Tales from Topographic Oceans

Only tenuously related to the Yes album of the same name, widely considered the most navel-gazingly pretentious prog rock album ever recorded. (No, I will not attempt to relate the Shastric scriptures to Mayan prophecy. Maybe another time.) The Roger Dean cover, however, is awesome:

See the Castillo over there on the horizon above the Nazca monkey?

The other week I was back in Yucatan. It’s been six years. Not much has changed. A lone wind turbine has sprouted over Quintana Roo Highway 308 south of Cancún, and a dozen new all-inclusive resorts have elbowed out another few hundred thousand acres of coastal swamp, though you’d hardly know it from the road except for the twenty-foot white concrete faux-Mayan monoliths marking the entrances surrounded by landscaped agave and coconut palm. The real ruins are all still there, the big ones a little more harried maybe what with the approaching end of the world, the less impressive sharing the sun-baked empty stretches between hotels with more recent ruins, failed tourist traps abandoned a year or a decade ago, their pale dirt parking lots filling with trash like alluvial silt from the underground rivers.

The coastal reef, second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, hasn’t recovered–it’s still all bleached and apocalyptic, like the ash-caked girders of a collapsed skyscraper a hundred miles long, an aqua-tinted desert broken only by occasional tiny, mind-blowingly colorful fish flitting in and out of gray-blue darknesses. If anything, it’s getting worse.

Still, the apocalypse feels just as far away (and just as close) as anywhere else I’ve been. Even Detroit. Even though the entire Yucatan Peninsula is so low-lying and flat it will likely be underwater as soon as Micronesia and Manhattan, and it’ll look even more like the Yes cover than it already does.

By the way, for those of you who haven’t seen it, a recently discovered Mayan mural at the Xultún site in northern Guatemala includes explicit references to dates after December 21, 2012. So the world isn’t ending. Which means we’re going to have to live with what we do to it.

But I’m not here to preach about the end. I’ve done that enough. I’m here to share a bit of the beauty before it’s gone.

These are not the pictures I would have taken of Tulum in 2006. Maybe the difference says something about the person I’ve become in the years between. Because the place hasn’t changed. Salt wind and time have done what they can, at least for now. And all of Antarctica would have to melt before the Gulf will make it up those cliffs. Who knows, maybe that’s part of why they built it here.

One of three offeratory altars on the cliff below the Templo del Viento–not unlike another shrine I found years ago, ten miles to the north. The coastal Maya had a lot to thank the sea god for, not least the reef, which made a natural breakwater for hundreds of miles along the shore, allowing easy trade between cities.

Masked face, Templo de las Pinturas, southwest corner. One of the last Mayan structures built before the conquest and the best preserved at Tulum. This is the building with the seven-fingered red handprints I so lamented not having photographed last time. But you’ve seen those.

I’d love to know who this mask depicts—Itzamna? Don’t have the research at hand, unfortunately.

East face of the Castillo, the large central pyramid, the side that faces the cliffs. The architectural style at Tulum is unique…of course that’s true of every Maya site, and Tulum benefited from trade with both the Mexica (the Aztecs) and the Toltec-influenced Maya of Chíchen Itzá…but the skewed lines of the temples here are different from either. There are no right angles anywhere, hardly even any straight lines. It’s like something out of…Dr. Seuss, crossed with Lovecraft. It’s awesome. The first time I was here I didn’t appreciate it—after the mathematical, acoustical perfection of the Castillo at Chíchen Itzá, it seemed sloppy, a sign of a civilization in decline. This time, after gawking at those beautiful masks for awhile, then at the Templo del Dios Descendente,
I realized it could be something else: a sign of a civilization passing its peak, developing into decadence, developing a higher (wierder) aesthetics. This curve…it echoes the sea, obviously. All of Tulum is about the sea, really: the location atop the cliffs like a lighthouse, the protected beach below, the temples to the morning star. The sea was their livelihood, their garden, their connection to the outside world.

The curve of the Castillo wall distills that to one calligraphic gesture, a sweep of a brush.

Marchflowers

They’re like March Hares, you know.


Rue Anemone, Thalictrum Thalictroides, moist oak ridge, Ortonville, MI


Some variety of flowering sedge I am unlikely to ever identify. Sandy trailside, mixed deciduous woods, Ortonville, MI


Donwy Serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea, mixed deciduous woods, Ortonville, MI


American Fly Honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis, oak and pine ridge, Ortonville, MI

After all these years of photo blogging I finally caved and started using the convenient “web 2.0” image upload features of WordPress. So much easier! Why am I so stubborn.

Staff, Inkwell

There is absolutely no use for a hiking staff in the flatlands except for playing wizard. I don’t play wizard anymore. Now all the muscles in my forearms and triceps are sore from forgetting how to prevent a fall.


Satan’s Kingdom (recently rechristened “Sen Ki”, I wonder why), Westwood, MA

A riddle: Why does one drill a six-inch hole into a granite ledge?

Answer: To drop in a stick of dynamite.

Whenever anybody wants to build a McMansion around my childhood home, or to transform a formerly reasonably-sized, non-ugly house into a FrankenMansion, they first must blow up some beautiful granite ledges. It’s been going on since I was a kid. I have not yet cried about it for the last time.

This one, thank god, seems to have been forgotten about for long enough that I can now thank the Westwood Land Trust and Hale Reservation that I’ll never have to worry about it again.

The original inkwell

February Herbs


Princess Pine, Lycopodium obscurum, so called because it looks like a tiny girl-sized version of King Pine aka Eastern White Pine, so called because its trunk is tall, straight, lightweight, full of pitch, and in the colonial era the king declared they had all been grown by God exclusively as masts for the royal navy. Princess pine is three inches tall, not a pine, and puts out little brown flowers like pipe cleaner tips in the fall. In the 70s it was endangered cause ladies gathered it for Christmas decorations. Now it’s everywhere again.


“King Pine”, Pinus strobus


Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens. Smells delicious when you crinkle it up. Indians dried it for tea. They use it in scented candles. Someday I’ll use it in mead.

God I Hope the End Is Near

How many jokes/invocations/questionably ironic references/panicked remonstrances will I hear this year about the coming end of the world? When they’re talking about it on The View and the Nightly News with Brian Williams, it’s time to give up counting. How much more mainstream can a nutso newage conspiracy theory get? Consider Y2K. That apocalypse was about Jesus and Revelations; its poor conclusions and minimal research were drawn from the mythology of (one of) the world’s most popular religion(s). This apocalypse is about obscure blood-drinking deities last best personified by Hernán Cortés and a religion legitimately practiced by far less than 0.01% of humanity. Yet already the 2012 hype seems to have far outstripped the 2000 hype. Blame the internet, I guess. It was a far tamer place 12 years ago than it is now, that’s for sure. For the title of last bastion for shamanistic folkloric mythmaking on earth, the competition is hot between the internet and one tiny uncontacted village in the Amazon.

I’ve already done all the debunking of the Mayan apocalypse I’m going to do on this blog, at great length and with much windbaggery, in posts such as Circular Time and No Apocalypse. I also have a little sidebar essay about it (as applied fancifully to the plight of the working writer) in A Working Writer’s Daily Planner 2012, available from Small Beer Press in print-on-demand and ebook form.

Instead I want to talk about how great it would be if there actually was an apocalypse.

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