Category: Stories of St. Martin

Slogans

Every slogan tells a story of sorts. The story is always incomplete—a phrase can’t sum up an island—but it has some meaning. Slogans tell us something about how we understand St. Martin, how we misunderstand it, how it is and how we want it to be.

The Friendly Island has been an enduring slogan for St. Martin, but it is far from the only one. In some ways, the English translation of Amerindian Soualiga sounds like a slogan: The Land of Salt. But it is probably not one that would bring tourists running.

The Beach Island of the Caribbean.

A 1970 postmark from Philipsburg proclaims this The Beach Island of the Caribbean. Although almost all Caribbean islands have beaches, St. Martin is blessed with many beautiful beaches for its size. The white sand is also a contrast to some of the more recent volcanic islands to the south.

A graphic in a 1981 issue of The Clarion stated We’re glad!—not mad—We are living in St. Maarten. In some ways the phrasing suggests that perhaps we are mad, but we are doing our best to hide it. Perhaps this highlights a difference between the perspective of residents and the ideal projected towards tourists.

Glad, not mad!

Some older slogans emphasized the colonial heritage of the island. Twice the Vacation, Twice the Fun and Two for the Price of One both suggest the dual-identity of the island. It’s Dutch, it’s French, it’s Caribbean is more explicit. Even when the island’s Caribbean identity is acknowledged, it is almost as an afterthought.

The Friendly Island may be a bit vague. Almost any island could brand itself as friendly. Many other islands have developed more specific identities: Unspoiled Queen, Historical Gem, Spice Island and Nature Island. St. Martin really couldn’t claim any of these titles.

On the other hand, The Friendly Island does speak to the open and cosmopolitan nature of St. Martin. It is a place where people from countless cultures live together. It is a place that invited the world to visit.

Aside from the island’s touristic identity, other slogans tell us something about the island. Semper pro Grediens—always progressing—is the motto of Sint Maarten. It is accurate, in that the country is always in motion. Some may disagree about which progress is good or bad. On the masthead of the Windward Islands Opinion from 1959, we see the message LABOUR CONQUERS ALL THINGS. This may be a prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled, but around the world, voices that share this sentiment are louder than they have been in decades.

Labour conquers all things.

What is your favorite St. Martin slogan? What does it mean to you? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

How did the woodslave get its spots?

In St. Martin, you can find animals that live nowhere else in the world. It’s one of the things that makes St. Martin special and it is a great reason to protect local nature. If these animals disappear here, they will be gone from the planet.

The Spotted Woodslave, a gecko found only on St. Martin

The Spotted Woodslave is one of these animals. It is a kind of gecko, but probably not the one you see most often. This gecko can be huge and it mostly lives on big trees like old tamarinds and mangoes. True to its name, it is light with black spots.

The Spotted Woodslave is usually found on large trees.

The Spotted Woodslave has only been a species since 2011. Before then, it was thought to be the Turnip-tailed Gecko, a similar species that is found in most of the Caribbean and beyond. The main difference between the two is that the Spotted Woodslave has spots. On average, there are also differences in the number of scales around the mouth and on the toes of the two species.

Small details, like the number of scales around the mouth, make this gecko unique.

It may seem surprising that a new species can be “discovered” these days, but it isn’t rare in the Caribbean. Small islands like St. Martin haven’t been studied as much as many places. Many “new” species are known, but not yet named. People on St. Martin have known about the Spotted Woodslave for generations. Scientists have thought for years that the Turnip-tailed Geckos on different islands might be different species. It just took time for someone to do the research and record the differences.

There are many new species being described in the Caribbean today. In addition to comparing the physical characteristics of specimens, we can also compare the genetics of animals from island to island. In the coming years, we will probably find other new species that have been hiding in plain sight this whole time.

Split toe pads give this lizard a distinctive look.

But how did our woodslave get its spots? That’s a tough question. The Turnip-tailed Gecko lives on many islands, but St. Martin is the only place where it evolved spots. The authors who described the new species did not have any suggestions. If spots help it hide from predators or sneak up on prey, why didn’t geckos evolve spots on other nearby islands?

Do you know any stories about St. Martin’s geckos? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

What’s in Your Perfect Kitchen Garden?

The kitchen garden is a Caribbean tradition. As the name implies, they are usually right next to the home. Gardens or farms a bit further from home are often called provision grounds. Kitchen gardens are often small, but they can include a wild variety of different plants.

Stingy Thyme

St. Martin is densely populated, so some kitchen gardens are as small as a few potted herbs on a balcony. Walk down a street and you can see bits and pieces of kitchen gardens all over. Sugar apple, soursop and papaya trees stand guard in front yards. A maiden apple vine winds its way around a front porch. A line of pigeon pea bushes runs along a fence. Bananas are growing in the wettest corner of a yard and a single clump of sugarcane rises up beside a wall. Along the even busiest streets you’re likely to spot doliprane and vervain.

Sugar Apple

Kitchen gardens are ancient. Plants and techniques come from African and Amerindian traditions that are thousands of years old. European and Asian plants have been incorporated, too. The result can be chaotic, but the diversity of plants makes kitchen gardens rich and strong. Pigeon peas and beans provide nitrogen to their neighbors, papayas and bananas offer shade.

Kitchen gardens have roots in the colonial era, when enslaved persons would tend their own gardens before and after long days of labor. They were key to survival for free St. Martiners during the long years when the island had little economic activity. Today, with a tourism economy and endless imports, the kitchen garden is not as necessary as it once was.

Will the kitchen garden disappear from St. Martin? It seems unlikely. No matter how busy we get, the promise of a fresh-picked sugar apple and the smell of herbs are still irresistible. The growing power of the Caribbean sun is too strong to waste. Time spent with hands in soil will always be one of the best ways to get a moment of zen in a world that is too busy.

What is in your perfect kitchen garden? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Spinach Vine

Recent Arrivals

Life on an island is special. For million of years being a St. Martiner was an exclusive club. It was a place for the animals and plants that somehow made the journey here. It was a home for the ones who survived storm and drought.

This changed when the first Amerindian people set foot on St. Martin’s shore. People could choose where they went and what they brought. Into the elite club of native species, they brought useful plants and animals. Hitchhikers caught a ride on Amerindian canoes as well.

The Giant African Land Snail seems to have arrived after Hurricane Luis.

The pace of new introductions has only gotten faster over time. Rats arrived on European ships. Mongoose were brought from India to Jamaica and from Jamaica to St. Martin. Frogs and lizards have hopped down from Miami.

Today, new species mostly arrive with cargo, especially plants. Dozens of different insect species can arrive in a single container of plants. During the recovery process, an increase in cargo tends to boost the number of new species introduced.

Many remember the appearance of the Giant African Land Snail soon after Hurricane Luis. The colorful Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth may have also arrived after Luis. Surely many less noticeable species could have come during this period.

Did the Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth arrive with Hurricane Luis?

In many cases, these species would have arrived anyway. The Giant African Land Snail has been invading new areas steadily with or without the help of hurricanes. The Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth is native to the region, but may have been rare or absent from the island before Luis. The popularity of Oleander bushes would seem to guarantee its eventual arrival here.

It is usually impossible to pinpoint the arrival of a new species. Most arrive unnoticed. It can take years before populations get large enough to draw attention. However, many St. Martiners know their native plants and animals and are quick to notice new arrivals.

The Mourning Gecko was first seen on St. Martin just a few years ago. It looks similar other geckos already living here.

Observations by regular people have documented many species that arrived before Irma. These include the Colombian Four-eyed Frog, Mourning Gecko and Greenhouse Frog. Knowing what was here already can help us understand the impact of Irma on local wildlife. Did the hurricane help spread introduced species that were already here? Did it slow down their colonization? It also gives us a better idea which new species may have arrived as a result of Irma and the rebuilding process.

