The Nutmeg Gatherers
. . . Grenada . . .
It's a rampage, / The lands are savaged, / My Caribbean ruined,
Not a tree in sight, / That didn't get hit outright;
It's a rampage, / Ivan take we hostage . . .
See Barbados (stocking up) / Small Tobago (stocking up)
Poor Grenada, / Lord, what a plight;
After the storm, / All man in the same boat, / Yes, after the storm,
We've got to help each other, / (After, after)
Because livestock (blow way) / Food crop (blow way)
Nutmeg (blow way) . . .
from “After the Storm,” composed by
Christophe Grant, sung by Denyse Plummer
The village of union sits about two inches south of the northern tip of Grenada on my big multi-fold government map-just above the spot where the capillary network of red roads thins out and then disappears. A few old cocoa and nutmeg estates are noted-Union Estate, Malagon Estate, Samaritan Estate-and a few lonely squares indicate buildings. But the map makes it clear this is the start of the island's un-developed, empty, mountainous middle.
So I shouldn't be surprised by the road we're walking (climbing, really), heading straight up from the village, but still it leaves me breathless, and not just from its steepness. Ahead of us, the road simply seems to end, swallowed up into lush mountains, painted thickly in a dozen shades of green. Around every bend, in every direction, is a postcard. “You see that one?” our old friend Dingis asks, puffing out the words as even she stops to rest. She points to the most imposing peak, where the white mist of a morning shower floats high up, encircling the green. “On deh other side was where all deh nutmeg trees were.”
Early in the morning, Dingis, her friend Gail, and Steve and I had set out from her house in Lower Woburn, on Grenada's south coast, taking first one bus to St. George's, and then another, to travel up the leeward west coast-past Gouyave, known as the island's fishing capital, though this makes it sound much grander than it is; past Victoria, an even smaller fishing village; to Industry, where the road curves inland. Dingis keeps up an excited commentary the whole way. Her highlights are not exactly the stuff of a standard tourist spiel. “Gail mother live here,” she exclaims at one point, knowing Gail is too shy to tell us herself. And a little farther along, at a spot where a cliff rises up on one side of the road and plunges into the Caribbean on the other: “Dis is where deh bus was hit by a falling boulder and everybody die.” This is not particularly what one wants to hear while shoehorned into the backseat of an overcrowded, overheated-by-the-squash-of-many-bodies minivan of a bus that careens aggressively around each curve. (A longtime resident once gave new-to-Grenada drivers this advice about the island's bus drivers: “Give them a wide berth-if necessary, stop and let them pass. They are busy private entrepreneurs with an urgent appointment with death.”) By the time we reach Union and Dingis announces, “Dis is where we get off,” I am woozy, soggy with sweat and more than ready to continue on foot.
The bus deposits us across from a square wooden building that has seen better days. Its wide doors are pulled open, and a car sits out front, the driver hefting sacks out of the trunk. “My father used to bring our nutmegs here,” Dingis says. Sure enough, this building is labeled on my map-“Nutmeg Station”-one of a scant handful of government processing stations still operating around the island, where farmers come to sell their harvest. Dingis leads us inside. Near the door, a newly arrived sack of nutmegs has been dumped onto a sorting table, and a lone woman slowly picks through them. But the rest of the downstairs is quiet; and when Dingis takes us upstairs, where the nutmegs are left to dry naturally under the roof, in the hottest part of a hot building, the tiers of screened drying racks are mostly empty.
“Before Ivan, dey were fullll,” Dingis says, drawing out the word into a melancholy musical refrain. Grenadians refer to the hurricane that near-destroyed their island in September 2004 simply as “Ivan,” no need to include the “H” word. They have fully anthropomorphized the storm that eventually became a Category 5, top-of-the-charts hurricane. Though he was still a Category 3 when he crossed Grenada, Ivan killed at least forty-one of the island's residents, damaged or destroyed 90 percent of its buildings and uprooted close to 90 percent of its nutmeg trees. “Ivan come lookin' for his wife Janet,” Dingis had told us shortly afterward, describing the disaster. He had waited a long time: Janet, the previous hurricane to strike the island, had visited almost half a century earlier.
Back in Toronto after our first trip, we had kept in touch with Dingis, sharing from afar the milestones in her life and that of her teenage daughter, Gennel. Birthdays. Christmases. Illnesses. Funerals. And then the hurricane that “mash up” their house, and their island. “When you comin' back?” Dingis had asked at the end of every long-distance conversation.
During that first stretch in Grenada, now almost a decade ago, she had always promised to take us to “deh country,” as she calls the part of the island we're now walking, where she grew up and where her father and two of her brothers still live. When we first met, her phrasing had made me laugh, since by my standards, Dingis herself lived solidly in “deh country.” Her Lower Woburn house was barely visible from the road behind a dense wall of tropical greenery-banana, breadfruit, mango and papaya trees; coconut palms; pigeon pea and pepper bushes. A few sheep and goats grazed on the steep hillside behind it, and a couple of clucking chickens pecked in the yard.
But now, up here, continuing on foot along the steep road from Union, I begin to understand. We pass only scattered houses, and are passed by only the very occasional car. This part of the island-more mountainous and with more rainfall than the south-has an all-pervasive greenness, a more intense lushness, and a coolness that is different from the other end. Thanks to the morning rain, the landscape seems freshly washed-glittering, even, where the sunlight splashes the still-wet foliage. “We would climb up and over deh mountain,” Dingis says, continuing her story as we walk, “to gather deh nutmegs, three hundred pounds in a day. My father had two donkeys-we would carry sacks of nutmegs partway down until we reach deh donkeys.”
A nutmeg tree yields two spices. Its plump, apricot-like, yellow-orange fruit bursts open when ripe to reveal a lacy, strawberry-red corset wrapping a hard, glossy-brown shell. This delicate red lace is the spice mace; the polished shell underneath contains the nutmeg itself. When the donkeys reached their house, Dingis and her brothers would remove the mace from the nutmegs, slipping it off the shell with their fingers and sorting it into three grades, based on the size of the pieces: “deh pretty, deh not so pretty and deh broken bits”; three hundred to four hundred pounds of nutmegs are needed to yield a single pound of mace. (Even now, as we pass the occasional house along the road, we see various- sized pieces of mace drying on front porches, spread in wooden trays and on plastic tarps.) McDonald Ignatius Naryan, Dingis's father-everyone but his family calls him “Mr. Mac”-would then deliver the nutmegs to the processing station in the village.
When Dingis had first talked about bringing us to the co...