by Tobias Thornes
The heat of a long, lingering Louisiana summer simmered still as I made my slow way across the humid wetlands of that southerly state. It’s a country of wide deltas and stretching coastal marshes, a buzzing frontier between the amazing lifeforms of land, sea and sky united in a swampy soup of vitality. Each day, roaming a little further along that blessed shore, I was dazzled by new sights of nature. Ibis and egrets, stilt-legged waders, flapped in beautiful display as they landed, while a daily drama of shifting shades played out across the vast stage of the limitless sky. What a crucible of creation this must have been, I mused, through the countless millennia when all this life teemed unseen by human eyes. What untold elation must have risen in the hearts of those who, following the river, first saw where the wide mouth of mighty Mississippi opens like a chest spilling its treasure into the ocean waves.
Looking upon these natural wonders, I’m not surprised so many ancient American tribes chose, long ago, to settle near these coasts. Nowadays, of course, though their descendants preserve, surprisingly well, their ancestral customs, their cherished paradise isn’t quite so pure. European adventurers and their progeny have looked upon this striking sight with somewhat different eyes, and although along most of the coast Louisiana still gradually dissolves, as it always did, in a mushy marsh from land into sea, long stretches have been solidified by the less sublime machinations of modern-day man. Canals rip through the flatlands, bearing strong, salty seawater inland to quench the insatiable thirst of oil and gas extractors, damaging miles of formerly freshwater swamp along the way.
Avoiding the developed parts of the coast, I too turned at times inland, but even there the broad pine flatwood forests are losing ground to city sprawl, and another ecosystem is under threat. Conservation corridors brought in to link some species’ dispersed strongholds are perhaps an indication of a people waking up to the need to protect its biological bounty, but it’s been a long time coming. Perhaps it’s the very vastness, the seeming boundlessness of America, where individual states are the size of my entire country, that fools people here into a false complacency about the limitless capacity of nature, as though whatever they do to the oceans, the wetlands, the wilderness they will still be there, continuing over the next horizon. Nature’s display here is so bewilderingly big and beautiful that it’s difficult to believe that man has the power to change it: a disbelief long since shaken off on smaller, more crowded isles.
But the danger we dabble with when we play too profligately with our relatively new-fangled fire was made all too evident here not so long before my visit, a danger that biological corridors will do little more to stymie than a sandbag on the seashore pitched against a rising tide. When at last I reached the tall American towers of bedraggled New Orleans, the spider at the heart of this web of human intervention, the calamity of Katrina could still be seen, especially in the east, with housing blocks left vacant and homeless left unhoused since 2005. The memory of that loss remains sour for many of the people that I meet. But what’s still changing is the climate. The strong storms will become more common, and the habitat loss that accumulated, year by year, piece by piece, as the precious protective wetlands were built upon and drained, comes back to bite now when the weather’s not so fair: when the levee breaks and there’s nothing left to soften nature’s blow.
Where, then, to escape this recurring theme of self-inflicted destruction? Is there no place where human society’s harmony with its own habitat is maintained? I’d heard tell, long ago, of an island where things were done differently: a place so divorced from the American way of life that, though little more than a hundred miles away, the two countries were all but cut off for decades. But by the autumn of 2018, it had become possible to go to the island and explore it for myself: for the first time since the fifties, boats were running again from the fringes of Florida to the sunny, sandy coasts of Castro’s Cuba.
No place I know of presents such a conundrum as Cuba. Its ramshackle houses, partly dilapidated, look like cold, concrete cast-offs from Cold War Eastern Europe, at first sight a throwback to that unenlightened dystopia of faux-socialist sham. And yet, I sensed at the same time a proud authenticity in those walls, an eager recognition that this was no globalised, ‘developing’ outpost of Anglo-American colonial capitalism: things were different here. The people I met were friendly and communicative, not at all like prisoners in a den of misery desperate to get out. They are exceptionally well-educated, well cared-for by a health service that produces more doctors per capita than anywhere else – which are, perhaps, Cuba’s most treasured export. These people work for the state and share in its produce; they receive fair rations of food, and enjoy state-run television and wages that are low but equal and sufficient given that most services are free. Perhaps this is why loosening the travel embargo hadn’t had a Berlin Wall effect here: the people didn’t want to leave. They were, outwardly at least, happy. Could this really be the actualisation of the socialist dream?
But outward prosperity can mask darker realities, and this is not a land where dissenting views are aired to potentially loose-tongued tourists. If Cubans were so contented, I wondered, why would there have been a need to trap them on the island in the first place? When I ask a jovial market vendor, in my potholed Spanish, about the provenance of his produce, I learn that most of it probably followed me into port. ‘From over the sea,’ he tells me, but I’m not sure he knows what he means. In a country where eighty per cent of food is imported but hardly anyone has travelled abroad, something isn’t right. So, eschewing the tourist-tailored shoreline façade, I venture down darkened streets and out beyond the town, until I come upon, inevitably, the barbed wire, the armed guards, the feeling I really shouldn’t be here: the sure signs I’ve come upon the most infamous of Cuba’s many, many prisons. It had to be, of course, that there were few dissenting voices, for any that were vocal once would have ended up in one of these places, alongside so many other political detainees. But the sight before me now is not one of Castro’s creations, but rather America’s single long-standing link with this its least favourite neighbour. I whisper its name with a shudder: Guantanamo Bay. The notorious base has been retained through all these decades, and, since 2002, has housed a prison as severe as any torturous Cuban cell. Torturous political repression is one thing the two governments evidently both hold to be essential. I’ve searched far and wide for a haven of free, sustainable socialism. On all three counts it seems, after all, that there is no such place.