History at its most exciting

Sometimes you have to go to one place to learn something fascinating about another.

When I was in school, I didn’t enjoy history. It took me years to figure out that some stories of the past are intriguing, even if those tales never seemed to be covered in my history classes. Ancient civilizations, distant lands and forgotten peoples all amazed me with surprises, while everything in school seemed no more than a predictable, boring parade of Western Civilization’s wars, conquests and discoveries.

Later, I would learn that my own culture is also filled with such tales, as marginalized peoples and quiet heroes of all types faced small human dramas that seldom made my history books but, in my opinion, should have. Decades after my last history final, I came to understand that history is these thousands of fascinating stories woven together in the way that got us to where we are now.

IMG_5531My love of poorly understood tales from the past would lead to a fascination with the many advanced cultures in my hemisphere that were demolished by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That lead to a burning desire to visit Machu Picchu, and a few weeks ago I finally got to do so. The whole trip was amazing, and I’ll be posting more about it soon. But this isn’t about that.

While I was in Peru, I got asked what I knew about the massive Maya discovery being made in the Petén region of Guatemala. What??

“Oh yes,” I was told. “It is so big and amazing that soon people will want to visit it instead of Machu Picchu.”

Really? How could I have missed that.

Well, it turns out it never made much of a splash in the U.S. press. Then, I was traveling without my laptop, and trying to use no data on my phone, so my usual sources of news were gone. Instead, I was glancing at newspapers in Spanish as I walked, scanning frantically for pictures of Trump and/or nuclear clouds, in hope of seeing neither. I hadn’t looked for much else.

Once I got back, the story about the great discovery in Guatemala was easy to confirm.

“Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed,” National Geographic  informed me.

The famous Maya site of Tikal is just a fraction of an immense hidden metropolis Credit: Wild Blue Media/Channel 4

“A vast network of lost Maya cities discovered deep in the jungles of northern Guatemala could rewrite the history of the ancient civilisation, experts say. Researchers found more than 60,000 previously unknown structures including pyramids, royal tombs, palaces, roadways and defensive fortifications hidden deep beneath the dense rainforest canopy. Pioneering lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) laser scanning technology was used to map 800 square miles from the air, revealing a “treasure map” of the Maya ruins,”  The Telegraph informed me all the way from the UK.

Most enticing of all  was this report from the London Times.

“The ancient Maya had no metal tools, no wheels, no cattle and no pack animals. They lived in a swamp-ridden and storm-battered region of central America where the landscape seemed resistant to the presence of humans.

Yet, boy, could they build. An aerial survey using lasers to penetrate the vegetation of the Guatemalan jungle has revealed more than 60,000 structures, including pyramids, canals, fortifications and causeways stretching from city to city.

Historians say that the finds point to a society of city states like the world of classical Greece, but with a population of between 8 and 13 million people living in a rainforest the size of Italy.”

Wow.

Back in 2012, I did a deep dive into the Petén region of Guatemala as it was in the late 1600’s, as I created an imaginary Maya woman to design the clever puzzle that my modern day treasure hunters would discover and attempt to understand. As Nimah took shape in my mind, she developed her own clear voice, and soon her two sons did as well. I spent a happy year in their company.

This is how the resulting book, z2, begins:

When the time came, she knew it, just like her father promised her she would. She saw the signs as her rulers became friendly with the strangers, and she listened with fear as they became ever less cautious. Nimah watched with her own horrified eyes as the singers and priests of the others were finally allowed to walk brazenly into her city and she cried as her neighbors welcomed the invaders.

Of course, the strangers’ warmth disappeared quickly when they did not get their way. When Nimah’s king would not convert to the new religion like they had so clearly expected, the strangers responded to the fine hospitality of the Itza by sending soldiers to convert them by force. The Itza fought back valiantly.

“The day on which you must act will not be long after that,” her father had cautioned. So in the months since that attack, Nimah had been actively preparing herself and her two sons for today. At twenty-six, Nimah thought of herself as responsible and mature, one who took her obligations seriously. She had learned well her people’s history and religion, and because her people kept fine records, there was much to know.

She knew that she was part of the Kan Ek, the ancient race whose rulers were descended from the Gods. She knew that once, more generations ago than there were days in a moon cycle, her people had been far more organized. The lands were bigger then, with many more families, and there had been many cities and giant gatherings where customs were shared. There had been much more wealth and, some had said, much more greatness. But Nimah thought not. She had also learned that lives had been more stringently controlled back then and that there had sometimes been cruel penalties for those who failed or wandered astray.

Many people of that time appeared to have believed that the greatness of the Maya would go on forever. Nimah knew, she had studied their texts. But, over hundreds of years, the carefully recorded famines and droughts and wars had brought an endless string of hard times to the seemingly invincible people. Nimah had studied how, over time, her people had been forced to huddle closer together for strength and how the resulting battles for food and water had shrunk her world. Finally, her own people’s realm encompassed only the area around Tayasal itself, the beautiful town built on the remains of the great old city of Noh Peten.

