Hunting for wasps and chickens – Visitor at dusk

At the back of the hall, temporary stalls had been set up by the Ministry of Agriculture to display farm animals.  Various schools had brought their boys and girls in smart uniforms to take a look round the exhibits and their favourite locations were the farm animals.   I noticed in one place a group of nursery children were stuck together holding a long piece of sugar cane between them. The hubbub from the hall was of the whole community meeting, sharing, talking and relaxing.  For a nation which had seen so much trauma over the previous ten years, with two thirds of its population scattered across the world, this was a warming sight.  Despite being forced to start again at the wrong end of the country, some with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, rebuilding they were, and with a lot of outside help putting back not only the essentials for living – new housing estates for shelter, new fields for cropping, new pumps for water supply, health centres for medical needs – but also the reinvigorating the culture of a small but immensely proud people.

It was heartening to see that although progress was slow, this new capital town was emerging and providing much nourishment to the social fabric of Montserrat.  And I was pleased to play a small part in protecting its natural resources, both the endemic species like the mountain chicken and galliwasp, but also the more widespread nature like the iguanas.

On the last evening I saw another introduced species.  I was relaxing with a beer in the dusky light straight after sunset (no green flash for me as usual).  From the tangle of undergrowth that marked the boundary of our plot, there was a disturbance.  I saw this small brown lump skittering back and forth behind a couple of palm trees.  I strained my eyes to see what it was.  It looked at first sight like a deer, long running legs on a pear drop shaped body.  But it was smaller than any deer I had ever seen – barely a foot tall.  And its head was more pig like than deer.  It has a long and wide dark pink snout and perched above a small head were a pair of orange ears.

This was an agouti – a red rumped agouti to boot.  I had seen these once before in Dominica many years before but had never close enough to be able to observe this behaviour.  It seemed to have compulsive obsessive disorder.  It carefully followed a route around the garden, marked by various shrubs and trees where it would pause and forage before hurriedly moving on.  The route sometimes double backed but this animal was not wavering, it knew exactly what he was doing.  It was following some well established foraging route round the garden, not missing any possible morsel of food.  I tried to get a decent photograph of him but the light was low and this nimble little animal was too quick for me to get  a steady shot.  Although not endemic (it is thought the Amerindians might have introduced them) it was still part of the tapestry of natural life in Montserrat.  With the help that was being given to conserve both the endemics and the naturalised species, and the rebuilding of the human spirit, no amount of rumbling from the volcano of Soufriere could obliterate this robust little island.


The agouti comes to sniff


As far as you can go – Up High Hill

We collected at the Blue Hill Community Centre, the one where Edsel and I had attended the ceilidh a week or two before.  Edsel did not accompany me on any of these, hiking was not a favourite occupation.  He would only attend if there was a specific achievement he wanted – like walking up Diana’s Peaks or seeing Napoleon’s Tomb.  This walk started gently, we headed through another of St Helena’s secret valleys with just a couple of farmsteads were tucked away down here.  This location was about as far away from Jamestown as you could go by road – a lengthy 10 miles or so back to town.  The tracks were rough but easy walking, and indeed the walk through the forest was fairly easy.  It was obvious we were reaching the outer side of the island and the forest was more of the Mediterranean style with open understory and little grass layer.  We just had to be careful of the stony ground, as they were covered in some vegetation or lichens, they could conceal nasty little holes between the rocks on which you could easily twist an ankle.

The lichens themselves were beguiling.  Years of growth in these areas so far away from any industrial pollution, the lichens grew without hindrance, they covered every stone, draped from tree branches and clung on to the trunks.  We reached the peak of High Hill.  It was not especially high, but it was the last really high point as you headed west and it stuck out plainly from the ground around.  So High maybe was not the right word  – maybe it should have been called “Higher Hill”. But still, the overall effect  gave us both marvellous views of the crown wastelands down this coast, and a chance to look back at the central massif of the island, with High Peak, Diana’s Peaks and St Paul’s in the distance.