The view from Simla

Christopher Broadbridge climbs battlements and terraces to visit Simla, a tropical research centre hidden in the hills of Trinidad

Dr Mike Marshall captures live samples filtered from the sediments of the Upper Lalaja River near Guanapo. Photograph by Christopher BroadbridgeSimla, 2008. Photograph by Christopher BroadbridgeSimla’s living-room opens to a Northern Range vista. Photograph by Christopher BroadbridgeWill Beebe and company looking out from Simla’s garden terrace (circa 1958). Photograph courtesy The Wildlife Conservation SocietyWilliam Beebe (circa 1957) at work in his Simla home office and laboratory. Photograph courtesy The Wildlife Conservation Society

In the high forest of Trinidad’s Northern Range at Guanapo sits a house which has changed little since it was built many decades ago. Its British-colonial design has a simplicity that suggests its function is more important than its beauty. Rather, the location and grounds of the house—Simla—are the main attraction: towering trees and a three-tiered garden, ponds and stone walls, a proud vista down over the valley’s treetops and beyond. There are windows and french doors from which the view was meant to be seen. Over these are curved green awnings to keep out the seasonal torrents of rain that threaten to invade.

Now, where flowerbeds and potted plants were once tended, natural vegetation has overrun like a testament to lost pride. Inside, the wooden walls support a sloping ceiling that runs the length of the house. The electric lighting is minimal, so daylight dominates, reflecting off the vanished hardwood floors. There’s a large kitchen that opens to servants’ quarters with wilderness just beyond.

The rooms have been vacated to accommodate more transient residents, and the many bookshelves are mostly bare. The house hasn’t been a home since it was transferred from its last owners, William Beebe and the New York Zoological Society, who donated it to Trinidad’s Asa Wright Nature Centre in 1974.

Now the William Beebe Tropical Research Station, it’s owned and managed by the Asa Wright Centre, which subsidises scientific work there by providing low-cost facilities and a resident full-time research assistant.

 

Charles William Beebe (pronounced “Bee-bee”) was born in New York in 1877. He started at Columbia University as a special student with advanced academic standing, having demonstrated a strong aptitude for natural science as a boy. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate from Tufts University. A born naturalist, he wrote in his diary in 1893: “To be a naturalist is better than to be a king.”

His journalistic adventures and scientific observations regularly appeared in several publications, including Bird Lore—later to become Audubon magazine—the New York Post, Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and National Geographic.

Beebe—his friends called him “Will”—was a huge star in his time. In 1934 he and Otis Barton reached an unprecedented depth of 3,028 feet off Bermuda’s coast in what Beebe named their “bathysphere.” Beebe used the bathysphere, which he and Barton had invented, to observe marine creatures that were previously unknown.

He travelled the world for his science and the world followed his stories. He mingled with famous people such as US president Theodore Roosevelt, the writers Rudyard Kipling and AA Milne, Prince George, and the high society of New York City.

As a naturalist, Beebe developed a profound sense of the interconnectedness of life in the natural order. Through his popularity with the general public and his gift of literary expression, he also created a new awareness of the value of habitat conservation and diversity in nature. He produced 24 books and over 800 articles, some academic and some for a general readership. His commissioned four-volume work A Monograph of the Pheasants (1918–1922) was described as being “perhaps the greatest ornithological monograph of the present century.”

Access to Beebe’s history has been made easy by Carol Grant Gould, who researched his life and journals extensively for her biography The Remarkable Life of William Beebe, Explorer and Naturalist (2004, Island Press).

 

At the peak of his career, Beebe chose Trinidad as the home where he would live out the rest of his days. He is now buried there, at the Mucurapo cemetery in Port of Spain.Trinidad was an ideal place for ecological study, and Will Beebe chose it both for its pristine natural habitats and for the relative order he would find in a colony of the British Empire. In 1948 he bought a new home for himself on 228 acres of what was then the Verdant Vale estate—already a landmark as a retreat for the Siegert family, who owned the firm that made Angostura bitters. He renamed it Simla, after a quiet resort in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.

To reach Simla, you walk through the shade of mature growths of bamboo and ascend a long flight of steps. Every stone in the garden walls is coated in moss, crevices occupied by tarantulas and lizards.

Like the ghost of Beebe himself, you climb to reach “three castellated battlements and terraces, its green mountain views in every direction, its great living room waiting to be metamorphosed into a laboratory.”

