotourism activities are not aware of the potential danger that wildlife watching can cause. I believe that greater public awareness is necessary around this issue. I had no right to be on the Silver Bank as it is an important humpback whale calving ground but like most whale watching tourists, I was lured by the mystique and charisma that whales and dolphins offer without realizing the risks it brings to these animals. While I agree that whale watching offers good educational opportunities for people, I struggle with reconciling the paradoxical effects that pose joyful, positive experiences for humans while bringing disturbance and the potential for negative risks for cetaceans.

I now believe that certain types of whale watching should be more restricted. For instance, the evidence is there that swim-with programs are a human-centric activity that affords nothing to whales and dolphins and only thrills for humans. I agree with the WDCS that these programs should be stopped as they present many dangers to whale and dolphin populations. Furthermore, commercial boat operators should be monitored and perhaps regulated to ensure that they conduct responsible whale watching tours particularly in areas where whales are calving and mating such as in the Hawaiian and Caribbean waters in winter, and their feeding grounds in the north in the summer.

Perhaps organizations such as the IFAW and the WDCS and other cetacean conservation NGOs need to be more aggressive in their campaigns to warn the public of the dangers of irresponsible whale watching. The public knows only the benefits (to humans) of whale watching. There is widespread knowledge that cetaceans face dangers such as the navy sonar, pollution and whale hunting because these are being publicly reported on, but there is little awareness out there of the potential dangers that whale watching brings to the beloved whales and dolphins. I believe that a much broader public awareness campaign needs to be brought to this issue of whale watching in order to protect cetaceans from this increasing and unnecessary danger from humans.Copyright©Kathy Stanley
Silver Bank Whale and Dolphin Photos by Kathy Stanley
Works Cited
Bekoff, Marc. “Ethics and Marine Mammals.” Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Eds. Perrin, W.F., Wursig, B., Thewissen, J.G.M. San Diego: Academic Press, 2002. 398-404.

Carwardine, Mark, Erich Hoyt, R. Ewan Fordyce and Peter Gill. Whales, Dolphins & Porpoises. New York: The Nature Company-Time-Life, 1998.

“IFAW in Action: Protecting the World’s Whales.” International Fund for Animal Welfare. August 22, 2007.

Hoyt, Erich. “Whale Watching.” Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Eds. Perrin, W.F., Wursig, B., Thewissen, J.G.M. San Diego: Academic Press, 2002. 1305-1310.

Rossiter, William. “Whale Watch Impacts.” Whales Alive! 7.4 October1998. 24 July 2007.

“The Dangers of High Intensity Military Sonar.” International Fund for Animal Welfare. August 24, 2007.

“Why WDCS does not feature swim-with-the-dolphins tours on our whale watch website.” Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. August 22, 2007.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Last of the Giants

Come with me on a story that started three thousand years ago. In a forest of giant trees, on the slope of a beautiful mountainside in central California, a little tree was born. The tree had ample room to grow and thrived in rich soil where a nearby stream nourished its roots and plentiful rainfall kept the ground moist. The earth around the young tree was covered with lichens and moss and fat brown salamanders lived in pools and rocks near the river.

At this time three thousand years ago, this forest had no humans living nearby. But across the oceans in other lands, humans were thriving. The people of ancient Greece were enthralled by the tales of Homer. The ancient Phoenicians were developing writing and the Egyptians were building grand pyramids in the desert.

After a thousand years of living, back in our grove of trees on this continent, our young tree had now emerged as a giant alongside its peers. The tree had survived natural fires that had cleared the undergrowth in the forest, protected by its cinder free bark. The clearings allowed the tree’s roots to develop and spread, giving it room to grow and its tall canopy now reached two hundred feet into the sky.

At this time, across the ocean in another land, a baby human was born in a manger surrounded by animals and visited by angels and wise men who came from afar with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, or so the story goes.

Another thousand years passed and our tree, now two thousand years old, continues to thrive in its grove of ancients along the coast. Countless generations of flying squirrels and owls and other birds have lived and died within its branches, and many families of deer, coyote, bobcats, cougars, wolf and bear have traveled through and nested within the forest floor. The tree is now close to three hundred feet tall.
In another land across the ocean, humans are fighting each other for territory. Feudalism is raging in Europe.

