Diana McCauly’s ‘Mourning White Horses’

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In “Mourning White Horses,” Award-winning Jamaican writer Diana McCaulay remembers Jamaica’s south coast and reflects on how it has changed since her childhood. This story of climate change appeared in Free Word, a fascinating new blog. You can find the original story here.

Here are some excerpts of a story that should be read in its entirety.

When I was a child I got carsick. A family trip to the country often involved many stops so that I could walk with my father along the side of the road to overcome my nausea. One of the places we stopped was White Horses in St. Thomas on Jamaica’s south coast.

I never wondered about the name because the lines of breaking surf were just like the flying manes of white horses. Whoever had named it long ago saw exactly what I saw. The waves came in lines like racehorses rounding a bend and the wind shredded the tops of the breakers. The beach was wide, a mix of grey sand and pebbles, built, I now know, by the big rivers further to the east. There were many groynes at White Horses and we would often see men fishing from them, the waves racing along their sides. They were grey like the rocks and looked as if they had always been there.

There were small shops under a grove of coconut trees and my parents would buy cold soft drinks and snacks or water coconuts from the coconut man.  Across the road from the beach was Roselle Falls – a small waterfall that cascaded down a sheer hill into a drain at the side of the road.  There were always people in the falls – playing, relaxing, bathing – and the rocks were green with moss and tiny ferns. Walking on the beach, I felt released from the car, barefoot, my toes curling in the wet sand, the salty wind in my face. Once, wading in the rock pools left by the big waves, I saw a tiny seahorse, unable to support itself with nothing to hold on to. My father got a half of a coconut from the coconut man and we scooped up the seahorse. “We have to find a calm place with seaweed,” my father said. “Seahorses hold on by their tails. The males have the babies,” he told me.  We found a slightly sheltered place on that wild coast and eased the seahorse into the water. That day, I thought about the seahorse all the way to our destination. I didn’t understand how such a fragile creature, almost transparent, could survive in a place as rough as the White Horses coast.

Last week, I drove to St. Thomas for the first time in maybe ten years, and White Horses and the Roselle Falls had vanished. It was hard to know where I was because all the landmarks had disappeared. The beach was a sliver, the coconut trees were gone, there was no waterfall. The sea side of the road had been lined with large stones, obviously to try and protect the road from the surf. A Google search turned up stories of local people mourning the loss of economic activities at White Horses and Roselle – only one person said: it used to be a nice place. The flying manes of the waves were still there, but nobody looking at that coast now would name it White Horses. It had become an armoured coastline, a revetment, a man-made battlement.

No one event destroyed this place. Hurricane Dean in 2007 played its part, the old groynes were not maintained, and sand mining in the Yallahs and Morant rivers reduced the sediment that nourished the beach.  Climate change with attendant sea level rise delivered the final blow. Long, frequent droughts caused the small aquifer that fed the Roselle waterfall to dry up.  Nor is White Horses the only Jamaican casualty of such events – we are fast losing beaches at Hellshire, Alligator Pond, Montego Bay and Negril. For all the islands of the Caribbean, our own careless, short term actions have rendered us that much more vulnerable to climate change, and for us, it is not abstract, not futuristic. It is here, it is now, and it is an existential threat.

Were I able to attend COP 21 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris this December, I would take with me a photograph of White Horses as it was. This is what is at stake, I would say, to those who labour in conference rooms into the night to argue over the placement of semi colons in complex documents which use words like “adaptation” and “mitigation” and phrases like “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “stabilization of greenhouse gases.” Look at this, I would say to them, this place – it is not there anymore. It is gone and we human beings caused its loss.

. . .
We have a saying in Jamaica: Mek unno gwaan. Loosely translated, it means: continue your reckless course of action if you must, but you will have to face the consequences at some point. Part of me wants to say to COP 21, mek unno gwaan, because in the 23 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, carbon dioxide emissions have only risen. Yes, perhaps they would have risen faster without the convention but for me, for White Horses, for the people of Mexico before Hurricane Patricia hit, that bar is way too low.

One thought on “Diana McCauly’s ‘Mourning White Horses’

  1. Oh, this is too sad! We used to go there as a family too, Diana, when I was very little. I remember not being able to understand why the area was called both White Horses and Roselle. I never imagined that it could be so changed, lost. Well written and very moving, Diana. Maybe it will move others to action.

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