Desert Thinking

I came across this excellent article, whose argument about God and environmentalism and the advance of mankind runs very close to the ideas that inspired a story I’m writing, “The Tarrying Messenger”.

Desert Thinking: Religion and Environmental Crisis by Chuck Groom

This is an emotionally precarious subject for me, as you will no doubt be aware if you’ve read at all into the backlog of this blog. I’m already worried I’ll let the ideas run away with the story and turn it into a preachy mess, which will in turn force me to abandon the ideas and turn the story into something else. So please follow the link, and let this guy’s persuasive talents accomplish what mine have not.

“Assuredly the creation
of the heavens
And the earth
Is a greater matter
Than the creation of humankind;
Yet most people understand it not.”
–Koran, S.60.57, trans. Abdullah Yusaf Ali.

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 4: Red Handprints

At the Mayan ruins of Tulum, on the southeastern coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, my camera battery died. Not in the sense that I had failed to charge it, but in the sense that it had outlived its usefulness; having lasted me some 3 years, it had lost the capacity to hold a decent charge. I managed to get one picture out of the sucker before it went dead…which ought to give at least some indication of how amazing a place Tulum is.

This building is called the observatory; you’ll note the three small offeratory shrines at its northwestern corner bear a strong resemblance to the water god shrine I found on the beach about 30 miles to the north.

Tulum was constructed in the middle postclassic period, around 1100 AD. The Mayan cities of the southern Yucatan had collapsed, and the Toltec invasion had radically altered even the most remote remnants of the Maya culture. All the buildings are oddly skewed in their symmetry and proportion, as though they belong in something by Dr. Seuss. The idea one is inclined to infer about its builders is of a ruling elite, no longer driven by the enlightened goals of the high classic, but rather by a desperate desire to maintain the high standard of living to which they had become accustomed, without the advanced knowledge of astronomy and engineering that standard of living had originally required.

Testament to this, perhaps, are the red handprints that adorn Tulum’s best-preserved structure, the Temple of the Frescoes:

(not my photo–I got this from some dude’s Tulum collection on

The red handprints are a recurrent phenomenon in Mayan architecture, to be found in ruins all over Central America. John Lloyd Stephens mentions them several times in Incidents of Travel, noting the shiver of connection they convey, the inevitable parallel drawn between the temple’s ancient builders and the living human being standing before it. I indulged in a sense of temporal vertigo, and with sudden, giddy credulity, allowed myself to suspend disbelief long enough to accept those markings at face value: as physical proofs of a divine intervention in this city’s construction. These were the handprints of a god, taking physical form to bestow his blessing and approval on the faithful. For a minute, standing there in the sun and the seabreeze, surrounded by sweating tourists and indifferent lizards, I bought into the myth wholesale.

Giving up the crutch of the camera had a lot to do with this, I think. As we had passed beneath Tulum’s encircling wall, Erin had offered me a sarcastic consolation. She said something like, “you’ll just have to remember it, instead of taking pictures.” I took that to heart. I flung myself into my senses and didn’t come out. If there was ever a moment when I was in danger of being sucked back nine hundred years, immersing myself in the experience of the Maya culture as it had once been, it was when I stood in front of those red handprints.

Look at the picture again. You’ll note the left hand appears to have seven digits. The guide claimed this was a characteristic of the grandfather god, Itzamna–along with the supernatural height that would have been required to place the prints where they were. But she offered a more mundane explanation. The ruling class among the Maya, like those of feudal Europe, valued bloodlines too highly to allow intermingling with common stock. They also valued, even revered, certain deformities. I’d seen art depicting midgets carried atop people’s shoulders like household gods. Why shouldn’t polydactyls have been equally exalted? Especially, argued the guide, since the mummified corpse of the great king Pacal, the architect and ruler of the Guatemalan city of Palenque, was discovered to have seven fingers?

When I got out of the sun and came back to my senses I looked into this. Actually now that I think about it, I don’t think I can claim to have come to my senses, or else I wouldn’t have looked into it nearly so deeply.

It turns out that according to the most recent reexaminations of the mummified corpse of Pacal, he didn’t actually have seven fingers after all. Put the word “polydactyly” into Google and you get all kinds of freakish pictures, none of which bear any similarity to the remarkably uniform and well-proportioned shape of the seven-fingered hand imprinted on the Temple of the Frescoes. Recently I went to the Body Worlds 2 exhibit at the Museum of Science–which I found, as I expected from the hype, to be on average one part disturbing, one part educational and one part egomaniacal. But they happened to have on display the plasticized corpse of a six-fingered man. (You killed my father. Prepare to die.) I examined the superfluous digit in detail, using my own hands and the others on display as comparison. And keeping in mind the extensive results of the Google search, the conclusion I drew was that even in the most innocuous cases of polydactyly, the extra finger is drastically reduced in size and functionality, even more so than a pinky. It tends to curve inward, huddling against the fifth finger like a scrawny little brother. In the specimen I examined, the sixth finger appeared to possess almost nothing in the way of independent musculature.

What I’m saying is there’s no way a real polydact produced the red handprints.

