“I am one of the last men on this Island to master the craft…”
I remember a special situation when I was young. One day my father brought me with him to work. As a filmmaker he was meeting with a fisherman, whom was one of the last people in Dominica to master weaving a fish pod out of bamboo.
In Dominica, - one does not discuss the weather so much. When it isn't rainy season or hurricane season - the weather is normally same, same. Sunshine - and the occasional drizzle that helped cool the environment and ensured the ongoing growth of the lush rainforest covering the Island.
This day was like any other - and as usual - we walked to reach our destination ... Scott’s Head. We lived at the foot of a mountain, below the village of Gallion, a small village placed on the far top of the rainforest covered mountain. Everything was in walking distance, - the village Soufriere, where I attended the local school, and the fishing village Scott’s Head. So in fact, we did not need to walk that far.
When we reached our destination - the fisherman’s storage rooms, painted Caribbean style with loads of different colors, - the fisherman awaited us.
My father knew him quite well so they started out spending some time talking about
life, - though in Dominica this is quite quickly done :
“So, how are things going?”
Then a longer pause before subject changing to what
the purpose of the visit was about.
Though everything in a quite slow tempo.
“I am one of the last men on this Island to master the craft…"
I was about 8 or 9 years at the time, and was excited to see the fisherman’s craft.
My father told me that they would need to do some lighting checks and camera angels before he could start, - so I was allowed to go around the corner of the fisherman’s storage house and explore the beach.
He needed not say this twice !
Off I went, to see if I could find something interesting that had washed ashore - or as I liked to imagine - the dolphins and water alfs had placed on the beach for me to find - as a gift from the Ocean.
But turning around the corner, I quickly realized that I would probably not find that much,
since the beach was full of different fishing boats and fishing nets getting cleaned by other fishermen - most of whom I knew.
So instead I payed attention to the way the fishermen cared for their nets and boats - maintaining them, to make sure they lasted as long as possible.
But a bit further down the beach I saw two young fishermen that I had never seen before.
They were wearing beach pants and tank tops, and carried flippers and a mask.
They carried a harpoon and a wire, - where a horrible mixed bulk of juvenile lobsters, octopuses, parrotfish and flounders were hanging lifeless...
The two young fishermen walked to a pickup truck, threw their gear in the back of the truck, and jumped inside, - rushing on to the next location.
The usual fishermen in this area only used boats, rafts, - or fish pods. And most of the fishermen were actually incapable of swimming.
So the “Undersea Hunters” - or spear fishers, normally came from other places around the Island - and they were growing to become a problem...
Soufriere and Scott’s Head was situated around a giant blue bay - which was a marine protected area (MPA). Still, fishing did occur - but was limited and would target species like Silversides, Barracuda - Mahi-Mahi, and Swordfish, often at deeper waters or in the never calm Atlantic Ocean, around on the other side of Scott’s Head.
But, the spear fishers were a problem, - since the only fish/animal they would target, would be the ones on shallow waters - where the spear fishers were able to dive and shoot them.
This meant that they would actually target anything that moved - including sea turtles, stingrays etc.
For this reason, I actually disliked the spear fishers.
I rushed back to my father and the fisherman, whom were now ready to start the recording.
“Oh - good Your back - We will start the recordings now!”
I sat down in the shade next to the fisherman, but far enough to avoid messing with the camera angles.
“I learned this from my father - and his father taught him...”
The fisherman began telling his story- about how he, as a boy began training the special craft of making fish pods.
I remember that I was fascinated by his hands... his hands were huge, - and the palm of his hands were almost covered in elephant like thick skin ...
I remember I thought : “it’s just like the foot soles of Uncle Dannyboy”
(A ship builder from the village - who always walked around barefooted- and had done so ever since he was a kid, so his feet had become really thick skinned !)
And there was a reason for the fisherman having so dense skin in the palm of his hands...
“Now, - let me show You how my craft is done!”
He reached behind him, where a fresh pile of green bamboo was stacked. Apparently there was a specific reason for the filming taking place on that exact day, - since the moon and this period of the year was the right for harvesting the bamboo. If the harvesting took place any other time of year or month - the bamboo would be too weak to use for his craft.
With precision, he took his knife and gently cut the end of the bamboo - and then, with his bare hands - he separated the strong flexible material - creating thin strong threads to weave with.
He repeated this many times - and at first he did a slow demonstration, - but then he switched to his usual tempo - which was extraordinary fast !
When he finished, he had created a small pile of raw material, - and then he began weaving.
While he was weaving the first part of the fish pod, he explained how this technique was inherited, all the way from his slave ancestors. The slavemasters would allow the slaves to grow themselves some herbs in kitchen gardens, - and would allow the men to fish -sometimes.
Though not much time was given - so the best way to make sure to catch fish, was to make and use fish pods !
But like many other things, - when time passes - crafts and everyday patterns becomes memories, and then later, memories becomes stories.
I think the fisherman had woven a fish pod in less than a day !
The beautiful shape and pattern was fascinating. Both of sight and in action.
When the fish pod is to be used, - four or more big stones are tight onto the fish pod, in order for it to sink. A line is also attached - with something buoyant at the other end, - to indicate the fish pods whereabouts!
Then the fish pod is lowered into the ocean, containing some bits of coconuts as a snack to lure in fish, - unconscious of the consequences when entering the fish pod.
Some animals, like octopuses, - have discovered that they can squeeze inside and eat the confused imprisoned fish, - and then hurry out again, leaving an empty fish pod for the fishermen. But usually there are fishes in the pod for the fishermen.
When the fisherman had finished the pod, he looked at it and smiled to the camera and said :
“So, here we have it. Now it’s finished”.
My father stopped the camera and we all smiled, greeting our respects though eye contact.
“Would you like to try?”
He looked at me and took some new bamboo. I nodded… But WAOU, - I quickly lost my patience !
The hard bamboo cut the palms of my child hands, - and they were simply not strong enough to bend the bamboo... But we had a good laugh about it.
After my dad had finished packing up his camera equipment, we walked to a small shop and found two cold beers and a Fanta.
We sat down by a plastic table. Once the table had been white, but the exposure to sunlight had turned the table more yellowish…
But the view was great. We watched the part of the beach where I walked earlier on, where I watched the fishermen and saw the spear fishers.
“You see the men over there ?”
The fisherman asked, pointing with his beer in a direction towards some young men walking on the beach.
“They would never use fish pods. They don’t have the patience of a fisherman but use modern equipment, - shooting the fish, not caring what kind, - just everything! It’s because of modern tings like that, - no one can craft a fish pod any longer… and there are not so many fishes left. They catch much more, including stuff no one eats, and they can’t even sell at the fish market.”
Then he was quiet.
I remember thinking about his words while I was drinking my Fanta, looking at the beach and bay, - watching the young men leaving by car, and the traditional fishermen maintaining their boats.
I realized that the primary change, was the need for catching fish faster and faster. Fish pods needed patience - a raft or a boat was a bit faster. The spear fishers were quickly catching everything moving in the marine reserve....
Though, this was before I knew anything about commercial fishing.