Nat and the Jilguero
Santo Domingo is pandamoniacal. Order is abandoned. Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and pedestrians vie for their piece of the roadway without recognition that the white lines in the street actually delineate something. The city is more stampede than herd.
Dominican chaos doesn’t diminish outside of the capital; only the number of people spinning through life lessens the madness. Dominicans take pride in their passionate disregard for conventions such as stoplights and traffic lanes no matter how few may actually compete for a space. Two Dominicans on a highway is a traffic jam.
The Dominican Republic is 10 million people agitated by a Caribbean sun and the Columbian calamity. The aftershocks of Colon’s arrival still reverberate through the Caribbean, rippling through a world he both destroyed and created. Love him or hate him, give Columbus his due. No person changed the world more.
I am not a Columbus basher. I prefer to criticize the living, not the long dead. Columbus shoved two worlds together, and left us to pick through the pieces. He didn’t plan to be a world changer (the poor guy just wanted to be rich), but nevertheless he introduced the European model to a world ripe for the picking. Europe picked the Caribbean bones clean, which is the only bone I have to pick with the man.
Santo Domingo is Colon central. After failures in La Navidad and La Isabella, Colon sent his son, Diego, to found a new (and hopefully more resilient) community. Santo Domingo has proven to have shelf life, and Diego and his father are celebrated for this accomplishment throughout the capital city.
In Parque Colin there is a bronze statue of Columbus, pointing northward, and a native Taina climbing up to reach him. From what I have read,
The native Taina is the Cacica, Anacaona, the first Indian to learn to read and write. Anacaona was captured whereby her village was burned and the inhabitants slaughtered by troops. Columbus ordered the troops to wipe out the remaining unsubjugated Tainos who were beginning to rebel against the Spanish. Anacaona was subsequently hung in a public square in Santo Domingo.
The colonial center of town is the epicenter of Columbus worship. Ancient walls isolate this colonial heart from the urbanity swallowing the outskirts. All Dominicans are colonists, even those with a few Taino genes still swimming through their veins. Dominicans are Spanish, African, or some combination of the two. Their Taino blood is seasoning.
I like these Dominicans. Like so many former colonies, those who have inherited both land and genes have stitched together a culture to their (and my) liking. Food, music, and language are mish-mashed into forms unique to the place. One culture replaces another. The debate about which is native and which is not is too late to matter. Someone should have mentioned the dilemma to Colon.
With nature, however, the issue is still germane. No native Taino survived European diseases much past the 1500s. Yet of the 32 endemic Dominican birds, the natives that preceded the Taino, only one, the Hispaniolan macaw, is extinct (and its presence on Hispaniola is questioned). Amidst cultural chaos, nature is a baseline from which the winners and losers may be measured.
Nature thrives where industry cannot survive. Look at the landscape here. Lowland forests were immediately cleared for sugar cane (one of the gifts to the New World brought by Columbus in his second voyage). Bays and inlets became ports, and the coast settled. Sugar cane demanded land and water, and both were modified to support the British habit of having afternoon tea with a spoonful of sugar. Sugar cane boilers needed fuel, and therefore higher and higher elevation forests were cut.
Now we are left with those enclaves that escaped the hand of the Spanish and their slaves. Our “Last Great Places” are the barrens that could not be plowed, planted, cut, paved, mined, or inundated. These tiny pockets of nature are what remain for us to gauge our loss.
Tonight I am in one of these pockets, the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park. Our camp, Canto del Jilguero, is named for the song of one of the endemic Dominican birds from this region, the rufous-throated solitaire. This is one of the three KBAs (Key Biodiversity Areas) where we will work. These include Monumento Nacional Miguel Domingo Fuerte (Cachote), Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco, and Parque Nacional Valle Nuevo.
The terrain here is impassible, the forests thick, and the altitude high (over 1300 meters). Darkness brings the cold. I am sipping local rum to stave off a cold.
A local kid, Natanael, has befriended me. In Cachote (the adjacent village) his friends call him “Negro.” Nat is 9. His mom lives in the capital, and he wishes to join her. If he remains here, his education will end at 4th grade. Nat has four brothers and two sisters, locations unknown. An aunt has raised Nat since the age of one.
Nat is a sharp kid, the kind of kid that would be singled out in other places. He peers over my shoulder as I am typing. He recognizes words such as negro. He has shadowed me all day, asking for the English names for the birds, plants, butterflies, and lizards I have been photographing.
Here, though, he has no chance. He will blend into the morass of poverty that smothers the Caribbean. Nat is yet another loser in the Columbian exchange.
Only yesterday we were roasting in the Caribbean swelter below. Our host for our first public meeting, the government, wired the meeting room with an extension cord strung through an open window. The cord snaked up the street by a row of nim trees to a nameless outlet beyond our view. Power flowed down the street from beyond a clammy horizon.
Power rarely flows down to Dominicans like Nat. Yet the world that ignores Nat is also the world that ignored Cachote and the Sierra Bahoruco Oriental. While in this marvelous forest I try not to see Nat’s loss as my gain.
Aves Caribe (the Caribbean Birding Trail) is our attempt to help restitch the fabric that the Europeans shredded. At first blush birding is foolish in the face of Nat’s poverty and deprivation. But these birds such as the jilguero and the barrancolí that transport me to a precious time before Columbus, even before the Taino, may also transport Nat out of his squalor.
Birding trails began in the early 1990s in Texas. Since then they have spread across the globe. Yet although I am pleased with their popularity, and I am happy to take credit for helping start them, I also wonder if they do much more than pander to an elite.
I know; birders spend money. But then so do mining, power, and timber companies. A birding trail, in my mind, needs to offer something more than an economic benefit.
A birding trail should connect people, residents and travelers alike, to Nat’s patrimony. A birding trail should instill value in these resources, and inspire action. A birding trail should educate, engage, and inspire.
I like to believe that Nat may be the one to bridge the gap between visitors and nature, between tourists and his people’s heritage. Nat may learn to look at his world through the eyes of the jilguero, and see the riches that he, by right, has inherited. He may be inspired to help others see the same. The chance is worth it. Otherwise, Nat himself has no chance.
Our Aves Caribe team (Lisa Sorenson and Holly Robertson of SCSCB, Jorge Brocca of SOH, and myself of Fermata) has spent 10 days in the Dominican Republic, and after a brief respite we will continue to Jamaica and Grenada. There are jilgueros and Nats on all of these islands. Our task, our cause, is to bring the two together. The fates of both, bird and person, are inextricably intertwined. Together Nat and the Jilguero have an opportunity to escape the fate of so many since Cristobal Colon came ashore that bleak Christmas so many years ago.
The team working on Aves Caribe and the Caribbean Birding Trail include the following, from the left: Holly Robertson, project manager; Ted Lee Eubanks, Fermata consultant; Lisa Sorenson, president of the SCSCB (Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds); Jorge Brocca, Executive Director for the SOH (Sociedad Ornitologico de al Hispaniola), and Kate Wallace, our guest from Todytours and Villa Barrancoli.
For those who might be inspired to visit or to help, here are a few links to organizations that are working on this project:
Lodges catering to birders that are participating in our work: