Thursday, March 26, 2009

The land of lost content?

I have written before about Richmond Hill, an abandoned village here on the island of Exuma. At one time about 50 people lived there, in a dozen or so houses, with a tiny church and a one-room school house. Thirty-four years ago the last residents closed their doors and walked away -- walked, in fact, into another world.

I had been there several times before, but yesterday was different. We were accompanied by our friend Emmazelle, who was born and raised in Richmond Hill in the 1940s and 50s. Also, her son has in recent years returned occasionally to the village to cut away the forest and make what is still there more accessible. Emmazelle gave us a tour.

No village on the island was so remote. No electricity. No running water -- just two wells cut into the soft limestone rock. No telephone. No indoor plumbing. No window glass -- only hinged wooden shutters. The people lived mostly on the fruits of the land and sea, supplemented by their gardens and goats and chickens. The school had no books or equipment other than a chalkboard; the students had slates and chalk. Emmazelle's father was pastor of the church; he neither drank or smoked. Access to the outside world was by shank's mare.

It was clear as we moved through the decaying, overgrown buildings that Emmazelle was filled with nostalgia. Her memories of growing up in Richmond Hill are fond -- of family, community and nature. Part of this, perhaps, is the rosy glow of retrospect, but we too felt something of the simple beauty of the place and the lives that had been lived there.

Except for the internet, the house I live in here on the island has no convenience that I didn't have in the house I grew up in during the 1940s and 50s. Hot and cold running water. Electric stove, fridge and washing machine. Radio. Books and music. Surprising, really, how little has changed in a half-century. How different for Emmazelle.

Walking the newly-opened paths of Richmond Hill gave us a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon the ways that technology has both enhanced and impoverished our lives. Emmazelle picked up a ripe sapodilla that had fallen from a tree, split it open with her thumbnail, and offered us a taste of the juicy fruit. Not far beyond the trees was the turquoise sea and arching sky, filled at night with a myriad of stars.

Go back? No thanks. Not Emmazelle either.

(Click pics to enlarge.)