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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Run Toward The Falling Trees

Run Toward The Falling Trees

By Wyck Williams

"I have repeatedly argued that our capital city was built
in the wrong place, on the narrow strip of coastland
where all our commercial activity is based, and not in the
interior where all the possibilities of future development lie."

- Matthew French Young

Sometime back in the old ideological years (1960s-80s) while the Burnham/Hoyte administrations were busy digging up Demerara and planting socialism, Matthew French Young was building or maintaining roads in the Potaro and Madhia districts. At the same time no one, it seems, at our elite schools (Queens College, Bishops, St. Roses, St. Stanislaus) thought of organizing field trips outside of Georgetown. Student aspirations were directed overseas: GCE exams, university places, the economic chance to slip away to streets of opportunity in the metropoles.

Looking back, a trip across the muddy Demerara, or a boat-train ride down to sleepy Charity, even that tedious journey to Bartica might have done wonders for youth psyche. If the logistics for such a trip proved forbidding, this book by Matthew French Young, Guyana: the Lost Eldorado (1998) would have fired imaginations in city classrooms.

Of course, he was at the time living the experience he would later write about, but think of the jolt to sixth form imaginations if, say, the author had been invited to speak on Speech Day, and if in his speech he had made the case for rebuilding our capital city in the Interior. (Oh, the challenge to the nation! the mammoth task of moving people, constructing new permanent habitats! How transformed our lives might have been!)

As he explains in the book's introduction: "I encountered [in my journeys into the interior] the contemporary pursuers of the myth of Eldorado …what I came to see was that it was not the gold which should be the true subject of the search …but what was incidental to the original myth: the lakes and waters they contained. Here, for the Guyana of the future, lies a source of power and of vast acres of irrigated and fertile farming lands."

Or imagine the appeal to sixth-form idealism if he had ended his presentation this way: "The jungle gives a bushman a different outlook. You know things will constantly go wrong that you have no control over. You don't give in, but accept the fact that you have to work around things to come to terms with the land. Living this way involves a full commitment to getting right down to basics. You have to rely on yourself, not on other people, so you develop a very honest relationship with yourself." (p.31)

(To this day many students from campuses of the University of the West Indies recall with excitement the grand "National Cooperative Road Project" to open the Interior, that inspired brainchild of the Burnham administration. In July 1970 a Cubana aircraft flew hundreds of volunteers to Georgetown, then they were airlifted to Madhia where for several weeks they wielded machetes, clearing bush and chopping open the roadway. Young was the man behind the setting up of the camps, the superb organization that made the project a success. He writes about this with pride and affection)

Guyana: The Lost Eldorado really begins in 1925 and continues right through to 1978 (with Young's impressions of the Jonestown calamity) until his departure for retirement in Canada in 1980; so there are observations of Guyana going through its several upheavals and transitions. (He spent 39 of those years without once taking a vacation, and when he did he used the time off to turn out oil paintings of Guyana's heartland.)

Comparisons are bound to be made with that other intrepid explorer Philip Roth (who was recently hailed as "an adopted son" of Guyana and whose published volumes were "launched" in Georgetown). Both men were scions of famous settler/explorer fathers. Young was born in the North West District in 1905, educated at an English public school and like Roth followed in his father's footsteps. He was not the administrator/builder Philip Roth turned out to be. More of a freelance manager/adventurer he charted his own path, "as diamond prospector, gold-panner, surveyor of uncharted bush, hunter and builder of roads".

Rooted in landscape and memory his book offers surprisingly entertaining reading as explorer memoirs go, and this may be due to the uncluttered flow of his prose. He filed reports to officials in Georgetown but Guyana: The Lost Eldorado is a rippling memory stream, not a book assembled from arduous note-taking. Places and people are written about less as phenomena to be scrutinized and documented. You don't feel locked into a chronological sequence of reportage; and the book somehow manages to avoid the tedium of repeated observations that blemish the Roth volumes.

