M. J. Arlett is an MFA candidate at Florida International University. She was born in the UK, spent several years in Spain and now lives in Miami. Her work can be found in Portland Review, Gravel, Indianola Review, The Boiler Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review and elsewhere.
South American Leaf Blight in Rubber Trees
Her first night on the S.S. Iberia, my grandmother held her two-week-old son in her arms as she tried to sleep beside her husband in their cabin. Though the ship weighed 30,000 tonnes, the waves beneath her threatened to capsize them as they crossed the Sea of Biscay towards the next port of call in Lisbon, onwards to Trinidad and the other side of the world. My grandmother couldn’t help but wish that her child was still inside her and feeling the violence of the waves from within his own aquatic sanctuary. She lay sleeplessly, thinking of the journey ahead for the three of them, this branch of the family tree heading out over the garden fence.
The rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is a true tree. Tall, lanky, unassuming. But rubber is used for more than you can imagine. Cement, adhesive, insulation. Vehicle tires, conveyor belts, pumps and pipes and hoses. Shock absorbers, balloons, cushions, balls. Rainwear, diving gear, protective shoes and gloves and blankets. Telephone housings, radio sets, electrical instruments.
When does a girl from rural Wales learn about the Caribbean colonies in her two-roomed schoolhouse in Pembrokeshire? Or with her mother picking up war-time rations, and told that the eight ounces of sugar they received each week had come from an island an ocean away?
Did news of HMT Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury Dock reach Haverfordwest? Did she learn about the influx of West Indian workers tempted to London after the war with the promise of work and a new life? Was there talk of racism, or poverty, or loneliness? Was there any mention that her country is one where black skin makes the winter colder?
The rubber tree is native to rainforests. Generally found in low-altitude moist forests. It is quick growing and easily establishes itself within any gap in the canopy.
Or did she learn about the West Indies when she left home to study history and geography at the University of Aberystwyth? Was she sitting in a lecture hall taking notes when she was asked, “Diana, on which voyage to the New World did Christopher Columbus discover the islands of Trinidad, Tobago, and Grenada?”
“Erm…,” She flicked through the pages of the hardcover textbook in front of her. “His third voyage?”
Perhaps she learned about the Caribbean when her PhD student husband was offered his first post-graduate position investigating the genetic relationship between Hevea brasiliensis and Dothidella ulei. It was then that she went to the library in Birmingham, walked through the aisles with her flowering stomach —hand on her four-month-swollen belly— as she searched for a book that could tell her about her New World.
On that first night on the Iberia did she feel like the men and women who set out across oceans with the hopes of a new life? Her baby’s head against her chest was musky and the smell reminded her of home. She did not think of colonialism. She thought of nothing except how she would cope with being both a new mother and a new wife in a new country.
South American Leaf Blight is the limiting factor for rubber production in the New World. In 1960, my grandfather is hired by the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya to study South American Leaf Blight in the hopes of preventing it from spreading and affecting the rubber industry in Asia.
The ecosystem on the SS Iberia was a spectacle of human biodiversity. As they sat on deck with their newborn, they started talking to a couple whose young son was mesmerized by the seagulls following the ship for the food waste thrown overboard. The family was on their way back to Guyana where the husband piloted crop-spraying planes.
During their first dinner on the ship, my grandparents were seated beside an American couple shipping Morris Minors back to the United States.
“We love driving them on the ranch! So useful!” The wife marveled to my grandfather, although he couldn’t imagine what a Morris Minor would do that any other car couldn’t.
At a formal dinner later in the voyage, my grandfather met a woman who ate bananas with a knife and fork. This memory remained with him to be shared with whomever was close enough to hear each time he joyously bit into a banana in a less than elegant fashion.
There were immigrants who lived on the ship until her last stop, Australia; there were soil scientists, marketing professionals, seasonal workers. There were third class passengers, and second class passengers, and first-class passengers; there were men and women working for the price of a transatlantic ticket; there was a two-week-old baby, my father.
The rubber tree is a perennial plant; it can be exploited for fifty years. Industrialism took its seeds from the Amazon, germinated them in London, sent them to Asia, sowed plantations that stretched towards the horizon, tapped them and drained them in a way that was not possible in the Americas because of leaf blight.
Trinidad is an economic paradise, every square mile ripe for picking. Across the north of the island, jungle-covered mountains spit out smoke as controlled fires burn the greenery from January through May to clear the ground for cash crops. Expanses of sugarcane stretch across the heart of the island. Grapefruit is exported around the world. The island has oil mines to the South in San Fernando, the source of its economic stability. Sixteen miles from San Fernando is the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world, the Pitch Lake. Endless depths of liquid cash that have paved roads all the way back to England.
By the time the Iberia arrived in the Caribbean, my father was a month old. The ship was too large to dock in Port of Spain’s harbour so, with their luggage and infant, my grandparents came ashore on a small launch as the sun was rising over the island.
Before she placed a single foot on Trinidadian soil, what did my grandmother know about this island?
