Where’ve the butterflies gone? Our eco-system’s in danger, fixing it can also heal T&T’s anger issues

Opposite West Mall, on the Western Main Road, a mysterious derelict colonial building—rumoured to have been a church—stood like a prehistoric dinosaur skeleton peeking out from hectares of bush.

As a child, when adults said bush they always conveyed the idea of something unwanted and to be cut down so the land could be made useful. I suppose we inherited from those who colonised these islands the idea that land domination made you prosperous.

Photo: The paragonia pyramidata plant is indigenous to Trinidad.

However, for me, the word bush always meant healing, adventure and discovery. I believe I must have once been a wild plant growing in neotropical bush myself.

On a whim I drove over and was greeted by preparations for the new West Park’s opening—scheduled for 2nd June for an invitation only of 50 guests. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was to symbolically turn the sod for the new Diego Martin Regional Complex and the Diego Martin Vehicular Overpass.

Elderly couples walked on the circular paved track, mothers with small children congregated, youngsters jogged solo or in pairs, others strenuously worked out. South-winds distanced the traffic on the Western main road and surrounding urban sprawl ceased to exist; only the salty caressing breeze blew softly while waving at the river glinting to the west.

Like tailgaters at a football game in the United States, car trunks were open and stacked with beverages in coolers, snacks ready to share, and pop up chairs occupied by people—with dogs on leashes—faced the wide open green fields in anticipation of a golden sunset to frame mountains that looked to the east while holding hands in the north.

Southern lapwings strolling along the waters’ edge took wing. Was this the same day, crowds of protesters burned tires, blocked traffic, and shut down the capital?

Photo: Police officers square off with Morvant resident after protests against the police killings of Joel Jacobs, Israel Clinton and Noel Diamond on 27 June 2020.
(Copyright Trinidad Express)

The protests had been triggered by the death of three men in Movant, due to inexcusable police fire; only to be followed by the gunning down of a pregnant mother of five—allegedly by the police—during the protests.

As I considered the disparities that exist all around us, I became distracted by a bouquet of white spider like petals fringed with delicate whiskery protrusions. Could it be Redwhisker clammyweed?

Suddenly, I found that my sandalled feet were on fire. I’d never stood in an enraged ants’ nest before so I couldn’t understand what this hot peppery flame was moving up my bare legs until I saw the tiny creatures.

I hobbled, bare footed, in my white daisy dress, out of the recently bulldozed area and threw my sandals, again and again, at the newly pitched walking path, to shake the ants off while doing a frantic fire dance.

A large colony of ants, possibly half a century old, or more, had had their world destroyed by an earth scrapper in preparation for lawn. No wonder they were angry.

I felt properly chastised and began to think about the new West Park from a different angle: A tiny case-study of what has been done by those who colonised this land centuries ago; and, now, we who continue to colonise nature in the 21st century.

Photo: The West Park, off the Diego Martin Main Road, will soon house the Diego Martin Regional Corporation Administrative Complex.
(Copyright Serina A Hearn)

Due to Covid-19 we learn how easily nature can decimate humanity, where our food comes from, and how what we do to our forests and wild life has consequences for the global environment. Neglect and lack of foresight can have alarming repercussions.

Those who live on the north-west peninsular have just been given the gift of a marvellous green space to relax and enjoy nature’s gifts. To do so, twenty five acres of bush had to be destroyed. Many essential, almost invisible creatures—occupants of this land long before colonisation—have had to endure constant displacement, starvation and death.

I wondered how could we give some of it back?

Worldwide there is an alarming disappearance of butterflies and pollinators. While chatting about this to Wayne Simmons, one of the decorators for the event, he said as a child growing up in the mountains of Diego Martin he loved waking up in the morning to watch the butterflies in his yard.

“You hardly see them anymore,” he lamented.

This conversation is taking place worldwide: Where have the butterflies gone, the honey bee, the pollinators?

