Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The benefits of old practices (part 3 of 3)

From 1960 to 2002 preeminent theologian, priest, and author Ivan Illich kept a home in Mexico.  The first immersion language program, CIDOC (Center for Intercultural Documentation), was developed by Illich.  It put Cuernavaca on the international education map.  

The fifth anniversary of Illich's death was in 2007.  In December of that year friends, colleagues and admirers hosted a weeklong series of talks and seminars about him and his many seminal books.  From throughout the world speakers and attendees traveled to Cuernavaca to do homage.   I was asked to interpret for those who did not speak/understand Spanish.  As a talk about campesinos was to begin I told the group assembled around me in the covered gymnasium of La Salle University that I would refrain from translating the word campesinos because of the derogatory feeling associated with the English equivalent peasants.   

A man from India quickly spoke up and said "the only ones who find the word peasants derogatory are those who are themselves not peasants."  This left me no alternative but to translate campesinos as peasants. 

In the speech that followed the lecturer told us that peasants are the only farmers who actually create energy.  We learned that modern high tech northern North American farmers use thirteen calories to create one calorie.  In terms of energy efficiency we have regressed from the times of the Mesoamerican peasant farmer.  This piqued my curiosity. 

Mesoamerican farmers were among the world's grandest peasants.  Traditionally they did not and do not have a field for each crop.  Instead they farm milpas with a combination of crops growing together in one field.  Beans climb up the corn stalks, squash skirts along the ground, chile bushes are interspersed.  Some crops deplete while others replenish the soil's nutrients.  Few peasant farmers today are as efficient as their ancient Mesoamerican counterparts but they retain deep connections to the land and to the cultivation of corn.

The rainy season, lasting until late September, is only long enough for a milpa to produce a single harvest. Yet Mesoamerican farmers could feed twelve people for a full year with a mere 120 days of work, from planting to harvest.  The farmer then had two thirds of the year to dedicate to other pursuits.  Eleven other people had the full year.  If they believed that building pyramids or other public works were good for the community they would engage in such projects.  The milpas generously gave Mesoamericans time to pursue vast public works including but not limited to irrigation projects. 

Irrigation produced even more food.  We usually think of irrigation as taking water to the field.  The Mesoamericans did the opposite.  They took the fields to the water, building raised fields in shallow lakes and swamps known as chinampas.  Today's grandest surviving chinampa complex is Xochimilco's "floating gardens".  The only time these gardens ever floated was while being built.  Rafts loaded with soil were positioned where the future island was to be. Other rafts brought more soil to be added to the first raft's load until it sunk and with even more soil an island had been created.  Trees planted around the edge of the new island protected it from erosion.  Once in place an island was farmed year-round regardless of whether it was rainy season or dry.  

Other islands were built with canals between them.  Eventually this created a grid of small islands and canals.  Though a simple enough concept, it required rulers strong enough to get the whole population of city-states working on large agricultural projects.  Once in place, chinampas freed Mesoamerican farmers from dependency on seasonal rainy cycles.  By making use of nurseries they grew four and sometimes five harvests per year of plants that normally took 120 days to grow.  One chinampa farmer could feed 60 people per year!

Using increasingly sophisticated methods, peasant farmers adapted corn into hundreds of varieties suitable to various climates and environments. World agronomists describe the many native varieties of Mexican corn as an invaluable genetic treasure trove that could be essential to surviving the extreme wet and dry weather associated with today’s climate change.  Corn, one of the most widely grown grains in the world, is a key component to the global food supply but only if we can avail ourselves of the seed banks of both drought resistant and mold resistant corn. 

In May and June all over Mesoamerica farmers are getting their fields ready for the rainy season.  Within a month landscapes will transform from brown to green.  The air will again be transparent. Beloved volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztlaccihuatl will be covered with snow.  The magical marvel of living in this part of the tropics, where summer is cooler than spring, will set in.  