Have you seen any new plants or animals on St. Martin lately? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Rodents of Unusual Size

Could people be forced to leave St. Martin due to rising sea levels and worsening storms? As islanders, climate it is a real threat. Think of all the low-lying areas that could be submerged: Simpson Bay, Sandy Ground, Philipsburg, Grand Case, Orient Bay and many more. But if humans do lose our ability to live on St. Martin due to rising seas, we won’t be the first to suffer that fate.

St. Martin’s relationship with the sea has changed over millions of years. For a time, the island was totally underwater. The coral reefs that grew then became the limestone of the Lowlands and Billy Folly.

An approximation of ice age super St. Martin, with modern Anguilla, St. Martin and St. Barts for comparison.

There were also times when the sea was much lower. During ice ages, water is locked in glaciers, and the sea level drops. And when the sea level drops, St. Martin gets big. If the sea drops 100 meters, St. Martin is about the size of Trinidad. It connects to Anguilla and St. Barts and well beyond.

Prehistoric super St. Martin was huge—big enough to support rodents of unusual size. The Blunt-toothed Giant Hutia is one of the most astounding St. Martiners of all time. We only know it from fossils, but those fossils suggest it could have weighed over 200 kilograms. This makes it one of the largest rodents of all time.

Giants often evolve on islands, like the giant tortoises in the Galapagos. St. Martin’s giant hutia probably arrived on the island as a much smaller hutia. On St. Martin, it didn’t have predators to hide from, so it didn’t have to stay small. There also weren’t any big grazing animals to compete with, so the hutia could get big and eat all the leaves.

An artist’s conception of St. Martin’s giant hutia. (Painting by Dan Bruce, photo by Craig Chesek, American Museum of Natural History)

Hutia fossils from St. Martin, Anguilla and St. Barts actually show a surprising range in sizes. Some scientists believe it may have changed size depending on the sea level. When the sea level was lowest and the island the biggest it was at its biggest, 200 kilos. During periods when the island was smaller, it may have shrunk down to 50 kilos.

One estimate shows that this might be possible over 80 generations. On a shrinking island, the smallest of each generation survive and the hutia adapts to fit the space it has. But this process takes time. If the sea rises faster than it can change size, the hutia would be too big to survive in the space available.

We don’t know for sure what happened to St. Martin’s giant hutia, but we can guess. A bit more than 10,000 years ago, the island went from Trinidad-sized super St. Martin to three islands each less than 2% that size. If it couldn’t shrink fast enough, it wouldn’t have enough land to survive. Rising seas would have inundated it to extinction. That sad fate is implied by the giant hutia’s scientific name: Amblyrhiza inundata.

It is amazing to imagine giant hutias roaming St. Martin, like capybaras the size of black bears. It is perhaps just as amazing to imagine ice age super St. Martin. Look out to Anguilla or St. Barts and imagine land between and beyond as far as the eye can see.

What do you see when you look out over St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Shell Collector

A portrait of Dr. van Rijgersma.

Dr. Hendrik Elingsz van Rijgersma was a Dutch doctor, sent to provide care to the formerly enslaved people on St. Martin. He was also St. Martin’s first naturalist. He arrived in 1863, and died on the island in 1877. He never published a scientific paper, but his field work was key to our understanding of local nature.

Rijgersma collected shells since childhood. While on St. Martin, he collected many things, including shells, birds, reptiles, insects, plants and fossils. Sometimes he traded specimens for scientific tools or shells from other parts of the world. Many of his specimens are still in museum collections in Europe and the United States. He also painted beautiful watercolors of both shells, fish and plants.

Dr. van Rijgersma collected and painted plants.

Dr. van Rijgersma collected the fossils of the extinct Blunt-toothed Giant Hutia, a huge prehistoric rodent that lived on St Martin and Anguilla. The Leeward Island Racer snake, with the scientific name Alsophis rijgersmaei, was described from specimens he collected, and the species was named after him.

Most recently, a lizard specimen he collected was used to describe the St. Martin Skink in 2012. Shortly after van Rijgersma collected the skink, the mongoose was introduced and wiped out the skinks on St. Martin. His specimens are a unique window into the nature of St. Martin in the 1860s.

Dr. van Rijgersma died in 1877. He was buried in the Dutch Reformed Cemetery, now known as the Cul de Sac Cemetery. An estate inventory after his death listed four pine cases of shells: the empty cases valued at $8 and the shells “not valued.” This appraisal was highly flawed. His contributions to science—though rarely recognized—were priceless.

Dr. van Rigjersma’s headstone is in the Cul de Sac cemetery.

What other people from St. Martin’s past are almost unknown today? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Tracing Plant Traditions

St. Martin has rich traditions of farming and bush medicine. These are important parts of local culture. But the history of Caribbean plant traditions is largely unwritten. How do we tell this story?

The most developed plant traditions in the Caribbean came from Amerindian and African culture. Because written records were primarily European, these plant traditions were mostly undocumented. We will never know who brought certain plants to the Caribbean, or why. But there are many clues to help us fill in the blanks.

We have few early records, but many clues about plant traditions.

The plants themselves can tell us things. In most cases, we know which species are native to Africa. We also know species from Asia that were used in Africa and probably came to the Caribbean from Africa. In some cases, they were used here in the Caribbean by both Africans and Europeans. But many were only used by Africans, so these were probably brought here by Africans.

Caribbean Amerindians were nearly all killed by disease and genocide, but some of their plant traditions survived. Some knowledge was recorded by Europeans looking for plant products to sell to Europe. Amerindians also shared their knowledge with free and enslaved black people, who preserved this knowledge in their traditional medicine.

People living today still carry this ancient knowledge.

Other clues can come from plant names and how plants are used. The Caribbean names of many plants from Africa are similar to the names in African languages. Even some local plants have names that may be based on those of their African relatives. Similar usage of related plants in Africa and the Caribbean shows that existing traditions may have been adapted to new plants. 

Other plants have names that come from their Amerindian names. There are also cases where Caribbean plant use is close to how South American Amerindians use plants. This helps us see how some Amerindian plant knowledge survived on islands after the Amerindians who had lived there were gone.

Though there is little written data from past centuries, we can still tap into the oral histories that have preserved these skills for generations. People living today still carry this ancient knowledge. They also have insight about how it has changed in their lifetime. The constant mixing of people and cultures in the region has been making these traditions deeper and richer for centuries. 

Can you share something about St. Martin’s plant traditions? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

imilar usage of related plants in Africa and the Caribbean shows that existing traditions may have been adapted to new plants.

At the Mercy of Water

Looking down a well into St. Martin’s past.

Water has always been a challenge for St. Martin. The problem is built in to the shape and location of the island. Most of the time, rain carrying clouds blow past the island high above the tallest hills. When rain does fall, the tropical sun and steady breezes tend to dry the island out.

Most years, the wet months are wet enough to turn the island green. But then the dry season is dry enough to put every plant and animal in survival mode. Our native plants and animals have adapted to this over millions of years. The things that couldn’t survive disappeared without a trace.

Water surely challenged Amerindian people who lived on St. Martin. The island was a bit different then, with forests from the beach to the hilltops. St. Martin would have been better at keeping the rain that did fall. But water access would have impacted how they used the island and the nature of their settlement here.

During colonial times, everything depended on water. Export crops like tobacco, cotton and sugar needed water. Subsistence crops like cassava, sweet potatoes and pigeon peas needed it, too. So did livestock and people. Plantations were located based on sources of water, wells were dug and some of the earliest structures on the island were cisterns.

A severe drought could wipe out a growing season. This would be bad for business, but worse for survival. Ground provisions left in the ground could be an emergency food source before the era of refrigeration. At the same time, rains during the dry season could ruin a salt harvest.

The Bloomingdale Cistern in 1955.

The island continued to be at the mercy of the water table until very recently. Water was sourced from cisterns and wells for most of the 20th century. Plenty of people living on St. Martin today remember using a hand pump to get water from their cistern to their header tank or getting water at a well. Some believe a severe drought in the 1970s caused many to give up on raising cattle.

