Indian veneration of trees and plants in selected Caribbean poems: potent plants and foliaceous men.
Reading Caribbean poems engaging with and portraying trees and plants with these qualities evokes Ecocriticism as a critical approach taking the ecological dimension as its central concern. The birth of Ecocriticism is often seen as a reflection of the increased interest in the environment, this leading to an abandonment of regarding nature as a "mere backdrop for the human drama that really counted" (Buell 4).
The rapidly developing field of Ecocriticism is steadily gaining acceptance in spite of attacks by critics--including claims of lack of sophistication (Kern 276), "programmatic simplicity" and "crunchiness" (Birkerts 1). An important attempt in the process of fine-tuning Ecocriticism's approach to nature is presented in the volume Nature in Literary and Cultural Studies: Transatlantic Conversations on Ecocriticism. Here Catrin Gersdorf and Sylvia Mayer call for a "more rigorous investigation of nature" to challenge "established cultural, political and ethical normativities" (10). Their endeavor is an extension of previous efforts in this direction, including the volume Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace.
At the crux of the development of Ecocriticism is the attempt to bridge the gap between nature and culture, as an opposition that "no longer makes sense"(Gersdorf and Mayer 14)--and is arguably at the center of critiques of this approach. Edward S. Casey proposes the mediation of nature and culture with a third term to act as "mediatrix of place and self' (409). Casey chooses the term habitus revived and redefined by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu's habitus refers to the process of "internalization of externality" which is the product of conditioning factors and itself the condition for production ("Structuralism and Theory" 706)--where history is incorporated into a potent, yet historically restrained social agent.
Casey's interest in habitus--echoed by Gunhild Setten--stems from its ability to act as a "missing term" or a "figure of the between" (409). It is capable of bridging the gap between nature and culture, place and self (409). Landscapes are therefore, to use Gunhild Setten's words, held through body and memory. This leads to a case where place and self become "enmeshed," yet without becoming fused into a single entity (Casey 407).
Bourdieu's habitus not only concedes the embodiment of history into the individual but retains the possibility of producing new, diverse realities. It implies the ability to invent, create and change, producing practices that are limited in their diversity yet possibly unpredictable and improvisational (Logic of Practice 55-56). Such ability makes the convergence of the interests of ecocritics and other critical directions such as postcolonialism more plausible (Huggan).
Bringing this view close to Caribbean realities unveils a laboratory situation of confluence between nature and culture, place and self. This starts with the very process of transportation of slaves of various races and ethnicities to work on plantations. It includes the daily toil, childbirth in the fields, the suffering and torture, deaths and executions witnessed by the landscape. The landscape was additionally a site for the birth of a new kinship between transported slaves, where oral traditions were revived and shared. It was also a site for the birth of resistance and rebellion. Benitez-Rojo validates the plantation, regarding it as a common "societal area" for defining and locating Caribbean culture (38-39). It can be argued that through every day of Caribbean history, the fate of man and land are firmly intertwined.
This case fits remarkably with a description made by Tim Ingold:
For both the archaeologist and the native dweller, the landscape tells--or rather is--a story. It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around in it and played their part in its formation. To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance, and remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past. (59-60)
This image of impregnation features embodiment as a "movement wherein forms themselves are generated" (Ingold 63). This fits perfectly with Caribbean realities where manifestations of the past are evident in the very details of everyday life, not to mention the very cultural identities of its people.
Such a unique environment as that of the Caribbean is termed by Timothy Darvill a "historic environment" or "historic landscape" where one is temporarily "taken back into history"; yet this is nevertheless done through a perception rooted in the realities of the present moment (106). Darvil adds an interesting dimension here by regarding the landscape as possessing tools that can act as potent agents in social action (109).
Looking upon the Caribbean landscape as one pregnant with history, being witnessed by a social agent or habitus wherein all historical connotations of the landscape are embedded, yet perceived through a modern eye, and dealt with in an improvisational way, is an approach that will no doubt yield interesting results. Reading the texts with an ecocritical awareness will help in highlighting how this confluence between nature and culture, place and self is expressed and brought to the page.
Literary perceptions of the landscape in the region have undergone a process of development, beginning with imitation of the west in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and thus seeing the landscape through alien eyes as "barren" (Chang 236). With the beginning of the twentieth century there began an acceptance of the differences the landscape had to offer, first expressed through passionate declarations of love, then later in the century as a more "sober" view of the significance of the land, including a look into the poverty and harsh realities this invoked (241).
This development is closely linked with the search for alternative connotations for plants and plantation--circumventing both the romanticized distancing that mimics western writing and the negative association of plantation with slavery and oppression. This literary and cultural dilemma is concisely described by Allison Donnell as " ... the problem of voicing exploitation of the landscape and its inhabitants whilst seeking a language in which to celebrate its intense and affirming natural beauty ... " (57); this stance often produces writing that is "invested with cultural agency" (57) where tactics such as "naming" and "cherishing" the Caribbean landscape are employed away from European romanticizing (58). Arguably this often necessitates a return to African, Indian, Asian, Arabic and Amerindian cultural and rhetorical structures to derive meanings and associations of plants that are empowering and transgressive.
