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Tree Meditations

January 28th, 2013

How is a tree like a Mayan temple?

Layers. Every 52-year cycle of the Calendar Round (every time the synodic period of Venus made it halfway back around to resynchronization with both the orbital period of Earth and their own 260-day sacred calendar), the ancient Mayans built a new layer of temple atop what was already there. Trees build fifty-two new layers in the same period. Both are meditations upon time.

Some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen have been at Mayan sacred sites (like the ceiba at the gate to Tikal). Coincidence?

Kaminaljuyú is the ancient Maya city on top of which the modern-day Guatemalan capitol is built. It’s huge–widely cited as the greatest archaeological site in the Americas–but most of it is buried now under highways and high-rises. The archaeological park preserves only a tiny fraction behind a 12 foot high barb-wire fence in what is perhaps not the nicest neighborhood. Not a lot of nice neighborhoods in Guate. Like at Takalik Abaj, centuries’ accumulation of earth has turned the temples into green hills covered in jacarandas and moss-bearded cypresses (this is where I saw the foxes). At the foot of this particular tree, two Maya priests were celebrating, still at it two days after the solstice, the tourists long gone. They asked me not to take pictures of the sacred fire atop their little brickwork altar or the offerings of tamales and aguardiente.

The tree was just as awe-inspring.

Same tree from the squirrel’s POV. Also my desktop background.

This enormous, amazing tree has been growing in the central plaza in Tecpán outside the church I daresay since before the church was built. Pedro de Alvarado’s troops built their first permanent military base here in 1524 just after they razed the nearby Cakchiquel capitol of Iximché, at the ruins of which I spent the night of Ojlajuj Baktun. I have never seen a tree like this–it’s clearly some kind of conifer, but the foliage is fernlike, soft to the touch, though much thicker than a fern’s. I’ve researched to the end of my ability and I can’t figure out what it is. The twitter of a thousand birds in its canopy competed with the ranchero band ringing in the new era at the other end of the plaza. I sat on that wall with my back to its trunk and ate a chocolate-covered frozen pineapple.

Laguna de Chicabal is a tiny volcanic crater lake in Quetzaltenango department that spends about half its time inside a cloud. On the trail descending to it from the mountain, a hand-cut wooden sign asks visitors to stop and ask permission of the Mam ancestors before going on. On the path around the shore are twenty altars piled with calla lilies and carnations, each corresponding to one of the twenty days of the month in the Mayan ritual calendar. I paced it out labryinth-style, thinking of nothing, while the cloud condensed in gray jewels on my eyebrows. This tree corresponds to the altar of Noj, day of self-reflection and creative thought.

Next, maybe some temple meditations.

   Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor, Religion, Travel, Trees | No Comments »

Whose Dawn?

January 14th, 2013

What by way of inertia we here came to call the end of the world, the Mayan apocalypse, I spent in Guatemala, the center of the Mayan world.

Now that the grand tidal wave of misinformation has crashed and the world didn’t end, I’ve had trouble figuring out what name to give that strange night’s vigil. “The end of the world” doesn’t work anymore. “Winter solstice” doesn’t quite cover it. The Mayans, both ancient and modern, called it 13 Baktun, or Oxlajuj Baktun, meaning simply that it represented, depending on how you want to count, either the beginning or the end of the thirteenth unit of 144,000 days since they started keeping track in 3114 BC. The Guatemalan tourism department’s propaganda machine has been calling it “the new dawn of the Maya”, plastering the words all over posters and websites like they’re a catchphrase for the latest summer popcorn doomsday movie—meaning, depending who you ask, either that it’s the dawn of a new golden age for the Maya, their culture will regain and even surpass what it achieved at its peak, its people will be respected again etc…or else that it’s merely the dawn of a new age the Maya happen to have predicted, but which is really up for grabs in terms of whose new dawn it will actually turn out to be.


Temple 3, Iximche archaeological site, Tecpán, Guatemala, half an hour before sunset, December 20th, 2012.


Temple 3 again, with ghost, wind and Orion, sometime after midnight on the 21st.

