The magic mountain

St John, smallest of the three main US Virgin Islands, is best known today as a vacation stomping ground for the rich and famous — “the Beverly Hills of the Caribbean.” But for David Knight, Jr, who grew up on its forested slopes, St John is a place of childhood mystery and family history, whose fragrant bay trees supported a once-famous industry long before the first tourists arrived

Photograph by iStock.com/cdwheatleyA curious soldier crab. Photograph by iStock.com/WesthoffA battered road sign on Bordeaux Mountain. Photograph by David Knight, JrA pitch-apple seedpod. Photograph by David Knight, JrThe author’s grandfather, visiting a St John bay rum distillery in 1936. Photograph by George HH Knight, courtesy David Knight, Jr

When I was very young — too young to remember — I experienced a rite of passage common to Virgin Islands children: I was pinched by my first soldier crab. I am told that its brawny purple claw clamped down on my finger while I was playing in the garden around my mother’s house in St John.

I’m sure this pinching was deserved. Despite their name, soldier crabs are intractable pacifists. No other creature is tormented by island youth as relentlessly and as unfairly: gathered for fishing bait, forcibly recruited for “crab races,” and sometimes simply kicked around out of the pure dumb cruelty that can live in children.

For years after my first soldier crab encounter, I was cautious of their small tribes that lived beneath rotting logs or in the dark alcoves between rocks around my family property. The seedpods of the pitch-apple tree, common around the gardens, also became suspect, due to their crab-like appearance. Pitch-apples, which are about the size of an adult soldier crab, unfold into stars once they fall to the ground, the points of which I imagined to be spiny legs. I was convinced through much of my childhood that these seedpods were really soldier crabs in a disguised form, waiting to come alive.

I mention this because the subtropical forest of Bordeaux Mountain, the summit of St John, on which I was raised, is the sort of environment that can encourage these mysterious connections in a young imagination. My afternoons spent playing around Bordeaux’s deep-rutted dirt road were filled with not just the potential shape-shifting of seedpod-crabs, but also magic of a more immediate sort.

There were weeds called “sensitive plants” (known elsewhere as “sleepy plants”) which folded their leaves at the slightest touch. “Old Man Stinkin’ Toe” seedpods, which could be cracked open to reveal a sweet-tasting yellow powder that nevertheless smelled like dirty laundry, littered the ground. Up the road from my mother’s house, near an old water catchment that had not been used for decades, fragments of Taino-made pottery frequently rose to the surface and mixed with the ground scatter of rusted car parts, confusing my idea of history. My family’s closest neighbour, Mr Richardson from Anguilla, was a semi-nomadic gardener who, until he simply disappeared one day, wandered the mountain naming its various knolls and hidden pockets — “Spice Hill,” “Richie’s Garden of Eden” — as if he were the first man.

And always amid all of this there was the heavy smell of bay leaves, which for me was most responsible for Bordeaux’s magic, and the scent that, to this day, I most associate with the idea of “home.”

 

The bay trees that thrive in the rich soil of Bordeaux’s high ridges and perfume its slopes once provided St John with its primary industry: bay rum. It has always seemed fitting to me that the leading export of my mountain neighbourhood was at one time its scent, a bottling of its essence.

From the late nineteenth century to around the Second World War, bay rum was a popular aftershave balm and cologne in the United States, South America, and Europe. The quiet rural island of St John, and particularly Bordeaux Mountain, where a particularly sweet-smelling variety of bay tree inexplicably flourishes, were known during this time for the quality of their bay rum. After the collapse of the sugar industry and before the advent of tourism as an economic model a century later, bay leaves, which had long been used locally for medicinal purposes, were the only reliable export from the smallest of the three main US Virgin Islands (formerly the Danish West Indies). The tight-knit familial community that lived on Bordeaux Mountain among those sweet-smelling leaves was employed in their harvest.

Despite St John’s image in today’s US media as a place of leisure, no economic enterprise that has thrived on the tiny fifty-square-kilometre island has ever provided an easy living for its local population, who have long been known in the Virgin Islands for the virtues of independence and self-reliance. During the reign of the bay leaf, pickers earned eight cents per bag of leaves, which typically weighed between sixty and seventy-five pounds. Harvests only took place three times a year, and many times it was children, who could climb the tallest of the mature trees, who did the picking. Today the old Creole word for the bay tree, “caneel” (or wild cinnamon), is shared by the beach where American tycoon and philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller established the island’s first resort, which has wedded the name in the minds of many to ideas of luxury and relaxation. But the caneel tree, for many St Johnians of the last century, meant industry.

By the time I was born in the 1980s, the days of bay leaf harvesting on Bordeaux Mountain were long over. I recall little being said about it. The mechanisms of social change on St John, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, often leave us with a certain kind of amnesia. In a photograph taken by my grandfather George in 1936, published originally in the Virgin Islands Daily News, men in pith helmets, looking very much like spectres of the past, stand near the E.W. Marsh bay rum distillery in Coral Bay on the last day of its operation. As a visitor to the island at the time, my grandfather was impressed with the process of bay rum distillation. In a remembrance compiled in Ruth Low’s book St John Backtime, he wrote playfully of the industry’s troubles during the American period of Prohibition, which had ended just three years prior.

“Prohibition even left its mark on this industry,” he wrote. “It seems that grain alcohol is the principal solvent in bay rum, but the bay oil was too easily removed by distillation. A permit then became necessary to purchase bay rum. To my mind it should have stimulated sales — having a hairwash and the necessary ingredients for a cocktail in one product.”

Like my grandfather, and also my father, I still use bay rum as an aftershave, although the brand I buy is made from leaves harvested in the bush of Dominica rather than my own neighbourhood. The Peak of Bordeaux Mountain is less a place of solitude than it was in my youth, not to mention the times of earlier generations; its inexact dirt road turned concrete years ago as the neighborhood grew with St John’s population boom. But Bordeaux still may, in many ways, strike visitors as a peculiar place.

“The Gold Hole,” a deep wound in the top of the mountain where an American mining company once tested for precious metals, still inspires stories of pirates. An eccentric citizen has recently taken to parking his collection of funeral hearses near an intersection, raising the ire of neighbours. Black “gungalo” millipedes, who can dye human skin purple, still curl themselves into spirals on the mottled bark of the bay trees. Some of Mr Richardson’s place names still survive in common usage on the mountain, although few people remember his lush elevated gardens.

Bordeaux’s current residents are not dependent on the bay trees for subsistence, although families who live near the top of the mountain still fill their dresser drawers and closets with dried bay leaves to combat the smell of mildew, that scourge of damp environments. Visiting hikers on the mountain can still freely pick the shiny, leathery leaves to take with them, or simply stop to rest and take in their pleasant aroma. Bay trees still provide Bordeaux Mountain with another sensory stamp in addition to its overwhelmingingly green ridges and cool winter breezes.

 

As for me, I am no longer suspicious of soldier crabs, but I am still guilty of tormenting them. When I visit my mother on Bordeaux, I gather them for bait and walk the few miles down the old Lameshur Road out to St John’s rocky southern shore. There the sea yields up a small royal court: Spanish hogfish in their regal purple and gold, the beautiful queen triggerfish or “Ole Wife,” whose coarse scaleless skin can be used as sandpaper, and that slow-moving jester the trunkfish.

On a good day, I carry my fish back up the mountain breathing in the thick ambrosial smell of bay leaves that once crossed oceans in small bottles and drifted from the bathroom cabinets of the world’s busier places. To me, it is simply the smell of the earth, of aging roots, of star-shaped seedpods on red clay that might yet come alive if I don’t keep them under close watch.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport, with connections to the US Virgin Islands