A header tank (top right) provides water to a house…after you’ve pumped water into it.

Today we find the occasional water shortages vexing, but they are minor by historical standards. The island’s modest rainfall impacts how and where we farm, and increases the cost of lush landscaping, but it does not threaten our survival. The ability to produce fresh water and import feed means cows and donkeys will never have to die during a drought. The brown hills of spring remind us of water’s power, but we are no longer completely at its mercy.

Do you have a story about how water influenced your life? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Return of the Jack Spaniard

I don’t miss the sting of the Jack Spaniard wasp. It was always a terrible surprise. The electric pain faded fast, but the swelling and itching lasted for days. I was once told that putting some urine on a Jack Spaniard sting would neutralize the poison. Was it a folk remedy or a trick to get kids to rub pee on themselves? Maybe both.

Jack Spaniards build nests out of paper, so they love dry spaces. They nest under awnings, in caves and in the shelter of large tree branches. They only sting when they are defending their nests, but their nests were everywhere. At least, until they weren’t.

Even stinging things belong on St. Martin.

After Hurricane Irma a few Jack Spaniards came to our hummingbird feeders, but within a week or two they were gone. I didn’t see one again for another year. Of all the things that could have been wiped out by a hurricane, wasps weren’t on the top of my list.

The disappearance of the Jack Spaniard did make sense. Wind would have destroyed most nests. It also destroyed the flowers where adult wasps would feed on pollen. For the adults that did survive, it was probably hard to find caterpillars to feed to their young. Some did survive, but with dry weather last spring and summer, it took time for them to recover.

Jack Spaniards pollinate flowers.

The Jack Spaniard plays many roles in nature. It pollinates flowers so plants can reproduce. It hunts caterpillars, keeping them from eating all the plants. When caterpillars ate every leaf from every Flamboyant tree on the island last year, the Jack Spaniard wasn’t there to bring balance by eating the caterpillars. The Jack Spaniard is also food for birds like the Gray Kingbird and Caribbean Elaenia. It’s a busy insect!

Jack Spaniards care for their young.

When I started seeing Jack Spaniards again in October, I was surprisingly happy. It was a sign that the island hadn’t changed completely. It was a reminder that natural recovery was still happening in subtle and unseen ways. When I spotted a new nest in December, I wasn’t overjoyed, but they do deserve their place on the island.

Have you seen signs of nature’s recovery lately? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Story of 2019

What will be the story of 2019? 2017 brought destruction by storm and by looting, but also the story of neighbors and communities coming together to survive. 2018 was a year of recovery, with daily progress in the face of enormous tasks, but nothing coming fast or easy.

Every year brings a new start. It’s not because there’s something magical about a change on the calendar, but because we are optimistic. The island didn’t change one day to the next, but we take the moment to imagine a better future. How could we survive without doing this?

Beneath our cheer, there is fatigue. Is there anyone on the island that isn’t tired? Is there anyone that doesn’t wish, after all this work, that things were better than they are today? Is there anyone who isn’t frustrated after months of major problems and countless tiny inconveniences?

What will 2019 bring to St. Martin?

As we begin 2019, we start to have a clearer idea of what St. Martin is today. After Irma, thousands of people living under tarps was an emergency. That people are still living this way today is a failure. Any place can be destroyed by a natural disaster. The recovery is a measure of the government and the community. In good and bad, the recovery is a reflection of us.

Leaving the most desperate times behind, we also look to the future. It is a future where other islands are stronger competitors for tourists, and rebuilding what was here before may not be enough to bring them back. It’s a future where the unique culture of the island continues to disappear. Traditional architecture crumbles and decays. Museums and libraries shut their doors in neglect with no plans to reopen. The last generation of St. Martiners who lived through the pre-tourism era pass on with their stories unrecorded.

This dark future is already upon us in many ways. Cultural institutions have already collapsed. Children already grow up without learning about their island in school. Destruction has already claimed heritage sites. But this isn’t the only future.

You could change this. You and your family and friends and co-workers. Spend an hour or a day doing something to preserve and share culture. There are groups doing this on the island, and they need your help. Getting involved is inspiring and rejuvenating. It could be the thing that brings meaning and joy to your 2019.

At some point, government needs to be involved. But governments—all of them, not just here—are followers. They aren’t leaders, they aren’t visionaries, they aren’t brave. But if something is working, they will eventually join in. People need to step up first, and on this small island that means everyone. Is 2019 the year people come together to save the culture of St. Martin? That’s up to you.

Do you need help saving or sharing a part of St. Martin culture? Tell us what you’re doing and how we can help by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Life Stories

The culture of St. Martin comes from its people. Every life and every experience is part of culture. Every memory tells us something about a moment, a person and an island.

In an interview in 2018, 99-year-old Cynric Griffith told a story of the first time he met the Queen of the Netherlands. Griffith was born in St. Kitts, and was recruited to work on St. Martin in 1956. In his words, “from then on, many other things has been happening.” Griffith’s “many other things” includes the entire modern era of life on St. Martin. It includes the rise of tourism in the region and immense changes to the island and its people.

Painter and teacher Cynric Griffith.

When he was working at the Pasanggrahan Hotel, his boss told him “The Queen is coming!” Although she was staying in the newly-built Little Bay Hotel, Griffith’s help was still needed. His boss said, “I need you to serve her, and you have to have a white coat, and a black tie and a black pants.”

At the same time, Commissioner Claude Wathey was enlisting Griffith’s skill as a painter. He told Griffith, “You’re going up in the hills and you’re going to paint a picture of the area where the Queen is going to cut the ribbon for the new airport.”

Griffiths made the painting, and he recounted “When the Queen came, I was asked to serve her coffee…Mr. Wathey came by and gave me the picture to deliver to the Queen. I think that was a couple hours after I gave her coffee. She looked up at me and said, ‘What? Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’ and I said, ‘Yes. I served you coffee!’”

It’s a story that tells a lot about St. Martin at the time. It was an island looking to the future, with a new hotel and a bigger airport. But it was also a small place where anyone might be called upon to fill a role. A place where one might become a friend of the Queen: “From that day on, they always, when she’s comin’, invite me to receptions and so on.”

That St. Martin is long gone. Somewhere along the line, receptions with the Queen ended, too: “At this time here, they don’t bother to honor the sick people around here, so they haven’t bothered to invite me or anything like that.” He said it with a laugh and politely pivoted to mention that he still has his Prins Bernhard medal of honor.

One of Mr. Griffith’s pen and ink drawings.

Griffith went on to tell of his time as an art teacher at St. Maarten Academy, where he brought students up Sentry Hill to draw landscapes. Perhaps this work brought the greatest rewards: “Today, I get some surprises. When I am sometimes sitting outside on the porch, I hear a voice. ‘Is that Mr. Griffith?’ So I look up and say, ‘Yes! Who are you?’ ‘Don’t you remember? You used to teach us and take us all up in the hills to draw.’” Remembering these simple encounters brings a smile, “it makes you feel good, you know? I have achieved something. I have given something.”

Do you know someone who can tell us about St. Martin with a story from their life? Tell us who by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Unfinished paintings.

Christmas Culture

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time to be with family and friends. Christmas commerce has reached around the globe to people of all religions. There are unique traditions everywhere it is celebrated, including St. Martin.

Of course, not every tradition is strictly local. A big meal with family is a Christmas tradition in all over, and Christmas ham is a popular choice in many places. Christmas lights and decorations brighten homes and towns. The commercial side of Christmas—shopping and presents—is big here as it is everywhere, for better or for worse.

The magic of Christmas House.

But no one on St. Martin dreams of a snowy winter wonderland. The closest we get are Christmas winds and ground seas, more subtle reminders of the change in season. The Caribbean climate is a big part of why Christmas is unique here.

On St. Martin, fall rains give the island its best growing season. Arriving at the end of the wet season, Christmas is a harvest time for many local crops. This bounty is well-timed for Christmas feasting.