I’m not sure if anybody actually believes in the former interpretation. Certainly a lot of people are hoping for it, many of whom I heard speak or sing or pray at the ruins of Iximche in the cold, windy hours from the afternoon of the 20th through the morning of the 21st, as the sun’s last rays slipped from the surface of the altar, the moon and the constellations of the Feathered Serpent and the Seven Hundred Boys rose and set. When it came my turn to throw my candle on the sacred fire and light up the ceremonial cigar graciously provided for me by the Ministry of Sports and Culture, I prayed for that too. But I’m not holding my breath.

Smart money, sadly, must lie with the latter interpretation, which has been taken to heart by every one of Guatemala’s 28 political parties and pretty much everybody with a soap box or a chunk of rubble to lift them half a head above the crowd. A few days earlier, I happened to show up at the ruins of Zaculeu at the same moment as “next president of Guatemala” Manuel Baldizón (I strongly advise you not click that link without first turning down your computer volume), mid promo tour, solidifying his position as prophesied leader of the new era acclaimed by several local beauty queens and a half dozen white guys dressed in rented monkey and jaguar costumes. Surrounded by late Classic temples half-assedly “restored” with concrete in 1947 by the United Fruit Company, he somehow managed to keep a straight face as he promised to represent all Guatemalans, not just robber baron industrialists in geek-rimmed glasses like himself, but Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, even Garifuna, and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity blah blah blah blah facepalm.


Baldizón at Zaculeu (nerd glasses, center right) with beauty queens and monkey man. Click for full size.

In case the above hasn’t made it obvious, nobody I met in Guatemala thought the world was ending. Nobody even brought it up—with the notable exception of a Korean 24-hour news reporter who interviewed me on the morning after. He asked what I was planning to do if the world actually ended. I disappointed him; I had absolutely no plans for that contingency. Hadn’t even considered it. Funny: I know exactly, down to the letter, what I’m going to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse—but the Mayan apocalypse would have caught me unawares. Good thing it didn’t happen.

He asked what I was doing there.

“I’m here,” I told him, “to find out what the real Maya think.”

Because I didn’t know. For all my research, for all the ranting I’ve done for years on this very subject, all my information has come from outsiders—white people, mostly—the kind who’ve spent decades sitting in jungle mud puzzling out fanciful interpretations of crumbling reliefs left behind by a decadent, brilliant civilization disappeared these thousand years without once looking up at the quiet, calm-eyed guide who led them here and wondering how or even if the one could have engendered the other.

Guatemala, like the US, like every other nation in the Western Hemisphere, lives with the legacy of its colonial past: a disenfranchised indigenous population, descended from those who lived there before everybody else showed up, but lacking nearly any say in what’s done with land that was once theirs. Unlike the US or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere besides Bolivia and maybe Peru, Guatemala’s indigenous population, with dozens of unique cultural groups and even more distinct languages than there are political parties, is actually the majority, yet they have if possible even less of a voice in their government and the world, less recourse to combat the appropriation of their lands, resources, and yes, their culture. Guatemala has yet to issue its indigenous peoples any casinos, if you follow me.

Perhaps you heard how in advance of 13 Baktun, Mexico banned Maya peoples from performing ceremonies at their own ancestral temples. Perhaps you wondered, like I did, why the hell anyone would do that. It didn’t take long to figure out. What bigger soapbox could the modern Mayan people hope for than the summit of an ancient Mayan temple on the day the whole world is waiting for the not-apocalypse they never predicted? If you’ve spent decades, centuries marginalizing those people, you’re probably not going to be particularly interested in letting anybody hear what they have to say. Especially if you’ve made big plans to invite a bunch of foreigners and charge them a lot of money to see the same ancestral temples, especially if those foreigners have collectively deluded themselves into thinking the Mayans whose doomsday prophecy they’ve bought into have been dead for a thousand years and at the same time developed some not very complimentary opinions about the state of your democracy.

We’re talking about countries who put ancient, jewel-bedecked Maya kings on their money. Can you see how the sight of a bunch of poor, oppressed actual Mayans might be muddying the message?

