How quickly Mother Nature reclaims her own here in Dominica.
A few years ago I had the privilege of traveling the Caribbean as the naturalist/presenter aboard the exquisite Azamara Quest. The Quest is a smaller vessel, as cruise ships go, and visits lesser-frequented ports of call. Thus we made our way to Cabrits, on the tiny Caribbean island-nation of Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-EE-ca).
(Don’t confuse it with the Dominican Republic; while both were named by Christopher Columbus, this place is a long ways away, both physically and culturally.)
One of the first things you’ll notice as you walk the quiet streets is that the locals, while speaking Caribbean English to visitors, speak French creole among themselves. This takes a bit of getting used to; it’s a Commonwealth nation with a French past, like St. Lucia, and while the French relinquished control in 1763, their legacy remains in the language of the people.
Traces of a violent colonial past are never hard to find in the Caribbean, and Cabrits is a monument to the political upheaval of those early years. The French claimed the island in 1635, but chose to leave it more or less to the native Carib people until the 18th century, when they began cultivating coffee on its rich, fertile volcanic slopes- and importing enslaved Africans to do the work.
It all went well for them until 1763 when the French ceded this little island (and a wee chunk of land up north now called Québec) as part of the Treaty of Paris. The British were quick to move in and fortify the place, anticipating French attack, and the buildings that would become these fantastic ruins were erected beginning in the 1770s.
The fortifications never saw action, although a spectacular naval conflict, the Battle of the Saintes, took place within sight of here, wherein the British quashed a French/Spanish plot to sail northward and conquer Jamaica. (For such a tranquil, sunny region, the Caribbean has an exceptionally bloody history.)
Today, there are two sides to Cabrits, or perhaps three: there’s Fort Shirley, a beautifully reconstructed section of the original garrison; then there’s the photographer’s paradise that is the ruins themselves, and lastly there are the wild rainforest walking trails that connect the two.
How quickly Mother Nature reclaims her own. These grand buildings are being eaten back into the earth, and in this part of the world nature’s henchmen take the shape of strangler figs. Fig trees are remarkable plants in many ways, and one of the things that defines them is their propensity to throw down gorgeous aerial roots in humid environments (yes, the weeping fig in your living room would do the same thing, if you cranked up the humidifier).
Here in the tropical rainforest, life begins for these figs when a passing bird deposits a seed atop one of these crumbling ramparts. The young fig starts out as an epiphyte- a plant that lives completely on surfaces well above the ground- but they have a long-term plan. As they push skyward, their aerial roots push slowly downward, finally hitting pay dirt below. With all the natural resources of the rain forest at their disposal, they now begin to overtake their host, becoming massive trees over time.
These unearthly trunks and branches provided one of the most memorable afternoons of photography I have ever had. Tiny anole lizards darted among the bricks and branches while the odd snake cruised through hoping to make a meal of them. I felt privileged to have such intimate access to these cultural treasures; in Canada items like these cannons would long ago have been squirrelled away in a museum.
For those of you pondering a Caribbean holiday, give some thought to little Dominica, with her fig-filled forests, her ramparts and ruins, her soft-spoken people, and her crystal-clear blue waters. I don’t think you’ll regret it.