Another thousand years passed and our tree is now three thousand years old. It is still standing but only because it has survived within a small grove of trees. All around it though, are the scars of a terrible destruction. For the past one hundred and fifty years, most of its species has been killed off. Men came and settled the land and brought their saws and logging trucks and caterpillar machines. In all, only about sixty to seventy groves remain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of central California.

This tree is the Giant Sequoia. The Giant Sequoias are considered to be the longest living species on the planet. The General Sherman Tree, named for the Civil War general, is thought to be about two thousand seven hundred years old and it remains living in the Sequoia National Park. The tree is two hundred and seventy five feet tall (about as tall as a twenty six storey building) and an amazing one hundred and two feet in circumference.
About half of the remaining groves of sequoias are located in Sequoia National Park but in 2000, President Clinton saved another three dozen groves of these magnificent trees by designating them as the Giant Sequoia National Monument. One would have thought that this action would have saved them from the hands of the timber companies however one grave mistake was made. Clinton placed the trees in the care of the Forest Service instead of the care of the National Park Service. So this was like leaving the sheep in the care of the wolves. Unfortunately, the Forest Service allowed the timber companies to continue their logging under the misguided guise of clearing the undergrowth.

Fortunately, with the pressure of such groups as the Sierra Club and Sequoia Forestkeeper, a judge put an end to this recently. What is desperately needed is passing of the Act to Save the Forests. I urge you to contact your representatives and ask them to pass this important piece of legislation which was first introduced in Congress in 1997, which would protect the last remaining forests of America. Only five percent of this country’s virgin forests remain and we must do what we can to preserve the last of the giant sequoias and other great trees from destruction.
As a consumer, you can purchase lumber that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This is wood from forests that are sustainably managed, where endangered species are protected and the forest ecosystem is not disturbed and damaged by destructive methods such as clear cutting.

Finally, I urge you to go and visit the last of these ancient giants that remain with us. See for yourself what it is like to walk amongst them. People go to Egypt and Greece to see the Pyramids and the Parthenon. We have an equally worthy monument to visit here in this country. These trees are living monuments that have survived through the fall and rise of civilizations.

One hundred years ago, John Muir, the great nature writer and grandfather of the National Park Service wrote:
It took more than three thousand years to make some of the oldest of the Sequoias, trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the eventful centuries since Christ’s time, and long before that, God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand storms; but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools; this is left to the American people. (qt. from Yosemite Online website)
Copyright©Kathy Stanley

Friday, May 8, 2009

Poem for Mother's Day

She wore
A black cocktail mini dress
With a furry feather boa on the hem
In the sixties
A yellow sun dress
With big plastic rings
In the seventies
Five inch high pumps
With crisp striped suits
In the eighties

She sparkled at entertaining
Moonlight in Moscow
Begin the Bequine
Out of Africa
Those were the Days
On the piano

She traveled
From Jamaica to Bangkok
For four days
From Vancouver to London
For weekends
To Budapest, Athens and Panama
For tea

Her essence follows me
From time to time, revealing itself
In my quiet backyard
Comfortable deck filled with flowering pots
A walk down my street in the spring
Abundance of azaleas, rhododendrons, dogwoods in full bloom
Hummingbirds, finches and jays at the feeders

She followed me to Egypt one day
On the top deck of our cruise ship
On the Nile, I listened
To the piped in piano music
Playing all of her songs

Most of all, she is there
In the sounds of her music
Orchids in the Moonlight
Strangers in the Night. . .
Unforgettable, that’s what you are

Copyright©Kathy Stanley.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Land That Owns Us: Identity and Place of Birth

Blue Mountains Jamaica
The twenty-first century world has become a place of immigrants, refugees, newcomers and displaced persons. Many are exiled from their place of birth, and whether by choice, or forced by socio-economic or political reasons, the people of the Earth are on the move. So where does the identity of the person lie? Is it with the new environment or do immigrants always long for the land or place of their birth?