Tropical plants also play starring roles at Christmas. Sorrel juice is made from hibiscus flowers that came from Africa. The local guavaberry fruit is the star of St. Martin’s traditional Christmas drink, guavaberry punch. It is also a popular kind of Christmas tart. Other popular tarts, like coconut and guava, also feature tropical flavors.

Bernadine Arnell Joe recounts the story of Christmas House.

All sorts of Christmas traditions come together at Christmas House in Cripple Gate. This magical world started decades ago as a neighborhood place where kids could enjoy small treats and the spirit of Christmas. Mama Noël—Bernadine Arnell Joe—and her family kept the tradition and it grew over the years.

Today, Christmas house is an astounding experience. The decorations are intricate and seem endless. It is also a place where anyone can participate in local traditions, enjoying food and drinks in a place where everyone is a friend. It celebrates an extended holiday season from Thanksgiving until the middle of January. This local tradition has managed to touch the lives of people around the world without losing an ounce of its original character.

Despite the huge cost and effort of preparing the house each year, it’s still free and visitors are still treated like family. It is there to bring joy above all else. The spirit of giving and sharing is perhaps St. Martin’s most important Christmas tradition, and it is alive and well at Christmas house.

The perfect place to find your holiday spirit.

Do you have a favorite holiday tradition? Tell it to us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Heritage on Hooves

A half-century of very rapid growth and modernization has changed many things on St. Martin. Farmlands have been developed and the economy has tilted toward tourism. But goats remain.

Goats make sense on St. Martin. They are one of the best animals for places that are dry, or seasonally dry. They require less space than a cow and they are less picky about what they eat. There are plenty of breeds that are well-adapted to the tropical heat.

The king of the hill.

Goats have a long history in the Caribbean. Goats were brought by the Spanish in the 1500s. Over the years, these so-called Spanish goats became what we call Native or Creole goats.

What makes a great Caribbean goat? The Creole goat is hardy. It can survive dry conditions and find food on barren hillsides. These traits make them easier to care for. They are also able to breed during the dry season. Creole goats can give birth three times every two years, rather thang just once a year. That’s good if you want more goats. Creole goats are also known for having great-tasting meat.

I Love My Ram Day celebrates goats on St. Martin.

Caribbean Creole goats are the result of natural selection and selective breeding. Goats left on their own adapted to local conditions over hundreds of years. Breeders also crossbred the original Spanish goats with other breeds. In more recent times, breeds like Nubian and Boer became popular in the Caribbean because they are larger and grow faster. Crossbreeding Creoles with these newer breeds is common today.

By comparing DNA, we are able to learn more about Creole goats. We can see that they are different from other breeds and even have differences from island to island. At the same time, Creole goats are at risk. On many islands, only a small percentage of goats are pure Creole.

An I Love My Ram Day contestant.

Creole goats deserve saving. They are part of local culture. Their survival abilities may also become more valuable as climate change transforms many parts of the world. If raising goats dies out on St. Martin, the island will be changed for the worse.

At the same time, the Caribbean needs spaces without goats. Goats are not native and they can damage delicate habitat. Removing them from wild spaces, like offshore islands, allows nature to flourish. When goats were removed from the island of Redonda, the barren landscape burst into bloom. After hundreds of years suffering at the edge of survival, the goats were brought to Antigua. There they can live in relative luxury, while their drought-defying talents can be studied. Perhaps other goats from wild areas can be brought back into captivity to boost Creole goat populations.

A free-ranging goat living on Dog Island.

What are your thoughts on goats? Share them by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Other Seaweed

In recent years, huge masses of floating sargassum seaweed have invaded Caribbean waters and beaches like a plague. Shorelines have been covered in rotting seaweed and marine life has suffocated beneath it. Islands have been searching for ways to keep beaches clean. Scientists have been researching how and why it is happening.

The sudden arrival of tons of sargassum has been a shock. It has been one of the largest and most visible changes to the environment in living memory. But it’s not the only one. In fact, it’s not even the only seaweed.

This algae grows in long filaments that form thick mats.

Recently, another astounding change has taken place in some waters around the island. Beneath the surface, huge mats of green seaweed stretch as far as the eye can see. It is a type of filamentous, or stringy, algae that looks like tangled clumps of green fishing line or string. It covers reefs and seagrass. It is a meter thick in some spots and has transformed the sea floor.

It is washing up in some places when it is pulled up by a rough swell, but the size of this bloom is only really visible underwater. It has transformed some of our most important marine habitats, but it has done so largely unseen.

This green seaweed is part of the local ecosystem, but its sudden growth is unnatural. Huge blooms of this algae have been seen in other parts of the Caribbean in the past. They have also been studied, but we don’t have a single, clear explanation for why they happen.

Stringy green seaweed covers the sea floor and soft corals.

Algae blooms often happen when there are extra nutrients in the water. For a small island, St. Martin has a large population, and nutrient rich water often drains from neighborhoods to ponds to the sea. Hurricane Irma’s storm swell may have released nutrients trapped under the sand. Decomposing sargassum could also provide nutrients to feed this algae. Seaweed can also get out of control when seas lose the animals that normally eat it, like fish and sea urchins.

The seaweed covers the whole sea floor in places.

Hopefully we can learn why this bloom is happening, how it impacts our marine life and what we can do to help return things to normal. This seaweed could impact diving and snorkeling, beaches and the local fishing industry. In the last few years we have seen droughts, superstorms and sargassum transform the island and the region. We don’t need another ecological problem.

Have you seen this green seaweed? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

From the Soil

People have farmed in the Caribbean for thousands of years. Some crops and methods used by Amerindian people in prehistoric times are still part of this tradition. Over the last 500 years, plants and techniques from Africa, Asia and Europe have also become part of Caribbean farming traditions.

Local farming is adapted to the hot climate, spring dry season and threat of hurricanes. Other conditions vary from island to island. Some are tall and wet, with rich volcanic soil. St. Martin is relatively flat and dry. Despite these differences, similar crops and techniques are used throughout the region.

Guinea corn is an African grain that was well suited to the Caribbean.

Cassava and sweet potato have been key crops from prehistoric times until today. They can survive drought, provide a lot of food and need little maintenance. Grain can rot in the humid tropics and many crops are destroyed by hurricanes. Root crops can be left underground until they are needed. Other root crops, including arrowroot, yams, taro and tannia are also common in traditional Caribbean farms.

Many historic Caribbean crops came from Africa during the time of slavery. Guinea corn, also called sorghum, was popular because it grows in hot and dry weather. Pigeon peas and yams were also brought from Africa. The pigeon pea is one of several Asian plants grown in Africa before being brought to the West Indies.

Farming methods used in Caribbean gardens come from several sources. In some places, cassava and sweet potato are still grown in mounds as the Amerindians did. Planting in ridges may have origins in both African and European traditions. The short-handled hoe was brought from Africa. Mixing crops is very common in the Caribbean, and may come from both African and Amerindian farmers.

Some common practices may have spread by travel and sharing know-how within the Caribbean. Planting pigeon peas as a border, using sugarcane or thick grass as a windbreak, and planting pumpkins near rocky areas to keep the fruit off the ground are all done on many islands.

Today, most food is imported to St. Martin. But for most of the island’s history, farming was an important part of island life. People depended on the right crops and the right techniques. Their success was based on rich traditions from around the world and hard-won local knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

Do you have a story to share about local farming? What were the most important local crops during your childhood? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

St. Martin by the Book

How much do you know about St. Martin? Sometimes I feel like I know a lot about the island. Perhaps that’s because there are so many tourists. It is easy to feel like an expert when the person you are talking to doesn’t know the subject at all.

More often, I feel like I don’t know much about St. Martin. I don’t think I’m alone. Working with students or reading comments on Facebook, I find people excited to learn about St. Martin and eager to know more.