Everywhere I went in Guatemala, I saw evidence of the (overwhelmingly non-indigenous, non-Maya) government appropriating Maya cultural icons to promote tourism, validate the regime and foster a sense of national identity. In Guatemala City there’s a giant chrome and glass mall designed to look like a Mayan temple. At Zaculeu there was Baldizón, riding the crest of a populist political campaign funded by the sale of mining rights to indigenous lands in El Petén. At Iximche, while the real Maya were quietly murmuring prayers around a fire, the government carted in truckload after truckload of armed police, a stage and sound system, a garishly-painted plywood ballcourt and a bunch of white guys dressed up in feathers and beaded loincloths to reenact the ballgame to the tinny sounds of recorded birdsongs and thumping synthesized bass. Granted, at least they let the Maya people be there and take part. But there were, very clearly delineated, the fake government-sponsored prayers and the real indigenous prayers. The fake ones (amplified, with backing vocals) talked about a bright future. The real ones talked about a harried, tortured present.

And given all the bullshit about apocalypse we’ve been telling ourselves for years out here in the rest of the world, it’s those real prayers we need to hear, to remind us what’s still at risk.


Protesters at Iximche. Translation: 13 Baktun is our time, the time of the people. No to the illegal development of electric power. No to the privatization of natural hot springs. No to the privatization of communal lands. Repeal of the General Mining Law.

So. I’ve got a soapbox here, a little one. And despite being well aware of the problems involved in my being the one to tell you this, I still think it’s better if I say it than nobody.

Here, as best I can remember and in paraphrase, from a seven-page manifesto I heard read aloud in Spanish and Mam at Iximche on the first morning of the new era by a pot-belied Mam gentleman in a straw hat and scraggly black beard, is what the real Maya think.

This isn’t your new dawn, it’s ours. Stop trying to take it from us. Stop trying to profit from our culture. Instead, listen to our ancestors for a change. If you don’t want there to be a real apocalypse, stop destroying the earth. Stop damming and poisoning our rivers. Stop dumping pollutants into Lake Atitlan. Stop bulldozing our forests. Stop mining for gold. Stop evicting us from our lands. Stop massacring our people. Stop pretending like it didn’t happen. Stop pretending like we don’t exist. Archaeologists: stop saying the Maya are extinct. Let us live and speak and teach our children and practice our culture and languages in peace, or else this new Baktun will be even worse than the last one.

Update 1/31/2013: I’ve been looking for the full, real version of the above massively abridged, painfully subjective recollection. El Nubo has a printed copy, which I hope she’ll eventually post over at Cultural Survival; in the meantime, here’s an earlier edition of the same manifesto: Second Declaration of Iximche (en Español).


Zaculeu Temple 1, with flowers and ashes.

   Altars, Angry, Environmentalism, Guatemala, Religion, Trees | 2 Comments »

Writing in the Woods

September 27th, 2012

I don’t know why I never thought of it before now. To be honest, I probably did think of it, but until now always decided, based on personal insecurities, qualms about walking too close behind Thoreau, that it was a bad idea.

I have intermittently carried my little notebook with me when I go hiking, to jot down notes, fragments. I come up with good ideas in the woods, though they’re most often of the stopgap variety, something that will get me over whatever hump I was banging my head against back at my desk, but fails to help me anticipate the next hump or perceive the underlying flaw that is the cause of these humps. Often I come up with half a dozen stopgap ideas on an hour’s hike and forget all but the least useful one. It was nice recently when I realized I could take notes in my iPod, which I pretty much always have with me. Still, too often I forget to use it.

Until yesterday I had not seriously considered the possibility of actually, committedly writing in the woods, of taking my laptop, sitting somewhere with my back to a tree trunk and knuckling down. I suppose this inspirational windfall is made available to me now because of an advance in technology: I now have a cutting-edge-as-of-Spring-2011 laptop that will reliably last 5 or 6 hours on a battery charge with the screen brightness turned all the way up. Hooray! I have caught up with the future. The technopaganism proponed by Willow in Season One Buffy is suddenly an actual, viable option.

I haven’t thought nearly enough about technopaganism. It seems the time may be ripe? More on that in the near future, maybe.

