BELIZE, THE MAYA, AND THE MODERN AGE

Belize Veranda

Jim's Veranda at Belize

I recently returned from Belize, from an absolutely terrific writing workshop sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story and led by the remarkable short-story writer (Pen/Hemingway award-winner) and novelist, Ben Fountain. It was held in the Coppola-owned Blancaneaux Lodge, deep in the heart of the pine forests of Belize, two-and-one-half hours’ drive over rutted roads from the coast and scarcely 10 miles from the Guatemalan border.

Here, with very little editing, is a smattering of notes I made on the long ride back, written, curiously enough, in the third person:

“All through the ride from the Lodge to Belize City he’d been wishing he could summon up the words to describe the surrounding countryside, the jungle so shockingly green in one endless profusion of shades and densities and shadows and shapes of leaves, the quite stunning groves of oranges and grapefruits, their fruits visible but still green and small, not looking to be harvested until November; the thinning trees, scattered into singles and clumps, which dotted the landscape once it became more level and leaned toward the sea. Finally: scrub, scattered grass, patches of iron-reddened sand and clay. While still in the mountains, there had been such a choked confusion and tangle of branches and leaves broad and narrow: a forest basically pine but with an occasional eager and ambitious palm tree which – through the accident of a patch of richer soil or a jut of rock having cleared a larger space from which to suck sunlight – thrust its shoulders above the canopies of its neighbors. Even further back, across the Makal River, the soil changed to limestone, which supported a whole other ecosystem; caves and deep jungles replaced the pine, home to five species of wild cats: jaguars, pumas, magueys, ocelots and one other whose name I can’t remember. And deep in the midst of this jungle – the ancient ruins of the remarkable civilization of the Maya.

“The ruins that have been discovered and cleared of jungle foliage, and understood and reconstructed, are a fraction of what exists at the site at Caracol (many buildings have not yet been unearthed) and the buildings that one can surmise from the surrounding mounds are the tip of the iceberg of the urban and agricultural civilization that once thrived there. They understand the writing now and there is a larger and larger record to read and put together as each new mound is cleared, at Caracol and elsewhere. At Caracol alone archaeologists calculate that there were more people living in that settlement than today exist in all of Belize! The land was cleared, the farming was extensive and – when the leaders were not busy executing war against other Mayan cities – there was prosperity and relative peace among the various social orders. Though warring back and forth between one city-sate and another was not infrequent, it was not so much the effects of warfare that caused the civilization to decline (say the experts), but the effects of drought. Climate change and over farming weakened agricultural production, and the subsequent impoverishment of the lower classes probably contributed to the disintegration of society.”

Hmmm. Warfare, climate change, and the impoverishment of the lower classes. Sounds almost contemporary, does it not?

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