It is not unusual to see misinformation about the island. Here there is a local holiday called St. Martin Day. Although it was created in 1959, it is still confused with a saint’s birthday—St. Martin’s Day. This confusion happens everywhere from social media to official government communication. Sadly, this is not just a confusion of facts. The origin, history and meaning of St. Martin Day tell us a lot about local culture, politics and identity.

As useful as it is, the internet is not the solution. At least, it isn’t yet. In Wikipedia, information about St. Martin varies from cursory to questionable to laughably wrong. The information about St. Martin Day is completely false. Many other sites repeat incorrect and outdated information. There is valuable information about the island online, but it takes effort to find it and it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Books are still the best place to learn about St. Martin.

Luckily, we don’t need to wait for the internet to get better. Much of what we want to know about the island is already available. It’s in books. There are books by St. Martiners and books about St. Martin. There are books about local history, politics, language and nature. There are books of fiction and poetry that capture the culture and voice of the island.

There are books that should be in every classroom. There are books that are long out of print and difficult to find. There are books that are outdated but still have something unique to tell us about the island. They may not tell us everything we want to know, but they surely go a long way.

Why not make a list of 100 books about St. Martin? Include literature and nonfiction, essential volumes and ones that simply fill in a few gaps. Together, these books would show us the island and its people from many perspectives. At a book a week, it would only take two years for anyone to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of St. Martin.

What books would you add to this list? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Story Thyme

There is a hearty herb you can find in many St. Martin gardens. It has big, fuzzy leaves with serrated edges. During the wet season, it thrives. During the dry season it is surprisingly resilient. You can even find it growing on some stone walls and other inhospitable places.

Stingy Thyme is found in many St. Martin gardens.

On St. Martin, the most common local name seems to be Stingy Thyme. It’s not a name that shows up much in Google searches. In fact, it only comes up on a couple of pages, both from Anguilla. On St. Kitts and Nevis, the same plant is known as Sticky Thyme or Jumbie Sticky Thyme. In other parts of the Caribbean, it is called Stinging Thyme. These names seem connected. Did the name travel with the plant itself, gradually shifting as it moved from island to island?

There are plenty of other names for this plant. Some call it Spanish Thyme, Big Thyme or Broad Leaf Thyme. In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, it is Oregano Poleo. In French, Gros Thym. In Trinidad it is Podina, and in Guyana, Fat Leaf Thyme.

There are as many uses for this plant as there are names for it. Many on St. Martin use it as a seasoning, particularly for meat and fish. It is also used to tenderize meat, to thicken soups and in pakoras. It is cited as fantastic when combined with hot pepper.

The leaves of this plant are also used as a tea. St. Martiners use it for the flu, coughs, asthma and nausea. It is also said to reduce swelling and high blood pressure. Many uses related to pregnancy were suggested: to help with morning sickness, to help overdue mothers go into labor and after childbirth to stimulate milk production. It is also used on the skin for insect bites.

This plant is native to Africa. Many plants that were brought by enslaved people directly from Africa. This one was introduced to Europe first and then brought to the Caribbean, perhaps one reason why Spanish Thyme is a common name for it. Within the Caribbean, the plant has its own cultural significance, with a variety of names and uses.

Local names and uses for plants vary from island to island, even if the plant itself is originally from far away. Over time, they become part of the local culture that makes each island unique. On a multicultural island like St. Martin, we also get to see how information spreads across cultures. Stingy Thyme tells a story, as do all the plants we use.

Do you have another name or use for Stingy Thyme? Tell it to us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A Culture of Nature

On St. Martin, nature and culture are like two vines endlessly twisted around each other. Following them back down all the way to the ground, we would find them springing from the same root. These vines are ancient. They twisted their way through centuries and back farther still. But today they are often overlooked and under threat.

What is the future of local nature and culture on St. Martin? How do they survive and add meaning to the lives of future generations? How do we make them part of the island’s prosperity?

Bush tea and bush medicine are a collaboration with nature.

To start, we can celebrate the connections between all parts of the island’s heritage. Painting, dance, food and writing on St. Martin all have roots in nature. They bring us to nature and help us find our place in nature. Fishing and farming are collaborations with nature, as are bush tea and bush medicine. 

Ancient walls have the power to stop fires.

Salt production was hard work, but it was also made possible by an almost magical transformation powered by the sun. The stone walls—called slave walls after the enslaved people that built them—that still stand after hundreds of years are one of the most natural constructions ever made by people. Held together by just the weight of the stones and the knowledge of their builders, they allow water and wind to pass and have become home to many native plants and animals. Nature and culture can’t truly be separated on St. Martin. Each makes the other stronger.

In a world of competing interests, heritage must fight for attention. Today’s youth pass their time looking at a small rectangle of glass. Today’s adults do that, too. But culture and nature together can still cut through. Children are naturally fascinated by nature, and this should be fostered. As they grow and consider their place in the world, it is important for them to learn about about their heritage. It should be part of school, but it also needs to be on their phone screens and in their ear buds. 

Culture and nature are the foundation of the entire economy of the island. “The Friendly Island” is welcoming and open. It is the culture of a place where sharing was just a part of living. It is the spirit of a place where people left to find work and returned with a broader view of the world. Combined with amazing beauty of beach, sea and hillside, it is a culture that turned a quiet island into a major tourism destination.

There is no time to lament the destruction of nature or vanishing traditions. It is time to work. We need to document what is here, what is still alive and still remembered. We need to protect what is crumbling or threatened. We need to share what is special about St. Martin—with each other, with the next generation of children and with the visitors who come here. 

The island’s oldest buildings are made from local stone.

This age of many distractions has also given us many tools to document and share. We should use them. We should encourage government, schools and businesses to help in this mission. We should also take part directly: as citizens, residents or parents. Each person on the island knows something about St. Martin. Something that could be shared, or lost.

A St. Martin with beautiful nature and a vibrant culture is a place of prosperity. It is a place that tourists fall in love with and return to year after year. It is a place with money and jobs. But of course it is more than that. It is a healthier place. It is a stronger community. It is an island that tells its own story. 

Nature provides the wind that fills sails and the fish that fill nets.

We are all people who would live richer lives knowing more about this special island, and it is up to all of us. We are the people who can enrich others by sharing. We are the caretakers of those long-growing vines of nature and culture. We are the ones who can ensure they survive and prosper.

What part of St. Martin culture or nature are you most worried about losing? What story of St. Martin can you share? Take a few moments to tell it to a friend, child or grandchild. Post it on Facebook, or tell it to us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A Notion of Nature

Scientists who study nature have many words to describe nature. They are useful and necessary. They describe what makes one animal different from another. They help us understand what is special and unique about one landscape compared to the next.

Animals and plants can be native or endemic. Or they could be introduced, invasive or naturalized. A forest could be virgin or primary. Or it could be secondary or disturbed. These words help take the diversity of nature and make it something we can study and protect.

It is important to know that there are animals that live only on St. Martin. They are worth protecting because if they disappear from this island, they disappear from the world. When rats threaten the survival of seabirds by eating their eggs and chicks, we can see it is a problem. We know we caused the problem by bringing the rats.

This language helps us understand nature, but it can also lead us to certain ways of thinking about life on earth. Or life on this island. It can divide the world into what is natural and what is not. By valuing certain things, we risk undervaluing others. By separating the manmade from the natural we also separate ourselves from nature.

Is a mango tree part of local nature?

There are other ways to think about nature. When you look at a mango tree on St. Martin, do you see nature? Most people would probably say yes. But at the same time, mango trees were brought by people and planted by people. A million years ago there were many trees on St. Martin, but no mango trees.

In some ways it is unnatural for the mango, breadfruit or flamboyant to grow on St. Martin. We have transformed nature by bringing them here. On the other hand, they are undeniably part of nature. There are small spiderwebs in their branches and insects sipping from their flowers. Anything alive and interacting with other living things is nature.

