Right now, in between staccato types, I am looking down at the altiplano of New Mexico, with Santa Fe just coming into view. Massive snow capped peaks alongside a pale red earth desert floor! It’s fitting that I should be first setting foot on American soil that was in fact Spanish soil for centuries previous to the American-Spanish war and of course home to indigenous Indian groups for time immemorial. But it’s not yet time to share the south-western States with you; the gold harvested from Central America yearns to be glimpsed!
Some of the inspiration that we’ve received from these lands is described below. Succinctly, it consists of the writings of a Mayan shaman, the psychoactive properties of the chocolate (or cacao) bean, and the Permaculture movement taking place around Lake Atitlan. Let us begin with the autobiography “Secrets of the Talking Jaguar”.
It’s author – half-Swiss, half-Native American, Martin Pretchel – grew up on a reservation in New Mexico (interestingly enough!), existing in a strange cultural no-mans-land with western education and sensibilities alongside a deep passionate yearning for a more connected way of life. He drifted, a gifted musician and artist, and found himself, after a string of extraordinary initiations, welcomed into the tutelage of an eccentric and powerful Tzutujil shaman on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. He writes beautifully, lucidly, and fiercely of an Earth-wise indigenous way of life that has been systematically eroded, most recently genocidally threatened by the Guatemalan Christian Right-wing (backed of course by the U.S.) who literally slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women and children from his very village, only a few miles across the lake from where we were staying, in the 1980’s. His book provides an incredibly amusing and detailed depiction of life in a traditional Mayan village, and the astonishing trials and tribulations of authentic shamanic practice.
Just as an aside, I see shamans – medicine men – as the indigenous equivalent of doctors, therapists, artists and anyone engaged in retrieving the parts of the self or the community that have been lost or “split off”, as psychotherapists might term it. But they have to be engaged from a soul level, actively conversing with the energies of this world and the other. Shamanic ways are becoming more popular in western alternative healing partly because they offer a more direct experience with the mystery of being a human animal, bringing us into contact with archetypes and narratives that shape us, whether we are aware of them or not. Ok, back to the subject at hand – this staying focused is hard!!
He described one of the village policies that helps to maintain equality within the community. When an individual is awarded with Village responsibility (there is a complex system of political and spiritual power spread throughout many individuals in the village) he is obliged to host a great feast for the entire community. Fridges etc don’t exist, so all that is made must be eaten and enjoyed. In this way the rewards of success and power continue being shared amongst the people, so much so that often successful and respected members of the community have beggared themselves in their climb to power! But it means that the poorer villagers have the opportunity to eat on a regular basis and share in the bounty of the whole.
Their society is structured to continually remind all people that they are stewards of their land and culture. The offerings that are ALWAYS given to the Gods, in preparation and return for the success of any significant undertaking, are equally rich and transient. For example, unlike in our culture where we make something beautiful, say a statue to honour something, which we then seek to preserve – behind a glass case, roped off, or behind bars – or sell, they give living offerings. Things that are made and remade each year or season as tradition dictates, which calls for much work from the people, but helps to keep their hearts engaged in the sacred task of living. Hence the Tzutujil language is almost exclusively oral, each utterance an opportunity to continue weaving the web of creation into an active whole.
We got a taste of that attitude during Santa Semana – the Holy Week of Easter – in which the newly converted Christians (whose worship retains a strong Mayan flourish – such as the enthusiastic reckoning of Maximon, a Judas / Mayan God hybrid) spent hours decorating the ground of the village streets with mosaics made from flowers, wood chips, fruit and anything else that came in handy. This carpet of flowers then becomes the pathway that the the holy procession, carrying effigies of Jesus and Mary, treads upon on its way to the church. Like the palm fronds that were laid under the feet of Jesus’s donkey at the Passover. It is a yearly, quite ordinary rite requiring active communal engagement that seems extraordinary to our culture. I guess street parties are making a minor comeback… (I’ve got some photos showing the folk artistry but am unab,e upload them at the moment, so in the spirit of imperfection I’m just going ahead as it’ll be ages before I’ve got another opportunity!).
Just a few minutes walk above the Tzununa streets shown above lies a more modern example of sustainable and engaged living. Atitlan Organics is a working Permaculture farm, yielding salad leaves, tomatoes, plentiful vegetables, chicken eggs and chicken, goats milk and cheese, and hosts of people newly-educated in the ways of Permaculture.
I don’t know about you but I thought permaculture was basically boring organic gardening. I thought that in order to be interested in it you needed to be vegan, militantly conservationist and, most importantly, have dreads. My beard helped steel me for a week long introductory course. But it turned out I was wrong! It is a new but exponentially expanding field of practically inspired approaches to living sustainably. It is a system limited only by our imagination that can be applied to any area of life. Far from being about lack, limitation and preservation, it can be about efficiency, natural wisdom and abundance – us working in harmony with Nature, as we are as much a part of Nature as plants, forests, animals, ecosystems. Really it’s about common-sense.
I’m going to expand on how Permaculture is helping me find a way to approach the “situation” we as a species and ecosystem are facing, but it’s too big to include now so, next time! For now I want to close with our intention-setting on the final morning of our time at Lake Atitlan.
With the magic garnered from having spent a number of weeks in stillness and semi-seclusion, Helena and I wrote out on paper the vision we have for establishing a retreat centre in Devon. We then wrapped the sheets of paper around a rock with a few crystals and tied it all up in a bundle of beautiful Mayan cloth that we’d been using as the basis for an altar over those weeks. After asking the powers that be and, in particular, the lake (considered a powerful feminine presence with great potential to manifest vision into form) we hefted the jolly blue bundle into the still waters and watched it sink slowly down until it was out of sight. Bubbles trailed its trajectory…