The Indian element is of importance here due to the value attributed to trees and plants is this culture. Seen historically as one of the "prime objects of veneration in south Asia" trees are given the highest level of importance to the point of worship throughout the South Asian subcontinent, as appears in Hindu epics (White 123-125). Veneration of trees inevitably permeates the cultural consciousness of the Caribbean region, appearing in depictions of trees and plants in literary texts in magnificent forms with various levels of personification and agency.
Yet this cannot be seen merely as a transportation of this cultural trend. Such veneration is colored by the unique history of the region with which the landscape is pregnant. Writers view the trees and plants in the following poems through their own perception that is colored by the history and culture--including the Indian element--that they internalize through habitus--and also by their own artistic craft with which they are able to improvise and create something new.
In the poem "The Banyan Tree--Old Year's Night" by Derek Walcott, the banyan tree appears powerful and omniscient as it watches over the landscape, bringing to mind the sacred qualities and cultural value attributed to the banyan tree in Indian culture:
Soaring from littered roots, blackened with rain, With inaccessible arms the banyan tree Heaves in the year's last drizzle to explain What age could not, responsibility. (48)
The "wisdom" of the tree as an old onlooker viewing and almost storing history is a quality stemming both from the unique setting of this tree, and from the Indian view linked to its longevity that spans generations and eras (Nugteren 51). Portraying trees and plants with a mind and wisdom that sometimes surpasses that of man effectively closes the gap between man and land, nature and culture.
That is why the fall of a tree, especially the banyan, becomes a tragic symbolic event--a death in its own right. In this case the stump of the banyan brings to mind the revered banyan stump in Indian religions--where trees were worshipped in stump form when the original venerated tree died (Nugteren 58):
I looked back at the Park and gazed at the Banyan stump, an abandoned peg leg, an ugly hulk all its own in the dry dirt. I watched the spot where the Giant Banyan had stood, muscular, maternal uncle, spreading witness to all the historical charges, dark green in the comfortless years, .... The crows saw the emptiness, the knobbiness, and they knew that there had been a death (Salkey 66-67)
Here the Indian associations of immortality that have often linked the banyan to the past and ancestors are taken a step further with the banyan being regarded as a witness to history. In another poem, the fall of a tree is portrayed as an event that takes on cosmic proportions:
a tree about to fall-- coming down, slowly then a heavy crack-- thunder the entire sky falls down (Dabydeen, "Six Caribbean Poems" 57)
Bridging the gap between place and self, nature and culture takes shape in some poems in the form of attributing human qualities to trees and plants. This is most strikingly evident in the image of blood and bleeding, which is one of the most recurrent in the process of personification of plants and trees. Hibiscus, because of its colors, becomes a prime site for creating this image--adding new dimensions to this plant that is historically regarded as a cultural marker in the Caribbean landscape:
The petals of hibiscus bloodstained the dark earth. A blade of wind would leave the flamboyant in shock at its own dripping clotting on the dirt. (Hippolyte 97)
And similarly, the blood of the hibiscus evokes the historical blood of ancestors; this blood is preserved in the color of the petals of the flowers:
Blood red the hedge hibiscus blooms, Blood red, blood red. And oh, The bright stain of the wide petal, The odorless leaf, The yearlong blossom, The flagrant flower, Oh, the bright stain is the loud blood Of that wild race, The first, the fallen, The angry, the defeated men. Bright was their blood and bitter (Roach 40)
Just as trees and plants acquire such human qualities as bleeding, there are recurrent instances where man becomes landscape:
The widening mind can acquire the hues of a foliage different from where it begins in the low hills of Gloucester running with smokeless fire. There Iroquois flashed in the Indian red, in the sepias and ochres of leaf-mulch, the mind dyed from the stain on their sacred ground, the smoke-prayer of the tepees pushed back by the Pilgrim's pitchfork. All over again, diaspora, exodus, when the hills in their piebald ranges move like their ponies, the tribes moving like trees downhill to the lowland, a flag-fading smoke-wisp estranges them. (Walcott, "Chapter XLI" 207-208)
This landscape is so completely embodied by the portrayed persona that it becomes practically chewable, with the human body acquiring, in turn, landscape proportions:
spiders running over your wrist, stirs like trees on the edge of that ridge, you have eaten nothing but this landscape all day, from daybreak to noon and past noon the acrid greens and ochres rust in the gut. The stomach heaves, look away. Your lashes settle like crows. (Walcott, "Two Homage to Gregorias" 200) At the same time the landscape is a man The sun explodes into irises, the shadows are crossing like crows, they settle, clawing the hair, yellow is screaming. (Walcott, "Two Homage to Gregorias" 199)
A similar moment of enmeshment between man and plant can be seen in the poem "Evolution Song" by Cyril Dabydeen:
I have evolved from sugar cane (so goes the hoary Indian myth) I sprout leaves in the sun unleashing blades in the wind arrows pointing upward as I am tropical to the bone, tramping on squelchy ground after the heavy rain whacking at the seasons with machete haste my sucrose memory reeks through molasses time (29)
The poem creates such a delicate balance between man and nature; with the aid of a brief reference to an Indian myth, it becomes impossible to tell here whether this is a case of man mimicking plant, hence the sprouting and the "sucrose memory," or whether this is a case of plant being personified and given agency through the "tramping" and "whacking at the seasons." It is important to note here that because of the historical connotations attached to sugarcane in the region, it is recurrently given such a level of agency in poems from the region. (1)
This type of enmeshing most strikingly manifests itself in instances where plants, bushes and trees become a meeting ground or safe haven for diverse cultures--with a lot of room for Indian, as well as other cultural colors to evolve in the very sprouting of the foliage. This landscape becomes a cultural garden where diverse elements can become seamlessly enmeshed:
Red hibiscus, yellow Allamanda, purple bougainvillea Surround and dome the bowers. In each lives a lady with her maid: A delicate Chinese with almond eyes and yaourt skin; A tall black girl whose skin shines-- And her eyes--like a starry night; A bowl of cream and cherries is The face of the white Juno there; And with a glitter and a tinkle glides The golden sari and black-bird blackness Of the Indian's hair. (Figueroa 58)
This blending of diverse cultural elements is a reflection of the cultural diversity that is the nature of the region, and which existed across historical eras in interaction with a rich ecological context with similarly diverse origins.