A field of grass with goats or cattle is not the same as the forest that was once there. But you can still see the butterflies flying through it. The most carefully landscaped yard still harbors wild residents. A beach with a restaurant is still a beach and waves still roll onto the shore.

A scientific view of nature helps us see the details more clearly. A more casual view of nature finds the wildness in human space. Both views reveal truth and we need them both.

We should protect the wildest spaces left on St. Martin. There’s nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world. But the island is too developed—too human—to just do that. We should celebrate and protect nature wherever it remains. Not just “pure” nature, but everywhere nature still flows into lives and local culture.

What does nature mean to you? Where do you go to connect with nature? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Soil Savvy

After the rain, caterpillars came for weed and crop alike.

The story of St. Martin is made of many things, and agriculture is a big part of it. A written history of the island would surely reference tobacco, cotton, coffee and sugar. But the crops grown for local consumption were probably more important to the everyday lives of the people who lived here.

The Les Fruits de Mer association has been working on several plant projects at Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House. There is a native plants nursery raising native tree seedlings for backyards plantings and restoration of wild spaces. There is a bush tea and bush medicine garden. We have also planted some traditional foods. Even the local wildlife has joined in: birds have planted guinea corn by dropping seeds from the bird feeders.

Over the past year, these projects have provided a window into the challenges of agriculture on St. Martin. I can imagine working very hard and being very hungry. 2018 began with month after month of dry weather, lasting through the summer. A few plants did well, but most struggled.

Old school farming on St. Martin.

Wild plants were not much better off. Many lost their leaves to conserve water. The landscape was dry and dusty. This sent desperate iguanas into the garden to eat any greenery that survived.

Fall rains brought a quick transformation. Plants were sprouting everywhere. Vegetables, herbs and tree seedlings were finally thriving. But grasses and weeds were also. Gardens became a chaos of new life and it was hard to keep up.

Hard for a person, at least. Nature maintains her own balance. In this case, she sent in wave after wave of caterpillar, and a few grasshoppers for good measure. For every plant there was an insect ready to eat it. But this ecological harmony made few exceptions for vegetables.

Growing a few plants as an educational showcase is surprisingly hard. It makes you think about how difficult this work was. The amount of local knowledge developed over the years must have been vast as well. Generation after generation had learned what to plant where and when. They found ways to safeguard against a crop-destroying drought or storm.

Longhorn beetles ate a tree full of Surinam cherries overnight.

This knowledge and skill influenced many aspects of St. Martin’s culture. Local farming and fishing influenced how people traveled and traded with each other on the island. Crops and their seasonality influenced what recipes became popular and when certain foods were eaten. Lately, interest in sustainable local farming is increasing. How will traditional agricultural knowledge help today’s farming efforts?

Do you have any advice to share about farming or gardening on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Science, the Story, the Scene

What is the relationship between what we can see, what we remember and what we can learn form science? On St. Martin, we see an island that looks different each season: storm-battered, dry, lush and flowering. We are lucky to have the stories and memories of an older generation. Scientific study can also help us understand the island.

In many cases, these sources of information agree. Anyone who lived through Irma knows how ferocious she was, and many have memories of previous storms to compare. The idea that climate change will bring stronger storms is not abstract in St. Martin. It is very real. Caribbean countries, and other island nations, are leaders in the effort to fight climate change.

There are different ways to see coralita.

Sometimes we struggle to make sense of things. When masses of sargassum first arrived on our beaches, it was a surprise. It quickly became a curse. Over the last few years, scientists have been working to learn where it comes from and why. Our knowledge is quickly growing. On a practical level, we are watching to know when it is coming and developing ways to collect it before it chokes Caribbean beaches and bays.

Sargassum came as a surprise and became a crisis.

Science, story and the scene around us are all modes of observation. Scientific observation is structured. Data is collected so conclusions can be drawn from the results. On St. Martin, one weakness of science is a lack of data. In the past, few scientists studied the island, so we don’t have much data about how it has changed.

Story and memory are observations gathered over time. On St. Martin, these can be very valuable. We might be able to learn how often crops were lost due to very dry weather, or when a certain introduced animal was first seen on the island. Through storytelling and written journals, these memories can stretch back generations.

Dry times can be forgotten after a few weeks of rain.

When we look at the scene around us, we get a snapshot of the island. It is the most immediate and real observation. It may also disagree with what we know. Looking at the green island today, it is easy to forget the months of very dry weather that just ended. Recent studies show a scary decline in insects around the world, a danger to everything in nature that depends on them. For the moment, it is hard to imagine, with a butterfly on every flower and a caterpillar on every leaf.

The green leaves and bright pink flowers of the coralita vine are all over the island. Science shows it is a threat, smothering native plants. Old timers can probably remember when it wasn’t so common because fields were farmed or full of livestock. Looking at it, abuzz with life in the soft light after a rain, it’s easy to see the beauty in it.

What changes have you seen in St. Martin over the years? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

The Culture of Seasons

New faces appear on St. Martin’s ponds in the fall.

Once upon a time, the seasons controlled the daily life of almost everyone. It was a time when most people were farmers, not just on St. Martin, but everywhere. Life was a cycle of activity on the land. The choice of when to plant and when to reap could bring survival or starvation.

Today, much of the world is different. In many places, a few farmers use massive machines to tend huge areas of land. Food is transported around the world. Most jobs don’t depend on the sun or the rain. In the United States, Thanksgiving is a time when most people don’t think at all about being thankful for the harvest.

St. Martin is a place where seasons have always been important. The wet and dry seasons set the agricultural calendar. They also determined the schedule for salt production. Fishing on the salt ponds was linked to seasonal events like filling the salt pans with seawater.

Many other cultural traditions are equally tied to the seasons. Mangos ripen in early summer, the Flamboyant is in full bloom in July and guavaberries are ready in time to make punch for Christmas. Easter is a great time to camp on the beach with family because it is dry. If it were wet, people might celebrate Easter in a different way and head to the beach on another holiday.

There are plenty of other seasons on St. Martin. We have hurricane season, carnival season and the high season and low season of tourism. In a world where fresh strawberries are sold in the middle of winter, seasons have remarkable staying power on St. Martin.

Seasons represent a deep connection with nature. On St. Martin, people spend time outside. They feel the Christmas winds blowing in and the sea warming up in the spring. They see the haze of Sahara dust and feel the heat of the midsummer sun. Perhaps they notice the birds.

In the winter, birdsong on St. Martin is more diverse.

On St. Martin, the arrival of birds from distant lands heralds the end of summer and beginning of fall. Many small, brown birds appear on beaches and around ponds—plovers and sandpipers coming down from the North. The Osprey can be seen high above ponds looking for fish. In the forest and scrub, many new songs suddenly fill the air. Eventually ducks will arrive by the dozen.

Here, most migratory birds arrive in the early fall and leave in the spring. Once they were hunted, but today they are celebrated. You can take part at the Migratory Bird Festival, 9am to noon on Saturday, October 13th. It is at Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House and it is free! Visit lesfruitsdemer.com for more details.

What seasonal traditions are most important to you? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Unnatural Disasters

Damaged and diminished wetlands offer less protection to people and their homes.

On St. Martin, people are all too aware of natural disasters. We have been keeping a close eye on every possible storm since Hurricane Irma. We are trying to deal with the sargassum washing up on the beach in huge amounts. We have seen unusually dry seasons in most of the last five years.

We know that human activity has contributed to these problems. There are few climate change deniers in the Caribbean. Communities truly know their islands. There is a shared knowledge and memory of what is normal. This makes it easier to see when things have changed, even without satellite images or data models.

Many local problems have global causes. Stronger hurricanes and drier weather in the northeast Caribbean are both expected results of global warming. The sargassum blooms may be connected to fertilizer runoff in South America.

While these issues are very modern, people have been making natural disasters worse for a long time. This is the topic of a recent article by Oscar Webber, “The Plantation’s role in enhancing hurricane vulnerability in the nineteenth-century British Caribbean”.

