When I lived in Jamaica my father and I used to take regular trips to the mountains. We would go on the pretense of visiting my Uncles coffee farm or to see one of his old friends, but really I think my dad just wanted to spend some time with me in the place he had so many fond childhood memories.
On the drive up he would start telling me how things used to be. A grassy hillside was once a forest and a silted over stream once a raging river. The Blue Mountains are among my favourite places in Jamaica and even as my father spoke of their decline, of songbirds that no longer sang and paths that wound through lost forest groves, I would still be struck by how beautiful the place is. Even that barren hillside looked stunning set against the backdrop of the mountains.
I wouldn’t necessarily call my father an environmentalist but he was deeply saddened by much of what he saw and he could always draw the link between bad government policy and the degeneration of the environment. An IMF deal that forced the government to stop subsidizing kerosene had much to do with the deforestation as poor people chopped down ancient hardwood for cooking fuel. Hillsides were stripped of generations old forest to grow crops. No longer held in place by well rooted trees, the soil would wash away leaving land suitable only for pernicious ‘saw grass’, a grass that would leave the unwary walker with lacerated calves from its serrated leaves.
When we arrived at the old family cottage (now my uncles farm) we would usually take a walk down the hill to a small bridge. Here the sadness in my father’s eyes would deepen. A small pool, choked with algae and weeds, was once his favourite swimming hole. I would look at the picturesque stone bridge.
It wasn’t until I myself became a father that I understood the real reason for his sadness. It wasn’t his loss that saddened him it was mine. He was sad for the son who could never appreciate the beauty he had seen.
Recently someone asked me what motivated my work at Dogwood Initiative and for some reason those times spent with my father came to mind. BC too is a spectacular place and always will be, but everyone I know has a story of some special place that has been lost. Lost not only to them, but to the generations to come. In the future I’m working to create an old man can walk along the shore with his near adult son and talk about not what has been lost but what’s still flourishing.
The threat of tankers and oil spills and how we stopped them will barely be a story worth telling, it might distract us from the beauty that surrounds.