Monday, July 15, 2013

Primal Wilderness Rambling From El Salvador

As I scooped beans to my mouth, there was this horrifying rumble. The ground shook and the baby cried. Fear fell across my wife's face. I jumped up and grabbed them both in my arms.

A wall smashed to the ground. "We've got to get out," I yelled. We crawled from the house as the other three walls crumbled and the roof crashed down.

Outside, the village was panicked: babies squalled, women screamed, dogs barked, men yelled and chickens flapped around. Hot clouds spurted from the mountain top to the heavens. "Follow the birds," yelled the shaman. I yanked my family after the darting flocks toward the West.

The hostile mountain exploded. Earth's blood spewed to the skies. A flaming boulder smashed the ground ahead of us. The corn fields ignited.

Terror paralyzed my wife and I jerked her along. "Keep running," I shouted. Another burning boulder smashed the steam house roof. Flames jumped to the sky as w
e chased the birds in flight.

Shrouded in a somber light, I stand before the smooth milk-coffee colored clay that cloaks the ground and eleven ancient structures at the Joya de Ceren ruins of El Salvador, while these words from a Mayan farmer, relating the day when Loma Caldera covered his village in six meters of scalding tephra, take shape in my mind.

Before me is the basalt foundation of a one-room house with a small porch. Its four wattle-and-daub walls are splayed on the ground like fallen dominoes. There is a kitchen, three meters from the house because of frequent fires. There is a steam house with a one-meter tall entrance, an adobe roof dome, and a gaping hole that a flaming volcanic bomb left behind. Butting up to each structure are the unmistakable raised rows of agricultural fields. The men and women of Joya de Ceren were not priests or god-kings or famous ball players, but farmers - Mayan commoners.

Contemplative silence and gloomy light urge me to reflectively wander around the village. I want to see the people; I want to hear their language; I want to know their world. Yet, they are gone.  Inside the kitchen, a sac of corn has spilt across the floor, radiating dozens of kernels. Their fossilization deceives my mind that the spill happened 14 days ago, not 1400 years ago. A bowl with fossilized beans and fossilized scrapes from a person's fingers scooping it looks like the owner just left it a second ago.  However, there are no people. Unlike Pompeii, the Mayans at Joya de Ceren read the Earth's signs and fled the village. Whether they reached a place of safety is unknown.

The silence is ruptured by a tall, pale, husky man telling his daughter that these structures were the homes of their ancestors. Not so, I think to myself. You are of the Spanish blood that came later. The Maya with complex political structures and pictorial documentation systems and monumental temples and massive cities and a solar calendar that accounted for leap years are gone. The world of Quetzalcoatl to which these villagers belonged, that society of muralists and architects and engineers and traders, is gone. They disappeared into history and left a trickling blood line in small villages of impoverished craft makers and farmers. The Maya we know from the books and documentaries are gone.

They are all gone: the Khmer, Mongols, Malians, Inca - all those vast ancient societies have disappeared, and with them went most of their worlds. (In the cool alkaline air protecting the ruins, I feel heat.) Even the Romans! Twelve hundred years of social dominance across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. A dominance that encompassed a quarter of the world's people ended in a historical blink. They have left their words to inform our laws and sciences, but they and their world have vanished. 

My ground is shaking.

Like a fiery volcanic boulder, a thought smashes into my chest: our society too will disappear. Much more profound and complete than the passing of a grandfather or a daughter, this is the total disappearance of all that we know. From the people to the buildings to the way we speak and think, our entire world will be replaced. Whether by volcanic blast or environmental degradation or conquest matters not. Gone. That matters. It's the same damn fixed story with all of history's peoples whether great or small: we are and then we are not.

One day someone will brush dirt from our cracked Vietnam Memorial Wall, from a bolt of the Eiffel Tower, from the thumb of Nara's Great Buddha and will ask who the hell we were and what the hell we did with our time. She will guess that we were skyscraper builders and space travelers and lovers of plastic. Or perhaps she will be unable to decipher our coded language and will postulate that we were sea-dwelling folk that hankered for rats and worshipped right angles. 

Future beings can wonder what we did with all our time, but they cannot know. Neither can I know what the farmer at Joya de Ceren did with all his days. I hope he enjoyed them.

The man and his daughter are walking out now. He has his arm around her and they are smiling. In her, he sees the continuity of his world. No longer focused on the remains of this great destruction, he sees happiness in the face of his daughter, which he enjoys.

M. Myers Griffith writes poems, travel tales and contemplative essays. He earned his B. A. in Latin American Literature and a Master of Public Health. A decade of experience as an international public health professional makes him uniquely adept at grasping and describing social or cultural phenomena. He can be found blogging at


  1. Very evocative writing, Myers.

    I sometimes wonder what someone a thousand or more years in the future will make of places we build today...

    1. Thanks for the compliment, William, and thanks for reading.