So today I went into the woods to write. It was too cold in the morning, but by noon, it was sunny and the temps hit 60, so rather than chicken out and end up hating myself after drooling all over myself with excitement at the idea the evening prior, I packed a lunch, laptop, book, cane, camera, mushroom-hunting kit, water bottle, hoodie and scarf and ventured forth.

So far it has gone amazingly well. Turned out I didn’t need the scarf. I was perfectly able to regulate my temperature as long as I kept in at least partial sunlight. When I got cold, I got up and took a walk. When I ran out of ideas, I took a walk. Or I picked up Little, Big and read a scene, or even two sentences, and bam, I was off again. Honestly I cannot think of a more appropriate, serendipitious book to be reading at the start of this experiment. Maybe it’s what gave me the idea.

The other benefit, the one that is so completely obvious I feel like kicking myself it took me this long to notice, is the surroundings. I sit at my desk in my office. It is packed with books and interesting supposedly inspirational objects I have picked up in my travels. But I’ve stared at all these books and doodads for thousands of hours by now. They have lost their inspirational capacity. Anyway, they sit there in the same office at the same desk while I’m writing computer code the other 80% of my life. It just doesn’t work anymore. So–I go out. I go to a cafe with a kickass view and good beer, like the Bookmill. I go to a big, old library with weird nooks and corbeled vaulting. Yes, these places are better. There’s new things to look at, different things, and I have made the effort to get there, so I might as well knuckle down. But in these places, there’s people buzzing around everywhere. There’s the internet. So I resort to my computer desktop background. Sigh, yes, it is a last resort. Yet it does give me solace, because it’s something I can change at a whim with no effort to give me something new to stare at. I hit the F11 key and gaze off into whatever woodland scene or mountain peak I last stood on with a camera. Sometimes I put my hands up around my peripheral vision like blinders and try to pretend I’m there. Then, sigh, I hit the F11 key again and go back to the blank page.

Are we seeing the obvious solution here? Is it absurd that I have not thought of this in 15 years? Yes, yes it is! Why would I not just go to that place I have been imagining myself to be, such that when I run out of ideas, instead of staring myself cross-eyed at pixels, I can look away from the screen and see an actual, 360 degree, fully olfactory and tactile woodland scene?

Also, not insignificantly, the woods do not have internet.

In the four hours I’ve spent in the woods since noon, sitting in 5 or 6 different locations–blood-red sumac grove, sun-bleached picnic table amid wildflowers, boulder, silver birch on hillside overlooking swamp, different sun-bleached picnic table under dead apple tree–I have written some 1500 words. Doesn’t sound like much to you big city writers, but for me I normally can’t hit that in a week.

Huzzah. Baby steps.

It won’t work in the dead of winter. It won’t work in the rain or the burning-bright, mosquitoey summer. But in late summer/early fall, when the sunlight is warm and the shadows cool and the bugs are singlemindedly absorbed in finding those last flowers to nectar up at before frost hits….

I think I may write a novel in the woods.

   HM, Trees, Writings | 1 Comment »

Country Mouse in the City

August 23rd, 2010

I have moved from the pasture to the townhouse, where the food is more abundant and delicious, the company more worldly, but ruder, and the cat more bold. I have returned like Prospero to Venice, like Orsino from Arcadia. I’ve left the greenwoods of Barnesdale for the cobbles of Nottingham, like Robin going to the party in disguise.


This is NC Wyeth’s classic endpaper illustration for the Paul Creswick Robin Hood of 1903, which is available in its entirety (except of course for shiny dustcover, lovely old-glue smell, cloth binding and old timey faux-cut pages) at Sacred Texts of all places–folklore passing into myth, myth into religion?


This is Boston from Peter’s Hill, at the south end of the Arboretum. In the middleground is the conifers section, I think: larches from Europe, Douglas firs, even a couple of dawn redwoods from China, mixed in with our local hemlocks and pines.

The availability of green space, to my surprise, is not all that much diminished. Instead of Mt. Sugarloaf, I’ve got the Arboretum. The Blue Hills replace the Holyoke Range. Instead of Mt. Toby, the Emerald Necklace. Of course, it’s all rather more well-traveled than I’m used to, and the forage isn’t nearly as good, what with all the groundwater being contaminated with oily city ick. But I’ll manage, I think.

