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A story of hope and despair

By ANNE HILTON Monday, January 4 2010

click on pic to zoom in
The Asa Wright Nature Centre....
The Asa Wright Nature Centre....

WE BEGIN the New Year with a story of hope and despair for the future — which sounds distinctly odd, but isn’t when you know the Old House is on Springhill Estate in the Arima Valley where quarrying proceeds apace despite all politician’s posturing paying lip-service only to preserving and protecting the natural environment of Trinidad.

The Old House was the home of that determined Icelander Asa Wright that, due as much to the determination of a dedicated few, as an apparently unrealistic dream of preserving the natural beauty of a part of the Arima Valley, became the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a veritable Mecca for natural scientists, ornithologists, and, later, ecotourists.

Joy Rudder’s book should be required reading for all, and especially for those who have never visited the Centre to learn what riches there are in the natural world of Trinidad — and how near we are coming to losing a real national treasure.

Rudder begins with a brief history of the house, the estate and the various owners up to the time Asa and Newcome Wright bought Springhill plantation (as it was then); however to understand how (an admittedly failing) plantation became the premier nature centre that it is today one needs to know something about Asa’s birthplace, a land of fire and ice, with its own laws, ancient gods, and language that produces men and women of strong character — and charm.

Rudder guides us through the development of the Centre via the visiting scientists needing accommodation while studying in Simla, the branch of the New York Zoological Society established by the renowned naturalist William Beebe.

Perhaps the saddest part of this book is that recording Asa Wright’s last years when old age took its toll so that this eccentric yet charming woman became suspicious of all around her. When it was obvious that she would be forced to sell the estate, sympathisers and close friends in the US, the UK and, of course, Trinidad clubbed together to buy the Springhill estate (with a little help from the bank) to make it a Nature Centre. Asa could live her life out in her own home, meanwhile a manager took care of the Centre.

Even after Asa’s death the Centre has its ups and downs, there was a certain amount of friction between the US Board of Trustees and the Local Board Members.

The Centre came into its own when Ian Lambie became the first president; from there on it’s best one leaves Newsday readers to follow the development and fortunes of the Centre for themselves, the only exception being the most tragic of all, the very real threat of quarries destroying the ecosystem surrounding the Centre and, eventually the Centre itself.

We are told that the quarry scars can now be seen from the Centre, the blasting must scare away the wildlife that is the main attraction for visitors, for ecotourists from away and for parties of schoolchildren living in our cities and towns who come to the Centre to learn about their native land.

The Old House and The Dream the story of the Asa Wright Nature Centre by Joy Rudder is available from most bookstores in Trinidad — and, of course, from the Asa Wright Nature Centre itself.

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