The poinciana trees are starting to flower now, and Cayman is transformed. I’ve never considered this a pretty island, except at this time of year. The purple and pink bougainvillea shrubs, the “Pride of Barbados” plant, and fifty shades of Green, all make for a pleasant and soothing sight, but it’s all much of a muchness.
Outside my window and beyond our porch is half an acre of tall and lawless grass belonging to our neighbor on the other side of it. Once a year the local Department of Environment makes him cut it back, and it must be high time for that now. He has always said he’d plant an orchard there one day, but he’s in England half of each year, and hasn’t gotten around to it yet.There’s a wire fence between our land and his, but neither he nor we know whether it’s on the exact legal line. Some day one of us might have to pay a surveyor, but why bother, really? A line of stones and rocks separates us from our neighbor on the other side, but that exists just so our gardeners know where their respective responsibilities end. In one corner, our almond tree is kept upright by three planks, one of which is on her land. It was almost felled by the big hurricane of 2004, and the buttresses probably won’t save it next time, either. She and we each have a poinciana. Ours is a late bloomer, who doesn’t drop her babies (seed-pods) until she’s sure they’ll be kept alive by the rains.
Trees aren’t always as stupid as they look.
My wife and I are both keen on trees. Our Jamaican gardener hates them, because they stop grass from growing. They won’t let enough sun through, but we don’t care. Trees good, grass bad, we reckon. Our front yard is mostly grass, with a few modest palm trees here and there. The lawn is brown in the dry season, and doesn’t need to be mown more than once every couple of months.
We used to water it from the well; nobody likes the sight of a dead lawn. But now we let nature decide whether it should live or die. It comes alive and green again in the rain, having held its breath underground all the while. Grass isn’t always as stupid as it looks, either. (Although it doesn’t always have the sense not to grow where sheep graze. An intellectual blind-spot, I guess.)
We are keen on trees, but not uncritically so. Birch trees are a menace. Our gardener is free to poison their roots with diesel oil, and he enjoys doing that. Their roots are extremely strong, and a danger to our house’s foundation-slab and (even worse) to the walls of our concrete septic tank. Much of George Town is on the public sewage-system, but not where we live.
(It’s tempting fate to say so – and I’m touching wood as I type – but in the seventeen years we’ve lived here we have never had to have the tank cleaned out. Isn’t that something? The tank is at the side of the house, and underground, with its top hidden out of sight behind a mini-copse of bushes and plants. The “Mother-in-Law’s Tongue” plant is not sharp enough to keep the occasional snakes and iguanas away, or even the feral chickens, but it looks nice, and it keeps small children out.)
Birch trees don’t even provide much shade, and in the tropics a useful tree is a shady tree. Poincianas in bloom are magnificent creatures. Our neighbor is immensely proud of her mango tree, though probably more for the fruit than for the shade. Unfortunately for her, iguanas love mangoes, too. She tries to protect the fruit by wrapping tinfoil around the bole to frustrate the beasts, who can’t get a grip to crawl up over it.
But iguanas aren’t as stupid as they look. What they do is climb up our trees and jump their way across to the mangoes.
She pays a man to come and shoot them out of the trees with a little BB air-rifle. He got paid for 28 dead lizards last time he was here. (How many of those he brought with him … well, I didn’t like to ask. It seemed rude.) If the only useful trees are shady trees, palm trees are useless. Sure, they’re a classic symbol of tropical islands, but they’re not pretty. To be fair, though, they are functional: who doesn’t like coconut meat, or coconut milk?
My wife’s favourite tree is the big moringa oleifera tree on our border line. Its leaves are reputed to cure everything from coughs to cancer. Linda adds shredded moringa leaves to most meals she cooks. We also have a neem tree, whose leaves cure skin problems. We used to be pestered by friends and acquaintances coming and pinching all the leaves off one or both of the trees, so Linda grew new trees in pots and gave them away. Now they all have their own.
We’re not gardeners, by any stretch. Linda makes me save vegetable peelings for her compost heap, but the only beneficiaries of that are the feral hens and their chicks. Who, by the way, aren’t as stupid … well, you know. The hens have actually taught themselves to forage in complete silence. (The excitement of it all is too much for the chicks, who chatter away like crazy; but they learn.)
I don’t mean to give the impression that we are overrun by wild animals, or trees, or non-flowering shrubs except when the rains come. But we like to keep things simple – to live and let live. We live the way people ought to live on a tropical island, and mostly do.
Gordon Barlow has lived in Cayman since 1978. He was the first full-time Manager of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce (1986-1988) – a turbulent period when the Chamber struggled to establish its political independence. He has publicly commented on social and political issues since 1990, and has represented the Chamber at several overseas conferences, and the Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee at an international symposium in Gibraltar in 2004. His blog www.barlowscayman.blogspot.com contains much information on life in Cayman, written from the point of view of a resident and citizen.
Read Gordon's other Expat Focus articles here.