gall and gumption

Monday, January 08, 2007

Like the Corners of My Mind

Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat is erupting again. It sent a plume of ash five miles high yesterday. Here are some photos from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which has monitored it constantly and closely ever since the big eruption in 1995 that destroyed the island's beautiful capital city and sent nearly half its population into exile.

The last time it had an event, in 2003, I woke up at my friend Margaret's house one Sunday morning in St. Kitts and found every horizontal surface in the house covered with fine dust, and a greyish haze outside like what you get when there's a wildfire not too far away in California. I was staying at Margaret's house because of the attack. On weeknights a reporter from the paper, Rita, stayed at my house, but on weekends she went to Nevis and I went to Margaret's. I drove into Basseterre that morning and the fine dust was all over everything, it looked like a dusting of snow almost. I stayed at home that night because I was expecting Caroline, who was on her way for a visit, with a stopover in San Juan. I was to pick her up that night. But at 10 p.m. she called and said all flights from San Juan to the Leeward Islands had been cancelled because of the volcano. They put her up in a hotel along with the bag of very stinky cheese she was bringing for me. By the time I got the call it was too late to go back to Margaret's, so I had to sleep in my house alone for the first time. I did all my usual things, reading, writing, feeding the dogs, mooching about, ate a little, etc., checked the front door lock and the back door lock and then checked them again, and then cleaned up the kitchen before bed and tried not to be scared. I tried to coax the dogs to stay inside, but three of them were basically wild and the other two thought I wanted to spoil their fun. They wouldn't come in. When I finished cleaning up the kitchen, without any forethought I picked up the big kitchen knife and took it to bed with me. It just seemed like a good idea. I placed it on the floor on the far side of the bed, next to the wall, under a book on British watercolors of the 18th century. And I made up my mind that anyone who got as far as the bedroom door would be dead.

Caroline arrived the next day with the bag of stinky cheese. So then there was company for the week. I still kept the knife by the bed, though. But nothing scary happened except about the third or fourth night of Caroline's visit I woke up in time to see a centipede crawl out from under my pillow and bite me on the arm. It got away, and as I had only heard the scariest things about centipede bites I got up and thought about calling Jamie, my doctor. But it was about 3 in the morning. So I got on the Internet and read what I could about centipede bites, and was satisfied that even if it had broken the skin I wasn't going to get horribly sick from it. And it hadn't broken the skin.

That was in early July. By September I had moved to another paper, in Nevis. I would not have had a job at this paper had it not been for the 1995 eruption of Mount Soufriere. It brought the wonderful Mr. Bramble of Montserrat to Nevis, with his printing press and his Nevisian wife. He set up a newspaper there and ran it almost single-handed and mostly at a loss for years. A lot of people didn't even know it existed. A group of investors bought it and hired me to run it under the new ownership. That's why I moved to Nevis. At first I lived in a poky little apartment in the capital, Charlestown. The yard was susceptible to flooding, and it was a sheer hell for mosquitoes. Also there were giant grey spiders. As soon as I could, I rented a little house in Gingerland, up in the northern part of the island, a green, lush, cool area at the foot of Mount Nevis. There, after a rather shaky beginning, I began to be happy.

