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Wilderness

Except for Guyana, where almost all but a narrow coastal strip is wilderness, the wild and uncultivated is a dwindling and unevenly distributed resource in the Caribbean. There are still tracts of tropical forest in Trinidad and hills that in the 1970s sustained a brief and tragic guerrilla campaign (NUFF) and today are reputedly “outlaw” country; Jamaica has its Cockpit Country (See Mountains and Hills), but in Barbados there is relatively little that is uncultivated. Not surprisingly, Guyanese authors, with the model of WH Hudson’s Green Mansions (1904), and the work of Jan Carew and Wilson Harris directing them to the hinterland, have been most prolific on the theme of the wild. In Harris’s work, echoed in Andrew Jefferson-Miles’ The Timehrian (2002), wilderness is also the space that challenges commonsense, rationalistic certainties. Harris’s work as a surveyor (perhaps most closely imaged in the character of Fenwick in The Secret Ladder (1963)) and his awareness of shifting river levels, the changing paths followed by rivers and disappearing landmarks leads him to see that maps are always provisional. Wilson Harris’s novel Heartland is, amongst other things, a brilliant portrayal of the psychic disintegration of its leading character, Stevenson, as the façade of his “civilised” certainties breaks down in wilderness that appears to have an animacy of its own.

Jan Carew’s two novels in the Caribbean Classics series, Black Midas and The Wild Coast, both 1958, explore the confrontations between young men (and women) and Guyanese wilderness. The Wild Coast takes the sickly Hector Bradshaw from Georgetown to the remote village of Tarlogie. There under the tutelage of the hunter, Doorne, he discovers a world where nature is very red in tooth and claw, where courage is tested to the limit. In Black Midas, Aron Smart follows his father into the Eldoradean world of the pork-knocker, the gold and diamond prospectors, whose dreams of wealth are in reality moments of get-rich-quick and lose-it-quick recklessness. In a world without rules, Aron is drawn to a life-threatening madness.

As the memoirs of Vincent Roth (A Young Man’s Journey and The Later Years) and Matthew French Young (Guyana the Lost Eldorado: My Fifty Years in the Guyanese Wilds) make evident, wilderness is almost never wholly unpopulated; there are shifting populations of porkknockers, balata bleeders, hunters, Amerindian farmers, smugglers and sometimes runaways – and of course surveyors and path-cutters like Roth and Young (and Wilson Harris). In Roth’s and Young’s writing, the work of two highly practical men, there is nevertheless much which touches on the meaning of wilderness for imaginative Caribbean writing. There is in both a sense of wonder and mystery in the ever-renewing, constantly shifting and changing wilderness of the forest. People make a precarious living from it, but only survive by maintaining an alert respect for its hazards and the capacity of wilderness to disorient even the most experienced prospector. It is an environment that remains unhumanised, indifferent to, and frequently mocking human endeavours. Roth’s memoirs are full of accounts of rusting mining equipment overgrown by bush.

That sense of ambivalence is the central metaphor in Jennifer Rahim’s Between the Fence and The Forest, a poetry collection that explores her vision of a Trinidad finely balanced between the forces of rapid urbanisation and the constantly encroaching green chaos of tropical bush, an ambivalence that relates to her sense of a people whose turbulence regularly threatens a fragile social order.

Rahim’s connection between wild nature and wild humanity reminds that in the Caribbean the idea of wilderness is a deeply historicized one. It is, above all, maroon space, the mountain and forest spaces of those who escaped from the plantation. As such, its meanings for ruler and ruled, ruler and resister, were/are deeply at variance.

The connections between wilderness of space and wildness of people in colonial discourse are explored in Beryl Gilroy’s Inkle and Yarico. For Thomas Inkle, shipwrecked on a forested island inhabited by Black Carib Indians, there is at first no distinction between his feelings of alienation from the wilderness of forest and his ‘civilised’ contempt for the wild Caribs. But in time, driven by the need for survival, he learns from them enough to understand ‘that the forest had a voice of its own, with its own breath and language’. But Inkle remains at heart a ‘civilised’ man; when he is rescued and taken to the cultivated slave island of Barbados, he repays his debt to Yarico by selling her into slavery.

The place of wilderness as a space of freedom for the runaway is the theme of June Henfrey’s story, ‘The Gully’ in Coming Home and Other Stories. But for the runaway slave Quasheba, the discovery of a ‘landscape of small gullies and caves… with enough vegetation to afford both shade and concealment’ is in Barbados at best only a temporary place of safety, but one she returns to, in the end only in her head, when she cannot take the plantation any longer. The limestone caves of Barbados also provide the only maroon space available for Percival Veer in Anthony Kellman’s The Coral Rooms (see Caves and Gullies).

Both Quasheba and Percy are resisters, but for others wilderness has more threatening resonances. In Jan Shinebourne’s Timepiece, there is a defining moment in Sandra Yansen’s abortive relationship with David Petrie, an urbane young man from Georgetown. Sitting his car on the edge of the Canje forest, for Sandra this is a place full of echoes, where the past of slave rebellion is close and still speaking; for Petrie it is empty space, ‘the end of civilisation’. The same kind of difference of response is explored in Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People. The backdam, the place where the cultivation of the estate merges into the wilderness of the savannah, is a space of relative freedom from the controlling, all-seeing eye of manager and overseers and a source of fruits, firewood and fish. But this uncultivated space is also the home of Dutchman jumbies and other unfriendly spirits. In ‘Sukul’ and ‘Bahadur’, Monar explores the powerful belief in the malignity of these places, particularly at night. He notes in ‘Sukul’ that ‘whole estate know it gat jumbie since immigration time’ and without saying so hints that jumbies performed a useful function for the estate management in keeping the workers inside the boundaries of the estate. Only for a genuinely free-spirited character like Bahadur can the belief be turned to his advantage.

In Cyril Dabydeen’s Dark Swirl, the Canje forests are similarly an ambivalent the space for the folk imagination, in this case the presence of the monstrous massacouraman. For the Indian villagers on the edge of the forest, there are conflicted feelings of rootlessness and unbelonging, but also vestiges of a sense of interconnection between all living things. There are outbreaks of irrational cruelty towards captured animals, but also the feeling that the massacouraman, hunted by a European naturalist, is uniquely theirs.

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