The development of corn birthed a rich Mesoamerican culture.  Is it time to look to ancient Mesoamerica for a resurgence of environmentally sustainable agricultural production?  Could it be that the hope for the future is the peasant farmer?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Corn entwines with culture (part 2 of 3)

It's a big job to be the sun.  It can never be late nor can it ever take a day off. Worse, it has to put up with the constant chit-chat and gossip of the many other lesser gods joining it for a short while on its unending trips.  It must climb the giant staircase in the sky from sunrise to noon and then travel back down the other side to sunset.  The sun doesn't even get to rest during the night -- it illuminates the realm of the dead in the underworld, journeying down five giant steps to the lowest level of the underworld and then four steep steps back up the other side, ready once again to illuminate the realm of the living during the day. 

It’s a tedious job and every 52 years the sun can opt-out. But the wondrous offerings priests here on earth promise entices the sun to return.  Gifts are offered in such abundance that the sun simply cannot turn them down.  However it's understandable that at the end of a cycle the gifts may not be sufficiently tempting and the sun might just say "I don't want to do this anymore."  It’s happened four times in the past.  That's why we now live under the fifth sun.  It could happen again.

Each time the sun has refused to return humanity has died off.  How could people live in constant darkness?  Each time this has happened the gods have had to come together in council to create a new humanity.  Without the people’s offerings the gods themselves would die of starvation.  A uniquely Mesoamerican religious concept is that gods are as dependent on people as people are on the gods.  Linda Schele recognized the similar relationship that Mesoamericans had with their staple food, corn.  Unlike any other grain, corn cannot exist without people. Mesoamericans realized they could not exist without corn.   

We live under the fifth sun and are also part of the fifth humanity.  From the Quiché Maya of the highlands of Guatemala we learn that the gods first made people out of mud.  Not surprisingly they turned out to be wishy-washy people, didn't worship the gods as they should and were washed away back to mud.  The second time the gods carved people out of wood.  They were mindless mannequins, easily destroyed by fire.  The third humanity was fashioned of flesh. It turned to wickedness.  The fourth was shaped from masa (corn dough). They were ancestors of the Quiché who recorded the history -- the good people. But even their time came to an end and their sun refused to return.  Our fifth humanity is a combination of all the previous: there are wishy-washy people of mud, mindless people of wood, evil people of flesh, and some good people, descendants of the people of corn.  Look around--you’ll probably know who is who.

This story, only one of many mythologies about corn, is loosely based on the Popul Vuh and is an introduction to the importance of corn to the ancient Mesoamericans and even today’s Mexico.

You know of course that beloved god Quetzalcoatl (aka Feathered Serpent) provided corn to people.  Knowing that this fifth humanity would starve without food, he turned himself into an ant and descended into the underworld following an ant carrying a kernel of corn.  Some say Quetzalcoatl stole the corn from the ants.  Others say he talked Sister Ant into telling him the secret of corn and other crops and brought those secrets back to humanity.  Either way, that’s the kind of god Quetzalcoatl is.  He’s always on our side.  You never hear anything bad about Quetzalcoatl.  

Corn played a major role in all aspects of Mesoamerican life.  Mesoamericans did and still do live by and for corn.  Some Indigenous groups cut the umbilical cord of their male child over a corncob.  Then the blood-splattered corncob is smoked. During planting season corn kernels are removed and carefully planted in the child's name -- harvested and planted again and again. Part of this crop is used as an offering. The rest is used to feed the child until he is grown and able to plant his own field with his own corn.  In death many Mesoamerican groups would bury their dead with their mouths stuffed with food -- mainly corn based.

As was mentioned in an earlier column, using highly-efficient farming methods corn had a higher yield than wheat, rice, rye or any other Old World grain. Statistically it may also be the most efficient farming to date.  The peasant farmer not only fed his family but a non-laboring sophisticated elite of nobles, warriors, artists, officials and priests.  Everyone in the system knew their status. Indeed life itself was dependent upon this sacred grain.

