Seeing the Mountain

Once there were 13,000 inhabitants on the island of Montserrat.  Once there was a small capital called Plymouth, with 4,000 residents…

Wake up.  The alarm clock is ringing.  The Earth is calling.  The sun has risen over the waves of the sea to say that the time of unconsciousness is ended.  It is morning.  Dreams are to take rest and memory processing to cease, even on the idyllic shores of the Caribbean island of Montserrat, a British territory smaller than Bhola. 

People are opening their stores in the main street of Plymouth.  Mothers are walking their children to the school gate and a fisherman by the seaside has already cast his line.  At the dock a yacht is pulling in; at the meagre airport a plane is anticipated; and someone is writing a letter in ink, with a pen.  All the usual things must’ve been, in the days before they looked up to see their mountain again.

Imagine.  The circle of the sun, the gravity to hold them, the energy of food and the physics of human movement: the many life-defining forces that bring predictability and comfort.  The routines of sea breeze and season; the ebb and flow in the tides; the phases of the moon; and the greeting of friend and neighbour: all the natural systems to promote a laid back sense of continuum.  There must’ve been that usual perception of lives languidly evolving, in small steps barely discernable, like the leeward waves spreading out on the sand. 

It’s an easy matter that the Montserratians didn’t see their mountain, because a mountain that sits nearby all the time will with certainty fade into invisibility.

All the years of growth and change, from childhood to old age, the whole of a human lifetime: for the ocean and the land it’s just the blink of an eye.  The Earth has its own cycles and ambitions that last ages and eons rather than months and years.  On 18 July 1995 it was time for the mountain they call Soufrière Hills to wake up. 

There were signs.  For three years there had been stirring, seismic yawning to indicate the final stages of a slumber that had endured since prehistory.  But you know how minor tremors are: they reverberate through the ground and on into human gossip, what one was doing at the time and a whole series of ‘what ifs’, only to disperse from consciousness once more as the forces, the going to work, the fishing and the writing of a letter with a pen reclaim their centrality. 

They knew it was a volcano.  But with the thick of the forest covering the slopes it must’ve seemed a rather friendly one.  Yet when a mountain chooses to move, finally, there are none that can deny it. So it was when Soufrière Hills erupted.

Plymouth wasn’t directly affected at first, but a month later, on 15 August 1995, their mountain brought fifteen minutes of darkness to the day, as a large ash cloud descended on the town.  Plymouth had to be abandoned in the following year.

Wake up.  The volcano is waiting.  It’s 2006, the day we’re going to Montserrat.  The little plane with propellers will take us, there and back across the short stretch of Caribbean from Antigua to the new airport in Montserrat.  We’ll see what they call the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean: the forested north, the planned but soulless settlements where one-third of the evacuees from the island’s south now live.  We’ll drive to vantage points to collect our thoughts in view of the exclusion zone, the half of the island given in to rubble and mud.  We’ll see their Soufrière Hills spewing forth boulders that tumble down the hillside leaving tails of dust.  From the distance those rocks look as pebbles, so easily are they tossed.  We’ll see the great brew of their cloud and smoke that as far as Antigua changes the colour of sunsets.  It’s the ash and cinders the vulcanologists call tephra, the airborne fragments called pyroclasms.  We’ll hear their mountain: a continuous, distant rumbling is the voice of the Earth. 

The old airport, it’s down there, only a minor patch of tarmac left.  That’s the end of the runway with white lines still painted on it.  See it!  The control tower looks as an archaeological relic protruding from the mud. 

On the leeward side we’ll go as far as we can towards abandoned Plymouth, where pyroclastic flows reached the town and the port in 1997.  We’ll see the tree trunks, bare and lifeless as sculptures to destruction, upon the lower hillside; and we’ll see homes snapped like twigs with the force of the volcanic earthflows.  There!  To the distance is Plymouth, like a long forgotten shelf in an attic, covered in dust and memories.  It’s as they left it, so the locals say.  There are family photos hanging on walls; there’s a pen on a desk with a half written letter covered in dust.  Their mountain made a museum of exhibits but no visitors.

On a red tile at a safe distance we will leave our handprints in the dust that covers everything, there too, as we hear how the Montserratians occasionally need face masks when the wind blows northward, when the volcanic storms that fertilise the surrounding islands of the West Indies and far across the Caribbean, keep busy their brooms.

We will stop in the green north again to drink from a small spring on the hillside.  There’s a sign that reads: ‘If you drink from this burn, you will surely return.’  But for the two-thirds of Montserratians who left for surrounding islands and Britain, it’s a promise that’s unfulfilled.  Perhaps the return at the burn follows a longer cycle.

In the evening from Antigua, as we eat dinner, we will see the stripes of fire on their Soufrière Hills horizon, bringing light to the night as sure as their mountain once endowed darkness upon the day.

Wake up. It’s 2013.  It’s the other side of the world, in Dhaka, in Bangladesh.  The time for unconsciousness and memory processing are done.  There’s to be action, a stirring of a different sort.  Perhaps it will leave things altered, but not like in Montserrat; rather in a positive, healing way.  Maybe it was always there, you know, the mountain we didn’t see.

The alarm clock is ringing.  The Earth is calling.

From Montserrat. South lies Trinidad where the birds mimic the sun.  Southeast lies sweet, sweet Barbados where the waves speak of liberty.  Southwest, a little far, the Earth offers a blessing.  While on a distant continent, south, very south, extinct volcanoes spell adventure.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Seeing the Mountain

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