Diary

Marina Warner

The frond of the banana has straight seams, as a good pair of nylons used to have, so it’s easy to tear along them and make squares of bright luminous green, nature’s own shot silk. Which is what Adam and Eve probably did when they made shift with ‘aprons’ to hide their shame from God in the garden. In some countries where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken – which means parts of the Caribbean as well as Latin America – the word for fig is used of the banana, so this may be another example of those inspired clerical slips which result in widespread conventions. That the figleaf is hard to fix to the body every child confronted with a Renaissance statue has noticed. Banana leaves, on the other hand, can be draped and threaded – like cloth.

In the 17th century, when savants were as keen on gardening as on the Bible, the general opinion of herbalists and botanists and connoisseurs of simples was that the banana was the strongest candidate for the original tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (The palm was preferred for the Tree of Life.) Such books aren’t always reliable guides – the ‘Vegetable lamb’, which grew on a stalk in Scythia, also makes an appearance in them as part of God’s flora. Though nobody put themselves wholeheartedly behind the banana as the fruit where-of Adam did eat, Linnaeus believed in the story enough to give the tree the name Musa paradisica. The sister species, the plantain, he called Musa sapientum – on account of another legend, that those gymnosophists or Wise Men whom Alexander the Great encountered sat in the shade of such a tree and occasionally ate a banana.

But the link to the fruit of knowledge developed from those features which make people laugh aloud at the mere mention of the banana, the same bawdy that inspired the Sun to put a cut-out banana on its front page (‘Now they’ve really gone bananas’), in a fresh outcry against Euro-madness, when ‘Brussels’ issued specifications (at least 5½ inches long, no more than 1.1 inches thick).

In the Caribbean, where bananas are the staple crop of several islands, the fruit isn’t so funny and banana jokes are wry. In the Fifties, in the Dutch, French and British islands, the end of the imperial era was marked by a transition from large sugar plantations worked for a short season by labourers, to small-holdings growing bananas that fruited all year round and were harvested by the farmers who owned them. The harvest was then delivered to harbour and shipped by companies who paid the farmers cash on the dock: Fyffes and the formerly Dutch company of Geest, who used to sail from St Lucia to Dominica by schooner before loading the fruit onto steamships bound for Britain. The banana is a kind crop: a perennial with no need of cross-fertilisation, it produces abundantly a food rich in nutrients, and provides a continuous income. In this sense it made a change from the punishing ordeal of sugar. It’s the chief export of many Caribbean countries, and it has come under huge pressure. In 2003, the Lomé trade convention expires, and the protective economic shield it now guarantees will be removed. Lomé has made it possible for Jamaica and the Windward Islands, which include Dominica and St Lucia, to grow bananas and export them competitively, against the might of the multinationals operating in Central America. In Honduras, the daily wage is around $1.50 to $2 for a plantation worker; in Jamaica, not exactly one of the wealthiest countries in the world, expectations are nevertheless rather higher, the standard of living is a little better, and a farmer’s daily earnings are nearer $6. In Honduras, on huge estates of flat ground the yield per acre is held consistently at 22 tonnes; on a good small holding in Jamaica, assiduous cultivation would be lucky to produce 14 tonnes per acre.

So the Caribbean fruit is much more expensive than the ‘dollar banana’, and its marketability is sustained only by punitive tariffs and quotas against its rivals. But, as the head of the Banana Export Company in Kingston, Jamaica told me, ‘the Americans used to get bananas tariff-free, from Colombia and so forth. Now the price is twice as high and they’re screaming.’ It’s not only the Americans who are screaming, and fighting the EU’s resolution last year to continue to subsidise the Caribbean fruit. Germany is furious, too: the Germans eat so many bananas that their consumption averages out at 19 lb per person a year. In their view, the Lomé measures flout Gatt’s free-trade principles. France is in yet another special situation: its Caribbean islands remain full départements of metropolitan France within the European Union. Martinique and Guadeloupe’s bananas have no problems in the market; they’re French, not Third World produce.

In Dominica, Dame Eugenia Charles, Prime Minister since 1980, and magnificent champion of her island’s interests, is not giving in to the pressure of international free trade. She has said that if her people can’t make a living from bananas they will not starve: they will turn to something else.