So maybe what we have is proof that the priest-ruler-architects of Tulum were not believers, but corrupt oligarchs deliberately pulling the strings of their congregation’s faith in order to keep themselves well-supplied with jade and mead and brightly-colored dye and willing volunteers for sacrifice. Certainly the recently laid bare failings of our own dominant religion lend credence to this view. But they also make it seem too easy a conclusion. If Apocalypto accomplished nothing else, it made clear the tendency of popular thought to read our own percieved shortcomings into the past. To turn history into parable.

I’d like to keep an open mind on the whole subject, if I could.

But look, there are only two possibilities. Either somebody faked the sixth and seventh fingers on the hand, perhaps simply by making a half-print followed by a whole one, or Itzamna really did descend from on high to bestow his blessing on his holy chosen. With the practical effect of dooming them to imminent enslavement and collapse. Unless, you know, he liked his worshippers so much that came down to retrieve them, and only left the handprints behind as proof that he’d allowed them to ascend.

Had it not been for the death of my camera battery, I suppose I might have been more inclined to take the rational view.

After floating out into the salty sea and seeing Tulum from the perspective of the Spaniards approaching through the gap in the reef, I walked barefoot through the ruins, over sharp limestone gravel, dodging thorn creepers and thumping big lizards, to the gateway in the ruins’ western wall. As usual, the bus was leaving, and I didn’t want to be on it. Erin left me behind with a frustrated humph, but she was the one who’d made me see the camera’s death as an opportunity. It was only five minutes I spent standing alone, looking back on the ruins, burning their shape into my memory, opening my senses to the salt wind and the heat–but I undertook it as a spiritual experience. An unmediated memory, which for the rest of my life I’ll be able to hold up against fiction and film and blanket advertising and say, “has any of it ever been as good as that?”.

A pelican approached from the direction of the Observatory. It circled the Castillo on motionless wings, perhaps contemplating the wisdom of picking a fight with an iguana. Then it sailed down over the cliffs out of sight. A little pod of tourists shuffled past me through the gate. After another moment I followed. And I felt… I don’t know. Connected.

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 3: Jungle

Something else just occurred to me that must have contributed to the sense of awe I got out of the natural settings of the Yucatan.

The distinction between ‘old growth’ and ‘new growth’ that exists elsewhere in the Americas–that phenomenon which causes nature lovers of the pacific coast to scorn us easterners and our baby forests where none of the trees are any more than seventy years old–is completely inapplicable in the Yucatan. The soil here is so porous and so thin that the only time you ever see a tree older than fifty or sixty years is when it was cultivated to grow that way.

I had been, until I arrived in the Yucatan, perhaps mildly unclear on the distinction between rainforest and jungle. Rainforests are old-growth. When you come in with the gas-powered buzzsaws and cut down the glorious mahogany to make tables for the wealthy imperialist, that shit doesn’t just grow back. The trees are hundreds of feet high, and the canopy so thick it blocks out most of the light and limits the types and the density of undergrowth capable of surviving beneath it. I’ve hiked in a rainforest before in Hawaii, and while bushwhacking one’s way around might not be the wisest idea, it could certainly be done.

A jungle is nothing but undergrowth. The trees don’t grow taller than 25 feet. I considered a few times, while traveling in Yucatan, the possibility of exploring some of the jungle on my own, the way I would in a woods in New England. Considered it for about twenty seconds, from the safety of a nice, cleared path, before giving the notion up as insane. Foot travel in a trackless jungle is well nigh impossible. Cutting a path through jungle with a machete would be like snipping a path through a cornfield with a pair of swiss-army scissors. Nobody cuts down a jungle, except to make space for farming, or maybe to construct a shamanic temple, or to clear off one that was already there so you can invite white people to it and swindle them. And when you do cut it down, you better not look away for twenty years or it’ll all grow back just the way it was.

The result of all this is that when you are walking around in the jungles of the Yucatan, they look exactly the same as they did a thousand years ago.

Except for, you know, the occasional corrugated metal cerveza shack.

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 2: Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá, roughly translated: City of the Water Witches.

I spent most of the two and a half hour ride from Playa del Carmen to Chichén Itzá reading the Popol Vuh—one of the few surviving written works describing the beliefs of the Maya ancients. The dense, oppressive heat of a Yucatan midday engulfed me as I stepped off the bus. Eduardo, the short, stocky Maya descendant who was leading my tour, grinned and asked if I was excited.

I was positively jittery.

I told him about my efforts to comprehend the customs and the idiom of a culture so removed from mine. He rolled his eyes with an wry expression that said “I’ve got one of those gringoes, have I?” But he sympathized. He told me he’d read it, as well as the Chilam Balam, the Book of the Jaguar Priest—but that they had been difficult to get through, and harder still to understand.

I was damn impressed with Eduardo. He told me later on that he was planning a five-day climbing excursion in the mountains of Tabasco, the habitat of the quetzal bird, which the Maya hold sacred. He was not only a scholar and an archaeologist, but an explorer. A giant insatiable sponge of obscure knowledge and profound experience after my own heart.

