Wednesday, December 17, 2008

We Are What We Eat

MSNBC ran its program on Jonestown again the other night.

(For the few who might not have been born yet when the events at Jonestown took place thirty years ago or who are otherwise uninformed, an American religious leader, Jim Jones, led over nine hundred of his followers to the jungles of Guyana, South America, to set up an experimental agricultural colony. He went completely mad, and induced almost all of his followers to take their own lives, and the lives of their children, mostly by drinking Flavor-Aid laced with poisonous cyanide.)

Someone commented, “What planet were they ON?” Answer: a very small and compact planet, the Jonestown settlement. And the mind-control aspects of cults are well known, as is the fact that for every charismatic, manipulative leader there seem to be dozens, if not hundreds, of unquestioning, sheeplike followers.
But there’s another aspect to the Jonestown situation that the documentary touched upon only briefly. The original plan was to create a self-sustaining agricultural settlement, but coastal Guyana’s poor tropical soil doesn’t lend itself to traditional agriculture. The people had been living on a diet of rice and little else for months, while working and living in tropical heat. Their bodies were depleted of minerals and salts. Most of them must have been suffering from borderline malnutrition, notably the lack of certain vitamins necessary for mental acuity. They became passive and more likely to accept anything they were told. So it was easy for Jones to talk them into mass suicide.

Some years ago in Haiti I witnessed a similar scenario, although in this case the preacher himself was the victim. Earlier in the day it had rained. The boss was checking on some equipment in one of the sheds on the site, and slipped on the rain-soaked wooden stairs. He somersaulted down the steps and came down hard on his back, breaking a scapula. I drove him to the Hopital General in downtown Port-au-Prince in the hope of getting an x-ray of the shoulder and some sort of medical treatment.

Although the hospital itself seemed like something out of the pages of Dante’s Inferno, they did have some x-ray equipment, and the staff did their best to accommodate us. The process took the better part of two hours. During this time a young, earnest blond-haired American showed up at the hospital. He seemed extremely upset. He said he was a missionary from a Pentecostal denomination, one that I wasn’t really familiar with.He said that he was living in a small country town on the southern peninsula, and that he had been there for about eight months. He felt for sure that Satan was up to his old tricks in the village where he was working. Just the day before, for example, a woman caught her four year old daughter stealing, and to imbue her with a sense of Christian morality, she immersed the girl’s hand in a pot of boiling water. By morning it appeared that this may not have been such a good idea, however, and the missionary, the mother, the little girl, and some townspeople began an arduous day-long trip, fraught with mechanical breakdowns and misadventure, into the capital in search of medical help. “I can’t help but think that Satan followed us here tonight!” said the young man, his eyes searching the trees in the darkened street beyond the hospital. It was apparent that the guy had been having a rough day. A long trip in a series of Haitian tap-taps is a wearing experience, even for a young person. Still, his whole body seemed to be twitching unusually.

“So, you’ve been out there in the village this whole time?” I asked. He said that he had. “And what kind of food do you eat?” I asked.
“I eat what the people eat,” he said. “I didn’t come here to lord it over them and have my own special food. What’s good enough for them is good enough for me.” It was then I noticed that he had sores on either side of his mouth. I remembered from somewhere in my past (an eighth-grade science class, perhaps?) that this was a symptom of some kind of deficiency disease, like pellagra or beri-beri. (It’s actually caused by a lack of vitamin B-12 in the diet.)
“Dude, I’m not a doctor,” I began, “but I think it’s really a good idea to take vitamin pills while you’re here. I mean, I do, and I feel much better.”

I was about to tell him about the sores at the sides of his mouth, and how it was caused by his diet, when one of our Haitian engineers rushed into the hospital. He’d heard about the accident via the jungle telegraph, and had come looking for us. He’d already made arrangements for the boss to be examined at a private hospital in Petionville, where one of his cousins was a doctor.

I went to wish the missionary good luck. He was still looking out at the trees into the darkened street outside. “Look! Was that a bat?” he said. I never ran into the guy again. I hope he remembered to buy a bottle of vitamins before he went back to the village.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monkey Island

