Karen Sutherland and Roots Farm: Sustainable Living on the Nature Island*

Ti Domnik Tales

I had heard about Karen Sutherland some time before I actually met her here on Dominica. Then one Saturday  morning at the Roseau Market, I practically

stumbled upon her. That fortuitous meeting took place several years ago, and since then, it would be rare for me to miss a weekly purchase of her organic produce! During this time, I have come to learn that she and I have similar environmental health challenges and live in Dominica for basically the same reasons. Because of her  self-described obsession with gardening and a great passion for sustainable living ventures, many of us on-island have benefited from the ‘fruits’ of her labours. She and her partner Roy run Roots Farm, a 100 per cent organic farm (uncertified but in accord with all U.S.  Organic certification standards — there is no local Dominican certification agency) high in the mountains near the village of Cochrane Dominica.

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When a Canary Could Sing

Whether healthy or health-challenged, music has always been a part of my life.  My earliest memories include my mother’s simple renditions of spirituals, 19th  to about mid 20th century wartime and parlor songs,  as well as traditional hymns.  We had an old console which continually played 45’s, 78’s  or  other LP’s of Nova Scotian folk songs (especially sung by Catherine McKinnon), American civil rights songs (including Joan Baez), Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.  Saturday afternoon housework was accompanied by jazz on the radio and Sunday lunch was digested with classical music, courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  And how could I forget, every week, we gathered around the TV to watch the famous and enduring Atlantic Canadian musicale, Don Messer’s Sing-Along Jubilee.

When I was nine, I joined the junior choir in my church near Kingston, Ontario and was fortunate to have a trained musician as organist and choir director.  There were six other little girls – all sopranos and me – the lone alto.  I didn’t mind at all.  I loved harmonizing and was able to carry the part with my developing voice.  It was a real thrill to sing my first solo on Easter Sunday at the age of eleven.

From that time, I explored  and learned to play other instruments – guitar, piano and clarinet in the high school band, as well as singing with choral groups off and on as a teenager. When I was in my final year of high school, I decided to pursue music at a more advanced level.  I took up formal singing lessons and even devoted a year between high school and university to  intensely study  voice, piano and music theory.

Gwendominica after singing at a fall wedding during her music studies at Queen’s in Kingston Ontario in 1980.

I really enjoyed  four years of music immersion (1977 -81) for the Bachelor of Music degree at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario.  My comprehensive program of study was a well-rounded one, and included mini-recitals leading up to the big graduation concert, as well as chorister parts and a few solos with the Choral Ensemble and the Chamber Singers, and a weekly part-time job as soloist at the Christian Science Church in my last year.  Prior to that, I formed a little group with two other ladies who worked with me during the summers at Old Fort Henry, a tourist site in Kingston, Ontario.  We called ourselves ‘WAH’ (initials of our last names) and sang songs from the 1940’s.  We beat out many other performers to sing in the prestigious ‘ Queen’s Best’ annual talent show in March 1980.

I made life-long friends at the Queen’s School of Music – most of whom continue with their music ‘on the side’ over 30 years later.  We  all felt that it would be too stressful, competitive and financially challenging to pursue professional careers as  musicians, so we  went off into different fields that realistically could generate steady income, such as teaching, business and the civil service.

As I  enjoyed books and research,   I decided to study Library Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  But of course, music was always waiting on the sidelines.  Even during the very intense two-years of  graduate  school, there was somehow always time to  perform solos and contribute to the  alto line at the First Baptist Church just off campus, and sing in a little in-class folk group,  as well as the  ever-popular Dalhousie University Chorale.  In the summer between the two years of study (1982), I returned to Kingston and performed with five others in the Broadway musical revue ‘By Strouse’ (Annie, etc) at the Kingston Summer Theatre, which was then based at the Grand Theatre on Princess Street.

It wasn’t long after I graduated in 1983 that I started my career as a librarian.  I worked hard  and moved to various positions  within different departments of  Government of Nova Scotia. It was a very productive time and I really enjoyed my chosen career.   Of course, I needed music as my main after-work diversion so I joined the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Nova Scotia in 1984.   It really was a lot of fun and we had a great time putting on full productions at the Neptune Theater in Halifax and a smaller playhouse in Annapolis Royal every spring.  The first few years, I sang alto and second soprano  in the chorus  and understudied  the main female parts.  To my delight, I was subsequently awarded lead roles in Iolanthe (Phyllis) and The Mikado (Yum Yum) in 1988 and 89.  I also sang the role of Peep-Bo in Symphony Nova Scotia’s production of The Mikado later in 1989. Apparently, G & S wasn’t  enough for me!  I also joined a small chamber choir directed by renowned Canadian organist Frederick Mooney for a year or so in 1983 and 84.  It was a thrill to sing with this small group of trained musicians and put on concerts of a very high standard.  Then, in 1985, a friend encouraged me to audition for a place in the Aeolian Singers, a 40 voice four part female choir of considerable repute, which is based in Dartmouth Nova Scotia.