The Mesoamerican culture that corn created may have been the grandest in the world at that time. The myths surrounding this wonderful plant are small tribute to the importance of the remarkable symbiosis of man and corn.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reflecting on the humble kernel (part 1 of 3)

In Mexico corn is king. From the presidential palace to the most modest rural peasant shack no meal is complete without a basket of tortillas on the table. In the form of a vast variety of dishes corn is consumed for desayuno, comida and cena.  Corn-based atole is a popular hot drink to accompany corn tamales.  City plazas feature deliciously fragrant corn boiling in its own juices, served in cups with available condiment additions of chili, lime, cheese and mayonnaise.  Ubiquitous roadside stands serve roasted corn slathered with chili and lime.  The tamale seller pushing his cart gives his recognizable grito, the same heard in the national capital as in the smallest pueblo, as he peddles his wife's or mother’s tamales

Mexico’s love affair with corn started 9,000 years ago.  The oldest corn cobs have been found in dry caves near Tehuacan, Puebla.  Over the millennia it spread throughout the Americas. Scientists believe the humble and wild teozintle plant is its ancestor.  

With the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago large animals became extinct or moved north.  People who stayed behind had to search for other sources of food.  One plant they kept their eyes open for was teosintle.  Although you would sooner break your teeth than bite through a teosintle seed, someone along the way discovered that if taken back to camp and dropped in fire it would explode becoming white and starchy -- the very first popcorn.  In addition to that, any food currently prepared with maize can also be made -- though labor-intensive -- with teozintle.  Without realizing it early Mesoamerican wanderers were involved in a selective breeding process by bringing only the largest seeds back to their camps where some of them, accidentally dropped, grew and cross pollinated with other plants from large seeds. With time they created a new species of plant which we call corn or maize -- the most abundant of modern grains -- which grows at every elevation from sea level to 3,500 meters above sea level with varieties that are drought-resistant and blight-resistant.  

Not only did Mesoamericans create a new species of plant, they created one dependent on people for its very survival.  People have to remove the husk and for the next generation of corn to grow, people have to remove the seeds from the cob.  Corn cannot do either by itself.

An amazingly productive crop, corn takes only 120 days to mature.  Some of today's varieties produce 150 seeds per cob.  More than one per day!  The traditional milpa planted with corn, beans, chiles, and squash could feed the farmer and 11 other people for a full year with one crop.  Beans and squash replenished soil that would otherwise have been depleted by iron-hungry corn.  Innovative ancient farmers also developed chinampas, raised fields in shallow lakes and swamps, on which they could farm year-round.  By using nurseries new corn plants -- later transplanted -- got a head start before the previous crop had been harvested and 4-5 crops of plants which take 120 days to grow could be harvested annually.  The Mesoamerican chinampa farmer could feed 60 people each year!

Beans, corn, and squash are often referred to as the “Three Sisters.”  If consumed in the same day they form a nutrient triad containing the necessary amino acids humans require to produce protein.    Add chiles to the diet and plant iron can be converted to iron necessary for human consumption.  Chile is one of the oldest cultivated foods with evidence of its cultivation in the Americas 7000 years ago.  All of these foods, now farmed throughout the world, were first domesticated in Mesoamerica. 

Chinampa canals grew small farmed fish that provided DHA, Omega 3 polyunsaturated oil (aka fish oil), another necessary dietary component, particularly important in the development of mental capacity and visual acuity.  These small fish were easy to dry and preserve.  Other dietary supplements included grasshoppers, caterpillars and other insects.  Indigenous markets still feature these foods of their forbearers. 

As corn evolved throughout Mesoamerica each farmer developed a personal seed bank.  The corn in one valley might differ dramatically from that grown on the hillside or even in the next valley.  Some corn was tastier, other easier to preserve, other perhaps more hardy.  The result was that Mesoamerica protected corn from the ravages of single crop blight like the blight that attacked Ireland’s potatoes.  Even now, when blight impacts northern North American corn, transnational conglomerates look to Mexico’s seed banks for immune varieties.  The International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat estimates 3000 varieties of maize are currently found in Mexico.

Next time you absent-mindedly reach for a tortilla on the table, buy a taco or eat a tamale, think about the ingenuity of the early Mesoamerican farmer's role in making it all possible.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The sun waits for no one

Have you ever had plans to meet someone in Mexico City’s central plaza? If so you probably met at the flagpole in Mexico City's zocalo, a commonly used meeting place.  Whichever of the parties gets there first soon looks for shade and will find only the shadow of the flagpole to give some relief from the searing sun.  Next time you drive around the zocalo notice the line of people in the shadow of the flagpole.  As the sun moves through the sky the shadow moves as does the line of people.  

