Monday, July 31, 2023

One Week in Eden

This is the view from the home where I lived the last week of July, on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.  I have been to two other Caribbean islands (Barbados and Turks-and-Caicos), but neither of those was as lushly jungled nor as volcanically mountainous as this one.  And on those islands, I resided among other tourists and met few natives, aside from those who waited on me in restaurants or my hotel.  But here, at the home of my daughter-in-law Sharla St. Rose's parents Gertrude and Tony St. Rose,  I was warmly welcomed by many folks who call this forested mountainside home -- and have done so for generations.  Just about every colorful house I could see from the St. Roses' porch housed the descendants of Sharla's great-great-grandmother, whose French-landowner lover granted her all the land between two ravines. And here, in the far northern town of Balata,  their descendants still call this richly forested mountainside home.

Sharla St. Rose (center) was born here, as was her mother Gertrude (left) and Gertrude's grandmothers before her.  I do thank my lucky stars that both women lived in Brooklyn for years, for it was in New York City that Sharla and my son Peter Donnelly (right) met and fell in love and married. So that makes even me a member of this wonderful family, even if only as an in-law.

Gertrude certainly made me feel like part of her family, preparing delicious meals that were signature dishes of the island, such as this chicken stew with plantains and dumplings we are all -- including grandsons Sean (left) and Alex-- enjoying here.   Salt fish with rice and fish-and-cucumber sandwiches on a fluffy fried bread (called bake!) were other special meals we enjoyed.

Many of our meals were prepared using foodstuffs offered free for the taking from every roadside and back yard, which is what inspired me to think of this island as a kind of "Eden", where nearly all one needed for sustenance fell readily to outstretched hands.  Or picked up from the ground, which was the case with juicy sweet mangoes lying scattered beneath the gigantic trees that proliferated everywhere.  We did not yet have a chance to sample the Breadfruit ripening in this backyard tree, but the residents of Gertrude's home will shortly have an ample supply of this staple food. 

Coconuts, too, were ripening on the towering trees along the steep path up the mountainside. I could often hear them plunking on the ground as the ripe ones fell. We could buy them for a pittance in the weekly open-air market, where the vendor used his machete to slice them open, then stuck in a straw for us to sip the cool coconut water before he further opened the nut to the still-gelatinous meat within.  We could peel that rich sweet coconut up with our fingers or use a piece of the shell to scoop it out. Delicious!

Ubiquitous banana plants grew like weeds, some holding bunches of ripening fruit. Or could these be plantains instead of bananas?  The two fruits look much alike.

And mangoes, mangoes, mangoes, growing just everywhere! They dangled on long ropy stems until they ripened and fell to the ground, their thick leathery peel protecting the sweet juicy pulp from being bruised. The kids would just bite off a bit of the peel on top and squeeze out the delicious fruit. I certainly ate my share, too, although I more often decorously peeled and cut mine into chunks.

Not only was food available free of charge, so was hot and cold running water, depending on the source of the the waterfalls we visited. (Although we did have to pay a modest admission fee to some of the sites.) If a river supplied the water, it was cool and refreshing to shower in, as grandson Sean is doing here.  I was happy to stand beneath its cooling spray, myself, for I have never sweat so much in all my life as I did on this trip. As we traveled the island, I hardly ever had to look for a ladies' room, since most of my bodily fluids were escaping through my skin's pores.  Yes. The weather was HOT!  After all, this island stands quite near the Equator.   And it was late July.   (I was assured that the temperatures dropped a bit in January.)

But even a hot shower felt refreshing, washing the salt and oil from my sweating skin.  Perhaps if I clothed my overweight old body as scantily as my slender granddaughter Maya could get away with, I might have felt a bit cooler -- even under this waterfall, which was thermally heated by the volcano it  emerged from.

There were hot springs in many places, including this attraction that featured a spa treatment of volcanic ash self-smeared over the body, followed by a plunge in volcano-heated pools that reeked of health-promoting sulphur. Grandson Alex joined me in opting out of this skin-smoothing treatment. But all others in the family, including Alex's elder sister Tayla (left) indulged enthusiastically.

Alex did partake of the hot sulphur-water pools, the water opaquely gray from all the ashes being laved.

Here was another family and group of friends enthusiastically enjoying this spa experience, and they represented to me an observation repeated throughout my sojourn in this beautiful nation.  This island belongs to its own people, predominantly those of African descent. 