She did not know that when she fell asleep that first night —in a transit house occupied only by bugs and fleas for months— she was at the mercy of the local mosquitoes. She eased herself down on the first motionless bed she had slept on in weeks, no rolling ocean, no mechanical gasp of a sleepless ship around her, only the whir of an out-of-use ceiling fan, the musical conversations of tropical insects in the trees, her husband’s heavy breathing, her baby’s gentle inhalations. She did not know, in her deep and unknowing sleep that she had fallen asleep with her left arm brushed up against the netting draped above their bed. By the next evening when they attend their welcome dinner with the other members of the university’s research department, her arm had swollen to twice its normal size.
At the dinner, my grandfather drank voraciously with his new colleagues and blamed his thirst on the humidity rather than the quality of the local rum. My grandmother blushed furiously when the Head of Agriculture announced her husband to the gathered academics as “The Rubber Man! Mr. Durex!”
When they arrived it was the wet season, the temperature sitting consistently in the 90s, the heat only broken by an hour of heavy rain around noon. They are moved from the transit house to their permanent home. My grandmother sat on the screened-in porch watching the clouds thunder over Port of Spain as she nursed her baby. She tried to hear the smothered sounds of the island through the falling water. She hushed the dog they inherited from the previous tenants as he barked at passing men. Did she spot the snakes escaping to the refuge of the house’s raised foundation?
She did not know that driving over snakes would become far too common, that her husband would end up carrying a cutlass in the back of the car so that after each vehicular homicide he could get out, cut off the head of the snake, and give it to an ophiologist at the university in exchange for a dollar.
She learned that there are many uses for a cutlass. To cut down trees, to cut meat, to trim hedges, to mow a lawn, to shave, to take revenge on a man who showed too much interest in a woman whose marriage has already been arranged.
She was aware of her privilege as a white woman on this island.
She knew that she would have servants, a maid and a nanny and a woman to do the laundry (scrubbing the clothing by hand so fiercely that my grandfather would have to replace most of his shirts because of the holes in them). She had a yard boy. But she did not know that his name would be Paul, or that he would take her up to the northern mountains to meet his family who spoke in Patois.
Paul pointed to the ragged mongrel outside his house and told her, “Le chien, it have plenty puppies.”
This sentence, a relic of Spanish, French, Dutch and British occupation, a relic of colonialism like the food they encountered: Sada roti, Aloo chocka, fried plaintain, stewed chicken liver, hashed browns, and Vienna sausages for breakfast. Coconut bread, black pudding, salted cod and smoked herring, buljol, boiled yucca, bacon. Calaloo, okra, oysters, ginger beer, tamarind balls, khurma, jub jub. Cashews! Mangoes, cherries, avocados, papaya, sorrel, passion fruit, watermelons, guava, pineapples, oranges, and bananas.
And these cultural mash-up recipes they brought back with them to England so that traditional Boxing Day dinner became what is left of the Christmas turkey, scavenged for every shred of remaining meat, and curried with Indian spices.
Maybe my grandmother suspected her second child would be born in Port of Spain, although she did not know for sure it would be a girl.
As a sapling, the rubber tree grows in successive cycles producing whorls of leaves in a spiral phyllotaxy pattern; imagine a rose of waxy green and burgundy leaves. As the plant leaves infancy, at five years old, and becomes a true tree, the branches spread themselves wide. Outside of plantations the tree can reach heights of a hundred feet.
Certainly, she had no idea the sweet newborn she clutched during her first night on the Iberia would become a verified escape artist. She had no clue she would be awoken at 3am by the sound of him playing with pots in the kitchen, having escaped his crib. After the third instance my grandparents bought pigpen wire and attached it to the top of his cot to keep him from escaping.
My father’s nanny walked into Port of Spain in her gleaming white uniform that had been freshly laundered and starched, she pushed the expensive green and white baby carriage with its lace-edged sunshade. The other nannies stopped to coo at the spectacle of her perfect white uniform and this beautiful white carriage and her precious white baby. Neither my grandmother nor the nanny knew that when they peered inside the pram, the baby would not be there, and that he was hanging from the undercarriage like a Peter Pan in his attempt to never grow up.
Dothidella Ulei blights the Americas. It destroys rubber tree plantations from within, leaving necrotic lesions across the veined face of the leaves.
After three years of research, the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya is no closer to identifying how to stop South American leaf blight. In part, this is because of a bureaucratic bungling. Plant samples sent from South East Asia to the West Indies were put in the hold of planes rather than the cabin, freezing and destroying the samples that were destined for the lab in Trinidad. This scraps a third of my grandfather’s work.
My grandmother had not suspected that growing up in the colonies would turn her son into a toddler who ordered the staff around the house.
“Millie!” he called. “Get me my teddy!”
“Yes, Master Simon.”
“Millie! Come here!”
“I coming, Master Simon.”
And when my grandmother told Millie not to let him speak to her so rudely, that she must make him say please and thank you, she replied, “Oh, no, no, Madam. I am the granddaughter of a slave. He is the master, and I am only the servant.” Compelled by this moment, she asked her husband not to renew his contract, to take them back across the Atlantic so that Wales could be more than just the melody of her parents’ accents during her monthly phone call home. She knew then that three years was enough.
What did my grandmother know about Trinidad before she had even placed a single foot on its shores? From the water on that first morning, as they made their way from the Iberia to the harbour in Port of Spain, my grandparents watched the sun emerge from behind the northern mountains and my grandmother inhaled the innocence of her month-old son’s head as though he was the only thing in the world she knew about for certain.