Photo: The Gulf fritillary butterfly.
(Copyright Serina A Hearn)

Mass extinction of native, irreplaceable, food plants for pollinators, is being caused by pesticides, herbicides, commercial fertilizers and land clearing. The bush we call ‘weeds’, such as Asclepias curassavica, is indispensable to the Queen butterfly (cousin to the northern monarch), as is Paragonia pyramidata to the Morpho butterfly.

Like our complex populations of Asian, African, and the entire hybrid-rainbow of people in between, much of our flora are transplants. We exist in a state of amnesia, as the majority of us have no pre-colonised memory of these islands. What we think of as local botany, and native, was brought in by Great Britain, Spain and France!

Native pollinators pre-existed all botanic immigration. They have not changed their reproductive habits nor have they changed the food their young eat.

Without them we could not grow food. In fact, without pollinators, 80% of trees and plant life worldwide would go extinct.

Sure, butterflies can feed from immigrant flowers; but to procreate the pre-colonial host plant is indispensable to prevent starvation and extinction. Their young cannot eat Ixora leaves because it’s a native to Madagascar—named after Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, a British 19th century botanist who worked for the Royal Botanic Gardens, UK.

Photo: A bouquet of ‘local’ flowers at Udecott’s launch of the Diego Martin Regional Corporation Administration Complex at West Mall, Diego Martin.
Not one of these flowers are indigenous to Trinidad.
(Copyright Serina A Hearn)

Bougainvillea is native to Brazil and named after Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French admiral and ‘explorer’ during his voyage of circumnavigation in 1768. Botanists believe that the Hibiscus is a designer flower, whose ancestors were native to India, China, Mauritius, Hawaii, Fiiji, or Madagascar.

Flaming Torch ginger is native to Malaysia, where indigenous people eat its flowers as a garnish or use them in spicy fish broth called Assam laksa. The native ancestor of the anthurium flower from South America did not look like the version we have now, that was hybridized by Samuel Damon in Hawaii 1889 (Damon’s family had migrated to Hawaii in 1842 from the USA mainland).

It was then imported to other tropical places. Bird of Paradise flower is from South Africa, introduced to Kew Gardens, Britain, 1773. The list of outsiders is long and extends to many of our trees such as mango, coconut, orange and breadfruit—all iconic trees to our understanding of self, but not native.

The following day, I went back to West Park hoping to find someone who I could talk to about what was missing from this beautiful space; the native plants that could feed the caterpillars of the missing butterflies.

Why not create on this scrapped canvas a commitment to plant flowers endemic to our island? We could plant them along the walking and running pathways.

Photo: A Passion caterpillar in Trinidad.
(Copyright Serina A Hearn)

In my mind’s eye, the chain-link fence along Western Main road was already full of Passion caterpillars, munching happily on climbing wild Passiflora vines. The seasonal pond could grow Bacopa monniera, so the White Peacock butterfly larva would have food.

Lavender blooming water hyacinths would be busy with dragon flies and the Scarlet Peacock butterfly, from my childhood, would proliferate in clouds celebrating  our national flag of red, black and white.

Perhaps, we could ask our businesses and schools, to pair up with field naturalists, UWI students, interested neighbours, Amerindian botanists and communities.

Different groups could adopt a wildflower bed that would feed our pollinators. They in turn, would help pollinate our local gardens, farms, forests and foster bio-diversity for others, such as birds, vertebrates (lizards, toads, salamanders) and bats, etc.

Not only would our children learn how crucial the wellbeing of the small is to the well being of the big, and vice versa, but those who sponsor a bed can proudly display their names and information about the plants and pollinators.

Our citizens could learn about the place we call home. Additionally, native plants are cost-effective, they are dry weather resistant because it is in their DNA to expect dry season.

Photo: First and second grade students from Oakdale Christian School work in an urban garden at a converted parking lot.
(Copyright Jessica Scott/The Grand Rapids Press)

The saying ‘you make your bed you lie in it’ applies to both flower-beds and the eco-systems that depend on them, and the beds of our children’s minds and hearts. By building community and cross-pollinating more privileged with less privileged, elders with youngsters, field naturalists with urban gardeners, architects with botanists, by coming together to create sustainability for all, we build goodwill.

