In June 2017, I packed up some basic tools, religious texts and my camera gear, and headed back home to the Caribbean island of Dominica. A year earlier, while living in New York, a simple question had started to dominate my thinking: what if the life we humans were happiest in was back in the so-called ‘”Garden of Eden?'” When we lived in sync with nature and were not on the brink of destroying it.
I decided Dominica would be the perfect place to test this hypothesis. Known as the Nature Isle of the Caribbean, it is sparsely populated, boasts crystal clear rivers, and a mountainous terrain, and is heavily cloaked in tropical rainforest.
For three months I fished, gathered river snails and crab, and ate dasheen, coconut, and whatever fruits I could gather. I built my own shelter, cooked on wood fire; every day I meditated and read scripture, but most of all I learned from observing the living world around me.
Then on 17 September, 2017, life changed in a way I could never have foreseen. Someone warned me that a hurricane was coming – a category 2 or 3. I decided I could ride that out. But as darkness fell, it became clear that this was no regular storm. Rain hammered down, torrentially. I could hear the river raging, boulders thudding as they were tossed downstream. The sound of the wind was all around. I would find out later that this was 175mph category 5 Hurricane Maria, which left the island devastated.
The next morning, I crawled out from under the rubble. Not a single leaf remained on a single tree. It looked like a bomb had been detonated, and I was the last person left alive. It took me another day until I could cross the river and get to an outpost, and it was about a week later that I journeyed across the island, on foot and hitching rides, to my family’s home.
For the following six months, most of Dominica had no running water, electricity or internet. Every time it rained we had to scoop up water that fell through our damaged roof. And yet we more than managed to get by.
Like everyone, my family would go to the river to wash our clothes and bathe. We collected drinking water from the spring, ate root vegetables, coconut and other produce gathered from our gardens, and exchanged other supplies – smoked meat, flour, powdered milk, tarpaulins – with our neighbours – . From sun up to sun down, the day was spent on chores necessary for survival.
Yet it was inspiring observing how our little nation handled this catastrophe. As I travelled round the island, I heard different versions of the same few phrases: “water is life”, “the most important thing is we are alive”, and, “give thanks”. Here were people – some of whom had lost almost every material possession they owned – still living with grace, giving thanks for life and the natural elements that make life possible.
In many ways, it was what some would call our “backwardness” which allowed us to survive so well: our small, close-knit communities, our knowledge of how to live off the land, the fact that our natural resources were close by and unpolluted, and our understanding that there is more to life than material things.
It felt such a stark contrast to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans a decade earlier. Despite living in one of the richest countries on Earth, the citizens suffered terribly, stranded in a flooded city with no access to water, clean food or power for days. It was a colossal government failure. With sewage pumps broken or choked with debris, the city became uninhabitable. As became tragically clear, the city – and the federal agencies that were supposed to be its backup – had no resilience to deal with a natural disaster.
In Dominica, our sense of community and our connection to nature helped us all cope. I can’t sugarcoat a “natural” life, or life with few amenities. It is hard. It has its challenges. Maybe that’s just life in general. But when it comes to survival, my experience has made it clear to me that nature, when taken care of, provides. Living in sync with its rhythms (which are slower and quieter than our regular lives) also opens a door to something we are often deprived of, something which may just be the most important thing about being alive. Perhaps there was something sacred in Eden after all.
As the climate crisis continues to intensify, category 5 hurricanes, fires and floods are going to become more prevalent. The disasters they bring will cripple our fragile man-made systems. Personally, I’d rather take my chances in a place like Dominica, where the essentials for life are abundant and we have the mindset to overcome what we lack.
As a friend of mine said: “Water is life. Once you have food and water you’ll survive.” And survive we continue to do. As Dominica and other countries like it develop, it is critical that we don’t lose our respect and knowledge of the natural world. Ultimately, our survival may depend on it.
o Michael Lees is a Dominican film-maker. His documentary, Uncivilized, tells the story of how he endured Hurricane Maria