Sugar Birds

By Mary Lou Sanelli

The next time I’m back home in Honolulu and someone at Whole Foods is reading a food label as if studying for the SATs, I want to remember this moment: I am in a tiny grocery on the island of St. Croix. My vegetable choices are limited. There are onions and there are potatoes. Both are moldy. It is 98 degrees outside, only slightly cooler in.

St. Croix is one of three American Virgin Islands.


“This island,” says the director of the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts (where I’m to be writer-in-residence for two weeks), “is the rougher island. If you want touristy, you go to St. Thomas. If you want upscale, you go to St. John. Here, you have to watch yourself.”

“Okay,” I say. “You might hear gunfire but don’t worry, the drug gangs keep to themselves.”

“Okay.” I haven’t even unpacked yet.

“Use mosquito repellent; there’s Dengue Fever.”

I look down at my mosquito bites. “Okay.”

“And we’re sorry, but the air-conditioner in your room is broken. Someone stole the copper compressor tubing.”

Oh sh… “Okay.”

Frederiksted or “Freedom City” is the name of the town, named for the emancipated slaves from the sugar plantations who settled here. The mildewed ruins of the sugar mills only remind me of the brutal history of the island and the lives of abuse the slaves endured in the cane fields. Visually, it would take me much longer than a two-week residency to put all the misery behind me.

By day, I’m in isolation. Good. I have 257 pages of new editorial notes to flush out. Completing a book is … well, I was about to say brutal, but I will have to find another word now that I’m surrounded by strong reminders of the real thing. By night, I teach jazz in the universally identical local ballet studio: marley floor, mirrors, barre. Dancing is still the most enjoyable way of escaping real life.

“What kind of jazz?” one parent asks, lightheartedly, “lyrical, contemporary, imperialist?”

“Ha ha ha.” In all my years of teaching, this is a first.

Have you watched the food documentary Fed Up? Apparently, the food industry adds processed sugar to just about everything, the No. 1 reason obesity is an epidemic. It’s impossible to pass the dilapidated sugar mills here and not think of the world’s addiction to sugar.

Remember Darwin’s Beak of the Finch theory? If you go to St. Croix today, you will see it in action. There is a variety of finch the locals call “sugar birds.” In nature, the bird is an insect eater, but the ones on St. Croix had modified their beaks within a few dozen generations to live on the sugar that was spilled around the mills.

One of these finches comes to the picnic table I sit at. It could hardly catch a bug now. Its bill is formed into a perfect half-circle to feed on the granulated sugar people still put out for them, especially when a cruise ship docks for the day.

The finch turns its head sideways, lays it flat on the table, and rakes the scattered granules into a tiny pile it can scoop up.

“Check it out,” a man off the cruise ship yells.

The bird flies away. Only the sugar remains.

Sanelli is a writer and dancer whose latest book is Among Friends. Her commentary has been heard on Morning Edition, NPR.