Jordan Thomas describes the traditional Mayan forestry techniques and their enduring tradition of sylvan literacy
The first time Don Guillermo took me to his fields, we walked amidst pyramids that were black silhouettes against a star-filled sky. Guillermo always left for the fields at this early hour: when the night was at its darkest, as if in preparation for the blinding heat that the sun would soon bring to this tropical landscape.
One mile into our walk and half-way to his field, the horizon began to turn grey, and Guillermo pointed to our left. Running alongside us between pyramids and into the distance was an old road, paved with the limestone of the Yucatán (a Mexican state). This road, said Guillermo, was built by the Maya, and it continued for hundreds of miles south into Belize. It was a ghost of ancient commerce, connecting cities that now lie abandoned in the forests.
As the eastern horizon began to brim orange, I saw that the pyramids had merged with the landscape. Mostly unexcavated, they rose like conical hills to both sides of our path, covered in trees, grass and corn. The pyramids have changed through time to occupy the intersection of history, landscape and current Maya society.
We arrived at Guillermo’s field, or rather what he intended to turn into a field. Now, the land was charred forest undergrowth, covered in blackened brush between the trees. He handed me a machete, and we began chopping through the undergrowth as the sun rose.
This machete work was one small part of a larger system that the Maya use to farm sustainably in this harsh environment. Several weeks prior, Guillermo had burned the brush and would soon burn it again. Burning the plants is one strategy for returning nutrients to soil which would otherwise be quickly depleted under the sun.*
Within the month, before the rains came, he would walk through this freshly-cleared field with a stick, poking holes into the enriched earth, which he would fill with seeds of corn, beans and squash. These three plants work together to grow and protect the soil: the beans snake up corn stalks for sunlight, depositing nitrogen into the soil, while the broad leaves of squash shade the soil to prevent over-evaporation.
This system is carried out on plots of land that are owned communally by local villages. Each year, the community decides how much land should be designated to each family, based upon want and need. Each field is cultivated for 2-4 years before lying fallow for 15-30 years to allow the forest to regrow and for the nutrients to rejuvenate.
My muscles began to ache and blisters formed on my hands, so I rested against a tree before quickly jumping back. A heavy vibrating thrum emanated from within the wood. I called Guillermo over to investigate.
Guillermo smiled. “Honeybees”, he said. The tree had been left standing in the field as a home for honeybees, to pollinate and possibly provide future honey.
Meaningful & Connected
I was beginning to understand an important point: what looked to me like a tangled mass of forest looked to Guillermo like thousands of meaningful, useful and connected parts. To me, the forest was foreign. To him, it was familiar. While the pyramids stood as artefacts of a society long faded, the forest was a living, breathing artefact of the resilient continuity of Maya culture.
The forests in the Yucatán cannot be understood apart from the people living within. Guillermo’s ancestors have been sustainably farming this land since at least the end of the last major climactic period 5,000 years ago and, through the millennia, have encouraged the survival of thousands of species that form the Yucatán biome. Each biological species is known for its uses, but is also revered for its role in fostering human life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, biodiversity is higher in areas of Maya subsistence on the Yucatán than in most areas without it, and remarkably high for a region with such a harsh climate. Traditional Maya lifestyles enhance the health of their environments.
The accumulated knowledge of average Maya farmers is humbling. For me, walking through the forest is an experience with nature, but for Guillermo, and many Maya people, walking through the forest is a story of cultivation history, spiritual significance, culinary delights and pharmacological potential, narrated through the significance of each plant, tree and animal. On a stroll through the woods, Guillermo could pay respect to his ancestors, quell bleeding from an open wound, calm a fever, and gather a salad.
My vocabulary is insufficient for describing this sylvan world, but Guillermo was raised with a language that allows him to understand this environment with incredible precision. Speakers of Maya languages generally possess almost one hundred words to differentiate soil types based on colour, stoneiness, rockiness, gravel, content, depth, texture, drainage and quality. With roughly two hundred words for different types of corn, this precision allows for each kernel to be placed in the exact type of soil that will facilitate its growth.
This is not just a system of farming, but a way of being in the world. Nature, in the Maya language, does not exist. The Maya distinguish their environment based upon degrees of settlement: kaajsignifying the community, kool the fields, and k’aax the forest. These realms are not exclusive, for there is no clear boundary that divides humans from their environment. Forests are regrown fields, and both fields and forests penetrate the village with mango, avocado and Chaya trees.