Webber finds a big difference in the damage and death caused by hurricanes in Barbados in 1831 and Dominica in 1834. Barbados was completely deforested at the time, with sugar cane planted everywhere. There were massive landslides due to rain. Fields were destroyed and the mud swallowed livestock whole. With no forest to shelter in, many people died trying to survive the storm on open ground.

Unlike sugar cane, coffee plants have strong roots that hold soil.

On Dominica, much of the forest was uncut. The main crop was coffee, a plant with deep roots that hold the soil. No landslides were reported, and no request for aid was made. Although almost all buildings were destroyed, there were far fewer deaths.

On both islands, the plantation system meant that enslaved people suffered much more from these storms. Their dwellings were less secure, and many died. On Barbados, guinea corn was one of the main rations for enslaved people. The crop was destroyed in the storm. Many feared starvation. Two enslaved people stockpiling guinea corn were shot by colonial authorities.

Coastal mangroves have been destroyed for centuries.

There were surely similar issues on St. Martin. Sugar cane was grown on much of the island. We may have made some ponds more vulnerable when adapting them to salt production. By clearing mangroves we left shorelines unprotected.

We still do things that make natural disasters worse. We fill ponds and build on beaches. We depend on an industry that can be destroyed by a major storm. Slavery is over, but there is deep inequality on the island. There are thousands living in unsafe homes with insufficient resources.

Beachfront is valuable, but vulnerable, too.

What would you change to make St. Martin stronger before the next natural disaster? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Crowdsourcing Culture

Word travels fast on an island. It always has—before WhatsApp, before Facebook, before the Internet and before there was a newspaper on St. Martin. Sharing knowledge with neighbors was key to survival back when the island wasn’t a quick plane ride from the rest of the world.

Over time, this shared knowledge forms the culture of the island. How are certain plants used to treat illness or injury? How are certain dishes cooked? Which styles are common in many home designs? What words and phrases are unique to St. Martin?

Snapshots of everyday life tell the story of St. Martin.

We are lucky that much of this culture is still here. We can see it in buildings, we can hear it spoken in the street and we can taste it from a bowl. But in this globally interconnected age, many things may be lost. Will grandma’s recipes be forgotten now that Gordon Ramsay’s are just a click away?

Culture doesn’t have to disappear, but it’s not going to preserve itself. We live in an amazing time when we can read, listen to, eat or watch almost anything from around the world. This world is a wonderful place, but it is also a place where languages are dying and traditions are disappearing. Can we have it all?

Citizen science provides an interesting model. Using modern technology, regular people can contribute observations that help us learn new things. Bird sightings on St. Martin, for example, can fill in on tiny piece of the story as millions of birds fly south for the winter. Sharing something about your backyard can change what humanity knows about the world.

Sharing bird sightings can help us understand migration.

Sharing science melee can be very effective. After writing about the Colombian Four-eyed Frog in The Daily Herald last week, readers have shed new light on this species. It has been seen on many parts of the island, and it was here long before anyone noted it in the scientific record. Being able to communicate with the local community in real time, helps us get a better picture of nature on the island.

Citizen science techniques could also help preserve local culture. People are already sharing stories and photos online. Collected and organized, this could be an incredible resource for preserving local culture. Pull together enough grainy snapshots and fuzzy memories, and a remarkably clear picture of local culture may emerge. By participating—even in a small way—people also become actively involved in preserving their culture.

Do you have a story or memory that tells us something about St. Martin culture? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Amuseum Naturalis encourages visitors to participate by saving items seen along the garden path.

New Song in the Night

Nights may never sound the same on St. Martin. We will still have the piercing thweet of the Whistling Frog, the cackling of the Cuban Tree Frog and the harsh buzzing of the Money Bug. But a new sound is echoing out on rainy nights. It is a low-pitched honk, as if from a giant robot goose, and it’s probably coming to your neighborhood soon.

It is the sound of the Colombian Four-eyed Frog. It is smaller than you might imagine from its voice. This frog only has two real eyes, but it also has two eyespots on its butt. When in danger, this frog faces that danger butt-first, hoping that those eyespots will intimidate the threat. It can also show off bright orange patches on its legs to alarm a would-be predator. If that fails, the eyespots are also poison glands.

The Colombian Four-eyed frog.

Our newest frog comes from South America. It also lives in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. We don’t know how it got here, or when. It was first noticed on St. Martin in late 2017.

The story of St. Martin’s wildlife has been written over millions of years. But lately, the number of new characters in that story has been increasing very quickly. Today, almost all new species come here with human help. Most hitch a ride with cargo. We almost never know exactly when they arrive or how. We only notice them when they start to be common.

The Four-eyed Frog is the latest in a long tradition of introduced species connected to major hurricanes. Several animals are associated with Hurricane Luis. Stories about the Vervet Monkey and Green Iguana often involve Luis, but there’s no proof that their arrival is related to the storm. The Giant African Land Snail allegedly came with giant spools of cable that were brought to restore power after Luis. The Spotted Oleander Caterpillar Moth may have come with Oleander bushes brought in for landscaping.

Eyespots and orange warning coloration.

Did the Four-eyed Frog arrive with cargo after Hurricane Irma? Did pet frogs escape during the storm? Was it already living here unnoticed before the storm? We probably won’t ever have an answer. We do know that it has made its way from French Cul-de-sac to Grand Case already, even though there were many months of dry weather. Probably it is headed towards your neighborhood.

We can’t know exactly how it got here, but we can learn about how the Four-eyed Frog spreads across the island. Have you seen or heard this frog? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Ponds from Feast to Feast

St. Martin’s ponds are rich. They are alive. They are always changing. They are a cornerstone of both human and natural life on the island.

Ponds concentrate life. Rain falls in the hills, washes down the guts and flows into the ponds. Leaves and dirt come with it—nutrients, the stuff of life. In the pond, this matter settles down into a rich mud. It gets trapped in mangrove roots. It becomes a concentrated richness that feeds life on the pond.

This filtering also keeps the sea clean and clear. It gives coral reefs a chance to grow at their own measured pace. The sea is beautiful, vast and empty. The pond is small, messy and alive in every drop.

Blue crab in the pond.

Salt ponds were always important to the people of St. Martin. The ponds were used to concentrate sea water until it became salt to harvest and sell. This was done all across the island: the Great Salt Pond, Grand Case, Orient Bay and Chevrise.

But people can’t survive on salt alone. The ponds were also a valuable resource for food: fish, shrimp, crab and birds. Sometimes salt production and fishing went hand in hand.

In Orient Bay, the salt pond was managed at the point where the Salines d’Orient meets the Fish Pond. When it was opened to flood the salt pans, fish were caught as they rushed through the channel. In Simpson Bay, shrimp were caught at night when they passed beneath the bridge. In the Lowlands, fishing on the pond was crucial during high seas when fishermen couldn’t take their boats on the ocean.

Great egret with a fish.

In Grand Case, Roland Richardson remembers fishing in the salt pans as a boy. As the water level got lower, fish would be just below the surface. He could hit them with a stick and pick them up from the water. Though the fish were trapped, he never took more than he needed because there was no refrigeration.

The simplicity of those times is gone. In her poem, “Spirit of We Fish Pon”, Laurelle “Yaya” Richards laments the loss of local culture, and the many foods that were once harvested on the pond: shrimp, crab, mullet, bass, 10-pounder and cremole. The life of the pond was the culture of her people and the food in her bowl.

Today St. Martin’s ponds struggle, but survive. Many have been diminished by filling. Most are tainted with waste. But they still remain remarkably alive. Young fish and lobsters still hide around the roots of mangroves. Birds still come from thousands of miles away to pull crabs from the mud. We buy our food from the store now, but animals still feast on the pond.

What do St. Martin’s ponds mean to you? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Saving Stories

A young couple gets married. A man holds a fishing trophy. A crowd inspects a portion of bridge that collapsed. A young girl stands on the beach with a handbag. A pier full of people looking to see who wins the boat race. One man throws a net, another cleans a fish. A woman talks with a giant pestle in her hand. In the mortar is a baton of sugarcane.