I did not experience the more "touristy" parts of the country, but here in the north the local folks readily turn out to enjoy the beaches and other attractions such as these sulphur baths and the waterfalls, where my son and I were almost always the only pale-skinned visitors. Peter's children are, of course, mixed race, but where they live in Westchester County, New York, they are assumed to be just Black: not always a comfortable thing to be, even in only slightly or subtly racist communities. But here, where their non-White ancestors and relatives ruled and still rule, I believe they were able to feel completely at home, neither as Whites nor as Blacks, but simply as people. I even noticed that my 15-year-old grandson's speech soon started to acquire a bit of the islanders' accent. No wonder my grandchildren love to come stay with their maternal grandparents! And aunties, and cousins, and friends and neighbors who have known their St. Lucian family for generations.

Here was another spa treatment of a remarkable kind. We sat on poolside benches with our feet in the water, waiting for our pedicurists to arrive.

And here they came! Dozens of small iridescent fish came swarming to nibble the excess cuticle from our feet. What a ticklish sensation! My first reaction to the first nibble was to jerk my feet away, but I forced myself next to not react.

I couldn't help squealing with laughter, though, since my feet have always been ticklish. But the poor fish didn't get many nibbles, since in preparation for this trip, I had very recently treated myself to another sort of pedicure.

Although Gertrude and Tony's home was located in the far north of the island, far distant from the resort hotels that line the Caribbean Sea beaches in the south-western region of St. Lucia, we did get around.   I was certainly impressed by the presence of mountains everywhere we traveled, mostly in the north.

Two seacoast mountains in particular, called The Pitons,  stood out as significantly impressive. What remarkably pointed shapes! I have read that the French word "piton" can refer either to the buttons one presses on a push-button telephone or the bright-colored cones that traffic departments place around road hazards.  Guess which meaning must have inspired the name of these volcanic peaks!  (I regret I do not recall the name of the coastal town that lies in their shadow.)

The Pitons have become the signature image of this island nation, and many folks take family photos that include these distinctive landmarks. Including my family! The orange-clad woman (Kendra) taking photos of the small boy Logan and the young girl Izzy are all related to Sharla to some degree. Cousins upon cousins upon cousins all greeted Sharla warmly wherever we went near Balata, for many folks know her well.  Although she immigrated to New York as a young child, she returned every summer for many years to stay with relatives here.  And she still returns frequently to visit her parents, who now have retired to this island permanently.   Gertrude does return to New York quite often, though, since she and her husband still own a family home in Brooklyn, where many other members of her extended family reside. The St. Rose Family is certainly renowned for its holy gift of Hospitality!

Of course, St. Lucia is known for more than mountains and hot springs, for its coastal regions are spectacular, whether facing the Caribbean Sea to the west or the Atlantic Ocean to the east.  I cannot remember if this view is of the Caribbean or the Atlantic, but the crashing surf edging the rocks in this photo suggest the ocean to me.  The Caribbean shores that we visited this trip had small waves lapping the sand, not foaming breakers.

The coastline of St. Lucia features many bays and coves, often with broad sandy beaches.  And all offer spectacular views of the water and mountainous formations.

At one point I rode with Peter and Sharla to a high land overlooking magnificent views of the sea. Sharla, always the smart businesswoman and looking ahead to a time when she and Peter might want to live at least part of the year here, was exploring the possibility of purchasing land in St. Lucia. In this photo, she was photographing some of the lots available for sale. I thought that Sharla herself added another element of beauty to this vista.

Of course, we went to the beach. There are two lovely beaches close to where Gertrude lives, and this one, called Rodney Bay,  has a soft sandy shore that is lined with several hotels and nice restaurants.  In this photo, Sharla's elder daughter Tayla helps her small cousin Rylee enjoy the gentle Caribbean wavelets.

At Rodney Bay, we could rent beach chairs and place them under the shade of almond trees (which saved my fair skin from serious sunburn down here so close to the Equator).  Gertrude smiles happily here, having both of her daughters present to enjoy this beautiful day at the beach. Sharla's sister Christin (left) was also staying with us at Gertrude and Tony's home, together with her year-old daughter Rylee, the baby pictured in the photo above.

Just down the shore from the Rodney Bay beach is a second beach called Pigeon Point, quieter and a bit closer to home.  Here, the shore is more rocky than sandy, but the water is equally lovely -- and so refreshing after a hot morning and midday! We came to the beach only after the sun had lost some of its strength in the later part of the afternoon. Our whole contingent would wade out and just sit down to immerse our bodies, with only our heads protruding from the cool water. Aaah!