Now her people, those of the majestic Lake Peten Itza, were free to develop their own rules and more flexible ways. Nimah personally thought that they had evolved, that they were now an older race, one filled with more enlightenment and compassion. So Nimah was glad that she had been born when she was, not at the time when her kings ruled over the most amount of land, but at the time when her people themselves had never been better.

Nimah, of course, is fiction, but she left traces of herself in my brain and heart, as most of my characters do. I’m happy to discover that her world was larger, richer and more complicated than I knew, and I look forward to hearing of the many true tales to be discovered near her home. To me, this is history at its most exciting.

It is more than a little ironic that I had to go all the way to Peru to learn about it.

(For more on my trip to Peru see What you don’t know …. has the power to amaze you and woman traveling alone.)

 

 

And that’s the way it was, June 10 1947

She turned twenty-one that day, and married her high school sweetheart. He was about to turn twenty-two, and had already returned from the war, smoking cigarettes and telling tales of the motorcycle he had learned to ride. She thought that he seemed pretty full of himself since his return, but she married him anyway at the small country church in the town in which she was raised. A 9:00 mass was followed by a giant buffet lunch which was followed by an afternoon of drinking and dancing and then a lavish dinner with more dancing and drinking after that.

It’s a wonder marriages got consummated after such a day, but they did. She was a farm girl, and astounded to discover that the male human had parts quite similar to all the male animals for which she cared. That possibility had never occurred to her. She and her husband would laugh about that for years.

On June 10, 1957 she wore pink costume jewelry and put her black hair in a Liz Taylor style coiffure. She dressed her little daughters in pink frills too as the family celebrated the tenth anniversary of the big day. Then she and her husband had highballs, and went out for steaks. They were living the good life.

On June 10, 1972 they went to Hawaii to celebrate their 25th anniversary. When they returned they hosted a luau for all their friends, wearing shiny silver clothes and passing out leis make from real flowers. Most people thought that there had never been a party quite like it before in all of Western Kansas.

On June 10, 1987 they had a ruby-themed celebration of their 40th anniversary. Their daughters, partners and grand kids all dressed in bright red and the parish priest graciously allowed the crimson festivities to flow into an anniversary mass with family members performing special songs and readings. He did remark quietly that his church had never seen anything quite like it before.

On June 10, 1997 her children and grandchildren consoled her as best they could. A small birthday cake, and giving her the time and space to cry, seemed the best they could do. She kept a photo of him next to her cake.

On June 10, 2006 her family took her on a cruise for her eightieth birthday. She was recovering from pneumonia and could barely make the trip, but she tried to have fun. She would never fully regain her strength after that.

And today, on June 10, 2017, several people will raise a glass and drink to what began seventy years ago. Every day has its events, they always cause some ripples. Many of those last a century or more.

But only a few days have the power, seven decades later, to bring a smile to the lips of those weren’t even there, and who owe their very world to what happened on that day.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 15, 1984, June 18, 1972, June 28, 1888, and June 30, 1940.)

 

Wise words spoken

torch3For all the tales of hatred and abuse that one can find throughout human history, there are times when humans rise above. Sometimes, in those moments, they speak out and their words leave a bit of glowing light. Those embers now shimmer at us from the past. On a good day, a fellow human will look up and point to one of those faint beacons to remind us of it.

Two such sets of hopeful words crossed my trajectory this past week, and I’m thankful for it. One came from a fellow blogger who posted this speech delivered by Charlie Chaplin in a 1940 movie called The Great Dictator. Made before World War II began, it made fun of Hitler and Fascism and was intended to both amuse and support the cause of democracy. Once the real horrors of Nazi Germany became better known, much of the movie seemed a poor choice for satire. None-the-less, the speech at the end was moving then and its moving now. The modern photos and videos that have been spliced into this version give it an extra punch. Thanks to the fascinating blog Ha! Tea ‘n’ Danger for this post.

The other bit of shiny light has to do with the Gettysburg address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln exactly 150 years ago today. It has been receiving a lot of press, of course, and part of the appeal of the speech is its eloquent humility in assuming that the words themselves will pass away and only the men who died will be remembered. We all know how that really worked out.

A recent video put together by filmmaker Ken Burns splices together famous people reciting the address, including all five living presidents, who are joined by politicians and popular media personalities that cover the political spectrum. One of the things that I did not like about about the Charlie Chaplin remix is that there was a sort of faint demonizing of all recent U.S. presidents, implying that each had lost his way. This second video hints to us that there is another side to each of them, whether we agree with their politics or not.

Tonight I say thank you for two shiny bits of light from the past that, when put together, leave me feeling that there is hope for the future.