This assembly of ladies took their singing very seriously.  Although amateurs, we aspired to professional standards.  The Director was very strict about attendance, rehearsal etiquette and respect for each other.  There was even a policy banning perfume  from practices and concerts, as she felt it could irritate and affect  some people’s voices.  I was intrigued by that rule, as it was a first for me, and  foreshadowed what  would later become all too familiar.  It was such an honour to sing first alto in this challenging choir, and to tour four countries in Europe (Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland) in July 1986 to great acclaim.

In 1990, I successfully won the competition for a well sought-after position in a prominent library in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was feeling on top of the world!  But after a couple of months on the job, my sphere quickly tuned upside down. Almost from the start, persistent chest colds and ‘flus, severe headaches, painful eczema on my hands, rapid weight gain, difficulty concentrating and troubling anxiety were taking their toll as I struggled to run a busy department.  Added to my dismay was the discovery that I could barely sing a few notes.   Initially, the loss of my singing voice was very hard to accept. It was a tremendous disappointment to decline an invitation by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of NS to again perform the popular duet from Iolanthe  entitled “None shall part us from each other…”.  It had been voted an all-time favourite of the troupe and I had been asked to sing it with the tenor lead at a special event.

As I searched for answers to my strange illness, I came to terms with the fact that I could no longer sing.  At that time, I felt too ill and exhausted to even think about it.  Eventually, I couldn’t even work and singing quickly becoming a distant memory.   Health-wise, every day was a struggle.  But then I started to get some answers from medical specialists. However, music was never in the equation (except for listening pleasure, which certainly was  and continues to be a therapy).

Then came the decision to move to Dominica (See https://canarygal.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/healing-on-the-nature-island/  ).  To my complete amazement, my abandoned music life took a surprising turn!


Healing on the Nature Island*

*This article was originally published in Canadians Resident Abroad, Winter 2002, and has since been slightly modified:

It was a frigid night in January of 1997. Howling winds. Snow drifts gathering on an already icy central Ontario, Canada highway. I cautiously crawled along the deserted road in my old Toyota. It was -20 C, and getting colder. I huddled into my long lambs’- wool coat and promised myself: “No more of this!”

I had been ill for a long time. Heavy metal poisoning, severe multiple chemical sensitivities and persistent allergies had taken their toll on my productivity and my personal life. Unpolluted indoor and outdoor environments were critical for my improved well-being. I had not had any luck in the parts of Canada where I had lived during the past several years. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Around that time, I decided to go on a fact-finding mission in the Caribbean. I had noticed that in previous years, a southern vacation had always bolstered my health. I had attributed that brief improvement to being in the holiday state of mind. However, with years of medical treatments and my own personal research behind me, I knew that those lovely islands had many of the basic ingredients for potentially restoring my health: clean air, clean food, clean water, fresh breezes and few airtight buildings.

It was by chance that I noticed a short note in the Queen’s Alumni Review from a Canadian couple who had uprooted and relocated to the Caribbean. Calgary, Albertans Sue Toy and Dennis Ference had actually built a house on the tiny Grenadine island of Bequia (“beck-way”), a short plane ride from Barbados. I made contact, explaining my quest, and they promptly provided me with information and an invitation to visit them if I should come their way.

My decision to proceed to Bequia was made very quickly. I was curious and intrigued that other Canadians had made the leap, and were carving out a new life for themselves in a foreign land.

I had been carefully scrutinizing information about other islands. All of the travel guides promoted Dominica (“dom-in-EE-ka”) as a place that appealed to nature lovers and adventure travellers. This English-speaking island is located between the French West Indian islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. It offered neither 5-star hotels, nor long stretches of white-sand beach. Instead it boasted of a magnificent rainforest and other natural wonders as the self-proclaimed “Nature Island of the Caribbean.” These appealing descriptions certainly caught my attention.

When I called to book a room, the staff member at Dominica’s Springfield Plantation Guest House (now a research centre) assured me that they would accommodate my special needs upon my arrival from Bequia. They even offered natural foods and pure spring water. It sounded like just the right ticket and I was very excited.

After a full day of travel from Toronto, I jet-hopped from Barbados to St. Vincent and then to Bequia. The soft warm breezes, colourful scenery and fragrant flowers took the edge off of my permanent chill and sharpened my senses after the dull, dreary Canadian winter.

