It’s been a turbulent few weeks on either side of the Atlantic. Britain has left the European Union. The United States has been embroiled in an unseemly farrago wherein any semblance of gravitas and civility has been shredded from those, we the people, have put into office. I have been feeling overwhelmed. In despair that the country in which I currently live is lead by a bear-of-very-little brain. Except Winnie-the-Pooh knew his limitations.

“When you are Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

I doubt A A Milne’s wise words have been read by the man in the White House. And I was close to sticking my head in the honey pot, or perhaps deep in the Caribbean sand.

And so, last night, I took myself on a magical mystery tour.

The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands at St George Village on St Croix is home to over a thousand varieties of plants on 16 acres of what was a Danish colonial sugarcane plantation. The ruins, an important part of the island’s heritage, are surrounded by plants and trees that reinforce their value as a source of food, medicine, fiber and dyes. Crucian culture was also on display with Lucien Downes’ latest works on the walls. Magic in the plant and art kingdom.

The magic didn’t end there.

The squalls, prevalent at this time of year, stayed away. The evening was balmy with just enough breeze to keep mosquitoes at bay. Palms were encircled by shimmering lights and there was a pleasant hubbub from those present.

A man in black settled himself on a chair, cleared his throat, picked up the mic and, at first, spoke with a hesitancy wholly unfounded. Søren Madsen, who is Danish, has a facility with English that puts many native speakers to shame. He was self-deprecating, and delighted to be in the USA for the first time. Comments called from the audience intimated he was in the best part of America. I am inclined to agree.

He began to play. His instrument? The Spanish guitar. He drew us in, some might say with emotional blackmail, when he played Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. Hauntingly beautiful and, which Mr Madsen explained, is in minor keys. “We Scandinavians are melancholic,” he said.

Madsen laughingly told us he plays “Mozart to Metallica”, and he surely does. Stevie Wonder came next, then a Beatles medley. The magical mystery tour was in full swing. Chirruping crickets and cicadas provided the chorus and Madsen’s fingers flew along the frets, his hand lifting from the neck of the guitar with a smooth grace. He never once flinched when bats swooped in joyous abandon under the marquee. 

I too have an eclectic musical taste but had never been a fan of heavy metal until Metallica came along in the 90’s. I am not the only person to be a convert because Madsen told the story of how when he played his arrangement of Unforgiven in a Danish hospice, a 94 year-old gentleman told him, “Now I like heavy metal.” The comment was however followed by another elderly patient saying, “The best part is the last chord!”

The first all the way through to the last chord of Madsen’s rendition of Nothing Else Matters was pure lyrical magic. I closed my eyes and the shenanigans swamping the world, and which had been absorbing me, drifted away on his notes.

Trained in classical guitar at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, where he was awarded a unanimous vote of excellence, Madsen continued his musical education in Basel, Vienna and Prague. Not only a soloist, he has played with the Danish Guitar Duo, Duo Paganini and The Blackbirds – a Danish nod to the Beatles, and he shares his talent with students. Playing a composition of his own, Malaguena, in honour of his Spanish guitar, proved his virtuosity as a composer as well as an arranger.

We heard La Cumparsita, a tango by Rodriguez, swiftly followed by Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Coldplay, ABBA, the BeeGees, more Beatles. Even Elvis came into play. An old Danish folksong medley was made timeless, and it seemed as if countless guitars were under the tent competing in singing strings. And who can miss the opening chords of Hotel California? I never wanted to check out.

Søren Madsen played the final piece. The magic dissipated into the evening air dripping with the scent of night blooms. But as The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands emptied, Nothing Else Matters remained. I wondered if James Hetfield, who wrote the song in 1990 whilst on the phone to his then girlfriend, and Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, ever imagined their melody, also in a melancholic minor chord, would find its way to a seductive Caribbean island. 

“Life is ours, we live it our way…. ….. Forever trusting who we are No, nothing else matters.”

Gabriel Update

January 7, 2020 — 3 Comments

The shot pelican, Gabriel, looking proud and beautiful if a little confused at her inability to lift her wing due to the embedded pellet.

“Gabriel hears and looks out to the sea. When I am not looking, she heads across my lawn with one wing dragging and one wing flapping. My heart breaks, but there is no reason to prolong a futile situation.” Toni Lance, St Croix Avian Sanctuary

Getting Shot!

December 30, 2019 — 8 Comments

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

His beak can hold more than his belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

The Pelican was penned in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt, an American poet and humourist, although the poem is more often credited to Ogden Nash who included it in his 1940 anthology, The Face is Familiar. Plagiarism is a dirty word.

So too is cruelty. 

Such is the risk for pelicans, and other birds on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. Arid on the east end and verdant on the west – only 28 miles apart – natural beauty is surrounded by soothing Caribbean waters. There are though beasts who hide along the bays and inlets ready to shoot down birds skimming with magisterial solemnity above these waters.

What possible sport can that be?