Goodwill is infectious. It heals trauma.

My musings were suddenly interrupted by a man and woman who asked to have a word with me. They identified themselves as police and wanted to know why I was taking photographs on my walk around the periphery.

I explained that I was very excited about how wonderful the new park was and that I wanted to write about it. They requested my name and wrote it down. I asked if I looked dangerous?

They smiled at me, a middle aged woman, in my flowery skirt and sandals. They asked if I had been given permission? I said that I didn’t know I needed permission because I had not planned on crashing their event.

Did they want me to leave?

Photo: With golden shovels at the ready, the Diego Martin Regional Corporation prepares to launch its Administrative Complex in West Park.
(Copyright Serina A Hearn)

The police referred me to UDECOTT and NIDCO officials who politely, but firmly,  made it evident that my presence at the park was undesirable—so I left.

But I knew I would return and the truth is, in starting a conversation with myself about our duty to the land I call home, I hope to continue this conversation on a national scale; for when we act as if we are above the laws of nature, like those who make laws and then put themselves above it, we endorse our own demise.

As a nation we need clarity on what it means to become one people with each other and with this lands’ indigenous biodiversity, to make it a place where hybrids like us can bloom—and not at the expense of our environment, and each other, as those who brought us here did.

Photo: The chain-link fence around West Park at the Western Main Road in Diego Martin.
(Copyright Serina A Hearn)
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  1. Loved happening upon this essay- has anything happened since? Very curious and happy to be involved!

  2. Priceless !!!

    . . .boy oh boy. . .we sure need this conversation to continue

    Thank you Ms Hearn

    • Enjoyed your article. Does looks like trees, shrubs and bushes definitely needed to improve the ambience, bringing with their presence birds, butterflies and other insects.
      Do see if you can get permission and maybe interest a school group or retirees in the area.
      Like the idea of native plants.

  3. What a well written article. I learnt so much from it.
    Thank you Serina.

  4. Love the article and the ideas expressed therein. I took some photographs of the beautiful bush before construction of the DMRC Building started and saw lots of butterflies but, unlike you, I did not know their names.

  5. When I was a lad growing up, my mother had the most beautiful flower garden. Luxuriant crotons of many colours, ferns, ixoras, what we called ‘popcorn’ flowers, pride of Barbados, jasmine, magnolias, even a tan hua night cactus (that flower from Crazy Rich Asians), orchids, lilies, dozens of varieties of hibiscus and many more I can’t even remember now. I remember people driving past used to stop and ask us permission to come to view the flowers or walk in the garden, and even take photos of themselves amid the profusion of colours.

    The flowers, in turn, attracted tens of different types of butterflies, and we regularly saw hummingbirds close up as they suckled on jasmine and other sweet-smelling flowers.

    Late in the evening, when the sun began to set and ground level was already darkened, high above, the sun caught big flocks of scarlet ibis flying to roost. Let me tell you, that is a sight you will never forget… the way the sun caught the scarlet feathers and produced a burst of unmatched colour…

    We had hundreds of parakeets sleeping and whistling in our mango tree outside the bedroom window, and birds of incomparable variety flying around daily.

    Now, it’s all gone I am afraid. I don’t think we will ever be able to return to the days when wildlife was free to live undisturbed.

    • It’s clearly an exaggeration to say “…now it’s all gone” but your essential point is well taken. And well expressed–as it it piece that provoked it.

      I wish there were some way we could find out how many people have read this piece and compare that number with the readership stat on the Morvant slayings, for example. It would tell us something about what we are becoming-assuming that the process is not yet complete.

  6. What a wonderful idea to populate the park with indigenous plants. Enjoyed this beautifully designed article. I learned a lot from it.

  7. Serina, this is a very well thought out article which should be escalated to a national conversation about respecting this land of our birth.

    Thank you

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