As an immigrant myself, first from my birthplace of Jamaica to Canada, and then to America, I am increasingly aware that my identity is still drawn from the place of my birth. Jamaica fully inhabits my imagination and the details of the land come freely back to me. It is as if the place of my birth is contained within the cells of my body and the deep recesses of my mind, just waiting to be accessed even though I have lived more years outside of that country than inside of it (physically). This personal experience leads me to wonder whether this is true of all humans and what we can learn of this aspect of the human relationship with the earth. This essay will explore the ways that the identity of an individual is rooted, or can be rooted in the place of their birth and childhood, and that even after they have moved from this place, it still informs their being in myriad ways. I will look to the wisdom of indigenous peoples and to the field of ecopsychology for clues, and also to what this means in informing our identity into a larger sense of “ecological self.” I will also consider in what way this identity with birthplace can actually benefit the person in later life.

Indigenous people the world over are known to have strong ties with the land. In their book Wisdom from the Earth: the Living Legacy of the Aboriginal Dreamtime Anna Voight and Nevill Drury studied the Australian Aboriginal culture and their relationship with the land. They found a high importance placed on the birth place of an individual:
[In] traditional Aboriginal life it is not only the entire Earth that is held with reverence, it is also the specific country where one was ‘dreamed’ – that is, conceived from Ancestral Spirit. . . . This home of their spirit is of fundamental importance to an Aboriginal person, for their ‘home’ or ‘country’ for the duration of their life is at location of this conception spirit. Their spirit home is their home. . . .It is not so much a question of ‘my land’ or ‘my country’ being owned by an Aboriginal person or group, but rather that the land owns them. The land and self is inseparable to an Aboriginal person, and thus is intrinsic to her or his identity. (60)

This idea of a “spirit home” is important and is perhaps a reason why we are so easily able to feel attached to the places of our birth. Further information about this comes from Gregory Cajete in his chapter on the “Psychology of Place” in Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence:
[Indigenous people] experienced nature as a part of themselves and themselves as a part of nature. They were born of the earth of their place. A widespread belief was that children were bestowed on a mother and her community through direct participation of “earth spirits,” as children come from springs, lakes, mountains, or caves where they existed as spirits before birth. This is the ultimate definition of being ‘indigenous’ and forms the basis for a fully internalized bonding with that place. (187)

“A fully internalized bonding with that place” sums up the feeling that I have with the place of my birth. Perhaps this is what causes so many immigrants or displaced people to long for their native land, or at least to remember it strongly. It seems that huge bodies of work in art, literature and music revolve around the theme of the exile’s desire to return to their homeland. The Aboriginals and Native peoples seem to understand why this is so: that it is because the place of our birth is also the home of our spirits and we are therefore always a part of that place.

An alternate perspective on the issue of identity and place comes from the field of Ecopsychology. Edith Cobb’s seminal work The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood has been referred to in several works on Ecopsychology and Environmental Education. Cobb studied the imagination of children in different contexts and historical periods. Bill Devall provides a succinct summary of Cobb’s work:

In her book on early childhood, Edith Cobb describes the process by which landscape, natural terrain, becomes a model for the cognitive structure of the child. From her studies of biographies of geniuses she concludes that encounters with place provides a gestalt for germinating intellectual development. The homeland of an eight year old child provides the reality of his life. (Cobb in Devall 60)

Ecopsychologist Andy Fisher also draws on the work of Edith Cobb in his book Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life (Suny Series in Radical Social and Political Theory). The child’s immersion in nature and play in nature is seen to be highly important in the well being and ability of the child to mature into a creative individual.

Just as we bond to caregivers in infancy, so do we – in this new phase of symbiotic immersion in the green world – need to become bonded to the earth. The child “must have a residential opportunity to soak in a place, and . . . the adolescent and adult must be able to return to that place to ponder the visible substrate of his own personality.” (Fisher 144; Shepherd qt. in Fisher 144)
The above ideas appear to provide symbiotic knowledge in Indigenous science and the findings of Ecopsychologists regarding the importance of nature to the identity of an individual. On the one hand, Indigenous science tells us that when we are born in a place, that place is our spirit home for life. On the other hand, Ecopsychologists state that the connection that we have with nature in our childhoods is a critical stage in human development that provides the foundation for our further creative growth and well being.