The Rhesus Monkey (macaca mulata) is native to Asia, its natural range encompassing northern India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan, southern China, and some neighboring areas. They have close-cropped hair on their heads, which accentuates the expressive, humanoid appearance of their faces. They are an adaptable species, acclimated to many habitats, including some in close proximity to humans. This is most common in India, where they are associated with Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. A few troops of introduced rhesus monkeys reportedly now live wild, not only in Florida but also in South Carolina!Monkeys used for research come from private labs which raise them for that purpose. This was the source of the moneys that escaped to form the South Carolina colony. In the early seventies colonies were set up on two offshore islands in the Florida Keys.
We’d heard stories about these islands. When we acquired a used canoe a number of years ago, it seemed downright tempting to paddle out quietly for a closer look. It was a long and strenuous paddle, especially before we figured out how to use the tides and winds to our advantage. (Time your arrival with the low tide; that way you’ll take advantage of the outgoing tide on the way out, and the incoming tide on the way back in. Stay in the shelter of islands as much as possible in an adverse wind; use a following wind to your advantage.)
Once we got out there, we were treated to an exotic sight, an alien species adapted to our local ecosystem. The monkeys seemed to form troops of ten to twenty individuals. They expressed curiosity about us, but interestingly would not look any of us directly in the eye. When it became apparent that we were staring back at them, they would quickly avert their glance.
Another odd thing was that each troop seemed to have a slightly different appearance. The face color on some groups was more reddish. Others seems to have a more yellowish cast. Although we’d been told that they didn’t swim in salt water, we saw a group of twenty or more leap out of the trees from one side of a narrow creek, swim a few strokes, and disappear into the trees on the other side.By the late 90's tree-huggers were convinced that the monkeys were denuding the islands of vegetation and polluting the water. It’s certainly true that one of the islands had had a good deal of its mangroves stripped of leaves. We never saw any major evidence of pollution in the water. In any event the monkeys were gradually evacuated, someone said to similar islands in the Bahamas.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Life in the Keys Back When

This picture of the two vessels at the dock in Miami always fired up my imagination, picturing an idyllic, probably non-existent, vision of a simple, romantic island life of time gone by.

As my old friend Charlie Hordt used to say, “The good old days? Forget it! What was good about ‘em? Everything was harder then.” The early islanders lived without refrigeration, telephones, radio and TV, screens on their windows, penicillin, automobiles, or power tools.

Maybe so, but we still cling to an idealized vision of times gone by, whether it’s to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Wild West of TV and cinema, or to the Leave It to Beaver years of post-WW II America. Some would call it “escapism.”

A digression: Looking at that picture more closely now, I see that the American flag and Union Jack have 48 stars, making it post-1912, when New Mexico and Arizona were added to the union. 1912 was also the year when the Overseas Railroad was completed.

Ironically the advent of the Overseas Railroad meant the beginning of the end of island schooners like the two boats in the picture. Produce and seafood from the Keys could now be shipped by train to Key West, and more importantly to Miami and points north via refrigerated railroad cars.

For sailing buffs: We don’t know where the Crosland was built. But we do know that the family had a commercial fishery in Marathon for many years. The Crosland itself appears to be considerably larger than the Island Home. The article linked here ( indicated that the Island Home was close to 60 feet on the waterline, and weighed over 40 tons. We can also assume that by this time both boats probably had auxilliary motors. Neither of these boat’s owners were without means, and the addition of a motor greatly improved the craft’s manuverability and ultimately its survivability.
This is a photo of the christening of the Detroit, the first gasoline-powered vessed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, a trip it made in 1912. (So it's most likely both of the Keys vessels in the photo were equipped with gasoline engines by this time.)

And after all, what’s wrong with being an escapist? You’ll certainly never have to worry about office politics. There’ll be no need to dress down for “casual Fridays.” And you won’t have to worry about what a tranch is.

What was life like on the Keys before the railroad? Most of the settlers came by boat from the Bahamas. Miami was just a small settlement on the river. Some of the Keys had shallow wells, where settlers could take advantage of the fresh water lens that floated atop the heavier salt water below. Additional amounts of fresh water were obtained seasonally from cistern that held rainwater.

On most of the Keys the land could be cleared to reveal a rich topsoil overlying a sandy layer. On rockier areas natural sinkholes filled with years buildup of composted organic matter were also used to plant melons and fruit trees.

Did the settlers lead a “South Pacific” tropical island life? Or was life for them "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Well, neither extreme, it would seem, but there was no doubt they were tough. They lived without electricity, window screens, running water, air conditioning and fans, and most of the conveniences that we take for granted. Early census records list the professions of the settlers as farmers or “seamen.” All of the families must have had boats or some sort, most likely Bahamian type sloops. Some settlers were also listed as “charcoal makers.” Charcoal was needed for cooking, both locally and in Key West.

With the arrival of the railroad most settlers on offshore islands moved to the main islands where they could take advantage of the convenience of the trains.

Oddly, some time after the civil war, a relatively large settlement on Vaca Key, which is now the city of Marathon, disappeared without explanation. Whether by disease, depredation, or simply discovering a better place to call home, the families who were recorded as living there simply disappeared. (I always thought this story would make a good plot for a book or movie.)

A few people in the twentieth century emulated the lifestyle of the earlier settlers. Russell and Charlotte Niedhawk were two of them. When I lived in the Upper Keys in the 70's, many people knew them and spoke highly of them. Their interesting life is described in a post from Conch Scooter’s blog.

Others, many of whom would just as soon stay anonymous, have made homes for a time on the offshore islands.This idyllic setting was the home of an affable retired fire chief on one of the offshore islands. We met him while visiting on a camping excursion in 1995. The building was basically in ruins when I took this picture about ten years later. He left it sometime in the 1990's, before the island was raked by Hurricane Georges in 1998, and further damaged by Wilma in 2005. The last we heard the property had been bought by a fishing guide, who just visits it from time to time.

"The good old days? Forget it!" Yeah, but it's nice to think back to a quieter time, to a quieter place, if only in the shadows of our minds.