Way back in the day, a day in 1966, a chap called Geoff Stephens recorded the album Winchester Cathedral with a group of session musicians, The New Vaudeville Band. On that album was a song Stephens penned with Les Reed, which was covered a year later by Herman’s Hermits and ten years after that by The Carpenters.

It is the first couple of lines that swirl in and out of my mind as around the globe we close our borders, our doors and retreat to the inner sanctum of our families, where possible, and certainly to our thoughts. “There’s a kind of hush, All over the world tonight”.

As I listen to the quiet, my mind wanders and wonders at the fact that in a relatively short period of time, a time when we noisy, intrusive humans have been forced to take a back seat due to COVID-19, the animal world is reasserting itself.

A Malabar civet, critically endangered and not seen since 1990, has been spotted (forgive the pun) sauntering the streets of Kozhikode in the State of Kerala. (I was terribly impressed he was using the pedestrian walkway.) Dolphins cavorting and swans gliding in Italian waterways may not be wholly uncommon but residents have reported seeing more of them in the clearer canals. Manatees are meandering around in the chi-chi waters lapping the docks of the rich and infamous in Miami now that boat engines have been stilled. A puma has broken curfew in the centre of Santiago, Chile. Wild boar, arguably the least attractive of animals, have been seen in Barcelona, perhaps grunting for the right to self-determination, and ducks have waddled near the Comédie Française. And why shouldn’t they? Have not Parisians always flaunted their feathers? 

And for a little levity. Kashmiri goats have descended from Great Orme, the limestone headland on the north coast of Wales that lours over Llandudno, and have been feasting on leafy delicacies dotting the township’s squares. If you are wondering why there is a herd of goats from the sub-continent roaming a Welsh hillside, it is due to those tandem human traits of envy and avarice. Learning of a herd of goats imported from Kashmir to France in the 1800s, our hero Squire Christopher Tower of Brentwood, Essex wanted a piece of a possibly lucrative wool industry. The two goats he bought soon required a nursery, and so the herd was born. Their wool was turned into the finest cashmere shawl which won the favour of King George IV, who then also wanted goats. Jump forward a few decades and we come to the illustrious Major General Sir Savage Mostyn. He too coveted goats and, so the story goes, was given a couple by Queen Victoria from the royal herd at Windsor. He freed them in the grounds of his ancestral home, Gloddaeth Hall, near Llandudno. Whilst some obviously strayed, ever since a Kashmiri goat has been given the rank of lance-corporal and has served as the Mascot for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Infantry, the Major General’s regiment. How’s that for a shaggy goat story?

But perhaps the most amazing story of animals reclaiming their lands came after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Humans left, and suffered horribly. The animals stayed, and suffered horribly, according to an article recently published in ThoughtCo, by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. called “What We Know About the Chernobyl Animal Mutations” 

What scientists have found through collecting samples of dung and soil and watching animals through camera traps is that, with time, plants and animals have rebounded and reclaimed much of the region. They are of course still radioactive and often have smaller brains, but are breeding though producing fewer young, some of which are deformed. It is the mammals who appear to have adapted best – wolves, badgers, moose, elk, lynx and Przewalski’s horses to name a few. Birds and invertebrates have not faired so well.

The article makes for fascinating reading, but one of Dr Helmenstine’s most chilling sentences was, “Ironically, the damaging effects of radiation inside the zone may be less than the threat posed by humans outside of it.”

Her comments beg the question, when our present restrictions are lifted, will we humans return to our destructive ways? Drive the animals back to the brink of endangered species or worse, extinction. Thankfully, unlike Chernobyl, it appears we will not be contaminated by this current crisis for years. Hopefully will we not recontaminate each other in a rush to demand our spaces back and our reclamation will be gradual. But human mammals are already massing – some never even stopped. China is opening up and we are seeing photos of people gathering in the rush to normalcy, albeit wearing masks.

So perhaps we should listen very carefully, not get too close now, and we might see it isn’t a dream. 

It will be interesting to see if we have learnt anything from this time of hush.

Interregnum

March 25, 2020 — 12 Comments

A recent Sunday morning was spent speaking to a small congregation of Unitarian Universalists, www.uua.org whose seven principles would seem to be a pretty good guide for decent living. I promised that Same View, Different Lens would discuss cultural awareness in a world wherein countries, and some peoples, are reverting to an insular and intolerant outlook.

But this isn’t a piece about the brilliance of my talk! Rather it is the coincidental nature of it as the precursor to the hell happening around the world as COVID-19 shuts down our borders. An action wholly understandable but which threatens to make us more inward looking and parochial, quick to lay blame beyond our boundaries.

Pico Iyer, a philosopher and travel writer I much admire says in his book The Global Soul, “The airport was a rare interregnum– a place between two rival forms of authority– and the airplane itself was a kind of enchanted limbo…. And so, half-inadvertently, not knowing whether I was facing east or west, not knowing whether it was night or day, I slipped into that peculiar state of mind– or no-mind– that belongs to the no-time, no-place of the airport, that out-of-body state in which one’s not quite there, but certainly not elsewhere.”

It is this feeling, this interregnum, in which I find myself now. Not, however, the anticipatory kind of limbo that airports induce but rather in a discombobulated state of nowhereness. I should be used to that feeling. I grew up a ‘Nowherian’ as Derek Walcott, the St Lucian poet called us. An in-betweener, and so am accustomed to often being on the outside looking in, to not always quite fitting into a prescribed mold. 

My family is global. My daughter is married to a Trinidadian and lives in Port of Spain, my son is soon to marry a Polish woman. They live in London. I have no doubt we will continue to live in different parts of the world, that their children will grow up with an inherent cultural awareness and, as I sit fretting at the keyboard, I remind myself that cultural awareness and common sense go hand-in-hand. I just need to get a better handle on the latter in these days of COVID-19 because I have a constant refrain in my head. 

What if they need me?

I know that is highly unlikely. I believe and trust in their ability to deal with anything thrown at them. That was how they were brought up, around the same world they now have the temerity to call their playground. And, in my current state of mind and despite my pride in them, I am to blame for their independence. 

It was only this morning, as I walked my dog along the empty Boardwalk in Christiansted, I realised what is causing my somewhat irrational mood. It is grief. 

Grief for a world that has changed beyond anything I could have imagined. No one knows how long borders or skies will be closed. A sorrow for those whose family and friends have died from this rampant virus. But my newly understood grief is also selfish one. It is grief at the freedoms I have lost, the freedom to hop a plane to see my children. It has sent me to find words vaguely remembered from when my father died. In his desk I had found a book of quotes, snippets of Latin and Greek, Malay and Urdu, he jotted down. Words that took his fancy. The words I wanted were written by the British doctor and eugenicist – not a science I agree with but, in the current context, wise words nonetheless, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” 

So in this interregnum, this limbo, I must accept that some things have changed, maybe forever. That is the grief. I must embrace the ease of virtual communication which, for a while, is replacing the joy of real and tactile social intercourse. With vigilance COVID-19 will be contained and once it has run its course our borders will be reopened, and our minds once more excited about the infinite possibilities and cultural awareness that travel provides. But for now it is a time of letting go, and holding on, and remembering we see the same views through different lenses.

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.