This week and for three weeks in total, I am back in the Dominican Republic, in the old familiar place where I have spent so much time. I thought that going there would cause me to feel happy, as it always has before. It didn’t.
The first sign of trouble was the point where I am used to having to cross a submerged section of road, normally ranging from ankle to knee deep. The road was dry at that point. Just downriver from the road crossing was the swimming hole where, after a long hot day of errands, I used to cool off by wading in up to my neck. It was a calf-deep puddle, and that only because the grounds maintenance guy had dug it out with a backhoe.
The cow meadows had been flowery on my last visit, and I conducted the butterfly surveys which resulted in my most recent published paper. Now, although I do not think that the cows are grazing any more heavily, the meadows are bare ground with tussocks of close-cropped grass and scattered Siam weed.
At first I thought that the butterflies were still going strong, because the roadsides still have lots of little yellows, Julia heliconians, and Gulf fritillaries; Caribbean crackers are frequently seen on tree trunks; and zebra heliconians and tiger mimic-queens pass by with some frequency. If anything, cloudless sulphurs are slightly more numerous. But then I realized that I was hardly seeing any Calisto, and had not seen any malachites – both of which had been among the most abundant butterflies. So far, no ceraunus blues, either.
I finally saw a malachite, up on the hill shaded with cacao and breadfruit – one, solitary malachite along a road where I expect to see at least a dozen in the time it takes me to walk it. I broke down and wept. It hurts to see everything so dried up.
I did see a couple more malachites later on, in my back garden shaded with mature fruit trees.
Some of the birds seem as conspicuous as ever – the Greater Antillean grackles and gray kingbirds are still frequently seen, the woodlands are full of the songs of black-whiskered vireos, and Antillean palm swifts still swoop in swarms over the neighborhood pool. Somehow, though, the birds overall seem sparse. Why have I seen no bananaquits? Trying to recall if I have seen any northern mockingbirds. Is it my imagination, or are the palmchat flocks smaller than usual?
I wept again when I saw the lemon tree that I used to climb for sweet lemons, now shrunk to less than half its previous size. When a tree visibly shrinks instead of grows, something is seriously wrong.
My neighbor tells me that it was not like this last year; that last year had abundant rain. My other neighbors, though, who have been in the neighborhood for all of the past 12 years, have never seen the river dry up. Now, maybe we’re just in a drought cycle and the rains will return in time. I hope they do. But with the constant news about climate change, there is always the question back of mind: what if they don’t? What if this is the new normal?