A girl stands on the beach.

Is a picture really worth a thousands words? Maybe. But a box of old photos will always hold at least a few stories. Each frozen moment gives us clues. They tell us what life was like here. We might see what people wore and what they were eating. We can see what a day’s catch of fish looked like. In the distance, we can see whether the hills are covered in pasture or scrub.

A man throws a fishing net.

Letters and journals have much to tell us, too. Recipes for food and herbal medicine are recorded. We learn how people spent their time, what things they worried about and what they hoped for the future. Even more can be learned by listening to those who lived here as the island changed.

All of these resources have special value here on St. Martin. They aren’t just the history of a person or a family, but the history of an island. They’re the record of a culture unique to this place.

Neighborhood kids pose for a photo.

These things are special, rare and always in danger. It is impossible to know how many stories have been lost to storm, fire, mildew and death. Hurricane Irma damaged the institutions that store local heritage: libraries, museums, archaeological collections and records archives. It is impossible to know how many items were lost from homes that were destroyed or flooded.

We should do what we can to save these stories. Through so much of history, only the stories of the wealthy and powerful were recorded. For the St. Martin of the last 100 years, we have the possibility of telling the story of everyday life. We can tell how people lived through great changes. We can learn what made the island what it is today.

A crowd watches a boat race finish line.

Do you have a story to tell about St. Martin? Do you have a photo or letter that shows us what life was like back in the day? Share it with The Daily Herald, or contact info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

A man cleans a fish.
A woman holds a pestle.

House of Ages

The Old House has been part of the St. Martin landscape for hundreds of years. The first known record of it is from 1766. The foundations of this house are from this era. In the census of 1772, it was the most valuable estate on the French side. Crops included 2,000 coffee plants, 1,000 banana trees and acres of cotton, potatoes and cassava.  The names of the 49 enslaved people who lived there at the time are unknown, but traces of their lives can still be detected on the site today. They cleared and farmed the land, tended the livestock, constructed stone walls, and built the foundations of this house. 

The Old House.

By 1793, much of the land was used to grow sugar cane. A mill had been built in the valley across the street. Facilities were made to refine sugar and produce vinegar and rum. At this time, the property was owned by members of the Hodge family, originally from Anguilla. By 1816, there were 77 enslaved people on this estate, producing sugar while also raising their own food. The original wooden home was destroyed in the hurricane of 1819 and then rebuilt on the same foundation.

By the late 1830s, the property was in decline and it was considered a “former sugar mill” by 1837. In 1843, the property was acquired by Daniel Beauperthuy, who had the rights to produce salt on the Orient Bay salt pond. In addition to salt production, this estate grew cotton and raised livestock: 70 cattle, 36 mules and 234 sheep. By 1931, the house was again in disrepair. Unable to tear down the strong posts, Louis Emile “Lil’ Dan” Beauperthuy set the remains of the house on fire. He said it burned for about two weeks.

The concrete house you see today was built in 1935 by Adolph Artsen. It remained the residence of the Beauperthuy family for many years, and they continued to manage salt production in Orient Bay until the late 1950s. Pierre Beauperthuy transformed the property into a museum of history and culture in the early 2000s. His charisma and gift for storytelling were key parts of the museum he created here. It was a monument to his love of his island and its history.

Pierre Beauperthuy builds his museum.

In 2018, the Les Fruits de Mer association began restoring this property as a museum of nature, history and culture on St. Martin. Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House is a free museum dedicated to sharing all the stories of St. Martin. It is also a center for community projects, including a native plants nursery, shared gardens and other collaborative projects. The museum is now open for its fall hours, Tuesday to Saturday, 9am to Noon.

Flamingo Stories

When local birder Binkie van Es spotted a pair of flamingos hanging out on the pond behind Orient Beach, people got excited. You don’t have to be an avid birder to love the idea of flamingos on St. Martin. Many were also curious about where they came from and what they were doing here.

St. Martin’s salt ponds are a great habitat for flamingos. They are full of food for flamingos, like the shrimp that turn them pink. In the past, when St. Martin had more ponds and fewer people, there were definitely flamingos living here. At that time, they were also found in many nearby islands.

A flamingo at Salines d’Orient.

Flamingos on St. Martin were not part of the scientific record. Very few bird scientists visited St. Martin before 1955. But we do have some stories about flamingos living here.

Maps may give a few clues. Part of the Simpson Bay Lagoon was called Flamingo Pond, although we don’t know how it got its name. Baie de l’Embouchure appears as Baie Flamande on some maps. That is French for Flemish Bay, but also only one letter away from Flamingo Bay.

Historian Steve Kruythoff mentions the flamingo in his book, The Netherlands Windward Islands. He noted that he last saw it in the Orient Bay salt pond in 1932. I have heard that a travelogue written by a French couple includes a tale of the last St. Martin flamingo being shot by a hunter.

Between 1955 and 1975, birders did study St. Martin. They surveyed the island extensively, and the list of birds they found grew steadily. But it did not include the flamingo. The flamingo is an easy bird to spot. If they didn’t see it, flamingos probably weren’t here then. At least not regularly.

When Binkie posted photos of the new flamingos on Facebook, some commenters shared memories of flamingos on St. Martin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Around this time, flamingos on Anegada in the Virgin Islands were disappearing. Any flamingos on St. Martin at this time would have been among the last in the region. They may have been refugees from the dying flock in Anegada.

Starting in 1992, flamingos were reintroduced to Anegada and Guana Island in the Virgin Islands. Today there are hundreds in the Virgin Islands. A few years ago, a lone flamingo started visiting Anguilla. In 2015, a birder spotted a lone flamingo flying over Grand Case. Perhaps the arrival of flamingos in 2018 will mark the beginning of a new era for flamingos on St. Martin. It certainly would be wonderful.

Do you have stories or images of flamingos on St. Martin, or other interesting wildlife tales? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.

Ephemera

In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, there is a key scene in a Cairo cafe. The evil archaeologist Belloq holds out a cheap watch and says that if he buries it for a thousand years it will become priceless. Although his character was on the wrong side of history, he had a point.

A hurricane tracking map from Esso.

Today’s newspaper is worth about 75 cents. Yesterday’s is basically worth nothing. A newspaper from 30 years ago? It may not have cash value, but it might be priceless in its own way.

Today I was reading through an issue of The Chronicle from February 3rd, 1989. There was an article about the groundbreaking of a new museum, which was why this particular copy was probably saved. The paper was thin and full of international news from the wire. But even one issue was full of insights into the island at the time.

“No Cause for Alarm Over Brown Water” read one headline. There was a lengthy exposé titled “Sewage: Where It Goes Nobody Knows” that spoke of trucks pumping waste water off the cliff in Point Blanche. A few pages later, an real estate ad proclaimed Point Blanche as “suddenly the place to be!”

Over time, even the most trivial items become interesting in their own way. The 1980 program for July 14th festivities on the French side is full of great sounding concerts: the Superfly Brothers, Genius and Three Kings. The schedule was done on a typewriter, and all the accents were added by hand.

Festival program for the 1980 July 14th celebrations.

A hurricane tracking map was distributed by Esso and was touted as “a sign of progress.” A letter from Romelia Dollison identified her as “the only woman candidate in this election.” The sleeve of the seven-inch record for “O Sweet St. Maarten’s Land” is notable for using the Dutch spelling of St. Martin.

The 7-inch record of “O Sweet St. Maarten’s Land”.

So many things pass through our hands each day, it would be impossible to save them all. But even the most ordinary things eventually become fascinating in time. We should be thankful for the savers, who left us with these glimpses into the past. We should also take seriously the task of preserving and documenting what we have so that it can survive in some form into the future.

Do you have ordinary items that have survived the years against all odds? Share them by writing to The Daily Herald or info@lesfruitsdemer.com.