By midmorning the air was beginning to shimmer with heat, so we began to walk back to the village. Above the pyramids I saw a distant cloud, which in Maya mythology are ridden by the gods to deliver rain.
Suddenly, Guillermo veered off the path towards a lonely Piich tree. He lowered his forehead near the bark and whispered. I watched him, surprised, before questioning him as we continued down the path. Guillermo explained that people speak to the trees so that the trees will tell them things.
“Is it like a prayer?” I asked, trying to find common ground.
“Àndale, like a prayer. The tree tells me the time of year for burning, planting, and harvesting. It is like a calendar. Look”, he said, turning and pointing back towards the top of the tree. A few withered leaves rattled in the hot breeze. “The tree tells me that the rain is coming soon. I know that it is almost time to plant.” He paused. “Many people do not believe these things now.”
As we walked, I thought about the resilience of Guillermo’s knowledge, which had survived systematic attacks for almost 500 years. From the 16th century invasion by the Spanish, who built bonfires out of Maya books and bodies; to the 19th century periods of slavery and war; to current homogenizing tendencies of economic development, corporate intrusions, and zealous missionaries, all of whom intersect by undermining of the legitimacy of Maya beliefs, knowledge, and ways of life. The Maya have faced a near constant onslaught of existence for half of a millennium.
With gods labelled as demons, beliefs labelled as superstitions, and knowledge cast as ignorance, this survival is a testament to the resilience of Maya people.
Personally, as I live a lifestyle that would take several planet Earths to support, it is humbling to realize that people whom my society has historically denigrated don’t just live within their means, or the environmental means that our Earth has provided, but actively make our planet a healthier place to live. And there is something comforting in the knowledge that this sustainability is not contrived in a laboratory or carried out with cold scientific detachment, but is indelibly rooted in the beliefs, values, family systems, land divisions and language of the Maya people.
It seems fitting that the beliefs, lifestyles and languages that for so long were seen as backwards, primitive and impediments to progress can now be looked to for lessons that could help my own society avoid advancing ourselves into extinction.
Yet the true test of resilience is still to come, as our planet enters a storm of biological and cultural extinctions unprecedented in human history. Many have labelled our current epoch the Anthropocene, since the global environmental impact of humans (Anthropos) is currently greater than any other geological, climactic or telluric force. In the Anthropocene, humans are eradicating species nearly as quickly as the asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
As societies like the Maya demonstrate, however, this emphasis on humanity as the agents of environmental degradation sells humanity short. Most humans through time have existed in cultural contexts in which engagements with the environment have been symbiotic. Environmental destruction is not in human nature, but social nature, and social nature is malleable. This, if anything, should give us hope.
On the horizon, beyond the artefacts of pyramids and forests, gods galloped on distant rainclouds that would bring life to the corn, and to the village. We followed the path home, and I hoped that the Maya and their forests would continue keeping one another alive.
Jordan Thomas is studying for an MRes in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge in the UK. He has conducted research and written on food movements in the United States, Mexico, Central America and South America.
From the editors: A word on slash and burn
As Jordan Thomas explains, this slash and burn method of farming has been used with these Mexican Mayans for centuries. It was a sustainable method when population densities were lower, when farmers had more land and were able to leave burned areas fallow for long enough to fully recover. However, with populations increasing, land tenure becoming insecure, climate change creating unusual weather patterns leading to drought and soil erosion, these soils are not fully recovering. Christopher Nesbitt, from Maya Mountain Research Farm, told us that in 2015, Guatemala suffered a drought, where over one million farmers had maize crop failure. Locally grown ramon nut would have provided for them but it was removed for maize production. In this instance, a loss of a species, as well as local knowledge, led to a devastating hearvest for farmers.
Unless properly managed, slash and burn can be very destructive.
However Christopher does believe that this method has a part to play. “This is a permanent part of their culture and also sustainable. It is something to be retained and held onto. It is also something that, especially in the simplified form, has great potential to be damaging. In this time of flux and change, and under the onslaught of religious, economic and agricultural ideologies assaulting traditional belief and agricultural systems, there is a strong need to retain this knowledge.”
Antony Melville, who works on projects looking for alternatives to slash and burn, and helps communities create sustainable farming and forestry systems also agrees. “One sentence in the article stands out for me: ‘This is not just a system of farming, but a way of being in the world.’ Once slash and burn is separated from that way of being it becomes dangerous, and Honduras has been devastated by the practice done by people without an intact cultural tradition.”