He wanted to talk about marijuana. It was that familiar introduction to test me, to see if he could not only be our guide, but our supplier.
"It's good, you know, to smoke a little after a long day of work. I like it very much," he said in a grinning patois. He said he bought his marijuana at the top of Mount Gimie, where a solitary man grew his stock, and never left the mountain.
"He is totally self-sufficient. He is a hermit. He must be a hermit, because the police want to kill him. Some people go up there, but they never find him because he knows you are coming. And if you are not serious, if you are not hard, he does not come to you. But you go up there in camouflage, you go at night without a light, he will find you. He will point his shot gun at you and make a deal with you."
Philippe sells marijuana for extra income. It's easy income for somebody who was born with that enviable position of being able to sweet-talk foreigners. I hadn't quite made the connection that day. But while fishing fruit flies out of rum and ice, we started down that long road of breezy before-dinner conversation that you can't avoid in a place filled with hanging fruit and abandoned sugarcane fields.
How did Philippe's plant, for example, whose origin extends to Ancient China, become the most widely distributed plant in the world? How did it come to permeate Antillean culture?
"Those people out there wearing the Bob Marley clothes, those are not rastas," Philippe said, "it is a fake style. Being a rasta is a very hard life. There are very few left in St. Lucia. I only know one. They are vegetarian, but these people you see out on the streets with their bloodshot eyes, they are addicted to crack," Philippe said, referring to the recent Caribbean trend from casual marijuana use to hard drugs.
How does a plant - a plant like marijuana - evolve to become so desired by Earth's most successful biological mechanism for seed dispersal? Is our domestication of such a species an incidence of our domestication ability as a civilization; or does the plant in some way evolve into domestication for its own dispersal and success as a species?
"My children, you know, I can't make that choice for them. They either grow up to be hard-working like me, or they become dopers and sleep all day," he said to Jane, before turning to me to ask if he could have a swig of the rum.
Marijuana's drug evolved as a biological means of intoxicating would-be pests; its initial biological aim had nothing to do with man. Marijuana was at the heart of the Rastafarian movement, a movement that affected the cultural dynamic of the entire Caribbean. It is hard, even today, to find anywhere in the Caribbean that is not in some regard influenced by the style of rasta and reggae.
It's not just marijuana. Plants have held sway over every major development in the West Indies, from prehistory to today. It is not quite the history you may expect. But, it is one history that is certainly filled with rum and blood, death, sweat, romance and pirate ships. It is the history of plants in this part of the Caribbean - the Antilles. The long grocery chain of islands that swings in an arc from Cuba to the tip of Venezuela. It is a history that Jane and I stumbled on, driving up a coast on a small island at the far end of the Antilles.
Four hundred and thirty million years ago is to plants what Abraham is to Jews - it is the beginning; the time when algae first left the wilderness of the sea, and crept onto land. Not long after that, about 350 million years ago, some sort of primitive ferns planted their first roots. A hundred million years later, the same ferns that we know today developed.
By 225 million years ago, the giant single landmass we call Pangaea began to break apart. During all this splitting, plants made a giant leap. They developed fruit; the modern plant mechanism for distributing seeds. These plants, the angiosperms, were the ultimate step in ensuring the success of the plant on Earth. Moving about is a good way to disperse your offspring. Survival is a matter, as for all organisms, of spreading your seeds far from the tree. Since plants cannot move, the development of mechanisms to get their seeds traveling about the world meant their survival, even biological domination, on Earth. Citrus came about in the world probably somewhere in Indonesia. If the pleasure of their sweet taste and easy to eat packaging seems too coincidental, it isn't. They were made to be eaten. Initially, some botanists believe, to compel lizards.
That pulp of sugar exploits the sweet tooth - the animal gets sweets, the plant gets seed transportation, allowing the plant to expand its territory by the breadth of the animal's migration. Fruits hold off on sweetness until their seeds are ready for their mission; a fruit keeps itself camouflaged in green, and bitter and untasty until it's ready to go - when it is, it changes color - bright red, orange or yellow.
There is one fruit in particular, from one island in particular, far away from the Antilles. It's called the nutmeg fruit; a small but bright yellow little globe, that when split, yields a reasonable brown seed wrapped in a spidery bright red aril; a soft outer shell. The seed we call nutmeg, the aril we call mace. Although the plant grows on the other side of the world, its existence would transform the Antilles.