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Dialogue - Issue #6

Stories of Fluorescence

Words and illustration by Christina Peake

How fluorescence links nature and culture across the globe.

My mother is from Barbados and the sea reflected the lyricism of her Bajan patois. My father was English and his tongue employed eccentricity and bluebell woodlands. The beach and the forest were the birthplace of my natural mythologies, creating allegorical landscapes of water-saturated flora. Although we lived in inner city London, 50 miles from the nearest coastline, those mythologies were omnipresent in our home. Where most people would have china or trophies on the mantelpiece, we would have corals, sea fans, sea eggs and shells: a testament to my mother’s obsessive collecting of marine treasures since her childhood. On emigrating to the UK, she brought her spirituality with her.

The beaches of Barbados were salons of the undercommons, places of congress and fluorescence. The Hot Pot was a spot where hot water run-off from the rum distilleries would flow into the waves, and this bath-hot water was where the elders from 5am would languish and discuss the political and social issues of the day. This was a place of open sky and sea, where you learned to listen, yet it was strangely incongruous to watch the grownups in scarlet shower caps and sunglasses present fervent homily.

Mum (bottom left) and the Gang.

Calypso would reflect the tensions between local communities and the burgeoning tourist industry. Every year another hotel would pop up, larger and more expensive than the last, selling increasingly sophisticated dreams of paradise while lobbying for private beaches for mainly white foreign tourists to the exclusion of local black Bajans.

The Mighty Gabby wrote a popular calypso titled Jack, in which he explicitly reaffirmed the possession of the beaches for local Bajans over the neo-colonial acquisition of public marine spaces. Today the beaches in Barbados are still public, but over the years I saw access lessened as the hotels closed off their territories, slowly restricting access and movement.

‘I have never forgotten that sense of exclusion that surrounded the beach as a property rather than as a commons where anyone could dream about what lay beyond the horizon.’

When we were young, the guards at the hotel beach entrance would let my siblings and I walk through and wait at reception, but one look at my mother and she would be asked to walk the perimeter of the property to collect us at the front. I have never forgotten that sense of exclusion that surrounded the beach as a property rather than as a commons where anyone could dream about what lay beyond the horizon.

The marine treasures that decorated our London home linked to ideas of cultural fluorescence that I observed in the Caribbean community. Barbados has seen severe coastal erosion, hurricanes and storms increasing in severity and frequency, rising sea temperatures, pollution, and coral bleaching. Some Caribbean islands are creating artificial reefs like Grenada’s Underwater Sculpture Park, an attempt to rewild marine spaces while protecting and enabling recovery of the natural reefs.

‘The marine treasures that decorated our London home linked to ideas of cultural fluorescence that I observed in the Caribbean community.’

The way that corals create a kind of sunscreen through a saturated, coloured fluorescence to protect themselves from warming seas, brings to mind events in the UK such as the Notting Hill Carnival. For many, this is a place where people from all over the Caribbean bring the best of their creative practices together in an act of cultural solidarity, subversion, resistance and community cohesion. This is their act of cultural fluorescence to insulate themselves from disenfranchisement, marginalisation and acute systemic racism. This radical act of care appears to be working as, slowly, our social contracts and values are changing.

In a similar way, the slow reestablishment of our broken faith with nature is progressing as more people fight to protect our natural treasures. I myself am working to protect my spiritual homes of the beach and forest. We all have a part to play in working towards a cultural, ecological, and social fluorescence.

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