The banana isn’t indigenous in that part of the world: the word is African and it is likely that the fruit travelled to Africa from the East, possibly in the same long-distance canoes in which Javanese sailors brought rice to Madagascar two thousand years ago. Arab traders carried it across the continent to Guinea on the West coast, where Portuguese navigators found it; they took the root stocks (known as ‘bull heads’ from their appearance) to the Canary Islands, where (Spanish) bananas are still grown. A Spanish monk, one Thomas de Berlanga, may have been responsible for the fruit’s subsequent journey to the Americas, for he planted it in San Domingo in 1516; the English, those comparative latecomers to the New World, saw its wonderful obliging nature, and took many banana plants from the Spanish-dominated islands to the doomed colony of Roanoke. Around a hundred years later, in 1699, the buccaneer Lionel Wafer, who had decided to stay in Panama with the indigenous people there rather than continue to sail north with the explorer William Dampier, thought the cultivation methods worth reporting: ‘the Indians set them’ – banana trees – ‘in rows or walks, without under-wood; and they make very delightful groves. They cut them down to get at the fruit; and the Bodies being green and snappy, they are cut down with a stroke of an Axe ... The Fruit is short and thick, sweet and mealy.’

Methods of planting and cutting down the banana trees haven’t changed; but a banana grove doesn’t seem like Eden any more. The tree – it is in fact not a tree but a vegetable, strictly speaking, with no bark or wood – thrusts upwards from the ground in a rolled sheaf like a fat Cuban cigar, and the leaves push out from the middle in tender green quills, furled on the slant so that a small section glows transparent at the top where the leaf isn’t folded on itself. A single flower grows on the tree, and after it has produced an exuberantly huge bunch of bananas, it is then cut down, to make way for the ‘follower’ and the ‘peeper’ – the suckers which will in turn grow tall and bear fruit. In the heyday of the export trade, Banana-men posed for sculptures and wall frescos and other images which showed them hauling the massive candelabra of the green fruit like fly fishermen with their prize catch: a single stem might carry ten or more round clusters of twenty or more bananas each – the weight of a woman ripened from a single flower.

The flower which produces this wonder was described by an early observer, the 18th-century mercenary J.G. Stedman, as ‘something like a calf’s heart’: it is a huge bud shape, with a blueish purple bloom on fleshy red petals and a soft whey-like scent, and it hangs down and then pokes out from the end of a bizarrely corrugated thick stem in a manner that is definitely lewd. Wallace Stevens captured the look of it in a poem called ‘Floral Decoration for Bananas’, and I had no idea what he was describing until I saw it for myself:

Fibrous and dangling down
Oozing cantankerous gum
Out of their purple maws,
Darting out of their purple craws
Their musky and tingling tongues.

The future bananas hide under each petal of this monstrous protuberance, and though the light and shade are flecked under the trees’ fronds, and the earth underfoot is all soft and loamy and red-rich (the banana is semi-aquatic and sucks up water like a clump of reeds), the effect of a tropical paradise is diminished these days by the blue plastic sheaths which are used to bag the developing bunch, and which lie discarded all over the ground after harvesting.

This blue sheeting has been treated with chemicals to destroy any thrips that might mar the banana’s beauty with small dark scars on its skin. The requirement is purely cosmetic: the fruit’s taste isn’t affected. But supermarkets demand bright yellow, unmarred fruit. Jean Dixon, from the Banana Export Company in Jamaica, at first sighed, as she ran through the requirements, but then grew angry: ‘I have a background in Environmental Studies, and all the marks we lose are simply for aesthetic reasons, and we’re intimidated by these regulations.’

Videos are being used to teach growers ways of handling the fruit: the flowers must be pruned from the end of the developing banana, so that the latex (again not harmful) does not stain its skin; the huge bunches must be cut down at the exact stage of greenness so that they will not turn ripe on board. The banana boats still call weekly and still bring the fruit to Britain, along with the post (as a result, surface mail to and from the Caribbean is surprisingly quick – as booksellers told me).

The peasants who used to nurture their grove, deliver the week’s harvest, then rest (or party – it’s called ‘liming’ there) over the weekend, have had to become more professional, much more systematic and scientific to meet rising international standards of appearance. But if you look at some of the earliest paintings of tropical fruit – such as the National Gallery is showing in the wonderful ‘Spanish Still Life’ exhibition – you can see that they are never smooth and immaculate, almost laminated, the way they are gradually becoming today. When the first cargoes were landed in Liverpool, the dockers found all kinds of things still nestling in the trash – the banana leaves and stems – in which they were packed. A stowaway marmoset was then a sailor’s prize pet. Now a mere spider can put you out of the market.