Recognizing the importance, then, of our connection with the place of our birth and childhood, how does this further the ability of the individual to recognize his larger “ecological self.” Ecological self is defined as identifying less with the personal self and increasingly with the larger world of nature and non-human beings. Paul Shepard defines it as follows:
Ecological thinking . . . requires a kind of vision across boundaries. The epidermis of the skin is ecologically like a pond surface or a forest soil, not a shell so much as a delicate interpenetration. It reveals the self ennobled and extended rather than threatened as part of the landscape and the ecosystem, because the beauty and complexity of nature are continuous with ourselves. (Shepard qt. in Devall 41)

I believe that ecological thinking is enhanced by the conscious awareness of one’s connection with the landscape that helped form our identity in the world. My personal experience is that even though I chose not to return to my home country of Jamaica to live, preferring instead to visit now and again, the island still owns me. It remains alive in my memory and continues to inspire the development of my ecological self. The experiences I had with its waterfalls, rivers, beaches, mountains, caves, forests and sinkholes that I visited regularly as a child continue to live inside of me as a wellspring of inspiration. I have been blessed to visit many wonderful places in nature in many countries in my adult years but it is the landscape of my childhood with which I feel the most intimately connected. It anchors my ecological self and all my relations with the non-human world.

In considering how the benefits of drawing identity from childhood places may affect people in later life, we turn again to the work of Edith Cobb. In her studies of people who had achieved exceptional works of creativity in their lifetime she found that they drew on their experiences in childhood as a source of inspiration for their creative works in adult life. She says:
These vivid experiences [in childhood] described retrospectively by adults, appear to be universal and suggest some universal link between mind and nature as yet uncodified but latent in consciousness in intuitive form. . . In childhood, the cognitive process is essentially poetic because it is lyrical, rhythmic, and formative in a generative sense; it is a sensory integration of self and environment, awaiting verbal expression. The child “knows” or recognizes in these moments that he makes his own world and that his body is a unique instrument, where the powers of nature and human nature meet. These very moments are recalled autobiographically by the adult who seeks to renew and reinforce vision and so extend creative powers. . . Examining statements of adult geniuses about their own childhood and comparing them with references to the child in myths and early religious interpretations of the origins of the world, we note striking resemblances to the world play of the child. In addition, it seems clear that there is and always has been widespread intuitive awareness that certain aspects of childhood experience remain in memory as a psychophysical force – an √©lan that produces the pressure to perceive creatively and inventively, that is, imaginatively. (Cobb 89)

This suggests that childhood experience in nature has a profound ability to impact the work that we do later on in life.

The topic of identity and place of birth warrants further study however it is clear that Indigenous and Native Science and Ecopsychology offer some guideposts for understanding why we identify with our childhood places. If this is truly the home of our spirit, then surely we draw on the knowledge of that place for solace and creative inspiration. As the field ground for the development of our imagination and creative powers, our childhood places serve us in the critically important developmental stages of middle childhood. I propose that our connection and identification with ‘the land that owns us’ provides us with a link that serves our growth and maturity into our larger ecological selves. Copyright &copy Kathy Stanley
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Works Cited
Cajete, Gregory. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Foreward Leroy Little Bear, J.D. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 2000.

Cobb, Edith. The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. 1977. Foreward Shaun McNiff. Dallas, TX: New Spring, 1993.

Devall, Bill. Simple in Means, Rich in Ends. Practicing Deep Ecology.. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1988.

Fisher, Andy. Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life (Suny Series in Radical Social and Political Theory). Foreward David Abram. New York: State University of New York P, 2002.

Voigt, Anna and Nevill Drury. Wisdom from the Earth: the Living Legacy of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Photos of Jamaica by Kathy Stanley