I don’t get nearly as many weird looks as I’d have expected for walking around town with a big stick. No more than I did in the Valley, anyhow.

   Art, Environmentalism, Summer, Trees | 5 Comments »

Eye Tree

February 6th, 2010

   Banner, Guatemala, Trees | No Comments »

Expatriates and Homebodies

January 17th, 2010


A coati in the gardens outside Tikal.
Nasua narica

So I went to Guatemala the other week.

I don’t get to travel that often. Travel costs a lot, and my life strategy has been to spend just barely enough of my time working to keep myself alive, so as to have as much free time for writing as possible and not much else. I have heard this strategy questioned more than once exactly on the basis that it doesn’t permit me to travel. “How can you have anything to write about,” goes the conventional wisdom, “when you haven’t done anything?” My college advisor asked me that, among others. It sort of pissed me off. I’d like to give more credit than that to the imagination: sure, you can’t write compelling fiction in a vacuum, and yes, uncountable great writers spent their lives wandering the earth. But it’s a matter of how you look at the world, not what you’re looking at. Thoreau never left New England. Emily Dickinson barely left her house. There are new and unique things to see, even in things you’ve looked at a hundred thousand times.

That said, every time I do manage to abroad, I come back with ideas spilling out my ears–like what happened when I went to Yucatan. The conventional wisdom isn’t wrong, it’s just narrow. And it presupposes a certain level of financial independence, doesn’t it? Travel is hard–not just emotionally and physically (as I have well learned), but financially. So is writing. Just ask Nabokov, Lord Dunsany, or Anthony Bourdain: it’s a lot easier to bum around the world telling awesome stories when you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from. But nothing beats experience.

Upon returning from Guatemala, I have gained the following:

  • Exactly 25 angry red mosquito bites, mostly on my ankles, hips, and the backs of my knees, that will not f’ing go away.
  • Stomach parasites.
  • A persistent, atmospheric lightheadedness that, for a few moments before waking, makes me believe I never left. Or else that I’m entering the preliminary stages of a mushroom trip. Whether this has something to do with the aforementioned parasites, maybe in the style of those freaky bugs that alter the personality of rodents to make them more inclined to commit suicide by cat, I know not.
  • Enlightenment.

Was all of the former worth the latter? Yes.

So for a little while, this blog is going to turn into a travelogue.


A colossal ceiba tree that grows at the gate to Tikal.
Ceiba pentandra

More next week.

   Banner, Guatemala, Hedonism, HM, Trees, Visions, Writings | 5 Comments »

No Parking

October 28th, 2009

Is what this sign used to say, before I messed with it, when I found it in the woods full of bullet holes and being eaten by this tree:

Not sure what I’m going to do with it now. Already got a perfectly good, conveniently scalable mossy skull for graphic purposes. Probably not going to change it, if ever I get around to designing ye blog theme v.3.

So. Anybody got a noble cause for which they might require a picture of some words, any words at all, on a bullet-riddled street sign getting eaten by a tree?

   Banner, Design, News, Trees | 2 Comments »

To Eat and Drink of Trees

September 15th, 2009

The newest entry in my occasional blog series on homebrewing is live on the Small Beer Press site.

In this one, I go on a pine-needle eating spree, brew some beer with spruce tips in place of hops, and then proceed to party like an 1830s New England housewife.

And by the way, just in case anyone is actually syndicating these, the location of the Literary Beer RSS feed has changed to the following:

http://www.smallbeerpress.com/?tag=literary-beer&feed=rss2

   Beer, News, Trees, Writings | 2 Comments »

Tree Fist, with Padlock

June 21st, 2009


Hale Reservation, Westwood, MA

What would happen if you opened it? And who has the key?

Happy Solstice.

   Summer, Trees, Visions | 4 Comments »

Nocturnes?

January 11th, 2009

Yeah. I’m a Whistler fan.


Birch and oak near dark.


Shadows of my backyard apple tree by the almost-full moon.


The tree casting the shadow.

   Art, Trees, Visions, Winter | No Comments »

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