by Larry Smith
The rocks that make up up the Bahamas platform were formed over millions of years in shallow water as layers of sediment. As these layers gradually subsided under the weight of new deposits, they were converted into limestone.The top layers were blown into vast sand dunes, and by the end of the last glacial period - about 12,000 years ago - the geography of the Bahamas was more or less complete.
But during the ice age, when sea levels were much lower, rainwater had eroded the limestone rocks to form solution holes that gradually expanded into huge underground cave systems. These were described as early as 1725 by the great English naturalist Mark Catesby, while the marine caves known as blue holes were first recorded on sea charts in 1843.
In fact, the entire Bahamas platform is riddled with cracks and fissures like the holes in a piece of Swiss cheese, and everything is tidally connected. One of these fissures is called Sawmill Sink - an inland blue hole in south central Abaco that extends 150 feet below sea level, and then spreads out into miles of horizontal passages. Scientists have spent the last several years investigating a treasure-trove of fossils found in its depths - all perfectly preserved by the cavern's unique water chemistry.
According to top cave diver Brian Kakuk,"These systems hold hidden but vital historical data on our past global climate, giving benchmark evidence of past sea levels. They are not simply holes in the ground in which to throw things, but precious containers of potable water and rare marine life - time vaults of Bahamian history and generators of tourism revenues."
Kakuk has more than 2000 exploration cave dives to his credit, and he is one of the lead investigators in the Sawmill Sink Project, having found the first fossil there in 2004 - an extinct giant tortoise. Later investigations in this undisturbed cave have turned up a range of impressive fossils - the prehistoric reptiles, birds, and mammals that once roamed Abaco.
Among the chief investigators of this treasure trove are Dr David Steadman, curator of birds at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville; and Janet Franklin, a landscape ecologist at Arizona State University. And both were in Nassau last week to update environmentalists and other officials on their Abaco research.
So far, the research team has recovered the bones of 54 land crocodiles - including some that lived 4500 years ago - as well as several giant tortoises, who lived contemporaneously with the crocodiles and often served as their prey. Among the fossils are bones from a Lucayan child dated to about a thousand years ago - the earliest evidence for human occupation in the northern Bahamas and the oldest radiocarbon date on human bone in the entire archipelago.
"We are also finding lots of bones of birds, snakes, frogs and lizards," Steadman said. "The whole fauna of the last few thousand years before people arrived in the islands and caused many of these animals to become extinct. We are finding a similar species composition to the present, so we will be able to put extinction into perspective over time."
"The big picture is still murky, but I would describe the northern Bahamian landscape just after the last ice age as open pine woodland with scattered coppice," Steadman said. "The climate would have been cooler and drier. By going back in time we can see how impoverished island life is today, and this can help us set more ambitious goals for restoration that are different from the way things are today."
To protect this unique treasure trove (which has been the subject of a major National Geographic documentary), environmentalists want to set aside a nine-mile area around Sawmill Sink as a special conservation area encompassing at least 17 cave entrances and extending west from the Abaco Highway to offshore mud flats. These sites open into more than 10.3 miles of underwater passages, with thousands of feet of new passages being discovered monthly.
The proposal was developed by Kakuk's Bahamas Caves Research Foundation, a team of world class explorers, scientists and educators based on Abaco. But after widespread public consultation, the proposal remains stalled in the Ministry of Environment. A related proposal to protect nearly 100 blue hole entrances throughout the Bahamian islands was submitted to government in 2001, but is still under review.
Bel canto means “beautiful singing” in Italian - and that was certainly the case this past weekend at a Christmastide concert performed by the Bel Canto Singers in the historic Presbyterian Kirk on Prince Street.
But these 30 singers were not Italian - they were regular Bahamian folks led by a son of Mayaguana named Eldridge McPhee. A banker by day, McPhee is a highly trained choirist who began singing at the age of nine at William Gordon Primary in Nassau.
And the singers he now directs performed stunning arrangements by Bahamian composer K. Quincy Parker (who I knew in his alternate life as a journalist) and an original composition by Sonovia Pierre, a music teacher, singer and choir director in her own right, who also performs with the pop group Visage.
As one 19th century scholar put it, "The true purpose of singing is to give utterance to certain hidden depths in our nature which can be adequately expressed in no other way." And the world class performance of the Bel Canto Singers over the weekend did much to confirm this description.
