The great English poet Charles Kingsley (Water Babies) visited Trinidad in 1869 to spend Christmas with his friend and the governor in office, Sir Arthur H. Gordon.
Story goes; during his stay he found his way down South in the village of La Brea where he interacted with some of the remaining Amerindian population and witnessed the wonder that is; Pitch Lake. From this experience came many anecdotes about Trinidad within his cannon, but one such poem in particular waxes lovingly of a scrappy little bird he met. I’ve yet to meet a person without affection for the tiny feathered folk. Here in Trinidad before we were a Trinity, we were Iere; Land of the Hummingbird. A title bestowed upon us by our Indigenous peoples mentioned previously. Even after the colonial inclusion, the epithet remained, as today it is still a symbol of our people and features on a great deal of national insignia. Despite these present sentiments, Kingsley’s “The legend of La Brea” touches on a horrifying trade that occurred within an earlier era of our development, the export of hummingbirds as decorative objects, hunted and killed, they were shipped overseas and their skins woven into the hats of gentry. Trinidad was a major transshipment point for this practice until the passage of the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Loudly laughed that stalwart hunter- ’Eh, what superstitious talk! Nyam am nyam, an’ maney maney; Birds am birds, like park am park; An’ dere’s twenty thousand birdskins Ardered jes’ now fram New Yark.’
The thought is too much to bear, but it was a reality of the time. A reality unbeknownst to me, until I visited Yerette; Home of the Hummingbird. A homegrown sanctuary hidden in northern Trinidad started two years ago and already holding a number one ranking on Trip Advisor despite zero advertisement. My parents recommended I go after their experience; I jumped at the opportunity. So with my stalwart friend Jenn steady at the helm off we went, following the directions that Theo, our host and curator sent via email. Yerette is set in his home in Maracas valley, and paid appointments are by enquiry only. It’s not a walk in establishment, understandably. Our journey took us up over the city on the Lady Young Road; it’s quite a view if you’re new to the island, as a local I’ve always enjoyed the scenic route myself.
Finally we made it to the marker of Yerette, a giant, mythic silk cotton tree. Turn left at the Silk Cotton Tree, said Theo; only in Trinidad. We lurched the car up a steep incline surrounded by immortelle and laden Poui trees leading straight into the garage of a private driveway. Theo, a tall stately looking gentleman met us at the entrance wearing a T-shirt stating his prominence as “World’s Greatest Granpa.” This place was already awesome.
We were led onto a small patio laid out with makeshift café tables and a view into a private dining and living room. Pristine photographs taken by Theo, featuring hummingbirds of all shapes, sizes and hues covered the walls including a woven silk portrait of a hummingbird given to Yerette by the Chinese Embassy. Turning around onto the landscape of the Northern range is something, with El Tucuche nestled in the distance; Yerette is privy to a great deal of natural beauty. All this was tempered with the pulse of hundreds of hurried wings. We were surrounded, tame little beasts darting all around my person with a dancer’s finesse. Feeders hang everywhere; no corner of the property empty of the sweet concoction Theo and his wife Gloria prepare themselves for their co-habitants. They guzzle all day, apparently consuming a comparative swimming pool worth of sugar to a human. It takes that much to keep their motors humming, and boy do they hum. It’s a constant background accompaniment as we sit and begin the show, conducted by Theo (a former UWI professor) who is a fount of information. Example, Did you know hummingbirds are the ultimate in mosquito prevention? They feast on the blood-suckers and in so doing practically eradicate their populations within the surrounding area. Also, Yerette like Iere is another word for hummingbird within the Amerindian vernacular; specific trees are planted within the garden to attract up to 13 of 17 species of hummingbird/yerette/iere and they come in the hundreds, sometimes up to a thousand; “as thick as a cloud,” says Theo. Even with much fewer than that present during our little matinee, It’s still hard to concentrate at times while he speaks. They are everywhere, acrobatic and hovering so close that snapping pictures is much too easy. This aspect of the garden is a draw for photographers, especially Theo who is one himself. His crisp and professional photos create fervor within our group as he rattles off the different names for each species; Green Hermit, Black-throated Mango, Ruby Topaz and my personal favourite the White-necked Jacobin. They sound like bite-sized superheroes, though according to our host a hummingbird shows allegiance to no one, not even his/her own. They are solitary beings, out for the sweet stuff and that’s it. Ruby Topaz ain’t saving you from a burning building anytime soon. This aside, they are so much more than a pretty face. These birds are highly useful to the environment; contributing to pollination, mosquito control and well, natural beauty. At the end of the day, their other worldly iridescence is significant in reminding us to awe the natural world and it’s wonders. Plus they’re so cute. At the end of our “live show” we were treated to a slide presentation with Theo as narrator. He went into more detail on each type of bird in his garden as well as some other surprising nuggets of knowledge. Now, I don’t want to give it all away in this piece. I feel that if I handed the whole cow over I’d deduct from the value of the experience. I will say that those little birds made me proud to be a member of this colourful diaspora; they are ambassadors for our people yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Whenever I see a hummingbird–whether on these shores or far away, I always feel a sense of ownership. They belong to me, they are a piece of Trinidad and so a piece of me.
“The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see.”