When I met up with Sue Toy and Dennis Ference, their extension of Canadian/Caribbean hospitality could not have been finer. Their beautiful home, set on a hill overlooking the harbour was aptly christened “The View,” with its stunning sunsets over the sea. They graciously entertained me with a huge meal of local dishes, which included stuffed Mahi-Mahi (fish), christophenes in coconut milk, brown rice, green salad and fresh fruit salad for dessert! (Sue is a gourmet cook.) They gave me a sense of island life and many examples of the differences between Canadian and West Indian cultures. Dennis stressed that it is very important to have a lot of patience and a tremendous sense of humour when living in a developing country.

Tiny Bequia was very lovely – quaint beaches, intimate cafés, and beautiful sailboats in the harbour. But somehow I didn’t feel as well as I thought I would there. A nearby garbage dump burned its refuse. The smoke occasionally drifted over the town. Also, drinking water had to be boiled because it was held
in cisterns. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and did return last year to renew acquaintances with my first expat Canadian friends.

I then travelled on to Dominica. The journey on the small turbo-prop aircraft was a harrowing one. Jet fuel fumes and on-board spraying of insecticides had me almost incapacitated by the time I reached St. Lucia, my in-transit destination. When I boarded the plane for Dominica two hours later, I could not have cared less about anything because I was feeling so ill. After an hour or so and a bumpy landing, I was at Canefield Airport in Dominica. I stumbled off the plane, doubled over with pain and unrelenting nausea. I was not sure if I could make it to the terminal without assistance.

The Springfield complex is nestled in the edge of the rainforest.

Amazingly, I took a few breaths of fresh air and I immediately began to feel better. In the taxi en route to Springfield, which is 1,200 feet above sea level, I gazed with awe and fascination at the lush green beauty all around me, and the stunning views of the northwest coast as we climbed higher and higher. It seemed incredible. I was very tired, but hardly felt ill at all by the time I pulled into Springfield.

There, the very caring and concerned manager greeted me. She appreciated my special needs and went to great lengths to ensure my every comfort. We removed an area rug from the room and she had the maid remake the bed with my own sheets, which I had brought from Canada. The charming space was laden with antique furniture and offered a spectacular view of the Antrim Valley right down to the Caribbean Sea. My room was set farthest away from the kitchen, the road and the parking area. Therefore, I could not be exposed to any type of fumes.

View of the Caribbean Sea and the Antrim Valley from Springfield

I was delighted with the home-cooked meals, full of fresh local fare. The tranquility of this “heaven on earth” captivated me. I was content to sit for hours on the veranda and gaze down the valley towards the sea. Doves cooed, crickets chirped, huge frogs, called “mountain chickens,” called to each other in the night. Sometimes the evening din of the insects in the forest was deafening. But I didn’t mind one bit. This pristine setting, also a wildlife preserve, had a soothing effect on me. The rushing river nearby was a refreshing place in which to dip in the late afternoons. Walking trails behind the guesthouse provided plenty of opportunities to stretch my legs and quietly contemplate my next move.

Apart from making myself at home at Springfield, I did take an island tour, a hike to magnificent Middleham Falls, and a tour of Roseau, the capital. I was also impressed with the warm, friendly people I encountered everywhere, who were very willing to provide directions and offer advice about living in their country.

When I returned to Canada after this brief visit, I was sold on Dominica. However, I wished to proceed cautiously as it would be a major step to move overseas. After a few lengthier stays, I decided that a migration to Dominica would be in my best interest, health-wise.

Almost five years later (15 as of 2012!), I am still on the Nature Island.

Of course, being a resident is not the same as being a tourist. There have been many challenges and I have learned personal lessons here that did not present themselves in Canada. I am very grateful for this opportunity to live in another culture.

Gwendominica returned to Springfield to attend a wedding reception in 2001.

Although I no longer reside at Springfield, I return there whenever possible and continue to be enraptured with its natural splendour. I am fortunate to be able to rent a modest home south of Roseau in a clean quiet area. I have a spectacular view of the Caribbean Sea and the nearby mountains. My recovery has been slow, with some setbacks. However, I firmly believe that had I continued to live in Canada, I would not have made any progress at all.

In the summertime, I have been able to return to my homeland for follow-up medical treatments. It is always nice to reunite with family and friends and to enjoy the diverse cultural and culinary offerings in the Greater Toronto Area. But by the time late August rolls around, I am usually feeling much worse. The excessive pollution levels have taken their toll. Then I know it is time to return to my beautiful adopted country. As the plane descends into Dominica’s Melville Hall Airport, I remind myself that I am truly blessed to live on the healing Nature Island.