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The Way to Nueva Vida

In the Yucatán, where jaguars lurk and pyramids poke out of the forests, humans are learning to live peaceably with nature.

by Barbara Kingsolver

The sun had set, but the trees’ upper branches were still lit like candles, aflame with birds. Keel-billed toucans hailed us from high overhead with huge beaks that looked freshly painted by an artist on a binge. In the treetops they threw back their heads and laughed their good-nights. An enormous lineated woodpecker’s vermilion crest stood straight up as if frozen in fright. We rolled down our windows and breathed in rarefied steam. The boughs of a gumbo-limbo tree drooped low with roosting chachalacas, dark, chicken-size birds renowned for their remarkable singing style. But by now it was too late in the day for singing. Eyes in shining pairs blinked from the roadside: foxes, agoutis, maybe wild cats. We had reached Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, home to jaguarundis, ocelots, margays, pumas, and jaguars. It also conceals tapirs and opossums, turkeys colored like peacocks, orchids and bromeliads the size of turkeys, monkeys that hoot like owls, and owls with eyes in the back of their heads. Where the map shows a vast green emptiness, the land is alive.

That this wilderness still exists is something of an accident of geology. In the last century the industries of deforestation moved south through Mexico like General Sherman, sweeping and burning it clear of its subtropical forests. The march came here to the Yucatán Peninsula and then literally dried up. Even though the rains come heavy at times, no streams at all cross the Yucatán’s limestone surface; the same water scarcity that plagued the ancient Maya has daunted modern ranchers in the region, preventing the successful development of this land for large-scale meat farming. So the Calakmul, for now, still belongs to toucans and jaguars.

Of course, birds and beasts alone have no power to save a Mexican forest. What the Maya of old worshiped as gods, the modern Maya tend to eat. Likewise the Chol, Tzeltal, and other groups fleeing Guatemalan repression and Mexican poverty. Some 17,000 refugees poured into this region between 1980 and 1995. Their tradition of slash-and-burn farming demanded that they leave behind used-up cornfields every three years to clear new patches of forest. The Mexican government had designated the Calakmul forest a biosphere reserve in 1989, but signs posted to that effect tended to be read by the homeless as invitations to settle. "Hooray," refugees must have exclaimed at the sight of the forest preserve signs. "Nobody’s living here who will give us trouble."

And so Mexico’s last great forest, having held its own against timber magnates and hamburger franchises, seemed doomed to fall one branch at a time to corn patches and cook fires. But because of an extraordinary program launched in 1991, it still stands. In the villages surrounding the Calakmul another whisper was going around, maybe a feather of hope for the place. That was what we were looking for.

Just outside the preserve, in the village of Nueva Vida, or "New Life," Carmen Salgado waved happily from her gate and invited us into her backyard garden. We’d been told that here and in the region’s other small villages we might find an intriguing update on the civilizations we had been admiring in postmortem condition to the north, where the great pyramids poked out of the Yucatán forests. Here and now, in a cooperative of 36 families, papaya and lime trees shaded thatched houses elegantly constructed of smooth wooden poles. I kept studying them until the connection registered: These high-peaked roofs perfectly echoed the shape of the vaulted ceilings inside Mayan ruins. The architecture had preserved its central elements for thousands of years.

Outside Carmen’s house, in her sunny garden, I stepped carefully to avoid solid plantings of cilantro, lettuce, and chaya–which she explained was a high-protein leaf crop that had been grown in the area since ancient times. A vine she called "nescafé" curled its tendrils around the wire fence that contained her compost pile; from its beans she made a coffee substitute and protein-enriched bread. We walked from her back gate down the gravel path through the village center, where a lush community citrus orchard offered oranges and grapefruits. A turkey paused to eye us, then continued stalking the ground under the citrus trees with a fierce forager’s eye, taking seriously his job as the DDT of a new generation.

Carmen informed us in no uncertain terms that chemical pesticides and fertilizers are beyond the means of the subsistence farmers here–and what’s more, they are learning not to want them. Instead, they demoralize pests with a concoction of soap, onions, and garlic. Their reliance on organic methods of pest control and soil amendment allows these farmers self-sufficiency, while also ensuring that their notoriously poor tropical soil will improve with each crop, rather than deteriorate.