There are eight species of pelicans but here on our island we have the Brown Pelican – a dull name for an august bird whose white head above a chestnut nape and brownish-silver feathers remind me of a be-gowned and wigged judge. They are ungainly as they take flight, flapping their wings and slapping the water with big webbed feet, but as they find thermal currents they can soar as high as 10,000 feet. No wonder the Wright Brothers studied avian aerodynamics. Technical aspects of a pelican are remarkable. The air pockets in their bones are connected to respiratory airways lying under the throat, breast and wings and aid buoyancy, allowing the birds to keep their wings horizontal and steady.

“Almost like bubblewrap,” says Toni Lance, artist, photographer, certified falconer, licensed bird rehabilitator, and founder of the St Croix Avian Sanctuary.

Meet Gabriel, an adult of uncertain sex but of breeding age, shot down a week ago. Due to the location of the pellet surgery was not an option. There was no sign of a break and so Ms Lance is attempting to rehabilitate the bird at the Sanctuary on St Croix’s south shore. She moves the wing but it remains unwieldy, unable to be lifted. She sprays Gabriel with water to encourage preening which in turn helps get oil back into his feathers. The pelican dutifully preens. His appetite is good. If not for the shot wing Gabriel would be flying free as a bird, preparing to mate and sustain his species.

The Brown Pelican – clever birds that they are – stuns its fish by plunging headfirst into the ocean. The airsacs in its wings lessen the impact and bobs the bird back to the surface to float, rather like a cork. If the waters are shallow or churned, pelicans have a back-up system for fishing. Unlike other birds, pelicans have four toes rather than the standard three, which allows effective paddling whilst using that huge pouched beak as a scoop, which they then drain by tipping their head back. It is this manoeuvre that makes them most vulnerable to the thieving habits of others, mainly seagulls, who are wont to steal fish right out of the mouths.

Gabriel, irrespective of sex, is a breeding adult. Unlike other areas, St Croix tends not to have large squadrons of pelicans but rather three or four flying in formation. If Gabriel cannot be rehabilitated in the next few weeks, and this is by no means certain, he / she will be euthanized. That means the loss of probably two healthy young a year for the next twenty years. 

You do the maths.

Avian rehabilitation is not all a flying success. Ms Lance has, over the years, seen many birds soar to freedom but there have also been those unable to be released. Some, such as a peregrine falcon, she has used as aids in an effort to educate children about the importance of treasuring our resources, and honouring the freedom of flight; others with no chance of survival in the wild – often the ones shot by ignorant and brutish people – are euthanized.

Where is the outrage? The chance of the perpetrator of this crime being caught is remote and, sadly, it is only a matter of time before the St Croix Avian Sanctuary is again called upon to rescue a shot bird.

I am assured by Ms Lance that Gabriel is, like most pelicans, a good-natured bird. They have been around for many years – the oldest fossil found is dated thirty-million years ago – and they have remained remarkably similar, if somewhat smaller. They were, in medieval Europe, considered a symbol of sacrifice due to the belief a pelican would, if no other food was available, wound her own breast to feed blood to her young. 

The wound in Gabriel’s wing cannot be mended by an infusion of blood. It may not mend at all. The chance of seeing this magnificent bird fly again is slim. Grounded and unable to swim in seawater, Gabriel’s paddled feet, even on a padded perch, will break down with pressure sores. An inhumanity that cannot be countenanced.

“I’d need to be set up like Seaworld to keep pelicans in captivity,” Ms Lance explained. Disgust should be filtered through towns, school halls and social media at the wanton cruelty and ‘sport’ of shooting an innocent bird, animal or human. There is too much of it.

“A wonderful bird is the pelican….”

But this is not a humorous story. Gabriel’s life is likely to be short. A sanctuary can only do so much. Birds have to deal with the elements. That’s enough. That’s natural. Getting shot is not.

America has just celebrated Thanksgiving, an important day in my adopted land. It is a day wherein the country is a moving mass as people try to get home, often battling inclement weather, to celebrate the pilgrim’s first harvest.

I have enjoyed every national or festival day in whichever country I have happened to be living. All twelve of them. From Loi Krathong in Thailand to Chinese New Year in Singapore to the Ganzenhoedster Festival in the small Dutch town of Coevorden. Or maybe Deepavali in Malaysia. And don’t let’s forget Hogmany in Scotland. I admire the national pride that keeps these traditions alive.

I name these countries, these festivals, as a precursor to this piece. Not only have I lived in many countries, I have also been employed by multinational corporations to help employees and their families understand the idiosyncrasies prevalent in countries in which they might conduct business, or indeed live. 

In every place I have been fortunate enough to call home, whether for a year or a number of years, I have made an effort to learn a little of the language, to understand and recognise, if not always embrace, the culture. And to engage in local activities, whether as a foot soldier or a board member. 

My peripatetic life began at a month old which, in essence, means I have spent my life ‘not quite fitting in’. It’s not something that has ever concerned me, as I consider it a privilege to be a guest in another country and do my best to be respectful of that culture.