Yet the new Simla was anything but quiet. In the New York Zoological Society’s newsletter Animal Kingdom, Beebe wrote:

“My bedroom, at present, is no place for anyone suffering from insomnia, or restless from a bad conscience. At nine o’clock our captive owl begins his mournful call, and his cage mate, a tree porcupine, voices an antiphony, in part like the dying yowl of a back fence cat, plus a hopeless final sigh. A rat, intended for food of the boa, continues all night to leap noisily upon the head of his prospective executioner (as a matter of fact the rat was never harmed). Whenever I wake, the scraping of the snake’s scales and the thuds of the bounding rat furnish the percussion part of the nocturnal orchestra. A pigmy owl beyond the terrace is cricket-like in its monotonous tom-tom, metronome rhythm, and a poor-me-one in the middle distance seems stimulated by the lugubrious porcupine to emulous imitation of the wails of a lost soul.”

Apart from this natural racket, within earshot of Simla, a quartzite, sand and gravel quarry was started by an American company and is still in operation. During daylight hours the house is full of the buzzing din of crickets and cicadas and competing birdcalls. By nightfall, these sounds surrender to all-night grunts and the roars of tractors and bulldozers.

 

In earlier years, you could have heard an account of the findings of a day’s expedition, as Beebe and his devoted assistant, Jocelyn Crane, chatted on the steps in the evening or sat by the pond with a cup of tea. Or perhaps there were more amorous words, whispered below the 25-foot ceilings. When she was away in Australia, the 46-year-old Miss Crane would write to the 78-year-old Beebe at Simla, “Dearest person—I do miss and love you so tremendously—Goodness how I want to see you—All my love, J.”

Beebe had not allowed his wife, Elswyth, who remained in the US, to get in the way of his vocation. His emotional commitment to Jocelyn too seems dubious. The charming and younger Donald Redfield Griffin was a frequent visitor, and on his trips from Massachusetts to study bats, he must have noticed Crane, for the two married, years after Beebe’s death in 1962.

By morning at Simla, purposeful footsteps drum along the hallway. These are Will Beebe’s professional descendants, American scientists who are also here to study the flora and fauna of the area. Theirs is an impressive five-year survey of the interactions between the creatures in and around the Arima Valley rivers.

High technology comes to Simla with David Reznick of the University of California, Riverside, an ecologist and professor of biology. His team is tagging fish—guppies and jumping guabine (pronounced “wab-been”)—with coloured elastomer tattoos, processing thousands of river samples, measuring light penetration and water levels, making genetic comparisons between succeeding generations of fish in their changing habitats.

The team anticipates finding evidence of evolution in progress by observing the interaction between change in the fish species and life in the forest. Reznick says, “Ecologists have tended to labour under the assumption that they can ignore evolution because it is so slow. Earlier work in Trinidad and elsewhere has shown that this is not true.”

Indeed, Reznick believes evolution takes place fast enough to change interactions between plants and animals from one year to the next.

The research team combines senior and junior scientists from six countries and even more disciplines. It includes a mathematical biologist from L’Ecole Normal Supérieure in Paris; the dean of arts and sciences from Florida State University; evolutionary biologists from two universities in Canada; and post-doctoral and graduate students from Spain, Italy and Argentina. There are molecular geneticists, population biologists, theoreticians of different stripes, and a diversity of ecologists. Together, they hope to take ideas that came to life in simple laboratory systems, then apply them to the complexity of the real world.

 

Team member Dr Mike Marshall, of the University of Georgia, visits Simla regularly. Of the house he says, “It feels like a working museum. Convenient in its proximity to supplies, it’s also a beautiful environment to live in.” Yet Marshall says his time at Simla is associated with “high stress 80 to 90 per cent of the time.” His daily routine consists of hiking to rivers up and down steep hillsides, followed by night-time laboratory work back at Simla, with masses of data and samples to archive and process.

Marshall has a special interest in small invertebrates. The mayfly nymph, for example, is prolific in the river sediments. A specialised aquatic predator, it looks like a scaled-down monster of the deep, and lives out a secretive existence before ascending in winged adult form.

Marshall hopes to learn how the lives of the likes of nymphs, guppies, guabine and other members of this habitat might be interwoven. “These creatures are everywhere, and are absolutely fascinating for their roles in the streams they inhabit,” he says.

Returning from the Aripo river, Marshall said he was saddened to see the effects of man’s disruption of this area’s natural habitat. “Seeing a killed boa constrictor on the Lalaja road last week almost brought me to tears. Such losses are genuinely tragic.”

But despite quarrying and other intrusions, he observes, “Nature still overwhelms and reminds us that here, we are still in a beautiful forest where much remains wild.”

Simla is not frequented by Trinidad’s public, and is little known to locals or outsiders. But its history and present use keep the spirit of the place alive. Of Simla, Beebe wrote: “Future scientific results will prove its permanent worth.”

Meanwhile, its doors remain open, its hallway busy, and the old house gathers stains and growths from the wild around it, wearing them with a special dignity that comes from a proud past and an ambitious future.
See www.wbtrs.org for directions for visitors, as well as research application forms