Carmen’s broad, handsome face lit up as she explained these things. Although she has had almost no formal education, she is astute, articulate, and comfortable with visitors, a natural spokesperson for Nueva Vida and its new program. She grew up in one place and another in the poorest parts of rural Monterrey, without family, land, or much hope until she came here. She was lucky: She arrived just as a new environmental appreciation was dawning over the Calakmul forest, and with it a new approach to its conservation.

Everything depends on these villages immediately surrounding the forest preserve. Nueva Vida is one of the 72 ejidos, or cooperative farms, that ring the Calakmul reserve in a protective belt, established by government land grants assigned to groups of families that otherwise, inevitably, would have consumed the forest from the inside out. The plan may seem contradictory to U.S. notions of wilderness preservation, but here in the land of the Maya it may just be the only right solution: Rather than fight a losing battle to keep people out, the reserve’s managers would encourage a boundary of settlements that could buffer the forest against waves of outsiders moving farther in. The program’s goal was to encourage these farmers to shift their long-standing war against trees into a peaceful coexistence.

But having a land grant means staying in one place and learning to call it home, no small departure for the refugee populations of Nueva Vida and the other ejidos, who previously spent their lives using up land and moving on. The concept of composting may seem obvious enough to the sedentary, but for those with no cultural memory of standing still for more than three years, seeing soil improve and fruit trees grow is a kind of miracle.

The transition has happened gradually, in daily lessons that come through patience and careful scrutiny. Don Domingo Hernández, an elder statesman in the neighboring collective of Valentín Gómez Faríaz, had a lot to tell us about that. He walked us out to his cornfield, where he was experimenting with soil-boosting cover crops, and gave us a lively lecture on the benefits of chemical-free agriculture: healthy soil microbes, nitrogen fixation, humus, conservation of moisture. Don Domingo tipped back his weathered cowboy hat, bent to scoop up a handful of black dirt, and held it out to me as reverently as any true believer might handle a relic of his faith. "Three years in this patch," he said, "and this is the best corn crop I’ve ever had. Next year will be even better."

The prime mover behind these new ways of thinking was not government but Pronatura, a Mexican conservation group, in concert with the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy and other private organizations. Just north of the town of X’pujil, working from a thatch-roofed office, a handful of agronomists and engineers offer ideas and technical advice; they are enormously respected by the region’s farmers. Carmen was animated about this point. "Doña Norma came out from the office and said to us, ‘What are you wasting time for? Plant trees!’ So we planted trees." This and dozens of other projects have given families like Carmen’s a sense of belonging to their land, and a reason to stay. They have dug cisterns to catch rainwater from their roofs, following the instructions of a Pronatura engineer; they have also begun new beekeeping enterprises. A course in medicinal plants teaches women how to collect, process, and label all the remedies their families will need for infections and minor ailments. (The medicines are stored in plastic film canisters donated by conservation groups.) After Hurricane Roxana devastated the southern Yucatán, when fevers and infections were scathing the peninsula, Carmen’s collective had kilos of medicine on hand to donate to the relief effort.

"It’s a much better life we have now," Carmen insists. "We were skeptical at first, and some still hold to the old ways. But really, the old way was that we ate rice and beans and drank coffee. The rice and coffee, we had to buy with cash. We have a healthier diet now with all the things we grow, and it’s nicer, more interesting. Our kids like it better–that’s how you know a change is going to stick." She gave my belly a glance, smiling at my incipient pregnancy. "For the kids, there is no going back; this is the life they will choose."

The stalwart tropical day had slipped away into evening as we were talking, and we now stepped outside Carmen’s cool thatched house to watch the full moon rise. Orchids planted in tin cans bloomed pale and fragrant in the dusk. Normally they grow in the forest canopy, unseen by human eyes; Carmen called these her huérfanas pobrecitas, or "poor little orphan girls," because she’d salvaged them from trees that the men of a neighboring ejido had felled for lumber. Every collective includes arable fields and a parcel of forestland extending into the Calakmul reserve, to be used as the cooperative sees fit. Some are cutting their trees, sustainably, in a managed forestry program, but increasingly, others are not cutting at all. Carmen’s group of women voted against clearing their 62 acres for a cornfield, deciding that the parcel would be more valuable to them as it stood, since it provides flowers year-round for beekeeping as well as an inexhaustible apothecary. It’s also a balm for the spirit. Carmen made us pause in our conversation to look at the moon, a perfect orange lantern cradled in the arms of a cecropia tree.