The above poems display ideal cases of enmeshing between man and nature, culture and land. Trees and plants here are not isolated from the historical realities of the Caribbean region. They are not the inert background against which human activity takes place. On the contrary they are holders of culture and reservoirs of history, with some qualities surpassing those of man in potency. Such portrayal is consistent with the realities of the region and the role played by ecology in shaping these realities.
Similarly man in these poems is not elevated and distanced, but rather in touch with ecology in a uniquely harmonious way. There are instances where the personae in the poems draws wisdom from the natural surroundings and other instances where man and the landscape become seamlessly enmeshed in an ultimate act of unification and intermingling of agency reflective of the joint history shared by the two.
Reading these poems requires forging a sensitive balance in analysis between man and nature; this is necessary to circumvent looking upon either one as a backdrop to the other. This balance would avoid reducing ecology to a mere setting on the one hand, and the glorification of nature in a way that would disregard the role of man on the other. Ecological awareness should rather be reflected in a critical focus on moments of enmeshment and harmony. These moments are indicative, in cases such as those analyzed above, of the historical harmony between man and land in the region, and the deeply embedded nature of this harmony in the cultural awareness of the writers.
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Antonio, Benitez-Rojo. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Durham: Duke UP, 1992. Print.
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Casey, Edward S. "Body, Self and Landscape: A Geophilosophical Inquiry into the Place-World." Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies. Ed. Paul C. Adams, Steven D. Hoelscher and Karen E. Till. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 2001. Print.
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Dabydeen, Cyril. "Six Caribbean Poems." Islands Lovelier than a Vision. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree Press, 1986. 57-60. Print.
--. "Evolution Song." Discussing Columbus. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree Press, 1997. 29. Print.
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Donnell, Alison. Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature: Critical Moments in Anglophone Literary History. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Figueroa, John J. "The Garden--Green and Great." Love Leaps Here. London: C. Tinling & Co., 1962. 57-60. Print.
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Hippolyte, Kendel."Abstract #1." Birthright. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree Press, 1997. 97-98. Print.
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Ingold, Tim. "The Temporality of the Landscape." Preucel: Contemporary Archaeology in Theory. 59-76. Web. 5 Apr 2013.
Kern, Robert. "Ecocriticism--What is it Good For?" ISLE 7.1 (2000) Winter: 9-32. Print.
Nugteren, Albertina. Belief, Bounty, and Beauty: Rituals around Sacred Trees in India. Numen Book Series 108. London: Brill Academic Publishers 2005. Print.
Roach, E. M. "Carib And Arawak." The Flowering Rock: Collected Poems 19381974. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree Press, 1992. 40. Print.
Setten, Gunhild. "The Habitus, the Rule and the Moral Landscape." In Cultural Geographies (2004) 11. 389-415. Print.
Salkey, Andrew. "3: Mento Time." Jamaica. London, England: Bogle-L'Ouverture, 1983. 53-78. Print.
Walcott, Derek. "The Banyan Tree--Old Year's Night." Collected Poems 19481984. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. 48-49. Print.
--. "Two Homage to Gregorias." Collected Poems 1948-1984. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. 189-221. Print.
--. "Chapter XLI." Omeros. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. 206-210. Print.
White, David Gordon. "Digging Wells While Houses Burn? Writing Histories of Hinduism in a Time of Identity Politics." History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (December 2006). 104-131. Print.
Lamia M. S. Z. Tewfik
Sadat Academy for Management Sciences
(1) See for example Grace Nichols' poem "Sugar Cane" from i is a long memoried woman (London: Karnak House, 1983).
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|Author:||Tewfik, Lamia M.S.Z.|
|Publication:||Journal of Caribbean Literatures|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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