Next Monday there will hardly be any space to stand in the shadow of the flagpole.  We're getting close to an event that occurs twice a year everywhere in the tropics, on different days in different places in that band on either side of the Equator between the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere and the Tropic of Cancer which runs through northern Mexico.  In central Mexico the sun will be directly overhead on May 16th on the sun's trip north to the Tropic of Cancer where it will stop and turn around on or about June 21st.  It will be directly overhead us again on July 28th, an equal number of days after the summer solstice as May 16th is before.  It is an event that never occurs in latitudes north or south of the tropics.   Furthermore, between those dates our shadows will be cast towards the south. 

I urge you to make a point of being outside at noon next Monday to search for your shadow.  There will hardly be anything there.  Your shadow will be pretty close to just your footprints.  Noon will be at about 1:40 p.m. on our watches – an adjustment for daylight savings time and our location in the western part of our time zone.  

It would be an even grander event if you stand on top of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun at 1:40.  As you climb notice the shadows of the steps you climb being parallel to the length of the step.  While on the top at 1:40 look at the walls in front of the pyramid which are perpendicular to the Avenue of the Dead. They'll be casting no shadow to the north or south.  Eerie.  

May 16 and July 28 are the days on which the sun is directly overhead Teotihuacan.  The Pyramid of the Sun faces the spot on the horizon where the sun sets on the two days it is directly overhead.  Since it isn’t at the equator that spot is not due west, it is 15º25' north of west making the Avenue of the Dead -- which is perpendicular to that line -- run 15º 25' east of north.  The alignment of the whole city of Teotihuacan is off from true north, south, east, and west by that number of degrees.  It was not a mistake but very exact according to Teotihucan's location on the face of the earth.  Buildings and roads in Teotihuacan are either parallel or perpendicular to the Avenue of the Dead.  

Farmers in central Mexico know that when the sun is directly overhead the rains are coming and fields should be prepared for planting.

Located on a mountaintop in southern Morelos, a wonderful archeological site, Xochicalco, was home to ancient astronomers.  One of the surviving observatories is found in what would appear to have been an underground labyrinth created by astronomer-priests to allow study of the movement of the sun.  In a large underground room a "chimney" extends 8.7 meters with a hexagonal entry at the top.  From outside one sees only a small hole in the ground. The chimney points slightly to the north and for 105 days between April 30 and August 12 the sun shines through the chimney and is projected onto the floor of the underground room. Each day as the sun moves towards the Tropic of Cancer, and again upon it’s return when the sun is at its zenith at noon, a beam of light falls through the chimney projecting directly onto the floor of the underground room. When the aperture of the chimney is further reduced the image of the sun can be focused to allow its sunspots to be seen. 

For many years I've taken groups of students to Xochicalco.  Much of the year I don’t mind if we ran a little late and students dawdle among the ruins. But for those dates when being in the observatory was most exciting I would tell the group that we had to hurry because we had a “date with the sun.”  And as all know, the sun waits for no one.   

Sadly the administration at Xochicalco has decided to no longer allow visitors inside the observatory.  Years ago when a similar policy was instituted while conservation work was going on, I fashioned a similar observatory on the grounds of the Cemanahuac Educational Community in Cuernavaca.  Cemanahuac’s observatory is functional in May and July.  Last year while using this observatory I was startled to see sun flares from a solar storm clearly projected on the floor of the observatory.  The U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research announced early this year that strong solar storms are continuing.  You know where I will be at noon May 14-18.   If you’d like to join me, please email a couple of days ahead; we'll try to accommodate readers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mexican's demand their day

We're in the middle of a rash of special days.  April 30 was Children's Day. May 1 was Labor Day and May 3, today, Day of the Holy Cross. May 5 is the well known Battle of Puebla. May 10 is Mothers' Day and May 15 is Teachers' Day as well as the Day of St. Isidore Labrador, the beginning of the planting season.  May 16 the sun will be directly overhead central Mexico.  But that will be the subject of next weeks’ Digs.