And so the past few days, having been accused of cultural insensitivity, have been spent wondering “what could I have done better?”. The details are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how carefully I worded the email that started the firestorm. It doesn’t matter that the recipient found issue with subjects not addressed in that letter. It doesn’t matter that I apparently provoke “a bad taste in my (his) tongue”. What matters is that somehow, and I have searched my words, conscience and intent, I have caused great offence. Enough to make the man write, “I will not allow someone from else where come to my homeland and talk to me however they would like, I am proud Crucian and I stand with pride for what I do in my community.

That is the sentence that rankles. No, actually it hurts. Because I do not know how this chap got to that place of intense dislike from my actions or, indeed, my words.

Then I started thinking about words like identity, ego, pride – all of which, if used with a dose of reality, are important words for defining who we are. It’s when the dosage gets out of the kilter that things go pear-shaped. It can happen with tyrants of tin-pot regimes, wannabe dictators of western countries, and lesser mortals. The common denominator being that all have lost the ability to recognise the world works best when we are able to feel humility, to admit to mistakes, to accept guidance. It is these people who manufacture threats from without their immediate sphere of influence. Their hubris becomes a crutch behind which they cover inadequacy, incompetency and sometimes a lack of intellect. And every culture is littered with those whose ego is easily dented. 

As I consider the past few days, and give thanks for the island on which I spend most of my time, I reflect on Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. He too was an expatriate, having grown up in India before returning to England then emigrating to America. 

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The words might appear dated but they resonant as I try and master my anger and disappointment. If I can do that, I shall be on my way to being a stronger woman.

I shall also contemplate Kipling’s other masterpiece, The Jungle Book. Because juggling different cultures and sensitivities can make it feel it is a jungle out there. But maybe, if I work hard enough, next Thanksgiving I can truly focus on what makes me thankful for being on this beautiful island.

Dig Once!

August 11, 2019 — 3 Comments

The Boardwalk along Christiansted’s waterfront still shows signs of hurricane damage. Pieces of timber hastily nailed over holes create tripping hazards almost two years after Maria pummeled St Croix. An area sagging due, I can only imagine, from damage to the underside of the structure is in need of shoring.

As I ambled along with Clyde early the other morning, his tail wagging at the few regulars along the Boardwalk we pass every day, my mind was taken up with not only the state of disrepair but also a depressing lecture I had attended the previous night.

Given by a respected archeologist, the talk detailed the current digging up of Christiansted to replace aged water pipes, and the treasures to be found under these historic streets. Bits of clay pipes, Moravian pottery and other pieces of Chaney – the chards of pottery that give testament to the many countries who have claimed the Virgin Islands as their own, the term coming from a conflation of ‘china’ and ‘money’. In essence a social history of colonial times. Now we just toss plastic and polystyrene. Some of these streets were originally built with Danish bricks by the enslaved, who also built the culverts that still do duty today. These same roads have, over the subsequent years, been layered with cement and asphalt. They are today a patchwork of potholes – we call them the streets of St Croix.

A bumper stick seen on various vehicles around the island says it all, “I’m not drunk, I’m avoiding potholes”. But that’s not my beef, though I’d be delighted to see the roads and the Boardwalk fixed, properly, and not just patched.

Under the previous administration, that of Governor Mapp, a law was passed requiring different government and private agencies to work in tandem with regard digging up the streets of the Twin Cities – Christiansted and Frederiksted. Essentially a ‘dig once’ ruling. The water authority to work with the sewage department to work with the electric department to work with the telephone and communications entities. A ruling that would lessen the disruption to businesses, and residences, that would allow a proper rebuilding of roads that would not need retrenching for the foreseeable future.

This is not happening. And it begs the question, why not? If it is law, why is the law not being followed?

It was these vexing thoughts that swirled around my mind as I followed Clyde. And then I was reminded as to why I live here. Two simple things that prompted thoughts of other places I have lived, and visited.

The first came from Leroy, the man who diligently delivers papers throughout Christiansted, and who makes me smile every day. He hefts a pile under his arm and walks up and down these potholed streets. He puts down the newspapers every now and then and gathers discarded beer bottles and puts them on the tables of bars along the Boardwalk. He shakes his head at the disregard both locals and tourists have for the island they call home for ever, or a day. As he pets Clyde we discuss the state of our town and mourn the lack of respect it is given. By those ignoring the rules. Dig once, and don’t litter.

The second thing was the flash of neon blue that caught my eye as I looked out at yachts moored in the bay, then down at the crystal waters which, despite the state of the Boardwalk, continue to glisten in pristine clearness. It was a solitary blue tang. I smiled again.

I was taken back to my childhood, lying on my stomach on the edge of another boardwalk. That time in Tahiti. I must have been about eight. It was the first time I saw the wonders of a tropical sea. A plethora of darting fish, echoing the rainbow in their brilliance. I remember an old man telling me their names as I laughed at the sheer wonderfulness of the underwater world.

Two simple things. Kindness and the beauty of nature. Those are elements that make up a place, that make a global nomad want to put down roots, whatever the state of the roads.

But really, the rules should be followed – dig once!