The performance included hauntingly arranged familiar carols like Emmanuel and Hark the Herald Angels Sing as well as classical pieces like Schubert's "Trout" piano quintet and the 15th century Boar's Head Carol, which celebrates the ancient tradition of bringing a boar's head to the yuletide feast - from which we get our Christmas ham.
Instrumental accompaniment was provided by Bahamian pianist Dion Cunningham, a St Augustine's graduate who is currently pursuing advanced musical studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and a group of young string musicians from Peabody.
McPhee and the Bel Canto Singers spend nine weeks twice a year (at Easter and Christmas) rehearsing their virtuoso performances. And they have been doing this for about a decade.
Love & Responsibility
Although ZNS 'news' cocked-up the story (referring to arts patron Dawn Davies as "a famous artist" among other errors), last week's introduction of Love & Responsibility - a gorgeously produced catalogue of one the largest collections of Bahamian art - attracted hundreds of well-wishers, as well as the governor-general and the prime minister.
The book launch was held at the National Art Gallery on West Street, where Dawn Davies explained how she came to implement this mammoth project, which - like most Bahamians - has "mixed parentage".
"We mixed (former NAG curator) Dr. Erica James’ words of wisdom and insight into Bahamian art with the aesthetic designs of (graphic artist) Dionne Benjamin-Smith, the photographic skills of Roland Rose and the few pieces of visual art that make up my collection."
That last remark was disingenuous, as Davies' huge assortment of Bahamiana attests. It began in 1969 with the purchase of a $600 still life painted by Alton Lowe. But within 30 years she had acquired scores of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, photographs and postcards featuring Bahamian themes by Bahamian and non-Bahamian artists. Today, her collection comprises some 1770 items.
Love & Responsibility includes a comprehensive introduction by Davies and scholarly essays by Dr James highlighting the themes of the collection.There are also sections on 15 key artists whose works are represented in special ways. In fact, never before has this amount of information been gathered on Bahamian art and artists.
Davies' father, David S. Morrison, was a Scottish engineer who came here in the 1920s to work on the dredging of Nassau Harbour. He married Susan Saunders and made Nassau his home. Davies attended university in Scotland, and later obtained a graduate degree in Business Administration from the University of Miami.
"With regard to my artistic ability, suffice it to say I have none," she says in her introduction. "I have come to see the pleasure I gain from decorating the space around me as an artistic enterprise. As my collection has grown, this space expanded from inside my home to the outdoors. What began as an interest in fine art has been of great benefit to me personally. It has driven me to learn more about the visual arts."
This large-format, 548-page coffee table hardcover is priced at $175 and available at the National Art Gallery. It is an entirely not-for-profit project, and any proceeds from its sale will benefit the Gallery exclusively.
The History of the Bahamas in Pictures
Prior to attending the National Art Gallery reception for Love & Responsibility, the prime minister was a special guest at another book launch - with an even more unusual artistic pedigree - at the Bahamas Historical Society.
An English artist named Diana Pullinger painted a depiction of Bahamian history on several free-standing screens over 50 years ago. She had been a friend of the Erickson family, who were redeveloping the Inagua salt pans in the 1930s, but she came to live in the Bahamas as the wife of Public Works Director Clive Cavil.
The lushly illustrated screens were originally owned by the Saunders family of Nassau Stop 'n' Shop fame, but were donated to the Historical Society, whose current president - Jim Lawlor - had the idea of making them into a pictorial history book.
"This book will be able to be understood in a meaningful way by children, and it will titillate the imagination of our artists," the prime minister said at the launch event. "Our countrymen and women will feel a great sense of pride as we make them more and more familiar with the history of our country."
Lawlor wrote the text that accompanies the illustrations in the book (which range from Columbus' encounter with the Lucayans on San Salvador to the development of modern tourism in the 1950s), while photographer Ron Lightbourn captured the illustrations for publication. Pre-press for the book was by Media Enterprises.
The illustrations provide a framework for a basic outline of Bahamian history, and Lawlor includes an afterword recounting the political history of the Bahamas from the arrival of the Eleutherean Adventurers in 1650 up to the present.
Pullinger, who was born in 1908 to a well-off family in London, also painted the Stations of the Cross for St Phllip's Anglican Church on Inagua, a large mural at the original Nassau International Airport terminal, and a number of watercolours of Bahamian scenes. She left Nassau in 1960 to live in Canada, where she died in the mid-1980s. The 44-page full-colour softcover book retails for $20.