On and off the forest trails Young encounters a familiar cast of strangers who show him extraordinary kindness: the McTurks, Fiedkous and Melvilles, those forest-skilled, readily employable Amerindians (whose 'knowledge' proved indispensable to his 'achievements'), the many generous local officials (the book is peppery with names). There are ample accounts of high drama and excitement. Round about 1942 Young hangs out with American flyers stationed at Atkinson Field. There are U boats lurking off Trinidad shores and he's lucky to escape being torpedoed once. Somewhere in Brazil he's pursued by a band of ignoble Amerindians hurling spears.

His relationship with the Burnham/Hoyte administrations was professional and unentangled. He's contacted by a Govt. Minister with a request for his skills or expertise; he accepts an appointment, prepares for the job and takes off for the Interior. He experienced very little interference from the Party in power; in fact his services were highly valued and respected. He was a man consumed with task, performance and responsibility, and his book on occasion draws critical attention to Govt. waste of resources back then, "the millions poured down the drain", for instance, when maintenance of equipment lapsed and expensive machinery was left to rust away in the bush for want of spare parts.

His working relationship with everyone was for the most part smooth and he acknowledges the generous support he received from Roman Catholic priests, Amerindian labourers and many officials. He seems only mildly surprised at the strange customs he encounters, the Amerindian cohabitation rituals, for instance. He doesn't gloss over his involvement with women of all races who apparently threw themselves at this 'red man', oftentimes offering to keep his hammock warm.

It becomes fascinating to enter his world - so near to, so far away from the racial/ ideological fevers gripping Georgetown then - to share in Young's enthusiasms: his experience of pontoons, dieseline drums, caterpillar bulldozers; the laterite quarry, the Bedford lorry, the Archimedes outboard motor; gas lamps, rainfall & mosquitoes, the Rest House; Stampa, Hosororo Hills, the Pakaraima mountains. Young's bright descriptions illumine the Interior's underworld nature: perai in the rivers cruising for swimmers' toes, snakes curled up in your boots and set for good morning surprise; the massacuraman, ripper of hearts and livers; and in hard times the spirit of mashramani.

One leaves this book with the sense that to have lived all one's life in Georgetown, to have known only that coastal strip with its seawall and colonial white houses, to have never crossed our rivers, to be not in the least curious back then about our forested regions - therein lies the true loss of Eldorado. Matthew French Young's marvelously readable book shows and tells us there was once another life, once places pristine and ready for grand ideas.

There was, too, he reminds us, the sad destruction of life, much wastage of human resource in the bush. Chapter XXXV "The Stench of Death at Jonestown: 1978-79" focuses on its aftermath, the grisly task of clearing the ground of strewn belongings and disposing of bloated bodies. (After a previous visit he'd recorded favourable impressions of what he saw: "I stood and looked around to witness what these people had accomplished in the four years they had been there. I was amazed and said to myself that this would be a good example for our own cooperatives to follow, dedicating themselves to make Guyana self-sufficient." p. 278)

In Chapter XXXVI: Matthew's Ridge: 1979-80: A Country in Collapse" there are revelations of the rippling effect of the economic convulsions experienced in Georgetown at the time. Compounding the wastage due to neglect of equipment there is acute fuel shortage, a drying up of funds in the pipeline, the crumbling of discipline among his workers. At times Young and ruling Party officials are at odds over what to do. There is a sense of burgeoning crisis everywhere and cracks in cohesive efforts to keep project operations running.

Despite its dark-clouds end chapters there is much to admire in Guyana: the Lost Eldorado: our indigenous adaptation to plant and animal life, the bushman's pursuit of personal freedom and diamonds, the continued road building and mapping of once intractable regions. And much to learn and reflect on (one wonders what his thoughts were on mining operations at Omai). Matthew French Young, a model of self-sufficiency and restless courage, started his Guyana journeys in 1925; he died in 1996. His book contains valuable insights that could serve as a survival kit for young nations and culturally hobbled societies still learning to walk in the new millennium. He says, for instance: "If a tree is falling towards you, run to it, never turn your back, for the falling tree will bring down other trees and you will be liable to be killed or seriously injured". (p. 287)

Book Reviewed: Guyana: The Lost Eldorado: My Fifty Years in the Guyanese Wilds: Matthew French Young: Peepal Tree Press, England: (1998)

Posted by jebratt :: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 :: 0 comments

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