Sometimes we stayed to watch the sun descend until the horizon clouds glowed with golden light.

Or even later, as the air turned twilight blue, and the mast lights on sailboats moored offshore began to twinkle like stars.  Even though the night-time temperatures remained rather high, the shadows of evening suggested coolness after a sweltering day. Of course, this close to the Equator, the days and nights are nearly equal, so the sun would set  around 7 pm and rise around the same time the next morning.

Several days brought brief torrential rains, coming down straight and fast, obscuring our view of the surrounding mountains that circle Balata.  The rains were so warm they did not bring much cooling to the air, while they also increased the humidity.

Ah, but there was AC when riding in the car, even if not in the house.  Sometimes it was a great relief to my emphysema-stiffened lungs to aim the vents blasting cool dry air in my direction. But that also allowed me to make louder gasps when passing cars almost collided with each other on the narrow two-lane roads that required acceleration to accomplish steep ascents that promptly led to hairpin curves.

Yikes!  We usually couldn't see what was coming around a corner. Or if a cow or horse might be standing in the road around the bend.  Notice that cars drive on the left in this nation that achieved its independence from the United Kingdom in 1979 but which remains a member of the British Commonwealth. During the 18th Century, the British and French constantly fought for control of this island, which is why many St. Lucian towns bear French names and the native creole dialect is based partly on French. The official national language is English.

And there was no shoulder at all!  Only inches from the side of the road, deep concrete-lined drainage ditches loomed ready to break a car's axle. We actually saw -- and heard! -- exactly that thing happen to a car that didn't make a turn.  Except for one long day when a hired driver transported a van-full of grandmas and aunties and cousins and small kiddies on a circuit of interesting sites around the island, Peter did all the driving on this visit, and thankfully, he was a master at it.

We sometimes all had to get out of our rented SUV for Peter to make it up the steep and sharply curving drive from the highway to Gertrude and Tony's house.

Of course, as an amateur botanizer, I noticed the abundance of gorgeous flowering plants, gigantic ferns, and fascinating foliage. Ah, if only I'd had a field guide to help me identify these tropical beauties!  I knew the names of none of them, nor which might be native plants or horticultural inventions, but that did not prevent me from being awed by lush and colorful splendor everywhere I looked. Here's just a sampling:

These red-flowering plants were massed together to make a colorful hedge.

And nearly every roadside or back alley was rendered colorful by trees that held blooms of vivid scarlet or yellow.

I did learn something about this little Pea-family plant, which I found in the neighboring garden of one of Gertrude's sisters named Margarita, as well as nearly everywhere growing wild.  I cannot remember its name, which was something in French meaning "peas beneath white-backed leaves," but Margarita (a deeply knowledgeable herbalist) informed me that it was very useful for managing high blood pressure.  

Margarita also showed me how she stripped curls of bark from her cinnamon tree (useful for treating diabetes) and handed me a plant of a blue-flowered vervain to take to Gertrude, who could steep its leaves  to prepare a tonic for just about anything that ailed you. The brown curled leaf was from the cinnamon tree, and even such dried leaves smelled faintly of that sweet spice.  Just a few more of the holy gifts of this Edenic island!

When I found these tiny purple flowers, which grew along dusty back roads where chickens and homeless dogs freely wandered, their resemblance to asters I find back home triggered a longing to return to the floral riches of my own home back in Saratoga County, New York.

So I am back home now, and will soon return to my local woods and waterways as soon as I settle back in, after washing my sweat-stiffened clothing and replenishing our larder and answering emails that mounted up during my week away from my laptop.  But I will continue to glow with memories of this marvelous island and the generous and loving hospitality of its native people.  How happy it makes me feel to know that we are all family!

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Northern Glories

In just a few days, I'll be heading to the beautiful Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where I can immerse myself in the tropical flora that I've heard is lush and lovely there.  I can't wait!  (Especially since I'll have lots of time there to spend with beloved family.) But before I go, I was glad to immerse myself in the lush and lovely flora of a lake in northern New York.  And this particular lake, located in the southeastern Adirondack region, is remarkable for the acres and acres of floating bogmat that add enormous botanical treasure to this quiet lake where speedboats are not allowed and the few homes that occupy its shores are well hidden from view. I joined my friends Ruth Brooks and Sue Pierce to explore this fabulous place today,  and lucky for us, we had a whole day without rain!

