Monday, April 22, 2013

The Fate of American Empires

Like the current American empire, Mayan civilization was formed around highways. The watershed of the mighty Usumacinta (Sacred Monkey River) was the Route 66 that bound together an interstate network grid, crisscrossing today's Belize, Guatemala and southernmost Mexico. Cities were built next to freeway on-ramps (headwaters). Motels and fast food (canoe beaching sites and stackable corn tortillas) were available at regular intervals. There were even drive-thru churches (travel deity shrines).

Not satisfied with organic local produce and quaint indigenous culture, the Maya swapped and bartered with sleazy river-traveling salesmen advocating consumerism and globalization. (Greedy American bastards! Read all about them in Michael Moore's lesser-known work Stupid Brown Men.) Tragically, when Occupy Usumacinta Street staged a sit-down road blockade, they all drowned. Since Ferraris hadn't yet been invented, middle-age Maya men who possessed both sea shells and cocoa beans were serious babe-magnets. At least, as serious as humans can be taken.

Tourists zipping rental cars from one Mayan ruin to another seldom understand the meaning of all this. Our perspective is warped. Thanks to satellite maps, we know more of how Mayan civilization looked to its heavenly gods than its terrestrial citizens. We grasp which ruins are on the same tour circuit but not the same river circuit. We know which pyramids are excessive uphill climbing for seniors but not which pyramids were too much upstream paddling for traders. We need a more hiking-boots-on-the-ground perspective. Otherwise, we risk the modern tendency to lose touch with natural reality and consider ourselves the gods looking down from the sky.

In Sacred Monkey River, author Christopher Shaw offers a watershed-level view of the Mayan world. He may have bit off more than he can canoe. This is a massive network of lakes, streams and rivers (both over and under ground), flowing through jungles well-known to the drug smugglers and revolutionary soldiers who hole-up there but barely mapped for the rest of us. Still, whatever floats his boat. What actually does float his boat is what the Maya called the Watery Path. A highway to hell on hot days transporting you to the netherworld of subterranean passages, plus a stairway to heaven in the night with its star-reflecting surface merging into the star-spangled sky.

This book falls far short as literature. Yet, it's unique in offering a holistic and water-based glimpse of Mundo Maya. In the Popol Vuh Mayan scriptures, the Creator made a prototype that fell short in the capacity to worship the "Heart of the Sky, which is said to be the name of God." The monkeys are deemed remnants of that almost-there creation. The crocodiles are remnants of their primordial canoes. Paddling down a jungle-choked river with these evolutionary sore-losers mocking and stalking you from above and below, it's easy to conclude one mustn't fuck with mother nature and the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but when an elitist class with a strong sense of entitlement lounges atop the pyramids (or skyscrapers) with scant respect for nature or the heavens, empires crumble.

The rise and fall of Mayan civilization may offer an oracle of hope and change for the current American empire. (Read all about it in my new book Fresh Wind & Strange Fire.) Americans have always considered destiny to be in their own hands more than most cultures do. People can make big changes when they really want to. Mayan shaman squatted into frog position until nearly delirious then squirted hallucinogenic cocktails including toxic frog secretions up their butts to transform themselves and transport themselves to a better place. (Mexicans still go to great lengths to party hearty.)

If Americans do want to paddle their canoe away from the waterfall of resource consumption over resource production, military expansion over military reinforcement and citizen entitlement over citizen empowerment, yes we can! But what if most don't want to? The foundations of Mayan city-states were laid in alignment with nature's ways and sacred worship spaces, much like founding U.S. documents defer all authority to "the laws of nature and nature's God." Yet, wealth and power always tend to corrupt. Long after both empires have faded into dust, there will arise peoples in the neighborhood with hands that love to work and hearts that love to pray. God bless the Americas!

1 comment:

  1. I've heard, of course, of the underground rivers and the other caves in that part of the world... I'd love to see it for myself.