“Everything was bush, bush, bush in those days. Even in washing clothes they had special bushes they washed clothes with.”
– Samuel Ebanks (CINA Memory Bank Interview)
My grandparents can remember when planes started bringing passengers to the Cayman Islands for the first time in the late 1940’s. The seaplanes would land and take off from the waters of North Sound, ferrying the few passengers ashore using a small motor boat. Now huge jet engines roar over my grandmother’s house as they land at the Owen Roberts International Airport, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
In less than 50 years, the Cayman Islands has gone from being one of the most remote countries in the Caribbean to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region. For those of us who belong to the newest generation of Caymanians, it can be difficult to imagine exactly how much our country has changed since our grandparents were born.
There is so little of the old Cayman that still exists. The old wattle-and-daub houses are disappearing, as are the people who grew up in them.
I grew up in the eastern wilds of Grand Cayman. My mother taught me to recognise the plants that could harm me — maidenplum, manchineel, ladyhair, shakehand, greenthumb, vine-pear — and then set me loose.
When you are deep in the old-growth forest, you can begin to understand the kind of challenges that would have faced our ancestors as they fought to build a life on these low, lonely shores. Here the trees crowd close, twisting up from jagged, grey rocks that are sharp enough to slice through flesh and rubber. You can imagine tracing the same path wearing nothing but wompers to protect your feet from the ironshore. You can hear the same sounds that would have greeted the first settlers: the rustle of an agouti or land crab, the cackle of a parrot, the distant roar of the reef that echoes even miles inland…
In those days, what people could get from the land and sea was what they had. Very little was available in terms of imported goods and what was available was expensive. So, people made do. They roofed their houses with silver thatch picked during a full moon to keep it from rotting. They framed their walls with sturdy ironwood and wove wattle from flexible cabbage. They washed their clothes with washwood. They cured their ills with plants like headache bush, fevergrass and mulberry. In those days, everything was bush.
Bush medicine played a unique role in assuring the survival of our ancestors in a time when doctors were few and far between. This blog is an attempt to restore some of that information to the Caymanian people in a time when we are increasingly disconnected from the natural world our ancestors had to rely on for almost everything.