Although it seems too easy to blame America, this is definitely an area where American consumerism has shaped worldwide taste and led demand: only six years ago in California, when I first saw the greengrocer’s section (how quaint that word is now) in my neighbourhood Safeway, I was open-mouthed at the wet-look glossiness, the high colour of the fruit on display: not the trace of a thrip, not the spoor of floral latex anywhere. Concealed rose bulb illumination on the stands, automatic drizzle to freshen them up every now and then. But, as I soon found out, this picture-perfect fruit is soapy and wan to the palate.

In St Lucia, where the crop produces 60 per cent of national exports, and there are ten thousand farmers (with families) and twenty thousand connected workers (stevedores etc) out of a population of 150,000, the distinctive light green shagpile of the trees hugs the slopes for mile after mile as well as coating the valley bottoms. The banana has been a bonanza crop: it has continued to bring new wealth to thousands of small farming families, it still accounts for the hundreds of private four-wheel-drive pick-up trucks and the pretty pastel-coloured houses with verandahs perched on St Lucia’s volcanic hills. ‘Lots of people criticise it,’ said one banana trader, ‘but it’s one of the most efficient ways of distributing wealth that there has ever been: actual money that comes back to the islands – weekly.’

From the air, as I was arriving, I saw great open weals gouged in the earth of these hillsides, but it wasn’t until I visited the research centre of Winban (the Windward Banana Company) that I learned what these were: landslides from the freak deluge called Debbie, which according to James Ferguson, an agricultural adviser, ‘illustrated in ten hours what will happen in ten years unless something is done to stop it’. More and more unsuitable high ground is turned over to bananas to try and keep up the supply, and the terrain can be – will be – simply washed away, leaving the kind of scars in the former forest that cannot be prevented by applying a few plastic bags. The solution would be to restrict land use to high-yield farms on suitable, flat terrain: but no politician could ever formulate such a policy and be elected (unless huge compensation was offered to the dispossessed). And then, they would still have to offer something to do.

I was in the Caribbean giving talks and reading, courtesy of the British Council (yes, it’s true, and yes, I did do some work). But I was interested before I went in the banana problem. I’d read that the hidden issue was the farmers’ easy alternative: marijuana. Though marijuana plants are routinely grubbed up by the forces of law and order, the law enforcers I met were surprisingly ready to recognise that the problem isn’t ganja, at least not in itself. It’s the crop’s connection to the drug baronies; to blackmail, intimidation, gangs, murder, Colombia, the whole invisible crime network. I was startled how often I heard a sobersides with a short haircut in a suit and a tie tell me that the solution was to decriminalise drugs. But this is another policy that no politician could ever deliver – not there, and not here. These men who certainly never inhaled, these interesting representatives of new approaches to law and order were not locals, by the way – feeling in the islands, contrary to their reputation, runs extremely high against all drugs. The ‘dons’ riding around in pimp-mobiles, flashing their cellnet phones and gold chains, provoke anger and dismay in people who work as accountants and teachers – or banana-traders. Especially in Jamaica, where the recent television portrait of Kingston as a Bronx of the Caribbean caused bitter sorrow – and of course does little to help the country’s economic problems.

The Caribbean is highly vulnerable, an area in an acute state of flux: there are 32 satellite stations beaming in programmes from Florida, and Jamaicans joke that the dish has become their national tree. The fanning population is ageing: young men, in particular, don’t want to live in the same way as their parents. They’re drawn to the luxury hotels on the coast, in St Lucia, for instance, where a sailboard coach for holidaymakers might be paid an hour what a banana worker earns in a month. It is in St Kitts (where there is still some sugar cane, but no bananas) that the problems of a small Caribbean island nation are most acute. Contact with Latin American drug-dealers, using the island for transhipment of cocaine to the American mainland, has resulted in a series of murders, the head of the island’s Special Branch and the Prime Minister’s son among them.

Against this background, the idea of decriminalising drugs may sound preposterous; but if they were no longer illegal, they could be controlled more effectively. The trade would no longer bring in the profits it does today, or offer the same temptations to ordinary citizens. Or, more important, to politicians. As children, we used to try and smoke old banana skins, as I recall, even though we didn’t know anything then about paradise lost or the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.