From the back porch of my house I could see Montserrat, with the wispy steam of the volcano always present. The sun at certain times of day sent gleams from the tin-roofed houses along the coast of Montserrat. At night I could see the lights of cars in Antigua. If I walked up the hill a little ways from my house, through a little village, I could get to a plateau where I could see St. Bart's and St. Maarten. St. Kitts would have been visible but there was a hill in the way. My neighbor Elmo, who took me to see this view the first time, told me that on certain days of particularly good weather you could see a bit of Guadeloupe, just the far side of Montserrat. I hoped to see it but never did. My landlord, being an old-fashioned man of agricultural background (he kept sheep in my back yard for weed control) had planted a mango tree in the back yard that obscured the view of Montserrat. I think his idea of something nice to look at was a mango tree, he was completely innocent of any notion that a view like that would have added at least 50 percent onto the price of the house in California, for example, and I liked it that he had no clue. Peering round the tree seemed a small inconvenience. I had to peer around it or walk down to the fence to get a look at the volcano. And along with the volcano was the amazing show of the sea on the windward side of Nevis, the clouds constantly traveling across the sky, while a silvery light chased their shadows over the water and caused it to change to every possible shade of blue. There was always a wind blowing on that side, so there were no mosquitoes and the air in my little house (a somewhat ugly little house it must be said) was always fresh and cool, the greenery sparkled outside. On Sundays domino games went on all day and into the night at the rum shop across the street, and I could drop in there of an evening with my downstairs neighbor Mike, or, if I was feeling lonely, stop by the Bee Man who lived just round the corner and who always cheered me up. (He tells me he captured two wild hives this week.) Much kindness, much sweetness, all around there. It was easy to understand, living in Gingerland, why so many Nevisians live to be 100 years old.

So what I miss about Nevis is all bound up with the volcano.

The number of volcanoes, active and dormant, in the Caribbean, would really surprise you. I was growing up in Jamaica, and I remember that I was always afraid of things like earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and vampires, just a few items on a long list. By which I mean that if I woke up in the middle of the night and started thinking about them I'd have to go sleep in my brother's room, or I would not sleep at all that night. And I also remember feeling that nothing remarkable existed in the Caribbean. We didn't have a Krakatoa East of Java (thank God!), or glaciers (also vaguely scary), or a Statue of Liberty, or any of the big Anythings of the world. Everything that you read about in the world was somewhere else. We had had a catastrophic earthquake -- two, actually, one in the 17th century and one in the 19th -- but that was not the sort of big event I wanted to experience so as to feel part of the rest of the world.

And somehow I never quite put it together that I lived in a region that is puncuated with volcanoes. Granted, the education I received did not include a lot of information about the Eastern Caribbean, those dinky little islands where people talked with weird accents. But as you can see from this nifty but not quite complete interactive map of the Eastern Caribbean, the Leeward Islands could just as easily be called "The Leeward Volcanos."

Most of them have volcanoes. A surprising number of these volcanoes are considered active, though active means a lot of things. The St. Kitts one, for example, is considered active. Nevis has one, as you can see. (Mr. Bramble used to refer to Nevis as "36 square miles with a volcano in the middle.")

That map is produced by the University of the West Indies's Seismic Research Unit. One thing that you cannot see from it is how clear it is, when you are looking along the chain of the islands, flying south from Antigua, let's say, or standing on top of the tallest hill in St. Maarten and looking south and west, how they are so clearly a geological family. The islands that make up that volcanic chain are distinguished by these steeply sloped mountains and, often, a lack of good anchorages (Nevis, St. Kitts, Saba, St. Eustatia, and Montserrat are not places to keep your boat if there is any kind of heavy weather coming). They are separated by sometimes quite narrow channels of water -- people actually do a swim from Nevis to St. Kitts once a year -- that can't disguise the fact that they are related, you are looking at the same mountains. But what a difference a little water makes!

The three best known volcanoes are Soufriere Hills in Montserrat, Soufriere in St. Lucia, and Mt. Pelee in Martinique. The eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902 was the most horrible. I mean, it was so horrible that I am thankful that I knew nothing of it as a child.

Here's a little geographical unmuddling. On this map of the region you can see that the big islands, that extend west from Puerto Rico, are the Greater Antilles, and the little islands that curve south from Puerto Rico are the Lesser Antilles. (pron. AnTILLeez). So then I thought I should tell you all which islands are the Leeward Islands. I realized that my definition is rather casual and ambiguous. I picked it up off the streets while I was living in the Leeward Islands, which are those islands of the Lesser Antilles that point to Leeward when you look at the map and that are also on the Leeward side of the chain. (Remember the prevailing "trade" winds blow from the southeast.) So I thought I'd better clear up this point. I looked that up just to check it. Apparently term has meant different things to different people at different times. Take your pick.


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