"Listen!" she commanded, her eyes bright. From the forest’s edge a warm wind carried the scent of wild spices and the sweet call of a pygmy owl. Somewhere within the jungle nearby a jaguar crouched, searching the wind for signs of its age-old forest companion, the human animal.

Many kilometers from the bordering ring of villages, deep in the very heart of the reserve, the giant pyramids of the Calakmul ruins rest in permanent peace. This is literally the end of the road–the very edge of North America, beyond which no human residence or enterprise is to be found for a far cry. Our new friends from the ejido had roused us in the early-morning darkness from the small thatched house on stilts where we’d spent the night, guiding us down the long, bumpy dirt road into the forest’s heart with promises of the most dramatic sunrise of our lives. Now we groped our way by flashlight up deeply weathered steps to the top of the tallest pyramid. Mayan glyphs silently held their accounts beneath the industry of foraging ants. As the limestone softly crumbles, the forest retrieves it.

On a small platform atop the pyramid, our little group waited for the sunrise. I stood up, dizzy from the height–we were way above the treetops–and out of breath from the steep climb. I put my hand on my belly, where I carried the daughter whose name and gender I didn’t yet know, and I whispered: Remember this with me. Once upon a time we were here, at the center of the world. As far as I could see, a dark green sea of untouched forest rolled out to the whole encircling horizon. In a lifetime–mine, anyway–one is given this blessing only rarely: the chance to stand on high ground, turn in every direction, and see absolutely not one single sign of humanity. This is how the world once was, without our outsize dreams and dominion. Nothing surrounded us but the dark embrace of trees, except where the predawn light touched the eroded stone face of another pyramid rising above the canopy. Our friends pointed out a bump on the southern horizon that they said was the pyramid of Mirador, on the Guatemalan border. From here to there, when the sun was just right, a person could flash signals with a mirror; and from Mirador, someone else could signal farther south to Tikal, and so on, to the edge of the Mayan world. We stood at its very center. Then, between one held breath and the next, the sun appeared to us, scarlet and full-skirted on the horizon.

Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded not by eerie silence but by a wilderness of wake-up calls. A troop of howler monkeys began to stir in the treetops just below us, letting loose a loud, primordial bellow. Emerald battalions of parrots darted past in formation, flashing in the whitewashed light.

Then came the chachalacas, the chickenlike birds we’d seen the previous day, whose call, I had been promised, I would never forget. "Sh!" our friends said, "Escuche," and we listened, but I didn’t hear it at all. And then I did: a barely audible chorus in the far distance, Cha-chalac? Quietly, distantly, their neighbors answered back, Cha-chalac! The more I listened, the more plainly I could hear how they followed the call-and-response rhythm of a gospel choir: Cha-chalac? Cha-chalac! They stirred one another to voice in increasing numbers to announce their revelation. This forest, I began to understand with a chill, was entirely filled with chachalacas. The birds themselves don’t move, but their song does as they awaken one another each morning, their dawn chorale moving through the whole jungle in a vast oratory wave. The rising tide of their gospel song raced toward us, growing louder, louder and faster: Cha-Chalac? CHA-CHALAC! CHA-CHALAC! Glory hallelujah! The song came from everywhere at once, a musical roar like water, and then like water it divided, passing around us as a rush of singing, and then it receded and fell away.

None of us spoke. I imagined this wave of hallelujah traveling all the way to Guatemala and beyond, on down to the southern edge of the jungle, where the trees once again gave way to roads and cornfields, billboards and gas stations. But we were still deep inside a green, crowded world where parrots and monkeys were not isolated survivors but citizens of a population. It was a city of animals here, as surely as each mute temple stood for a city of people who had once climbed up to greet the dawn. On carved slabs of stone they left us clear pictures of their world, with man and beast facing off nose to nose in a thousand configurations: warrior and monkey; jaguar and emperor. Now in our latter days, another story may be rooting itself and taking hold. In some quarters, farmers named Carmen and Don Domingo rule, in a reign that allows no poison and holds its breath for the moon and smiles at the sweet nightsong of an owl.


Barbara Kingsolver is a novelist, poet, and essayist.

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