No matter where you are in Mexico, as you read today’s newspaper you most likely hear fireworks (cohetes) that began at midnight and will continue until midnight tonight.  In 1960 Pope John XXIII removed Day of the Holy Cross from the Catholic liturgical calendar.  It was an unpopular decision, particularly so in Mexico where May 3 is the patron day of stonemasons (albañiles).  The Mexican church petitioned the Vatican for dispensation. The church wisely decided to allow only Mexico to continue to celebrate the discovery of Christ’s cross by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. In 326-8 Helena, at nearly 80 years of age, traveled to Jerusalem and Golgotha, taking with her stonemasons to help her search for the cross.  Digging at Golgotha she and her stonemasons found the relics of three crosses, one of which she believed to be the Cross of Christ’s crucifixion.  Most of that cross is preserved in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

On this day anyone with a construction project anywhere in Mexico is expected to celebrate with their albañiles.  If it is a small project then lunch – even if only a chicken from a rotisserie and tortillas-- will be hosted by the contractor or owner.   If it is a large construction site, an onsite Mass will be celebrated followed by lunch and perhaps even mariachis.  Tequila is considered essential.  Regardless of the size of the project, a wooden cross decorated with flowers will be elevated to some part of the building and remain there until completion -- or until replaced by next year's cross.  

The Day of the Holy Cross is familiarly known in Mexico as the Day of the Flowery Cross and yesterday and today are big days for flower sellers.  Not only are crosses at construction sites decorated with flowers but so are crosses in home altars and church altars as well as the crosses gracing many hills.  Yesterday hilltops all over Mexico were devoid of crosses; they had been brought down to nearby churches last week.  There they've been painted, repaired, and dressed with new “clothing.”   Today they will be blessed and returned to their hilltop where they’ll spend another year under the care of new officers within the cofradia (brotherhood).   When back in position you'll see some hilltops with three crosses, just as on Calvary. Others with just have one.  Flapping in the wind you'll see the Cross' clothing -- a narrow strip of embroidered cloth looping over each nail giving the cloth the shape of an "M".  

Various towns in Mexico have distinctly different traditional celebrations of this day.  In Xochitepec, Morelos, the people meet outside the pueblo church at dawn.  There the cross is blessed and participants walk together to a high hill on the outskirts of town.  An outdoor mass is celebrated before replanting the Holy Cross.

The hills surrounding Chalma are where I've seen the grandest array of crosses on hilltops.  Today the atrio of that town's gleaming white church is filled with crosses laid horizontally while busy Augustine priests bless them. 
This week I have thought of English expatriate Rosa King and her harrowing escape from Revolutionary Cuernavaca in 1914, depicted in her account Tempest Over Mexico (available online, free). Ms. King describes passing through Chalma -- I'm sure she saw the many crosses on the hilltops.  

Mrs. King, like many of the readers of this newspaper, held the citizenship of a country in which she was not born and never lived for extended periods of time and she considered Mexico home.  She crossed paths with young British expatriate Margaret Hart (later Margaret Wilkins) in the Cuernavaca home of US Ambassador Morrow, whom they both befriended -- Mrs. King as a respected elder member of the English-speaking community and Margaret as best friend of Ambassador Morrow's younger daughter.
Next Monday, May 9, was to have been the 100th birthday of well-known Margaret Wilkins.  I was anticipating that celebration and writing about the Mexico she knew for many of those years.  Unfortunately Mrs. Wilkins passed away April 13, three weeks before that monumental date.  Margaret, born in Buenos Aires, moved to Mexico City in 1921 at the age of 10.  She attended school in Mexico City and then lived in the USA for forty years with her husband Eugene Wilkins whom she met when he was headmaster of the American School in Mexico City.  During that time she and her family made frequent trips to visit her mother, Edith Hart, who lived in Cuernavaca.  Upon Eugene's retirement, the Wilkins moved to Cuernavaca and built the house where Margaret survived her husband and lived for 40 years until her death last month.  From what I have heard about her I know she loved all things Mexican and most likely loved this holiday.  Through the years she no doubt provided her albañiles with a number of celebrations of the Flowery Cross.  Rest in Peace dear Margaret.