We were at Chichén Itzá for a total of three hours. I could have spent three days there–more. The ruins are immense. It took me a good 15 minutes, at the fastest pace I could muster in the heat, to make it from the Sacred Cenote, where they threw in the virgins to drown, past the Ballcourt, where they played the Game, and the Castillo, where the priests of Sovereign Feathered Serpent would greet the equinoctial dawn, to make it back to the tour bus before they left without me. All right, so the Court of the Thousand Columns doesn’t actually have a thousand columns. But there are 64 stone stelae arranged outside the Temple of the Warriors, each one inscribed with the life-sized reliefs of four feather-crowned, jaguar-hooded, spear-toting, snake-spitting warriors. I could have spent a day just working my way among them.

The acoustics of the place alone are mind-blowing. Stand before the steps of the Temple of Kukul Can. Look upon the hollow-eyed, decayed face of the bird-serpent god of the Maya, staring down upon you from above the temple door. Clap your hands three times, and from the stony heights, engineered by ancient human minds and hands, will ring back the call of a bird–a bird I can turn and walk a hundred yards to the edge of the jungle and meet in the flesh, and hear its living call.

Don’t believe me? I didn’t either, the first time someone told me. I didn’t believe it even when I read it in the books. But then I stood there, on the worn spot in the grass, in the ninety-degree heat and the ninety percent humidity, sweat rolling down my temples, and I tried it myself. And I realized I was staring at an amplifier, a PA system and a fucking vox distortion pedal made of nothing but limestone, mathematics, and the sweat off the backs of the faithful. A servant of the serpent god could stand atop the pyramid, speak without shouting, and a member of his congregation, listening from a quarter mile away, would hear the voice of Kukul Can as though the god were standing beside him.

In the Ballcourt, one could send the rubber sphere rocketing against a relief-covered wall and hear it echo back like a gunshot across a canyon–multiplied not once, but ten times.

Eduardo kept talking about the energy of the place–all the people who had lived and died, and the residue they left behind. He told us that once, he’d spent the night here–here, between the goal-rings of the Ballcourt, where the captains of the winning teams were ritually slain. He said it was something he would never attempt again.

Later on, when the tour was over, he told me there had once been a native woman on a tour he’d given, a shaman of a North American tribe, who at the foot of the Tomb of the High Priest had fallen on her knees and burst out sobbing. He started towards to ask what was wrong, to try to console her–but another woman caught his arm and stopped him. “Let her be,” the woman said. “This is a breakthrough for her. It’s something she needs to do.” He asked why. “She was sacrificed here, in a past life.”

Of course, from one perspective these are just the same kind of boogety-boogety stories you hear from the whacked-out credulous all the time. Anybody can spend the night in an abandoned house and work themselves up into a white-eyed terror if they really want. If that’s their idea of a good time. So why am I even bothering to record such things? Well, first, it has to do with the person telling them, and the way they’re told. Eduardo preambled this stuff with a few choice disparaging remarks about the demented conspiracy theorist conflations of the Maya with extraterrestrials. He also pointed out that the modern Maya are superstitious people—himself included. What he didn’t have to explain to me is that he is an educated guy, a person capable of being objective about these things—a guy who comes here every day with a crowd full of sweaty, glassy-eyed white people asking stupid questions. The fact that he manages to retain any kind of romanticism or sense of mystery about this place is more than enough for me.

The other side of it is that even though I am utterly un-superstitious and skeptical by nature, working myself up into a white-eyed, mystical-religious rapture over ancient things of wonder and beauty just happens to be exactly my idea of a good time. I consider it an act of knowing self-deception—an effort to entertain myself with a bit of magic realist fiction on a personal scale. Much as it would chagrin certain new-agey allies of mine to hear me admit it.

At one point Eduardo noticed me making note of a couple of books he’d mentioned. I explained I was a writer, researching the Maya for something I was working on. Which was true, more or less. At least it sounded more legit than, “I’m just another Maya geek who happens to have better research skills than the rest of these schmoes.”

“You know what you should really read, if you’re interested in this kind of thing,” Eduardo said. “Are you familiar with the writer Carlos Castaneda?”

Bwa ha.

There are pages and pages more I could say about my experience of those three hours at Chichén Itzá: my encounters with the native hagglers, human sacrifice, the sacred well, Chac Mool, the astronomers, the social order of the ancients, religion, and on and on. But this entry’s getting on in word count as it is. Hopefully I’ll cover some of that stuff with the pictures over in the Visions section, and the rest in the course of future posts.

Still to come: The modern Maya. Tulum. The red handprints. Probably some random anecdotes in between. And to wrap it all up, the bibliography.

Sea God Shrine

Maya Shrine, Postclassic Era. Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, México

Perhaps the coolest of the many, many mindblowingly cool things I photographed during my trip to the Yucatan peninsula. I found this shrine at the edge of the jungle overlooking the beach a little over a mile south of my hotel. The jaunty hat it appears to be wearing is a cactus. And yes, leaning against the entrance is the barnacle-encrusted, sea-worn glass cathode of a 1970s-era television.