Before I headed out to explore the bogmats, I eased my little canoe close along the shore, which was thick with the species of shrubs that prefer an acidic habitat.  Probably the single most populous shrub was Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), which still sported a few bright-pink flowers among its branches now mostly holding fat round clusters of seeds.

Because of rocks under the water, I could not push my canoe close to shore to more closely enjoy the few Sheep Laurel blooms that remained, but my camera's zoom could bring images of them closer to my eyes.

Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) is a second shrub common along this shore. Although it, too, was past its blooming season, the small pink buds containing next spring's flower clusters were quite pretty in their own way.  Note the orange fuzz that covers the twigs and the undersides of the leathery aromatic leaves, a very distinctive trait of this denizen of northern bogs and fens.

Unlike those two flowering shrubs, the aquatic wildflower called Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) was in its purple-flowering glory, with vast patches of it lining the shores of a quiet backwater.

And here was a spectacular patch of one of New York's prettiest orchids, called Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides), that was occupying a moss-covered log that had fallen among the Pickerel Weeds.  Such a lovely color combination, the small pink orchids and the vibrant purple aquatic flowers!

Here is a closer look at two of those Rose Pogonias.

In this quiet and shallow backwater, many fallen logs serve as nursery beds for an amazing variety of plants, including this lush green moss and the sparkly red leaves of Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia).  The sundew had raised its long curling flower stems, and a few of its tiny white flowers had already opened.

While peering more closely at the remarkable insect-attracting-and-devouring pads of the Round-leaved Sundew, I happened to spy a patch of lime-green Sphagnum Moss that was profusely studded with the small reddish-brown capsules of its fruiting bodies.

Flat oval pads of Water Shield leaves (Brasenia schreberri) rested on the quiet water, and dozens of its pretty pink flowers stood erect above the water's surface.

And of course, there were Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) floating their pure-white blooms on the water, as well as Yellow Pond Lilies (Nuphar variegata) holding their globular golden blooms well above the surface.

I could not remember ever having seen these remarkable-looking pods forming atop the Yellow Pond Lilies' stalks. How colorful and with such an interesting shape!

I recall seeing three Northern Pitcher Plant flowers (Sarracenia purpurea) in exactly this spot a year ago, and it looks as if this year a fourth flower is hoping to join the party.

Both the leaves and the flowers of Northern Pitcher Plant are remarkably shaped and colored. I was quite delighted to find this "family group" of leaves: Papa, Mama, and some young'uns of different sizes! I also loved the clear gold color of the Sphagnum Moss they were growing in.  The pitcher-shaped leaves do hold water, which also contains certain enzymes that dissolve any unfortunate insect that happens to fall in, a process that provides nutrients to the plant.

After exploring the quiet backwaters to our hearts' content, Sue and Ruth and I headed out to explore the bog mats.  Our small Hornbeck solo canoes are just the right size for nudging into the narrow channels and rounding the curves of passages through the bog mat. This is Ruth in her Kevlar canoe.

And this is Sue, in her carbon-fiber Black Jack,  which is similar to my own canoe.

When we visit this lake in the fall, the mountains that ring the lake are a marvelous crazy quilt of gorgeous colors.  Today, the bog mats themselves were remarkably colorful.

The Sphagnum Moss that carpets the mats comes in shades of scarlet and gold, and sometimes the colors are mixed together, like those in a Persian carpet.

This patch of scarlet moss was adorned with the pale green orbs and slender leafy vines of unripe Small Cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos).

I had never before seen Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta) in such abundance, with masses of this yellow-flowered plant spreading across the mossy bog mats.

The small pink flowers of Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum virginicum) won't bloom  until later this  summer, but the plants are already quite colorful, sporting leaves with undersides that appear quite vividly purple.

The red, green, and golden colors that predominate on the bog mats are repeated in such small packets of beauty as this green-and-gold mossy mound atop a fallen log that is adorned with Spatulate Sundew (Drosera intermedia) and a red sprig of Marsh St. John's Wort. 

As autumn approaches, the Sphagnum carpets will be studded with the ruby-red orbs of Large Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon),  whose dainty flowers --  some pink and some white -- were much in evidence today.

I am so happy we had this one non-stormy day this week, so that I could delight in these local beauties with my dear friends before leaving for the tropics.  I'll be gone for about two weeks, and traveling without computer, so farewell to my dear readers for this brief time.  I AM taking my camera, so look forward to a few photos of an entirely different flora next time we meet.